“You took a chance, offering to heal her,” Dayr said.
Vixen glanced sideways at him, her grey donkey matching strides with his dun along the deserted road. “I'm a shaman. She needed me. I had to, no matter the risk.” She smiled. “Besides, had they turned violent, I'm sure you could have protected me.”
Dayr brushed tawny-brown hair out of his golden-green eyes irritably. “Physically, easily enough. But you'd have been badly hurt if Matilda refused, even if she didn't demand we leave her house.”
“Do you think me so fragile? Am I a pampered city woman, then, sheltered and indulged and controlled all her life?” she asked lightly.
Dayr rolled his eyes. “I know you aren't. But I don't like to see you hurt!”
Vixen threw him an affectionate look. “I know, and I'm more grateful than I can ever tell you that you came with me. We've been lucky, though, these past days. I never expected this journey to be easy. And finding Jared may be the least difficult part. I've changed so completely, after eight years in the hills...”
“Yes. You're healthy, whole, and happy,” Dayr said dryly.
“Dayr, please, can't you understand? The culture of the lowlands is different...”
“Healthy is healthy.”
“For three years at the University, Jared knew a lonely and confused boy named Corin. In the hills, I'm osana, and treated as I would had I been born a woman.”
“Of course. And I don't need a reminder about what bizarre ideas the lowlands have about body being more important than spirit. I remember you telling me I should have let you die.”
She remembered it, too, much too clearly. And she remembered the utter contempt in the lowlands for anyone who strayed outside the rigidly defined behaviour of their physical sex.
“Jared is intelligent and open-minded about many things, but I'm afraid of how he'll react.”
“If he has a problem with your being happy and healthy, I wouldn't call him intelligent,” Dayr said stubbornly.
Vixen sighed to herself, and yielded yet another battle. Dayr, too, was intelligent, but the beliefs of the hills regarding the nature of women and men and those who had other combinations of body and spirit were so strong that he couldn't grasp the human fixation on drawing uncrossable lines. Nor could she truly object, since those beliefs had led to a welcome and acceptance she'd never known in the lowlands. She could only hope that they encountered no situation in which Dayr's blind spot caused them trouble.
They rode quietly for a time. The highlands that sheltered the shyani and weyres shadowed the horizon to their left; a day could bring them to them. All around was wilderness: along one stretch sparse forest, along another rocky meadow, or an isolated farm, or low marshland. The clouds had cleared to leave a deep blue sky; birds sang happily, enjoying the late spring warmth. At least, Vixen thought wryly, this emergency wasn't taking place at midwinter. Although to save Jared's life, to protect him as much as she could from the price of his own curiosity, she'd have come even through the snow.
How could he have been so mad as to acquire a shyani grimoire? Did he truly believe they wouldn't know, or would let him keep it—or that the more fanatical shyani and weyres would let him live? Well, perhaps that last wasn't fair, he couldn't know that even the pacific shyani had their extremists. Still, though...
They paused briefly for a cold lunch, and rode on. The grey's rhythmic motion lulled Vixen into a light trance, which she allowed; her awareness shifted and expanded, her senses bringing her information about the state of the world around her. Humans had come here little, as yet; nature remained in balance. She rode, content and at peace, until Dayr called her name gently.
“This looks like a good place to camp. Or would you rather go on and hope we find another?”
Vixen shook her head. “We were up early. Here's fine.” The sun was near to vanishing behind the mountains, and the donkeys needed a proper rest.
They unsaddled the easygoing jennies, a pair of mature but not elderly females who had been together for most of their lives, and tethered them to graze near the stream that had carved a channel down the hill. Grey Dove settled promptly into investigating available food, while dun Sparrow headed for the stream to drink first.
Dayr stripped and shifted to his puma form, and padded off four-footed in search of fresh meat for dinner. Vixen gathered stones and fallen dry wood to make a cooking fire, then eyed the stream. The air was cool, and cold stream water was no substitute for a hot bath, but better that than to spend another day without washing. She rummaged in her pack for something clean to wear overnight and the pottery jar of soap, and climbed farther up the hill, not wanting to be downstream from where the donkeys had stirred up the bottom.
Shivering a little, she let fall her heavy cloak of dark russet wool, then braced each foot in turn on a convenient rock to unlace her low boots. A woman clad in shyani style would be considered shockingly indecent in the lowlands; her divided skirt of soft oak-green wool and bodice of black leather had been a gift. Her sister Shabra had wanted her to feel more free to go into the lowlands, but not until now had Vixen worn them other than on an occasional holiday and a trade visit or two to the border villages. The skirt had a simple ribbon drawstring in the waist; the bodice had laces at the back to adjust it, but also laces at the front that she could manage alone. The commoner styles suited her better than upper-class fashions that, as she recalled, typically required the assistance of a maid. She laid her clothes, the skirt and bodice, her undyed linen blouse embroidered with green and russet vines, and her underclothes, on her cloak.
Kneeling by the edge of the water, she washed herself as quickly as she could, her nipples hard from the chill. It lay well within the power of a shaman to make some changes in her own body, though shyani osana and their counterparts the man-spirited umana and the changeable etana varied greatly in how much need they felt to do so. Long ago, her teacher and adopted father had banished facial hair for her forever. On her own since then, Vixen had worked hard to adjust the balances within her body and make it conform more closely to her image of her true self: somewhat softer curves; breasts that, though not large, were enough. Male genitalia inevitably remained, but a trifle smaller, and it no longer troubled her with inopportune responses. Vanity in part, because the shyani and weyres would accept her as a woman regardless. But it made her feel more truly herself, and for that alone it was worth the time and effort.
If her birth father could see where her path had led her, he'd have been horrified. He'd tried so relentlessly to make his third son into a proper man...
Vixen turned her thoughts firmly away. She was what was natural for her, an adopted daughter of the hills, who wore the silver earrings of an osana. Her right palm bore the tattoo of a simplified eye in purple-black, and her left palm a dark blue stylized willow. Together, they represented the two key aspects of a shaman's responsibility: to communicate with the spirit world that others could normally not perceive, and to heal and shelter. She'd chosen them and earned them. They meant more to her than her birth father's name ever had, and the pride and love of her shyani parents and sister meant more than the endless disappointment of her birth parents and siblings.
She unbraided her elbow-length hair, soft and full as any woman's, and washed it as well, wringing it out thoroughly.
She could at least wear something different overnight. She slipped on clean underpants, knitted soft wool that fit closely, partly lined with linen and held in place with a ribbon drawstring, and over them her shyani leather pants, tugging the laces tight at her hips with hardly a thought. The leather was stained dark with walnut, nearly the colour of her hair. Since it was chilly, and since a tunic alone would be the next thing to nakedness here, she pulled an undershirt over her head, lightweight undyed fabric with a cheerful rainbow of flowers embroidered down the centre of the chest, and over that, the tunic of a shyani woman. This one was a warm buttercup yellow. The neck was a deep V all the way to her solar plexus, crisscrossed with multi-coloured cord lacing, showing the flowers beneath. The sleeves were solid down to a third of the way from shoulder to elbow, and from there down to just past her elbow, if she held her arm straight down, they were fringed: bunches of thread were knotted close to the edge of the fabric, then braided tightly, and the end tied in another knot. The bottom of the tunic was similar: solid to midway between hip and knee, and fringed from there to just below her knees, but here, a dyed wooden bead had been threaded onto each just above the lower knot.
A man's tunic had much shallower lacing at the neck, since they didn't need to nurse, and was shorter, only hip-length, but otherwise was much the same. Weyres tended to find the fringes distracting, and preferred simpler clothes that they could get out of rapidly and into easily.
She'd have to go back to the skirt and blouse and bodice in the morning, this would all be appallingly barbaric in the eyes of any respectable lowlander despite being more practical in many ways, but they could use the chance to air out.
She washed her other underpants and her blouse, since those should all dry by morning, before starting back.
Having lived so long with the shyani, who preferred dawn and dusk, she had no difficulty making her way back down the hill by the silvery light of the larger moon, half-full and waxing.
Dayr paused in his own grooming to look at her briefly, then went on licking his shoulder. The meat from what must have been a large rabbit lay on a bed of broad green leaves, neatly cleaned; the skin, head, and bones lay nearby, on more leaves, but the innards were nowhere to be seen.
“Rabbit again?” she teased, while she hung her wet clothing on a nearby bush. He flicked the tip of his tail, but otherwise ignored her. Smiling, Vixen started the fire she'd laid.
As always, when they were outside, Vixen slept leaning against Dayr's soft-furred side to the sound of his purr, feeling utterly safe.
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