"Gaack! That smells horrible!"
Vaijon jerked his head back from the steaming cup in Bahzell's hand, and the Horse Stealer laughed. His breath went up in a dense plume, the lower part shadowed by the dense firs sheltering their campsite while the upper part was struck to pale gold by the rising sun.
"Aye, I can't be disagreeing there, lad. But I heard you groaning when you rolled out this morning."
"Well, you'd groan, too, if you'd never been on those Phrobus-dam-" Vaijon began spiritedly after regarding the cup with obvious distaste for several seconds, then cut himself off. "Your muscles would ache, too, if you'd never been on skis before," he finished with a sort of plaintive dignity.
"No doubt," Bahzell agreed, nobly forbearing to mention that he had not, in fact, been on skis in over three years. For that matter, it had probably been longer than that for Brandark, for there was no place to practice cross-country skiing inside Navahk, and Brandark was a city boy. Somewhat to Bahzell's initial surprise, however, Kaeritha was as graceful on skis as she was on horseback. On further consideration, he'd wondered why he was surprised. He knew little about her birth land, but the Duchy of Moretz lay almost as far north as Hurgrum. A peasant girl growing up there might very well have learned to ski. And if she hadn't learned then, she'd obviously spent a fair amount of time in the northeastern provinces of the Empire, judging from her familiarity with them, and skis were commonly employed by people in that area.
"If you'd like," Kaeritha suggested now, "you could ride in the sled, Vaijon." The youngster turned his head, prepared to shoot her a glare, but she only smiled sympathetically. "Getting back into condition is hard enough on people who already have the skills. For a beginner, using an entirely new set of muscles, it's even harder."
"I know, Milady. It's just-" Again Vaijon broke off and looked back at the cup. He sniffed gingerly and grimaced as his nose confirmed that it still smelled just as bad. "It won't kill me, will it?" he demanded suspiciously.
"That it won't," Bahzell assured him.
"I'm not sure I'd mind if it did," the knight-probationer admitted, then grinned crookedly. "Oh, hand it to me, Milord! I'm just trying to put off the inevitable."
He took the cup with one hand, pinched his nose ostentatiously with the other, and poured the evil-smelling brew down his throat in one long, endless swallow.
"Gods! It tastes worse than it smells!" He gagged. He sat there for several seconds, with the expression of a man commanding the tea to remain down through sheer force of will, then grimaced and handed the cup back to Bahzell. "You're certain your people drink this all the time, Milord?"
"What? My folk?" Bahzell gave a long, rumbling chuckle. "Lad, there's not a hradani born would drink something like that-" he jerked his head at the pot still steaming on their small fire "-if he was having any choice at all, at all!"
"But you said-" Vaijon began indignantly, only to be interrupted by Brandark.
"What he said, Vaijon, was that East Wall mountaineers, reindeer hunters, and skiers drink it to relax muscle cramps. He never said hradani drink it."
"I see." Vaijon gave his superior a rather grim look, but the corners of his mouth twitched, and there was the hint of a twinkle in his eyes.
"Well, I had to be getting it down you somehow," Bahzell told him. "And it worked, didn't it?"
"Remind me not to buy any horses or land from you, Milord," Vaijon replied, and pushed himself to his feet with a stifled groan. He stood for a moment, then tried an experimental deep knee bend.
"You'll need a bit longer than that for the tea to be helping," Bahzell said as he abandoned the experiment with a groan which wasn't at all stifled. "Just move about a bit. Give those muscles a chance to be loosening up while the rest of us strike camp."
"I can help," Vaijon protested.
"Don't be silly," Kaeritha said. "It's not as if you were still lazing around in your sleep sack, Vaijon! In fact, we can probably do the job faster without you, at least until you start moving better than you are now."
Vaijon grimaced, but he also nodded in agreement. He began pacing up and down in the shallower snow in the lee of the fir trees, very slowly at first, and Bahzell, Brandark, and Kaeritha went about the task of breaking camp with practiced efficiency.
They were several days south of Dwarvenhame, almost into Daranfel. Their party was much smaller, for Bahzell had left the Belhadan chapter's men in Dwarvenhame as he'd told Sir Charrow he would, and Wencit had left them to continue on across the Wind Plain on business of his own. Bahzell had been surprised by the wizard's departure, since he'd assumed Wencit intended to help deal with Sharna, but he hadn't argued. Wencit of Rum went where he chose, when he chose, and he knew his own business best. Besides, this was Bahzell's responsibility, and given the Strictures of Ottovar's ban on Wencit's use of wizardry on an enemy unless that enemy first used wizardry against him, he would have been little more than a welcome adviser.
The one thing Bahzell truly regretted about leaving the others behind was that he'd had to leave the wagons with them. He wasn't about to admit to his companions that he'd grown accustomed to all the little luxuries tucked away within those wagons-especially not when a loudly complaining Brandark had been forced to leave his precious books with Kilthan, as well-but he was willing to confess the truth to himself. They were still far better provided for than he and Brandark had been when they fled Navahk, for they'd brought one light sled along, loaded with provisions, emergency fuel and tools, one large tent, and their sleeping sacks. He and Brandark took turns towing the sled, and although Kaeritha and Vaijon had protested that they should take their turns, as well, they'd stopped objecting by the second day. Neither could begin to match a hradani's endurance-a fact they were forced to admit as they watched Bahzell and Brandark slog along with the sled for hour after hour.
They'd made only fair time by hradani standards-they could have been even further south by now if Vaijon had been an experienced skier-but Bahzell was content. They'd crossed the entire Duchy of Barandir lengthwise since leaving Silver Cavern, and they should reach Durghazh, the closest Horse Stealer city, within another week at most, even with Vaijon slowing them.
He grinned at the thought and watched the young man from the corner of his eye. Vaijon was moving more easily now, with a slightly surprised expression as the tea began to work, and Bahzell hid a snort of amusement. He'd never really considered the source of his own people's endurance and rapid healing until Wencit explained them. It was simply the way his folk were, an inevitable fact of life. In fact, he hadn't realized the other Races didn't share those advantages until he set out on his wanderings the year before, and he found himself with somewhat mixed feelings about them now. The fact that hradani owed so much of their physical toughness to the Carnadosans was scarcely a palatable thought, but he had to admit it had its positive aspects. As he and Brandark had just informed Vaijon, hradani never drank the tea he'd fed the youngster, because unlike humans, hradani almost never woke up stiff-muscled and aching. Even a few hours of rest were enough to restore them completely under all but the most severe conditions… which was a very helpful thing when his calves and thighs had forgotten just how demanding cross-country skis were.
He watched Kaeritha stow her rolled sleeping sack on the sled and admired the way the rising sun struck red fire on the few strands of dark hair which had escaped her braid. She made a striking picture with her shortswords at her side and her breath haloing her head in mist and her eyes intent on her task, and he felt a sudden rush of love. There was nothing romantic in it, although he certainly wasn't blind to her attractiveness. She had a severe beauty in the clear, cold morning, like an heirloom blade, and she moved with the grace of one who had trained for years in a combat technique based on speed and absolute balance, but she was in fact the sister he'd called her at their first meeting.
She looked up, as if she felt his gaze, and smiled at him, and he saw the same awareness of him in the dark blue eyes which briefly met his. Then she turned back to the task at hand, taking another sleeping sack from Brandark and stowing it beside her own. And as she and the Bloody Sword worked together, Bahzell realized something it suddenly seemed he'd always known yet never consciously considered before.
They were all brothers and sisters, he and Kaeritha and Brandark and Vaijon. How it had started, what had brought them together, and any difficulties some of them might have experienced along the way-he glanced at Vaijon and smiled at the thought-no longer mattered. They belonged here in this cold, icy morning, and the daunting task which lay before them was the proper one for them to confront, and for just that one moment, a great, golden light seemed to stream through Bahzell Bahnakson's soul. It shook him like a mighty wind, yet there was a gentleness to its fierce power, and a sense of rightness so perfect it was inevitable. In that moment, he was aware not only of how much he loved his companions but of how fragile they were. Of how fragile all of them were, even himself, and of how terribly it would hurt to lose any of them. He saw the stark price of love more clearly in that instant than he ever had before. Not as the chink in his armor he had once feared it might prove. No doubt an enemy would be quick to exploit it if there was a way to turn it against him, but that was almost inconsequential beside the other price.
The price of loss. The knowledge that, in the end, he must lose anyone he loved, for only elves were immortal, and even elves died. Yet it wasn't a depressing awareness, for the pain he would feel if he lost his loved ones was the other side of how much joy he took from their company. He could avoid the pain only by renouncing the joy and the trust and the knowledge that he was not alone, and building that sort of armor around his core would simply be a different sort of death.
That stabbing moment of recognition was too intense to last… or to forget. It shivered through him, passing like a silent storm of light, and settled into memory like some exquisite, jewel-winged insect preserved forever in amber. It would always be there, ready for him to draw it forth like a talisman against the dark, and he knew he would treasure it forever.
He blinked and looked up just in time to see the tight roll of his own sleeping sack fly at him. His hands shot up in pure reflex, catching it just before it would have hit him in the chest, and he glowered at Brandark.
"I'm thinking it's a mite risky to be coming all over frisky so early in the morning, little man," he rumbled. "I'm not full awake yet, y'see, and I might be doing something you'd regret."
"Promises, promises!" Brandark said airily. "Besides, I'm not worried. Kerry will protect me."
"Oh no Kerry won't," Kaeritha said primly.
"You won't?" Brandark stared at her hurt-eyed, voice plaintive, and she laughed.
"No, I won't," she told him. "In fact-"
Her hand flicked, and the snowball neither Bahzell nor Brandark had seen caught the Bloody Sword squarely on the tip of his prominent nose. He squawked in surprise and stepped back, arms windmilling for balance, and then landed flat on the seat of his breeches in the snow while Kaeritha crowed with laughter.
"I see boys will be boys!" she chortled. "And let that be a lesson to you, Brandark Brandarkso-awwk!"
Her laughter broke off as Vaijon hit her with a snowball of his own, and then, suddenly, the air was thick with flying white spheres. Bahzell never figured out who hit him with the first one, and it didn't really matter. Under the circumstances, anyone made a perfectly acceptable target, and he hurled himself into the fray with a deep, rumbling laugh.
They were quite late getting back on the trail that morning.