Firm in his obstinacy, Andrel refused to admit that his brother was right, even when the sky above them began to darken quickly. Two hours after they had separated from Arlamus, it was full dark, leaving them with nothing but pretend to rest, each secretly trying to gather their bearings and find the village again.
It was Will who asked first as they sat in a snowy grove opposite each other. 'Do you want to go back?'
Andrel pretended to think intensely, but the answer had been on his lips from the beginning. 'Yeah, let's go,' he said eventually, jumping up and heading through the trees with Will following behind.
His nerves grew as they ambled through the darkness, the snow hard and iced below them. The night was disorientating, but Will repressed his panic as best as he could, thinking back to his happiness at being invited on retreat with the Wilthrics. He'd agreed almost immediately, wanting to escape the Sanctuary, if only to clear his mind of the events that had taken place there in most recent months. The winter lodge in the small village of Bootabin was just one of numerous properties belonging to the ancient Wilthric families. It had been a late discovery for Will that Andrel's family were so wealthy, a founding family of the Tetractys, the same society to which Percival Paradam, the Sanctuary's principal, belonged. Compared to Anala, the principal's ward, Andrel was not nearly as spoilt, or so it seemed from Will's impressions.
Using toboggans as supports, digging them into the snow, Will and Andrel slipped down the hillside leading towards Bootabin. It was a tiny village with just one high street and no more than a hundred residents. Though they were used to the cold and the snow, a summer blizzard had swept in unusually thick, locking down the village almost every week.
Will tried not to take it as a bad omen.
After a few more minutes of slipping and sliding, the boys made it to ground level into the main street. The road had been ploughed, sprinkled with snow like sugar, whilst bath water thrown from the upper window had frozen treacherously. Andrel knew his way through the village, but he rarely visited, and Will hadn't been allowed down for the whole month and a half he had been living with them. Their reasoning was simple, he and the Wilthrics were magi, as far as they knew, the Bootabin citizens were human. Will felt a familiar sadness, their races continued to be at war, hated for what each other was and wasn't. He still hoped that it could change, his belief shining out amongst those on both sides who had given up long ago.
'Andrel?' Will asked, breaking the quiet of the street and houses where everybody slept. His friend walked idly, not turning around as they turned down a dimly lit thoroughfare.
'Why do you live here?'
'I mean, there are so many humans around you. I heard that they're making more magi settlements in the far North, why not go there?' They were a newly-announced development, spearheaded by the royal families, doing the most they could in their exile to protect their people. The Tetractys were a great aid, an outside force to negotiate, and their efforts had culminated in a project outside of the protected Forestlands, where magi could live protected.
'I don't mean to be rude to the royals,' said Andrel, 'but those places won't last. They're just targets, human radicals will find out where they are and won't hesitate to attack. Mom says that if we're in a human settlement, we're less suspicious, even if we are the mysterious family at the top of the hill. The blizzards cut us off, and that's an advantage, the less they discover about our daily lives, about where Arlamus and I go all year, or about Seph...the better.'
Will couldn't see his friend's expression, but he was sure it was full of anguish and regret. A strong wind blew in, overturning dustbins, rolling them along the streets and making gates creak symphonically. Will felt uncomfortable again, feeling as if something or someone was hiding, watching him, just like he'd thought in the forest. The street lamps flickered in broken rhythm, leaving him in shadow for a few, palpitating moments.