It was because she ran she didn’t look. Didn’t take the usual care. Her face was uncovered, profiled by the narrow lighting as she wrenched open the door, ducking under the arm of the slow, bulky man who was paid to make sure it stayed shut. But she heard the shout.
“Tegs?” Then: “Stop her!” Running feet. “Back off, she is my property!” and the thunder came, before: “I hope I killed the bitch.”
It hurt so bad she staggered and thought she would fall. As if something had pierced her through the side. It made no difference though, she kept running. Past the bulk of the snow-clammed houses, holding her side as the warmth leaked from it. Limping a little, she crossed the cold-pressed open ground marked by a thousand hooves and the runners of sledges and sleighs. She scurried over the last road, slipped on the ice and slid under the vent that heated the small building by the spaceport dome. Pulling the snow and ice after her, she pushed herself further and deeper into the narrow shelter. By then the pain was coming in great waves; like the waves she had seen deep out in the ocean on her journey here from the Western Continent, arising from unseen depths and slamming hard against the hull of the ship.
The small voice, no more than a whisper, came from the dark recesses of the little cave she had found for them. That had been the hardest thing, teaching Elisca to be silent when she needed to go out to find them food. But at least they were together and the child spared the horror of branding and separation that Tegwyth herself had known. Tegwyth gasped and almost cried out as she unwound the coat from under her cloak, pulling it free where it stuck, wetly, in her flesh, then wrapping it around the cold-skinned child. It was too dark to see what she was doing and she had to work by feel. When she was done she pressed her cheek close to her daughter’s.
“There,” she said so softly the air barely carried her words. “I brought you a gift for Midwinter, sweetling.”
She held the child close as the little one wolfed down the bread, fed and wrapped warm for once. But for Tegwyth the cold seeped deeper into her with each breath. It seemed to hurt less though, but she felt so very tired. Her daughter clasped safe in her arms, Tegwyth let herself fall asleep.
The frost had frozen the blood onto the surface of the snow almost as soon as it landed, stark red against the white. In the cold illumination of the flashlight, it seemed crystalline and jeweled.
“She’ll have lost too much,” the bearded man muttered grimly. Gernie nodded. He was no expert but even he could see what this trail meant. They followed it out past the courtyard wall and on towards the edge of the settlement.
“If we had been a bit faster or you’d just hit that – “
“We had no bloody choice,” the other man cut across him. “It’s how things are here, lad, you can’t bloody change it.”
“The bastard shot her,” Gernie protested.
“And in his full legal right to do so. She is his property – or was, most likely. She ran away and that means she knew she was in for death if she got caught.”
“So you and Micha have to make nice to him? Man, that’s -” Gernie realised for the first time just how alien this world really was.
“We had to play it that way. That’s the way it bloody is around here, Tavi. Maybe if you work on it you can make a difference one day, but you can’t go shooting down local notables – nor even beating them up. Not if you are planning to stay here – and I take it you are?”
For a moment, Gernie wanted to say no. Wanted to say he was not going to stay anywhere a teenage girl could be murdered, legally, in front of an entire tavern full of people. But even as he opened his mouth to say as much, he found his mind filled with the memory of an oval face with golden skin, framed by dark-copper ringlets and wearing an expression of appalled compassion. Something inside him moved.
“I’m taking the job,” he said, “if that’s what you are asking. It’s why I came here after all. The pay is crap, this place is like a nightmare. But someone has to run the spaceport so crazy people like you can come and trade here. I’ll stick it a year or two then head back to civilisation.”
The bearded man grinned briefly.
“I think Micha will be pleased.”
Gernie said nothing to that, it was still too new, too startling. He shone the flashlight back on the snow and followed the trail.
The blood seemed to vanish near the small block building that backed onto the first of the spaceport domes. As if the ground had opened and swallowed the girl.
Midwinter Miracle concludes tomorrow…
If you would like your own copy of A Midwinter Miracle, it is available on Audible, as an ebook and paperback and can be purchased from Amazon, Kobo, iTunes and Googleplay. This special edition has typographic art and cover design by Zora Marie.