It was true, I thought, setting my feet carefully on the thick, wind-cleared snow crust. I didn’t know the first thing about ironwork. I did, however, know the first thing about slaughter; the faces of Beebo and Lara and Tom presented themselves as I’d last seen them, talking over our poisoned dinner.
Maybe it didn’t count as slaughter if there wasn’t any blood. I kept up my cautious pace, not ever letting my whole weight stop in one spot. I didn’t want this angry, grieving dwarf to have to pull me out of the snow. Slaughter, eh? O Lady, help!
None of us spoke. By the middle of Winternight, the wind is silent just a little ways away from the forge, any unevenness that might have given it voice long since sealed over by the snow and the fringe bits scoured away. I breathed slowly inside my muffler, trying to warm up the air enough that I wouldn’t get frostbite of the lungs. This was a whale of a lot more comfortable than the trek I’d made from the Gate to the forge, even if the air itself was colder. Then, my only guide had been the wind itself, hurling down to my frost-stiffened nostrils the unmistakable scent of burning. No coat, or boots either. Brr.
I had been lucky in that the forge lay north of the Gate: with the wind finding its winter compass, I’d only had to wait five or ten minutes at a time while it backed around again to the forge-smell.
Now it poured straight and true, the ice-water smell the only thing in it, like an irresistible glacier of air. Even with all my wrapping, it promised that the first unwary breath I took would be ripped from my lungs and plastered over some inoffensive caribou a hundred and fifty miles south. I was glad for the weight of the pack and of my weight-belt, keeping me from becoming an untethered kite.
The same wind told me we were headed west by north-west. My few trips out to the meat-house with Dval, brief as they’d been, had shown me a low range of hills this direction; and Dval’s song spoke of a range of mountains called the Spine of Ouroburos, where the Earth-king lived.
You add up your equation as far as you can, and then you have to wait for the unknown value.
Oh, water-rats! Maybe they both thought I’d understood all that! Well, it would have to wait. I concentrated on walking, and on following the other two around patches of thin-crusted snow.
Some long old time later we stopped briefly, our backs to the wind, and shared out cheese and jerky and some ice chips. I was alarmed by the length of time we were spending standing still, but apparently I’d underestimated the strength of the crust.
“I didn’t understand a thing,” I muttered to Dval. “Anything I should be prepared for?”
“An old feud, Birdie. An attack on the halls.”
“No,” he snorted bitterly, turning a little away, the wind hauling his scarf straight out from him. “Only dwarves.”
“Dval,” I said in my mom’s best I’m-not-mad-but-listen-to-me voice. “People died. People got hurt. I want to help. We get there, you tell me what to do. Like always.” Dval tucked his beard back toward me, a painful smile in it, before re-wrapping his scarf.
We walked on over the faintly glowing snow, following Dval’s compass ring. Old feud, eh? Bilgewater! Dad said that Dwarves lived nearly as long as the Aesir, lots longer than normal humans. For a dwarf to call it old, if it was with humans — and I was decently sure it was, given his comment about “people” — it had to be generations old on the human side.
Which meant it matched another story of my dad’s.
The cursed gold.
When my dad would tell that story, sometimes his voice would break, and he would stop dead in the middle.
“Remember,” he would say, turning his intense eyes on Shannon and on me in turn. “Wanting things too much … it hurts people.” And he would bow his big blond head down onto his enormous hands, his lips twisted into tight curls of pain.
Shan and I always figured he’d seen part of it personally. And now it was my turn.
Dval cut a hole into the crust for the three of us to sleep in; out of the wind was almost as good as warm, and huddling made it better. Still, it wasn’t long before we were back on our way, the corners of our eyes catching the strength of the wind.
There wasn’t even the sound of our footsteps, or the sounds of our breathing: it was snatched away long before it could get to my ears. No loose snow underfoot; no change in the sky that I could tell, what with not daring to look up and have my eyes turn into a pair of marbles. I was in a kind of timeless cocoon, frozen into a block of ice so clear it couldn’t be seen, my destiny narrowed into a geas to put one foot forever in front of the other and never feel anything, never touch a living soul, ever ever again ….
So I walked smack into Dval where he stood listening. Sometimes not having much mass really leaks, but right then I was just as happy not to have knocked him over as well as humiliating myself.
We were nearly there. I’d walked myself into utter deafness as well as depression: now that my ears worked again, I could actually hear the wind, which meant that something — those low hills, no doubt — was in its way. Dval patted me absently, checked his orientation, and led us off again, this time a little closer to true west, if the wind could still be trusted.
Did you know embarrassment will warm you up? So will a moment of kindly touch. I was broken out of the sarcophagus of the wind, and my mind started working again. I heard, quite clearly, Erdan Paul’s mild voice saying “Only to be expected, child.” After a moment’s stunned outrage, I saw the comparison. Okay then: but I was working my way out of the mental coffin. All right, all right, out of the emotional one too, though it galled me to say so; it was like admitting a kinship with those appalling “womanly” leads in the archival fiction Shan and I had found under “Romance” once when we were looking up knights.
I followed the kid a little more closely, hunching my head further into the hood of my inner coat. I was beginning to hope we would be able to stop walking soon.