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Chapter 52 : A Bleak and Dismal Journey
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But he was tired from the battle and his injury, and he stretched out across Severus' feet and fell asleep, just as his Alpha had recommended. The land here was barren of much foliage or vegetation, and there was nothing to block the terrible wind that whipped across the frozen ground. They were somewhat protected by the copse of firs, but even those hardy trees couldn't block the perpetual wind.
The wizard and the warrior slept spooned together for warmth and need, but even so, Sarai still felt the chill of Winter in her bones. In her ran the blood of a noble Summer fae lord, as well as the hardy stock of her mother's Welsh ancestors, but her fae blood made her vulnerable to the Dark Court's chilly welcome. Ordinary snow and cold she could tolerate, even enjoy, but this was different. She shivered despite her warmth charmed clothing, parka, and gloves, shivered even in her sleep.
Severus nestled her closer, since he was mortal, he actually had a higher tolerance towards Winter's weather. He woke briefly, unfastened his heavy coat and bundled the shivering fae Captain close, throwing the rest of his coat over her as well. Practically speaking, he knew that in order to be truly warm, they should have probably gotten naked and snuggled under all the coats, cloaks, and blankets, but he would not risk battling another group of monsters skyclad. So he merely hugged her hard and fell asleep again, their combined warmth keeping them quite toasty.
Dawn broke bleak and icy, but they forced themselves to their feet, and after melting snow for a strong tea with a few drops of summerdew in it and warming some nutrition oat and cranberry bars for breakfast, they quickly packed up their belongings, fed Cafall, and then Severus reattached his lead and asked Cafall to search for the boys.
Cafall was only too happy to reply. He was rested and raring to go, his plumed tail wagging, his eyes gleaming with eagerness. His shoulder had healed without scar or stiffness and the misthound was ready to take up the trail again. Not even the bone-deep chill could dampen his enthusiasm.
Sarai finished strapping on her snowshoes, then took Cafall's lead and began running after the dog. She ran in an economical gliding motion, like a gull skating across a pond, her snowshoes creating soft swooshing motions in the snow, which glistened with a thousand crystal rainbows. The Unseelie Realm was deadly, but it was also beautiful.
The way a king cobra was beautiful.
Severus followed, he was a bit awkward at first, not having practiced traveling in such a manner, but he soon picked up the basics. Even muffled in his scarf and cloak, he was still cold, but moving prevented it from getting a chokehold. The wind was like a living entity, tugging relentlessly at his scarf, his hood, slamming him with frigid blasts, making his lungs burn as he breathed the frozen air. Severus would have sworn that no colder place on earth existed, and he'd be right. Only the Unseelie could live in this hellish land and call it home.
The misthound ran over the frozen ground in an economical lope, carefully conserving his energy. His nose and his otherworldly "quarry sense" told him that his young packmates were very far away and so he was not running full out as he could have. Like his wolf cousins, the misthound knew not to exhaust himself until the quarry was in sight.
Cafall did not like this barren land, he was a creature of green meadows and sunlight, woodland and stream. The lack of cover bothered him, he was uneasy by so much open space, and the wind brought strange scents to his nostrils. Scents that made his nose burn in warning, and the tingle of evil borne on the back of the wind made him long to snarl a challenge to whatever was hidden behind the mountains. He could feel the presence of evil lurking, but never caught a glimpse of it. It made the fur on the back of his neck bristle.
Still he ran on, he would run till he found the boys, or drop from exhaustion. Committed to the search, Cafall would not give up or give in, such determination and drive was bred in him for centuries.
But though his stamina was considerable, even Cafall had to halt, and Sarai made sure that they took a break around midday. Severus glanced back and discovered to his dismay that the swirling wind had scoured away their tracks. "I suppose this is why it's called the Trackless Waste?" he said heavily.
Sarai nodded calmly. "That's one reason. The other is that you can get turned about and lost very easily out here, since it almost all looks the same." She busied herself boiling some water over the brazier and thawing out some beef jerky and sandwiches.
Severus cleared away the snow and enlarged a traveling three-legged stool and sat upon it, blowing on his hands and rubbing them together to relieve himself of the pins-and-needles sensation. His legs ached from the unaccustomed exercise but he was not about to complain. He would endure any amount of discomfort to rescue his children. Odd, he mused, how he now counted Nesmay among his charges, he had grown very fond of her over the past weeks, cheeky brat though she was. He gazed out over the bleak landscape and muttered, "We have to find them. There's no telling what that sick bastard might be doing to them."
"I know. But we also need to rest." Sarai said, coming over and giving him a one-armed hug. "The Dark Realm is most unforgiving of mistakes." She handed him a cup of elderberry tea with honey and a thick roast beef and cheese sandwich.
"I could have done that," he objected. "I don't need you to serve me."
She shrugged. "I'm used to living rough on campaigns. It's second nature for me to tend to my comrades first." She took out her own camp stool and sat down very close to the brazier, eating her sandwich in neat bites with her gloves still on. "You can have a turn come dinner time."
She tossed some beef jerky to Cafall, who gulped it down in a twinkling, then cleaned his bowl of the high-protein dog food as well. Then he drank deeply of the melted snow in his water bowl.
For a moment, neither spoke, concentrating on filling their clamoring bellies while the wind ruffled their hair.
Severus was surprised he was hungry at all, given how upset he was over his children's disappearance. But he devoured his sandwich and tea as if he hadn't eaten in over a month. "What other dangers are there that I need to be aware of?"
Sarai paused before replying. "Let me see. Well, the Unseelie realm is known to be the haunt of dire wolves and frost wraiths, which you've seen. A number of orc clans also make their home here, since they are allies and bodyguards of the royal house. Redcaps also. Kappas and rusalkas dwell in the Frostfell, that's the only river that runs through Winter that isn't half-frozen all year round. There are also banshees and harpies, and I've heard rumors that Baba Yaga and her hut live here too."
Severus raised an eyebrow. "Baba Yaga, the evil sorceress of Russian legend?"
Sarai nodded. "The same."
Baba Yaga featured prominently in Russian folktales, she was an old woman who had a magical hut that walked about on chicken legs and could run faster than a gazelle and fly also. The tales said that she usually enjoyed luring heroes into her hut and giving them impossible tasks to fulfill. Occasionally, she helped one or two out in return for a favor, but if she were in a foul mood, she enslaved or ate them. She was known to be especially fond of children and young men.
"Let us hope we don't meet up with her." Severus said darkly.
"Indeed. Some of my kin claim she is Maeve's grandmother. But I have heard she tends to haunt the Deepwood of late."
"How long do you think we've been travelling?"
Sarai glanced at the sun. "Probably four or five hours. Time is difficult to tell in the Waste."
"And it looks like it grows dark early," observed her beloved, glancing up at the pallid gray sky with the weak sun filtering through the thick cloud bank.
"Of course. This is bloody Winter, where the days are short and the nights long and filled with darkness," Sarai remarked sharply. Then she sighed. "Forgive me, I don't mean to snap. It's just . . .this place . . .brings back bad memories."
"You've been here before?"
"A long time ago, when I was foolish young girl, I challenged a minor Unseelie to a duel. At least I thought he was a minor dark fae. It turned out he was Ralston, Maeve's middle son, and since I lost, I had to live for six months as Maeve's 'guest'."
"Your parents permitted that? The queen?" Severus was aghast.
"I was of age and it was agreed as the forfeit of the duel," Sarai said, shaking her head ruefully. "They were under oath to not mistreat me or coerce me in any way. Even so . . .I felt as if I were a prisoner, though I wore no chains and wasn't locked up. I learned much about my dark kin though, and a valuable lesson in when to reign in my temper and think before I acted. Still . . .being back here sets my teeth on edge."
"Jarillion . . .what is he like?"
"Cold and proud and temperamental, much like his mother," Sarai answered. "I didn't really see much of him, he was usually with his tutors or hunting, and not interested in spending time with his brother's captive. He was a pretty boy, and rather spoiled, since he was the youngest, Maeve catered to him more than his brothers. He was fond of hunting and experimenting on . . .creatures. Maeve encouraged this, she wanted a skilled mage son. Jarillion is . . .smart but twisted."
"And Oberon wanted him to marry Nesmay?" Severus voice was sharp with scorn.
"Oberon has never been rational where she is concerned. Not that I'm making excuses, just pointing out facts. He has always resented and hated the child for causing his sister's death, and the fact that she is the daughter of a dark human sorcerer rankles even more. Nesmay is stronger than his son in magic, and it galls them both that a mere half-breed should outstrip a noble fae child. It also galls them that Titania shows Nesmay kindness and consideration. Oberon made it plain that he would have tossed her out of the court and given her to a mortal orphanage were it up to him."
"Perhaps that might have been best. There are plenty of wizarding couples who are childless who would have loved her."
"Who can say? It might have been a good thing in one way and a bad thing in another, considering her father might have discovered her if she lived in the mortal world. At least in Summer she was safe from him, and Titania does love her, Severus. She never would have sent her to you to teach her if she didn't. She wanted the best teacher she could find, and you are it."
Severus gave her a skeptical look. "Fine teacher I turned out to be, allowing her to be kidnapped along with my sons."
Sarai gently touched his cheek. "Sev, what happened was not your fault. Don't ever think it is. If anyone is to blame for this whole mess, it's my cousin Oberon. His jealousy and hate had made him betray his family. When this is over . . .I'd wager he'll have to talk pretty quickly to avert the queen's wrath."
Severus snorted. "She'll have to get in line behind me, you, and Philip."
Sarai scowled. "Right." Then she finished the rest of her tea. "Come. We still have a few hours of daylight left. Let's move. Traveling after dark here is not a good thing."
They packed up their gear and started off again, letting Cafall lead the way.
By the time night fell, both Severus and Sarai were weary and freezing. Only Cafall seemed unaffected by the monotonous terrain and the dropping temperature. The dog foraged ahead to limit of his leash, and would have continued to track through the night if Snape hadn't whistled him in.
Cafall came, but reluctantly, clearly not liking the order.
But the dark surrounded them like a thick impenetrable cloak, and the shadows grew long across the ground. In the distance, they heard the howl of something hunting, perhaps a dire wolf or something else. It sent shivers down Severus' spine, and he gripped the Staff of the Magi tighter. Cafall pressed against his legs, growling softly.
"Easy, boy. Down and guard," he told the dog softly.
The hound obeyed, glaring into the darkness.
He began casting strong protective wards about their camp, wards to shield and hide them, and warn them of approaching danger. Then he started to make dinner while Sarai set up the bedrolls and blankets.
The Blade also wove a framework of fir branches over the bedrolls, to keep out the wind and hail.
They ate, yawning over their meals, and just as Sarai stood up to vanish the dishes, Severus saw black clouds scudding across the waning moon. Alarmed, he stood and peered into the sky. "Sarai, look up and over there and tell me what you see."
The Blade did so, and then swore. "Sun, Moon, and Stars preserve us! A storm is coming."
"From the size of those clouds, a real blizzard."
Severus glanced about at their pitiful shelter. "Can we find another place to shelter?"
"Where?" his fiancée asked. "Do you see a house anywhere?"
"We'll have to make do with branches and spell wards." She began calling more branches to her, weaving swiftly four walls and lashing them together with rawhide and magic.
Severus cast every ward against bad weather, cold, and snow he knew, but he feared it would not be enough. Some sixth sense told him this was no natural storm.
They moved everything into the small shelter, then crawled inside with Cafall, who was now whining and whimpering.
Severus stroked his ears. "I know, boy. I don't like it either, but we can't outrun it."
Together dog, fae warrior, and Potions Master huddled amid blankets and prayed the storm would pass them by quickly. Severus had lit up his wand, so at least they weren't in the dark.
Outside the wind picked up, shrieking like a trio of banshees, and snow began to fall. Within an hour, they could no longer see anything but a wall of white, as the blizzard unleashed its fury, imprisoning them inside the tiny shelter.
Please forgive the short chapter, but I burned my left hand and finger at work today and cannot type anymore. The next chapter will be longer, as I shift perspective back to the children and Jarillion.
Please review! What do you think will happen to them or Severus and Sarai?
Also, please read my new story But For A Dog I've posted here. It's a bittersweet tale but I think you'll all like it if you give it a chance. Thanks!
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