Floyd jolted into consciousness, bitter cold assaulting his exposed flesh. Instinctively, he tried to pull a blanket closer around him, turning on the pile of cloth he’d been using as a blanket, about to curse his brother for stealing the cover off his bed. It was only when he turned his head—and thus his good eye—that reality reasserted itself and the absence of a blanket was the farthest worry from his mind.
“Sorry ‘bout that. Bit of a rocky pass,” the deep voice of a dwarf spoke from the front of the cart.
“It’s been long enough I think. Even if he took the last watch, it’s been at least six hours,” the higher voice of the mage added.
“Don’t you guys need more than that?” The last voice was the highest, which appropriately belonged to the smallest member of their motley crew. It was this one who was also the closest.
Rolling over, Floyd found himself eye to … well, full body, really, with the pixie, who was standing behind him. A deep ache pounded in his head, but also in his shoulders as the words started to form.
“llanuras heladas, ain’t ya supposed to be keeping the cart warm?”
“Only when I have to, and even then I have to be careful.”
Floyd resisted an eye roll as he sat up and rubbed his hands together, blowing on them as they rolled up the mountain path. It hadn’t been as much of a problem when they started traveling ten days prior. Sure, the nights were chilly, but four warm bodies in a cart were well enough to stay toasty. As they got out of the valley though, the air had taken on a much deeper chill, one Floyd hadn’t ever experienced this early in the season.
As the wagon creaked again, bits and bobs strewn around the carriage slid to the back, only being stopped by the raised edge.
“Mirto, how high up is this pass going to take us?”
“Depends,” the dwarf responded from her perch at the front. “There’s a couple of passes through the mountains, but not all of them will be clear.”
“What’s blocking them?” Floyd asked as he moved deeper into the covered cart. Wendell reached down and handed Floyd his own cloak. It was long on Floyd, but he accepted it all the same. Truth be told, he’d have preferred something like Glenn’s setup. The thick fur the dwarf had draped over her armor looked very cozy.
“It’s landslides, isn’t it? That’s why traders don’t like to travel during the winter,” Amber suggested.
“Aye, though that’s not the only reason,” Glenn said. “Could be bandits staking out for a last-minute score. Or maybe some local beasts. Plus, aren’t some of ya lot active during winter?”
“By my ‘lot,’ you mean…?”
“You did state you were part of the Unsidhe Court. Isn’t their domain that of winter?” Wendell asked.
“Oh, yeah, that’s kind of true. But they wouldn’t bother with anything here. It’s more likely we’d run into wyld fae.”
“Well, are there any of those we need to worry about, Tomillo?” Floyd really hoped not. He knew from the stories how dangerous fae could be.
“From what I know of the area, this is largely satyr territory, and they generally like to stay inside during the winter. Same with any spriggans, since they usually hide until spring. If we get to any freshwater springs, we might find an alven or two, but they won’t bother us if we don’t try to pollute the water.”
“So that’s a ‘no’ on them being a problem?” Glenn tried to clarify.
“It’s not likely unless we do something to piss them off.”
“And if we do? Would you be able to handle it?” Wendell asked.
Amber shrugged. “Dunno, maybe? Wyld fae in this area only sort of follow the Unsidhe Court. But again, it should be fine so long as we don’t break any of their rules. Since we’re just passing through, that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“If ya say s—” Glenn’s words were cut off as the wind suddenly picked up, whipping through the cart. In a split second decision, Floyd slid back, his body bumping up against the edge, but more importantly, he caught Amber as she was pushed back so she didn’t fall out. The pixie had tumbled back boots-over-head and now lay against his arm, a bit dazed.
“Good catch,” Wendell noted, reaching down and grabbing his staff. The mage mumbled something under his breath as he held up a hand, which seemed to scoop at the air as if it were a pool of water, before making a fist and bringing it down. “There’s been a drop in the local currents. A storm must be heading into the mountains.”
“A storm? Well, ain’t that great. We’re barely into the pass and it’s not like there’s any outposts this far up.”
“So what should we do?” Floyd asked as he held a finger out to the pixie, who was only now getting her bearings.
“From what I can tell, it’s probably at least an hour or two out. We can keep moving until we find a good outcropping to buckle down before we pull in the pack animal,” Wendell said.
“You mean … we’re sleeping with the donkey tonight?” Floyd asked.
“We can’t very well leave ‘em out to freeze,” Glenn said, turning back to the front to drive.
Floyd lay back down. It was already crowded enough in here with just the four of them. With the donkey as well, one of them would probably be hanging out the side. Letting out a deep sigh, he tried to think of the positives … but as his mind wandered, he reached absently on his blind side for someone who he knew wasn’t there.
Yet still he hoped for that shoulder to squeeze, that hand to brush, that clever tongue to tell him that he’d smell like ass in the morning. He knew it wasn’t there, and the ache started anew.
Amber yawned as she watched the others set up for the night. Which was a bit odd since in theory she didn’t actually need to yawn, yet she felt herself doing it all the same, mimicking the donkey lying against the inside of the carriage. The stubborn animal, along with the cart, was a loaner they could drop off at some stables in Flaron when they were finished with the trip. It was decided to be the most economical way to go about their travels. Walking would have been the cheapest solution, but the closer it got to winter, the harder travel would get as the cold weather settled in both the lowlands and the mountains. Riding horses might have been an option, but three separate horses cost more than a single donkey and a cart. Plus, horses generally didn’t like Amber. She knew it wasn’t personal; they just were skittish around anything so small they couldn’t see them on the ground. Donkeys however, couldn’t give any less of a fuck that she was there, which was fine, so long as she didn’t walk under its hooves.
The donkey in question—named Tender—demonstrated this quite aptly as he tried once again to curl closer to her to get more warmth. After the first time, she’d grown wise to the attempt and slipped away as she felt the wagon shift and Glenn enter from the back.
“Got everything tied down on this end. How’s the other side goin’ there, Floyd?”
“Almost got it, almost…” Something sliding quickly made Floyd curse. “Maldita sea, this rope is terrible. It catches and looks about to snap.”
“Ya, just double tie the end for now. If ya wanna see about a replacement, that can be ya project tomorrow.”
Floyd continued to mutter under his breath, but Amber could hear him making another attempt. Walking over to the edge, she poked out her head to take a look.
“That’s an odd sort of knot. Will it really hold?”
“Do ya wanna come out here and…?” He met Amber’s eye, then let out a breath. “Never mind, forgot who I was talking to.”
“I can tie the knot if you hold the slack so I don’t go flying.” Amber hopped up on the ledge of the cart and started walking over, gripping the canvas carefully so as not to fall.
“I can handle a few knots, Tomillo.”
“Yeah, but I don’t have much else to—”
“Amber, get back in here.” Glenn’s voice cut her off, causing her to flinch and almost let go of the canvas.
“I was just—”
“Just nothin’. Ya heard Wendell. We’re about to get hit by a storm.”
“Indeed we are.” Wendell approached holding a pot full of fresh snow he’d gotten from just outside the overhang they were camped under. He held out a hand and Amber jumped into it. His slender tan fingers held her gently before setting her and the pot on a mat near the center of the cart.
She placed both hands on the pot, warming it gradually. Wendell opened his pack and started getting out his supplies to make the night’s meal.
“How bad do ya think the storm’s gonna be?” Glenn leaned into the donkey’s side, giving the animal a pat. The beast just snorted and curled into itself.
“It seems to be winding up to something standard for the season. The snowfall will be regular through the night, so we’ll have to work through it going uphill tomorrow morning. Though that’ll only be a real problem if it melts and refreezes.”
“Refreezes? We going to be hiking up ice in the morning?” Floyd pulled himself in. He huddled closer to Amber, who kept her concentration on the pot while she exuded warmth. “I thought you said this was going to be a quick trip.”
“Ah said weather permitting it’d be quick,” Glenn corrected. “And we are making good time. How long ya think it takes to go through mountains?”
“Dunno. Haven’t traveled much,” Floyd admitted.
“I haven’t either. How long can we expect to be in the mountains anyway?”Amber added. It had been pretty even going up to this point. There was a night’s wait when they’d been dropped off by Sirius at the stable they’d gotten the cart from, but things really slowed down once they got to the mountain.
“Depends. Ideally, about two or three days, but a week ain’t unheard of passing through. We got enough supplies to last us either way, and some of the concerns are mitigated by ya tagging along.”
“What would hold us up for an extra three or four days?”
“Lots of things. Mostly roadblocks,” Glenn said.
“Unless you could do something about that.” Wendell put some ingredients in the pot, the snow now melted; the water had started to boil. “I am curious how much use fire magic would be in such situations.”
Amber shrugged again. “Won’t know unless it shows up.”
“I hope any blocks don’t knock ya out too much, Tomillo. It’s already been frigid enough with ya warming the cart. Don’t really want to sit too long in the cold without that nice aura of ya’s.” Floyd leaned over the pot as Wendell put in the spices. “Ya using the red stuff again?”
Wendell stirred the pot as he put in a few unknown leaves. “Unfortunately, ran out last meal. But we’ll be able to pick up more once we reach Flaron.”
“Ya gotta show me where you get it. That stuff has such a nice kick.”
“If ya two are gonna load the pot with peppers again, ya better make something palatable for someone who doesn’t wanna burn their mouth off,” Glenn said.
“I thought it was okay.” The spices were interesting, though not as nice as some of the baked goods they’d picked up. Humans always made such interesting dishes, especially when it came to sweets.
“Ya only say that ‘cause you have the option to not eat it, with ya hiding half a pie in that bag of ya’s.”
“Hey, I offered. You’re the one who said it was too sweet for you.”
Wendell started unpacking the bowls. “Don’t mind Glenn’s palate. She spent too much time soldiering. You eat rations for that long, you end up losing the ability to discern actual flavors.”
“Flavors, ya say? I’m surprised ya can taste anything with how often ya burn ya tongue.”
Wendell just shook his head as he handed out the bowls. Amber kept up the heat until Wendell gestured that it was done, then sat down at her own bowl. She projected her heat aura, though not as much as she would later since they were eating hot food. Despite the seasoning, Glenn didn’t have any more complaints while they ate.
As the meal ended, Wendell started putting everything away as Glenn moved to the center and patted her knees.
“Alright, then, now that the day is done, who will be taking the middle watch? I did it the previous night, so that leaves it between the two of ya.” Glenn gestured at Floyd and Wendell.
“I can do it,” Amber offered. She knew it was harder on the others to do the middle watch since they were groggy when they had their sleep interrupted.
“Denied,” Glenn said. Amber opened her mouth to argue, but Glenn held up a hand. “Ah know ya don’t like being out of the rotation, but it’s more important than ever ya stay in the center of the cart. The mountains get too cold.”
“I can keep the cart warm while keeping watch.”
“And ah can probably stay up all night doing the whole watch meself. Don’t mean it’s worth the fatigue in the mornin’. Now, ‘sides that, which one of ya’ll will do it?”
Floyd and Wendell looked at each other for a moment, neither speaking before Glenn let out a sigh and pulled out a die. “Alright, even or odds. Whomever it lands on gets the middle watch.”
“Even!” Floyd called. Glenn gave it a toss and the four of them watched as the die tilted in the cart for a few seconds before it hit the edge, three dots visible for a moment before the cart shifted and creaked with the wind and the side moved to a four.
“¡Hijo de puta!” Floyd threw his hands up, flopping onto his back with a blanket, resigned.
Wendell sighed in relief before moving to the front of the cart. “I think I’ll take the first watch, then.”
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.