They had surrounded her.
Ember scanned the sky again, counting at least eight blue-gray spheres floating in the distant air like the paper cloud-lanterns from flame celebrations, each carrying a basket underneath with a scout and a glinting far-glass. They had been getting closer every time she looked, closing in from every direction. She had also spotted more Tixeries overhead several times and from the occasional glimmers from the towers along the peaks she was certain there were watchers up there, too.
No matter how far she had gone their search had remained concentrated around her, which meant they had probably spotted her at least once while she was fleeing. Now she had come to a thin place in the tree cover and could no longer afford to be six heights long, lest it happen again. There were too many watchers and her lengthening shadow would give her away if nothing else.
No help for it. She had to change.
She curled under the cover of a dense, spreading pine growing out of rocky ground, dropped her packs on the bare rocks underneath, and became human.
Scales thinned, arms and legs shortened, tail shrank and disappeared, skin became soft and a fixed, dark tan, a long mop of black hair grew and fell around her face, and finally her wings shrivelled and became nothing. Most of all, the world got bigger and more threatening.
The cold hit her with a shock.
She had forgotten how little insulation humans had.
Ember scrambled to get her packs open, struggling to pull stiff leather through buckles so cold they burned her delicate fingers. She got one flap loose and yanked out a thick white wool cloak, wrapping herself in it immediately.
It helped. Some.
Diving back into the pack with more care she rummaged and pulled out a set of wool leggings, a pair of kren-cloth trousers, a cotton breast band and undershirt, a wool overshirt, and a set of boiled leather armor.
She pulled all of it on as quickly as she could without forfeiting the cover of the cloak. Lastly she sat down on a stone and pulled a pair of thick wool socks onto her bare feet, already pale and numb from the frozen ground, and jammed them into heavy leather boots, themselves like little sheathes of ice.
Fully clothed she stood and looked around the clearing, trying to focus on her next step despite her body shivering like it was trying to fall apart.
Ember hated being human.
So small and vulnerable.
She would cover, at best, a quarter the ground she had in her full body. She would not be able to fly or glide, could barely jump, and any idiot with a bow would be able to kill her.
If the winter didn’t get her first.
Maybe they would let her go back over the mountains…
No. Still not an option.
Blending in was her best choice, and that meant looking like a hunter.
She closed the clothing bag and opened the other one, pulling out a quiver of arrows, an unstrung recurve bow curled into a circle, and a sheathed short sword and hunting knife rolled up together with a wide belt.
The blades she strapped right to her waist, along with the quiver which hung next to the knife. The bow was another matter.
She studied it for a moment, remembering how the process went, then slipped the string over one end, hooked that end over the front of her left ankle, and unfolded the bow around the back of her right thigh until she could connect the string across the front of her legs.
The recurve fought her the whole way, but she was stronger by far.
When it was strung she hung it on a limb of the tree away from the snow.
Weapons out, she closed the second bag, hooked it to the first, and with a few smart buckle connections converted the whole thing into a serviceable backpack which she swung up and shouldered.
Swinging the bag up made her hair fall across her face in a tangle. Some of it got into her mouth. She struggled with the long strands, combing them out with her fingers and getting the whole mess into one straight bundle.
She pondered it, trying to remember how to keep it out of her face while she did important things.
She could just cut it off. But when she had watched the women in the village from afar, they had all kept it long.
Knots. Some kept it knotted behind their heads.
How did that go?
Ember twisted the hair a little and held it gathered behind her head in a tail, trying to feel the knotting motions with her numb hands. First under… no, over… no, under and over one arm, around itself, up into the hand, then pull through its own loop.
Ponytail. It was called a ponytail.
She checked herself over, making sure that everything else was in place. Clothing, weapons, boots, pack, hood, gloves, mask.
She searched a pocket in the cloak for the cotton snow mask, pulled it out and wrapped it around her head so that only her eyes were visible, and barely, through the slit.
That would hide the scales still showing on her brow and nose.
The gloves were in the other pocket, long gauntlets lined with rabbit fur.
She pulled them on and finally she was ready to move out. How no one had found her with all that thrashing and delaying, she didn’t know.
She had stopped on a rise sometime earlier and made out the smoke from two towns. If she moved fast she could get close to either of them before nightfall. That would put her where there were more people and thus, less suspicion.
Ember chose the one further to the West, grabbed the bow off the tree, and took off at a fast jog, bounding over the roots, branches and boulders that were now much larger.
She would do it.
She would escape.