The wind came howling down, tearing at Col with icy fingers as he struggled through the deep, heavy snow. It should not have been heavy, it was cold, so cold, and usually, the snow should be powdery and light, or stay on the ground. It was not. Instead, it was heavy, clinging to his clothes, to his hair, to everything. It came to him then, that he could just lie down here and rest. Sleep.
No. Not yet. He wanted to get as far away from the village as possible. Not that it mattered, not really. Noone would, he thought, dare to follow him in this weather anyway, and he would not, he expected, be found alive when the storm was over. Still, this one time, he wanted to show someone, if only himself, that he could make it, this one time; he did not want to give up.
Briefly, and bitterly, he wondered if anyone would even miss him after, when he was gone. Not fair, though. Not fair at all. There was, always, Kay. Kay, who had protected him from the other kids. Kay, who had brought meat for his family in the winters, because it would not be possible, nor right, to bring meat only for him. Kay, who had tried so hard to teach him to hunt, to fight, to survive. Kay would miss him.
He doubted that his mother would, though. At least not before spring came, when she would have time for more than survival. But now he was only a burden, and if he left, that would give his brothers and sisters a better chance. And he pushed away the thought that maybe not, maybe Kay would no longer stop by with meat.
Not fair. Not at all. Kay would keep doing that. If nothing else, to keep his own sacrifice from being in vain. Kay would understand. Kay always did.
His mother, she would grieve, for a while. But there were others. Others, who were useful. His brothers hunted, or fished. His sisters gathered nuts and roots, and helped weaving and sewing and cooking. And in the winter, they too fished, and helped gathering firewood. They, he knew, would be missed. But then, they could mean the difference between starving and survival. He could too, but in another way, by not being there.
The wind strengthened, and it started snowing. Not just the snow whirled up from the ground anymore, but icy, slashing snow that stung in his face, his hands, and that felt as if it penetrated through his tunic as well, as if it was not there at all. Sharp, icy needles stinging everywhere. Col thought wistfully of his furcloak. It had been a gift from Kay, and he had not wanted to leave it, but his brothers would need it more than he would. He knew Kay would understand. Kay always did. They had been so close, so much more than just friends. He had given Kay his secrets, his dreams, and Kay, in return, had told him the greatest and most dangerous secret. Kay trusted him, loved him, just like he trusted and loved Kay.
They boy wondered, for a moment, who would find him. Probably Kay, he thought. Kay would not give up searching for him, and if Kay couldn't find him, noone could. But then, Kay would also know where to look. They had, after all, discovered that place together, one magical summer day.
He had not brought much with him. There was no need. Only two things had he taken away, two things that would not be missed. His flute, a gift from a passing Bard, and the harp. He had inherited it from Tarin, the village's former storyteller and minstrel. These two things meant so much to him that he would not part from them.
Tarin had given him the harp a little more than two years ago, just before he died, telling him to leave, to go somewhere where his music would be appreciated, but the boy had never had the courage to leave. Maybe he should have asked Kay. Maybe Kay would have come with him. Facing the big world outside his village did not seem so scary, if Kay was with him.
But now he was leaving after all. Not in the way that Tarin had meant, though. And that, perhaps, was what grieved him most. That after all, his music and talents would be wasted, that there were songs and melodies inside his head that would die with him, that noone, not even Kay, had heard. That noone would ever hear, except for himself.
Finally, he reached the cave. He stumbled in, shaking with cold. Just as he remembered, there was plenty of firewood and kindling here, and even blankets, and the cave was dry, but cold, and he was so tired. His fingers were numb, and he had to try several times before he managed to get the fire burning. At first, it burned low and flickering.
"So useless, I can't even make a fire." He was crying, and his teeth were chattering now, but all in all, that was a good thing, he though. It was when you stopped feeling the cold that there was danger. Then he laughed out loud, a bitter, short bark. Danger? Of freezing. As if it mattered.
But slowly, the fire grew brighter, and as the warmth slowly crept back into his frozen body, flickering shadows played on the cave walls around him. Finally he settled down, legs crossed, and pulled out his flute.
His fingers were stiff, and the flute out of tune from the cold, but after some playing the warmth made the music flow, clear and soft and pure and unearthly beautiful.
He started with the dancing tunes he knew. After he had played them all, plus some he had made himself, he went on to the gentler melodies. Only when he judged the cave warm enough did he carefully unwrap his harp. He tuned it with aching, but warm, fingers, and let his fingers run over the strings, first randomly, just enjoying the sound, like a brook over stones. Then one after another, he started playing his own melodies.
Soft music filled the cave, and took him, for a while, to another time. The cold cave disappeared, and he was surrounded by trees, sunlight filtering through the leaves. He could hear the birds, and the buzzing insects, he could smell the fresh sweet air, and the damp earth in a cool, early morning. And he could see Kay's face before him...
How he loved that face. Framed by shortcut, almost white hair, with one thin long braid into which a lock from his own, dark brown hair was braided. The nose, broken twice, both times in a fight that Col should have fought himself. A mouth, thin lips, two missing teeth, also lost in fights fought for him. Seldom laughing, seldom smiling. Blue eyes, cold and hard, not at all like those a thirteen year old boy should have, but always gentle when looking at him. And with it, a thin, wiry body, all sinew and muscle.
He wished he was more like Kay. Kay, who was the fastest runner, and the most enduring, and the best swimmer too. Among the kids, that was. By far one of the best fistfighters, enough that even the grown men had started taking notice. One of the best hunters in the village, even compared to the adults. And a promising warrior, taught by Bres, his father. Bres had tried to teach Col too, but with little luck. He just could not seem to sort his arms and legs out, while Kay was a natural.
Kay was good at everything, though. Even music. Singing, and the flute. Even the harp. But in this, at least, Col exceeded his friend. And that Kay could even play was their secret. Not even Kay's father knew.
Kay had been firm about that. Music was Col's skill. His pride. Kay was not going to take that away from him. He had tried to make Kay sing once, but Kay had refused. When he had finally given in, he had sung horribly off-key, on purpose of course. Only when the two of them were alone, would Kay relent, and they had shared many hours together, singing, and playing. Together, or one playing, and the other listening.
The problem was, music was not really useful. Not like hunting, or fishing, or fighting. It was just entertainment and brought no food on the table. In the summer, when there was plenty of game, and life was easy, then it did not really matter, but during the winter, when food was scarce and the raiders came to steal what little food there was, then he heard often enough that he was good for nothing. Perhaps it was true.
Once, he had asked his mother to teach him how to spin and weave, so he could be useful in some way. His father had beaten him for that. His father was not a violent man; it was the only time he could ever remember his father beating any of his children. In this way did Col learn that women's tasks and men's tasks were not to be mixed.
Tarin had hunted during the winters, until he became too old. Even then, he wrapped himself in furs to keep his aching bones warm, and sat for hours on the ice, fishing. Or he gathered firewood with the children. Col could not do any of these things right. He could not run; he always started coughing and had trouble breathing. He was not strong, and he was so clumsy with a spear that Kay's father was worried he would hurt himself.
When he was gathering firewood, his thoughts wandered, and even the smaller children ended up bringing in more wood than he did. And for some reason, he was not good at fishing either. Fish were different, so he did not mind so much killing them. And he had the patience, but the fish did not seem to like him.
He was not good at hunting either. He always felt sorry for the animals. The thought of hurting, or killing, another living being revolted him. Even the thought of starving did nothing to change that. Not, and there was no sense in it, that he minded eating the meat. He just could not make himself kill.
Kay had tried, with kind words and quiet encouragement. Others had tried, sometimes with fists and kicks. They had tried, in many ways, to explain to him that if some beast did not die, someone from the village might. And he had tried. He really had. But his heart was not in it, not at all, and he made mistakes. Soon, noone but Kay and Bres would hunt with him, since he often made mistakes that could mean the difference between life and death for the villagers.
And Bres and Kay kept taking him with them. He rarely made serious mistakes with them, though, and they did not force him to kill. But then, Bres and Kay were different. Very much so, in every way that counted.
Kay did not care. Not Bres either. Kay loved music, just like he did. Kay had a lovely voice, but most important of all, Kay did not care that he, Col, could not run, or fight, or hunt. And when the other children mocked him for being weak, Kay fought them, and after a while, they learned, and left him alone.
That did not, though it went a long way, stop the pain he felt, each time he saw the scorn in people's eyes, or the disappointment in the eyes of his parents.
Kay was there, always. He sometimes wondered what life would have been like, if Bres had been his father. Maybe it would not have been so different. Maybe Bres would have had less patience with a son so obviously, so very much, flawed.
But Bres had been kind to a thin clumsy youngling, and patient, he had never once lost patience with him. And Kay, Kay had shared the greatest, most dangerous secret, with him.
That day was still clear in his memory. Nearly six months ago, a few days before midsummer, and he still remembered as clearly as if it was yesterday. If he closed his eyes, he could still see it.
He had been lying in the tall grass by the river, playing his flute. Kay was sitting by his head, leaning against a tree, listening. When he finished playing, he looked up, met Kay's eyes. They were serious, and almost worried, more so than usual.
"There is something I have to tell you." A brief flash of worry, then real fear for a moment. Maybe Kay and Bres were leaving. And hope; maybe they would take him with them. "It's a secret, and you must promise not to tell anybody else."
Col would have promised Kay the moons if his friend asked, anything at all, and he said as much. Kay nodded, and flushed.
"There's a story I want to tell you. About Father. And Mother." Col swallowed. Noone knew that story. Neither Bres nor Kay had spoken of it. Ever.
"Well, Elinn came to the village during one of the worst autumn storms they'd ever seen. She was wounded, frozen, and more than half mad, Father said. They knew eachother from when Father was a soldier. She'd been an officer, like him, and a good fighter, or so Father says."
A well of emotions. Some pleasure, that this was another thing he knew how to do, to shape a story. Already he could see how to improve on this one. Shame, that he could take pleasure in his friend not being good at something. Pride, and joy, that Kay would confide in him in this. Then confusion. She? Officer, soldier? He frowned.
"You mean, she was a warrior? But, I thought only men could be..." Obviously, he was wrong. Another thing that made him strange, he sometimes had to speak out loud to see the obvious, but his mind ran faster than his tongue, so he often stopped in the middle of the sentence, figuring out the answer to his questions by himself.
Kay nodded, used to this by now, never said anything about it, just let it pass. "True, it's like that, here in the mountains. But where Father came from, it's different. Female warriors exist, and they're as common as male warriors."
"Now, Elinn came, but Father didn't recognise her at first. But he knew that the person falling through his door needed help, so he did what he could. She almost died anyway, and he said she'd carry some of the scars until the day she dies. Father said one of her wounds was deep enough he could see bone."
"She lived, though. She never told Father what had happened, but it must've been bad. What little he knows, he guessed from what she said when she was delirious."
"She'd been out on some mission or other, across the border, he thinks. And they, or she, got captured. One of the mountain lords." Kay stopped, looked at Col. "Those lords, they aren't much fond of female warriors. 'Not a woman's proper place', is what they're saying. Just like that priest."
"This happened right before the end of summer, so she must've been kept a prisoner for quite some time. She'd been tortured. I'm not gonna tell you what they did. Father told me, what he knows about it, anyway, 'cause he said I need to know, but I had nightmares for several weeks after." Col did not really want to know. Not if it gave Kay nightmares.
"She got away, somehow. He doesn't know how. They got careless, or so she said, but Father said she shouldn't even have been able to walk, far less fight and run and ride. But she did, and came here, where she thought she'd be safe."
"Anyway, she got here, and Father took care of her. Tended her wounds and brought her back to life. Then she realised she was pregnant."
Col's eyes widened. "But that means...."
"Shhh....wait. Let me finish. She slowly got better, and the night before Midsummer, she went into labour. It took her all night, and half through the day after, but in the end, she gave life to a daughter."
"A daughter? But then..." Col looked at his friend in horror. Kay continued as if Col had not interrupted.
"Elinn didn't want to take the child with her. She was going back to her company, or whatever was left of it, and thought the child'd be safer here. She left two months after I was born."
"Father wanted, had always wanted a child, though. So she left me with him."
Col shook his head. "I don't understand. She went back, even after that? She could've stayed, she'd been safe here. Why return?"
Kay sighed. "I don't know. Father doesn't either, but he thinks that she went back because it was what she was good at, what she loved. Remember the time Father and I were hunting, and I was attacked by that boar?"
Col nodded. He remembered all too clearly when Kay's father had come into the village, carrying Kay. Bres had tended Kay himself, and only Col had been allowed into the hut. Whenever Bres had to go out, Col stayed there, by Kay's side. Oh, yes, he remembered.
"I went back to hunting as soon as I recovered, remember? Because I enjoy hunting, and I wouldn't let that incident scare me away. I think she felt the same way."
"But why pretend you're a boy? Father Remi wouldn't like it, but he wouldn't say anything, not to your father?"
"I'm not sure. Father said...he said he didn't trust the priest. Said that the way the mountain lords' influence was spreading, I'd be safer as a boy. And if I hadn't been comfortable with it, he'd have taken me down to the lowlands and started a new life there."
"But you see why you have to keep quiet about it? If the priest finds out, he might have us thrown out of the village. He'd probably like to burn us both, but he knows that nobody could, or would, help him. Not against Father and me together. But I couldn't go on hunting and all that if they found out."
Col nodded slowly. "I still don't understand why Father Remi doesn't think that girls could be hunters or warriors. I mean, you're a girl, and a child, but you're still the best hunter in the village. And my younger sister beats up all of my brothers if she wants to, even if they're older than her. She'd have been a better warrior than me. And a better hunter." He managed to keep the bitterness out of his voice, but Kay had no need to hear it to know it was there.
"Col, I don't mind. I really don't. I like you the way you are. 'cause you never brag about fights, about killings, you don't fight, you don't even like fighting. You don't want to be friends with me because I am stronger than you. And I can talk to you. You understand me. And I can hunt enough to keep us both with meat."
It helped, but not much. He wanted to be useful, wanted to do his share of the work. He wanted it so badly it hurt, and if he did not change the subject, he would start crying. "So, Bres isn't your father, then." Not a question, just a statement, to get his mind off its current track.
"No. And I think that's one of the reasons he loves you so much too. We're not really that different; we both need him, and I think he needs someone to protect, to take care of, to teach. He teaches you about the animals and plants of the highlands, doesn't he? Not for hunting, but their songs, their habits, how they live?"
"Yes. I really like that. I was afraid you'd be angry, because he teaches me something he won't teach you, but..."
Kay smiled. "Don't worry about that. I'm not really interested anyway, but I know you are. Besides, why should I be angry even if Father chose to teach you something he didn't teach me?"
They had talked, about a lot of things. But he had never asked the question he should have asked, if Kay would come with him if he chose to run away. And now Col was leaving. Alone.
Col gradually returned to the present. The fire had almost gone out, and he was shivering. He detuned the harp, and wrapped it carefully to protect it from the cold, then he wrapped himself in the blankets he could find, and went to sleep.
When he awoke, the cave was warm. Not just not icy cold, but warm. It was quiet, but he could hear the birds outside. The storm had ended, then, and the snow was melting rapidly in the sun. Still blinking and rubbing his eyes, he walked out of the cave, into the light.
The spring was still a month away. The flowers and the leaves on the trees should have baffled him. But it felt right. He closed his eyes, and just breathed in the scent of summer for a moment.
"Hi, Col." Kay's voice, from behind him. He turned. "There's someone I'd like you to meet. But you must bring your harp." He picked it up, though he had no memory of bringing it with him from the cave. Together, the two of them went down the path, and suddenly found themselves by the river. The same place where Kay had told him the secret, half a year ago, half a lifetime ago. And on the bank he lay, the creature he had dreamed of all his life, beautiful, golden brown, huge, but with wise, kind eyes.
"Hello, Col", he rumbled. "Kay has told me about you. I wanted to hear you play." Col sat down and unwrapped his harp. It was perfectly in tune, and had never been so easy to play as it was now. He played all the songs he knew, and then he started playing his own music.
He had no idea how long he had been playing, but when he stopped, both the dragon and Kay were lying in the tall grass, eyes closed. Slowly, the dragon opened his eyes, and sighed. Then he turned his head, looking straight at Col. "Do you want to go away from here? I can take you both, to wherever you want to go. And if you wish, you can come with me, to play with me and my kin."
With a shout of joy, he and Kay leapt onto the dragon's back, and then they were airborne, flying high above the ground. Col laughed as he felt the wind rushing past his ears. Never in his whole life had he been this happy.
Kay was the one who found him. His stiff arms were clutching his carefully wrapped harp, and there was ice in his hair. But he was smiling, his face lit in joy Kay rarely saw, except from when he was playing.
The cave became his grave. She spent hours piling stones in front of the opening, then she covered it with snow. Noone would find him, she knew that. But she took his instruments and hid them somewhere safe. Then she returned, saying she did not find him.
His mother cried for a while, but she had other children to take care of, and soon she seemed to forget. Kay did not, though. She knew why he had gone, and she wept for him, and remembered. Not when people could see it, of course. Only her father was allowed to see the tears, the pain.
As the summer went on, she dropped small hints, and carefully picked the right stories. The tale grew, slowly at first, then faster. People almost forgot that they had actually known the boy, that they had called him useless, that they had considered him strange. Mostly, Kay thought, because they wished to forget. Instead, Col became a legend, someone who lived long time ago, and who one day left, to live instead with the dragons.
Kay stayed in the village for another five years. During those years, she created a legend. She knew, of course, of Col's love for the mythical dragons; they had spoken often enough of them. During the long, bright summer nights, she brought out the instruments and played, sometimes, so the herders could hear. Heartbreaking, magical, beautiful, all his favourite songs that she knew. Some of them his own. But whatever she played, whenever she did, it seemed as if Col was with her, helping her exceeding anything she had ever done before.
When the shepherds started hearing music even when she had not played, she knew the time had come for her to leave. Her farewell with her father was quiet, solemn, and filled with love. As they sat together at the table for the very last time, they spoke quietly, of many things. Among them, Col. But the pain had softened now, and she did not weep.
But as she walked away from the village, she made a detour, to the cave where her friend rested. It was covered with grass now, and even a small bush, the result of Kay's hard work. Noone would be able to see that there was a cave here.
She wept for the last time at the cave. Wept for the boy she had been unable to keep alive, but to whom she had given immortality.