When Naida woke up next morning she opened eyelids that crackled. Her whole skin was covered in a hard crust that must be a mix of sweat and ash and it flaked off with every move she made.
Her joints were stiff even though she was barely a woman and she felt as old as Zeno and Oios had said, joking. She crackled like a statue coming to life but she didn’t think it was like the sculptor making an image of his beloved. It was more like cracking out of a cocoon and finding out that there were no wings.
Asteri yawned and woke up, finally. He shook himself, looked around and winked at Naida. “I’ll be back soon. I might be able to get some help.”
“Oh good… Wait, shouldn’t I go too?”
But he was already gone, hopping down and then up from stone to stone, moving so fast that Naida could only see the twinkle of his golden hoof after a moment, and then it was gone."
“Hey.” Yalenda shuffled over and sat down beside her, holding their cup. “Sorry about yesterday.” She held out a cup of water. “Here. I’ve had some.”
“Um… thank you?” Naida didn’t want to take it but she was so thirsty. She sipped, then drained the cup.
“I’m a little crazy right now,” Yalenda said. “Doris and Irilla say it’s because I’m pregnant.” In the dawn light tears welled up and spilled down her cheeks though she didn’t sob. “My Pero… I’m widowed… Naida, we lost almost everybody!”
I… am sorry they died. Except for Zeno and Oios… they were the closest to parents and… they died heros, trying to save the rest of you. She began to cry then, rocking and sobbing and Yalenda cried too, though she didn’t try to touch her.
I wanted you all dead. I did. Because you hurt me. Nearly all of you. Now I feel so bad because you’re almost all dead and you blame me for it somehow? The same way I blame myself? I didn’t have the power to kill everybody. Only the Goddess has that power and the Great Ones, or the Earth Herself.
There weren’t many tears because both she and Yalenda hadn’t had enough water the day before and the two of them sat beside each other and rocked and howled, even though Naida still wouldn’t trust Yalenda inside the length of a long stick.
Doris’s rug was pinned up to the cliff with a couple of rocks on ledges above and all along the bottom, making enough space for three people to crawl in to sleep.
Uri sat next to the dead fire, chin on his chest, just as exhausted as everyone else, his goats sleeping around him. The herd had split up to be with the people they knew, the ones belonging to people now dead clustered together with the ones in and around the rug. They were all stirring and as they got up and shook themselves awake it began to snow.
“Wonderful,” Naida said, shivering. Twitch was across her feet but without Asteri on her shoulders she was very cold.
“We need to go,” Yalenda said. “But the path splits up ahead.” She pointed. “It was too dark to see last night.”
The pass snaked through the mountains and it was impossible to see which path led through. Perhaps both of them did.
Naida called to Isocratis, just knuckling the sleep out of his eyes. “Did your da say anything about these two paths?”
The boy shrugged. “No. He just said it went through, though he did kind of say there was a predator’s den… lions? Something… anyway, along the easier way.”
“Wonderful,” Uri said. “We’ll have to send someone to scout it out.”
Naida didn’t feel very brave, or very much like doing anything heroic but they had to get through. No one had any food and they had to get to the next village. They’d run out of water this morning, since so many people had drunk the bags dry already. The goats were licking the steadily deepening snow off the ground. “I’ll scout the lower way,” she said.
“Thank you, Nai.” Uri said quietly. “I’ll climb the narrower way myself.”
Yalenda sniffed and her brief show of niceness evaporated as she said “If you get eaten then it’ll be what you dese—“
“—be quiet, woman!” Irilla snapped. “That’s enough.”
“It’s not like she’s really an Afari,” Yal cried in protest. “She’d different.”
“Keep that up and I’ll slap you silent,” Irikrasa, who had been silent until now, said.
“I’ll just go, quickly,” Naida said and clambered to her feet. Twitch baaa’d in protest being dumped off her feet. Anything to get away from this poisonous arguing. She shook herself, a little like Twitch, and wished that Asteri were back before turning away toward the wider, gentler path.
Up above, in the grey clouds somewhere, an eagle cried and the snow began falling harder.