Author: Janice Cox PM
Three boys learn the meaning of friendship and courage at the Saint Valentine-of-the-Snows monastery. From the Ages of Chaos period of Darkover.Rated: Fiction K+ - English - Adventure - Words: 18,624 - Reviews: 28 - Favs: 10 - Follows: 1 - Published: 09-03-01 - Status: Complete - id: 393940
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
A Darkover Fan Fiction Story
By Janice Cox
Disclaimer: As everyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last thirty years knows, the Darkover universe was created by the late Marion Zimmer Bradley. Since her death I understand that author Mercedes Lackey now owns the copyright, although I could be wrong. This work is based on a universe not my own. Because of this, I freely give all rights to this plot and original characters to the present copyright owner. No compensation or recognition is expected for any similarities between this little story and anything to be published by the lawful "Darkover" owner. I ask that fellow MZB fans do not repost this story elsewhere or offer it for sale in any type of fanzine. If you have any questions, please contact me at the link above. Thank you!
My father hates me.
Rafael Castamir shivered violently in the chill mountain air and stared, disconsolate, down at his trembling hands. I must surely have done something terrible to deserve this. I have only this rough, thin cowl against the cold, and the only fire I have seen is used to cook this terrible muck! Nonetheless, he cupped his hands gratefully around the stoneware bowl, glad for the heat it gave off it not for the bland, gritty taste of the nut porridge inside. Even the least of our servants fares better than this!
Scooping the last of the porridge into his mouth and swallowing it distastefully, Rafael admitted that it did heat his insides, at least a little. Stifling a yawn at the early hour, he took a quick look around the collection of rough wooden tables to see how the rest of his fellow students were doing. At first it had been hard to tell anyone apart, as they all, from the Father Master to the lowly new students like himself, dressed in the plain brown woolen robes of the monks of Saint-Valentine-of-the-Snows. Now, on his second day in the monastery, Rafael was beginning to see small differences among the boys and men here at Nevarsin. The novices moved about the drafty hall quietly, seemingly unaware of the dreadfully early hour or the cold that made each exhalation into a white puff of near-frozen air. The older students sat together, talking quietly among themselves or immersed in their prayer books, while the younger ones sat huddled within their cowls, looking downcast and afraid and very much alone in their misery. Many of them had gone back for seconds or even thirds of the bland nut porridge, and Rafael decided that he might do well to follow their example. Aldones alone knew when these stern monks might feel the urge to feed them again--none of them had so much as eaten a bite, though morning prayers had been over nearly an hour ago! Picking up his rapidly cooling bowl, Rafael made his way carefully to the fire at the front of the room. Accepting another bowl of porridge--which fell into his bowl with a revolting "plop"--Rafael began shuffling back to his seat on feet numb with cold.
And that's another thing! Father himself has spoken disparagingly of 'sandal-wearers,' and now has sent his son to be one of them! I really don't know which is worse: being one, or having all of my toes fall off from the cold of it! Immersed in his misery, Rafael didn't see that the bench in front of him had been left pushed out by some thoughtless student and barked his shins painfully against the rough wooden slats as he returned to his table.
"Ow!" His cry of pain was very loud in the quiet room, and Rafael realized with something like horror that he was about to compound the sin by dropping his full bowl of porridge to the stone floor. The heavy bowl slipped through fingers still numb with cold, and he closed his eyes resignedly.
"Whoops! Better watch it." The light, soft voice was full of amusement, and Rafael opened his eyes in surprise. "Here. From the looks of you, you're going to need it." A small, slender figure in brown robes stood before him, holding his bowl out to him in one six-fingered hand.
"Um, thanks." Rafael accepted the bowl, and looked at his rescuer with frank curiosity. The boy--if that's what this was--was dressed in the same woolen robe that they all wore. He came only to Rafael's shoulder, and had a narrow face that was fine and delicate enough to belong to a girl. Masses of fine hair, so pale as to be barely red at all, cascaded down over light blue eyes which danced with amusement. Since women and girls were strictly forbidden here--and the hair was far too short for anyone but a Swordswoman, anyway--Rafael concluded that this must be one of the emmascas that he had heard of back in the lowlands. Father had said that many of them were sent here, since they were almost always sterile (and with other defects besides) and so served little purpose in the grand scheme of things.
"No problem. I know what it's like. Don't worry--you're not going to freeze to death, even if it feels like that now." The boy grinned disarmingly. "Though I think that porridge will do you more good on the inside than on the out. And you're mouth's already open, anyway. Might as well fill it with something." He scooped up one enormous spoonful from his own bowl by way of demonstration. Swallowing it quickly, the boy added, "My name's Damien, by the way."
"Rafael-Lewis Castamir." He nodded to the younger boy, then set his bowl carefully down on the table. "You aren't one of the new students?" He already knew the boy wasn't; there'd been no lad so small or so striking in appearance among the twelve who had sat through Father Master's welcoming speech yesterday. Sitting down awkwardly in the unfamiliar long robe, he hesitated before finally gesturing for the odd-looking boy to join him.
"No, I've been here for a while." The smaller boy sat down easily, apparently at home in the robe and sandals of the brethren. "So I know what I'm talking about. You'll do fine, believe me."
"I will? You've foreseen that, I suppose?" Rafael replied, more nastily than he'd intended; the other boy's cheerfulness was offensive in the face of his own abject misery. To his surprise the boy just shook his head, his grin never fading.
"No, I don't have that Gift. What I do have is five year's time here. You're cold, but you're not sick with it, or so afraid that you're ready to cry for your mamma. The food'll warm you through, and the brothers will keep you so busy that you won't have time to be homesick." He stopped and cocked his head at some unknown sound. "That's third bell. You'd better finish your porridge." Sure enough, the older boys were wiping out their bowls and mugs and putting them back in their pockets under the watchful eye of one of the brothers.
"How did you hear that?" Rafael hastily scooped the last of the food into his mouth and then wiped the bowl clean with the small cloth they carried for just that purpose. Damien shrugged one shoulder.
"You just do. It's not even laran, not the way we know it, anyway. You'll be feeling it in your own head within a few tendays. In the mean time, just keep an eye out for what the other boys are doing." He cast a glance over Rafael's shoulder. "And, speaking of which, I should be going. I've got choir practice next, and Brother Avery is always terribly cross this early in the morning." Standing abruptly, the boy turned and ran straight into the broad chest of one of the older students. Rubbing his nose, he took a step backward. "And good morning to you, brother. And might I say what an interesting stain you've got on your chest. If you close one eye, it almost looks like a--"
"Shovel it, mouse." The new boy shoved Damien easily to one side and into the grip of a pox-faced lad who had come up behind Rafael. "You must be Dom An'dra Castamir's son. I'm Felix-Piedro Ardais. My father is Lord Ardais, and he speaks well of your father."
Something in the student's manner rose the hairs on the back of Rafael's neck, but he knew better than to openly antagonize such a well-borne--and very large!--young man. He said, somewhat stiffly, "Yes, my father is Dom An'dra. My name is Rafael."
"Let go of me, you overgrown, half-witted--" the small boy shut up abruptly as the student holding him gave him a rough shake.
"Leave him alone! He hasn't done anything to you." The words were out before Rafael could consider them, and Felix looked at him with suspicion.
"'Him'? What's the matter, are your eyes afflicted? This isn't a boy. It's got the pretty hair and face of a girl, but is as flat-chested as a lad of ten. Too bad it's neither one. Little "mouse" here is one of the rejects. You know what's good for you, you'll stay clear of 'em. You wouldn't want people to think you were one as well, would you?" He reached out and clasped one arm roughly around Rafael's shoulders, a not entirely friendly smile on his ruggedly handsome features.
"You'd better watch out, Rafe. My kind may not be catching, but it'll take you a month of tendays to wash the slime off if you let him get too close." At Damien's words Felix released Rafael and spun around toward the small boy, who stood staring up at him defiantly. "What are you waiting for, Felix?"
"Yes, what are you students waiting for?" The mild voice of one of the brothers cut through the building tension like a knife. "Third bell has sounded. While young brother Rafael may well be confused, I should think the rest of you would know by now where your assigned duties lie for this hour."
"Yes, brother." The boys all muttered their acknowledgment and the brother nodded. "Then be about them. Brother Rafael, when you've finished cleaning your mug, go to the library for your reading lesson."
"Yes, brother." The monk nodded, gave them all one last long look, then turned and walked quickly toward the room's only exit.
"Thanks a lot, mouse. Brother Markus will make sure we pull a tenday of stable duty for this," Felix growled. The younger boy raised his eyebrows in a gesture of cynical amusement far too old for his youthful features.
"At least you'll have an excuse now for smelling up the place. C'mon. Rafe, I'll show you where the library is." He jerked his head toward the east. "I have to go that way anyway, and you don't want to be late on your first day of class."
Rafael hesitated. This Felix-Piedro was Heir to the Ardais Domain, and obviously had influence among the older boys. He knew it would be a mistake to openly antagonize such an influential person. On the other hand, he had never liked bullies, and that was obviously what Dom Felix was. How do I get myself out of this? I can't afford to make an enemy of Felix, but it would be a poor return on strange little Damien's kindness to rebuff him now.
Damien, seeming to follow his train of thought, shrugged carelessly. "Another time, maybe."
The little student turned to leave, and Felix hissed, "Better grow eyes in the back of your head, mouse." Damien spun around, still walking toward the doors.
"For a big, hulking lout like you? You'll never catch me, 'Brother' Felix." Furtively, he raised one thumb to his lips and popped it from behind his upper teeth. Still smiling, the boy turned and quickly made his way out of the cold dining hall. Felix nodded in grim satisfaction at the boy's departing back.
"That's more like it. Come on, Rafael. I'll show you where you need to go." Smiling more easily now, Felix led Rafael out of the building. As they walked across the snow-covered path, Rafael gave a mental sigh of relief. That was close enough. Like him or not, I think Felix would have been the wrong person to cross. A sudden realization brought a thin smile to his face. At least I've forgotten to be cold. Now all I have to do is get through the rest of the day in this terrible place.
Little Damien had been right about one thing: the brothers kept him so busy, running from morning prayers to reading and writing class to choir (all boys were required to sing during morning prayers, and so took at least remedial singing), to history, to lessons about the Holy Bearer of Burdens, to meditation sessions that were as strenuous as any physical labor and then to some sort of actual physical labor before the evening meal and yet more prayers, that Rafael scarcely had time to dwell on his own miseries.
It had been four tendays since he had arrived with the other new students, and Rafael thought with a sigh of relief that he seemed at last to be picking up the breathing techniques that let them walk through the Nevarsin snows wearing only their thin woolen robes and leather sandals. His hands and feet no longer shook constantly with cold, and he was able to concentrate on the lessons of the brothers for longer and longer periods of time without paying any attention to his rough surroundings. Still, it hardly seemed to be a fitting occupation for a Comyn lord, one of the sons of the Lord of Light.
Like today, for instance. When the sun had broken through the clouds after a tenday of seemingly constant snow, they had all been excused from their afternoon studies to go clean the stables and shovel the paths that lead from the monastery to the town surrounding it. It was hard, dirty work, and Rafael thought resentfully that it was easy for Father Master to say that no honest work was beneath the dignity of a man's own hands when that good Brother never left the warmth of the main hall! With a heavy sigh Rafael plunged his shovel back into the snow and scooped another shovel full of light, fluffy, snow to the side of the stable path. He had just gotten into the easy rhythm once again when a faint sound reached him from the stables just a dozen paces up the path.
It sounded like voices raised in anger, and that brought Rafael up short. Fights were a rare thing here, where the brothers preached about tolerance and forgiveness every day. Still, there it was. Setting his shovel carefully against a tree, Rafael went to see what the matter was.
The guest stables were empty, save for several horses which nickered uneasily when he opened the heavy stable doors. But I know I heard voices in here. Where could they have gone?
"Hello? Is anyone here?" Rafael sent his own newly-developing laran out, seeking whoever had spoken. The voice had sounded familiar. Who was it?
"Over here." The voice was coming from the far corner of the stable, where hay bales were stacked on the floor, ready to be spread in the stalls. It looked like whoever had been assigned this task this morning had left rather abruptly. Walking quickly across the room, Rafael saw with dismay a small, crumpled figure on the floor directly below the hayloft. As he approached the figure stirred and tried to rise.
"Easy, easy. Did you fall from the loft, brother?"
"I had a little help. Give me a hand, won't you, Rafael?" With a start Rafael realized that it was Damien, the young lad who had befriended him when he first arrived. He put a hand on the little student's shoulder.
"I don't think you should move. I'll go get Brother Derik. You just wait right here."
"No, I'm all right." Damien began to awkwardly shift himself to a sitting position. After a moment's hesitation, Rafael moved to help him. The odd little lad was deathly pale, he saw, with a grayish tint to his skin that Rafael didn't like at all. A small gash had opened on his forehead, and he held his right arm close against his body.
"You're sure? You don't look at all well, Damien. I should really go fetch Brother Derik." Rafael said.
"No, I'll walk there myself. I hate to have people fussing over me. They always stare so." The faintly peevish sound in the normally cheerful boy's voice convinced Rafael that Damien was truly injured. "I hate to be stared at, more than almost anything else. You'll help me, won't you, Rafael?" The pleading tone in the younger boy's voice decided him.
"All right. But if you keel over on me, I'll toss you over my shoulder and carry you there myself. All right?" At the other boy's weary nod he carefully helped Damien to his feet and guided him toward the infirmary and Brother Derik.
"Brother Derik? Hello?" Rafael looked around the small, clean room doubtfully. No one seemed to be there, although a fire blazed in the fireplace, filling the place with a welcome warmth. "You sit down here, Damien, and I'll go find the brother."
"I'm not going anywhere." Damien sank back on one of the hard, narrow cots in the infirmary, cradling his wounded arm. "Knowing Brother Derik, I'd start in the dining hall, Rafe." He tried to smile, but all that he was able to manage was faint grimace.
"I'll be back as soon as I can." Taking one last look at the now-trembling boy, Rafael ducked back out the door and began calling for the brother healer. It was several long minutes before he returned.
"Brother Derik will be here very shortly, Damien. He said that we should ask for--" Rafael stopped abruptly as he realized that another monk had already appeared to tend to Damien. The monk's back was to him, but Rafael would have sworn he had never seen such a tall, skinny monk before. Walking around the low cot which the boy lay on, Rafael said, "You must be Brother Giorgo. Brother Derik said that--" Stopping in mid-thought, Rafael could only gape at the horrible sight before him.
The brother--if that's what this thing was--had swiveled its head in his direction as he approached. It has no face! he thought crazily. Merciful Avarra, what is this monstrosity? The creature apparently did have some sort of mouth--a narrow, nearly lipless one, he now realized-- for it began a low keening as it backed away from him, it's long, narrow head shaking from side to side. "What in the name of Aldones is this, this thing, Damien?"
"He's Brother Giorgo. It's all right, brother," the boy continued, as he carefully slid from the cot. "He won't hurt you. Shhh. Everything's all right, you'll see. Rafe, try to get your emotions under control, won't you? You're upsetting Giorgo." Rafael watched in amazement as the pale lad walked unsteadily up to the hideous monk and began gently patting it on the arm. Damien began crooning nonsense at it, much the way Rafael's father would soothe a spooked horse. After a few minutes the weird moaning stopped and Damien was able to lead the strange monk back toward the cot. The boy sat down wearily. "Why don't you get us some tea, Giorgo? Hot tea?" He touched Giorgo's eyeless face, and the monk nodded ponderously before turning and shuffling over to the hearth. Damien sighed and closed his eyes briefly in relief
"That's better. You really ought to be more careful with your emotions, you know. If Giorgo had gone running out into the snow, we could have been half the day finding him." Impossibly, Damien grinned. "Actually, that doesn't sound too bad, does it? It would sure beat shoveling horse apples."
"What is that, that--"
"He's another of what Felix calls the 'rejects'. Our breeding program creates a few of them every year, you know. Most of them don't live long, but a few of us have very long lives indeed--Giorgo's about a hundred, I think. He can't see, and he's got no more wits than a child, but he's an amazing empath. Brother Derik uses him to take away the pain of injuries-- he says that too much pain interferes with the healing process, somehow. Giorgo's completely harmless. He was just reacting to your revulsion, that's all." He smiled at the tall monk as Giorgo offered him a steaming cup of tea. "Thank you, brother." Setting it down carefully on the hard cot with his good hand, Damien added, "He doesn't go out much among the students--it's too hard for him to deal with their reactions. Giorgo doesn't have any barriers at all, you know, and that kind of distaste is hard to deal with without them."
Rafael didn't know what to say. It was painfully obvious that Damien could have been talking about himself as easily as Giorgo, for all that the younger boy was not physically horrific as the giant monk was. To be an effeminate sandal-wearer was one thing, but to be incapable of siring children for the breeding program at all was a thousand times worse, and Damien's heritage was written plainly in the lines of his face and in his small, seemingly delicate frame. Rafael realized with a pang that he hadn't even spoken to Damien in a tenday or more, for all that the boy had been one of the first to befriend him here. He'd fallen in with several of the other high- born lads, and of late there had always been some new discussion or sword practice to join into in his scarce spare time. Their groups had conspicuously excluded any of the students Felix had dubbed 'the rejects,' and Rafael honestly couldn't remember even noticing the boy in days. He was saved from making some sort of reply as Brother Derik at last trotted into the infirmary.
"Well, little Callo, what trouble have you gotten yourself into now?" The portly, jovial Brother Derik shook a stubby finger at the boy as he waddled over to them. Damien lowered his eyes and shrugged his left shoulder.
"Just fell out of the hayloft, brother." He flinched as the monk cut away the right sleeve of his robe, revealing a badly broken elbow. White shards of bone poked through the skin, and Rafael felt his stomach do a slow roll. "Brother Giorgo has been a big help. It hardly hurts at all."
"A small exaggeration, I should think. So you just tripped over your own feet, hmm?" The healer's full lips twitched in disbelief. "I told Brother Marius that assigning you and Felix to the same cleaning team would be a mistake."
"Brother Marius thinks that we need to solve our own problems. Ow!"
"Fair enough, as far as it goes. But I hardly think attempted murder is an acceptable way to solve one's problems." The monk seemed to see Rafael for the first time. "Were you a party to this, Brother Rafael?" He seemed faintly disappointed.
"No, brother! Rafe came to help me, that's all." The boy flinched again as the healer gently touched his shattered elbow. Rafael reached out and took the boy's other hand and squeezed it in sympathy.
"Felix really pushed you off the hayloft?" Rafael asked.
"He didn't mean to hurt me. I mean, not like this." He jerked his chin toward his broken right arm. "If Father Master gets wind of this, it will just make things worse for him, and he knows it. You don't have to report this, do you, Brother Derik?" Rafael didn't have to be a powerful telepath to pick up that the small boy was already thinking about how Felix would get his revenge for another tenday or two of stable duty.
"We'll talk about that later. For now, I want you to drink this. I'm going to have to reset the bone, and there's no sense you being awake to moan and groan while I do it." The monk ruffled the boy's hair affectionately before handing him a small blue vial. "I grow weary of your constant chatter, little jester." That was why he called him 'Callo,' Rafael realized. The word in casta meant bard, but could also mean jester, and Rafe supposed that fit the merry little student fairly well. "I'm afraid that this means you'll be under my tender care for a few days. Will you see that Damien's things are brought back here, Brother Rafael?"
Damien set the vial down, untasted. "I'll still be able to join the Midwinter Hunt, won't I, Brother Derik? It's less than a tenday away, and Alar and I have been working on our strategy for months now." The Hunt was an elaborate game of hide and seek, devised to help the students and novices find lost travelers in the dead of winter, and looked forward to by every student--and many of the brethren--at Nevarsin.
"We'll see," the healer temporized. "Now, drink the vial down, lad, and let me do my work." He stared sternly at Damien until the boy finally downed the concoction with a grimace. Almost immediately his eyes began to droop, and Derik gently guided the boy down onto the cot. "That's better." Waiting for the medication to take full affect, the healer looked up at Rafael in surprise. "Was there something else, Brother Rafael?"
Rafael bit his lip. "No, I just," he started to turn away, hesitated. "I just didn't think that things like this happened here. Damien seems like a nice enough boy, even if he is emmasca. Why do we," he swallowed and tried again, "why do people like Felix treat people like Damien so cruelly?"
"It does go against everything we teach here, doesn't it?" Brother Derik pulled up a stool and sat down heavily next to the now unconscious boy. "Felix and some of the other lads may parrot 'Every man has worth,' but they will never truly believe it, as their own sense of self worth is too weak."
"I don't think that's Felix's problem," Rafael said sourly. "He thinks all too highly of himself, I'd say."
"Does he?" Brother Derik asked gently. "Rarely does one who is secure in his own self-worth strike out at those who are different from himself, or at those who pose him no threat. Comyn society puts a great emphasis on one's worth being in what one may contribute to one's clan. Felix, who has yet to come into his donas or sire a child with laran for his caste, has little value in his own eyes or in the eyes of his father. That is one of the things we hope to change in the minds of our students, so that they do not grow up to be as narrow-minded as Felix's father. Or Damien's," the monk added with a sigh. "But that is enough for now, I think. It would be best if you went to claim Damien's blanket and any other belongings he may have squirreled away before Brother Felix and his pack decide to take a little preemptive revenge." He frowned at Rafael in mock displeasure. "You're a dreadfully distracting young man, you know, and I have work to do. Off with you."
"Yes, brother." Rafael managed a small smile at the brother's gruff manner, but it faded as soon as he got outside. Aldones! Nothing is ever as simple as it would seem. How many times have I heard my own father and uncles talk about how all-important our breeding program is? Too many times, he knew. And I never thought to question it, or think of how it affected how we think of ourselves. Or how we think of others. Lost in thought, Rafael made his way back to the student dormitories as the snow began to fall once again.
"...will have duty during the Midwinter Festival. Now. We have received word from the Tower at Tramontana that the weather is expected to remain clear for the next three days. This being the case, tomorrow we will hold the annual Midwinter Hunt." Brother Marius paused, glaring at Rafael and the other new students as if he expected them to break into raucous cheers. "In past years this Hunt has been allowed to deteriorate into an undisciplined contest, where each student and novice sought inappropriate glory for himself instead of focusing on the lessons to be learned.
"This year will be different. Each of you has been assigned to a team, which will consist of one novice, one advanced student, and one of our first year students. As in prior years, the goal is to find and retrieve the wayward travelers who have become lost on their way to Nevarsin. There will be one of the brethren out in the snows for each group of boys. Each group must find one of these lost travelers, and return him--along with all three members of their team--to the monastery before sundown on the following day. Any group who fails to accomplish both goals will be considered to have failed this trial, and will not be permitted to join in this years' Midwinter Festival. Are there any questions?"
There was some shifting among the boys at Brother Marius' announcement. Beside him, Rafael saw Felix raise his hand. Brother Marius nodded his permission for Felix to speak. "Brother, some of us have been preparing for this for weeks. Surely it would make more sense to send well-practiced teams out to rescue our lost travelers?"
"If this were not a game but reality, indeed it would. But this true purpose of this exercise is not to rescue our brethren, but to learn how to rely on ourselves and others under difficult circumstances. Physical strength and charisma may lend themselves well to success in the outside world, young brother Felix, but they do little to strengthen the man inside. This is a lesson which Father Master and I feel has not been well learned by the previous 'winners' of this exercise." The brother's face was unreadable, but Felix squirmed nonetheless. Felix had been bragging for weeks about how he and his hand-picked team had won handily the previous year and what they had done during festival with the purse they had won. Rafael smothered a grin at the other boy's discomfort even through his own disappointment. He had made a few plans of his own, and now he would be stuck with one of the older students and a novice, neither of which he was likely to know well. He came back to himself as he heard his name called.
"...fael, Felix, and Damien will be team three. Paolo, Miguel, and Donal will be--"
"Brother Marius!" Felix interjected, outrage plainly visible on his face. "I'll take Rafael, and no complaints, but Damien? That mou--that brother is no novice, Brother Marius. Is this a punishment for the slanderous words that that little, little," he shook his head, apparently unable to find a word suitable for use in front of a monk, "for the lies he told about me?"
Brother Marius' face could have been carved into stone. "I have heard no complaints from young Damien. But if there is an issue of slander, then perhaps you should bring it out into the open so that it does not continue to fester. What evil deeds has Damien laid against you, Brother Felix?"
Rafael glanced over at Damien, who was staring at Felix in open amusement. Felix shot a look of loathing in Damien's direction, and the boy raised his pale eyebrows in mocking entreaty. Felix flushed angrily, then bit his lip and lowered his head obediently.
"Nothing, Brother Marius. I must have been mistaken." He lifted his head, arrogance flooding back into his face. "But Damien is not a novice, only a student like the rest of us. Or did I misunderstand your instructions, Brother?" The rebelliousness in his tone was apparent to everyone in the hall, and long seconds went by when not so much as a pin dropped in the large dining hall. Brother Marius slid his hands into the sleeves of his robe, and replied as if speaking to a naughty child.
"I had no idea that you were so interested in the internal activities of the brethren, Brother Felix. Perhaps a tenday helping Brother Darrell copy the deteriorating records from the formation of our brotherhood would satisfy your curiosity?" Felix had the good grace to drop his eyes in embarrassment, and the brother continued to the group as a whole. "But since the issue has been raised: we have only just received word from the lowlands that Damien's father has elected to allow his son to remain with us at Nevarsin indefinitely. Damien, who has been among us for five years, has been apprenticed to Brother Derik, and will be allowed to take novice's vows at Midwinter. We welcome you, little brother, and pray that some day you will grow into your oversized talent."
"And your oversized mouth," Brother Derik added from the back of the room in a tone of long suffering.
The room erupted in laughter and the moment of tension passed. As Brother Marius continued reading off the list of teams Rafael happened to glance back at Damien, seated in one of the last rows of the dining hall. The boy was sitting by himself, his shoulders hunched inward in uncharacteristic unhappiness. Before Rafael could move toward him, Brother Derik came and sat down next to his small novice and put a kindly hand on the boy's shoulder, the sharp-tongued healer's face curiously gentle. That's strange, Rafael thought. I thought he'd have been happy that Brother Derik cleared him for the Hunt. Maybe he just doesn't want to go with Felix. Can't say I blame him for that.
"Don't worry about it," Felix murmured in his ear. "We'll do just fine, even with the mouse." Rafael looked around in surprise to see that they had apparently been dismissed to their duties. Most of the boys had already begun to file out of the dining hall, clumped together in small groups as they discussed tomorrow's Midwinter Hunt. "Brother Marius thinks he's got me beat by passing the runt off on us, but we'll show him, won't we?" Felix looked flushed and unhappy, and Rafael felt a twinge of pity for the Ardais lad.
"I wouldn't take it personally, Felix," Rafael said. "Who knows what motivates a monk? And, if it helps, I don't think Damien's any happier about it than you are." Rafael gestured toward the back of the room, then saw with surprise that Damien was already gone. That's funny. Damien usually waits around for me after last meal. Wonder where he got himself off to? Ever since Damien had broken his arm nearly a tenday ago, Rafael had made an effort to befriend the emmasca student, seeking him out after dinner each night. Felix and a couple of the other boys had made a few rude remarks about it, but not nearly as many as he'd been expecting. Since then some of the other students, commoners mostly, had begun to shyly approach him, and Rafael had been surprised and chagrined to discover how little he knew about most of his fellow students. Being with Felix and his friends had been like being back home. Talking to some of the other boys--boys who were cristoforo, and for whom Nevarsin was an end, not merely a means--was nothing like that. They really believe everything the monks teach here. And yet they're as smart as I am, I who am one of the Sons of Light. How is this possible?
"Well, we'll just see how happy he is when I get done with him." Felix replied ominously. "That little mouse has got something up his sleeves, I know it. He'd like nothing better than to see me fail, and Brother Marius just handed him a golden opportunity. I think I'd better convince him that he ought to be sick tomorrow morning." Felix cracked his knuckles, a grim smile on his face.
"No you won't." Rafael grabbed Felix by one massive arm and whispered fiercely. "You can be a nice enough fellow, Felix, and your father is a friend of my father's, but if you so much as lay a finger on Damien, I will personally pound you into next month. Do you understand me?"
Felix looked at him for a long moment in stunned surprise. "What's it to you? You want to get in good with the brothers by befriending the rejects, that's your business. But this has nothing to do with you, Rafael." He looked so honestly bewildered that Rafael wanted to shake him.
"It matters to me because Damien is a friend of mine! And I'm tired of staying silent while you poke fun at him and the other students you call 'rejects' just so that I can keep in your good graces! It's cruel, and it's wrong." Rafael shoved himself up and away from the table, trembling. He had never challenged one of his social superiors before, never challenged the way that things were done within Comyn society. "Damien's worth a dozen of you, you headblind idiot!"
"Really?" Felix' voice was dangerously low. "And since when did you become a cristoforo? You know as well as I do that none of the rejects would be 'worth' two sekals down in the lowlands. Maybe that's too bad for them, but it's a fact of life. Damien and Alar and the others can spend the rest of their worthless lives up here, but you and I will make a difference! I'll rule Ardais some day, and then all of this will seem like the stable sweepings it really is. I'd rather not have to count you as an enemy when it happens, Rafael." Felix was standing as well, his ruddy face flushed with anger.
"If all it takes to become your enemy is to gainsay you when you'd beat a small boy who's done nothing to harm you, then I guess you'd better just start counting me an enemy now." I've just made an enemy of the Heir to Ardais, he thought dizzily. Strangely, he didn't feel afraid or guilty, as he would have just a tenday before. "I meant what I said, Felix. If anything happens to Damien tonight, or if he 'accidently' slips off the trail tomorrow, I'm going to hold you personally responsible." Something in his voice reached the angry Ardais lad, for he stepped back a pace and looked at Rafael warily.
"You'd call challenge on me over that freak?" Felix' voice held equal parts surprise and anger.
"He's not a freak!" Rafael tightened his hands into fists, good sense forgotten. Felix was half a head taller than he, and outweighed him by at least forty pounds, but that didn't seem to matter. Something heavy twisted in his stomach and crawled up into his throat as he remembered all the times he'd laughed at Felix's jokes, stood by and watched while the Ardais boy tormented some hapless "reject." He wanted nothing more than to pound in Felix' smug, arrogant face in. "And I think you need a taste of what you've been so eager to dish out, Felix." Rafael took a step forward, raising his fists. The larger boy sneered and took a step toward him, only to suddenly drop his fists and lower his eyes humbly.
"Yes, Brother Marius?" Felix had dropped into the role of a sincere penitent, a move which, Rafael knew, had kept him from expulsion more than once before. Rafael relaxed his own fists and closed his eyes, waiting for the punishment that was surely coming. If harsh words were punishable by a day spent in silence, he could scarcely imagine what would be in store for students who started a fistfight in the middle of the dining hall. He heard the soft sound of footsteps as the hawk-faced monk Brother Marius walked slowly around him to face both Felix and himself.
"I should have both of you on punishment detail for a month, for this unseemly display. Anger and hatred belong to the outside world, not to us here in Nevarsin." Rafael risked opening his eyes, and saw the monk staring at him intensely. "But I think you will be far better served by my doing... nothing."
Both boys sighed, confusion and relief apparent on both of their faces.
"Oh, don't thank me just yet. Tomorrow you will face trials which will make a month of shoveling manure seem pleasant by comparison. Pray to the Holy Bearer of Burdens that you will find the strength to face what you discover, little brothers." The monk seemed about to say more, then changed his mind. "Now, off to bed, both of you. The Hunt begins at second bell, and you will need all of your strength if you are to... succeed."
Why am I so sure he meant to say "survive," Rafael wondered uneasily as they both bowed and turned away. What awaits us on this Hunt?
The next day was crisp and clear, just as the leroni at Neskaya had promised. Rafael fidgeted eagerly as Brother Marius issued final instructions for the Hunt. Felix was listening dutifully beside him, the Ardais boy's face filled with grim determination. But where was Damien?
"Each of you will have one pack of emergency supplies, including water, dried food, a blanket, and bandages. We use these supplies in aid of the travelers we seek; all of you are capable of finding your own sustenance while in these mountains and will be expected to do so this day. Each group will also receive one rope of a suitable length for climbing and for rigging a travois, should one be needed. Are there any final questions?" There was a general shaking of heads from the boys and novices, all of them eager to be away. Brother Marius nodded, and gestured for one of the other brothers to begin handing out the emergency packs. Rafael scanned the crowd quickly, concerned.
"Felix, you didn't--"
"Of course not," the bigger boy interrupted. "What do you think I am, stupid? Brother Marius would have had my head if anything happened to the mouse, after last night. Maybe he just chickened out."
"Sorry to disappoint you, Felix." Damien slipped from the crowd to stand beside them, his face curiously subdued. "Are we ready to go?"
"We are now. Brother Marius says that we're to take the western trail. Are you all right? Is your arm still bothering you?" Rafael frowned. Damien didn't look like himself, that much was certain. The smaller boy nodded, avoiding his gaze.
"I'm fine. Brother Derik says that I shouldn't put too much weight on my right arm, but that shouldn't be a problem." He shrugged dismissively. "I don't have that much weight to put on it, after all. We'd better get going, don't you think?" Steadfastly ignoring Rafael's look of concern, Damien turned and started walking toward the winding trail Brother Marius had pointed out to them.
"Sounds like a good idea to me." Easily shouldering the pack and settling the long coil of rope on one shoulder and across his body, Felix turned and began walking quickly after Damien. Rafael watched as Felix shouldered by Damien to take the lead before resignedly heading out after them. Between Felix's arrogant self-assurance and Damien's strange reticence, it looked like it was going to be a very trying day.
"Look at this view! I told you it would be worth it. We can see everything for miles. Too bad we don't have a spyglass, or we could probably find all of the brothers from here!" Felix turned back to face Rafael as he slowly made his way to the top of the mountain. Rafael sat down on an exposed boulder with a sigh of relief, his breath coming in shallow gasps..
"I'd settle for just one of them." He glanced over at Damien, who was calmly knocking the snow from his sandals. "So how come you aren't as tired as I am, Damien? You're stride's even smaller than mine, and I know I've had trouble following the pace Dom Felix has set for us."
"That pace is going to let us find one of the 'travelers' and get back to the monastery in record time. Surely that's worth an extra blister or two?" Felix looked down at him and Damien in annoyance, and Rafael shrugged wearily.
"I guess you're just twice the man I am, Felix. Satisfied?" Felix turned away, a smug smile on his face, and Damien leaned over to whisper in Rafael's ear.
"He is twice the man we are. Felix is so heavy he leaves a trail a herd of cattle could follow. Walk in his footsteps, Rafe, and you won't have any trouble at all." Damien grinned, and Rafael smiled in return. The last few hours had seen some of Damien's usual good cheer return, and it had made the hard climbing that much easier. Felix had steadfastly ignored the smaller boy, which seemed to be as much of a compromise as the Ardais lad was willing to make. Forcing himself to his feet, Rafael walked over to where Felix was standing.
"Can you see anyone?" He squinted down at the snow-covered hills, the glare making it hard to make out whether those were boulders or people far below them.
"There's one off the trail, over there," Felix pointed. "But one of the other teams is coming up the same trail. Unless they've gone completely snowblind, they'll see him in no time. We need to find someone else."
"How about him?" Damien was to their left, looking out over the steep drop of the mountain's northern face. Rafael and Felix quickly joined him there.
"I don't see anyone. You probably saw a rabbithorn, mouse." Felix started to turn away and Damien grabbed his arm.
"Over there. See? He's moving up that little trail between the tallest of those resin trees." Damien pointed, and Felix and Rafael squinted in that direction. Sure enough, Rafael could just make out a dark speck, moving slowly up the side of the neighboring hill.
"I see him! Good work, Damien!" He clapped his friend of the shoulder in congratulations and got a swift, powerful jolt of well-hidden grief before he felt the smaller boy's barriers come up quickly between them. Blinking away tears of sympathetic pain, he stood speechless as Damien turned quickly away.
"We'd better get moving back down the trail, then. We'll be lucky to make it there by dark. I've no desire to stumbling around these narrow trails after that." Felix nodded and adjusted their pack, apparently unable to hear the tightness in the other boy's voice.
"We'll get there, all right. We're going down the north face." He pulled the coil of rope over his head and wrapped one end around a sturdy-looking tree at the edge of the flat ground adjoining the steep northern slope.
"Have you completely lost your wits? None of us is equipped for a climb like that." Rafael shook his head in disbelief. Felix ignored him, tossing the free end of the rope over the edge and testing the strength of the knot he'd tied.
"Rafael's right, Felix." Damien had turned around, and now stood next to Rafael as Felix prepared to start down the slope. "The rocks are covered with ice this time of year. Even a chervine wouldn't try it. Come on, we've got time to make it, if we stop this fooling around."
"You'd say that, little half-man," Felix sneered. "Why don't you just stay here and recite the creed of chastity while I go retrieve our brother traveler? You can meet Rafael and me on the trail below. We'll let you take credit for what we do, won't we, Rafe?" At Rafael's stubborn look, he shrugged. "Then I'll go alone. Don't worry, I'll send someone back to recover you two little lost lambs." With that, Felix swung over the side and began making his careful way down the steep, rock-strewn slope.
"Blast it, Felix!" Rafael ran to the edge of the cliff and looked down its dizzying height. "You know that all of us have to go, or none of us will win! Is that what you want?" Felix ignored him, continuing down the slope with apparent ease.
"He knows," Damien sighed. "I think he's counting on it. C'mon, we'd better go after him." With a shrug of resignation Damien followed Felix over the edge and began climbing, with a good deal more caution, down the rope. Wonderful. Brother Marius was right. This is going to be a very trying day. With one last look around at the peaceful view, Rafael carefully began lowering himself down the slick, craggy slope.
"Come on, you two! We're almost there!" Felix looked up at Rafael and Damien as they slowly inched their way down the mountainside. The smug smile that he'd been wearing every since they began following him down didn't waver, even though his face was slick with sweat. It was hard work, made harder by the fact that they did it with only one rope and the simply leather sandals that they always wore. Rafael paused to wipe the sweat from his palms. Felix was far below them, and almost at the end of their rope. Wonder how he plans to get our rope down? Rafael had a bad feeling that Ardais hadn't been thinking that far ahead. He's determined to prove himself by being the first one to arrive, just like he was last year. I hope we don't need that rope for anything. If one of use should slip... Rafael paused, a curious feeling washing over him. Just below him, he saw Damien stop and look around as well.
"What is it, Damien?" he called out.
"I don't know. Can you feel anything? I thought I felt something strange." Damien looked up at him, his pale eyebrows knitted together in concern.
"Come on, you light-weights! You're wasting precious daylight!" Felix took one hand off the rope and waved impatiently at them. "Let's go!" Suddenly the ground shifted beneath them, and Felix grabbed for the shaking rope. He missed his first try, and was trying a second time when something made Rafael look up.
Small drifts of snow were cascading down the hill. Just a few at first, they rapidly became a river. There was a low, ominous rumble from somewhere up above them. Rafael's heart leapt into his throat. "Avalanche! Damien! Felix! Hold--" Turned to look down the slope at his companions, Rafael never saw the wave of snow that overtook them, sending the three boys crashing down the steep mountainside.
"Oooh. What hit us?" Rafael heard a voice from far away. It sounded somehow familiar, but it was far easier to go back to sleep than to worry about who had snuck into his bedroom while he was sleeping. He was warm, and so very tired. Just a few minutes more, he reassured himself. Then I'll get up. "Rafael! Rafe, wake up!" Someone was pulling away his blankets, exposing him to a bitterly cold wind. Now that same rude servant was shaking his shoulder, shouting his name in his ear. "Rafe!"
"I'm up, I'm up. I'll have your head for waking me so early, Piedro." Through the warm hand on his shoulder he felt a great wave of relief, and it surprised him into opening his eyes fully. Damien was kneeling over him, his great mass of pale red hair now dark and matted with blood. "Damien? What happened? How did you come to be hurt? Did Felix sneak into your room?" Past and present mingled uneasily in his mind as he tried to remember what had happened.
"Not this time. We were caught in an avalanche, Rafe. Don't you remember?" Small, six- fingered hands probed gently at his head, exposing a large lump which began to throb at the boy's touch.
"Ouch! Stop that!" Swatting at Damien's hands, Rafael frowned. He remembered fighting with Felix, and the hawk-faced Brother Marius saying, 'Tomorrow you will face trials which will make a month of shoveling manure seem pleasant by comparison. Pray to the Holy Bearer of Burdens that you will find the strength to face what you discover...' Then there had been a great white cloud, descending over them like doom. "An avalanche! Damien, we have to--" Rafael sat up abruptly and the world spun around him. Damien put a steadying hand on one shoulder, and the spinning gradually slowly to a gentle rocking.
"I know. We were pretty lucky, you and I. Here, let me help you up." Standing awkwardly on the rough slope, Damien extended his left hand. Rafael grabbed it and began to pull himself to his feet.
"Ow! Oh, Evanda!" Rafael sat back in the snow with a thud, his right leg burning like fire. "Damien, my leg!" Breathing through clenched teeth, Rafe watched as Damien quickly pushed the snow away from his lower body. The young novice pulled back with a gasp of surprise as he shoved the last of the snow aside.
"Oh, Rafe. I think you weren't so lucky, after all."
Rafael nodded, looking down at the wreck of his right leg. A heavy stone pinned it brutally to the ground, with what remained of his ankle canted crazily to one side below it. There wasn't much blood, but it was obvious that he'd managed to break his ankle badly, at the very least. A dull throbbing cut through the numbness the snow had created, stronger with each beat of his heart. "I think you're right." Tearing his gaze from his leg, Rafael forced himself to think clearly. "Have you found Felix?" His heart sank when Damien shook his head.
"No, but then I only just awoke myself."
"Hellooo." As if on cue, Felix's voice echoed up to them. Both boys turned in surprise to see the tall student walking carefully across the newly-packed snow. "So you both made it, eh? That was some avalanche!" Felix, Rafael noted with a glimmer of resentment, was apparently unscathed by their fall down the mountainside. As Felix joined them, Rafael saw that, beneath his mask of concern, Felix's eyes were dancing. "But I'm afraid we've got a problem. I found Brother Miguel. He was caught in the avalanche as well, and looks pretty badly injured. We're going to have to carry him back, I think."
"We've got more than one problem, Felix," Damien said reproachfully. "Rafael's broken his leg. I won't know for certain until we get this rock off of him, but it looks pretty bad. If Brother Miguel is as badly wounded as you say, we'd better get a shelter together and wait for help to arrive."
"Are you crazy? No one will find us out here, not for hours, maybe days! I'll go back down the trail and get help. You and Rafael can take care of the brother until I get back." Felix waved casually down the hill. "I've done what I can for Miguel. You two can wait over there with him. I'll be back at dawn with help." Something in his voice caused Rafael's eyes to narrow in suspicion.
"You can't!" Damien's voice cracked with anger. "Rafael can't stand, much less walk down to wherever you've left Brother Miguel. You know the rules, Felix. We all stay, or we all go."
"And you'd be the crazy one to try to go down the trail now. It's almost dark, Felix. Wait until tomorrow. You and Damien can go for help then." With a sudden flash of insight, Rafael knew the real reason Felix was so eager to go for help. "You still think this is all about you, don't you? Felix, no one will care that you're not the first one back, not after this! The brothers will probably call off the whole Hunt. There's no need to go back now!"
"You'd like that, wouldn't you? You and the runt have been out to make me look bad from the start. From Damien I could almost understand it, but you, Rafael? You're a disgrace to the Comyn." A sneer of anger and frustration turned Felix's normally handsome face ugly.
"At least help me get Rafe over to Brother Miguel. You know he's too heavy for me to move myself, Felix," Damien said.
"Do it yourself. You to have been waiting to get at each other for days. Don't let me stop you now." Felix spat disgustedly into the snow at his feet before wheeling around and sliding back down the slope to the narrow mountain trail. Rafael and Damien watched in stunned silence until they could no longer see his tall, powerful form on the road below.
"I can't believe he'd do this," Rafael whispered. "He's leaving us to die just so he can win a stupid contest." Damien sat down next to him with a sigh.
"And the really insane thing is, he can't win. If he was thinking rationally, Felix'd know it. I guess he's thinking that if he brings help back, he'll look like enough of a hero that they'll overlook the fact that he left us in the first place. I feel sorry for him."
"You do? After everything that he's done to you?" Rafe asked, surprised.
"Well, I have to admit I wouldn't mind him falling on his face in front of all the other students. Ten or twenty times," Damien added with a faint grin. "But he's so determined to win everyone's admiration--everyone important, anyway--that he'll do almost anything to get it. I used to feel the same way about my father." He seemed about to say more, then clapped Rafael lightly on the shoulder. "But that's not important. What is important is getting you dug up and to shelter before it's fully dark. I'll go check on Brother Miguel, and bring the emergency supplies back here. See if you can spot a nice, big stick while I'm gone so I can pry this thing off your leg, won't you?"
It had taken them more than half an hour to pry the heavy rock off of his leg after Damien returned, and when it finally rolled free his leg began to bleed alarmingly, the pain almost blinding. Damien had been able to staunch the bleeding, but, even leaning heavily on the smaller boy, by the time Rafael managed to get back to the small shelter Felix had created he was lightheaded and nearly sick with pain.
"Here." Damien helped lower him to the ground near the still Brother Miguel. "Rafe, it's important that you stay awake until I come back. I need to get firewood to keep you and Brother Miguel warm. Can you do that?" The light-hearted boy Rafael had first met seemed to have disappeared, to be replaced by this small, serious young novice. He felt Damien's fingers brush against his forehead with the impersonal touch of a healer.
"I think I can manage that much." Damien looked at him skeptically, but at last nodded.
"I'll be as quick as I can. Try to practice your breathing exercises. If you go into shock, you'll hamper the circulation in your hands and feet, and that wouldn't be a good thing in this weather." Saying that, Damien turned and walked quickly toward the resin trees nearby. Rafael tried to watch for him, but soon found his eyelids getting heavier and heavier. I don't feel cold at all. The breathing exercises must be working better than I thought. But I am so very tired...
"Rafe!" In seemingly the next instant Damien was back, shaking his shoulder roughly. "Rafe, wake up!" Reluctantly, Rafael opened his eyes. Damien was again kneeling in front of him, the warm glow of a fire putting his face into silhouette. "Rafe, give me your hands." Rafael watched as his hands, apparently of their own volition, floated up into view. "Rafe, you're in shock. Try to breathe deeply." Damien wrapped his small hands around Rafael's own, and Rafe became aware of how cold his own hands were as warmth began to soak into them. Rafael wondered fuzzily why Damien was wearing only his thin undergarment.
"Because you need the extra warmth." Releasing one of his hands, Damien reached up and lightly touched Rafael's forehead and his thoughts seemed to come into focus. "Stay with me, Rafael." Damien grabbed his hand again and squeezed tightly. "Don't leave me here alone. I can't do this by myself. Please, Rafe!" Rafael had the distinct impression that Damien was crying, but when he opened his eyes again, he saw only the concerned face of a novice healer.
"I'll try," he managed faintly, and was rewarded with a smile of relief from Damien.
"I want you to try and eat something. That should help build up your strength, I think." Damien reached into the emergency pack and pulled out a packet of dried fruit. The stuff looked anything but appealing, but Rafael obediently stuffed some of the over-sweet stuff into his mouth. As it began to soften on his tongue Rafael began to feel like he might actually be hungry after all. Quickly finishing off the dried fruit and feeling a little more clear-headed, he took stock of their situation.
They were crowded against a fallen tree that was easily as big around as the three of them put together. To one side was a large granite boulder, and leaning against the other side of the tree and arching overhead was a collection of tree branches and other greenery which seemed to be keeping out the worst of the cold wind. At the opening between the branches and the boulder Damien had built a fire, and Rafael could feel the heat slowly warming his ice-cold hands and feet. His leg was a throbbing mass of pain, and he quickly averted his eyes from the sight of his terrible shattered ankle. Brother Miguel, he saw, lay unmoving near the fire.
"How's Brother Miguel?" he asked.
"Not good." Damien sighed, running one hand through his matted hair. "He's got a bad head injury. I stopped the internal bleeding, I think, but I don't know how long the repair will hold, and I'm worried about his breathing." He bit his lower lip in frustration. "We need to get him back to Brother Derik, but I don't know how we'll do it. You're in no condition to walk, and I couldn't carry either one of you, much less both. I'm just too small!"
"You're just the right size for Damien, remember?" Rafael smiled faintly. Who would have thought he would ever quote cristoforo philosophy? Damien rolled his eyes in response.
"Maybe so, but I wish I was the right size for Felix just now." He laughed, a short, harsh sound with no humor in it, and turned back toward the fire. "Small chance of that ever happening. We'll just have to wait and hope Felix gets through, I suppose." They sat in silence for a while, watching the flickering flames. As the food and the breathing techniques he finally remembered to use began to warm his body, Rafael became aware that his friend was crying.
"Damien? Damien, what's wrong?" The smaller boy was sitting out of arm's reach, but Rafael projected his concern out toward his friend, imagining a hand reaching out to offer comfort.
"What's wrong?" Damien tried to laugh, but it came out as a ragged sob. "I don't know. Maybe it's just that you're in terrible pain and may lose your leg, and that Brother Miguel may be dying, and there's not a blessed thing I can do about any of it! Felix wouldn't have left you here if it wasn't for your sticking up for me. My father was right. I'm not good for anything. No wonder he doesn't want me." His head sank down onto his knees.
"I'm sure it's not like that," Rafael said soothingly. "What did your father write? And I thought you wanted to stay at Nevarsin, Damien." Ruthlessly he pushed aside his own fears about his leg, unwittingly confirmed by the other boy. Right now there was nothing more either of them could do about the damage to his leg, and Damien's pain, coming in waves off the miserable boy, was far greater than his own.
"Oh, I like it here well enough. The brothers are very kind, and there's always something new and interesting to learn. It's just that," Damien paused for so long that Rafael was afraid he wouldn't be able to continue. "I told you my sister was to be married? Jenna's the oldest, only a year younger than me. I wrote to father when I heard. I thought that, that," Damien's voice trailed off, and Rafael heard and felt him take a deep, painful breath. "I just wanted to see Jenna get married, you know? We were always so close, with only a year between us. She's going to make a beautiful bride." Damien rubbed at his eyes before turning to face Rafael, his face desolate. "He doesn't want me to come, Rafael."
"Well, it's a long ride, especially in winter. Maybe he just didn't want you to risk the winter roads."
Damien shook his head wanly.
"No. The wedding's not until spring, remember? He just doesn't want to see me, Rafe." Damien's mouth worked painfully, and he dropped his gaze to his lap. "He's never been very pleased with me, I know that. But I always thought, if I did well here, he'd be proud of me, if only a little. Then yesterday Father Master received a letter from him. It was about my request to come home." Damien's voice was so soft that Rafael had to strain to hear it.
"Father told Father Master that, that, if the brethren could find a use for me, they were more than welcome to keep me. He said that, now that my little brother Regis has been accepted by Council as his Heir, he doesn't have need of me any longer. I embarrass him, Rafe. His first born son, and I'll never grow up, never become a man." The dull pain in Damien's voice was a thousand times worse than tears.
Merciful Evanda. And I thought my father uncaring. How could any man treat his child this way? Ignoring his own pain, Rafael awkwardly shifted himself closer to Damien and put his arm around his friend's shoulders. "Damien, don't. Your father is wrong." He could feel Damien trembling like an animal caught in a trap beneath his arm. "Look at how well you've done here! I've been less than no help at all. You got me to shelter, and probably saved Brother Miguel's life. That's a lot more than Felix did, and he wasn't hurt at all!" Not sure how he knew, Rafael was aware that Damien's own head was still throbbing from the gash he sustained in the avalanche, and that two of his ribs were painfully cracked. Damien shrugged and looked away.
"Anyone else would have done the same, or more."
"Felix didn't! Heir to Ardais or no, he left us behind so that he'd have a chance at personal glory. What kind of a man would abandon his fellows like that? You could've gone on as well, but you chose to stay. I don't care what your father or anyone else says, Damien. You're twice the man he is, bredu, and if you don't know it, you should!" Deliberately, Rafael opened himself completely to his friend, accepting Damien's pain and shame and offering his own new-found compassion in return. I was as blind as the rest of them. I stood by and did nothing when Felix and the others tormented you, kept my friendship with him even after he broke your arm. Bredu, can you forgive me? The word bredu hung in the air between them. A small, traitorous part of his mind reflected on what his father would say, when he heard that his second-born son had sworn the oath of bredin with the unwanted emmasca son of some unknown Hastur lackey. The thought didn't bring with it any distress, however, only a deep sadness that his father would never be able to understand why he had done it, or what it meant to him.
It's not as bad as that, bredu, Damien replied. Just tell him that you've sworn the oath with the King's own nephew. That ought to please him to no end. Rafael heard Damien's mental laughter with relief. I wouldn't mention the rest, though. Aldones knows we wouldn't want him to keel over dead.
"Does that mean that you'll swear the oath with me?" Rafael asked. Damien smiled shyly as the first intensity of their rapport began to fade, leaving behind a strong, clear tie between them.
"Of course. I just wish I had a knife to give you, Rafe. I don't think that exchanging porridge bowls would have quite the same impact." The playful twinkle was coming back into his eyes, and he nudged Rafael lightly in the ribs with his elbow. "And the Lord of Light would probably strike us both down if we exchanged prayer books, don't you think?"
"Probably." Rafael sobered quickly. "But it needs something. Here." Rafael slowly and carefully reached over to their now greatly depleted emergency pack and withdrew the short, sharp knife inside. "I think this will do." Turning to face his friend, Rafael offered the knife to Damien, hilt first. Solemnly, the other boy grasped the hilt, squeezing it tightly and then opening his hand, the hilt resting on his open palm.
"One knife, one life. May this and every knife turn against me if I ever hurt you, bredu." Damien looked at him steadily, his barriers down. Rafael smiled, feeling his warm, steady acceptance. No one had ever accepted him just for himself before now. I was always Dom An'dra's second son, he realized, just a set of genes with a duty to family and clan. Wordlessly, he placed his hand on top of Damien's, the knife hilt resting between their palms.
"One knife, one life," he repeated. "Your enemies are mine, bredu. Always." Their fingers intertwined, and Rafael became aware of a devastating loneliness so powerful that he wanted to weep even as it dissipated under their newfound bond. It's not just Damien's, he realized with a start, but mine, too. All of my life I've wanted a bond like this one. Impulsively he drew Damien into a warm embrace. Thank you, bredu.
Damien's wordless acceptance flooded through him as the boy wrapped his own arms around him. You'll never be alone again, Rafe. Neither of us will. Rafael felt his quicksilver laughter. Now, would you let me go? My ribs are killing me. Rafael quickly released him, sitting back with a laugh of his own.
"You're really the King's nephew?" Rafael asked. "Really, Damien, you should have said as much. You could've had Felix fawning at your feet." The image was so ludicrous that it sent both of them into fits of giggling.
"I was too embarrassed. I mean, the King is a good man, but his brother is something of a embarrassment, you know." Damien struggled to keep a straight face, his grey eyes dancing. "Oh, well. We all have our crosses to bear, as the brothers would say." Rafael patted Damien's shoulder in mock sympathy, relieved to see that his friend was able to joke about it now. "Maybe someday he'll straighten out. Until then we'll just have to hope he stays safely away in Thendara."
The next morning had dawned bright and clear. They had both slept soundly, physical and mental exhaustion mercifully numbing the pain of their injuries. At Damien's suggestion they had slept on either side of Brother Miguel to keep him as warm as possible, and the monk seemed to Rafael to be somewhat better by morning. He was still unconscious, but Damien assured him that the brother's head injury no longer bled within his skull, and ventured the tentative opinion that the monk might survive the long trip back down to the monastery.
Rafael's leg was another matter. Damien had splinted it the night before, and applied pressure bandages, but by the next morning it was swollen and throbbing. Cold packs helped to reduce the swelling, but by the end of the day his whole leg seemed swollen, the skin shiny-taut, and Damien insisted on monitoring him again. Rafael watched nervously as Damien ran one hand an inch above his leg, frowning in concentration. It seemed to go on for a long time. Finally, Damien sat back, rubbing at his temples.
"Well?" Rafael asked.
"It's not good. When the bones in your ankle splintered they cut off some of the circulation to your foot. I was able to stop the bleeding last night, but some of the tissue in your heel is starting to die. If the bones were reset the circulation could be restored fairly easily, but that's beyond my abilities."
Rafael swallowed, trying to move the lump that had suddenly appeared in his throat. "And if it's not done soon?"
"You could lose your foot. And you've got a second break here." he pointed to a bruised, swollen spot on Rafael's shin, "The swelling there is interfering with your circulation as well. I'd hate to think of what would happen if your circulation was cut off completely at that point. Again, it's something that Brother Derik could take care of easily, if we could only get you to him." Damien looked up at the darkening sky. It was now nearly dark, and the first grey storm clouds were moving lazily across the sky. "Even if Felix's rescue team gets here today, we won't be able to get you down until tomorrow. Your life's not in any danger, Rafe," he hastened to reassure him, "but if you want to keep the use of your leg, I wouldn't want to see you wait any longer than that."
"Can't you do something? You've got the laran to do this kind of work, don't you?"
Damien shook his head. "I can monitor, and see what has gone wrong. That's not hard. I can even see your molecular structure, Rafe, and see how the bone cells are trying to knit themselves back together at the site of the injury. But it's a long way from watching to repairing. Brother Derik explained the theory to me after I broke my arm, but I've never seen it done." He sighed. "Brother Derik's own laran is very strong, and he's promised me that I shall start to learn the techniques as soon as I take the novice's vows at Midwinter. But that doesn't help us much now, does it?"
"No, I suppose not." He grinned and reached out to touch Damien's arm as the boy yawned hugely. "You should eat something and rest. Laran work takes a lot out of you, I've always heard."
"I'd never noticed, before." Damien yawned again, then picked up one of the wild tubers they'd found and began to gnaw on it with a grimace of disgust. "Makes you hungry, too. Will you keep an eye on Brother Marius while I take a nap? I think he's going to wake up soon, and we'd better have some broth ready for him."
"I'll get it started. You get some rest, bredu." Damien smiled at him then stretched out on the cool ground, his eyes already drooping. "I'll wake you up when the rescue party gets here."
"See that you do," Damien replied sleepily. "I'd hate to sleep through Felix's triumphant return. Think he'll show up with banner bearers and dancing ladies from the Dry-Towns? I wouldn't mind seeing that."
"I'll settle for him arriving at all. Now shut your trap and get some sleep, would you? You're a very annoying young man," he added, screwing up his features like the portly healer.
"Yes, brother," Damien replied, in a voice of long suffering. They both snickered, then Rafael turned to watch the storm clouds gather as Damien fell into a light sleep. I hope Felix made it to the monastery safely. Unless I miss my guess, those clouds will be bringing the next snows down upon us before tomorrow night. Damn the man, anyway! We could all be there now, if he'd only waited until this morning so that all of us could leave.
Rafael? The mental voice was very weak and faint, and Rafael turned around in alarm. Both Damien and Brother Miguel slept soundly. Could it have been his imagination? Rafael awkwardly slid over to the unconscious monk and checked his pulse and breathing. They seemed normal, with a some color beginning to appear in his pale cheeks. Brother Miguel was entirely without laran, anyway, and so very unlikely to reach him that way.
Damien certainly could. Rafael frowned as he looked back at his friend. On the surface it had seemed that he had come to terms with his father's callous rejection. Had he simply not wanted to inflict his pain any further on his newly sworn brother? Rafael laid one hand lightly on Damien's wrist. Immediately the bond between them grew stronger and he felt Damien's sleeping awareness turn toward him. It's nothing, Damien. Rafael felt his trusting acceptance as Damien slipped back into deep sleep. Once again Rafael was struck by the intensity of his feelings for his sworn brother. Felix had taunted them for their closeness just yesterday, and Rafael had shrugged it off as just another insult. Apparently the Ardais boy had seen something even before they did themselves. It wasn't sexual (and couldn't have been, in any case), but it was certainly powerful nonetheless. Who would have figured that Felix could be so sensitive? I didn't think he had any laran to speak of.
Rafa... The voice faded away. Or had it been there at all? Rafael knew that his own laran was not terribly trustworthy just yet. He had barely survived threshold sickness before they handed him a matrix and sent him off to Nevarsin, and there had been precious little time to practice his gifts since them. Pulling his matrix free of the leather pouch he carried it in around his neck, Rafael tried to send his mind casting outward for whoever had called his name. Is anyone out there? Can you hear me? Please, we need help.
Nothing. They had tried to reach Nevarsin with laran earlier, of course, but both he and Damien had been tired and weak, and they hadn't been able to reach a single mind at the monastery. Yet I heard something. I'm sure of it. Frowning, Rafael turned his attention back to their small stew pot and began tossing in some of their precious herbs. The broth would warm and nourish them, and would surely be of more use than his over-active imagination.
He was cold and alone. The darkness was all around him, clutching at him with ice-cold fingers. Time and time again he would feel himself begin to drift off into sleep, only to jerk himself awake in terror. The small outcropping he lay on was fragile and crumbling and dropped off sharply on one side. One wrong move in his sleep and he would plunge thousands of feet onto the snow-covered rocks below. It was better to lay still and awake, listening to the shrill screams of the banshees somewhere up above. He knew rationally that they couldn't get to him, trapped as he was on this narrow ledge, but their terrible cries still sent shivers down his spine each time one of them cried out in lust or rage. The banshees would not have him, but as the wind picked up and the first flurries of snow began to drift down he knew that it didn't matter. The harsh Hellers winter was going to finish was his unlucky fall had started. Cold and alone, knowing that he was going to die on this miserable ledge, he began to weep.
Rafael woke with a start, his cheeks slick with tears. Merciful Avarra! What a nightmare! He rubbed his hands over his arms rapidly, trembling with reaction. He wasn't dying alone on some cliff. He was here, safe and warm, Damien and Brother Miguel beside him. He would never again feel that terrible, soul-deep loneliness. But it had seemed so real!
"Rafe? Are you all right?" Damien was sitting up on the other side of Brother Miguel, looking at him drowsily. "I thought I heard you crying."
"It was just a dream, I think." Rafael sounded doubtful, even to himself. "Neither of us is stuck out in that," he gestured toward the shelter's opening, where they could see snow flurries tumbling down onto fresh snow, "so that must be all it was." He could hear the doubt in his own voice.
"Rafe, do you think you heard one of the other students?" Damien asked tentatively.
"I don't think so," Rafael said slowly. "My range is terrible, you know that. Maybe if it was you, or my father, I'd have heard something, but some stranger?" He shook his head. "My gift just isn't that strong."
Damien had gone white. "But what if it wasn't a total stranger? What if it was--"
"Felix," Rafael finished. "Oh, gods. He went down the trail in the near-dark. What if he got himself into trouble somewhere? We didn't go the way we were instructed to, thanks to him. Even if they have sent out a rescue party, they'll be looking in the wrong place. And if that was Felix, I don't think he's going to survive much longer."
Damien sighed. "He couldn't have waited until after he told them where we are before tumbling off a cliff?" At Rafael's look he nodded sheepishly. "I know, I know. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy, not really. I just think a little leavening of humility would do our Brother Felix a world of good."
"Oh, I think he's going to learn humility," Rafael said with a grim smile. "Can you imagine his face when we rescue him?"
"I still can't believe we're doing this," Damien grumbled. "Felix will probably throw himself off that ledge before he lets us anywhere near him, you know." Giving the thin strip of blanket that was their makeshift rope an experimental tug, he surveyed the rough-looking travois they'd made. It looked ridiculous, certainly, with thin and thick branches held together with bits of blanket, cloth, and some thick vine that they'd found wrapped snugly around one of the resin trees. Brother Miguel rested snugly on it, though, and had even managed to nod his approval before slipping back into what they hoped was a healing sleep. Taking a firm grip on the "rope," Damien pulled the travois over to where Rafael was testing his equally-makeshift crutch.
"We'll just see about that. I don't know about you, but I don't intend to come back without all three members of my team." Rafael made his voice as confident as he could, but he knew he wasn't fooling either of them. His leg throbbed abominably, and he could only manage a few limping paces before he was forced to rest, the world spinning around him. But what choice do we have? It could be days before they find us. Felix will surely be dead by then, and I'll have lost the use of my leg. And Brother Miguel needs better care than we can give him. He looked apprehensively at the dark sky. It had stopped snowing at daybreak, but the clouds continued to hang threateningly overhead. Waiting for us to leave shelter, I've no doubt. "Well, we might as well get moving."
Damien slipped the long strips of cloth across his narrow chest, forming a rough harness. "We're not getting any closer just standing here, I suppose." With a grunt of effort he started forward, pulling Brother Miguel behind him. Rafael hopped along awkwardly beside him and they began slowly making their way down the narrow path.
It was the longest day Rafael had ever known. Rafael had thought himself in good shape, made even stronger by the physical labor the brothers compelled them to do each day. Wasn't I wrong about that. I feel as weak as a kitten. And Damien isn't faring any better. He shot a look at his friend as he struggled up the trail, lugging the unconscious Miguel behind him. While Damien was much stronger than he would have expected, given his rather delicate appearance, the small boy's wiry strength was no match for the weight of a full-grown man. Even as Rafael watched Damien staggered and fell face-forward into the snow. He was up again almost immediately, but stumbled as he tried to get the heavy travois moving again.
"Break time," Rafael gasped. Knowing it would be that much harder to get moving again, he nonetheless sank slowly down onto a hardened drift of snow. Scooping up a handful of snow, he pressed it gingerly against his throbbing leg. "Ahhh. Much better." He grinned as Damien plunked himself down where he was, flopping onto his back with an exaggerated sigh of relief.
"Gives you a new appreciation for drayhorses, doesn't it?" Damien said with a faint grin. Rafael could see the boy's thin chest rising and falling rapidly as he struggled to regain his depleted strength. It was very tempting to suggest that they stop here and wait for rescue. They had come at least two miles down the trail, and the western pass was only a stone's throw farther. The snow was falling heavier by the minute, and there were only a few hours of daylight left anyway. I'll just close my eyes for a minute. Just one minute, that's all.
Seconds later Damien was shaking his shoulder. "Rafe? Rafe, wake up!"
"Uhh? Damien? Did I fall asleep?" Rafael blinked in confusion.
"You were raving about banshees, I think." Damien sat back on his heels and looked at him in concern. "That wasn't your dream, was it?"
"No." Rafael looked down the long, winding trail in front of them. "It was Felix. He must be nearby, or I wouldn't have gotten it so strongly. I don't like the feel of it, Damien. I think he's growing delirious."
Damien nodded. "He's been without food or water for nearly twenty eight hours by now. He'll be in shock, and probably freezing cold. We'd better hurry, Rafe."
"Hurry where? Can you sense him? If he got far off the trail, he could be anywhere."
Rafael pulled out his matrix with fingers almost numb with cold. Staring into its flickering depths, he reached out with his mind, seeking the contact he'd made unknowing only a few minutes before. Damien was a glowing star beside him, Miguel a dull, muted brown presence. Farther away, almost out of reach, he could just make out the dim flickering of a candle.
"There." He pointed with one hand, his eyes still closed in concentration. He felt Damien's light touch of contact, felt the boy see through his mental 'eyes.'
"Got it." Damien whistled as Rafael broke contact and opened his eyes. "He sure was lucky. If he'd stumbled off even a meter or so farther along..."
"He'd have fallen forever," Rafael agreed. "Come on, we'd better get moving."
"This could be better." Damien looked out over the ledge and peered through the heavily- falling snow. "I can barely see him. Felix! Can you hear me?" Damien shook his head. "I think he's out cold, Rafe."
"Wonderful." Rafael leaned carefully over the edge, making sure to keep his crutch well away from the crumbling stone. "Well, I guess we'd better get started. Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Not really. But we can't very well leave him here, can we? I just hope this 'rope' is stronger than it looks."
"Well, it held Brother Miguel's travois well enough." Rafael played out the length of cloth, drawing it around a sturdy-looking tree and settling down with his back to the crevasse. Damien tied the other end snugly around his waist and looked apprehensively over the edge.
"Don't let go, huh, Rafe?"
"Not a chance," Rafael assured him. He felt the rope go taut as Damien carefully stepped out over the edge. The boy's weight was manageable, although he worried about the tensile strength of their makeshift rope. Lowering Damien would be bad enough, but pulling Felix's dead weight back up would probably strain the cloth right to the breaking point. As long as it doesn't strain it beyond the breaking point, I think we'll be okay. Please, Aldones, let this work. He felt the rope tremble slightly as Damien began climbing slowly down to Felix. It was no trick at all to follow his sworn brother's progress.
Felix was lying still and deathly pale on the narrow ledge just below Damien. It was going to be much tougher than they had hoped: the ledge was barely wide enough for Felix, and seemed to tremble even as Damien put one cautious foot down on it. The would-be healer flinched, then carefully put his foot back down. This time there was no protest from the rocky ledge.
"Felix? Felix, can you hear me?" Damien reached out and gently touched the other boy's forehead. There was no response, and Damien carefully lowered himself fully onto the ledge and began to untie the rope around his waist. "He's unconscious, all right," he called back up to Rafael. "I'll tie him off and then come back up to help you." From his precarious position on the ledge Damien began to carefully slide the rope beneath Felix's unconscious body. The ledge tremors continued, and he worked with nervous haste to secure the unconscious Felix to their safety line.
"Okay," he called up after what seemed an eternity. "I think he's secure. I'm going to--" Damien broke off as the ledge lurched alarmingly before dropping away from under his feet.
"Damien!" Rafael winced as the rope jerked tight, pulling him forward almost two feet before he could brace himself again with his good leg. It felt like he was carrying the weight of the world on the thin cloth rope, and Rafael felt himself starting to slide inexorably toward the tree which served as their pivot. "Damien? Are you all right?"
"I think so," came the faint reply. "The ledge is gone, though. I'll climb up as quickly as I can. Can you hold it that long?"
"I'll be here. Just hurry up, won't you? This is no time for a nap, bredu." The rope vibrated between his hands, and Rafael knew that Damien was clambering up the steep slope. Snow and rocks shoved against his injured leg as he continued to slide slowly forward, sending fresh waves of pain up his leg and into his groin. You can't let go. You won't. Gritting his teeth, Rafael forced himself to tighten his grip, feeling the painful rope burns cut into his palms.
"Damien?" A moment's concentration and he had regained contact with his friend.
Damien pulled himself upward painfully, his still tender right arm beginning to throb with the effort. He'd managed to forget about his recent injury in the rush to save Felix, but now, Rafael knew, he wondered if it would hold out long enough for him to reach the top. It was only another ten feet or so, but it seemed like miles. The climb was nearly vertical, which meant that most of the work was coming from his arms and shoulders, not his legs. "Brother Derik is going to be so put out with me," he muttered through gritted teeth. He risked a glance behind him and saw Felix swaying in the stiff breeze. "At least the knots held. I guess that's one I owe Brother Diego the sailor." His arms trembling with the effort, Damien continued slowly upward.
With intense relief Rafael saw Damien's head pop up over the edge of the cliff, and seconds later the boy was scrambling over to collapse on the ground beside it. The pressure on Rafael's own arms decreased immediately. He watched in puzzlement as Damien looked back over the edge and began to wave frantically.
"Felix! Felix, be still! You're fine, just don't move! You'll loosen the--"
Rafael's puzzlement turned to alarm as he saw Damien lunge forward and disappear over the edge. The pressure on the rope disappeared for one heart-stopping moment before his arms were nearly ripped from their sockets by the force of their combined weight and he heard Damien cry out in pain. Rafael was jerked forward to thud heavily against the pivot tree.
"Damien! What's happening?"
"The knots gave way. Felix, stop struggling! I've got you! Rafe, you're going to have to pull us both up. I've got Felix, but he's come free of the ropes." Damien's voice was thin with pain and effort, and through their link Rafael was aware of a bright agony from Damien's injured right arm. Ruthlessly he shut it out, forcing himself to concentrate completely on the task at hand. His own broken leg throbbing with white-hot pain, Rafael forced himself to use that leg to shift his position so that his good leg could push against the base of the tree. The world grayed for a long moment, but his grip never wavered.
You can't let go. You won't, he repeated to himself. Forcing himself to take slow, deep breaths, Rafael felt a measure of strength return to him. Some--maybe most--of my weakness is fear. Fear that I'll fail, that I'll let them die. But fear can be mastered. Rafael opened his eyes and began to pull. Holy Bearer of Burdens, if you really are there, give me strength. Don't let me fail my brothers. Slowly, inch by inch, he began to pull them up the cliff.
He was never sure, later, how long it took. It felt like days, but there was still a hint of twilight glow in the skies when at last Damien and then Felix appeared over the edge of the cliff. They collapsed, gasping, to the ground and for several minutes there was no sound but their labored breathing and the howl of the wind. When at last Rafael could sit up, he saw that Felix had managed to drag himself several feet away from the edge and now lay curled into a fetal ball, his face a blank mask as he stared, unseeing, at nothing. Damien was still lying where he fell, his body curled protectively around his fractured arm. Damien was hurt and exhausted, he knew, but not in immediate danger. With agonizing slowness Rafael began to crawl toward Felix.
Felix would survive, he had determined a few minutes later, but Rafael remained skeptical as to whether or not he would recover. Two hours later, with warm broth and some of their few food supplies inside him, Felix continued to stare blankly at whatever was placed in front of him. Damien looked better for a little rest and food, and was monitoring Felix as Rafael carefully pulled fallen tree branches onto their shelter. It was fully dark now, and the wind and snow nipped eagerly at his nose and fingers as he patiently tied the last of the branches in place. That done, he hobbled over and set himself down next to the fire with a sigh of relief.
"How is he?"
Damien shrugged. "Physically, I think he's okay. He's still in shock, and he's got a fractured rib and a sprained ankle, but otherwise I don't think there's any serious damage. Mentally, though," Damien frowned and continued silently. Mentally I'm not so sure. Maybe the brothers can do something for him--I've never seen anything like it. It's like he's adrift at sea.
"I think he got a series of very rude shocks. The wonderful Felix Ardais isn't perfect or immortal, and had to be rescued by the very people he abandoned. I suppose I should feel sorry for him, but right now I'm just too tired." Rafael stretched, wincing as over-exerted muscles grumbled in protest. "I suppose this means that he won't be much help getting down from this mountain."
"I've been thinking about that." Damien poked at the fire with a stick, a thoughtful look on his face. "You were able to pick up Felix's thoughts from a couple of miles away. Maybe together you and I could reach someone with our laran."
"We tried that before," Rafael reminded him. "It didn't work, remember?"
"We were trying to reach Nevarsin. Maybe we should appeal to higher authority." Damien was smiling, but Rafael shook his head in puzzlement.
"Pray, you mean? I think we're expected to help ourselves on this one, bredu."
"I meant higher authority." Damien gestured to the high peak to the north. "Tramontana isn't that far off. If we traveled through the Overworld, we just might reach someone."
Rafael was silent for a minute, considering. "It's worth a try, I suppose. But never tried anything like this before, Damien."
"And I have? I had six weeks of training on how to use this," he gestured to the leather pouch at his own neck, "when I was eight years old, and that was all. I wish there was some other way, but if there is I surely can't see it."
Rafael nodded reluctantly. "All right. Let's get the fire built up, and have some more warm broth first. I'd hate to freeze to death while trying to go for help."
"That would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn't it?" Damien agreed. "Okay. Let's do it."
The Overworld wasn't what he was expecting. Rafael watched as their two forms solidified in the featureless void. They both wore the colorful, lightweight clothes of the lowland domains, not the dull brown robes they wore at Nevarsin. Physically they appeared much as they always had, but somehow here Damien looked taller, more confident. As he looked around Rafael saw shapes begin to form in the mist. There was their shelter, looking like a rude herdsman's shelter standing alone against the blue mists wafting around it. Far to one side he thought he could see a soft, warm glow, and hear the sound of voices raised in song. That must be Nevarsin.
I think so, Damien agreed. But it's so far away. Tramontana should be closer, don't you think? At his words a tall stone Tower began to solidify out of the swirling mists. Energy swirled like waves of water around the Tower's upper levels, and from the top a beam of light shot out, piercing the darkness. There it is. Relief was a color here, and Rafael could see it tint Damien's words even as they began to move toward Tramontana. They hadn't gone very far when a strange lassitude swept over him. Soon it was like walking through molasses.
Damien? What's happening?
I don't know. Damien's form seemed to shimmer, and for a moment Rafael could see right through him. Rafe? Are you still there? Rafael could see Damien reach out to him, and he grabbed his hand firmly in his own.
I'm still here. But I think we'd better find that Tower, and quickly. This is tiring work. The 'physical' connection seemed to strengthen them both, and Rafael felt Damien reach out with his laran toward the imposing Tower.
Hello? Please, can anyone hear us? Damien was shouting, but all that Rafael heard was a faint whisper. Gathering all of his strength, Rafael joined his voice to Damien's.
Please, help us.
Suddenly a man in crimson robes was standing before them, gentle concern radiating from him in waves. Welcome, little brothers. Tramontana hears you.
Rafael nearly collapsed with relief. Please, we need help. Brother Miguel has been injured, and another of our party is...also injured. Can you send rescuers to aid us, vai laranzu?
It has already been done. We only have only just recently received word that you were missing, or we would have come to you ourselves. A gentle ripple of laughter brushed against them. When Dom An'dra Castamir, the Lord Ardais and the King himself all request our assistance, we do not take it lightly, believe me. I have reached your healer Brother Derik. He is with the rescuers below you, and says that they will reach you within the hour. Now you must go back, kinsmen. The Overworld is not a place for the untrained, no matter how gifted. Rafael felt a gentle push, and then he was back in his body, shivering violently in front of the low fire. Damien was slumped to one side beside him, his lips blue with cold.
"I-I-I'm fine," Damien managed through chattering teeth. With his good arm he reached out and tossed another log onto the fire, and Rafael did the same. The pot of broth was still warm, and they took turns gulping directly from the pot until the last of it was gone. By then the fire was crackling nicely, and Rafael sighed with relief. Beside him Damien was making sounds that sounded like sobs. With a start he turned to face his brother, and saw with amazement that the boy was gurgling with laughter.
"Have you lost your wits?" Rafael asked with exasperation. Damien shook his head and struggled to get his giggles under control.
"I was just wondering how the brothers will rate our success on this trial. I mean, we did keep the party together, and we did rescue our traveler. Do you think we'll get extra credit for the reality of our game?" The absurdity of the Midwinter Hunt hit Rafael as well, and he began to laugh softly.
"We ought to get a special award, don't you think? 'Most creative use of supplies," or possibly 'best cry for help,' perhaps." He laughed, mostly at himself for how seriously he'd taken the competition. Brother Marius had been right. It wasn't about the prize, or about coming in first, but about surviving. Even if he never learned another thing while at Nevarsin, he'd always have the knowledge that when it counted, he wouldn't break. Felix hadn't been so lucky.
"Come on," he said, clapping his sworn brother on the shoulder. "Let's get cleaned up. We've got company coming."