- - -

Chapter Fourteen

Shores of the Silvar River, south Silvara

- - - - -

Ashtaway's feet had never complained of this much walking, but he kept on after Sir Radell at a decidedly dogged pace, trying not to make his weariness readily visible to Sir Gharan's sharp dark eyes. He clutched his tattered homespun cloak around his shivering shoulders, the slightly singed wool leaving streaks of soot on his chin and hands.

He gave a small cry as his burlap and sheepskin boot caught on something and he fell, skinning one knee and an elbow. He glared at the offending tree root as though it would do any good, shutting his eyes tightly in the stinging pain.

Sir Gharan sighed impatiently. "Get on your feet, boy," he barked. "We're losing time to nightfall!"

Ashtaway, shaking a bit, stood up, unconsciously rubbing his bleeding elbow and fixing the black cap over his auburn hair. Ash swallowed as he took the now slightly damp cloak and pulled it back on, keeping his eyes low.

"You are doing fine, Ashtaway," said Sir Radell, who did not look the least bit worn by their several-mile trek. "Take a moment to catch your breath."

Ash nodded gratefully, but his faint smile was highly forced. He tried feebly to suppress his shivering, but failed. Sir Gharan, with a not-so-subtle glare, pulled Sir Radell a few feet away, to where he obviously thought Ash couldn't hear.

"The boy is only slowing us down, Radell," he said hotly, though his voice was lowered. "He's too weak to go all the journey to Silvaram without taking an extra month—"

"So you propose that we abandon him to starve and freeze to death over the winter?" said Sir Radell, his deep voice equally hushed. The other knight's dark eyes flashed.

"It is better than all of us freezing to death!" he hissed. Ashtaway lowered his head slightly, trying not to look like he was listening in.

"Gharan, to leave him to die alone is to condemn ourselves," said Sir Radell patiently.

"Condemn? My friend, you confuse your words. Save ourselves is what would come of it—"

"Are you to say that your silent daughter is of any more use to you than the boy?" said Sir Radell evenly.

Gharan flared noticeably. "If he falters, Radell, and we do not reach Silvaram in time—"

"Then the gods forbid we'll all starve together, Gharan, while your selfishness runs off with the rations." The blond-haired knight's tone was one that did not expect challenge, and Sir Gharan knew that he had lost this skirmish. With a distinct glare at Ashtaway, he backed down, and both Ash's grey eyes and the Lady Alai's dark ones followed him as he stalked angrily back to his pack.

- - -

After several calls to keep up, Ashtaway was determined to subtly prove to Sir Gharan that he was not merely dead weight tied like a mutton and dragged after them. He managed, despite his own weariness, to volunteer for watch duty the first night that they camped in a small grove of elms, and for the rest of the day after he made it a priority to keep himself on his feet and in front of Sir Gharan at all times possible.

The Silvar River, which divided a fourth of the island's bulk into the quarter known as South Silvara, frothed perhaps three yards from him, the torrid rapids high from the aftersummer floods. The noise of the river drowned out all sound except for the loudest of yells, and Ash couldn't even hear his own private thoughts.

"We need to find a fjord!" shouted Gharan suddenly, his bellow barely audible.

"But the river's so high…!" said Ash, though his words were lost in the ruckus.

Radell, however, knew the same logic. "The river is flooded!" he yelled, almost dead into Ashtaway's ear. "Even the fjords will be highwatered…"

Alai delicately adjusted her veils, though she did not say anything. Her dark eyes were on Ash, he knew, and carefully he turned his head to the side, swallowing.

"Highwatered or no, we must cross here!" said Gharan, yelling to be heard above the rapids. "It will be calmer a bit downstream…!"

Glancing nervously at the summer floods, Ashtaway had never felt so grateful that his father had taught him how to swim as a boy.

- - -

True enough, the river calmed slightly as they trudged downstream, Ashtaway doing all in his power to keep his eyes off of the back of Lady Alai's head.

"Stop it, Ash, you fool…" he muttered to himself. "She doesn't have any feelings for you, you donkey, no matter how much it feels like she's looking at you…" He forced a small dry laugh, still quiet enough so that only he could hear. To even think she ever might have looked twice at me… I'm a peasant, and she's… not.

Ash sighed a bit, hugging the cloak to his shoulders as they approached the fjord. He didn't even notice the cold dark eyes of Sir Gharan on his back.

- - -

Ash yelped slightly as he stepped into the river, the water far colder than he had expected. The current tugged slightly at his legs, but he braced himself, pulling his cloak up a bit to keep it from getting wet.

He lifted his leg, trying to take a step forward. It was like pushing through deep, hard packed snow; his leg felt like it weighed more than a fattened ox. He found a rock, and pushed himself with considerable effort forward. The current pushed at his waist, threatening to topple him.

Halfway through the stream, he stumbled, panicked, and fell, flailing to keep his balance. In an instant, he was underwater, still struggling wildly for the surface. Ash could swim—one of the benefits of growing up in a village on a lake—but the current was strong, and the water icy cold. He opened his mouth to scream, and all that rushed in was water. Ash panicked, resigning himself to death by icy suffocation, when he felt a strong, leather-gloved hand latch firmly onto his wrist, and pull him up. Ash coughed violently when he came back to the surface, swallowing gulps of sweet dry air.

"M-my lord," he said, looking up at the Knight that had saved him. He started as he met, of all people, Sir Gharan's eyes.

The knight said nothing, only grunted and pointed ahead. "You are holding us up, boy," he said, shoving Ashtaway forward slightly. Ashtaway staggered forward, shivering violently, silently thanking the knight.

- - -

Ash let out a small cry as three steps later, he saw Lady Alai stumble, her dark eyes widening beneath the veil as she fell. "My lord!" he screamed to the Knights ahead.

Radell and Gharan both turned, saw Alai missing and Ash pointing frantically downstream, and cursed, trying to wade back as fast as they could without losing their own balance. Ashtaway instantly knew that neither man would be able to cross the three-yard distance between them in time, and without thinking, he took as deep a breath as he could manage and dove into the fast current of the river, trying to swim but quickly carried tumbling by the fast-moving water.

"Ashtaway!" yelled Radell, cursing violently. "The fool will drown himself—!"

Ashtaway kicked fiercely, managing to throw his head out of the icy water, looking frantically around in the second he had left before the current dragged him under again. Alai was a few yards ahead of him, and Ash paddled frantically, half-tugged by the current and half-propelling himself, to the struggling young woman.

"Give me your hand!" screamed Ashtaway when he broke the surface once more, throwing his arm out as far as he could reach. Alai's dark eyes, wide in terror, met his for only a moment before she frantically grabbed his hand in both of hers.

The current swept them both downstream, determined to keep them underwater, slamming them against rocks as though they were no more than pebbles in the flow. Ashtaway, still holding onto Alai, tried desperately to get them both towards the banks and the slower current, but it was more difficult than he'd ever imagined—the river had a tight grip, and it was not in the mood to let go, tugging them back to the center and back into its icy darkness before they could find respite.

Ash thrashed violently, stubbornly keeping his head and Alai's above the surface. He caught a glimpse of Sir Radell running along the bank, Sir Gharan crashing through the brush soon after him. Ashtaway held onto Alai tighter, trying to swim that way before both of them were pulled into the rapids downstream.

Ash felt himself slammed into another rock, but this time, he clung to it as though it was all he had left. Ashtaway realized numbly that he was holding on to her tightly around the waist. Her veils were gone, swept away by the river, and her perfect face was rather near to his, lolling slightly, her eyes closed. Ash looked up as he heard a cry, and both the knights fought their way to the rock, Gharan glaring fiercely at Ashtaway as he pulled his daughter from the peasant's hands, and then Radell pried Ash from the rock as well, carrying him to a bank.

"She's… not… breathing," coughed Ashtaway weakly, stumbling to Alai. Gharan shoved the boy roughly away from her and then pressed on the dark-haired young woman's chest a few times. Alai's eyes snapped open and she coughed violently, sputtering water.

Ash just lay on the bank, gasping for air and shivering fiercely, exhausted, weak, and freezing cold. He watched dully as Gharan fussed over Alai, glaring back at Ashtaway every now and then.

Radell crouched next to the redheaded youth, pushing wet hair out of his face. "That was a brave thing you did, Ashtaway," he said quietly. Ash smiled faintly, then leaned back into the grass and closed his eyes, not having the strength to do much of anything but swallow gulps of air.

"Once you're up for standing," said Radell, thumping the boy gently on the shoulder, "we'll get you into some dry clothes."

- - -

Still wrapped in a blanket like a fifteen-year-old infant, Ash did his best to keep his teeth from chattering. The youth blushed, rubbing his elbow. "I didn't think to bring another set of clothes," he lied as Radell rummaged through a saddlebag, not wanting to confess that he didn't even own another set of clothes.

"Do not fret, I'm sure we have some spare," grunted Sir Radell, frowning. "Now where is the blasted thing… ah!" He grinned in triumph as he pulled the red and silver squire's tunic from the bag, tossing the bundle of red embroidered muslin to Ashtaway, who caught it and then looked down.

"But this is—" he started to say, looking at Sir Radell. "I can't—"

"Try it on," said Radell with a smile. "It may be a bit big on you, but I'll have it tailored once we reach Silvaram." He gave Ashtaway a rather fatherly scrutiny. "Do you think you'll work hard for me?"

"You mean… you mean you want me to…?" echoed Ashtaway numbly, too shocked to be excited.

"How would you like to be a squire, lad?" said Radell with a wink. "Simple answer." He chuckled.

"But I—! I'm just… but…"

"I'm at a lack in the department, it seems," said Radell, chuckling again. "But you've proven that your brave, and back at the manor whenever you delivered swords you seemed to enjoy yourself. So how would you like to try it?"

Ashtaway broke into an excited smile, and then threw his arms around the Knight. "Thank you!" he said. "Thank you, my lord! I won't let you down, I promise!"

- - -