Callarii whites. A half dozen of them. I did not ask how Demarra managed to secure them. I was not alone in glancing over a shoulder, expecting to see Prestelle at the head of the Homeguard. Gilliam kept his shoulders hunched, as if expecting at any moment to feel the sting of elven arrows as we rode away from the camp site.
They were spirited mounts, stepping high amidst the snows still collected in the shadows among the hills and crags of the Cruth Lowlands. Sera sat ahead of me atop one of the horses, while Varis, Ana and Gilliam rode alone. Demarra and the twins rode ahead of us, the vardo drawn by two great plodding Klantyre draft horses. The last of the whites and two mules laden with supplies were lashed to the back of the vardo.
The road fell away beneath the horses’ hooves. I could barely make out the track that Demarra followed, but she had little trouble with the vardo, despite the slush and mud. The Black Peaks towered above us, the snow-capped tips tinged a deep red when she finally veered the wagon from the trail, into a hollow bowl between the next hill and the deep gray granite of the mountains. Though the winds swirled snows well above us, none of it made its way into the little depression, which we saw bore signs of use in the past — circles of stones and conveniently placed logs, though both were overgrown with lichens.
Gilliam had spent the afternoon shooting game as we traveled, scoring three fat pheasants and a brace of rabbits. He set about preparing them as soon as we’d begun setting camp, and I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and gather firewood. Sera tagged along, her gait a bit stiff. It was difficult to tell if the throbbing in my legs was my own, or an impression of what Sera was feeling. The bracelet still dangled from a small length of the lead wound about her lower arm, but whatever strange bond had formed between us beneath Krakatos, it did not rely strictly on the physical connection of the bracelet and collar.
We did not speak, beyond my asking if she was all right after slipping on a patch of iced-over slush. I didn’t need to really ask, it was more of habit than anything, as I could feel the twinge of pain in my own ankle. She said she was fine — probably another habit.
“What else is it?” I asked. “I can feel the thoughts, buzzing about in your head, even if I can’t make them out.”
“It is not ‘nothing,’” I said. “However this works, when you are upset, it upsets me, as well. Even when you try to stifle it. So, which is it? Demarra? Or Silva?”
The buzzing at the back of my head increased, and again subsided to barely a whisper, as Sera’s eyes widened, and then she looked away. The branches in her arms gave creaks and rattles as she hugged them tighter against her breast.
“I have… intruded,” she finally said. “I have forced this connection on you. I am no better than Macha—“
“Sera, you did this to save my life. And it was not the first time.”
“How can you not hate me?”
“Not…? It is quite simple,” I said. “You have saved my life on several occasions. Not because you were told to, or made to. There was no other will pressing on yours to bid you do what you did. Don’t think I did not see you at the festival, either, giving what few coins you had so those children could play at the games.”
She smiled, faintly. “There were no festivals, in my tiny out of the way village. All we had was the yearly harvest feast. I was not old enough to dance, but by the time I was, they came, and…” The smile faltered, and a wash of heat billowed over me, though I knew by the gooseflesh that the winds bore the cold of the mountains.
“I am s—“
“I am alive because of you,” I told the girl. “There is nothing to apologize for.” I shifted the bundle of branches in my arms, and held out my hand to her.
She bit her lip, and I felt a tingle brush up my spine, a prickling just beneath my hairline. The small stack of twigs and branches she held drifted slightly away, and she reached out, taking my hand.
As we walked back towards the camp, the bundle bobbed along behind us.
“I could have carried those, you know,” I told her.
She squeezed my hand. “I can’t use my power to save your life all the time, can I?”
* * * * *
We arrived back at camp to find the cook fire already going, Demarra and Aurora arguing over which spices to add to the small pot.
I dropped my bundle of firewood by the small stack there already, and Sera’s drifted down next to mine.
“You could have told us you brought wood along,” I said.
Gilliam grinned. “You two seemed to need to ah… stretch your legs. The area is safe, still within the reach of Lord Retameron’s patrols, so there was no danger of much lurking out there you two could not handle.”
I held my hand out to Silva. She gave a quiet cough. Her fingers were cold, though she still had some color in her features. The fever still burned, but not nearly as brightly as the nights before.
She dug in her belt pouch, and withdrew one of the Hierarch’s crystal vials. She wrinkled her nose as she broke the beeswax seal. Even standing at half an arm’s length, the cloying scent of the concoction reached my nose.
Silva let go of my hand to pinch her nose, and tipped the contents into her mouth in one quick motion. The stuff in the vial seemed to… slither down the length, rather than simply flow. The girl grimaced as she swallowed. Ana handed her a clay cup, and Silva gulped down the water, gasping as she handed the cup back.
“It has a taste like drinking mud,” she said, taking my hand again. “Mud over which horses have walked.” She sighed, shivering.
We left the camp, going to the small snowmelt brook that trickled just outside the firelight. Having heard the prayers on the first night, Silva had memorized them, and sang in my place, adjusting the pitch to her own voice. The stones and sky and stones normally hummed with the power of the ceremony. Under Silva’s voice, they run like a great bell, and I felt it deep in my bones.
She had held back, all the other times she’d used her voice, I realized, utilizing just a whisper of her strength. Her connection to the lands was the strongest I’d ever felt, and I’d dwelt for a time with several Callarii Treekeppers who were by no means younglings. They seemed as mere saplings, compared to the Imperial Princess.
Awed as I was, my stomach roiled, not with the sympathetic impression of the taint, but with a very real dread.
How could I hope to match such power, to best it, when the time came?
* * * * *
The evening meal seemed quite merry, on the surface. Varis and Gilliam both had stories of an adventure of theirs from before our meeting, and Demarra produced a strange, spidery gnomish device that played three flutes at once when the bellows were worked. She insisted that we dance to one of the livelier tunes to come out of the thing, and after a few turns with me, she pushed me towards Sera.
Once she got over her initial shyness, the weaver turned out to have a very fine sense of rhythm and timing.
The music slowed, to an old Darokinian ballad. Once more, the feeling of heat fluttered through my stomach, my fingers tingling where they met with Sera’s. She would not meet my eyes, but the blush at her cheeks, I knew, was not from the exertion of the two dances before.
The fire was burning low by that point. The sweet smell of the tabbac from Gilliam’s pipe— a not inexpensive Shire blend— drifted lazily above the campsite. Silva lay with her head on Aurora’s lap, already bundled in her bedroll, her silvery eyes barely open as the shrike hummed the ages old lullaby.
“Time, I think, for us to sleep,” Demarra said, folding up the gnomish contraption. “There are beds enough in the vardo for us all, ladies. Sorry, my Karos. Perhaps when Ana takes her turn at the watch….”
“I think we shall take that shift together,” I said. Too loudly?
So was the watch order decided for the rest of our trip through the Lowlands.