Web walked beside me and Chade came hurrying to meet me. Someone had bandaged his arm. “This way,” he told me, and led me to where Burrich lay in the snow. Swift knelt beside him. They had not tried to move him. There was a wrenching wrongness to how his body lay. The spine is not meant to twist like that. I dropped to my knees beside him, surprised to find his eyes open. His hand spidered feebly against the snow. I slipped mine underneath it. He was breathing shallowly, as if hiding from the pain lurking in the lower half of his body. He managed a single word. “Alone.”
I looked at Web and Chade. Without a word, they withdrew. Burrich's eyes met Swift's. The boy looked stubborn. Burrich took a slightly deeper breath. There was a color in his skin around his mouth and eyes, a strange darkening. “Just a moment,” he said huskily to his son. Swift bowed his head slightly and walked away from us.
“Burrich,” I said, but an almost sharp movement of his hand against mine bade me stop.
I saw him gather the remnants of his strength. He paced himself, taking a breath for each phrase he uttered. “Go home,” he said. And then, commanding me, “Take care of them. Molly. The lads.” I started to shake my head as he asked the impossible of me, and for a moment his hand tightened on mine, a shadow of his old grip. “Yes. You will. You must. For me.” Another breath. He furrowed his brow, as if making an important choice. “Malta and Ruddy. When she comes in season. Not Brusque. Ruddy.” He wagged one finger at me, as if I had thought to argue that decision. He took a deeper breath. “Wish I would see that foal.” He blinked his eyes slowly, then, “Swift,” he said, painfully.
“Swift!” I shouted and saw the loitering boy lift his head and start to run back to us.
Just before he reached us, Burrich spoke again. He almost smiled as he said, “I was the better man for her.” A breath. In a whisper, “She still would have chosen you. If you'd come back.”
Then Swift flung himself to his knees in the snow beside Burrich and I gave my place over to him. Chade and Web had come back with a heavy blanket. Web spoke. “We're going to try to scoop out the snow under you and sling you in the blanket to put you on the sled. The Prince has already released the bird that will summon the ships to fetch us back to Zylig.”
“Doesn't matter,” Burrich said. His hand closed on Swift's as he shut his eyes. A few moments later, I saw his hand go lax.
“Move him now,” I suggested. “While he's unconscious.”
I helped them, digging in the snow under Burrich's body and sliding the blanket beneath him. Despite our efforts to be gentle, he moaned as we moved him, and my Wit-sense of him faded a notch. I said nothing of that but I am sure that Swift was as aware of it as I was. The situation didn't need words. We loaded him onto the sled with the other two injured men. Just before we left that place, I looked up into the clear sky, searching. But there was no sign of either dragon.
“Not even a thank-you,” I commented to Web.
He shrugged wordlessly and we set out.
For the rest of that day, I either walked beside Burrich or took turns pulling the sled. Swift walked always where he could see his father, but I do not think Burrich's eyes opened again that day. Thick rode on the tail of the sled, huddled in a blanket and staring. Kossi and Oerttre rode on the other sled, well bundled against the cold. Peottre pulled it, humming a tune as he trudged along, while the Narcheska and Dutiful walked alongside it. They were in front of us. I could not hear what the Narcheska was telling her mother, but I could guess. Her eye, when it fell on Dutiful, was slightly less disapproving, but mostly her gaze lingered on her daughter, with pride. The remaining Hetgurd men led us, probing the snow for cracks as we went. Web and then Chade came to walk alongside me for a time. There was nothing to say and that was what we said.
I counted it up to myself, mostly because I could not stop my mind from doing so. My prince had led here one dozen men plus Swift and Thick. Six Hetgurd men had come to oversee us. Twenty in all. Plus the Fool and Burrich. Twenty-two. The Pale Woman had killed Hest and Riddle and the Fool. Burrich was dying from the injury her dragon had dealt him. Eagle had died in the rain of ice from Chade's explosion. Fox and Deft were likewise lost. Sixteen of us would return to Zylig. Assuming that Churry and Drub had survived on the beach alone. I drew a deep breath. We were bringing the Narcheska's mother and sister home. Surely that counted for something. And eight Outislanders would be going back to their homes, men their families had long believed dead. I tried to feel some sort of satisfaction, but could not find it. This last and briefest battle of the Red Ship War had been the most costly to me.