The others left. They had decided that Miran had simply been punished for not thanking the mother mountain as soon as they had left her perilous path and that the woman who cut her own throat was an omen they could no ignore. They had gone back down the long path they’d only just escaped, sharing blessings and curses with Harl as they turned to go.
Harl and Cole were left on a blinding white plain with a single tent to protect them should the snows come to thrash them. They did not have long to wait.
“Hold it fast!” Cole shouted through the whipping wind as the ropes of the mountain-voln were torn from Harl’s numb fingers and cut at his face. The man stumbled through the growing snowdrifts banked against the tent to hammer at its pegs again. Together they got the wild creature the shelter had become to stand proud but shivering in the wild winds. The two of them fell inside, breathless and frozen in their ice-crusted furs. Cole jabbed together the small parts of Firestone the mountain-voln had left with them and tried to nurture the small campfire their remaining wood had made. Entwined with the pathetic sticks were pages from the Light of Lios, the parchment catching first as the mountain-volns’ dark revenge on the book was turned into real light and warmth.
“We can’t stay here,” Cole said finally, trying to rub life into his hands through the thick gloves he wore. His face was whitened by snowflakes caught in his dark beard and his eyebrows. “We’ll die. Simple as that.”
Harl thought back to the steep path that had brought them here, remembering each of the steps that had nearly flown out from underneath him. Like the slick carved stone steps above the sea’s maw at the castle. And he had returned to them and to that hated place. But still… something was calling him here. Now.
“Sleep now. We can’t do anything until the wind calms anyway.”
Cole nodded and went to lie opposite him, on the other side of the small flickering fire.
“Here.” Harl pulled up a few remaining furs, ignoring their dank smell, and made a cover for the two of them. “The fire will die in the night. Best we stick close.” The words were thick and heavy in his mouth, and he swallowed heavily as Cole said nothing, but came to lie next to him.
He woke in darkness, aware of a shadow standing against the triangle of night’s sky at the opening of the tent. At first, he thought Cole was the one standing there, but his lithe back was still just next to him, Harl’s own body curved about him as he breathed slowly in his sleep. No, the figure blocking out his view of stars was smaller. It beckoned him.
Slowly, carefully, he moved through the tent and then pushed out into the snow that had tried to cover up their small refuge. He staggered through the drifts and pulled himself to his feet, rubbing at the own sprinkling of red-gold hair on his face as he tried to waken his mind. A tall, dark shadow was walking away from him, unencumbered by layers and layers of furs as it stepped on the very top of the snow as though weightless.
“Ghost.” He whispered, calling to it. “Wait! You cannot go-”
It turned back to him, and he was silenced as he recognised its form at last. Long limbs had given her more height than he remembered from his previous encounter with her at the tavern in Bara, but the long dark braid and the flashing, often angry, green eyes were just the same. She wore dark green woods-voln leathers as though the biting cold was nothing to her at all, and they made her look even fiercer, especially as they left her wyrd foot exposed. Eris Atta-Sutith!
His surprise rapidly became suspicion as he recalled The One Who Hungers and how it had taken Fysiwon’s form because it had eaten the poor cursed boy some time ago.
“Ghost.” He hissed again, rage building. “You should not wear that face!”
“Which face should I wear then, Gyreblack boy?” She said flippantly, stopping and standing with her hands resting on the daggers at her hips. Harl noticed then the rolling fog that was blurring his sight and turning the bones and bodies on the plain into even more sinister shapes. It was curled about her as though she was a part of it.
“Do not try to charm me!” He called out, wondering if he knew a way to save himself from another’s controlling smoke.
She shook her head, exasperated, and then snapped at him. “They sent me to fetch you, but its no great harm to me if you choose not to come you know!”
He looked back to where Cole was just a small shape at the entrance to their tent. He had not realised quite how far he had walked after ‘Eris’. He was near the strange boundary line, standing amidst the dead things. Eris was on the other side.
“Are you really here?” He asked her. “Here in the mountains?”
“In a way. They weren’t sure about you, you know. So, if you keep them waiting, I don’t know if they’ll still let you through.”
“Through to where?”
“This side.” She gestured around her.
“Is it safe?” He looked back to where Cole was struggling through the deep snow towards them.
“No. Nothing is.” She said blandly. The edges of her shape began to ripple and fall into smoke.
“Eris?” He said, searching for her in the dark. Cole was almost close enough to hear them.
“You have to decide.” Eris’s voice came to his sharp ears, a whisper on the air.
“Gods, yer back here again!” Cole growled as he caught up with him. The fog was thickening, and even between them, there was a pale veil of it. Harl looked up at the man’s serious face. “This place is-”
It was a small movement, barely more than a shift of his weight. He had not realised until then quite how close in height they had become since they’d encountered each other again in Bara. In the same tavern where Eris had asked for his death. Where Cole had started his journey back to life at Harl’s side. It was just a small shift of his weight to lean forward, to touch his lips to Cole’s.
The other man did not breathe, did not move until Harl stepped back. “You shouldn’t-”
Harl shook his head, “No, I think I should.”
But then he saw Eris again, and he knew what had to happen next. She was standing in the distance, a small figure in the fog on the other side of that invisible barrier. Waiting.
He knelt quickly, pulling his gloves from his hands to place them flat against the disturbed snow, and muttered blessings and curses to the mother mountain, as Cole looked on in stunned silence. Harl asked her to watch over him. And then Cole’s hand was just too slow as Harl moved across the barrier. Too slow to grab at the snow freckled furs and drag him back from certain death.
But he did not die. Instead, he was warmed by a bone-deep heat that brought his toes and fingers back to sudden life as he walked alone past the line, disappearing from sight in the grey billowing clouds. Gone.