The snow crackles. It’s how the rain hits it, breaking through to the mountain beneath or splattering on the sheet of ice growing thicker on the snow’s surface with each drop. Walking through the snow is heavy, breaking through the ice, sinking into the wet snow underneath. At least his boots have been just treated with wax to keep out the water. A bird’s song echoes out thinly somewhere up ahead. It sounds like a Gautier thrush.
He has to get shelter. That is one of the first things he remembers learning. You shouldn’t ever get lost in the wild, his father had said, taking him out to the woods with nothing but warm clothing, flint, and a steel knife. But, if it happens, you will have to know how to find shelter and make flame.
That time was different. His father says he loves him.
Sylvain is small, so it’s easier for him to pick his way through the low bushes and scraggly trees. That’s what Miklan says. And Miklan says that because Sylvain has a Crest, he’s supposed to heal faster, so it’s fine if he falls or gets hit by thorny branches and the needles on trees. Sylvain is so much better than Miklan. He’s a Crest-bearer. He can make his way back on his own, right?
The way the rain hits is like needles of ice. It runs down his cheeks and neck, drenching the fur at his throat and getting under his coat. He knows his mother will be so upset if the water damages the material. She’ll tell Father that Miklan was at fault. Then Father will be angry with Miklan, and Miklan will be angry with him.
He’ll say he got lost.
Then he sees it: a rock ahead jutting out of the snow, in the weak shadow of a ragged pine. Shelter. He could fit under there, or at least mostly fit. Sylvain breaks into a run, his cheeks going from biting to aching, and trips—the ice layer, catching his foot as it rises—broken ice scrapes across his face like broken glass. It hurts. But he can’t, even with the scratching in his throat, he can’t. He’s a Gautier. He’s just being spoiled.
Sylvain swallows it back down and pushes himself out of the snow.
He has to clear ice and snow away from under the rock, so he can sit on the dirt. The thrush’s song is closer now. It’s up in the pine, he sees, but when he reaches for a branch it goes silent and flies further up the tree.
But he needs that wood. “Sorry,” he tells the thrush, and tries to break the branch free. The bird flies higher up the tree. And the wet branch won’t come loose.
He always has a hunting knife in the woods. This is the one the king gave him, with Gautier’s crest engraved at its side. When he tries to use it with his mitts on, it falls right out of his hand, so he pulls one mitt off and sets it under the rock, out of the rain. His fingers aren’t so lucky and the bite of rain against them makes him shiver but he can keep his other hand gloved to grip the branch. He cuts himself the only wood he can reach and scrapes out some bark as tinder for good measure.
Crowding under the rock as much as he can, with his back to the rain and ignoring the water freezing against his skin, he tucks the sticks under the shelter of the rock and takes out his flint.
The sparks won’t catch on wet branches. Sylvain doesn’t shove his wet hand into his mitt or his sleeve because he knows it will only make things worse, and he knows he can’t panic, he mustn’t. He has to think.
Fire and water are opposites. Wet branches won’t catch fire. Fire can burn away the rain in the sticks. But he can’t get the fire to dry the branches if the branches aren’t dry, except…
His father says that fire magic has been passed down through their bloodline for generations. He says that it’s their birthright as wards of the north. Miklan says that everything comes easy to him because of his Crest. Sylvain can do magic because he’s cheating.
Sylvain just likes the formulas. He likes the logic of the structures, and the way the symbols look together, and how he can always predict the conclusion after he figures out the start. And when he gets the equations right, it feels good.
So Sylvain cups his hands above his pile of sticks. He stares at his fingers, and ignores the bite gone so cold it burns. He feels the heat spread across his skin, unsure and flickering at first, and catches his breath. Tries not to breathe on it.
Then light bursts across his eyes, and his palms cup a vibrant flame.
Sylvain smiles. Putting all his focus into keeping the spell going, he holds the fire to the sticks until they dry.
Then, he tips his palms forward and lets the fire catch. The bark crackles and breaks under heat, revealing the naked wood beneath, before it fully takes to its hungry chase. Sylvain grins but keeps quiet, nudging the little fire further under the rock carefully to make himself just a bit more space out of the rain.
He knows he’ll need to feed it more wood soon. But he doesn’t want to move away from the heat, the shelter. His limbs feel like they weigh a million pounds. He looks back down the mountain, unable to see the end of the long, long way home from here.
In Castle Gautier’s central rooms, lights dance. They reflect off mirrors and crystals and glass, candles turned from one to two to a hundred, fireplaces bright and beautiful—so splendid, so glittering. All along the stone walls hang tapestries woven by his mother, wool from peasants’ tributes dyed in all the boldest colors; the corridors are covered in ornament painted in gold, silver, lapis lazuli, carmine. You could feed a city with this! Ingrid always gasps, reaching for Glenn’s hand. It’s beautiful, Dimitri tells Sylvain's parents, quietly polite beside the boisterous king. Sometimes Rodrigue has to break off a conversation to keep Felix from chasing after the spinning lights.
It is beautiful. It’s just that the stones eat up all the heat. They make footsteps echo, too, but all the servants and even his parents walk so quietly through the corridors. Sylvain tries to do the same. And although the multiple blazing fireplaces in the Great Hall make that vast room too warm, stifling even, in the narrow corridors the candles don’t give off any heat.
He used to go to his mother’s weaving room sometimes, one of the few places with windows large enough for sun to be the source of light, and because she loves him he’d ask her to play. But she was always too busy. She smiled at him and patted his hair, and told him she didn’t have time, not just then. She was making beautiful things for their beautiful home. Why didn’t he run along?
Only the soldiers, in their heavy metal armor that catches the candlelight in a different sheen than the crystals and glass, make noise when they walk the halls. His father says that Gautier must always be ready.
The best place is the stables. It’s rich with the smell of hay, and it’s a little chilly but not too cold to bear. Sometimes the stable hands let Sylvain brush and feed the horses. His father, who takes charge of the breeding of their horses himself, never scolds him for spending too much time in the stables. And sometimes, when Sylvain hears heavy footsteps coming, he can climb up into the rafters fast enough to disappear before he’s seen. He’s almost too big for it now.
Yes, he likes the stables best. That’s always the best place. He wants to go home.
He wants his friends.
The crackle stops. Sylvain’s eyes open wide, and his numb fingers draw toward his chest on reflex. The fire has gone out. Can he start it again? The sticks are already half ash. He gathers himself and rubs his face, which makes it cold and wet, but he’s awake at least. He can do this. He just has to remember the spell.
He can’t feel the fire as it blooms in his palms. And then, as it spreads, pain wakes up in his fingertips. Spoiled brat. Sylvain bites at his lower lip, and he wills the fire to make the branches dry—
—Another silence spreads. Sylvain looks up, and when he doesn’t feel a fresh bite, he realizes: the rain has stopped.
The bird tilts its head to look at him. It sings, brief and sweetly. Then it flies away.