Night comes, and with it, even bitterer cold.
Thankfully, the air is dry as well as icy, and under the snow that fell the night before, they find plenty of dry wood and pine needles to keep the fire going, though Garroth will not let them make it bigger, for fear that hostile eyes might find them. Nevynne is asleep in one of the four new bedrolls the men bought in Talvain for the journey. They were expensive, and are lined with the white fur of an elusive breed of rabbit found only among the eternal snows of remote mountain valleys. The secret valleys, perhaps, of the stories and legends Nevynne heard about the mountain folk. According to the merchant that sold these bedrolls to Garroth, one is supposedly able to sleep soundly and warmly in them even in the middle of a snowstorm. If that is so, they could not have made the purchase at a better time.
“Will she be all right?” Stellia whispers.
Nevynne nearly bit the leather strip in two when Garroth pulled the crossbow quarrel through her arm. He had to sit on her chest to keep her from moving too much. When he poured the boiling vinegar on the wound, Nevynne fainted, which was a blessing. Stellia held on to Nevynne’s arm through the entire ordeal, even after she passed out and Garroth dressed the wound. The smell of blood mixed with hot vinegar brought her close to vomiting. Somehow she mastered herself.
“She should be,” Garroth says. “But I’d be happier if we could reach a proper healer. That quarrel needs to come out of Sedwin’s leg, and the sooner, the better. He lost a fair amount of blood, and the pain is not helping, either. This is not a good time for camping out in the woods.”
“Then must we not go back? Where else will we find help in time?”
“Not back. Forward, and swiftly.”
“But forward to what? What is there, in these hills, beyond Talvain?”
“The very place we’re trying to reach all along,” Garroth says. “We’ve covered about a third of the distance between Talvain and the Great Sundrance of Silence. The friars there are far better skilled at healing than the local goat herders.”
“A third.” Stellia tries to work out the distances in her head. “Then it is a day’s ride, at the very least.”
“Two, and not an hour less.” Garroth’s expression darkens. In the flickering light from the small fire, he looks weary, careworn. Clearly, he needs sleep. “I have some herbs that will bolster Sedwin’s strength. I bought them in the Thorns some time ago, from an old woman with great knowledge of such things.”
“You mean a witch?”
Garroth chuckles. “Most would say so. Supposedly these herbs work wonders on the ill and the wounded when the need is dire, enabling them to ignore pain and to go beyond their natural vigor for a short time. The brigands of that region often carry them to ensure a swift escape, when they are wounded during their raids. But nothing comes out of nothing. After using these herbs, they must have a healer’s care, or pay the debt of strength they owe with severe interest.”
“That sounds unhealthy.”
“Dangerous is what it is. But we have little choice.”
“And if we reach the Sundrance, who says more assassins won’t be waiting for us there?”
“Along the way, perhaps,” Garroth says. “But the Sundrances are under the direct protection of the Guardian herself. It is said that anyone caught breaking the laws of sanctuary will face a fate worse than death.”
“Which is what?”
“I don’t know, truth be told. And maybe that’s the trick. People fear nothing more than what is left to their own imaginings.”
“And some fear nothing, if enough gold is offered them. Is that not also true?”
“I’m not saying we will be absolutely safe at the Sundrance,” Garroth says. “But we’ll be safer than in Talvain, and safer than we are out here in the woods. And it may take a while before whoever sent our attackers learns of their failure, and dispatches more hirelings.”
“When will you give Sedwin the herbs you spoke of?”
“In the morning,” Garroth says. “Then we’ll have to ride hard.”
“Why not give some to each of us? We could all use added strength, and move faster for it.”
“There are risks. The old crone who sold the herbs to me said that if a person at full health were to consume them, their heart might well explode. She witnessed it once. At least that’s what she claimed.”
“You think she was exaggerating?”
Garroth cocks an eyebrow at her. “Is that a chance you want to take?”
Stellia shakes her head.
“Then try to sleep. Come morning, you will only have what remains of your natural strength to draw on.”
Stellia unfurls her bedroll next to Nevynne’s and slips into it. Once fully inside, even her ears are swathed in the softness and warmth of rabbit fur. It is almost possible to forget the terrible cold around her, and the brooding silence of the woods. She shivers, but for once it is with pleasure, and moments later, she falls asleep.
NEXT: To the Sundrance