As Erio's spell took effect, Snowe found himself looking at his parents one last time. It seemed sad that they would fall into the sea below, their second life forgotten and unmourned. It would be better to burn them, he thought, rather than let them fall and be smashed to the ground. If he had more time, maybe he would have lit their funeral pyre. Instead, all he managed to do was conjure fire as the light from the circle blinded him.
It was a good thing he had started to use his magic, because he was unceremoniously tossed out of the transportation spell a hundred metres from the ground below. There was a moment that seemed to stretch into eternity as he hung in the air before he started to fall, slow at first but picking up speed with every breath. The wind was strong against his back, buffeting him here and there but not enough to slow down his descent.
He had a strange sense of compartmentalisation. Most of Snowe's attention was drawn into the realisation that he was about to die in a handful of seconds and there was nothing to be done for it. He couldn't fly like Astra. However, a need to survive brought his hands up to do something, and he was taken aback when the something was casting a lot of fire below him. Sometimes he did things he didn't understand, but he'd never used magic without conscious thought before.
Whatever strange impulse had driven him to use magic, of all things, seemed to have some effect. He was still falling, the ground coming up to meet him with terrifying speed, but slower. On the one hand, that gave him time to think of what he would do next. On the other hand, all he could think of was that he was about to die, except slower now. He flailed with his arms, rotating his body as he did so. He fell faster now that he was falling feet first, but the part of him that used magic was satisfied at his angle of descent.
Then he hit the ground.
His right foot hit the ground first, absorbing all of the impact. He could hear the crack of bones breaking and he lost his balance, falling backward to land on his knapsack. Here, he rested on his back and stared up into the dull grey sky, unable to think or breathe let alone move. It was only when he managed to fill his lungs with air that Snowe could feel pain, and then he wished he didn't. He breathed shallowly, trying not to move his chest or leg too much. The pain was sickening and overwhelming. He wanted to close his eyes against it, but he remembered Richard telling him once that fainting in the snow was a good way to die. Lorel had almost killed him that way, and this time he didn't think Erio would save him.
He opened his eyes. He was colder now, the snow seeping into his bones. He must have passed out. He lifted one hand from where it had fallen and it didn't feel attached to him. He pivoted his elbow, lifting his whole forearm from the snow. This moment made him dizzy, cutting through the dull detachment that had settled on him, and he choked on the pain. Still, he needed to do this, because he needed his hands to use magic. He panted through gritted teeth as he conjured a healing fire to his hand, and then sent it down his right leg. Fortunately, he didn't have to consciously direct his fire for this.
He let himself drift as his magic set fragments of bone into alignment and knit them together, improved blood flow and eased the swelling. Both the pain and the absence thereof were agonising in their own way, and when he came back to himself tears were setting as ice on his face. He lifted his hand up all the way now, wiping at his face with the back of his hand. His leg still hurt, especially when he wriggled his toes, but it was better.
He tried summoning fire again, but it spluttered and died before he could do anything more than light the air around his hand. He tried again, hoping that it was just because his attention was wandering, but from the way his head ached he'd reached the limit of what he could do with his magic for now.
"Oh," Snowe said aloud. "I guess that's it."
He licked his dry lips, took a breath to steel himself, and forced himself into a sitting position. That was a terrible idea. He knew it would hurt, but didn't appreciate how much it would until he was upright. His ribs moved painfully, and he blinked away black spots in his vision. Worse was the knowledge that getting to his feet would be even more painful. He did so anyway with the aid of his staff, because the alternative was dying in the snow, and with his deaths would come the deaths of everyone in Sabine
Once on his feet, he wavered, his broken foot held above the snow as he tried to find a way to balance with his staff and good leg. He then put his foot down, swallowing down bile as the pain ran up his spine from the ball of his foot to the base of his skull. His ankle wobbled, but held because his boot shared the load up his leg.
"Right," he rasped once he could breathe again. "Time to go."
He looked around, and could see lights in the distance. They were too close to be Sabine, but he thought it might be the Guardian Shrine. That would be all right. He could rest inside Relenia's house before walking back the rest of the way. Relenia probably didn't like him very much, which was understandable given what his parents had done to her, but he thought she wouldn't mind him breaking into her house for a good cause.
The first step was excruciating. The second step was worse. It didn't matter. It had to be done. Snowe took another step, and another. Again and again, staff down, one foot, then the other. He just had to repeat that as often as necessary.
Astra landed in the snow with a soft thump, hard enough to startle but nothing more than that. She took a moment to revel in the knowledge that she had survived the fall, exhausted but also exhilarated, before sitting up and wiping the snow from her face and clothes.
"Wow, your sister really pulled through!" she said brightly to Erio, who was lying beside her. He grunted, apparently less enthused than Astra was about surviving the impossible. She could see the pale off-white curve of Hiante's skull, with the rest of him buried in a snowdrift. Relenia was more fortunate, already rising to her feet and brushing snow off her clothes.
The fifth member of their party, however, was missing. She couldn't see Snowe anywhere, and that drove Astra to her feet.
"Where's Snowe?" she said urgently. "He's not here."
"She must have dropped him," Erio muttered. He sat up, looking disgruntled. "How did he manage that?"
"Do you know where your sister dropped him, Erio?" Hiante asked.
Erio shrugged and gestured dismissively with one hand. "That way. He's not that far. Let him walk it back."
"Would he even know where we are?" Astra wanted to know.
"No. But we're not far away from the Shrine." Relenia said. "It's better we set up somewhere safe and wait for him."
On the one hand, Relenia's suggestion made sense. It was better to go to the safe place they knew was there, recover, and then wait for Snowe to come to them. After all, he knew the way too. On the other hand, in her short time of knowing the impetuous Prince of Sabine, Astra had come to understand that he would find trouble no matter where he was.
"I'll go find him," she said.
"Astra!" Hiante and Erio said in unison.
"He'd do the same for us," Astra pointed out, ignoring Erio's comment of and that's why we're in this mess. "And we don't know that he'll be okay."
"Prince Snowe is very resilient," Hiante said, which was true but also was not the point.
"Whatever you decide, someone needs to go to my house," Relenia said practically. "We need heat and shelter for the night. No point rescuing the prince and dying of exposure afterward."
"If you're going, I'm going," Erio said. "You'll need me to find him anyway."
Astra smiled at Erio. He frowned back in the way that meant he would smile if he wasn't so conscious of who and where he was. No matter what trouble Snowe had found himself, Astra would be able to take it on with Erio with her.
"I'd prefer to go with Astra and Erio," Hiante said politely to Relenia. "It is your house."
Relenia smiled wryly. "I wouldn't dream of separating you from your children."
"All right," Astra said brightly. "Let's go find Snowe."
With Erio guiding the way, it didn't take long to find Snowe. He was heading towards the shrine, as Relenia said he would, leaning on his staff for balance and favouring one leg. His other arm was wrapped across his chest, and he was walking terribly slowly. He didn't look up as Astra called his name, or when she zipped over to him with her magic. He just kept walking, stumbling from one leg to the next.
"Snowe? Thank God, you're okay," Astra said, putting her hand on his shoulder to hold him in place. She could feel him trembling under her grip and she loosened it slightly, afraid she’d hurt him. He blinked up at her as she moved her hand, but didn’t seem to see her. Then his legs buckled and he sat down heavily in the snow. Astra cried out in surprise, tried to catch him, but he fell too fast and her grip was all wrong to save him from the fall.
Erio and Hiante had caught up to them at this point, Erio hanging back with his eye to their surroundings while Hiante stepped in front of Astra to where Snowe had collapsed on the ground. Snowe didn’t react to this either.
“Prince Snowe, can you hear us? Are you hurt anywhere other than your leg and chest? Astra will need to know to heal it.”
Snowe looked up as Hiante said his name, but otherwise just stared at him for a long moment, blinking slowly. He shook his head.
“I think I broke it,” he said, voice worn down to a thread.
From the angle of his foot to his leg, he’d definitely done that.
“I can heal it, let me see.” Astra was tired from the battle with King Edgar and Queen Lina, but she had strength enough for this. She reached for her magic and cast a healing spell on Snowe’s leg. Her spell seemed to take effect immediately, judging by the way that Snowe looked less strained and more alert. He was stil pale and drawn, with dreadful shadows under his eyes, but he’d been looking like that for a while now.
“Good work, Astra,” Erio said. She turned around to look at him, and grinned at his slight, awkward smile. “Now he can walk back.”
“I don’t believe he can,” Hiante said. Astra turned around.
“Prince Snowe. How badly did you break your leg?”
Snowe had been trying to rise to his feet, only to collapse back down into the snow. He froze in place, smiling sickly.
“Badly,” he admitted, looking dazed. “I already healed it once, after I fell. That’s why I could walk at all.”
"You should have told us that to begin with," Erio said.
"I know. But I couldn't die there," Snowe said, answering a question no one had asked. He blinked, swaying in place where he sat. His eyes were unfocused, his face bloodless. "Sorry, I - I feel kinda weird. I think I need to sit down."
"You are sitting down," Astra said, kneeling next to him. He sagged against her, head resting on her shoulder. "Do you want to lie down a minute?"
"I'm just ..." Snowe mumbled, and then said nothing more. Astra could feel him breathing though, slow and steady, so he’d obviously just passed out.
"Great," Erio said. "Now we're going to have to carry him back."
"Good thing you came with me," Astra commented, shifting her grip on Snowe's shoulder before using her other hand to create a gentle wind to lift him. "He would have died out here if not for you."
"I'd be happier if we weren't always rescuing him from something," Erio said sourly. He helped steady Snowe as Astra rose to her feet with Hiante's help. "Let's get back before we freeze to death."
Snowe returned to consciousness in much the same way he left it, slowly and then all at once. He was lying on something soft, with another soft, warm thing lying on top of him. A bed, perhaps, though where he would have found one of those was a mystery. It didn't smell or feel like his own bed, even before he opened his eyes to look at the ceiling. He didn't recognise that either.
He shifted, and grimaced at the pain that ran through his leg as a result. It wasn't the hideous pain of earlier, but instead an ache that could become pain if left unattended. He breathed against the bandages around his chest and thought how am I alive?
"Because Astra, Hiante and Erio found you," Relenia said from overhead.
"Relenia?" Snowe asked.
"You're awake," Relenia said. From the way the mattress dipped, she had sat down on it. It moved his leg, enough to hurt but not unbearably so.
"I don't want to be," Snowe said, because it was true. He had slept enough to know how deathly exhausted he was, rested enough to know that if he tried to sit up it would hurt more, and recovered enough to know what he had done to his parents. He wanted to go back to sleep, and feel nothing for a time.
"You must be feeling better if you can complain."
Snowe didn't see fit to correct her.
"Where are we?"
"My bedroom," Relenia said. "You were too injured for the sofa, so Astra and Erio took them."
Snowe winced. He had noticed in that recitation that Relenia hadn't said where she going to sleep.
"Sorry," he muttered. "I didn't mean to kick you out of your bed."
"You can thank everyone tomorrow," Relenia said briskly. "Get some sleep."
He could see Anastasia in the bridge of her nose, and the fall of blue hair. He could see the loss of Anastasia in the stern frown she wore looking down at him. She probably could see his parents when she looked at him. How she could let him sleep in her bed was beyond him.
"I can't sleep," he said. "I've been sleeping for ages already, I'm sure."
"Try again," Relenia said. "I'm going to run a bath. When I come back, I expect you to be asleep. Tomorrow, it's a long walk to Sabine."
"I know," Snowe sighed. "I'll try."
He did try, closing his eyes and forcing himself to breathe slow and deep. He hadn’t expected to sleep, but the thing with trying was that if you persisted, eventually you succeeded. He heard, as though underwater, Relenia say something, but he couldn’t make out the words. It didn’t matter. He was safe for now, because his allies had come to save him, and that counted for a lot.