"Tell it again, father. Please?" Soft, little hands tugged playfully at his rough fingers. Her voice was like a sparrow's song. That was what he called her, his Little Bird. The curls of her brown hair bounced like coils of silk ribbon as she pulled.
Sitting on the edge of her small make-shift bed, he smiled. "No. Not again, Samana." He raised the blankets for her, and she slid underneath. "I've already told you the story of Selene and Almoth twice tonight. Now, it is time to sleep," he said as he tucked her in. Brushing the curls from her pale face, he gently kissed her forehead. She smelled like lilacs and soap.
"Father," she said, her bright-yellow eyes looking up into his, "will I be as pretty as Lady Selene one day?"
He smiled again and looked at the book sitting on the table next to her bed. The story was not very old, a tale of heroes from before the war. A brother and sister fighting together for the rights of others. Many believed it to be true, but altered. So much had changed since then.
"Of course you will, Little Bird, even prettier. Now, close your eyes." he said as he stood, and then reached to extinguish the lantern hanging from the arched beams overhead.
"Wait! Don't put it out," she said. Her eyes, filled with worry, peered over the blankets clutched in her hands.
He sat back down on the edge of the bed and laid a large hand on her shoulder. "It's alright, Samana. I will be just outside."
But she would not be swayed and grabbed his arm when he stood again.
"All right. All right. I will leave it lit, but only a bit. We have to save the oil." With that, he lowered the flame.
He took a deep breath. The smell of old oak and pine mixed with a touch of lantern oil filled his nostrils; it was a good smell. The smell of home. He threw a heavy fur-lined cloak over his back and pushed open the wooden door, its hinges creaking. Pulling up the hood, he exited into the winter night.
Outside, the wind stung with cold. The short stairs moaned as he stepped to the snow-blanketed ground. Like many of the other wagons that made up the caravan, his was sturdy, but old and showing wear.
He sat on the last step to wait for his wife to return from the washing wagon-a storage wagon converted into a washroom during the winter-then stood again when he saw her walking toward him. With one hand, she held a sack of clothing over her shoulder, and with the other she kept her tasseled burgundy hood up against the wind. Her cloak whipped violently behind her.
Her gentle, round face looked as tired as he felt. "Is Samana in bed, Daggis?" she asked him, the snow crunching under her feet.
Daggis. It was not his real name, but one he had given himself. His mother had named him out of fear and disdain. It was a name he would rather forget.
"Yes, Valene, and you should get some rest yourself." He guided her to the door and assisted her up the steps, her soft mittens plush in his rough leather gloves. She leaned down from the top step to kiss him before entering.
They lingered there, her warm lips resting gently on his as he breathed the sweet aroma of her skin. When they were first married, Valene had told him she wanted to make every moment together count; the life they lived made no promise of tomorrow.
After she went in, the wind banged the door shut behind her and the light went out inside. Samana must have already fallen asleep because no complaints were made this time.
Daggis pulled his cloak tight around him and went to find a fire.
Daggis stepped into a large area shielded from the wind by a ring of wagons. Men of different races sat or stood around a central fire, trying to stay warm. Some talked amongst themselves, though most were silent, weariness plain on their faces. Daggis chose to sit on the ground with his back to one of the logs, which had been placed there as a bench. The roaring fire cut the chill at his front, but not behind him. Several small rodents hung skewered on spits, and the smell of meat caused his stomach to growl loudly, betraying his hunger. The men around him laughed.
"Swallow some beast whole there, Daggis?" the man on his left said as he chuckled. He was an older, stocky fellow with a graying beard and knuckles like knots in a tree poking through his holey gloves.
"I wish," Daggis murmured, staring into the fire.
Winter had come early, and the caravan had traveled a long way trying to escape it. Some had died; the rest barely managed to survive, gathering whatever supplies they could find and eating whatever they could catch. Sometimes that meant nothing at all. Tonight's firewood had come from the surrounding forest, but other nights the whole camp ate cold food.
The man reached for a spit with an uncooked rodent on it and gave it to Daggis. "Eat."
Daggis hesitated, staring at the rodent in his hand with blood dripping down the spit. The thought of eating something raw still made him queasy, even after all this time, but he had never been able to stomach anything else. Hunger drove him and he sank his teeth into it anyway. The fire had warmed it, at least. He always expected his stomach to roil, but instead his appetite peaked and he picked the animal clean, being sure to waste as little as possible. Satisfied, he tossed the remains into the fire. He began licking the blood from his gloves, but stopped when he noticed some of the other men staring.
Daggis washed his gloves with snow and then pulled his cloak tighter around him. He attempted to appear content, but his stomach once again betrayed him.
"If you are still hungry, son, you can have some more," the older man said. He sounded concerned.
"I've had enough, Hamil. Give it to the children. They need it more." Daggis said. He wanted it, but could not bear the thought of someone else going hungry while he was satisfied.
"You should really eat your fill, Daggis," Hamil prodded. "Won't do anyone any good if you drop in the snow. You need your energy."
When Daggis refused again, Hamil raised a ceramic flagon and several metal mugs from beside the log he was sitting on. "Then at least drink with me." He poured the dark ale and passed the mugs out to the men.
"What about?" Daggis asked, accepting a mug. The ale smelled fruity, but was bitter.
Hamil looked around at the wagons and the other men, then up toward the stars. "Everything. Peace and happiness."
"Fleeting dreams," Daggis said grimly. There was not much to be happy about, and they all knew it. He shifted his weight to get comfortable and pulled the cloak tighter once more.
Hamil sobered, fixating on his cup. "Sometimes..." he started, "sometimes, dreams are all people like us have left. The war may have taken away our homes and our livelihoods, but we still have our families, and our lives, and each other."
Daggis nodded in agreement. He could toast to that.
The night continued with much drinking and conversation, which soon became slurred and loud. They drank to wash away the sorrow and the pain of loved ones lost, to drown out thoughts of the threats they faced every day, and to forget the fears that they may be next. They drank so they could cheer and be merry, if only for a night. As the night went on, one by one, the men headed to their wagons until only Hamil and Daggis remained.
"Well, my friend, don't stay up too late," Hamil said as he stood and patted Daggis on the shoulder. "We head out early tomorrow."
Daggis turned to look at the man. "Have we been followed?"
Hamil stared into the distance between the wagons, as if focusing on something in the darkness of the forest. "Not that I can tell, but you never can be too careful," he said with a slight slur before wandering off to find his wagon.
Daggis waved the man off, feeling drunk himself. He decided he would wait until his thoughts started to clear before he would attempt to make it back to his own wagon. The wind had died down and the warmth of the fire felt rather comfortable.
Daggis awoke to muffled voices and shuffling feet. His head was pounding and he felt nauseous. After piecing things together, he realized he had passed out in front of the fire overnight. His body was stiff from the cold, and extra effort was required to remove the cloak covering his head. He sat up and shielded his eyes against the light. There was no wind this day.
"Well, good morning, son! About time you woke up." Hamil was once again sitting by the fire, which had died down during the night to a single burning piece of timber. New logs had been placed in the pit, but remained untouched by the flames.
Daggis stood, brushed dirt and snow from his pants, and sat on one of the logs. "You startled me. What time is it?"
Hamil looked toward the sun just over the horizon and pulled out a battered pocket watch. "Just after eight o'clock," he said before replacing it.
Then he removed a laminated wood pipe from his pocket and packed it with tobacco. Satisfied, he brought the bowl to his lips and blew over the surface of the chamber. A flame sparked, and he quickly sucked on the bit.
"I didn't know you knew magic." Daggis tried not to sound too amazed.
Hamil raised an eyebrow. "Many people do."
"Yes, of course," Daggis said, "but I've never seen you use it before now."
Hamil drew deeply on the pipe, then exhaled a stream of fire into the dying flames, causing Daggis to shield his face.
"I'm full of surprises," he said afterward. The fire roared in front of them, alive once more. Hamil chuckled while Daggis checked if his hair or coat had been singed.
"You should get on and ready your wagon," Hamil said, pointing at Daggis with the bit of the pipe.
"Did you see my wife this morning?" Daggis asked. He had not intended to fall asleep at the fire and hoped that Valene was not worried.
"Aye, earlier. She was about to wake you, but I explained that you had a long night," Hamil said. He placed the bit between his lips and crossed his arms. "I would hurry up, if she was my wife."
Tossing the cloak over his back, Daggis thanked Hamil and then took his advice. Valene was a patient, understanding woman, but in his experience, it was better not to keep any woman waiting.
Daggis arrived at his wagon to find his daughter playing on the steps with her rag dolls, but his wife was not in sight. Samana was only half dressed for the weather; her hat and gloves sat on the bottom step and her gray fur coat hung open. She removed them whenever she had the chance. She was not bothered by the cold like other children and had never become sick from it. Still, he worried.
"Daddy!" Samana exclaimed when she spotted him coming. Her pale skin made her blend oddly with the snow around her, contrasted by her brown curls and the fur.
He worried about more than just her health.
"Hey, Little Bird," he said. He lifted her into his arms and wiped a drop of blood from the corner of her mouth. "You had breakfast, I see."
"Yes," Valene said, coming around the corner of the wagon carrying a small basket of potatoes. She paused to give him another lingering kiss.
Sometimes he forgot. His wife still ate vegetables. She was not like the two of them.
"Hamil had a raw rodent for her left over from last night," she said, climbing the stairs. "I don't know how you two can eat those things. Could you please hitch up the floxen?"
"Yes, dear," Daggis said and gave Samana a tight hug before putting her back down. From the bottom step, he called into the wagon through the open door, "I apologize about last night."
"It is all right. Hamil explained everything." She yelled out.
It was not alright to him. He had left them alone, unprotected.
"I just wanted to make sure..." Daggis stopped talking. He knew his wife meant what she said. She loved him as much as he loved her, if not more. "I'll go hitch up the floxen."
Although floxen were large beasts, they were rather docile and easy to handle if well taken care of. Their wool-covered hides provided great amounts of material for clothing and trade. Their size made them perfect for pulling wagons or carts, but it also meant they had to be tied to trees or poles in groups outside of camp where they would not be in the way and could feed on leaves and the grass not trampled by the people of the camp.
Reaching the edge of camp, Daggis checked the halters of all the floxen in the area where he had tied his the day before. Each family or group marked their floxen with specific patterns on the halters to prevent confusion; his were not there. He could only think of one person in the camp who would swap another man's animals for their own, and that man's beasts were still tied to the poles.