"There Was Snow"

OFF: My challenge post for the week.

ON:

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Time was on her side. for once. For once, something was on her side and she knew she needed to strike while the iron was hot and not wait for that small window of opportunity to fade away into nothingness. While time may have been favoring her in her endeavor, it wasn’t favoring those she was endeavoring to rescue – adding even more pressure and more strain to her already near frantic state of mind. Vaanaras’ hands were oddly steady as she tore through trunk after trunk looking for something, anything, that wasn’t a damn gown or a piece of one. Bits and pieces of fabric hung from precarious places, clinging to bed posts and chairs as if they’d been cast there by a savage wind storm and that wasn’t necessarily too far from the truth.

“Fucking hell! Come on!” She swore through gritted teeth, turning away from her own trunks and descending on Tulde’s. The lock held for the first couple minutes until, in haste, she beat it open with a heavy metal candlestick holder, splintering the wood that held the latch in place and freeing it. The holder hit the ground a few feet away with a thud, thankfully meeting a rug and not the wood floor – but she wasn’t thinking about noise or loss of function. She was thinking about rescuing her family from the cold, cruel hand of death before it could ensnare them in its horrific fingers, and she’d do it by all means necessary… Even if that included stealing a pair of too large black breeches and a shirt from a dead man. He wouldn’t miss them and even if he did, they were going on.

Her shift was discarded like yesterday’s news as she stepped into them and pulled them up over her hips. Several inches too long and entirely way too big around her narrow waist, Vaanaras was forced to roll them and create a makeshift belt by tearing off a length of fabric from one of the under skirts to a gown. No one would see it, no one would be any the wiser, and frankly… She couldn’t have given a greater God damn less if anyone did. The shirt tugged over her head wound up being neatly tucked into the waist of the breeches and her hair quickly tied up in the messiest fashion imaginable with a bit of ribbon. It was about speed and function, not beauty. All she needed to accomplish was keeping it out of the way and out of sight beneath her steel colored cloak and hood and it did just that just fine.

“Jesus Christ, who were you, Tulde?” Vaanaras snorted as she wobbled about in boots that were easily three and a half sizes too large for her. They’d have to suit, she had no other choice – and with the laces pulled tight she had half a chance at running so long as she remembered to tuck her knees high and exaggerate the motion. She had to. For them. For Avakhon. In many ways she knew that sneaking out without warning him - again - of what she’d planned was existentially wrong. Avakhon would come up stairs expecting to find her laying in bed or moping by the fire after declining dinner and hiding her face from the world, her head allegedly still suffering the results of her last hare brained plan.

Only she wouldn’t be there.

A great big giant mess would be there including broken wood, toppled candle sticks, and torn skirts. There would likely be a moment of panic until he realized her horse was gone – and then realization would likely dawn… Followed by more panic. It’d be too late to stop her then, and that was what she was banking on as she crept down the servant staircase and out the back door like a thief in the night.

Getting to her stables was child’s play - or it would have been had she not tripped twice while trying to run in what felt like clown shoes, she chided her impatient self as her half-frozen fingers fumbled with saddle billets in the dark, struggling to tighten her favorite gray mare’s girth but somehow managing if only because the spirited creature chose to cooperate for once.

Leading the animal from her stall to the barn aisle, Vaanaras rested her head against the mare’s neck, stroking it and trying to catch her breath in the frosty air. “Please… Please just behave for this. I won’t ask you for anything else if you do this for me.” Silence would be her only answer, silence aside from the sound of the wind as it began to pick up and moan through the barn rafters and the deep whuffing breaths expelled by the horse she leaned against. The mare was warm, soft as velvet, but loose as the storm she was preparing to ride off into, and time was wasting. Gathering up her reins, Vaanaras sprung into the saddle, cursing her too large boots for getting in the way of proper placement of her feet in the stirrups. So long as she didn’t come off, so long as everything went to plan, life would be alright.

It didn’t.

Two steps of a fluid trot forward and the mare jammed on the brakes. Vaanaras barely had time to duck her head to keep it from being taken off by the header of the barn door frame as the horse lifted her forehand from the snowy loam and rose skyward. She could feel the gray’s shoulders bunch and release as she struck out at some willowy shadow and barely see the mare’s ears flatten against her skull until gravity took hold and physics demanded that she return to the ground. It didn’t stop the beast from squealing, gnashing her teeth against the bit in her mouth, and wringing her tail against her hocks and hips – Vaanaras working all the while to try and keep her attention and focus on the figure approaching from the house.

She was caught.

“Shit!” She hissed, urging the mare forward in several hopping, half-rearing strides until it became apparent that her flight path over the back fields would be a no go. The main lane wasn’t an option either, not unless she wanted to be seen by any and everyone standing by a window.

For his worth, the footman was a steady sort of man. She’d forgotten that he checked the horses at half past nine, replacing water to keep it from freezing overnight. As he got closer to the barn, he slowed to take a good look at the scene playing out. To him it appeared that a man was trying to rein in an unruly horse. A man? Heaven’s no! A woman! Even more importantly... "Lady Vatterott?! What the Devil do you think you're doing?!" he demanded as he got close enough. He would only realize later just how rude he'd been to his mistress.

Inwardly, Vaanaras groaned and the wind began to gust again, carrying bitterness and gales of thick, heavy flakes of snow with it. Each blast made it more and more difficult for her to see and hear and the heathen mare beneath her arched her neck and pawed as if in agreement that the predicament of the weather was both blessing and curse. Snow would mean her tracks would be covered, but it also brought with it the potential of frostbite and a white out that would see her easily lost in the woods. They were all risks she was going to have to make. "Go back inside, Michael, you’ll catch your death!" She called as he came closer, and the gray mare danced upon adroit and energetic toes to meet him at the behest of her mistress.

Each breath came as steam, the blowing, billowing, sharp rolling exhales from the horse included, and it was all Vaanaras could do to tug her shirt up to cover her mouth and nose, helping to warm each inward breath. Time was ticking louder and louder in her ears, hammering against the inside of her skull as a reminder that she didn't have it to give to her footman this song and dance routine he was going to insist they partake in. "This doesn't concern you! Go back inside before you freeze!" She shouted over the storm and tangled her fingers in the mare's mane in preparation for quick departure.

Freeze? Something stirred in Michael's mind as he quickly did a once over of himself. Yes, he'd been in the living room, close to the fire, but he was used to some cold. As he crossed the final distance, he could see just how hard she struggled to keep the horse from outright exploding and that, too, made his heart quicken in his chest. "Just where do you think you're going?!" he demanded in a tone few people had heard him use - even himself.

"To bring back what’s mine!" She exclaimed. Was it not obvious? Impatience bled from her to the horse beneath her and they both fidgeted in the snowfall. The fact that a servant was taking such a tone with her would go greatly unnoticed... Until later... Until she had time to process and time to think. There was no time now. No time at all for ranks or the pompous order of things that came with them. All that mattered at that moment was a clean trip and return, and time was running shorter and shorter, tightening its stranglehold.

"There's no other time, Michael, they’re going to get away with all of it! They’ll use that damn rock for evil!" Vaanaras yelled back, her shoulders hunching in a pathetic attempt to shield herself against the biting cold, "If I take a group we're too visible, if I go on my own I have a shot." Her voice was lower now, raw from the cold and the yelling. The mare's head tossed as that impatience and displeasure for the cold began to reach a new crescendo.

"You've got to think this through, Countess!" Michael pleaded, almost begged. He had no intention of stepping aside, no intention of letting her leave by herself. He was pretty sure his lips were starting to go blue.

"I have! I know the way there and the way back! I know where they are!" She snapped in retort about the same time the horse beneath her defied gravity once again, half rearing and hopping forward in the direction of the open fields, her hind hooves landing with a heavy thud, chunks of snow and ice flying from their landing site, a full five seconds before her forehooves even thought about touching terra firma. Both of them were anxious - playing off one another's emotions and the feeling of the weather picking up all around them - and heavy with desire to move one way or the other. "I have to go, Michael, we won't get another shot at this! Please, Michael, it's the only way!"

The cold was making him numb. Fighting with her would end in despair for all involved, especially him - he’d be out of employment in the middle of one of the harshest winters on record. Taking several steps out of the horse’s path was the beginning of his capitulance, but he knew his first recourse would be to alert Khinsharri. After that, it would be all that he could do to watch through the windows and pray for her safety on a night as dangerous as the one she’d chosen to ride into. For no sooner did he step away did she sigh in relief and that relaxation of her body was all the mare needed as a signal to move... And move she did.

Beneath Vaanaras there was lightning. Fast. Hard. High powered lightning. It shuddered through every sinew and every vein than ran through the gray's body, driving the pistons that were her legs hard against the frozen earth as she flew without wings against the savage breeze.

The snowfields were an eerie sight, especially through the blinding briskness that came from charging headlong across them through a winter night, let alone one that had opened the door to a brutal nor’easter like the one pushing in from over the harbor and frigid sea. Vaanaras’ fingers were painfully cold, tangled around the leather of her reins and deeply knitted in the horse’s thrashing mane. The best she could have done was lift herself from the saddle, getting up off her mount’s back and letting the animal work at peak performance. Each stride came in a rolling, snorting, gasping breath as the horse used inertia and flared nostrils to feed its hungry lungs – and while the animal was breathing just fine, drinking of the wind just the way she’d been designed to do – Vaanaras was breathless and struggling against the cold and the sting of whipping mane and impacts of heavy snow as they raced along.

It still wasn’t fast enough.

The little woman’s frozen fingers kneaded against the warmth of the mare’s neck, encouraging her to move faster and faster yet. Beneath her, Vaanaras could feel what could only be described as momentary weightlessness as the animal seemed to switch gears and plunge onward at breakneck speed as they passed into the woods.

It was dangerous. Vaanaras should have half-halted and checked the mare’s speed, but she didn’t - instead she asked for more as they followed a barely lit path, weaving in and out of trees, as they continued. The creature didn’t miss a beat, switching leads as she rocked on her haunches and threw her forehand one way, her back end another in order to bend clear of each obstacle they faced. A fallen tree became one more hurdle between Vaanaras and her mark – and without knowing what lay on the other side it became a leap of faith as she felt the mare’s body contract and release as she powered over it in a spray of snow and gasp of breath, sailing through the frigid night’s air like a bird.

The landing was a bit more tedious. Ice sent the mare’s fore legs out from under her and her entire hind end skittering in an attempt to right herself, and her rider, before they both hit the ground. With a startled cry, Vaanaras leaned back as if trying to lift the struggling mare’s body and for what felt like an eternity, she was certain she was going to end up dead on that trail. Miracles, or maybe something to do with physics, came through and the horse’s shoulder hit a small tree, the impact enough to give the horse her a chance to get her legs back beneath her.

There was a pause in time, a wrinkle, and a hand suddenly appeared to snatch the struggling mare’s reins from Vaanaras’ hands. It was all she could do to ride out the hops and bucks of a horse acting like a fish caught on a line when a man on a piebald horse struck her hard enough to jar her teeth in her head and make her senses swim.

Stunned, she slipped from the saddle in a disheveled heap against the snow, narrowly avoiding being stepped on by her dancing mare and there was no time given for recovery before a brutal hand tore her cloak away and pinned her petite form against the same tree her mare had hit.

"Has anyone ever told you that you have a beautiful mouth, whore? Maybe I'll cut it off before I kill you. Khinsharri would be touched to have a part of you left to cherish." In the low light, Vaanaras could see the man passing a knife from one hand to another, but she knew full well that she gained positively nothing by entertaining him with an exchange. It didn't stop her from spitting in his face, earning herself another beating and the sensation of the knife destroying her shirt, the biting cold immediately rushing in to claim the skin of her exposed bosom.

Pleased with his work, the man reared back, crudely jerking his belt free and let it fall, knife and all, across her legs. She winced, trembling as he tore the too-large breeches from her hips, but managed to close her hand around the dagger’s leather bound hilt, concealing it behind her as best she could.

"Beauty… Such a beauty..." He grinned lasciviously, and she could smell the stench of alcohol and tooth decay on his breath when he brought his mouth to hers. His hands were rough and knees bony, each movement meant to hurt her as he shoved her silken thighs apart and jockeyed for position between them with the remnants of her breeches making the job all the more difficult. A sudden squabbling between the horses captured Vaanaras attacker's mind. His crude attempts to rally his manhood ceased and his eyes darted towards the beasts just long enough that Vaanaras was able to act on it.

With a strength fueled by panic and rage, Vaanaras plunged the slim knife deep into his bared lower belly, immediately twisting it to gut him. "Bitch!" He howled, dropping and clutching his belly with one hand, he struck at her sharply with the knife he pulled free of his own flesh in the other. Even though she twisted and rolled quickly away from him, Vaanaras felt the blade graze her ribs with a sharp sting of hellfire, but before he could strike at her again, she sent a boot clad heel square into his face, driving him over backwards and sending the knife from his hand. Thrashing to recover it before he did, Vaanaras had no mercy in mind when she plunged the dagger deep within his groin, crying out several times as she repeated the action until she was certain the unconscious man would never wake, nor attempt to rape, again. Only then did she crumble, curling in on herself and gathering her cloak tight around her shoulders as she began to openly weep.

It wasn’t but a small measure of time later when the rapid foot falls of another approaching horse registered in her shivering mind and Vaanaras looked up through the snow to see a familiar figure practically leaping from the saddle of their barely halted mount. “Vaana…” He called gently, shirking his coat and rushing to drape it around her, bundling her close to his chest.

She whimpered in protest, choking on the sensation of pain that rose from the gash across her ribs. “I killed him, Avakhon… I murdered a man.”

“Shhh…” He rocked her gently, peering over her snowflake spattered head at the cooling lump of flesh laying just a few feet off. There was rage, there was hate, but there was also concern and genuine happiness that it wasn’t her ravaged body laying there instead of the broken figure of a would be rapist, “Self defense is not murder, Vaana, did he hurt you?”

“No…” Her head shook against his chest, “No, not like that. He cut me, but he didn’t…” Her mouth went dry before she could let the words escape her, but she shifted carefully from her lover’s grasp, working to cover herself and pull the breeches back over her hips as her resolve began to steel itself away. Perhaps it was shock, perhaps it was a sense of vindication or a one tracked mind that demanded she be successful in her endeavor to recapture the Nebula, but Vaanaras began to pull herself together - even if the adrenaline pounding in her veins kept her shaking, “I’ll be fine.”

“You’ll be coming home with me, Vaana. Forget the murderer, I'll forget it too! You have to stop this madness! Let it go! I’ll do anything you desire, anything you request, just let it go before it succeeds in killing you and I lose you forever!”

“Come with me,” Wiping her nearly frozen tears from her cheeks, she sniffled and used loose bits of her tattered shirt to pull her cloak tight in a crude kimono-like fashion, “Come with me and we end this together.”

“Vaana…”

“No, Avakhon... “ She swallowed the knot in her throat, “I… We… We don’t belong here! We both know if, but we don’t belong here! We keep being told this over and over again every single time we look at the stars!”

The massive man looked up at her, flabbergasted and flummoxed, even though he too often felt the pull of the stars, as if they were calling to him and whispering that life as he knew it was a lie. Everything but her… Was a lie. “What are you saying, Vaana?”

“I’m saying that we belong up there, among them and that abominable stone is the only way to prove it.”

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