Hammer rang on steel. The high-pitched bell-like tones made Rigel wince. He told himself yet another time to get another door put in for the smithy, or some windows, to allow greater air flow – with three forges running, the place was like a sauna.
“Master Kinneagh”, Rigel shouted. “You didn’t come to give your report!”
“One minute, lord”, a journeyman Rigel didn’t recognize yelled. Smiths knew their business, so when one told a lord to wait, that lord waited.
“Outside”, shouted Kinneagh, waving Rigel back the way he’d come. He scooped up a linen rag on the way, dipped it in a barrel of water and wiped his face.
“Apologies, lord”, the master smith said outside. “I were attending at a problem with the smelter of this morning. Here I then did hurry, but to find journeymen these resorting anew to the old formula. Must we then to cast the steel into the smelter to bring forth the alloy.”
“I understand such difficulties”, Rigel assured him. “But you are here now, as I am. So what’s your report?”
“The new saws do flex, not breaking; with them are the lumberers quite pleased. Send they old axe heads also, for replacing from the new ones. Shovels break still, and we replace. Slow that, making all the days new ones. Of now knives we make for kitchens, pots also. Being lastly, says squire Chen heads for arrows excellent are being.” The master’s report conveyed pride.
“Any progress on cannon?”
Kinneagh shook his shaggy head. “Hammers more did the stonecutters of need did be having. Lord, more men I be needing.”
Rigel sighed. “I know. All the forges need more men. I asked master Fergus if he was filling all requests for metal. He told me that the new smelter Lord Ryan helped with can get metal from the ore they used to throw away, so he’s actually got ingots stacking up unused. But his people are weary, and he said he needs more, too.”
It was snowing again. Four inches covered the ground, and more was on the way. That had its good side, Rigel remembered: the Others, according to lore, never went out in freezing weather. Celts did, though, so he had small parties scouting in every direction. Ten days out, ten days back was the order, then put what they’d found on his growing map of the area. Ironically, the Wise Women had helped immensely with that project: Aidanna, one with a gentle manner and a sense of humor, had delighted him when she unrolled a length of linen to show a map of where all the clans used to live, and all the nearby castles. Once the local area was scouted, those were his next goals, because if he could find any clans alive, his resources would increase – and with Anaph to come with him, he had no worries about rejection.
“Help’s on its way, though”, he assured Kinneagh. “Two dozen lads from Servant Village will finish their lore-learning next week. “Master Tynan gets the best six, you’ll get five. Master Fergus gets two. The other forges will have to make do with just one. Is it any comfort if I tell you the potters make the same complaint?”
The massive smith snorted. “Not being one to take comfort of the troubles of others, am I. Comfort I give you in this, yet: of iron stoves have we corrected the making.”
That was good news! “You can cast those; you’ll get to cannon.” Rigel flashed a grin. “Still training the apprentices on horseshoes?”
“Aye, lord, and on the great chisels for the stone digging.”
Rigel almost laughed at his problem: too much success. But Kinneagh was too serious to understand. “You’re doing well. Everyone you make tools for is complaining they don’t have enough – that means you’re being fair.” The humor slid right past the smith.
Rigel walked over to Tornado. “I have to meet Lord Ryan – he’s supposed to be back today.” He waved and rode off – Kinneagh wasn’t one for goodbyes; when business was over, it was over.
The road down from Cavern Castle was entirely different. Where a treacherous steep part had been, the route meandered back and forth, stretching the distance to decrease the slope. But the biggest change had come from the bottom up: long before the tight turns and steep slope, a rock wall held by the Misfits’ best mortar started to climb. Behind it was earth fill, hold in terraces by rock rip-rap carved from the walls of the tunnel. Packed earth and gravel on top provided a firm surface. By the time the road reached the first tight turns, the first of those was buried and the next two smoothed. Devon and Master Graeme, the Misfit stoneworker on the project, insisted they weren’t done – but since the road was working for the time being, they weren’t pursuing it.
Thought of Master Graeme reminded him he out to stop at Shelf Village on the way. Two of the Master’s journeymen had come up with a form of concrete, with Rita’s help, and he wanted to see it. With concrete, they could build stronger – though not in the Valley. Another reason to stop was that one of those journeymen was the Master’s own daughter, Bidelia, unique enough in just being female in such a role, but said to be lovely as well.
Austin was waiting for him by the Gem Cleft, in an alcove carved from the rock. It was a place to rest horses on the way up as well as a spot to stop and look through the gap at the massive gem. Anaph had used that gem to draw power for commanding the Snatcher to bring them numerous seeds, as well as eggs. That thought brightened his outlook: there would be a small group for supper welcoming Ryan back – a chicken dinner.
“Do we have cannons?” Austin asked.
“Sorry”, Rigel replied. Austin was close to fanatic on the subject of progress in replacing the single firearm they had. The ammunition supply for the Ruger was down to one hundred ninety-eight rounds, a quarter of Austin’s original supply used – well spent, but still gone. “But they’re casting iron stoves now without cracking, so they’re getting closer.”
“We could still use brass.”
“There’s no way through to the copper mine yet, and we just don’t have any zinc at all.”
“We can use tin.”
“That makes bronze, not brass.”
Austin laughed. “Just testing you. Aidanna says there’s no zinc on any of the maps, and she looked at them all. Maybe lord Ryan will find something at that castle.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll find something”, Rigel responded, “but I doubt it will be zinc.”
“Lord, we can’t even see!” Oran complained to Ryan. “How are we supposed to keep going?”
Ryan was grim. “We don’t have a choice, Morsel” – Chen’s name for his fellow scout had caught on – “If we stay put, we freeze to death. Are we all linked?”
“Double ropes, just in case. Except me.”
“And you can’t get lost. So – get to the front. Rope your horse to scout Ewan. Lead him – feel your way by foot and spear. And make those bloody scout talents work for us!”
Shards! he cursed silently. Just two more hours, and we would have been out of the rough part! But the snow had come when it had come, and there was nothing for it but to keep trying. It was useless for igloos; wet for a while, then dry and drifting, the differing layers made it subject to collapse. Horses were bleeding because of that snow, as the wet layers froze. Equisetum had learned to high-step, but none of the other horses had figured it out; they just plodded ahead, leaving smears of red along the way.
I could crawl faster than this, Ryan complained many minutes – he’d lost all sense of time – after Oran got them moving. If he didn’t think men would get lost, he’d tell them to walk the horses. But he wasn’t going to face Rigel and confess to losing anyone, so they stayed up in the wind.
He counted Equisetum’s paces. They were uneven, but based on a guessed average he estimated distance. Without any way to measure time, it didn’t do much good, but after a while the feel of their movement led him to guess they were moving two kilometers per hour at most. They’d passed the crumbled, burned-out watchtower at the top of the rough stretch just as the snow started... We’re three kilometers along, Ryan estimated. Over halfway. If we keep this up, we’ll be out of this craziness in an hour, maybe hour and a half.
Oran cursed the snow. How was a scout supposed to know anything, or find anything, in a white-out? His sense of direction was working; he knew exactly which way the valley mouth and Gathering Place lay, along with Servant Village and Cavern Castle. Such knowledge was worthless, when what he needed to know was if there was a boulder or drop-off ahead, or a blind canyon they’d dead-end in and waste time retracing that path.
Farther back in line, Casey rode with his eyes closed. He could feel where Oran was; he could even feel the zig-zag, wandering path his fellow scout was making. That he ignored: what he wanted to feel was the ground underneath, the ground beneath Scout’s feet. He thought he did, but wasn’t sure; it was fuzzy and uncertain, where he thought it should be clear like his sense of where Oran was, and the Gathering Place.
Casey drifted in a half-asleep, half-awake place. The snow under his feet felt soft and cold, but not biting though he had no boots. He padded along, silent as the snow, hidden from view, only his tail giv–
Jolted awake, he sat up straight. Tail? I don’t have a– I was padding along, no boots. He thought his heart would stop beating, but it didn’t. Breathing was another matter; he had to remind himself to start again.
Setting aside orders, he urged Scout ahead, pulling the two behind him along. Beside Dugal, a scout in training, he slowed again. Turning in the minimal saddle, he unhooked the trailing rope, reached over and fastened it to Dugal’s Gilroy. Then he unhooked his lead rope from Gilroy. It took him out of the line, and got a worried look from Dugal. That itself startled him: the snow had thinned, enough he could actually see his friend.
He moved ahead anyway, careful because he wasn’t in the path Oran was forging. Twice he felt that touch which brought a sense of having a tail. Each time he opened himself to it, hoping to keep it... but it faded. Counting horses, more heard than seen, told him where he was. When he neared Ryan’s horse Equisetum, he swung wide, willing Scout to find firm steps. He guided by feel, unable to say what he was feeling or how – but they made it past safely, boy and horse, and reached the front. There he slid off and hooked Scout to Oran’s Apache, named for the horse of Kit Carson, a legendary scout in the American Old West. He walked alongside, hand on Scout’s neck, eyes closed....
It came again, this time stronger: padded feet, a tail, a path followed, a path not to take.
But they were on that path! Oran had taken a wrong branching and not known it. In four strides Casey was beside Oran, shaking his sleeve. “We have to backtrack. This canyon turns into a landslide. The river on the other side of the ridge cut through and collapsed it.”
Barely able to see even a foot, Oran pulled Casey where he could see him, which meant they were breathing in each other’s faces. “How do you know?”
“It’s Cat – he’s out here. I can feel him. He knows the path we’re on is wrong.”
Oran looked at his friend. Casey was one to daydream, but not to make things up. And where Cat was concerned.... “All right”, he decided. “Walk along the line and tell lord Ryan. Wait!” he called as Casey started moving away. “How far do we have to backtrack?”
Casey felt the distance in cat terms, and guessed. “Third of an hour”, he called back.
Oran swore; Ryan was going to be pissed.
Casey didn’t say a thing about Cat. He claimed he remembered where they were from the feel of the land, and knew that the canyon they were in wasn’t the way they came, so he’d gone up to tell Oran. “I thought he’d figure it out, but we kept going, so I went and told him. He agreed.”
“What will this cost us?” was Ryan’s concern.
“We wasted like twenty-five minutes. It’ll be faster going back.”
Ryan did swear then. He couldn’t feel his toes, and he had the best boots of the bunch. “Is there anywhere soon that we can get out of this for a while?”
Casey never could explain how it worked, but all at once he had a mental picture: twenty minutes back, fifteen ahead, cut right; an overhang. “There’s a spot, but we won’t be able to get many horses in. Maybe four.”
Ryan nodded, forgetting Casey could hardly see him. “You don’t get lost in this, do you?” he asked.
“Nope. I can point to Oran, I know where Dugal is.” And I know where my other... eyes and ears? Is, too.
“Awesome. Go along and pass the word. And Casey?”
“You deserve a medal for making everyone balance their loads with firewood. That may save our lives.”
Rigel paced in the Lords’ Lodge erected at Servant Village. It had the largest iron stove Master Kinneagh had yet made – something allowed only when Rita convinced the Wise Women that rust would destroy it over time, and the Wise Women convinced the Elders. It was the warmest place in the village – more of a town, now, with wooden cabins replacing huts, wooden roofs replacing thatch, and the expansion to include the area where his House had camped. The fire may be delightful, but the weather outside really is frightful, and Ryan’s out there in it! He worried, he fretted, he made plans and threw them out.
His anger at the weather and fear for his best friend reached a tipping point; he could stand it no longer. “Austin”, he called softly.
“Lord?” His squire got up from the low table where he’d been working to repair a backpack.
“I want a dozen men. Tents, supplies for a week – no, ten days. Ready in an hour. Have everyone get dinner once the horses are ready.”
“We’re going after Ryan?” Austin asked eagerly; to him, it would be an adventure.
“We might. I want to be ready just in case.”
The overhang was just the way Casey had felt it through another mind. Everyone could dismount and get under it, but only four horses could, along the outer edge. They provided some shelter from the wind. He decided they needed some more, at the low end of the place, in the direction of the wind. “Dugal! Come help me!” The two scouts grabbed the expedition’s only two shovels and started clearing snow that had blown under the cliff. It cut well, and when stacked made a fine wall. They raised that until they couldn’t reach any higher.
“Here, lad”, a man offered. He was still a stranger to Casey, who was too tired to remember a name. The man boosted him up, Dugal handed up blocks, and they closed off another two meters, holding out the wind.
Their reward came in retreating to the fire Oran had blazing. He’d built it in the shelter of their wall; that made the smoke circle around, but kept in more warmth. Ryan already had his boots off and was warming his feet. Others were squeezing in, but Ryan ordered room made for the two youngest members of the company.
Someone handed Dugal a pot filled with snow. Dhugal sat it by the fire and watched it melt. When everything was liquid, he dug out a packet of herb tea and tossed it in. The water turned color slowly, then finally started to boil. Casey counted to sixty with Dugal; when they reached that number, Dugal pulled the pot away from the fire and dropped in a bit of snow to cool it.
“One swallow apiece”, Ryan ordered. “Remember you’ll feel warmer, but you won’t be. Remember that and use the energy it gives you, and you’ll stay alive.” I hope – but the wind is picking up, and the snow is getting heavy again.
Rigel kicked Tornado to a trot. At least the wind is at our backs, he comforted himself. Though that means it’s in Ryan’s face! In the Valley the wind wasn’t too bad, either, though it was getting stronger, but in that canyon, it would be focused and howling.
He’d been ecstatic when Chen rode into the Village; his first scout always knew where the others were. But Chen had been so tired on his horse he had to be lifted down. Lumina did what she could; Ocean mixed the right teas, but Chen was still woozy. Rigel had decided not to wait any longer; Chen could sleep in the saddle to recover. Their starting direction was easy anyway; the valley mouth they needed to hit was wide enough missing it would take some really bad luck.
They’d been out three hours, and the snow just kept piling up. He thought of Elder Elder Geróanåch’s question when the road from Shelf Village to Servant Village had been completed: “The road is wonderful, but why are there poles along the sides? Snow, he’d said, because when it starts drifting we won’t be able to tell where the road is. Those poles were certainly useful now – he earnestly wished this route had them, too.
Above, a hole in the clouds let a shaft of late afternoon sunlight through. He shaded his eyes; after the muted light coming through the snow clouds, that brilliance hurt. The light came with a brief respite from falling snow, so for a time they could see where they were. Rigel nudged Tornado to speed up. Austin and the rest matched his speed: while they had a clear path in plain sight, the sensible thing was to make the most of it.
When after a minute the clouds closed in again they slowed back to a trot. Chen caught up with him then. “Shift a little left”, he advised.
“Can you feel them?” Rigel inquired.
Chen frowned a puzzled frown. “I feel Oran fine. Casey – not so well. Something odd is happening there.”
“Maybe he got smacked on the head somehow”, Rigel guessed, “so his brain is messed up.”
Chen shrugged. “Maybe. It feels like he’s in two places at once, though. I don’t know how a blow to the head could do that.”
“Thus has never happened before?”
“A scout getting a blow to the head? Nothing bad. Feeling like he’s in two places at once? Never.”
“Lord, do we move on? Everyone’s feet are warm”, Oran reported.
“Are their boots dry?”
“Not all of them.’
“Wait, then” Ryan decided. “Maybe we’ll get lucky with the snow.”
On the way back to the fire, Oran passed a man on his way to Ryan. “What’s happening?” he asked.
“Something’s spooking the horses”, he replied and went on by. At the fire, Oran delivered his news, then got out his bow and went to where the horses were being rotated to give them each some time out of the wind and snow. Something was bothering them. The snow coming down was light again, but he couldn’t see anything.
Casey came up beside him, from calming his own steed. “It’s Cat”, he said. “He’s waiting for us to move again.”
“You’ve seen him?”
Casey shook his head. “No, bow else would I be getting the feeling I have four padded feet and a long tail? He asked. “I don’t know one.”
“Doesn’t mean it’s Cat”, Oran pointed out, playing devil’s advocate.
“Sure. And when it stinks from your butt, it doesn’t mean you farted.”
Oran laughed at that. “Right. So you’re darned sure. I’d better go tell Ryan.”
But Ryan was coming to the horses, Oran saw, before he’d gone two steps.
“They look jittery”, Ryan observed. “Have you seen what’s out there?
“It’s Cat”, Oran replied before Casey could say anything, and perhaps too much. “Casey thinks he wants to lead us.”
“Nice time for him to return”, Ryan commented. “Except the horses don’t like it.”
Oran was looking at Casey’s chest, where a figure of a great cat hung. “Where’d you get that?” he queried.
Casey looked guilty. “At the castle.”
“And you didn’t report it?” Ryan snapped. “You were supposed to report everything!”
“I know, but it looked so much like Cat...” Squire or not, Casey was near tears,
Ryan relented. “I'm sorry I yelled. You can keep it. Did you think I’d demand it from you?”
“Kinda.” He wouldn’t look at Ryan.
“Never worry about something like that”, Ryan assured him, with a squeeze to the shoulder. “I’d only demand it if I thought you were being greedy.”
Oran was still staring at Casey. “Put it against your skin.”
“You’ve had it over your shirt and under your tunic, right? Put it against your skin.”
“It’ll be colder than snot in Antarctica”, Casey objected. But he was already complying, thinking to humor Oran. When it touched the bare skin of his chest, he gasped.
Sitting in the snow, blended into the snow. Horses and men. Cold nose. Getting warmer as he sat, where the snow nearly buried him. Hunger... prey. But not prey since he’d found this human, his human. Snow heavy above. Slide? Humans must move....
Casey pulled the amulet away from his chest to where he could look at it. It didn’t look special, but then it was dirty and needed polishing.
"Casey?" Ryan was shaking him. “What happened?”
It jarred him from his reverie. “We have to move! I saw what Cat was seeing! He looked at the cliff above us and says a landslide of snow is starting!”
“Avalanche”, Ryan said grimly, then turned and yelled. “Grab gear! I don’t case if it’s yours or not, just get everything! Then mount up and we move!” He was already running to grab things from by the fire.
Men scrambled, horses shied. Casey hadn’t unloaded anything, so he started hooking ropes to saddles, getting them ready to go. When one of the men arrived with an armload of gear, Casey stowed it for him while he mounted. Oran threw a bag of gear up on his horse, and started helping as well. They left both fire and unloaded firewood, preferring speed.
“I don’t see an avalanche”, Ryan said, looking over his shoulder. “I don’t see Cat, either. Well, we needed to move soon anyway – let’s go.
Casey popped the amulet back on. The feeling of being Cat came back. He fought to remember himself, but the feeling was too strong. He pulled it off again. “Cat’s out there, lord.” The scout pointed. “That way.”
A small rumble came from behind them. Everyone turned to look. A small ledge of snow high in the slope above them had collapsed, landing on the slope below. A crack appeared in the face of the snow; it widened–
“Ride! NOW!!!!” Ryan commanded. But their speed was hampered by the ropes hooking them together.
– and started to slide. As it cascaded over the snow below, other cracks appeared from the increased weight and vibration–
Casey hadn’t tied either his or Oran’s horses to the others. He wheeled, Scout protesting, and headed back along the line. His knife came out, and he cut the ropes linking horses. One, two, three took off at a gallop.
– and the entire mountainside of snow came loose. A huge white wave rushed at them like a churning wave on the beach–
Dugal’s horse reared. It heard the avalanche, and feared. Dugal slipped, almost falling. Casey got there and grabbed the bridle, jerking on it. “Get on Scout!” he yelled.
– a ledge of rock, which could be seen from the lack of snow beneath it, gave way before the eight-meter high wall of rushing snow, and tumbled, vanishing as the flood of frozen water whelmed over it–
Casey felt Dugal’s weight settle behind him. Dugal’s arms snaked around him and gripped snugly. Dugal’s horse was panicked, and there wasn’t time to get it under control; he let go and kicked Scout once, twice, three times.
– but the rock was doing its damage, smashing more loose as it moved, splintering trees in the way, and then it bounced into the air–
The others were far ahead. Casey was terrified; if this caught them, there’d be no way out. But avalanches go straight, he thought, and there’s a little canyon up ahead....
– snow poured over the lip of their overhang; the giant rock flew through the air, the mass of avalanche just behind it–
Suddenly Scout ran even faster, the burst of speed so hard that Casey barely held on. He made a guess. “Dugal! Put my amulet against my skin!. He didn’t dare do it himself; he had the reins to hold on a horse that was terrified. A cold hand slipped inside his shirt, and he felt the cold metal against his skin – and laughed, receiving a mental impression of racing after a horse with two riders. “Cat’s chasing us!” he exulted, “making Scout run faster!”
Now he saw the opening to the little canyon. The ground was shaking; he was sure the wave of snow was on their heels. The scream of a hunting cat sounded from behind, and Scout leapt ahead even faster. Casey swung him into the canyon mouth....
– the avalanche hit the ground and shot forward. Faster than any wave on a beach, it rushed forward at two hundred kilometers per hour–
In the canyon, Casey slowed, thinking they were safe – but Cat was behind them, and he didn’t think so at all. Scout screamed and launched himself away from a real attack, which took him up the sloping side instead of farther into the canyon.
– passing the canyon, snow along the edge whirled, a whirlpool of white. The rush of snow, channeled now into a small space, found that opening and surged in–
Snow churned around Scout’s legs. Casey felt terror, but focused on the job. Up they went, the snow around them moving slowly, but it had moved ahead and they couldn’t see.
Scout stumbled. To save his horse, Casey threw himself clear, landing badly, landing in deep snow. Something grabbed the back of his coat and dragged him upwards.
– shot along the floor, hit the end of the canyon and shot up like a storm breaker smashing into a cliff on the coast. On the bottom of the canyon things grew quiet.
Casey stopped moving. He rolled over, and there was Cat, a bit of Casey’s leather jacket in his teeth. He looked around: higher up, Scout stood trembling, out of energy from the mad dash; below, there was just snow. The terror returned: there was no sight of Dugal.
Of Dugal’s gear, though, there was plenty, a trail leading to the edge of the settling snow. Casey got up and followed it. A short spear lay halfway to the snow; he scooped it up. Cat padded along with him, and when Casey started probing into the snow with the butt end of the spear, Cat joined him, digging paw-wide trenches.
The spear-butt hit something that wasn’t rock, something that gave a little. He dropped the spear and dug. Cat saw and joined in. In half a minute they found leather; a little more digging revealed it as a hip, where coat met belt. Casey estimated where his friend’s head had to be, and dug frantically. Cat obligingly dug snow from Dugal’s torso. The digging infuriated Casey, because the snow was so loose it flowed into his hole almost like sand – and he was certain it was just as suffocating. So when he found Dugal’s neck, he dug right to find a shoulder, and when he had it, he levered the young scout-apprentice up. Dugal was lying on his back, though. With Cat’s help – head-butting upward under Dugal’s left shoulder – he got Dugal flipped over. He was too tired to drag him out of the snow just then, so he dropped to his knees. Check breathing, he told himself, and did by putting his cheek almost on Dugal’s mouth. Warm air hit him, weakly, though, Check pulse. That was done with his two middle fingers at Dugal’s throat, where the big blood vessel flowed to the brain.
Casey sank back and let himself rest. Dugal was breathing and had a pulse, so he was alive. But they were separated from the rest of the group.
Ryan screamed at the snow which buried the canyon they’d been riding through. The tail end of his column was gone: No Afal, no Casey, no Dugal. “Rest the horses”, he ordered. “Airein, look to shelter. Dallaen, with me. I’m going to look for them.”
No, lord”, Dallaen said. “If they were caught by the snow, they’re meters deep. If they weren’t, they’re safe somewhere. Neither matters: if we try to walk on that, we’re dead men.”
Ryan prepared himself to deliver a scathing rebuke, but the good sense of it got through. Then he remember had a way to check on one of his men, anyway. “You’re right”, he conceded. “Here – take Equisetum for me”. He slid down and went in search of Oran.
“He’s there”, Oran whispered when he saw Ryan. He’s alive.”
Ryan went weak with relief. “Where?” His knees gave way and he fell beside Oran in the snow.
Oran pointed. “Not in our canyon.”
Ryan sighed with relief. “He found a side canyon! But the others...”
“Afal was with us at the last bend. Rye, he’s under all that.”
Lead hit Ryan’s gut. “Dugal?”
“Wasn’t back there then. And Casey wouldn’t have left him.”
“Two safe, then”, Ryan judged. “But no way to get to them.”
“I don’t see one”, Oran agreed.
“So the question is how long they can last. The men are tired, and we can’t ride in that mess anyway.”
Rigel fought another white-out. He couldn’t even see Tornado’s nose! But they were in the Valley, so they knew the footing was firm, and they kept going at a fast trot. They’d heard a rumble and a roar, which worried him.
“Three kilometers to the canyon”, Chen reported. He hadn’t really trusted what he thought he’d felt that last few weeks, but he was trusting his new distance-sense now. That sense let him know how far it was to the canyon better than if they’d had a clear sky and sunlight – and it let him ride an arm’s length from Rigel so they could talk.
“Oran and Casey?” Rigel kept it simple so he wouldn’t have to breathe the cold air any more than necessary.
“Oran’s fine. Casey almost wasn’t, but he is.” Chen concentrated. “He’s nowhere near Oran, though – a little over a kilometer... not in the main canyon, either.”.
“Side canyon, then -- he ran sideways... Chen, could it avalanche out here?”
His scout smiled wryly. “On some of those slopes, with all this snow, it could avalanche if you farted.
“That’s it, then”, Rigel said. An avalanche separated them”. He refused to say the logical words.
Chen did it for him. “But how many survived?”
“We go until we know.”
The snow cut into blocks nicely, Casey discovered, at least the stuff above them. He had two rows of them around Dugal. The third wasn’t going as quickly, because he had to walk farther for snow. But he persevered, slicing and carrying and stacking. “I’m an idiot!” he said suddenly, remembering that he, too, had a sleeping fur in his gear. Belatedly, he dug it out and went up to his snow ‘quarry’. He got eight blocks on it, and dragged it back down.
The wall grew more quickly now. He checked Dugal, found that his pulse was stronger, and that he was out of the wind now. Once again to the ‘quarry’...
“How much firewood do we have?” Ryan asked Oran.
“Two days, if we keep the fire small. I can build a curved snow wall on one side, too.”
“Do it. When it’s going, I need some tea.” Ryan turned and went to show the men how to build a wall of snow. To his great relief, he found that two knew how better than he did.
“Young into the snow sneak, for play”, one told him. “We build snow huts, to hide. When the snow is deep and buries the hut, it is warmer than home hut. Here, we can make great hut, cliff against, there.”
“Big enough for the horses?” Ryan inquired.
“For men first. Fire have we?”
“Yes. A small one.”
“I show squire place.”
Oran was happy to oblige. He cut snow away – thirty centimeters deep! – to get to the ground, and stacked the blocks for his windscreen/reflector. The screen would become part of the big dome others were building.
“The canyon!” Chen yelled back to Rigel. He’d known right where it was, but had ridden ahead because while he knew where the canyon was, he didn’t know the ground.
“Wind’s shifting, and it snows again”, Someone said, and another man cursed. But Rigel ignored complaints, as he was ignoring everything that might slow him.
“Woot!” Chen hollored, and came to a halt. We sat grinning still when Rigel caught up half a minute later.
“Well, well”, Rigel said. A mostly snow-white cat sat on a large boulder from which the snow had been brushed – by paws, Rigel presumed. “Are you our guide?”
The cat jumped down and went along the base of the hill, not into the canyon. Ten meter away from them was a dead tree. The cat went straight to it, stood on its back paws, and pulled. A branch broke off.
“We need more wood, I think”, Chen ventured as an explanation. Rigel nodded.
“All right. Chen, where’s the travel lodge?”
Chen pointed. “Over there. We could see it if the snow would go away. Maybe three hundred meters.” Rigel nodded, and gave orders; they changed direction and went to the lodge. There, they packed each horse with six chunks of wood.
“Have to remember to resupply that”, Rigel said. “Now let’s go.”
The clouds above still had that odd yellowish tint that meant snow, but they were growing darker. Night would soon fall, and they’d go slower still. It wouldn’t leave them in darkness, though; Rigel, Austin, and Chen each carried one of Anaph’s druidic ‘flashlights’.
Casey sighed. His dome was lopsided, but it stood. He hated leaving Scout out, but he lacked both the skill and the energy to build more than he had. The only thing he’d been able to do was make a wall that connected to his dome and served as a partial windbreak for his horse.
Inside, he examined Dugal. His friend had a broken arm, and since there was no bleeding, he took the time to set it and splint it. His jacket back was shredded; Casey wished for Gorilla tape, but had nothing even remotely similar. All he could do was put Dugal’s sleeping fur under them, and his over them, and stay warm. He couldn’t do anything for the dent in Dugal’s skull, either.
He was drifting to sleep when he wondered if he should block the door more. He’d remember to build a platform for them to sleep on, to stay up in warmer air. Since he wasn’t sure, he slid out from the covering anyway, went out for snow, brought it in with him, and packed it to lower the top of the door some fifteen centimeters. When he got back to bed, sleep came swiftly. He missed Cat crawling in to add warmth to them.
Oran heard it first, of course: horses were coming up the canyon. He’d known Chen was out there, but hadn’t known how many there were, or if there were others at all. From the sounds–
“How many?” Ryan asked.
“Six or eight for sure – maybe more. Chen’s with them.”
Ryan let out a sigh of relief. “If Chen’s there, that means it’s Rigel. Rigel means Austin. And Rye would bring either a dozen men or twenty.”
“It isn’t twenty”, Oran said with certainty. “So it must be a dozen, plus Rigel, Austin, and Chen.”
“Almost there!” Chen exulted. “Oran’s waiting.”
A moment later Rigel had his own evidence. "That glow's a fire. I see it, so they must see us."
They saw the lights first, eerie in the falling snow that was almost dust. Ryan and Oran went out to meet them. Rigel and Chen and Austin jumped down, the two lords embracing and pounding each other on the back, the two scouts doing the same, Austin wondering if any of the younger guys from the two groups – one, now, as Rigel’s men dismounted and unpacked – would be interested in being a bit frisky that night.
Rigel looked around. “You lost men in the avalanche?” he asked.
“Casey's cut off, not lost. But we can’t get there in this crap”, Ryan reported.
“We’ll get there”, Rigel assured him. “Chen – can you make snowshoes?”
“Crappy ones, but they’ll work.”
Rigel awoke with the dawn, to find Ryan already up. “I sent Kailan, Jaryan, and Parlan back to Servant Village with word of what’s happening. They’re small and ride fast.”
“And the tents won’t be as crowded”, Rigel noted. On one hand, crowded tents meant more warmth; on the other it meant someone was going to be against the windward side and have heat sucked away. “Wow – people already working on the wall!” What had been a wind barrier of snow blocks half as high as a tent had already, in the pale gloaming, been raised one block for its entire length, a length which now extended an extra three meters to connect with the bluff where they were camped,
“Keeping warm while waiting for breakfast”, Ryan replied. “Oran has some made notion of arches to hold a curving roof over the tents.”
Rigel snorted; he couldn’t envision that. “If it keeps him happy....”
“That’s not what’s keeping him happy. He says Casey is cold but otherwise fine.”
Rigel’s eyebrows rose in mild surprise. “He can get that through the link?”
“Yep. Not much more, though. Chen thinks that what they’re feeling isn’t how Casey feels, but how Casey feels compared to them. He even did an experiment: used a tent as a heat shield and he sat by the fire. In a minute he was shivering, but he wasn’t the one who was cold – it was Casey. So Oran decided to go out into the snow – it was snowing then – in his bare skin, and sure enough, Casey seemed to feel warm, to him.”
“Crazy! All I care is they know where he is. Did Chen get started on snowshoes?”
“Come look”, Ryan told him.
Chen had a structure of twigs and branches up in the air, and slammed it to the ground. “I need cord! Small cord”, he told a young Celt lad. “It has to wrap around the – oh, hey, lords R and R”, he said. The young Celt dashed off in the falling snow. “I’ve got two, but... well, look.” He reached under a piece of deerskin and drew out two snowshoes.
Rigel and Ryan both started to laugh. “Those are huge”, Ryan choked out. “The abominable snowman could wear those!”
Chen shrugged. “I had to make some that actually worked. That’s why I need smaller cord – well, partly. If I had some glue... But really, what I need is three or four helpers who can sit here and not move. Well, and a pile of good branches.”
Ryan nodded. “Dunreagh and Senach can sit still. Konan, go find them”, he told the teen acting as his gofer.
Rigel made his own contribution. “Austin, grab three men. Ask Chen what he wants for branches, and start hunting.” Hunting was the right word: trees were scattered along the canyon where they were camped; the best were a kilometer back and into the hills.
Ryan turned to Rigel and pulled him into a tight hug for a dozen heartbeats. “Did I tell you last night how glad I was to see you?” He held on like a drowning man.
Rigel felt the hard ridge against his hip. “You didn’t, but you’re telling me twice now.” He reached down and squeezed briefly.
The pressure against him increased. “Rye, I’ve never faced that before. I thought I’d screwed up and gotten Casey killed. I still don’t know if I got someone killed. I don’t think I can handle that!”
Rigel stroked his friend’s back. “You will. If there’s anyone you want comfort from, I’ll even lift the age rule.”
“No, you wouldn’t – you know better. Besides, I just want you. Well, and a hot shower.”
“Well, you can have me, but I don’t know where there’s a hot shower. But if you find one, I’ll scrub your back”, Rigel quipped,
Ryan let go. “Tease.”
“Shut up and get on your knees”, Rigel joked. “I have a question, though: Oran said there’s a man under the snow.”
“Until I see his body....”
“Then you can pretend it didn’t happen. Ryan, I can see that mess over there just as well as you. Your last horse in has cuts and bruises from the leading edge. Anyone who was more than two meters behind him is dead, and your man was eight or teen meters back, according to Oran. He’s under a ton or two of snow now and there’s no way to get there till spring.
“The best you can do is mark the place. Except you won’t have to: Chen’s been here now, and he doesn’t forget where he’s been. It’s a new scout talent–“
“Oran, too”, Ryan said, his voice empty.
“Okay. Buck it up, and don’t dwell on it. You’re a lord, and your job is here and now. You have men here counting on you, living men, and your commitment is to them. They know you did your best. They know that shit happens. If you act like things out of your control defeat you, your men will fall apart. You got that?
“It’s like I told the Elders: duty works both ways. Your duty to them now is to be the lord who knows what to do next, who had something go wrong but takes it in stride and keeps going. If you want to get drunk later, or whatever, you do it – but right now you’re the mighty Lord Ryan, my right arm. Okay?”
Ryan stood with his eyes closed for a long time. A deep sigh marked when he stopped holding his breath. “Yeah. I guess I cry later. Shards! You know what I miss right now?”
Ryan shook his head. “Satellite weather maps.”
Rigel nodded. He’d just begun to grasp why people in the bronze and iron ages didn’t fight wars, or do much else, in the winter. “No kidding. Well, for now – what did you learn?”