As she trudged her way through the drifted snow, each step accompanied by a momentary pause before her boots pushed through the icy crust, Nemi slowly became more and more hypnotised by the crunch ... silence ... crunch of her steps. It was, in its way, her own, personal music, the song of her survival. And, in every silence, she hesitated, listening, looking, intent for any sign of pursuit.
And every time she stopped, she saw, she heard, nothing, but that didn't matter; she knew she was being pursued. The only question was how long it would take until they brought her down.
Nemi hadn't the luxury to allow herself to think of such things, couldn't listen to the screaming of the muscles of her legs, louder and louder yet, protesting at the abuse she was heaping upon them, but she couldn't stop.
To stop, here, on the lower slopes of the mountain, would be death, either from the cold, or from colder steel that pursued her.
She had to carry on.
That Nemi was almost totally unprepared for such a journey, was unimportant.
That she was wearing insufficient clothes, had no provisions, and no way of obtaining such, was unimportant.
That she was, if not physically, then at least mentally still distracted, even traumatised by the events of that morning, was unimportant.
All that mattered, was survival.
With no food, water only so long as you could afford the heat of your body to melt it, a heatless sun hanging overhead, and snow everywhere she looked, Nemi had no choice other than to fight against the cold and the fatigue to propel herself back to the Settlement, by willpower and the need for vengeance if necessary.
Unconsciously, Nemi brushed the snow from her shoulders, watching the ragged, icy fingers of her breath drifting in the air in front of her. No wonder her lungs burned, with the exertion, and with the cold. Mentally steeling herself, Nemi did what she could to close herself from the pain of her body, its aches and chills, and refocus herself on the simple act of surviving, one step at a time.
The night before, the world had seemed a very different place.
Winter had shown its hand early this year, and snow was already visible on the mountains to the west, harbinger of worse to come.
Nemi's people began making their preparations. Grain was stored. Animals were saved, either the best, with forage or the rest, slaughtered and salted. Fire-holes were secured, furs cleaned, clothes mended, and all the dozens of other little jobs that, by themselves were unimportant, but, when taken together, meant the difference between survival, or not.
For all of their preparations, the early snow had caught Nemi's people unprepared in one important task - they had not yet paid their tithe. Though their King – or the man who called himself such – sat far to the south, and though they had never seen him, Nemi's people still paid their tithe, as much so that they continued to not see him, or his army which would raze their village if they failed to pay.
Jatana, their Chieftan, called together his most powerful, wise, and courageous warriors to his counsel. They agreed, there was no choice – they had to send the tithe-wagon on its journey to the city of Fel-Sta; they could risk no other course.
As one of the tribe's greatest warriors, it was agreed that the Chieftan's own brother, Jaal, should lead the escort. Quickly he picked his two dozen souls, Nemi was among them.
That morning, the tithe secured in the wagon, they had ridden out in standard formation, with four out-riders scouting for them, the rest of the troop ranging around in a defensive cordon intended to give warning to some of them of any attack, from any direction, so that the wagon could be protected.
As they were about an hour into the lands claimed by the Kilim for their own, there was a noticeable decrease in birdsong, something more than the simple end of the morning's chorus.
Anxious for the cause, Jaal was calling for a scout to check it out when his order was abruptly cut short as a crossbow bolt erupted out of his throat, robbing him of his voice and his life in short order.
At once Jaal's deputies tried to rally to the tithe-wagon, to make a path out for them, but as quickly as a warrior took their place, a crossbow bolt found them out, dropping them to the floor, and leaving their riderless horses to add to the confusion.
Luckier than the others, closer to the tithe-wagon and so harder for an archer to locate, Nemi had the sense to drop from her mount, to get down among the milling, frightened horses, and take what cover she could from them. Glancing through the disarray she saw a couple of the other Amazons follow her lead, though, closer to the edge of the confusion, they were soon exposed, soon fell.
Turning to her left, Nemi watched, impotent, as the wagon tried to turn, but there was no way through. Even as she watched, the last of the relief drivers fell to the relentless bolts.
Knowing their attackers would concentrate on the wagon now, Nemi grabbed on to the nearest horse, only partially mounting it, holding her body along its flanks, and geeing it along for all it was worth. Turning to watch behind, Nemi was just in time to see Alban, one of their own, desperately hurl a throwing star at her.
Pulling on her mount's mane and ignoring its frightened screams, Nemi managed to change the course of its headlong rush, saving her, but only for a while; Alban's star had embedded itself in her horse's neck. Already it was bleeding heavily, eyes wide in pain and confusion. It would not live long, certainly not long enough to carry her back to Jatana. But for now it was enough, somehow carrying her away from Alban's treachery.
As she watched she saw Alban raise his arm with another star in hand, and then lower it. She was out of range of throwing stars.
Another moment ... and was out of range of crossbow bolts too.
As soon as she was in the clear, Nemi swung herself up onto her horse's back, wheeling her mount round and heading for the high pass that separated their lands from those of the Kilim.
Less that ten minutes later, exerted beyond his limits, Nemi's mount faltered, stumbled, and collapsed, Nemi only just having enough time to jump clear before her mount hit the ground, hard.
His time had come.
Though Nemi, like the rest of her people, did not believe in the souls of animals, still, he had done well for her. And so, with unexpected kindness, Nemi knelt down on the cold earth beside her mount, calming him, soothing him, whispering soft words as, out of his line of sight, she drew a dagger from her belt, muttered an 'amen', as much for herself as for him, and drove the blade into his brain, killing him instantly.
He, at least, was safe from further suffering.
Not so Nemi.
That had been several hours ago, now, and Nemi was still trudging her way through the numbing snow, always alert, always listening for an unusual, any potentially man-made sound, the hearing of which might, in those scant seconds, mean the difference between life, and death.
Nemi knew he was ambitious, knew that he was dangerous, that he coveted Jatana's position, but to betray them? It was almost unthinkable, but Nemi had seen it. She had to get back, to report it, that their whole people could be mobilised, to hunt Alban down, to recover the tithe, to pay the tithe, and to barter their existence for another year.
Nemi felt the little ball of anger and hate, rolling in her belly, and enjoyed the sensation. Feelings like that could drive her to survive; they also reminded her she was still alive.
By the late afternoon a light snow had begun to fall, a blessing from the gods in that it would hide Nemi's tracks, but also a curse as the whiteout made it almost impossible to be sure where she was. All she could do was keep heading up, to look for the u-shaped shadow, the pass between Col-Bal and Col-Bry.
To begin Nemi had kept in the trees as much as she was able, kept to whatever cover she could find, but as the had afternoon wore on, the trees had thinned out, and the lack of sign of pursuit had gathered a weight of its own. Nemi had begun to hope, hope that she might just make it, that she might get to the pass before any pursuers did. Then she could alert Jatana, avenge her fellow warriors, and, if the gods willed it, be the one to kill Alban herself.
Comforting herself with these thoughts, just as she was in sight of the pass, Nemi felt a sudden blow from behind.
Turning round, she saw no-one.
Thinking it a muscle spasm - the over-exertion of the climb through the snow - she was just about to dismiss it, when Nemi felt a trickle of liquid running down her leg.
Smiling at the thought she had pissed herself from the cold and the exertion, Nemi made to take another step-
-and her legs refused to move.
Again she tried-