As Wendell tapped him to get up and fall into the awkward pile, Floyd didn’t immediately rise. For a time, he just stared into the darkness of the cart, alone with his thoughts and the sound of the others’ sleeping breaths. Floyd wasn’t really sure if he’d actually slept at all when his watch came. He had been tired, but that didn’t mean sleep ever came easily, or if it did, it ever felt like it was enough. But what could he expect? What was enough anymore?
A deep sigh escaped him as he rose, the left side of his head brushing up against the brazier hung from the top of the cart. It shook a little bit but otherwise didn’t tip. He turned his eye towards it to see Amber sleeping soundly in the smoking charcoal. As the tiny pixie breathed in and out, the embers of the still-burning bits of wood lit and dimmed. He reached into the bag they’d bought before heading up the mountain and carefully put a few more pieces into the brazier. When one bumped into her back as it slid in, she stirred, turning in her sleep and hugging the piece to her chest, undisturbed.
Her staying asleep both relieved and disappointed him as he moved to the front of the cart. The pixie could talk at a good clip and was relentlessly curious. Sometimes it was a good distraction, but it always made him more tired. Pulling a cloak around him tightly, he peered out into the night and found a fresh sheet of snow outside, with a lingering mist hovering over the top of it. Leaning forward, he could just see past the ledge of the cart, and past it all he could see was more white. Floyd couldn’t tell if it was more fog or the snowy landscape below. A low howl was the only warning he got before a gust of freezing wind stung his eye and nose. He quickly pulled the flaps of the cart shut and reached for something to cover his face.
The first warm cloth his hand brushed, he grabbed without thinking, burying his face in it and only realizing his mistake as he pulled away the foul-smelling fabric. Floyd took a deep gasp of fresh air to expel the lingering stink of wet donkey as he held out the animal’s blanket and sighed. Well, it wasn’t like he had many other better options. Taking one more clean breath, he took the plunge and wrapped the stinky blanket around his face, leaving just enough room to see before stepping fully out of the cart and examining the perimeter.
Annoyingly, his jump into the cold was completely unnecessary; the view from the front was matched on all sides: a white ground, white air, a white sky. No visible tracks from any new passerby, animals or otherwise, nor any other indication that there was anything around on this path but them. Yet still he did a full round, if closer to the cart than normal, before he pushed back into the warm interior. Dropping the blanket, he rubbed at the small amount of his face he’d been forced to leave exposed, and for a moment his fingers lingered on the left side.
They’d given him a false eye made of some polished ceramic. Told him not to remove it, but it felt oddly hard and smooth as it moved with his eyelids. His fingers absently moved along the rougher bits of skin that trailed down the side of his face like spiderwebs, showing what the false eye was apparently meant to hide: the fact that half his vision was always black.
Yet even tracing the wound, he could accept it if he hadn’t lost so much more. Scars were nothing new after all, but thinking back to that night … to Manny … his face warmed as he pulled his legs up and rested his forehead on his knees.
What was he doing out here wandering the mountains with a group of strangers? Sitting in a cold, dark carriage? Why was he even here?
Maybe he should have stayed home—but what was home, anyway? So many places they’d been, first it’d been the single room they’d shared with their mother, after she died, after she died, they’d boarded with people who’d use them for jobs, crowded rooms with desperate orphans, when that didn’t pan out, back alley’s, when they could afford it maybe some very cheap inn’s really anywhere they could sleep, but none of it had been their home. They’d been with Iris and Marcus only for a few months. But then, that back room really hadn’t been home, their home had never been a place. So what would it even matter if—?
What was that?
Floyd heard an odd … well, he wasn’t sure how to describe it. It wasn’t a ringing, or a buzzing sound. But it was a sound, from a bit to the left, or from … up?
Before really processing it, his legs stretched out and he leaped out of the cart, following the sound. Floyd still couldn’t place it. It wasn’t a rumble, but still something in his stomach sank as it got closer, yet still sounding far away. As he made it to the edge of the cover from the overhang he stared out into the white, peering skyward. No vibrations touched his feet, no skittering of animals reached his ear; there was just a white sky, yet somehow in the distance, he heard—he knew—something was there, and if he could ju—
Floyd’s head shot to the side as the mist shifted and he was hit with a huge gust of wind that sent him sprawling to the ground.
Back hitting the icy stone, Floyd let out a gasp as the wind continued to rush past. But the concern for his new bruise left him as another sound caught his ears even in the whistling buffet of the wind.
A snap—first one, then two, then another. Floyd rolled and turned around in time to see what he suspected: the cart’s rope broken. The wind blew back the canvas covering the front of the cart, flapping it backwards. But the suddenly wakeful faces of Wendell, Glenn, and the donkey, or the sight of some of their supplies scattering, didn’t hold his attention.
It was the brazier—the charcoal tossed out and going flying out of the top—and out from the clearing went—
Amber tumbled through the air like a ragdoll. Floyd pushed himself up to a knee, desperately trying to track her through the fog, but it became harder and harder as she moved farther away.
“Wendell, hurry, ‘fore we lose her!”
“Where’s my—never mind! Ghera aur kendr!” the mage shouted, both hands swirling. The wind responded, wrapping his wrists at the base in a funnel that shot upward and started pulling everything in.
Floyd shivered as the freezing wind rushed past him, hands clutching the sides of the cloak both for warmth and to keep it from being sucked into the cyclone. He lost sight of her in the shift, eye shutting against the cold, and for a few terrible seconds he thought it’d been too late.
Until he heard the wild tinkle of bells on the wind.
Head snapping up, he saw the pixie being pulled in, wide awake and screaming in her true voice. Not the voice of the priestess, but the voice she used when she cast, the chime of bells you hang on doors wildly jangling as she got closer and was pulled in with the fog and snow.
“¡Excelente! Ya got her!” Running to the cart’s edge, he watched the mage pulled the cyclone down, coating the cart in the bits of snow. Glenn sat at his side, blanket at the ready.
The pixie was directly over them now, and Wendell’s hand stopped their furious motions as he let out a hacking cough. Floyd’s gaze immediately went to the mage whose hand covered his olive cheeks and tiny beard, and froze as he saw blood dripping from between the long fingers cupping his nose and mouth.
The words were drowned out by another loud whistling. Floyd looked up to where Glenn stood with the blanket, reaching out to catch the pixie. As she fell into it, the wind hit again, and both she and the blanket were thrown away from the cart.
With the cart to brace against, Floyd didn’t stumble this time, and as the wind passed he sprinted after her, focusing on both Amber and the blanket as they flew out of the clearing. Ragged breath escaped his lips; his throat burned taking in the frigid air. The blanket flickered in the wind, going up high in the air before descending once more. Both hands out, he reached for the edge of the blanket as he ran just to the end of its arc, and by its very tips he grasped the material.
Breath hitching, Floyd pulled in hard. He could feel the warmth of Amber, clutched onto the blanket for dear life.
“I got ya—” His words cut off once more as another gust shot the blanket up, not out of his grip but flapping like he’d shaken the cloth out for laundry. Floyd held on, grip tight as he tried to reel in the pixie.
But his grip wasn’t whose grip mattered most in that moment. Amber’s hands were shaken loose, and she flew back towards the edge of the blanket. A single tiny hand gripped the edge for a precious few seconds, but the wind flicked the blanket up.
Floyd couldn’t forget in that moment the terror he saw in those tiny brown eyes as she was whipped through the air and over the edge of the path and down the mountain’s side.
And that is the first chapter of Hymn of the Dead. To read more, pre-order it on Amazon.com, the ebook will release on July 14th 2023.