The snow started falling around midday.
It began lightly, little white flakes that tickled my face when I looked up at the clouds hanging heavy above us. I stopped, holding out a hand and watching them melt on my fingers, and shivered; I was already cold but I knew I would only get colder, and both Mildmay and I were woefully underdressed.
“What’re you doing,” Mildmay asked, drawing up next to me along with the mule.
“It’s snowing,” I said, rather stupidly.
“Yeah,” Mildmay said after a pause. He coughed into the crook of his arm. “Good reason to keep moving.”
He was right, and because he was right I didn’t move, standing still as snowflakes caught and melted on my eyelashes. But then I thought guiltily of Mildmay’s lungs and made myself keep walking, wrapping my arms around myself like that would do anything to keep me warm.
It certainly didn’t when the wind picked up, which it did, cutting through my too-thin coat like it was silk. The snow started coming down faster, too. Mildmay didn’t complain but I could see him shivering, his coughs poorly muffled. A layer of white was building up on the ground. The mule alone of the three of us seemed untroubled.
“Maybe we should turn back,” I said.
“Ain’t going to be any better back there,” Mildmay said. I pressed my lips together, but he was right about that, too.
“There must be a farmhouse, or a cabin,” I started to say, but trailed off. In the thickening snowfall, it suddenly felt as though we were a very long way indeed from civilization.
“Maybe it won’t get too heavy,” Mildmay said, but I could tell he didn’t believe what he was saying. Why would he? That would require an amount of luck that we simply did not possess.
I didn’t say as much, though. I walked on, pushing my hands into my pockets to stave off the numbness starting in my fingertips.
The snow didn’t stop. It only fell thicker, and faster. Sound was muffled, and with the limited visibility it felt like the world was closing in around us. The thought made me claustrophobic, and I regretted letting it surface.
Mildmay was struggling with the footing, slippery as it was. A tree dumped a load of snow onto my head and shoulders without warning and I yelped, which brought Mildmay hard about, and he almost fell; I tried to brush the snow out of my hair but I could feel icy water trickling down the back of my shirt.
Mildmay looked relieved, though, having apparently regained his balance. Relieved, and a little like if he ever smiled, he would be doing so. That made me feel a bit better about the fact that with my hair wet, a chill was quickly setting in.
“We need to stop,” I said. “There’s no point continuing like this. Do you know where we’re going?”
“Yeah,” Mildmay said. Of course he did. Mildmay could probably find his way in a maze in the dark. He coughed, and looked at me, and said, “but you ain’t wrong. It’s gonna get dark soon anyway. Means finding someplace, though. Don’t know that we’ll find any inns up here.”
“No,” I said bleakly. “I don’t imagine we will.” The wind was picking up and I had to squint, the snow blowing in my eyes. “What, then, are we to keep wandering until we happen upon some secret grotto?” I could not quite keep the sharpness from my voice, and regretted it a moment after. It was not, after all, Mildmay’s fault that we were here.
“Got any better ideas,” Mildmay said after a beat. I said nothing, and he tightened his grip on the mule’s rein and continued leading us forward. I bowed my head, wishing I had a heavier coat. Wishing I was under a roof, in a warm bed.
Wishing, very briefly, that I was back in the Mirador, in my comfortable quarters.
As well wish to go to the moon. You’re never going back there.
No. I was not, and I did not know anything about where I was going, save that there I would face due judgment for what I had done. I studied my reaction to that thought, and found that it was largely indifference.
Mildmay and I had not discussed what had happened at the river. I had no intention of doing so. I could only hope he would follow my lead. It seemed likely that he would; communicative was not an adjective that could be comfortably applied to my brother.
A gust of frigid wind slapped me in the face, jarring me out of my thoughts. I looked up, but there was no sign of either Mildmay or the mule, and only my own tracks behind me.
I’d lost sight of him. Wandered off, like a lost sheep. A half-blind lost sheep.
“Mildmay?” I called, my teeth chattering. I could make out shadows through the white on my good side, but nothing definite. The cold air burned my lungs as I began to breathe faster. I couldn’t be certain which direction I’d wandered from our path, and I imagined guessing only to stray further away, maybe off a cliff I couldn’t see. Maybe that was what had happened to Mildmay and he was lying at the bottom of a crevasse very close by, dying or dead–
“Felix!” I heard, and moved toward it, gasping, stumbling a little in the now ankle-deep snow. I saw his limping shadow before I saw him and then he was there, shivering. His eyes fixed on me and I saw him slump.
“Come on,” he said. “I found a cave. Sort of. It’s something to get out of the wind, at least.”
I nodded and followed, within arm’s reach as though the wind might tear me away and I’d be lost again.
It was not much of a cave. Barely large enough for the three of us, set back just far enough to offer shelter from the wind. It was dry, though, even if I realized quickly we had nothing with which to set a fire for warmth. Mildmay looked as though he’d realized the same thing at the same time.
“I’ll go,” I said. “Find some…” I did not have any idea what I would look for. I doubted there would be firewood lying around, and even if there were, it would be wet. Standing stupidly, I stared at Mildmay, who shook his head.
“Don’t,” he said. “You’ll get lost again.” I flushed, even though he wasn’t wrong, and I probably would. Belatedly, I noticed the tightness around his eyes and mouth, and could have hit myself.
“You’re hurting,” I said. “Sit down. Is it your leg?”
“M’fine,” he said, looking away.
“Sit,” I said, trying to make it gentle. Reluctantly, Mildmay lowered himself to the ground, leaning back against one of the cave walls and watching me with cautious eyes. I didn’t know what he was looking for, but his gaze made me excruciatingly self conscious, so I looked away and settled for pulling our bedrolls out of the mule’s saddlebags. I was still shivering, my clothes wet and my fingers numb, the ones Malkar had broken even stiffer than usual, clumsy on the buckles. Still, I managed, but I suspected it wasn’t going to be enough to keep us warm.
Wouldn’t it be funny, a bitter part of me thought, for it to end like this. Mildmay saved me from drowning in a river only for us both to freeze to death in a snowstorm. It was still coming down, a curtain of white that cut us off from the rest of the world. There was a beauty to it, strangely mesmerizing.
“Felix,” Mildmay said, audible worry in his voice. I jerked, and looked at him, realizing that I’d taken a step toward the mouth of the cave. I backed away, quickly, moving back over toward him.
“What can we do?” I asked, feeling lost and thoroughly useless.
“Just gotta wait it out,” Mildmay said after a moment. “And try to keep warm. Rosamund’ll help. And we should keep close together too.”
For a moment a wild image flashed into my mind of the two of us huddled in one bedroll, wet clothes cast off. My laugh caught in my throat before it emerged and I swallowed it down, walking over and sinking down next to Mildmay. He huddled toward me. The cave wall against our backs was cold and I could feel it leaching warmth away from us; I pressed my hands between my thighs in the hopes that it would warm them, to no avail. My teeth started chattering.
“Felix,” Mildmay said. “You should get out of your wet clothes and get in one of the bedrolls.”
“What about you,” I said.
“I’m fine,” he said, though I could feel him shivering too, and I shook my head.
“You’re the one getting sick,” I said. “So you first.”
The look he gave me was exasperated. “Right now you’re worse off along as you got nothing on your bones to keep warm with.” There was something else, I thought, that he wasn’t saying. Like he thought if he took his eyes off me I might wander off.
“Mildmay,” I said, but he just looked at me with his flat stare that said I could try arguing with him but unless I used the obligation d’âme he wasn’t going to budge.
I got my change of clothes out of my pack and changed in silence, as quickly as I could. The cold air slapped against my bare skin, almost stinging, and I climbed hastily into my bedroll. It was an improvement, certainly, but it was an improvement I realized I didn’t really want.
Don’t be melodramatic, darling.
I took a deep breath of cold air that bit my lungs and said to Mildmay, “well?” my voice perhaps a bit sharper than was strictly necessary. Mildmay’s expression flattened further and he didn’t answer, but he stood and limped over to retrieve his own things. He coughed a couple times and I frowned at his back.
“Are you all right?” I asked gingerly.
“Fine,” Mildmay said, unsurprisingly. I didn’t press.
The wind howled outside. I was, perhaps, beginning to get a little warmer. Closing my eyes, I turned my back on Mildmay and closed my eyes, though I doubted I would be able to sleep well.
I dreamed of Gideon, sitting down as Isaac rambled, gesturing wildly, moving slowly around behind him. Run, I tried to scream, turn around, get up, run, but I had no voice; Malkar had cut out my tongue. Then I blinked and it was Mildmay, choking, dying.
I turned and ran, but my footsteps brought me back to Malkar’s workroom, only this time it was Malkar standing in the doorway, rubies glinting on his fingers. He gave me the smile that made my knees weak and said, “there you are. I’ve been waiting for you.”
“No,” I said, but it was feeble. He smiled at me, cruel, amused by my weak defiance.
“Oh, darling,” he said. “Don’t play games with me. I know what you want.”
He stepped back and I could see Mildmay, on his knees, utterly naked. His face was bleeding and I knew it was from where my rings had cut into his skin. He raised his head and looked at me, and I could see the fear in his eyes, the plea, and the certainty that it would not be answered.
Malkar’s hand clasped the back of my neck, the weight of it bearing down. “Go on, Felix,” he said. “Take your reward. You’ve already bound him to you. Why hold back?”
“I promised,” I said, and cringed at how pathetic it sounded. Malkar laughed at me.
“What is a promise made to a gutter rat?” he asked, and for just a moment his voice sounded like mine.
Mildmay bowed his head.
I managed at last to wrench myself free and into wakefulness. There was a warm body at my back - Mildmay, curled up against me, and I swallowed my cry, lurching away. I clawed my way free of my bedroll, not trusting myself to be near him, but a few steps wasn’t far enough. I couldn’t breathe, the walls of the cave were too close, I was too close. There was a scream building in my throat that I was just holding back, thinking wildly don’t wake him, you can’t wake him.
He was already awake, and looking at me with sleepy bewilderment. “Felix?” he said, and I couldn’t look at him, not without seeing him naked and chained, you’ve already bound him to you, why hold back, the look in Mildmay’s eyes that said he knew I was going to hurt him, and I was going to be sick.
I spun on my heel and bolted out into the storm.
The cold hit me immediately. It wasn’t easy to run but I tried nonetheless, thinking only that I needed to get away, away, away.
I stumbled and fell, my hands plunging into the snow. I hadn’t put on any shoes and my feet ached with the cold. I didn’t try to get up, just stayed there on hands and knees, shivering and beginning to become aware of the stupidity of what I’d done.
A moment later I wondered if I hadn’t done it on purpose after all.
But Mildmay could follow my tracks. He would come looking, because of course he would, and take a chill himself that would settle in his lungs. Even thinking that, though, imagining him wading through the snow, I could not make myself move. I shivered, my teeth chattering together, my hands going slowly numb. I had no notion of how long it might take to freeze to death.
I wondered what Mildmay would do if I did. If he would turn back, return to Mélusine alone.
I heard my name, shouted, as if from a great distance, but I could hear the crunch of someone moving through snow, drawing closer. My track must be obvious. I cringed into myself. You force him out into the cold, when he’s already falling ill, make him come and fetch you back because of course he will, he’ll never stop even when he should.
“Kethe,” Mildmay said, and his voice shook. “There you are.”
What came out of my mouth when I opened it was, “go away.” The brief silence was deafening.
“No,” Mildmay said, his voice significantly harder. I heard him tramp closer, his hand wrapping around my arm. “Get up,” he said, and his tone would not accept argument.
I staggered to my feet, miserable, freezing, and feeling very, very stupid. And yet unable to shake the image in my head. He took my arm and I tried to pull away, but he didn’t let go. He was shivering too, though at least he was wearing shoes. He glanced down at my feet and let out a sigh, then started dragging me back along the trail of broken snow we’d made.
When I realized what he was doing, I fought against him. “No,” I moaned, my teeth chattering. “I don’t want - I don’t–”
“Shut up,” Mildmay said, and my mouth snapped shut out of sheer surprise for a moment before I managed to recover.
“You can’t trust me,” I said. “I can’t - I can’t be trusted. You should just leave me here–”
“Fuck me sideways,” Mildmay muttered, and then louder, “shut up. I’m not going to leave you. We need to get back out of the cold.”
I didn’t fight him further. Tried to help, though I was shaking hard enough that it was difficult to do much; my feet had gone numb and my hands were aching. I didn’t say anything else, though, even if my stomach was still in knots.
I know what you want.
What is a promise made to a gutter rat?
“It matters,” I said desperately. Mildmay glanced at me as he dragged me over the cave threshold and into the relative dry.
“Sure,” he said. “It matters.”
“I promised,” I said. “I won’t - it does matter.”
“You’re not making any sense,” Mildmay said wearily. “Come on, we need to get warmed up.”
“You can’t trust–”
“Felix,” Mildmay said, cutting me off, “right now the only thing I can’t trust you with is not running off in the snow, so just…” he trailed off. He was shivering too, pale, but he wouldn’t lie down until I did. Of course he wouldn’t.
My brother, giving up everything for me.
I gave in. Crawled back into my bedroll and curled up into myself, wet and cold and miserable. I closed my eyes so I didn’t have to look at Mildmay and tried not to think about my dream.
“Did you know what you were doing?” Mildmay asked.
“What do you mean,” I said dully, after a moment in which I considered pretending I was asleep. He wouldn’t fall for it, though.
“I mean, did you go out there knowing you’d freeze,” he said, and there was a mix of fear and anger in his voice just under the surface. I wasn’t sure which would win out.
“No,” I said finally. “Not exactly. I just...had a nightmare.” Malkar’s smile. Gideon dying. The look on Mildmay’s face. I took an uneven breath.
“Not exactly,” Mildmay repeated flatly.
“I wasn’t thinking,” I said. An unpleasant feeling of stupidity was beginning to join the rest of the unhappy muddle in my head. I was still cold, deep cold, though feeling was beginning to return painfully to my feet. I was so tired, but the last thing I wanted to do was sleep. I was afraid what I might find there. What truths it might show me. But being awake just meant that my thoughts chased each other in circles, around and around until I felt like I was going to go mad.
“Felix,” Mildmay said. I’d thought he was asleep.
“Yes,” I said. My voice sounded weak.
“You still cold?”
I was. I supposed he must be able to hear me. “I’ll be fine.”
Mildmay was quiet a long several moments, and then said, “well, I ain’t. Want to get closer together and maybe it’ll be warmer?”
One part of me wanted to say yes. Would have crawled into his bedroll with him and put my face against his neck and stayed like that through the night. The rest of me thought of my dream and recoiled from that desire. I choked on saying anything.
“You’re shivering,” Mildmay said, his voice lower. “C’mon. Whatever you’re scared of, it ain’t gonna happen tonight. Okay?”
You don’t know that, I thought wildly, but I was weak, had always been weak.
We adjusted so we could press together and better share body heat. I couldn’t stop shaking, still, and I wasn’t entirely certain if it was fear or cold. I had hurt Mildmay so many times before. I did not want to do it again. I knew I would.
Mildmay put an arm around me. Slowly, carefully, giving me time to pull away. “Hey,” he said gently. “It’s okay.”
I bit my lip until my eyes stopped burning. “Mildmay,” I started, and then stopped. He said nothing, waiting, and finally I just said, “let’s just go to sleep.”
“Okay,” Mildmay said.
He was right. I did warm up faster, though I was still awake and shivering for a long time.
At some point I stopped, and at some point after that I drifted off to sleep. I had a feeling that Mildmay was still awake, but neither of us said anything, and I tried not to wonder what he was thinking.
I woke up with the sun in my face, the two of us curled together like kept-thieves. It wasn’t snowing anymore, if still bitterly cold.
But we were alive. And I hadn’t broken Mildmay yet.
There’s still time, murmured one voice, and not for lack of trying, another. But not yet. And I would make it not ever. It had to be.
I needed to believe that there were some lines even I would not cross.