Page 164

Digging ice is not like digging in soil. Soil is made of particles, and particles give way before the blade of a shovel. Ice forms alliances and holds tight to itself. The top layer of loose snow was the most annoying, for it was like shoveling fine flour. There was little weight to each load, but it was difficult to control where each shovelful landed. The next layer was not so bad. It was like digging old packed snow once we broke through the icy crust. But the deeper we went, the more difficult the digging became. We could not shove a spade in and lift and throw out a shovelful of snow. Instead, we used picks to break the ice into chunks, and in the process sent shards and chunks of it flying at one another. Once the ice was loosened, we could scoop it up and toss it up and out of the hole, where the others loaded it onto one of the sleds and hauled it away from the hole's edge. If I kept on my coat, my back ran sweat. Taking it off meant that frost collected on my shirt.

We did not work alone. A compromise had been reached, for the Prince's Witted coterie were the ones to haul the ice from the hole's edge. After a time, the two groups took turns at the picks, the shovels, and the hauling. By the first nightfall, we had a hole that was shoulder deep with no sign of a dragon in the bottom of it.

As evening fell, the winds rose, sending flurries of loose ice crystals scurrying across the surface of the glacier. As we gathered at our camp below, to eat our lukewarm food as we clustered about the tiny potted fires, I wondered uneasily how much snow the winds would sweep into our excavation.

Although our earlier division had been forgotten in the day's labor, camp that night recalled it. We all huddled in the scanty protection of the circled tents, which broke the wind somewhat and gave an illusion of shelter on the bare and windswept ice. It was not a large space, yet within it we assorted ourselves. The Hetgurd warriors were friendlier toward the Witted and the Fool than they had been, trading rations and conversation with one another. Their skinny bard, Owl, sat next to Cockle while he performed for us. Cockle sang two songs without accompaniment, for he was not willing to risk either his hands or his instruments by exposure to the chilling wind. One was about a dragon who so charmed a man that he left his family and home and never more was seen. If there was some great truth hidden in it, I did not find it. As Web had mentioned, it spoke of the man breathing of the dragon's breath, and in that moment giving his heart to the creature. The other song had an even more obscure reference to dragons, yet all kept silent and listened to them thoughtfully as Cockle's solo voice battled with the sweeping winds. The only competing voice was Thick's. He sat near Dutiful, humming and rocking to himself. Although Chade tried several times to shush him, a few minutes later, the little man would take up his music again. It worried me, but there was nothing I could do.

I had glimpsed Peottre and the Narcheska earlier in the day, looking down on our work. Both of their faces seemed very still, caught between hope and dread. Dutiful had gone to speak to them, but I had not heard his words nor any reply from them. The Narcheska had stared at him as if he were a stranger accosting her when her mind was full of other matters. Tonight, they did not join us for the evening food and fire, but went directly to their tent. The dim light of a candle glowing within it was the only reminder of their presence.

When Cockle's song was finished and we had thanked him, I was full ready for bed. As much as I wanted private talk with Chade, Dutiful, and the Fool, I longed for sleep more. My body had not fully recovered from my elfbark excess, and the afternoon of heavy work in the cold had exhausted me.

I rose, stretching, and Chade beckoned me to his side. When I went to him, he asked me to bring Thick to the Prince's tent and help him prepare for bed. I thought at first it was an excuse to have quiet time to speak to me, but when I stood over Thick, my concern deepened. Thick rocked from side to side, humming continuously. His eyes were closed. I hesitated to touch him, just as a burned child hesitates to reach again toward the fire. Then the deadness of my Skill persuaded me that any leap of his mind to mine would actually be a relief rather than a shock. So I set my hand to his shoulder and shook him gently. Not only was there no jolt of Skill, but Thick gave no sign of rousing. I shook him again, more firmly, and finally had to drag him to his feet before he showed any sort of wakefulness. Then he blubbered like a suddenly wakened babe, and I felt like a beast as I steered him toward the Prince's tent. As I tugged off his snow-caked boots and outer garments, all he did was mutter semicoherent complaints about the cold. Without prompting, he crawled into his blankets and I tucked them down around him.

I had just finished when Chade and the Prince came into the tent. “I'm worried about him,” I said quietly, tipping my head toward Thick. From beneath the mounded blankets, a soft humming had already commenced.

Source: www_Novel12_Com