The Quest for Rinaria, Part VIII
The Icy Cliff
Eneng clutched a rope between his forepaws, bracing himself against the rock with his hind paws, hanging about six feet off the ground. Gray dirt had settled over his brown fur, which was rumpled and stuck out in all directions. A cut bled unnoticed in one ear, staining his tunic. He stared relieved and yet aghast at the creatures gathered on the rocky beach, only one of whom was looking back at him.
I’ve seen him better, Snowhawk thought. But then, I’ve seen him worse, too.
And, to answer his question, she replied, “I sailed.”
Winterblade, who lay sobbing on the rocks, let out a particularly loud yelp as Snowhawk’s healer, Tine, applied a compress to her paws. Eneng’s gaze immediately jerked back to his sister; he’d transferred his gaze only to Snowhawk once he’d assured himself his sister was all right. But as Tine shushed Winterblade, and the burned pirate’s sobbing reduced again, Eneng transferred his gaze back to Snowhawk.
“We didn’t see anyone followin’ us,” he said curtly. “An’ I didn’t see the Nygoan from the cliff up there. Care to explain?”
Snowhawk curled one side of her mouth up in a combined smile and smirk. “I don’t think I need t’ explain myself t’ you,” she retorted. “An’ you can come down from there. If y’ swing far enough t’ the left, y’ c’n miss the pool.”
Eneng shinned a little lower down the rope; then he pushed off the rock, trying to swing to his left.
“Help him,” Snowhawk ordered one of her crew, without taking her eyes from Eneng.
She had to be careful around him; he was predictable, for the most part, except when his sister was concerned. He went a little crazy when she was in danger.
Snowhawk’s crewferret grabbed the trailing end of the rope and pulled it away from the pool, enabling Eneng to jump down. He landed lightly on his paws; then he called up, “Rejoin the others! Tell them t’ go ahead! Winterblade an’ I will catch up!”
“Aye aye, cap’n!” called a faint voice from above. Then the rope began to withdraw into the mist that separated those gathered by the pool from the stars.
Eneng hurried around said pool – it was milky white, large enough to hold two longboats placed prow to stern, and nearly perfectly circular – to where his sister lay, whimpering, on the largest stretch of rock. The healer Tine, a young, timid, but very smart ferret, was applying essence of aloe and other herbal juices to Winterblade’s face.
Eneng knelt beside her; he didn’t touch her, but he murmured words that Snowhawk couldn’t catch.
Snowhawk’s bosun – one of only four of her crew who had accompanied her to shore – murmured in her ear that the wind was changing. She nodded sharply, once, waiting for Eneng to address her again. He was shocked, trying to get his mind around something he had thought impossible, and so was buying time by focusing on his sister.
Finally, he turned to Snowhawk. “’ow’d y’ find this place?”
The area they stood in was like a cave, if the mist were a roof. It had one exit – well, two now. The one that had been there before the landslide was only wide enough for one ferret at a time to squeeze through, but it went to a flat stretch of rock by the sea. The rock was red and soft, like sandstone, and once the sun struck it the next day, it would be quite bright.
“Took the longboat along the shore,” Snowhawk answered. “Found the opening.”
Eneng glanced back at his sister. “Well – thanks fer pullin’ ’er out,” he mumbled.
Snowhawk’s paws were raw from the seconds they’d spent in the pool as she snatched her archenemy out of it. She held them up and glanced at them; then she said, “Fer all the good it did.”
Eneng looked to Tine in alarm. When Tine heard the silence, she glanced up and swallowed nervously as she met Eneng’s worried gaze. “I think the Cap’n was exaggeratin’,” she mumbled.
Funny. Her paws were so confident with the weak and the delicate, but her voice trembled whenever she spoke to someone who wasn’t at risk of falling apart any second. Snowhawk usually didn’t tolerate weakness among her crew, but she paradoxically considered it a necessity in a healer. The weak were always so much more attuned to others in their weakness.
“When we landed, Tine,” Snowhawk said, “you warned us all to be careful o’ the pools, a’cause you didn’t have what you needed to treat the worst burns.”
Tine’s brow wrinkled doubtfully. “I don’t have enough,” she corrected. “At least, not t’ cover her. I’d need more aloe for that, but I think I got enough t’ keep ’er until the longboat comes back.”
“What’s aloe?” Eneng demanded. “An’ when’s the longboat s’posed t’ come back?”
“Aloe is a plant,” Snowhawk replied indifferently. “An’ the longboat’s s’posed t’ come back in the mornin’. Unless, o’ course, Nygoan ’ad t’ find a safer ’arbor.”
Eneng turned to her, looking a little sick.
“ I told the first mate t’ keep out o’ sight of any o’ yer convoy’s ships,” Snowhawk explained.
“Shartalla’s sailin’ ’round the island t’ the other side,” Eneng murmured.
Snowhawk glanced at Winterblade, who had gone silent but still trembled a little. “Well. Then I doubt the longboat will be back by mornin’.”
Eneng covered his eyes with his paw, as if he were trying to pretend the whole thing wasn’t happening.
“The bosun saw green on the rocks t’ the west,” Tine offered. “That might be aloe. Some’n’ c’d go there an’ fetch some.”
Eneng looked again, his eyes bright with hope and anxiety. “An’ – if y’ didn’t get more aloe?”
“She’s strong,” said Tine evasively. “Infection would be my greatest worry, an’ it’s too hot down ’ere t’ allow much infec–”
“Tine!” Snowhawk snapped.
The young healer swallowed. “I don’t know. She migh’ last till noon t’morrow. Maybe longer.”
Eneng stared at his sister; then he looked to Snowhawk. But he said nothing, probably because he knew he had to ask a question but didn’t know how to ask.
Snowhawk answered it anyway. “Bosun, where did y’ see this green?”
The bosun gave his captain an uncertain look, but nonetheless relayed what he had seen. “About four miles up the coast, the ground slopes up, then it gets t’ that glacier. The green is on the seaward side once y’ get above the glacier.”
Snowhawk nodded. “Got it. Tine, I need yer bags. Empty ’em. Load ’em up with rope an’ daggers. Crew, I’ll need yer knives. Make sure they’re sheathed. Bosun, y’er in command until Searaider’s captain an’ I get back. Do what Tine needs, try t’ keep visible on shore once the sun rises.” Then she turned to Eneng. “Coming, Captain?”
Eneng watched her closely, but he nodded wordlessly.
“Do what I said!” Snowhawk snapped at her crew.
In the ensuing flurry to carry out the captain’s instructions, Eneng crossed the rock and caught Snowhawk’s shoulder. “She’ll still be alive when we get back with the aloe, right?”
Snowhawk gave him a cold smile. “She won’t be by noon if Tine doesn’t get more plants.”
“I hope y’ understand why I’m concerned about leavin’ her in the paws o’ her enemy,” Eneng muttered.
“D’ y’ ’ave a choice?” Snowhawk smirked.
“If she dies at the point of one o’ yer ferret’s knives, I’ll never forgive you,” Eneng warned. “I will hunt you down, however long it takes, an’ I will kill you.”
Snowhawk pulled away. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Her bosun hurried up with Tine’s bags, which were full of knives. Snowhawk took one, and Eneng another. As Eneng threaded a loop in his belt through a hole in the top of the bag, Snowhawk drew back a little, her bosun following.
“Cap’n,” he muttered, “why’re you going? An’ why bring Searaider’s cap’n with you?”
“None o’ you c’n go,” Snowhawk whispered back. “If Nygoan happens across you wanderin’ alone, they’ll assume y’er deserters. On the other paw, if summa Eneng or Winterblade’s crew manages t’ get down ’ere, they’re less likely to attack if I’m not here. As fer Eneng, he’ll go whether I invite ’im or not.”
The bosun nodded. “Aye, Cap’n.”
“Don’t let anyone push Tine aroun’,” Snowhawk warned, still speaking in a low voice. “Anyone.”
“I’ll keep an eye on ’er,” the bosun promised.
Snowhawk clapped him on the shoulder; then she started for the narrow cleft her crew had crept in through. She didn’t look over her shoulder at Winterblade, but did listen keenly for sounds of Eneng following her.
Outside the little grotto, the beach was as bleak as a dull sword. Even though there was a solid twenty feet between the cliff base and the steaming seas, Snowhawk and Eneng kept as close to the cliff as possible. The rock here was smooth, but it wasn’t flat. To Snowhawk, it looked like a giant squid had thrashed up the ground. They often hopped over little trenches or slipped around the occasional damp, slanted rock that might have made them slip. It was arduous walking, and the darkness of night didn’t help.
At first they didn’t speak – there was nothing Snowhawk wanted to say. But after about an hour, Eneng asked, “You’re very sure of where to go. How?”
“High ground,” Snowhawk replied. “So I c’n signal Nygoan. Plan B.”
Eneng grunted. “Where do you think Nygoan is?”
“I’ve no idea,” Snowhawk replied. “My first mate is in control.”
“Any idea where t’ climb the cliff?” Eneng asked.
“I was hoping fer a slope,” Snowhawk replied. “It’s bound t’ get smoother as we get nearer t’ the mountain.”
Eneng didn’t try to pursue the conversation further. They continued to hike along the shore, silent.
Two hours went by in silence. Snowhawk glanced south, trying to catch sight of the moon, but as the night got cooler, the steam from the ocean got thicker. She thought she saw some silvery glimmer through the mist, but it was too hard to tell.
“Ground’s slopin’ up a little,” Eneng observed.
“An’ there’s dirt ’round ’ere,” Snowhawk added, kicking some sand..
“Smell’s changin’ too,” Eneng threw in. “Not as much sulfur.”
“Wind feels a bit colder,” Snowhawk finished. “Comin’ off the glacier.”
“We’ll ’ave t’ climb soon, in the dark,” Eneng muttered.
“Maybe,” Snowhawk agreed. “Where’s yer crew? An’ Winterblade’s an’ Korep’s?”
“Korep’s?” Eneng replied in a surprised tone. “Why would y’ think Korep’s crew is ’ere?”
“Same way I found you,” Snowhawk replied, not bothering to keep her smugness out of her voice. “I stopped by Mauggiak Island three days ago. They told me three cap’ns put in fer two weeks, askin’ questions about a whale’s eye.”
“What makes y’ think Korep stayed with us?” Eneng asked innocently.
Snowhawk snorted derisively. “Y’ told one o’ Winterblade’s crew t’ run back an’ tell the ‘others’ that you two’d ‘catch up later.’ Y’ didn’ tell that t’ a plain old sailor. ’ere’s my question: how’d he get across that new chasm?”
“Threw the rope across an’ one o’ ’Blade’s crew caught it t’ ’elp him across. He just never sank below the mist.”
Snowhawk nodded. “I figured it was somethin’ like that.”
At that point, a new sound hit Snowhawk’s ears. It wasn’t a sound she’d expected; in fact, it was a sound she hadn’t heard anywhere else on the island.
“Is that a waterfall?” Eneng asked, surprised.
Directly ahead of them, the cliff jutted out, obscuring the upcoming beach. Snowhawk hurried forward, not sure what she was going to see, and she heard Eneng do the same behind her.
Then she stopped dead when she saw the water.
It was a steaming river – bright blue, even in the night. Snowhawk stopped on the bank, staring at it. Across the river, the ground sloped up, toward the mountain, and then the glacier. The higher ground above the cliff melded smoothly with the mountain. Above the glacier was, supposedly, the aloe that Tine needed. But cutting right down the middle of the glacier was that same blue river. From what Snowhawk could tell, it cut across some of the upper ground and then spilled over the cliff.
“Great Bear King!” Eneng exclaimed. “How in the name o’ Cerecinthia are we s’posed t’ get across?”
“Where’s yer crews?” Snowhawk asked. “They’re on the other side o’ that river, ain’t they? Cut off?”
“Yeah,” Eneng groaned. “An’ unless the river narrows up there so they c’n jump across, they’ll be climbin’ the glacier on the other side o’ the river.”
“They’ll be asleep now, anyway,” Snowhawk added, urgency tightening her chest. “We’re on our own.”
Eneng met her eyes, terror and uncertainty brimming in his own. Then they hardened and he said, “Let’s cross, then.”
They hurried toward the sea until the river narrowed a little. Snowhawk drew back from the river, kept her eyes on the far bank, then ran toward it and leaped.
She landed on the rock and nearly crumpled when her ankle twisted. But she managed to stay upright, and a moment later Eneng also landed on the other side.
“Nice jump,” he complimented her.
She jerked her head. “Come on. The glacier’s waiting.”
Only twenty yards beyond the river, the rock turned into hard earth covered with scraggly grass. They ran up the slope quickly, and as they grew closer to the glacier, the ground became progressively damper.
“The glacier’s melting,” Snowhawk panted.
“I ’eard somewhere that the ice is melting everywhere,” Eneng muttered sarcastically. “An’ one day it’ll all melt.”
Snowhawk would have snorted derisively if she had the breath. “Spare me from conspiracies.”
They ran for almost a mile across damp ground, until they reached the bottom of the glacier.
Snowhawk had been aware of the ice getting closer; she particularly noticed when she started shivering in spite of her exertion. But standing at the base of the glacier, she had to catch her breath – in more ways than one.
The thing seemed to shine with silver luminescence in the bright starlight. The murmur of the waterfall cutting the thing in half took a background place compared to the low keening of wind across the smooth ice. It stretched up at least five hundred feet high – three times as high as Nygoan was long!
“That,” Eneng said quietly, “is one huge climb.”
Snowhawk pulled the two daggers out of her sack. “Ever climbed somethin’ like this before?”
“Sure,” Eneng replied, also loosening his daggers from their sack. “Once. You?”
“Not too long ago,” Snowhawk replied. “But it wasn’t this tall.”
Eneng walked to the glacier, knife in both paws, and stuck one into the ice. “Here goes nothin’.”
Snowhawk’s paws and shoulders ached in no time at all. The claws on her hind legs dug into the ice – her shoes were safe in her sack, but her paws were numb.
They were almost halfway up when Eneng broke the silence between them. He stopped climbing for a moment and looked over at her. “Why’ve you been workin’ so hard on this?”
Snowhawk stopped also. “Y’ complainin’?”
“No,” Eneng replied, looking steadily at her. “I ain’t complainin’. Just wonderin’.”
“We’re workin’ against a time limit,” Snowhawk reminded him. “The night’s at least half over.” She removed her knife from the ice and stuck it in higher, pulling herself up.
“I know,” Eneng answered, also climbing higher. “But why fer Winterblade? Y’ two ain’t friends.”
“No,” Snowhawk agreed. “We ain’t. But if she’s gonna die within my reach, I’m gonna be the one t’ kill her. Not a hot spring.”
“So pride, then,” Eneng mused. “That works fer me.”
“Y’ thought I was playin’ a trick?” Snowhawk asked, hoisting herself up higher. Scorching sun, she was tired!
“Y’ don’t just trust some’n’ as smart as you without bein’ careful,” Eneng replied.
Snowhawk didn’t reply. Her paws ached – first from the burns, then from the cold. Winterblade had better repay her for this!
“What were y’ doin’ at Mauggiak anyway?” Eneng asked.
“Visiting,” Snowhawk replied. “What were you doing? An’ what’s a whale’s eye?”
Eneng was silent for a minute – actually, several minutes. Snowhawk realized he had no intention of answering, and said, “I saved yer sister’s life. Answer me.”
“It was a clue,” Eneng replied indifferently.
“T’ what?” Snowhawk asked in amazement. “What led y’ t’ this island? I’ve never seen it on any chart.”
Eneng sighed and said in a resigned voice, “Rinaria.”
He climbed a few feet higher, but when he paused he realized Snowhawk wasn’t beside him. He twisted around and saw her below him, staring up at him incredulously.
“Y’er mad,” she stated flatly. “Y’ almost get yer sister killed o’er a myth?”
“It’s real,” Eneng replied. “It is. Princess Zuryzel found some manuscripts in Lunep.”
“Well, it’s Lunep now,” Eneng pressed on. “The clues said where t’ find Rinaria.”
Snowhawk began climbing again. “Rinaria isn’t real,” she snapped.
“The clues led us t’ this island,” Eneng argued. “An island nobody’s charted. Y’ really think that’s a coincidence?”
“Y’ got lucky,” Snowhawk growled, drawing even with him.
“Nobody’s that lucky,” Eneng retorted, hoisting himself higher.
“Hopefully yer sister is,” Snowhawk muttered.
That was a low blow, even for her, but the idea of a grown pirate captain thinking Rinaria existed was just ridiculous. It was a myth – a legend invented to make the Dark Ages easier.
“Is that a break in the ice?” Eneng called.
Before Snowhawk could ask what he meant – breaking ice? – he said, “I mean, a tunnel or something. Look t’ yer right.”
Snowhawk looked right and up a little and she saw the glacier curving inwards. The wind must have whittled away at the ice some. The hollow was long and big enough for them to sit in. “We c’n rest there,” she called back to Eneng.
At the word rest, the weariness in her paws and shoulders doubled. She had to climb sideways to get to the alcove. The floor of the alcove curved inward, so that when she collapsed on the edge, she slid inward.
It was so cold.
Eneng’s fur brushed her side as he, too, collapsed in exhaustion. “We shoulda just brought Winterblade,” he murmured. “The ice woulda helped.”
His mouth was so near to her ear that it made her a little uncomfortable. She pulled away and got to her knees. “We’re more than halfway done,” she panted. “But we can’t climb any higher until we get some light.”
“That won’t be fer hours!” Eneng exclaimed. “An’ then we might not get back t’ Winterblade on time.”
“It’ll be easier in the sunlight,” Snowhawk pointed out. “An’ we won’t get back t’ her at all if we fall.”
“We’ll freeze if we fall asleep on the ice,” Eneng warned, forcing himself to sit up.
Snowhawk thought about this; then she said, “Maybe not. C’mon.”
She stood up and began walking along the alcove north, toward the steaming blue river.
To her relief, it wasn’t far. Also to her relief, there was rock near the water. It wasn’t the pale rock of the shore where Eneng had landed, nor the iron gray of the shore where Snowhawk’s crew waited, but rather a pleasant red color. The water splashed over the rock, which was shaped strangely, of course, but there were a few ledges big enough for a ferret to curl up and rest on.
Snowhawk stood at the edge of the ice, watching the blue phosphorescent river splash down. “Sky’ll start t’ lighten in two hours, maybe three. Since the cliff faces east, we’ll get the first rays o’ sunrise. Meanwhile, we need t’ rest.”
Eneng gazed at her, standing silhouetted against the blue glow. He’d never known her that well, but she was not what he’d expected.
“Sun went down at, what, eight?” he asked. “An’ we spent about three hours pickin’ our way along the beach, an’ then maybe a quarter of an hour from the beach t’ the glacier. Then we climbed fer two hours. That makes it one in the mornin’. Tine said Winterblade c’d hold out until noon t’day.”
“Gives us eleven hours,” Snowhawk murmured.
“It took us five hours t’ get ’ere,” Eneng said sharply. “We don’t know how long it’ll take t’ climb the rest o’ this glacier, or t’ find the aloe. We need t’ allow at least six hours t’ get back.”
“Probably not that long,” Snowhawk replied. “Like I said, it’ll be easier in daylight. And we need the rest.”
She edged carefully onto a rocky ledge, and then pulled herself onto one a little higher, leaving the other one for Eneng. Then she settled back against the rock face, her eyes still on the strange river.
Eneng climbed onto the ledge she’d left open. She looked as tired as he felt, and again he wondered why she was putting so much effort into saving someone she didn’t even like.
Snowhawk had almost fallen asleep when Eneng spoke again. “How did you an’ Winterblade start fightin’, anyway?”
She ground her teeth together. “She attacked a ship I was protecting.”
Eneng shifted on the rock; she heard his sword scrape against the stone. “Y’ were paid t’ protect a ship an’ she attacked? She can’t be the only one.”
Snowhawk turned her head enough to look at him. “I was bein’ paid t’ protect it an’ destroy it.”
Eneng frowned. “Y’ took money from two employers an’ then betrayed one? That ain’t a good way fer a mercenary t’ conduct business.”
She smirked – at least, she tried to smirk, but she was so tired it probably came out as more of a weary smile. “I was approached by a nikora first to attack one o’ his enemies. Then I was hired by the same enemy. I thought I might get away from the attack with less losses by takin’ the devious approach. Besides, the cap’n was a slaver. I had no qualms about double-crossin’ ’im.”
“Then Winterblade attacked, I’m guessing,” Eneng murmured. “An’ y’ lost the pay from the nikora. Is that it?”
“I lost a lot of money!” Snowhawk snapped. “That ship was carrying slaves an’ spices, an’ he was goin’ t’ pay ten gold bullion and twenty silver bullion fer every ten pounds o’ spice I brought back to ’im, plus expenses!”
Eneng leaned forward. “How much spice was on that ship?”
Snowhawk scowled. “Three tons.”
Eneng whistled. “Y’ know ’e wouldn’t’a paid that much, right? He’d’a backed out.”
“Then he’d never be able t’ hire a mercenary again,” Snowhawk pointed out. “He coulda paid it, too, an’ not batted an eye. An’ it was goin’ so nicely b’fore Winterblade an’ that blue ship o’ hers showed up.”
Eneng leaned against the rock. “How did she attack?”
“I was on one side o’ the slave ship,” Snowhawk scowled, remembering the day with agonizing clarity. “Winterblade attacked from the other. I couldn’ see ’er. The slaves saw ’er, o’ course, but they didn’ say anything.”
“Can y’ blame them?” Eneng asked mildly.
“O’ course not!” Snowhawk retorted. “But it don’t change the fact that I was left with no pay, sixty starving an’ sick slaves t’ care for, an’ a slave ship that c’d barely limp t’ shore.”
Eneng rested his chin on his knees. “How long ago was this?”
“Five or six seasons ago,” Snowhawk murmured. “B’tween summer ’n’ fall.”
The other ferret jerked back his head in surprise. “Long time t’ keep a grudge.”
“I lost a lot o’ money from that!” Snowhawk exclaimed. “An’ I coulda used every coin of it, too.”
“Fer what?” Eneng asked curiously.
Snowhawk looked away. “None o’ yer business. Get some sleep, I’ll wake y’ in an hour.”
“You first,” Eneng replied graciously.
Snowhawk didn’t argue. She curled up on the rock and fell asleep.
Eneng had been watching her curiously. The phosphorescent light from the river had an odd effect on her white fur. In the dim light, her fur glowed – almost like a fish scale.
“Huh,” was all he said out loud.
Eneng awoke Snowhawk after an hour of sleep, and while it wasn’t enough time for energy to completely return to her, she felt stronger. The stars had dimmed, and she was sure the sunrise couldn’t be far off. After another hour went by, she woke Eneng.
“Should be light enough t’ climb in a few minutes,” she murmured.
Eneng nodded and began readying to climb.
“We shouldn’t try climbing the rocks,” Snowhawk added. “They’re too slick, and the knives won’t dig in.”
“Yer crew’s gonna have some very dull knives when we get back,” Eneng murmured. “Ice it is.”
He looked up at the ceiling of ice. “Um, how’re we gonna get outta here?”
“We could go back to where we came in,” Snowhawk suggested.
They made their way back to the opening of the alcove. Snowhawk shook her head – it had seemed so much harder to get here last night. “Should be a piece o’ cake.”
Eneng nodded. “Just don’t – y’ know.”
Look down? Snowhawk thought wryly.
She stuck her knife out onto the straight ice, and used her claws to creep out, until she was, once again, climbing by her knives.
This time, they only climbed with their knives for a short time; the incline of the glacier gradually lessened, until they only kept their knives out in case they slipped, and were able to climb it on only two paws instead of four.
“Almost there,” Eneng panted.
When the first ray of sun hit the ice, Snowhawk paused in her climbing to gaze around. “Wow.”
Eneng stopped a little above her and turned back. “Hey – look!”
She turned around and looked down at the gray plain. She had never seen it from the ground, and so she had no idea what to expect. From the height she stood at, she saw the gray dotted with colorful pools, and it didn’t look nearly as barren as it had when Eneng first saw it.
“Are those pools as hot as the one Winterblade fell in?” she asked Eneng.
“Oh yeah,” Eneng replied wryly. “C’mon.”
The glacier was only another hundred or so feet tall, but the last stretch of twenty feet was vertical again. It zapped a lot of Snowhawk’s energy, but when her paws touched solid ground again, it wasn’t hard to stand up straight.
Her back and shoulders ached like they were on fire – Winterblade so owed her!
The ground around them was covered with low, gray-green, leafy plants that Snowhawk recognized.
“We made it!” Eneng gasped in relief. “We need to get some and –”
“Eneng,” Snowhawk said quietly, “this is sage. It isn’t aloe.”
The other pirate stared at her. “It can’t be.”
“Aloe is a cactus,” Snowhawk murmured. “We need to look for it father from the glacier and the river.”
She started up the slope, angling toward the sea. But she didn’t have much hope of finding any – in truth, she was hoping to catch sight of Nygoan.
The ground beneath their paws became rocky – the same kind of rock beneath the river. It was arduous climbing, but Snowhawk kept praying it would be worth it. True, she disliked Winterblade, but not enough to want her dead.
Soon their climb took them toward a ridge. At the top, Snowhawk could see spiny plants that might be aloe, but at first it was too far away to tell.
“The ridge,” she murmured to Eneng. “Maybe I c’n signal Nygoan from there.”
Eneng nodded. His eyes looked desperate, fearful; Snowhawk realized it was getting harder for him to keep up his composure. Out of respect for him, Snowhawk scrambled up ahead.
She reached the ridge first, at almost the same moment the sun completely cleared the eastern horizon. Facing south, even in the steamy seas, she could see Nygoan in the sea. Her ship was sailing east, back toward the party on the shore.
“Good,” she said, loudly enough for Eneng to hear.
“Good what?” Eneng panted.
“Good, I won’t have t’ relieve my first mate,” Snowhawk replied, pointing. “’e’s doin’ exactly what ’e should.”
Eneng clambered to the top of the ridge, and he smiled. “So even if we don’t find any aloe –”
Snowhawk interrupted him by bending down and snapping off the leaf of one of the spiny plants at her paws. Juice squirted out, and she held it up for Eneng to see.
“Aloe,” she told him. “Make sure t’ break the whole leaf off, so the juice don’t drip out.”
Snowhawk could practically taste Eneng’s relief as he smiled. She extended her bag to him, withdrawing the two knives before doing so, and said, “I’m goin’ t’ signal Nygoan.”
As Eneng began carefully plucking off leaves of aloe, Snowhawk drew a broad-bladed knife from her belt. She hadn’t used this one for climbing; it’s sole purpose was to act as a signal. As it reflected the light from the rising sun, she flashed a signal with it. A few seconds later, there were responding flashes from Nygoan.
“They’re goin’ t’ the shore party,” Snowhawk told Eneng. Then she bent down to help him fill the bags.
True to Snowhawk’s predictions, the climb back down the glacier wasn’t half as bad as the climb up; in the light, they actually found several places where they could periodically rest. When they reached the ground again, Snowhawk’s limbs ached so much she wanted to collapse, but she refused to appear any weaker than Eneng.
At least, she did until he took off running toward the beach.
“You’ll be asleep for a week!” she shouted, limiting herself to a measured jog.
As it turned out, Eneng could only keep up his swift run for a little; his paw caught on a rock and he fell flat on his face. When he stood up again, he finally seemed as tired as Snowhawk.
“We’re almost there,” Snowhawk panted. “No need t’ rush.”
When the sun managed to light the little grotto, Winterblade had become coherent again. She still whimpered in pain, but when Tine stroked her brow, the wounded pirate captain managed to ask, “Where’s my brother?”
“He’s gone t’ get more medicine fer you,” Tine replied soothingly. “I think he’ll be back soon.”
Right on cue, one of the ferrets who’d been on guard duty outside the cavern poked his head in. “Cap’n’s comin’ back!” he reported. “So’s Eneng!”
Winterblade managed a smile. “Thank the Bear King,” she whispered.