Bran placed one foot after the other and led the way up yet another snow-covered hill. For at least two sevendays he and his siblings had traveled north and east. He’d lost track of the time until only morning and evening seemed to matter. Sometimes he wondered if they traveled in circles in an unchanging landscape. Still, he knew his fears were false. The direction finder confirmed they traveled in the direction Dragen had suggested.
The constant swirl of snow kept him from seeing more than a few feet ahead. The blasting winter wind swept away all traces of their passage before they had traveled more than twenty feet. A gust of wind slapped his back and nearly knocked him to his knees. He struggled to remain erect.
No trees or bushes broke the vast white expanse. He’d seen no signs of people. No trails, fences, houses or even the distant spires of smoke rising toward the pewter sky had appeared. The birds that Ky believed were their parents and who guarded them had vanished days ago. Though he’d seen the soaring pair, Bran now wondered if they had been a vision wrought by his imagination.
While he wasn’t sure Dragen’s advice to seek Doma Jandia was the right choice, they’d seen no sign of the woman or her house. A sevenday north and east the man had said. Had they missed her because they hadn’t left Cedris by the right gate? Had Dragen meant the journey by courser took that long? Maybe they had traveled too slowly. The many storms had made movement hard.
He reached the crest of the hill and paused to study the way ahead. At the bottom of the slope he saw the dark green of fir trees and the brown leafless branches of the hardwoods. Though a forest would make travel with the sled difficult they would have protection from the wind.
He took his place beside Jay on a runner on the high-sided sled. Ash and Ky rode the other. On the count of three they pushed off and rode the sled to the flat area below. Their laughter cut the silence of the day. Once Bran caught his breath, he grabbed the tow rope. His siblings joined him and they pulled the sled around a tangle of bushes into a cluster of firs.
“We’ll camp here tonight,” he said. “I’ll find wood for a fire and cut fir branches for our beds.” Bran moved toward the barren hardwoods to gather deadfall.
Ash and Jay erected the tent while Ky cleared a space for a cooking fire. The brazier and fuel bricks were only used to take the chill from the tent and to keep food warm for the next morning‘s meal.
Once they ate the savory stew they returned to the tent. Bran poured tea for them. “Ash, will you read the winds for traces of Doma Jandia? We need to find a place to stay until spring.”
Ash’s skin blanched. “Do you want me to betray us?” Her voice vibrated with fear. “I’m sure Dom Senet and his companions keep a constant watch on the winds. If I try, they’ll find us.”
Bran frowned. “You could be right, but we need to know where to go. The only emotions I sense are ours. I feel we travel in an area empty of people.”
“You have to listen,” Ky said. “What if Zand sends messages for us on the winds? We won’t know if he’s safe.”
“Or Valcon, Genira and the children,” Jay said. “I want to know how they fare.”
Ash put her mug down. “How can we help them? We’re far from the city. I won’t search the winds. My fear of discovery could alert our enemies.”
“What if Bran uses the cup?” Ky asked. “He did once.”
Ash began to tremble. “Dom Senet will find us. You don’t know how evil he is.”
“I know,” Ky said. “I was his prisoner.”
“And I touched his mind. I had him in my head. He tried to control me.”
Bran moved closer to his twin. They could use the circle the way they had when they freed her from the dom’s power. Right now, she was too upset to listen to their suggestions. “Before we look for anyone we need to find a place where we have better shelter than a tent. Then we can make plans. We can’t keep on wandering.”
Ky nodded. “You’re right.”
“We can’t go anywhere tonight,” Jay said. “Tomorrow we can choose a direction.”
Bran went to the sled and pulled out his knapsack. “Let’s draw stones.” Taking care not to choose the remaining gem Ky had found and he had stashed away, he put two light and two dark stones into his hat. “The dark will seek and the light break camp.” Once all had chosen, they opened their hands.
“Dark,” Jay said.
“Me, too.” Ash showed hers.
Ky pouted. “But I wanted to go.” She held up her hands. “Does anyone want to trade?”
Bran shook his head. “If they don’t find anything, tomorrow you and I will look.”
“How long should we take?” Ash asked.
“Seek until midday, then return so there’ll be time to move the camp." Bran put the stones into his knapsack.
In the morning Jay and Ash set off in two directions. Jay traveled east and Ash walked north. Ky and Bran filled the flasks with tea and poured the broth from their evening meal into another container. While Ky sliced cheese and placed it on pieces of journey bread, Bran rolled the sleep saques and put them in the sled. Ky buried the flasks beneath them. Together they collapsed the tent and prepared to roll the two halves.
Ky handed him a mug of tea. “There’s enough left for Jay and Ash. I hope one of them returns with good news.”
“Agreed. Maybe they’ll find a place where we can stay until spring.”
Ky frowned. “What will we do when the food we brought is gone?”
Bran sipped the tea. “Set traps, I guess.”
“Do you know how?”
He shook his head. “We learned how to fish but not hunt. Help me persuade Ash to search the winds for signs of people.”
“I will.” Ky rose and paced about the area. “I don’t understand why she’s so afraid.”
Bran dropped the mug. Tea stained the snow. “No! Ash!” He bolted to his feet.
“I have to find her.”
“What’s wrong?” Ky asked. “Is she a prisoner?”
“I don’t know, but she’s in trouble.” Bran ran. What had happened to his twin? The panic in her voice frightened him.
“Where are you going?”
“To help her.” He continued his headlong dash along the way Ash had taken. Her screams filled his thoughts and he couldn’t block them. Had she been attacked by a wild beast? Had she fallen into a hunter’s trap? He tried to send a message along the twin bond but her panicked mental cries were too strong.
Suddenly, the cries reached his ears as well as his thoughts. He encountered a patch of ice and slid. By grabbing a branch of one of the firs, he stopped his slide. He saw Ash. She had fallen and broken through the ice on a pond. The water reached her waist and the weight of her cloak kept her trapped.
With cautious steps, he approached the edge of the pond. Was the remaining ice solid enough to hold him? He slipped and fell to his knees. “Ash, I’m here.”
“Bran, be careful. You might fall in.” As she spoke, her teeth chattered. “I’m so cold.”
He found a branch broken from one of the hardwoods and freed it from the snow. He lay on the ground and shoved it to her. “Grab the limb and I’ll pull you free."
“What if I can’t hold on?”
“You have to try.” He heard the panic in her voice and closed himself to her wild emotions.
“I’m here, too.” Ky grabbed the branch behind Bran. “One, two. Pull.”
The loud sound of cracking ice filled the air. With great effort Ash moved closer to the shore. When she reached the edge of the pool, Bran and Ky pulled her ashore. Her body shook. Bran pulled off her soggy cloak, tossed it aside and draped his around her shoulders.
He and Ky half-dragged Ash back to the fire. The distance seemed to be miles. Snow fell from the trees and splattered on Bran’s tunic. Ash’s body shook so hard he nearly lost his hold on her arm. When they reached the fire, Bran held Ash on her feet. “Ky, go drag one of the tent halves over here. Get one of the sleep saques, my knapsack and a blanket. We need to get her out of those wet clothes.” He lowered Ash to the canvas and pulled off her boots, stockings and divided skirt.
Ky brought the things he’d requested. Together, they dressed Ash and slid her into the sleep saque. Her tremors lessened.
Bran searched his knapsack and removed several packets of herbs. He added them to a mug of tea and supported his twin as she drank. Slowly her body relaxed.
“Should we put up the tent?” Ky asked.
“Not yet.” Bran sucked in a breath. “See if you can reach Jay on the twin bond. If he hasn’t found a place for us, then we’ll erect the tent.”
Ky closed her eyes and pursed her lips. A short time later she met Bran’s gaze. “He’s coming. He’s found two places. One is a hut.”
Bran released his held breath. “Good.”
Ky rose. “I’ll be back.” Instead of running to meet her twin, she ran to the path Ash had taken.
“Where are you going?”
“For Ash’s cloak. I don’t think we should leave it behind. If a dom or doma found it, they would learn where we are.”
“Once we reach the hut and have a fire we’ll dry yours and hers. Better put on one of the ponchos before you get chilled.”
Bran went to the sled and found one of the woolen garments. He returned to the fire and added wood. Ash slept. He prayed Jay would arrive soon. They needed to check Ash’s hands and feet for signs of frostbite.