Snow peered around him as he stepped through the gateway. Thick mist swirled around them, blanketing the world in an eerie white silence. Dark trees loomed out of the sea of white. Thin and bare, black sentinels in a white world.
Grev had sent Chris ahead to scout and Aaron had disappeared into the wall of mist at his order, shivering as he'd taken off both cloak and shirt. Snow padded along next to his brothers horse, the twins were ahead riding next to the silver cloaked figure of the master mage Gren. The metal mountain of Uthran crunched over the gravel and rock strewn ground behind them.
Snow looked up at his brother and smiled, happy to know that they would be able to spend awhile together, but he kept quiet as did the rest of the party. The smothering silence of the mist seemed almost holy and the thought of breaking it felt like sacrilege.
Snow was instantly lost, the sky above was only now starting to brighten with mornings welcoming light, but until the sun rose he couldn't be sure of which direction they were moving in. The air was crisp and felt thin. He had to pull in deep breaths for his body to feel like it had had enough of the life giving substance.
The silence started to feel oppressive, broken only by the crunch of Uthrans heavy foot falls and the horses' sharp clips as they moved forward. Snow could barely see the shadowy outline of Grev moving in the front of the silent party. He watched the slow sway of the horses' tails as they swished left and right with their steps, their lower halves lost in the wet whiteness.
The two twins sat upright upon their steeds, heads twisting this way and that.
The sun had raised its yellow face behind them, its warm rays starting to melt away the icy cold. The white sea was slowly dissipating so that Snow could now see below his waist.
Still they moved ever westwards, the world still and silent as a grave. It was only when his feet stepped on hard flattened stone that they turned northward, the sun finally burning away the last vestiges of the clinging mist that he realised they were on a broad stone paved road.
On either side tall dark barked trees stood spaced out unevenly, their empty branches spread skyward like arms in supplication to the light of day.
Snow glanced at his brother when he shifted, the leather of the saddle creaking against the movement. Skye had a book open in front of him, his forehead creased in concentration, seemingly lost to the world of the strange markings on the pages. Snow again wished that he'd had time to learn to read properly, but in all the time of their training most of it had been taken up with weapon studies. When they had classes about reading and writing Snow had not paid much attention and although he was able to read slowly the strange markings on the pages of Skye's book seemed like they were in another language for all that he could make sense of them.
Snow looked up as a shadow sped over them, high in the icy blue clearness he could see a large bird wheeling in lazy circles too far away to make out anything except its form.
It was the first sign of life that he'd seen out in this barren place and not for the first time he wondered where the birds and animals were that surely should have come out with the sun to do whatever it was that woodland animals did.
The road had been steadily moving at a slight upward slant for hours and his calves were starting to complain about the strain, his hammer felt like a dragging weight on his back. It was only when they crested the rise that he could see out ahead of them far in the distance the jagged tops of mountains, the road stretching the distance in dips and rises ahead of them.
It was only with the setting of the sun, the lengthening shadows of night claiming the world that the silence was broken by Grev calling Chris and Aaron back with the communication amulet.
It was a while before Chris appeared out of the woods ahead of them, Aaron not long after. The white haired youth was quick to retrieve his shirt and cloak and wrap himself tightly in its confines. Even with the sun the day had been cool and now with the coming of night the temperature was quickly dropping.
It was another hour or so before Grev called the party to halt and they stepped off the road into an open clearing ringed by a wall of trees with barely an opening between their thick trunks.
Each of them were set to task to pitch their tents, except for the imperious Gren who's tent Snow had to set up with the help of Chris.
Snow heard a clanking hiss and turned to see the metal form open like a chest on its side. Uthran climbed out, a dark sash tied around his head. His hulking muscled form steamed as he stepped out into the cold air. Snow was surprised to see that the boy was naked and completely hairless. Uthran almost stumbled as he stepped onto the firm ground and stood breathing heavily for a time before shivering. He turned and pulled out shirt, trousers and cloak from inside the metal behemoth he had inhabited.
Ylien and Olien disappeared into the forest and returned with handfuls of branches and twigs which they piled into a ring of soot blackened stones in the middle of the clearing. Snow started when fire suddenly crackled from the branches when his brother stood before them.
With the darkness of night the bare forest seemed to come to life. Skye listened anxiously to the hoot and howl of unseen things in the distance. Once again fog had started to form, the light and warmth of the crackling fire keeping it at bay in the ring of trees. It was easy to deduce that this was a regular camping spot along the roadway. The way that the trees grew so unnaturally close in a circle around them, their spreading trunks almost grown into a wall of wooded flesh was far too unnatural to be something that had happened without intervention.
Skye sat next to his brother, almost huddling into him for the extra warmth. He'd noticed that Snow, Grev and Chris seemed almost unaffected by the cold. The same could not be said for him, Uthran or the beautiful ebony skinned girls.
Skye was acutely aware of the two sitting next to him, chattering in a strange language. During the ride he had been hard pressed at times to keep his concentration on the book he had been studying instead of their forms sitting so comfortably, swaying in time with the steps of their jet black steeds. His mind had supplied him with ample impressions of their gracefulness beneath the spreading cloaks that hung from their shoulders.
Skye shifted on the ground, his legs and buttocks ached. He was unused to riding and muscles hurt that he hadn't even thought he had. If he felt like this after one day, he wasn't sure that he would be able to even last another.
He tried to take his mind off of the ache and the cold, spooning the steaming spiced stew the girls had made into his mouth. They had had only a bit of cheese and bread from their packs during the day, having to eat in the saddle. Skye was glad that the keep staff had had the foresight to provide sustenance as he'd not even thought of food when he'd packed his belongings.
He noted the thin silver dome spreading around them, the ward that Gren had placed. Grev had still insisted that the others would stand a watch during the night, but had scoffed at the idea that Skye should stand a watch as well. In a way Skye was relieved about that. He was already jumping at the strange sounds around them and had once almost screamed when a small creature had flitted through the campsite before wheeling back into the night. Chris had assured him that it was most likely only a bat.
Still his nerves were raw. It hadn't been long ago that they had faced off against the Draco's and their mage and even before that there had been an assassination attempt on his life. He'd gleaned from the grandmaster that his was not the only attempt that had been made and that some of the others had not been narrow escapes. The thought that the enemy could so easily infiltrate the keep and that the barrier that was once held as impassable was no longer keeping them safe, sat heavily with him.
He was sure that the grandmaster and the council were doing their best to keep the world from the clutches of the imperials, but he feared that the pact of keeping the war confined to a set stretch of land would be broken just as the truce had been.
Skye almost spilled his bowl of stew in fright when Snow spoke "What's got you looking so glum?"
Skye shrugged his shoulders and tried to smile "Just thinking about the war and things." His brother threw an arm across Skye's shoulders and pulled him closer "Don't go worrying about that now, we're off on our own little adventure" Snows voice dropped to a whisper as he leaned into Skye's ear "and we've already survived one"
Skye wished he had his brothers' confidence. He'd been scared out of his wits on their little 'adventure' and was still puzzling over the black magic that the mage had used. That frightened him most of all.