'Just letting you know,' he said, the lens of his glasses glowing white, 'if this had been real, you'd be dead.' It took Will a moment, but when he saw the condescending expression on a red-raw face, framed with dark hair, he realised, and let out a sigh of exasperation and relief. His heart settled as he scraped the remnants of a snowball from the side of his face.
'Arlamus,' another voice grumbled, the matching figure of Andrel appearing from behind another tree. His furry hat was low on his face, just above eyebrows lowered in irritation. 'It's shocking how you can make a simple snowball fight so dull.'
'I'm only elucidating,' his brother replied, pushing his glasses up his nose, where a red line had formed on his bridge, 'if this had been a real battle, where Willow was out of his comfort zone and pursued, with his current performance, he wouldn't stand much of a chance against an opponent.'
Great, Will thought to himself, just what I needed to know.
'You alright, Will?' asked Andrel, looking concerned. Will realised that he hadn't stood, he remained slumped against a tree, freezing from the bottom up with his hand over his calming heart. He was unnerved, and whether or not he was justified to be so afraid of an unidentifiable figure in a forest during a stealthy snowball fight, lately it took a lot for him to relax.
'I'm fine,' he said, his voice sounding weak. He eased himself up, using the tree as support. He still wasn't convinced that his leg had properly healed, his knee still trembled every now and then. Psychosomatic or not, it was just another reason to make him feel vulnerable. Now, away from the Sanctuary - the place he had called home all year, now somewhere deep in the Northern Mountains with Andrel and Arlamus, his anxiety clouded most chances to relax or have fun. The chances were few, after discovering he was the heir to the royal Avaric bloodline, and being kidnapped by the Mastery, the society responsible for murdering his family, responsibility and fear were higher on the agenda.
'It's nearly nine o' clock,' said Arlamus, looking at his watch, hanging on by the worn leather strap. 'Let's head back.' He swivelled around in the snow, trudging down a vaguely marked path.
'You're not serious, right?' exclaimed Andrel. 'We can't head back now! We still haven't been toboggan riding or played icicle bowling. You go ahead, Will and I will stay behind -,'
'It's getting dark!' he protested. 'The last time we stayed out later than this, Mom called on the neighbourhood watch. She thought we'd been molested, or killed.'
'Correction, they thought I'd been molested or killed. You ran home crying. And anyway, the village isn't even as far as last time, look.' He pointed into the distance, where smoke curled into the sky from dark scraps of buildings within the near valley.
'I'm not leaving you this time. Especially when you have Willow with you,'
His brow furrowed. 'Why do I make a difference?'
'Yeah,' added Andrel, 'you saying I'm going to let him get eaten by wolves?'
'It's not that.' Arlamus turned to Will with a look of examination. 'Don't take it the wrong way, but you're pretty useless.'
'Oh really?' Will cocked an eyebrow, and glanced at the trees above. Sensing its life flowing like blood inside, he flexed his fingers, and the tree responded. Quivering, snow dropped from the high branches and landed on top of Arlamus, covering his heads and shoulders. He gasped as the snow found its way between his cap and collar, dripping down his back. Andrel guffawed with laughter, clapping Will on the shoulder and beaming.
Meanwhile, Arlamus had turned away with a look of defeat in his eyes, and began his journey down the track path. He faded from sight through the smog, slipping down the valley hillside towards the flickering lights of the village.
'He'll be fine. He can catch up on his sewing,' said Andrel, shrugging it off, but kicking stones and twigs through the snow as he and Will headed deeper into the forest.