By the time they stopped for a mid-day break, Gilly was glad enough to crawl back inside the sled; her arms and legs ached from holding on to the heavenly lion. She curled up amid the furs with Plum Blossom and half slept, half dreamed.
She saw a forest, a primeval, impenetrable forest where the ancient trees rotted as they stood and no life curled up from the soggy ground below. There was no room for growth, everything was choked and clotted with darkness; the reaching arms of dead branches formed a prickly barrier in every direction.
As she watched, she saw something move, a bulky shape that took form as she saw it. It was as though it felt her looking. It was as if, without knowing it, she had called its name. It stood, its motions at first slow and awkward, but gradually becoming more and move coordinated. It was a towering, slope-shouldered shape with long, reaching arms and a craggy, creased brow. It began to walk toward her.
Terror poured down her throat like cold water and settled heavily in her stomach. Her hands tingled from it. She wanted to scream, but she could not. It was as though she were wearing someone else’s skin, trapped in some other little girl’s body. She hated the flesh of this little girl; she wanted to tear it off with her fingernails. It was like a living casket, something she would be buried in, leagues under ground.
Tenshio, crouched behind the sled, felt the disturbance in the energy and straightened. He called out over the crush and hiss of the runners on the snow and the dogs slowed and stopped. As soon as they stopped running, the large canines threw themselves down, panting heavily.
“Bathroom break!” Pidguyok found breath to happily declare.
Aksarpok looked around at Tenshio in mild inquiry, but Tenshio was intent on reaching into the sled. He pulled a tense and shaking Gilly out of the enclosed space. She clung to him like a limpet.
“I saw it, I saw it,” she managed to get out, around her chattering teeth. “It’s coming for her.”
“For whom?” asked Tenshio, his voice low and quiet.
“For the dead girl,” whispered Gilly.
Tenshio put his head close to hers. “Where is the dead girl now?” he asked, very softly.
“She’s running away,” whispered Gilly. “Very quickly. But she can’t get away. She can’t run fast enough.”
“But you are safe.”
She nestled in against him. “What about her?” she whispered.
“Perhaps she could come with us.”
“Maybe. But what if she eats me?” Gilly breathed. “She’s bad. She’s a bad, bad girl.”
“I won’t let her. I won’t let her eat you.”
“Are you sure?”
“Positive.” Tenshio shifted his weight slightly, the snow crunching under his boots. He tucked her hood up around her flyaway dark hair. The sun sent long, orange rays of light over the western ridge that they had been following. It gilded all the curves of the snow packed landscape. “In fact,” he said. “I don’t think she’s a bad girl at all. Not really.”
“She is,” Gilly insisted. “She is a bad girl. She’s the dog girl.”
“I don’t think so,” Tenshio said gently. “I think she is just a little girl that got caught by the dark and couldn’t find her way out.”
“Maybe,” Gilly allowed. For a moment, she played with the wooden toggle that fastened his hood and then looked up. “I don’t want to ride in there anymore.”
“No, I don’t suppose you do,” said Tenshio.