With half a dozen people bustling around the steamy kitchen, the scent of soap overtaking the smell of cooking, the big job was finished in a short enough time that they could all sit for a moment and try the new sweet Brak had come up with, just for his helpers, despite the worsening weather. After all, no one would have to let go any of the lines to get into a tunnel and home.
Afterwards, he shrugged into his coat, wrapping his scarf tight around his face, his tongue still working at the sticky maple sweetness on one of his teeth. The storm outside was worse than predicted and Kyrus clamped both hands around the color-coded line by the door. The wind howled in, fighting against him as he pulled it shut behind him, the evening already totally black, pummeling snow like a fist in the face.
The howling dark grabbed him as his boots dug into it and he put his head down, struggling to keep his breath from being dragged out of him. When he lost his footing he didn’t realize at first that he’d been tripped. He couldn’t see, couldn’t catch his breath and then a fist sank into his stomach, once, twice. As he struggled, something, perhaps an elbow hit him in the face and he saw stars.
“Hey, Bee Eater!” It was an attenuated whisper against the scream of the wind. “We thought we’d give you a good Milari welcome!”
He tried to fight back, but anything he’d learned in the streets of Lainz was all but useless in the deep snow and blinding blizzard and he’d only been at the school here for a few weeks. He couldn’t even stop them prying his hands off the line.
He felt the blow to his head that was supposed to knock him unconscious, muffled by heavy mittens. It was hard enough to knock him to his knees. Someone grabbed him by the back of his coat and dragged him, hurling him away from the safety of the lines, out onto the hillside, far more than arm’s length away from shelter.
“Give our regards to your father, Ass. Maybe in your heaven he needs one to ride on!” A broken, torn gust of laughter and they left him.
They’d formed a chain, he realized, and once they’d hauled him away from safety, they’d walked their fellow in, hand to hand, back to the security of the line, leaving him alone to die on the mountain.
He spat to clear the snow out of his mouth; icy crystal rammed into it hard enough that the clinging weight had forced its way past both the scarf and veil, leaving icy tracks trailing down his neck.
It was completely dark. White actually. The snow blew sideways in a continuous roar that made every direction the same. His heart leapt to a gallop and he began to hyperventilate, before he clamped down hard on his reactions.
I can’t blindly run off a cliff. There are several out this way as I recall. I can’t panic. Assholes. If I’m an Ass they are the Holes. His rage cleared away his rising panic and self-disgust. He’d take time for all that later, when he was safe.
He was spread out on the snow and pulled his limbs in, slowly, staying low, trying to follow the track his attackers had left dragging him out here. The snow and wind had already mostly filled it in, or scoured it away. He wasn’t sure of the hill. He couldn’t even tell the slope he was on it was so wild. Dark take them. They aren’t going to kill me like they killed him. It was as though the wind battered on him, trying to fight him, to beat him to the ground. I refuse to give up and die.
His questing hands ran painfully into something in the snow and he felt it, trying to figure out if it were a wall, but it was only a stick. His hands closed on it convulsively and he pulled it free, finding that it came loose much more easily than it should have, but it gave him something to lean on, something to cling to, as he struggled back toward where he thought the safety line was.
The snow blew from all directions hammering him as if it wanted him on his knees, as if it had a living will to kill him, as malevolent as the Milar who had dragged him out here. He couldn’t feel his hands and his feet were blocks of ice. He was disoriented and turned slowly in place, trying to figure out where safety lay. I’m cold. It was getting hard to think.
There! He thought he caught a glimpse of light off to the left and staggered a step or two in that direction before tripping again and sprawling anew. In the moment or two that he lay, trying to get his breath back, the snow on him was already as deep as his thumb joint. He struggled back up, stamping his feet.
I could be staggering in circles and I’d die never knowing it. An ululating whistle out of the darkness made him stop and listen.
It was the whistle a Deep desert nomad sent out into the sandstorm, unmistakable and something only a Lainz soldier would now. It must be Brak. He’s the only other Lainz in this town. But… Brakayus had been a city boy, just like Kyrus. Where had he learned the Deep signals? Kyrus shook off the idea and whistled back; a city whistle, not as carrying, but better than a shout in this wind.
The snowstorm was very like a sandstorm but whereas one flayed your bones with sand, scrubbing life away with your skin, the snow used cold as well as ice to separate you from your life. Both used knife-edge flaying crystals until every inch of skin, covered or not, stung.
A figure loomed out of the dark and almost fell over Kyrus. The man was tall, taller than most Milari and grabbed Kyrus around the shoulders as if to shake him loose. A voice shouted in his ear, in Lainz. “Follow me, boy!”
A line trailed behind Kyrus’s savior, as light as a spider thread but even as it was wrenched around by the storm it didn’t break. The man grabbed his coat and pulled him along it as though the gossamer line helped him. A dozen steps and Kyrus’s hand locked around the safety line at the right tunnel. He staggered in, out of the direct force of the wind and leaned against the snow wall, still dragging the stick that had helped him out of the snow in the first place.
He turned to thank his rescuer and found that he stood absolutely alone. There was no sign of anyone else. No rescue line. No footprints in the snow. Nothing.
“Hello?” He squinted out into the wild blizzard but could see nothing. He even stepped out along the safety line, just one step, trying to find who had saved him and was forced to retreat.
He yanked his mitten off, thrust ice-cold fingers up to his mouth, whistling into the gale and thought he heard a faint echo, out on the mountain, but wasn’t sure. It was so faint he convinced himself that it was only the roar of the storm.