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Authors: Mell Eight

Tags: #fantasy, #M/M romance, #Dragon's Hoard

Melting the Ice Witch (2 page)

BOOK: Melting the Ice Witch
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Lor bowed his head, as if what he was about to say shamed him. "You can help save my clan," Lor said. "Your powers as a witch can bring life back into my people."

Kam put down the teacup and covered his face with his hands and laughed sadly. Of course it was about his mysterious witch heritage. Did no one believe him?

"You're wrong," Kam said with a shake of his head. "I'm not a witch and my parents weren't witches."

Lor shook his head, an indulgent smile on his face. "We shall see the truth soon enough," he replied. "Now, what is your name?"

*~*~*

Kam woke in his small tent and sighed. Two months had passed since that day and still Lor watched and waited for Kam to make a mistake and show off his spells. Kam almost wished he could, just to end the farce, but he couldn't do what he didn't have the ability to do. He wasn't a witch!

The noise that woke him sounded again. Kam frowned and pulled back his blankets, shivering in the icy night air. He wrapped one of the thicker quilts around his shoulders and left his tent. The sound was coming from the other side of the encampment. Kam followed it and finally saw the curled form of a dog.

The poor girl was whining and panting for breath, three newborn puppies tucked under her heaving belly. Kam rushed over and dropped to his knees at her side. There was still one more pup to go, a runt if what Kam could feel was right. The dog barely had any energy left.

"Come on," Kam cheered, brushing his hand gently across the dog's furry ears. He wondered how she had managed to stray so far from the kennel.

Invigorated by Kam's presence, the dog gave a great heave. The runt slowly slid free and the dog collapsed to pant in the snow. The first three pups eagerly began suckling, but the last just lay shivering helplessly in the snow. The runt was covered in a short layer of gray fur that was totally inadequate for the climate and was clearly too tired to get to the warmth and nutrition it sorely needed.

Kam was quick to reach out and gather the tiny thing into his hands. The puppy gave a tiny whimpering moan, but when Kam pushed her in among her siblings, she quickly grabbed a teat and began sucking. The mother dog began licking all four of her pups clean while Kam watched happily for a few moments. 

"So that's where she got off to," Mae's voice sounded from behind Kam. Kam jumped in surprise and spun around to face the headwoman. Mae's rules were ironclad and no one, not even Lor, dared to oppose her on the serious matters of running the camp. She was diminutive in size, although because of her large personality not many could tell just how short she was at first meeting. Mae's hair was the color of bleached straw and her eyes were the same icy blue shared by most members of the clan.

"She's had four puppies," Kam replied, gently running his hand down the dog's spine.

"So she has," Mae agreed. "Dug her way out of the kennel and escaped this far, but not far enough. It's a miracle she and her pups survived." Mae looked over Kam and sighed. "I'll get one of the men to carry her back if you'll carry two of the pups."

Mae walked off purposefully towards the nearest man idling by the central fire. There were always three or four people who were awake at night to make sure the fire didn't go out and to keep an eye on the weather. Kam would have scowled at her assumption that he couldn't carry the fully grown dog back to the kennel except for the fact that the dog was easily a hundred pounds and Kam weighed only a little more.

When Mae returned, Kam gently pulled the runt and one of her siblings free. Mae took the other two puppies while Hern gathered the dog in his arms. They returned the new family to the kennel, where Tomm was grumpily filling in the rough hole the dog had clawed through in her escape. The kennel was very large and warm and dark inside, filled with at least five-dozen dogs. They found the new mother a comfortable spot and situated her puppies contentedly within reach before leaving. The heavy door was kept closed at night to keep the important dogs from running off and freezing. Kam took one last look over the dog that was gently licking all four of her pups, before Hern pushed the door closed with a thump.

"Go back to bed, Kam," Mae said sternly in a voice that brooked no disagreement. Kam nodded and yawned, suddenly tired, and headed back to his small tent and his warm bed.

*~*~*

Kam huddled next to the fire with his breakfast after his chores the next morning. The hot porridge went a long way towards making the morning palatable, but even with his thick fur coat Kam didn't think he would ever get warm again.

"Mae says I'm taking you with me today," Lor said as he took a seat next to Kam. One of the women handing out bowls gave one to Lor, who fell on his breakfast with gusto.

"Okay," Kam replied, glad to have something to do. "Where are we going?"

"Hunting," Lor explained succinctly.

"Oh," Kam answered with a frown. He didn't dislike hunting, exactly, but there was something disquieting about the ice wastes. He always felt sad and lonely whenever he went out there.

Once breakfast had been cleaned up, Kam returned to his tent. His usual fur coat was thick enough for the trip, but he needed to change his pants into his pair also lined with fur. The winds could be brutal. He also located the fur hat Mae had given him that covered his ears and exposed neck, something she had made especially for him as the rest of the clan could safely go without thanks to their thick hair.

Kam met up with the hunting party by the kennels. He helped hitch six dogs to each sled, glad for the time he could take to pet their warm ears. He got to look inside the kennel quickly, too, and saw the new mother and her pups looked healthy and warm. She yipped a hello at him, which made him smile.

The sleds were huge constructions, made out of stiff leather and fire-hardened wood. They were large enough to sit three people across and three deep, plus one or two more people on a steering platform on the back of the sled. Despite their size, they were light enough that Kam could pull an empty sled into place on his own, which was good because it was easier to get all the dogs hooked up that way. 

Lor walked past as Kam was working with the last of the dogs and ran his hand down the sleds, murmuring something, no doubt some sort of strengthening spell, under his breath. Six adult dogs could easily pull a full sled, but they would have a much harder time of it without Lor giving a hand. 

Kam found a spot on one of the sleds and took a firm handhold. Lor climbed into the steering platform moments later and took up the reins and whip. With a howl, the sleds moved out, followed by three hunting dogs. Two of the men were supporting falcons on one arm.

The ice wastes were cold and windy, but still beautiful. A mixture of snow, ice, and frozen earth covered the ground as far as the eye could see in every direction. To the northeast lay a mountain range and there were gentle slopes and hills the further they moved into the foothills of the mountains where fresh game was most likely to be found.

Kam actually enjoyed hunting, even though he wasn't really allowed to participate in the gory parts. The twang of bowstrings, the baying of the hunting dogs, and the cry of the hawks as they pounced made his blood sing. The only true drawback was the wind, which blew hard, cold, and lonely across his face, leaving his skin burned, lips chapped, and his soul aching for company.

Lor stayed by the sleds, letting the more experienced hunters do their work. Every once in a while, Kam would see Lor gesture and the ice packing onto the sides of their sleds would suddenly melt, or a man who had fallen into a snow bank would suddenly be dry. It was amazing, seeing real magic put to real purpose. Kam had been in awe of it from the very first day he had been living with the clan, and that hadn't changed.

There was no fanfare, no sparkles or chanting, but hunting trips were inherently deadly and Lor used magic every trip to keep the hunters safe. Kam did understand the dilemma facing the clans after seeing just how much Lor's powers were needed. If the clan had two or three witches they could send out two or three hunting parties. With that much more meat available, it would be safer to have more children.

But Lor also did much around their simple camp. He kept the winds from blowing over the tents during a storm, kept the vital central fire burning even when sleet soaked the wood, and thawed food when it was too frozen to cook. With just the one witch the clan was barely holding on. With more, they could hunt more often, have less to fear from the elements, and survival would not be a question any longer.

Kam wasn't a witch, however, no matter how often Lor pulled him aside to test him, and there wasn't anything he could do to benefit the clan aside from lending his physical abilities whenever they were needed. So on hunting trips when the men were occupied with catching game and Lor was busy keeping the men alive, Kam watched after the sled dogs and the bags. He was the one to wrap the freshly caught game in heavy tarps to keep predators from smelling the kill on the wind. His work was just as vital as Lor's, but he accomplished it without magic.

The sun was just heading into descent when the hunters began to trickle back to the sleds for the last time. Kam helped lift their kills onto the sleds and secure them for the ride home. The last hunter, a man named Lenny, returned swearing unhappily.

"Lost him," Lenny grumbled with a sad sigh. "Hit a wind gust and dropped, couldn't find him." The hunting dog with Lenny sighed as well, looking sad. It took Kam a moment before he remembered that Lenny was one of the men who had trained a falcon to hunt. He didn't have the beautiful bird with him.

Kam bit his lip as he passed out carefully packaged lunch portions to all the hunters and the animals. They would eat before heading back to camp; they needed to be home before dark or no one would survive the trip. When Kam set out the packet for the dog that had lost his hunting partner, the animal whined and barely nibbled on his portion. Kam agreed with him, the bird was probably still alive, just hidden behind one of the many hills. Lenny had stayed fairly close to the sleds; it wouldn't be difficult for Kam to go have a look while everyone else was occupied.

The dog stood and trotted over to Kam's side when Kam began walking. Lenny had come from the area to the left of the sleds, and Kam felt the bird would be just around one of those hills.

"You can't smell him, can you?" Kam asked the dog at his side once they were far enough away that the noise wouldn't be noticed. The dog panted, which Kam took as a no. "The wind is against it," Kam mused. The wind was pushing against his back, which meant the dog wouldn't be able to clearly smell anything ahead.

They walked across the slope of the hill. Too low on the hill and they would get lost in a snowdrift and too high would tax their endurance. Still, Kam was panting by the time they had rounded the second foothill.

"To the right?" Kam asked. The dog obediently headed in that direction. They trudged on around the hill, Kam's boots doing their best to keep his feet above the line of snow.

There was a soft kreel in the air that Kam could just barely hear. "The bird?" he asked the dog, who had also frozen at the soft sound. In answer, the animal bounded ahead and vanished into a short rise of snow. Kam hurried to follow, slipping on the ice and accidently dumping some snow into one boot as he tried to catch up.

There were two dark spots on the ground ten feet ahead. One was the dog and it was gently nosing a much smaller creature that was struggling weakly to get away. Kam hurried over and dropped to his knees at the bird's side.

"You broke your wing when you fell?" Kam asked sadly as he gently reached out and helped the flailing falcon find his feet. "If we get you back to your owner, I bet he can fix that."

The bird kreeled again and hopped forward, his broken wing trailing behind piteously. Kam was very careful as he drew the bird into his arms. The talons and beak were still sharp, even with the bird injured, and he didn't want to jostle the wing unnecessarily.

"He can get it fixed," Lor said harshly behind Kam. Kam jumped in surprise, and then stilled quickly when the falcon thrashed from the sudden movement. "But only if you can find your way back to the sleds," he added in a voice that was quite angry.

"That's what he's for," Kam said, pointing his chin at the patiently waiting dog.

Lor just shook his head and grabbed Kam's elbow to help him to his feet. "You never go out into the ice on your own. You never go out without telling anyone. No one wants your death, child," he added.

Kam looked up at Lor's frown and nodded, feeling chastised but still vindicated. If he had told someone he could find the falcon, they would have laughed and refused to let him go. Yes, it had been dangerous, but it had also been successful. Still, the dark look in Lor's eyes made Kam feel bad. Lor was old. Sometimes Kam forgot just how old. He had seen terrible things happen to children he had seen born, whose parents and grandparents he had seen born. Kam knew that one of the reasons Lor worked so tirelessly for the clan was to stop those things from ever happening again. The look in Lor's eyes as he helped Kam navigate through the drifts told Kam that Lor had seen someone vanish into the snowdrifts. Maybe the person had never been found, or maybe the dead, frozen body had been recovered. The images were clearly haunting Lor, and Kam felt guilty for bringing it up.

"I've got him!" Lor called as the sleds slowly came into view. The men rushed over.

"That was really dumb," Carl said as he reached Kam. He cuffed Kam on the back of the head.

"I'm sorry," Kam said contritely. In hindsight, and with Lor scowling behind him, Kam knew it hadn't been the smartest move. "But I found him," he added, gently holding up the falcon.

Lenny gave a cry of delight and carefully reached forward to take the falcon from Kam. A hood was quickly put on the bird and leather caps were hooked to his talons. Only then did Lenny and Carl take a look at the broken wing.

"Don't know if he'll fly again," Lenny said with a frown as he studied the break. The wing was seriously bent.

BOOK: Melting the Ice Witch
5.62Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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