The crowd applauded loudly as Sundance landed at Tyoli's feet. Tyoli stretched his arms outwards to take their applause, and Sundance squatted down into her natural resting posture. She purred slightly, just close enough to Tyoli's leg that he knew that she too was elated at the especially good response.
They were always well received, and returned to the same towns and villages year after year. Every year's stories were different, and over the years had becoming increasingly theatrical in the telling. Over the winter months they would return to their home, on an island to the south, and there rest until the next year. The performance they had just finished was the last for the year, and as always was in a small town called Lyai. It had been the site of their first, and somewhat impromptu appearance together ten years before, when Tyoli had just finished his apprenticeship and Sundance was a mere cub.
As always when Tyoli finished his show in Lyai he went to the inn and was bought drinks until he could no longer walk. Sundance would always rest on someone's lap, whether they liked it or not, although her empathy was sufficient that she usually chose someone receptive to her attentions.
Tyoli sat down on a rickety wooden chair, the best that Lyai had to offer, in the middle of the long side of their feasting table. Every other seat was filled within moments, and young children were held up on their parents' shoulders to hear Tyoli tell the story he had been asked to tell on this day every year for ten years.
He took a swig of the ale, which had been poured from the one cask in the inn that was not watered down. Tyoli always made a mental note to ask the innkeeper to give him normal ale, as he was usually thirsty after a performance, but the ale always made him forget by the next day. He coughed, and the inn was silent, except for a quiet purring and the slightly worried breathing of an unfortunate child whom Sundance had decided to honour with her presence. The child was scratching her behind the ears, and she was moving her head slightly to indicate the itching areas and to increase the pressure, as the child obviously did not realise how hard Sundance liked to be scratched.
Tyoli looked around at the admiring faces. The elders of the village were seated opposite him, beaming proudly as they settled down to listen to the story, which had become one of the highlights of the town's year. All five of those sitting opposite, staring politely down at the table for fear of putting Tyoli off, had been present ten years before. Tyoli looked left, towards the entrance of the inn, and then right, towards the fireplace. Sitting next to the fire was a young woman. Tyoli only noticed her because, when he looked at her, she quickly looked down. He could sense her looking up at him again when he looked away. He was quite impressed, considering how many years it had been since his hunting sense had had any real practice.
He began to tell the story. He had grown used to it over the years, and paid fairly little attention. That is not to say that he put no effort in: quite the contrary, he did not need to pay attention because he had rehearsed the tale again and again. He knew precisely what the villagers wanted to hear, and he told it to them. He found it incredible how the story had grown over the years, but he did not have the right to change it merely because it was untrue. So, far from telling the story of how he and Sundance were having an argument and hadn't actually realised the significance of being able to talk to each other, he told the story of a gift from the Gods, and fate.
Tyoli remembered how he had been merely a hunter once, a long time ago. He had made his living from tracking rare beasts and slaying them, and then selling them in markets across the land. Somehow he and Sundance had added a new level to their profession, and between them had created the profession of heroic story-teller. Their exploits were known far and wide, or at least they were spoken of far and wide.
* * *
Tyoli woke early the next morning. Sundance, who had found her way over to him to guard his body while he was lying in a stupor, licked his face as he slowly returned to life. He sat up, his head slowly throbbing. He opened his eyes and was surprised to see the young woman from the night before standing a few feet away. He looked at Sundance, ready to berate her for her lack of vigilance, and then realised how little threat the young woman represented.
"Tyoli?" she asked, in a timid voice that Tyoli had to strain to hear. Sundance walked over to the woman and rubbed up against her legs. She leant down and began to scratch Sundance, who purred loudly in appreciation. Tyoli suddenly felt jealous.
"Yes?" he said, angrily. He moved forwards and grabbed Sundance's collar, something he had not done in five years. He didn't understand why, but he felt very threatened by this young woman, and was annoyed that he wasn't fully awake to be able to work out what it was that worried him.
She took a step back, obviously upset by his shout and Sundance's sudden removal. She stuttered something that Tyoli couldn't make out at all. Sundance, meanwhile, had become angry, and although she had sworn years before to obey Tyoli, so she could do little about it, she made her anger felt by scratching the back of his calf before lying down with a bad-tempered hiss.
"What is it?" Tyoli asked again, still annoyed, but now more worried by Sundance's anger than by the woman. Sundance bore grudges, and Tyoli trusted his life to her every night when they were hunting, although that was very seldom nowadays.
She blushed bright red and took another step back. She tried to say something again, and Tyoli realised what she was trying to say. She had fallen in love with him. Tyoli laughed loudly. He saw the pathetic girl in front of him, desperately trying to find words, and collapsed in hysterics. His head ached even more, and he tried desperately to stop laughing, but continued anyway.
Sundance watched on in annoyance as the woman ran off, crying. Sundance had known her since they had both been eleven. The woman, Olianis, was only the second human that Sundance had found she could communicate with, and, finding Olianis to be a good-natured young girl, the two had got on wonderfully. Sundance, wanting to keep one secret from her keeper, had never told Tyoli of their friendship. Over the years Olianis had listened intently to Sundance's stories of the true Tyoli, the timid hunter who had used deception to kill the mighty creatures that heroes had failed against. She had shared Sundance's distaste for the showman that Tyoli had turned into over the years, and had shared Sundance's desire that someday Tyoli would find himself again. And eventually, after two years, Sundance had finally convinced Olianis to confess her love for Tyoli, in the hope that he might settle down and return to being the pleasant man he once was. Sundance could feel Olianis weeping behind the inn, and had she been capable of tears would surely have shed some. She felt hatred for the man she had once loved so completely. She found herself loathing him, and everything about him. It was as if her eyes had opened and the statue she had been caressing was full of holes and rotten.
Tyoli sat down and absent-mindedly patted Sundance. She responded by scratching his hand, cutting deep into it. Tyoli shouted and clutched his hand. "What was that for?" he asked, suddenly sober.
Sundance looked up at him, across at the inn, and then turned away.
"You think I was being unkind to her, don't you? Come on, Sundance. She's nothing but a girl. She doesn't want to be running after me all over the place, does she? And I'm sorry, the way she was blushing just seemed funny to me, that's all."
Sundance glanced back at Tyoli and then took a running jump onto the inn roof. She disappeared over the top, and Tyoli knew she was going over to see the girl. He didn't feel envious any more. He felt guilty that he had upset someone, and that he had been thoughtless. He sat down, wondering what he could do to make amends, and then realised that Sundance would be doing that, so he need do nothing further. Sundance knows how to make people happy again, he thought. Let her work her magic.
Olianis perched on the small wooden step at the back of the inn. She was crying quietly when Sundance leapt down in front of her. She felt too depressed to be startled. Sundance nuzzled up to her and rested her head on Olianis's lap. Olianis began to scratch her again, and Sundance purred. Neither felt like speaking, so neither did. Olianis slowly stopped crying, and then picked up Sundance's head and looked into her eyes.
"Why is he so cruel?" she asked Sundance, her eyes still red from her rubbing the tears away.
Because, thought Sundance, he has forgotten who he really is. He believes his own stories, and has spent so long acting the part of the great hero that he is now trying to become one.
"But he was so sweet." She sniffed loudly, and Sundance pulled back and walked a couple of steps. She looked off towards the sun and remembered the day, nine years before, on which Tyoli had decided to find the sunrise. He had travelled for months in search of it, and eventually found the pool of radiance, from which the sun bursts every morning. Sundance remembered looking down into a glowing red pool, and remembered their fear and excitement as they saw the huge red fireball leaping up and singeing their hair before flying up into the sky.
Yes, my dear. He was. Sundance remembered her despair when she realised that she was in love with Tyoli. And then the unbelievable joy when Tyoli made his oath to her. Even now her heart beat faster at the thought of him. Sundance turned to look at Olianis again, and saw her sitting with her hands clasped between her knees, rocking back and forth slightly, smiling. Her eyes were shut, and Sundance recognised the dream. I shall bring him to you, Olianis. Wait another year.
Olianis looked up, surprised. "How?" she asked. Sundance didn't reply, and with a shake of her tail leapt up onto the inn roof again to return to her master.
Olianis didn't know what she felt. She loved Tyoli, but hated him, too. "If you say so, Sundance. I'll trust you. What have I got to lose?"
* * *
It was midwinter's eve that year when Tyoli realised that there was something wrong with Sundance. She was lying in front of the roaring fire, and Tyoli had noticed shallow coughs in her purring. She was asleep, and Tyoli moved over and sat down next to her, gently stroking her back. She purred again and then woke up. Her left ear twitched back and she looked up into Tyoli's eyes. She could not hide her feelings from him, and he knew she was dying. "No, my love," he said to her, quietly and sadly, "please do not leave me."
I am sorry, dearest, but I have no more strength. Let me rest. She lowered her head into his hands, and he placed it on his lap and continued to stroke her until her breathing stopped. Tyoli sat watching her, wondering what he had done to deserve Sundance being taken from him so suddenly. Over the three hours it took her to die he wondered how she could stay so calm when she knew she was dying. He was sure he would not remain so.
Tyoli watched the fire die, as it was not cold and Sundance had been the only reason for its existence.
The next morning Tyoli buried Sundance in front of the tiny shack where they had spent their winters. He cried, and spent the remainder of the winter remembering their lives together and crying. He had not realised how much he needed her until she was gone and he came to think about another season of hunting, or at least stories.
* * *
Tyoli sat in the inn, fuming. He hadn't brought enough money, because he'd expected to get a warm welcome and his drinks and food bought for him. He had received nothing of the kind, and the innkeeper seemed unwilling even to let him spend the night. He didn't have the money to pay anyway, so he settled the bill for his food and drink and left the inn, wondering what had happened to him in the six months since Sundance had died. Even Lyai, the town in which he had been a hero, wasn't interested in a hunter anymore. He had had a disastrous year, and had nearly been lynched in one village.
He walked out and looked out across the plains, occasionally dotted with tiny points of light where a village would be. In the distance there was a large blob of yellow where the city had grown up. He looked at it, and realised that he hated it. Its smell was dreadful, and the people were unfriendly. He looked over at some of the nearer villages and towns and one by one worked out his reasons for hating them, too. And then, finally, he looked around Lyai. "What did I ever see in this place?" he asked of himself. He was surprised when a woman's voice replied.
"Fame and fortune."
He couldn't see who it was who had spoken, as she was still in the shadows. He was glad of some company, especially company who didn't want rid of him, so he edged forwards. "Who's there?"
"It's me, Olianis." She stepped out of the shadows.
Tyoli couldn't hide his immediate disappointment. "Oh, it's you."
She looked sad, but continued speaking. "Sundance said you lost yourself, and that someday you would return to the forests and mountains and find your way again."
"How do you know what Sundance said?" he asked aggressively, suddenly feeling that his love was being somehow invaded.
"She could speak to me, too."
"No," he said, certain that Sundance would have mentioned it to him.
The two of them were quite close, having both edged towards the other as they spoke. Olianis looked up into Tyoli's eyes and spoke quietly, "She knew she was going to die, you know. She wanted you to be safe. That's why I stayed here, after what you said last year. I was waiting for you. In case you might have changed after a year alone. Sundance thought you'd recover."
"There's nothing wrong with me."
"You don't believe that. Do you remember the feeling when you killed the dragon? Or saw the pool of radiance for the first time? Or escaped from the Imperial Palace after visiting the princess?"
"No one knows about that!" he said, firmly.
"Except you and Sundance. And me."
Tyoli looked at her and believed her for the first time. He wondered how much she knew. "How much did she tell you?"
"As much as she knew. She said that I had to remember, in case you forgot. I had to be able to remind you what it was like being a hunter."
Tyoli's shoulders slouched, and he remembered his past. He remembered what it was like to be free, and to live with only Sundance for company, using only their own skills. He remembered the fires at night, and the purring on his chest, and the warmth of sleeping with someone breathing in his ear. He felt like crying, but Olianis put her arms round him, and drew him towards her. He put his arms round her and pulled her in close, and felt her body pressing against his. His face, to the right of hers, felt her hair and her ear pressing against his left cheek. Her breath warmed his neck, and he felt safe.
He pulled away from her and turned to the south. He spoke quietly, but Olianis could hear. "You chose well, Sundance. Thank you."