“Breakfast!” Iain bellows, reminding me vaguely of Brian Blessed back at home. He trots into camp with almost irritating exuberance, and Hayley and I take a few moments to properly establish ourselves in the realm of consciousness before poking our heads out of our respective tents.
Iain proudly waves a head-sized bunch of bright purple berries, grinning toothily. “They’re good!” he proclaims. “I’ve started the day with them every morning since I arrived here, and I do declare they are most filling. Relaxing too.”
I stretch out a hand, not wanting to leave the comparative cosiness of my tent, but he skips out of reach, cantering over to the ashes of the fire pit.
“Got to get up if you want your grub,” he teases, and sticks out his tongue. “If there are any left,” he adds, and shoves a fistful of them into his mouth.
“First come first served,” Hayley shouts, and by the time I’ve pulled a shirt over my head, she’s already dressed and out of her tent. I thought girls are supposed to take longer to get ready, I complain internally as I tighten my belt and leap out after her.
Even if he were human, Iain would be a big man, and with his horse’s body, he practically towers over us – Hayley, in particular, a fact he’s currently taking great delight in as he dangles the berries just out of her reach. She jumps ineffectually for them a couple of times, and I burst out laughing as I saunter up beside her.
“Guess I win,” I say with a grin, and jump up to snatch a couple from Iain’s hand.
“Cheat,” she pronounces me. I pop them in my mouth.
God, they’re good. The sweetest things I’ve tasted in… forever. I roll the flavours around my tongue, savouring them, my eyes half closing in the sheer ecstasy of their deliciousness.
“Go on,” Iain’s still teasing Hayley. “You’ll get them on the next jump.” I open my eyes and grab another few while Hayley jumps. She tries to snatch them from my hands, but I turn away and eat them before she can get to them.
“Oh…” I sigh. “Wow. You’re really missing out, Hayley.”
She harrumphs, folds her arms, and turns on her heel. “I refuse to be teased,” she says, and starts to walk away. I move to follow her, but a wave of dizziness hits me and I stumble sideways. Hayley and Iain stare at me in alarm.
“Are you OK?” Hayley asks.
“I’m fine,” I insist. What was that? I shake my head and try to smile, but the ground seems to shift beneath me, and suddenly I’m lying on the grass, my head spinning.
“Felix!” Hayley cries out, and she and Iain are above me, but their voices seem very far away…
I think I need to sleep.
“They’ve always been fine for me!” Iain protests as Hayley and I glower at him. I came around in an hour or so, it turns out. Whatever knockout chemical was in the berries doesn’t seem as strong as it could be – and thank God it only knocked me out.
“With all due respect, Iain,” I say patiently. “You’re about three times my size.”
He snorts, but he can’t help looking a little embarrassed, his stubble-covered cheeks colouring faintly. “I suppose that’s a fair point.”
“And a horse.”
We dwell on the river world for several days, hunting the grouse and deer in the surrounding woodlands, and only Iain continues to touch the berries. Hayley counts herself lucky she never actually got to try them. Just in case, I wrap a few in a strip of cloth I was saving for potential repairs, and push them down into the side of my pack. We never know what we’ll face in our search for the voice from the cave, and somehow I get the feeling a knockout drug might come in handy. Maybe I could poison my knife with them. Not now though – we’ve got more important preparation to do.
For once, we know where we’re going next. Iain never visited the fire world, but the voice told him the “realm of ice” was next just the same as us, so we fashion ourselves thick coats to prepare for the cold, with down from the grouse held together with deerskin. Fortunately, Iain’s done it before - part of his trade back on Stallroth. We’d have struggled without him.
He’s been travelling as long as Hayley. He left behind a wife and kids (foals?) when, like me, he just slipped away, without understanding how or why. He crafted what he needed from whatever he found - centaurs are nomads, I soon learn, and more than used to living off the land. He’ll be very useful to keep around.
On the fourth day by the river, all three of us feel the call at once. We all know how important it is to stay together, and we figure our best shot is to climb up onto Iain’s back with our arms wrapped around each other - since our clothes and packs always travel with us, perhaps physical contact will keep us together.
“On three,” Hayley says.
I tighten my grip and clear my mind.
I focus, willing myself to stay with them.
The whole world turns white.
I’m on the ground.
“Hayley!” I shout, but the freezing wind whips the sound away. “Iain!”
I stagger to my feet, wrapping my improvised coat around me, clutching at the warmth that I brought with me when I moved on. The blizzard is blinding – a storm of icy whiteness that howls down from the white sky and batters against the white ground. There’s no point keeping my eyes open – in fact, it’s easier to close them, if only to shield myself from the stinging cold.
I have to find Hayley and Iain. I have to find shelter. We have to survive.
I listen, trying to pick out any kind of sound from the rush of the snowstorm, but there’s nothing. I shout again, and again, the icy air biting at my lips and throat. I shout and shout and shout, but I hear only the wind.
I can’t stay here. If I stay here, I die, and that won’t help anyone. So I pick a direction at random – that way – and I walk, lifting one foot from the snow to plunge it down ahead of me, and then the other. One step at a time.
“…ix…” I hear on the wind – or perhaps I just imagine it. That happens, sometimes, when you really want to hear something that’s very quiet indeed. Your mind pretends for you. Is that what’s happening now?
I hear it again, and this time I can place it off to my left. Imagined or not, it’s all I have, so I make for it, battering my way through the snow as fast as I can force myself to move. It’s almost more than my muscles can bear, but I fight on through the pain and the cold until a flash of brown appears out of the white. I stagger closer. It’s Iain. “Iain!”
He’s sunk deep into the snow, buried up to his equine kneecaps. He’s struggling, but the ice holds him firm.
“Felix!” he roars as I reach him. “Thank Ra! You have to dig me out!”
I nod, unable to speak through my chattering teeth, and drop to my knees, pawing at the snow with both hands. My fingers feel like splitting open, it’s so damn freezing.
I manage to get one hoof free, but by then I can hardly move from the cold.
I look up at Iain. His face is screwed up in agony, his lips and skin tinged with a worrying blue. “You can… do it…” he manages to say. “Please…”
I force my sensationless fingers down into the snow around another hoof. Iain tries to push himself up with the one I freed, and between us, we manage to lift the second hoof up and out into the air. Unable to speak or rejoice in the minor victory, I pull myself across the snow to his hindquarters, falling to the ground by his rear hooves, but I can’t… I just can’t…
We’re going to die here, I realise. Iain and I here in the cold and Hayley out there alone.
Is this really what it was all for, I wonder to myself? All the lonely days and fearful nights, the walking, the fighting, the surviving, only to end here?
The cold turns my hands to useless frozen slabs of meat, and there’s nothing more I can do.