Billy pulled the animal furs closer around him, but the icy wind continued to bite tenaciously. He endured it stoically, taking his cue from Oracus and Lollanna. The climate changed quickly with latitude on this world. The three of them had traveled only two hundred miles or so from the village, and had passed the last stunted tree nearly fifty miles back. The remaining vegetation was rapidly becoming as sparse as the wind was cold.
Billy scanned the horizon. To the south there was an occasional shrub, and brown moss on some upthrust rock outcroppings. A lone black speck of some lost bird drifted tiredly across the clouded sky. To the north there lay only barren ground, mostly gravel with a few larger rocks tossed in. There was also a great deal of snow and ice. At the edge of the northern horizon, some ten miles off, there was nothing but the white glare of it.
The wind continued to blow, kicking up the loose ice crystals and the smaller pieces of gravel and throwing it stingingly into his face.
“What am I doing here?” he thought, shielding his eyes. “Running around on some damn crusade to save the world?” He laughed out loud, a short sarcastic bark that caused the two Rauders to look at him quizzically. He ignored their stares, and set off again on the march north. The Rauders cinched down the packs on the horses and followed him.
“Not even a crusade,” he mused. “A crusade would really aim to save the world; I’m most likely to destroy it.” Billy thought of Kratia, then of Nexus. He decided to stop thinking at all. The rhythmic crunch of his boots on the frozen ground provided an almost hypnotic escape from the pain of consciousness.
The horses grew skittish a few miles onto the ice. Billy dropped back to ask Oracus in the horses were afraid of the ice. Oracus smiled as Lollanna laughed derisively.
“It takes more than some ice and cold to bother a Rauder stead, Billy,” Oracus said. He sniffed at the air. “They are warning us that they caught the scent of the snow bear. The beast has marked the ice as a warning to trespassers on its territory.”
Oracus dismounted and stepped up to a small ice outcropping, where he loosened his lower furs and leggings and began to urinate on the ice. It splashed loudly as the steam rose to be quickly whipped away by the wind. The scent became noticeable.
Oracus smiled as he repositioned his furs. “The bear will know now that the Snow Wind tribe has returned. If it had a good mother, or is an older bear, it will remember the lessons our fathers taught to them in years past. If not, why, then we may have the honor of teaching it ourselves!”
Oracus joined Lollanna in a new bout of laughter, and Billy couldn’t resist a smile himself. Lollanna in particular had not seemed so relaxed since the death of her husband. Billy had questioned Oracus about letting her come. Didn’t she need time to mourn for her husband? And perhaps she blamed Billy for Rangee’ death. Oracus said Lollanna was the widow of a great chief; if she wanted to come, she could come. And Lollanna had appeared grateful, and said that this trip would allow her to honor her husband’s memory. Billy had reluctantly agreed.
Billy’s eyes were drawn back to the small black speck hovering in the sky. He did not like things that were out of place, and this bird was too far north, far past the tree line. Too far inland for a water fowl. Billy frowned. A large black bird. He concentrated on his sight; focusing his awareness on his vision. Gripping a wand, he began a simple spell of enhancement. A crow. As his sight grew sharper, the bird faltered and fell from the sky. Its feathers were torn and ragged, its beak cracked. One wing didn’t move as smoothly as the other, and when it crashed the wing jutted up at an absurd angle. The crow lay half buried in the snow less than half a mile behind them.
Billy jumped atop the pack horse; the well trained animal leaped into a gallop carrying its load with Billy clinging tightly atop it. “Wait here!” he shouted to his companions.
Crow was barely alive when Billy reached it. He knelt and carefully lifted it, concentrating on its vital signs. He slipped into a trance, his consciousness totally focused on the bird.
Crow’s brain was still functioning, though Billy sensed something odd about the brain’s structure and content. With no time to worry on the oddities Billy infused strength through a mild increase of endorphins and warm, oxygenated blood. The heart similarly he strengthened then gently reset and mended the cracked bones in the left wing. Trembling from the exertion of the healing spell, Billy fumbled open his furs and tucked Crow against his chest.