However late in the season it came, and however lightly it fell, snow was the scourge of Bren's existence. It complicated everything from the felling of the trees, to stripping them down, all the way to transporting them. Nothing was untouched by that white powder, but it was in hauling wood through the stuff where things shifted from uncomfortable to dangerous.
Bren sat upright, gasping for air. The normal bleary eyes and sleepy thoughts gone in place of action and urgency. There was already a thin layer of snow on everything, even covering the bedroll he was sleeping in. A quick check to his right confirmed that his father was still asleep, snow accumulating on his beard where it stuck out of his bedroll. The cart was covered, but it was a good thing that he woke because the snow was still coming down, in big flakes now, and before long it would be impossible to move.
He was already up out of his bedroll, brushing it down and rolling it up by the time he called out to his father.
"Dad, snow." Bren tied his bedroll and tossed it into the cart. Hopefully the horses weren't already frozen.
Bren's father, Rorden, moaned and rolled over, shaking loose the snow on top of him that fell down on the ground in a miniature avalanche.
The horses were roaming in a little patch of grass off the road. It was the reason they had chosen this spot to stop and spend the night in the first place. They had let the horses off of their bridles and watched for a while as they grazed around, eventually nodding off to sleep or bedding down against some trees. There weren't any wolves this high up in the pass to worry about, so Bren and his father had made camp near the cart out of convenience more than anything else. They could build a fire there and have access to their supplies.
Bren called out to the horses when he reached the clearing. It wasn't far from the cart. At first he heard nothing, but eventually he saw two distinct bulges in the snow stand up and shake themselves. The large, brown and white horses Kavax and Venk took a moment to dust themselves before dutifully trotting over to Bren who was waiting with a handful of oats for each of them.
"There's more back at the cart, boys," Bren said, patting their manes in turn, "but we need to hurry."
They seemed to sense the urgency and trotted off toward the cart at a pace Bren couldn't quite match. Before the cart came into view, he heard his father bustling about, muttering and cursing.
Bren whistled for Kavax and Venk and they formed up at the front of the cart as they were trained to do, and Bren fitted the bridles to them once more while his father continued packing up the camp and checking the lashing on the lumber. It took them only a few minutes to complete the procedure, having performed it countless times over the years. They worked wordlessly, each knowing exactly what they were supposed to do but silently double-checking the work of the other to be sure it was completed.
"Should have woken me sooner," Rorden grumbled as Bren finished the last strap on Kavax.
"Not hard enough." His father's voice was like gravel under foot.
"You're grumpy. You haven't had your coffee." Bren reached into the cart and pulled out the pot they had used to make coffee the night before. "It's cold but it'll work."
Rorden fixed Bren with a stare, then grabbed the pot from his hands and drank it down in one long swig. He grimaced, wiped his beard, and put the pot away. "Thanks."
Bren nodded and checked the straps again before hopping up onto the cart. "We should be ok to travel for at least a little while before we need to be really careful." He looked up into the sky, shielding his eyes from the snow that seemed to be getting larger and more dense. "We need to get down as fast as possible."
Rorden hopped onto the cart as well and grabbed the reins. "Let's not waste time, then." He gave the reins a little flick and Kavax and Venk immediately pulled away at their usual pace.
The cart was heavy, and they were still moving uphill, so the going was slow at first. Complicating matters further, the more they ascended, the deeper the snow became. Not even an hour had passed before Bren strapped on his snowshoes and hopped out of the cart to lead the horses along. He checked the road for washed out sections and unexpected bends as best he could, but it slowed down their travel even more.
"It's too heavy, Bren," Rorden said. "We need to turn back."
"No, it's getting better," Bren said. He poked his stick into the ground and found the road solid beneath him. "I think."
Bren felt resistance against his grip on Venk and turned around to see his father pulling back on the reins, stopping them cold. He was shaking his head. "I'm sorry," he said. "We shouldn't have come out this late in the season."
"We need this, dad."
"We'll figure it out." Rorden let out a heavy sigh. "I'll find work in the mine until the season changes, or--"
A sharp gust of wind hit both of them and stopped Rorden mid-sentence. It was frigid in Bren's lungs, taking his breath away as if he had jumped into a frozen lake. Bren pulled his overcoat closer around him. The snow was so thick in the air now that he couldn't see the trees that he knew were to either side of the road. By their travel time he figured they were getting close to the peak of the climb, but there was really no way of knowing without any landmarks.
The trip had been foolish. He'd been able to see it from the beginning but he shoved it back in his mind, refusing to address it until now. The plan was to quickly run up the mountain and fell a few high ash trees, strip them, then get back down before the weather turned. Everything seemed great, they had cut and chopped and stripped faster than they ever had before. It seemed like the trip would be fine until they started the journey back and the sky turned black overhead. They hadn't been fast enough. They couldn't have been fast enough.
Bren nodded to his father, then began leading Venk around in the wide circle they would need to take. He scouted out the path, made sure there was enough room, then tugged on the reins making sure to keep himself at the outer edge, well within the probing points he'd made with his stick.
They were halfway turned around when Rorden called out for him to stop and then silenced Bren with a finger to his lips that were visibly blue and chapped even through his beard.
"I can't hear anything in this wind," Bren said.
"Marching," Rorden said.
Bren stopped again and focused on his ears, willing them to block out the whistling wind to hone in on something more. As he listened he saw movement in front of him. Dark shapes just beyond the pale wash of snow in the air as it drove nearly sideways into them. These shapes drew nearer and Bren recognized them as two horses, their riders low on their backs and covered by thick-looking cloaks.
The two riders stopped in front of Bren and sat up a little higher in their saddles. He could see now that they were both wearing some insignia on their cloaks and were armed with short swords that were strapped to the saddles behind them.
"You need to clear the road," one of them said. A bundle of her hair was pulled free from her cloak's hood and tossed about in the wind. Now that the two were upright, snow was beginning to collect in the folds and crevices of their attire.
"We have to make the pass tonight," Bren said. "We need the wood for--"
"We need the horses," the other rider said. She was taller than the first, sitting up a little higher in her saddle. "And the cart as well. You can unload the cargo."
Bren looked back at his father, apoplectic.
"Of course," Rorden said. "We'll need safe passage back down the mountain."
"As is required by law," the first rider said. "You will be accommodated."
"Dad, we can't--"
Rorden held up a hand, silencing Bren. "We're happy to oblige in our duties. If you wouldn't mind helping us turn the wagon..." he let the sentence trail off as he hopped down from the wagon seat, his feet crunching into the thick snow beneath.
The two riders looked at one another, then dismounted as well and set to work unharnessing Kavax and Venk. Bren fumbled with the buckles and straps as he helped, almost like he had never worked with a horse before. Now that everything seemed to be slipping away and the cold was eating at the feeling in his hands, he couldn't do this simple task he had done since he was a boy.
His father was working on the wagon, unhitching it and, with the help of the other rider, rotating it so that it raced back down the mountain. When Bren was finished with the horses he led them around the wagon and re-harnessed them so that they could pull once again.
"If I may suggest," Rorden said when they were nearly finished, "we should drop the wood in the clearing up ahead, or else it will clog the road."
The riders looked at one another, finished harnessing Kavax and Venk, then returned to their own horses without a word. When they were up, they walked up next to the wagon and gave their approval before moving on ahead to guide the way.
"What are we going to do now?" Bren said. He was back in the wagon now and wrapped in a thick patchwork blanket, his guiding no longer needed. "We won't have the delivery and now we are out two horses and a wagon."
"All which can be replaced," Rorden said. He kept his eyes fixed ahead.
"It will take us years to recover."
"They said we would be accommodated. As the law requires."
"The law requires they pay us but it doesn't require them to pay fairly. Venk alone is worth more than this load of wood." Of course. He could have considered selling the horses to make ends meet. But it was unthinkable. They were as much a part of the family as he was.
"Venk is old, and Kavax unruly. You overestimate them."
They made it back to the clearing quickly, going downhill and with the wind. The two riders set to work unloading the logs from the wagon, and by the time all four of them set to it, they made quick work. As they worked, the sounds of marching came closer until it was like the thunder in the sky, striking at an even pace. The wagon unloaded, they guided the cart back to the road and stood there waiting in the driving snow until more figures became visible through the whitewash.
There were five of them, walking side by side. The sounds of feet pounding through the snow was almost deafening now, especially compared to that eerie silence that comes with snow in the air. Behind the five figures Bren could see that there was a much larger mass of people following. When the snow occasionally broke due to shifting winds he could see that the hill before them was now covered with soldiers in dark uniform.
The two riders were back on their horses now. One rode over to the five figures and rode alongside them, while the other kept going toward the larger mass. Bren was too far away to hear what was said, but after a moment the first rider took off at a fast trot away from the five, past Bren and Rorden, and on down the road. She was a scout, by the look of it, but Bren knew close to nothing about the soldiers, just that they could come and take whatever they wanted if they felt they could justify it to the magi.
And the magi never cared.
Bren could see the five now, and though they were all similar blobs of movement through the snow in the distance, up close they couldn't be more different from one another. The first was on a white horse, plate armor shining even in the dim light of the blizzard. He almost shone like a beacon, lighting the way for the rest of the group. He was tall and sat perfectly straight ok his horse, one hand on the reigns, the other on the hilt of a long mace that hung from the saddle.
Behind him a woman walked, barefoot and only wearing a loose scarf and thin dress against the cold. She should have been frozen solid dressed as she was, but she seemed to pay no mind to the weather. Her pale skin was untouched by frost or cold, and she walked with her head held high, blond hair streaking behind her in the wind, her feet hardly touching the surface of the snowy ground before lifting again and moving onward.
The third to pass made Bren take a step back, because instead of a man or woman passing by he witnessed an enormous bear. It walked on two legs like a man and it's arms stretched down nearly to the ground with thick, sharpened claws on each hand. Muscles rippled out from under its fur, and it wore a scowl on its face that bared shining white teeth that looked as if they could tear Bren in two. As Bren watched, it looked over him as well and sent a chill down his spine.
"Best not to stare," Rorden said.
Bren turned to face his father, acutely aware of his expression. Rorden was still looking toward the wagon, sorrowful over the loss. Bren couldn't think about losing Venk and Kavax. He put it out of his mind and focused his attention on the coming mass of marching soldiers.
"Who are they?" Bren asked, though he knew the answer. He felt like he had so say something.
"Champions," Rorden said. "From the colors they look to be from Westshore."
"Westshore," Bren repeated. "So far away."
"They don't really have a choice, do they?"
All provinces were required to attend the battles at the Nexus. It was what kept the peace. It was the only reason that Bren and his father could be out harvesting and making their own way in the world. Bren never saw it personally, but he had seen enough to know the ramifications. There were some that were just too powerful to be left unchecked. That is why they fight. Better to control the battles then to let them destroy the entire world.
"We have to go down with them," Rorden said.
Bren turned to look at him, wiping accumulated snow from his forehead. "But we need to get back. We're behind as it is. If we go down with them we'll add days to the trip. Days we don't have."
"We can't make the pass without the wagon. We have to go down with them and find some other way back. Maybe buy another horse or see if there are caravans going."
Bren's attention was drawn as the first wave of soldiers came past. They marched in straight lines, sending fresh powder and the solid thud of boots gravel as they kept time. The weather seemed to part with them. As they reached the wagon a group of them split off and attended to it, inspecting the horses and directing others to bring barrels and crates that were then loaded into the wagon. Their wagon. Bren winced at the bile in the back of his throat.
Another, smaller group of soldiers walked over to Bren and his father. They were wearing the same thick coats as the others but also had red sashes tied around their upper arms. The man in front waved for them to join them, and Rorden immediately walked over to greet them. Bren took a moment and reluctantly followed.
"Come on, then," the lead man said waving them toward the mass of soldiers. "It's warmer in the midst, and you don't have this wind to worry about either." He looked up toward the sky as if to curse it. "I'm Pavel."
"This is Bren," Rorden said. "He's my son."
"And a fine one at that," Pavel said. "Come on."
Bren followed them through a gap in the lines toward the center of the marching mass. As soon as they were within, he felt the relief of the built-in windbreak of the other soldiers, and could almost feel the warmth radiating from them. At least it wouldn't be an entirely miserable march. They were offered some cold tea and bread, which helped a little.
Still all Bren could think about was how much time this detour would cost them, and how they would ever make back their loss, especially without horses. All he could do was put one foot in front of the other and hope that the weather broke soon.