The Beyond made real, Vaelin mused, watching Wise Bear finish his song and lever himself upright with his staff. At least he can see the object of his faith.
They moved only in daylight at first, horses and ponies laden with supplies and dragging the sleds Wise Bear had them make before leaving the shore, simple frames of twisted gorse branches skidding along on runners fashioned from seal-bone. Scar, like all the horses, had shied the first time his hoof touched the ice, eyes widening in alarm at the unfamiliar sensation, only consenting to venture further at Vaelin’s gentle insistence. Even after several days the animal still displayed a wariness of his new surroundings, as if understanding the grim warning Wise Bear imparted when they set off: “Horses won’t last. Have to eat them before the end.”
As the days grew shorter the shaman kept them moving into the night, until the last vestige of luminescence lit the horizon, leaving only enough light to see by as they made their camp. The nightly fires were small, their supply of wood quickly diminishing and augmented by horse dung which burned well but birthed a foul stench, cloying at clothes and hair.
“What a grand adventure you lead us on, my lord,” Lorkan said one evening, his red-nosed face scarcely visible amidst the swaddle of seal fur, his misting breath leaving icicles on the hem of his hood. “Cold that cuts to the bone and the stink of shit from morn to night. If I have failed to say so before, please accept my humble gratitude for the opportunity to partake of such momentous history.”
“Shut up,” Cara told him wearily. She sat as close to the fire as she could, her face a worrying shade of white. The past days had been harder on her than any other in their company, seeing her stumble on at the tail end of their narrow line, shaking her head at Dahrena’s entreaties that she ride her pony for a while. I should have sent her back to the Reaches, Vaelin thought, a pang of guilt prickling his chest as Cara held her mittened hands to the fire, her eyes a dull gleam in dark hollows. She gave enough at Alltor.
Wise Bear appeared at Cara’s side, stooping to peer into her face with a critical frown before straightening, his expression one of hard reproach as he looked from Dahrena to Marken. “Why you not share?” he demanded.
Marken frowned at him, heavy brows bunching in bafflement. “Share what? She is welcome to my rations.”
“Cah!” Wise Bear pointed his bone-staff at the large Gifted, sweeping it round to point at Lorkan, Dahrena and Kiral in turn. “Not meat. Share power.” He laid a gentle hand on Cara’s head, his voice softening with a faint tone of regret. “She is needed.”
Dahrena leaned forward, her expression intent. “How? How do we share?”
Wise Bear stared at her for a moment then uttered a cackle of realisation. “Know so little,” he said, shaking his head. He bent down to guide Cara to her feet and took her hand, holding his other out to Dahrena. “All share.”
Dahrena rose to take his hand, soon joined by a cautious but clearly intrigued Kiral. Marken hesitated then went to take the huntress’s outstretched hand. Lorkan, however, sat still and stared at them with sullen reluctance until Vaelin gave him an insistent prod with the tip of his scabbard. He got slowly to his feet but kept his arms crossed, his gaze lingering on Cara as she swayed a little from fatigue. “How do we know it won’t hurt her?” he asked.
“No hurting,” Wise Bear assured him. “Only need small power from each.”
“It’s all right, Lorkan,” Cara said, smiling a little as she held out her hand. “If I trust him, so should you.”
Vaelin stood as Lorkan completed the circle, casting a careful eye over the Lonak, sensing their sudden unease. Some murmured softly and turned their backs to walk away. A few lingered, shuffling in discomfort but seemingly unable to resist the sight of the Gifted, or the palpable change in the air around them; a new warmth that prickled the skin and drew a thin mist from the ice beneath their feet. They stood in utter stillness, hands clasped and silent, their features placid, even content, a small smile appearing on Cara’s lips as the warmth deepened and they became wreathed in mist, a thin pool of melt-water playing about their fur-wrapped feet.
Vaelin found himself shamed by a sudden surge of envy, an unwelcome knowledge that such things were lost to him now. At Alltor he had thought himself the master of his song, finding a sense of completion amongst all the blood and carnage. I was still just a child, he realised, fighting a burgeoning sense of resentful despair, his gaze fixing on Wise Bear. How much could he have told me?
Cara gave an abrupt gasp, opening her hands to break the circle, her smile turning into a delighted laugh, cheeks flushed with a healthy pinkness. The others seemed similarly enlivened, Marken pulling the girl into an embrace and lifting her with a happy bellow, the others all exchanging glances rich in shared joy. Dahrena touched hands with Kiral, their faces bright with an identical expression of understanding. She caught sight of Vaelin and laughed, rushing to wrap her arms around him, her breath hot on his face as she raised herself to plant a kiss on his lips. Looking down at her wide-eyed, honest exuberance, he pulled her close, his resentment withering away.
Wise Bear gave a grunt of satisfaction and thumped his staff on the ice. “Sharing,” he said then turned his gaze to the north, his wizened features hardening as he scanned the jagged horizon. “Needed soon.”
• • •
The storm hit the following day, a gale-driven blizzard swallowing the sun and turning the world into a howling white morass. The air became so thick with snow every breath drew jagged ice into Vaelin’s throat and the wind seemed to cut through his furs as if they were no more than paper. He soon found himself fully occupied with holding fast to Scar’s reins as the horse stumbled through the piling drifts, head lowered and eyes tight against the wind, his mane frozen and stiff on his neck.
This is madness, he knew with an awful certainty, a gust of wind driving into his side like a hammerblow. I have doomed us.
He turned as a shout reached him through the storm, catching a glimpse of two small figures, no more than the vaguest shadows in the ceaseless white. It seemed as if one of the figures raised something and the shadows instantly resolved into full clarity; Wise Bear holding his bone-staff aloft, his other hand clasped tight to Cara’s as she knelt at his side, her face bleached and drawn from the cold but also set in a determined frown. The snow seemed to swirl around them, leaving them in a bubble of calm air, growing larger as they shared their power. The bubble expanded steadily, the calm air sweeping over Vaelin and Scar, the horse huffing a relieved sigh as the wind abated. Vaelin cast around until he found Dahrena, huddled against her pony’s flank.
“And I thought the Black Wind the harshest in this world,” she said, forcing a smile as he hurried to her side, lifting her clear of the snow that had collected around her and the pony.
Vaelin surveyed the company, finding them all now nearly enveloped in the bubble, the blizzard still raging beyond its confines. Orven’s guardsmen were the last to receive its shelter, many stumbling to their knees in shock as they struggled free of the storm’s fury. He saw Alturk moving amongst the Sentar, dealing out cuffs and harsh rebukes as they stood staring in wonder and fear, forcing them back into motion. Vaelin went to Wise Bear and Cara, the shaman still holding her hand whilst she stood in serene indifference, her gaze distant, face free of any sign of fatigue. “How long can you do this?” he asked.
“As long as there is power to share,” the shaman replied, pointing his staff at the other Gifted. “Hope storm ends first.”
It took another day and a night for the storm to fade, the Gifted taking turns to share their strength with Cara. She was kept in the centre of the group, now tightly bunched to stay within the limits of the bubble she had crafted, moving east at a slow but steady pace. Whilst Cara showed no sign of weariness the sharing took an evident toll on the others, Marken sinking to his knees when his two-hour shift was done, wiping a trickle of blood from his beard before stumbling on as Vaelin hauled him up, providing a shoulder to lean on until he recovered sufficiently to walk unaided. Dahrena and Kiral were even more drained, rendered unable to walk and sagging pale and listless on the backs of their ponies. For some reason Lorkan proved the most durable of the Gifted, lasting a full three hours at Cara’s side and only consenting to release her hand at Wise Bear’s harsh insistence.
The storm ended as quickly as it had begun, the wind dying and the last flurries of snow falling to reveal a bright midday sun. Cara swayed a little when Wise Bear released her hand but otherwise seemed unharmed by her exertions, though her initial triumph at the feat dimmed at the sight of her companions. “I . . . didn’t know I had taken so much,” she offered to a pale-faced Lorkan.
He just smiled and shook his head. “Take all you want.”
She shifted a little in discomfort at the directness of his gaze and turned to Wise Bear. “We should be cautious. There will be a price. There always is.”
He nodded and thrust his staff through the snow to touch the ice beneath, angling his head as if straining to hear a distant sound. He stood unmoving for some time then straightened and turned to Vaelin with an urgent light in his eyes. “Need move fast,” he said. “Much fast.”