I miss the sticky heat of Alnora and I’m quickly learning that I really, really hate snow. It’s stuck in my eyelashes and the fur trim on my cloak and gloves. My boots are the best that the palace could find at such short notice but they’re stiff with the cold and frost forms around my toes. My travelling clothes keep the sting out of the wind but I’m cold to my core. I don’t have to speak to Aeron to know he’s just as pained as I am.
The horses died not too far out of Alnora. We’ve been walking for days now and there’s no sign of the Lamoura Mountains and the longer we walk, the slower our progress becomes. We didn’t sleep last night and in these conditions, we ought to be sleeping more than we usually do. The only benefit of extreme exhaustion is that we’re too tired to argue while walking and when we do rest we fall asleep too quickly to make snide remarks.
We have to be close because it’s getting even colder but we can’t see more than a few feet in front of us in the storms that have plagued us for miles. Aeron clutches a compass between his gloved hands and I blindly follow whatever direction the rope connecting our wrists pulls me in. It leaves all too much time to think about how little time we have left. By the time we return to Alnora, we’ll have a week left at the most. I don’t want to think about how close it’ll come if things don’t go to plan but of course I do. What else is there to do but think?
A sudden tug on my wrist makes me look up. The cold wind rushes under my hood and I have to wait for several moments before I can see what Aeron wants me to. Snowflakes bite my skin with their cold and the wind steals the air from inside me. Wonder fills me as my eyes finally focus on an area of colour in the white world. A great grey peak cleaves the sky before me and as my eyes adjust, I see more and more beyond it. Despite the chill in my bones and the pain in every muscle I own, I smile. My lips crack and I taste blood but the only things that could improve this moment are a hot meal and a bed. I daren’t even think about how great that would be though, so I’ll settle for the Lamoura Mountains.
Pulling me behind an errant boulder, Aeron speaks his first words to me for days. “Cold, isn’t it?” His dark eyelashes have a shelf of snow resting on them and his lips are chapped and bloodless but he still manages to drag up one of his eyebrows in a wry expression.
“I’d weep at Nikolai’s feet for a warm bath,” I say before realising I haven’t been speaking to him to tell him about our slight...altercation.
“Oh now, from what I hear, that really would be something to see.” Oh. He has heard. He’s also being nice to me. It’s very close to being how it used to be...
“Indeed,” I reply in a clipped tone. I wince but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve just suffered the inelegance of being dragged by my wrist through a snowy wasteland. I don’t want to bend to his whims any more. Telling myself that it was the direction we had to go in and that it wasn’t down to him doesn’t cool my ire in the slightest.
He shrugs as much as his clothes and discomfort allow and sets about building the lean-to shelter we’ve been using for days. I search for a few sodden bits of wood within the protected area beside the foot of this small mountain. It’s all frozen through or damp to the point of rotting but I bring them back anyway. Aeron might have to set this one. The wood he’s been teaching me to set fire to wasn’t nearly this bad. It’s amazing how much you can accomplish with so few words said with such hostility.
“Was this really the best you could find?” He says, picking through the pile with the same expression that Helenia gets when I go to bed with my hair wet and loose. I could almost laugh with what she’d say if she could see it now. I can’t even bring myself to consider the lank mess that must be lurking under my hood.
I shrug and open our last packet of cured meat and dried vegetables, mixing it with clean snow in our cooking pot. I’ll think about what we’ll do for food tomorrow when I’m a little less tired. I remove my cloak in the shelter of the boulder and throw myself down on my bedroll, watching Aeron construct the foundations of the fire.
“Want to try?” he asks tersely. I don’t even hesitate before closing my eyes and reaching into the well of Power I feel in the pit of my stomach. I force it out, accompanied by the phrase Aeron taught me. After a few moments I dare to look. Steam assaults my eyes and throat as I take what I realise is my first breath. Aeron is in fits of giggles and there isn’t even a scorch mark on the wood. It’s still wet.
“You knew I wouldn’t be able to do it!” I shout, even though I know that I probably deserve it from the way I pushed away his kindness earlier. Pain shoots through my throat at the sudden strain of using my voice, after being disused for so long. He continues to laugh.
“It’s dry now, you probably could. Try again,” he tells me, once his laughter has subsided. I want to tell him that it’s still wet. I still can’t do it but, like on our wedding day, I trust him for no good reason.
I withdraw into myself once more. As I say the word this time, a wave of heat buffets my face. As the immediate joy subsides, I realise I heard Aeron whisper the words along with me.
I peek up him from under heavy lids before opening my eyes properly. Even when he doesn’t know I see him, he’s neither exultant nor smug. He’s smiling in a way that feels congratulatory and... proud. Oh. I’m going to have to think this one through when I feel a little less like I could faint from exhaustion. I give what I hope is a suitably pleased smile, only tinged with smugness, and thump the blackened pot down into the flames.
I take about as much notice of the meal as I did my wedding, my mind and body too weary to do anything but go through the motions. I only notice that I feel a little less cold before I slip into a sleep as deep as death.
Walking seems even harder the next day; a good sleep and passable food have only reminded me of what I’m missing. My muscles ache but my mind is now alert enough to think about Aeron even more deeply than I already was. The knowledge that I miss him isn’t resolving anything.
I wonder if he misses me too. His attempt at our old way of conversing and the incident with the fire would suggest he does. I realise how arrogant I was to never question his care before I dismissed him. I simply presumed I was the only one experiencing doubts. Perhaps he’s decided I’m simply too wilful to be a good wife.
It’s not long before walking becomes climbing. It’s cold and the snow is very similar but we’re sheltered from the wind and that makes many differences—the main one being that Aeron can now talk to me.
“My parents aren’t Star-Born but I had a grandparent on either side that was,” he says, slightly breathy with exertion. “My youngest sister, Astrid, is Star-Born too. She’s only a baby, mind.”
I wait until the silence is verging on unbearable before speaking. “Do you have many siblings?” I ask quietly, wondering for the umpteenth time why I didn’t get out of this while I could.
“There’s six of us in total—two boys and four girls. Is there just you and your sister?” He asks, cheerily. He’s choosing to ignore my sullen tone. It just winds me up more.
“Yes, although I had an older brother but he died before even Laneau was born,” I reply. Although I volunteer information, I keep my tone distant. The sounds of him whispering with me to create the fire last night wash over me and I feel myself soften towards him.
He nods, his face set grimly, but doesn’t say any more.