Howl groans and rubs his eyes in the blackness. Everything is bleary and wrong; edges indistinct and shapes overstretched. It might be morning, but here at the top of the world there's no reasonable way to tell.
Maybe Smoke is still asleep.
Moving quietly, Howl rolls to his feet and steals across the uneven floor to the mouth of the tent. Smoke's furs are piled there in an ungainly heap. A minute passes. Then two. They do not stir.
The air outside isn't just bracing, it's ravenous for heat. A passing gust eddies by and Howl finds that's he's clinging to himself, desperate to preserve the little warmth that remains. The pale moon suspended overhead eyes him callously. It's not any concern of its whether he dies out here. Again.
The snow cups his bare feet, soaking the sensation from his toes with every step. Crunch. Crunch. Crunch. A fresh dusting must have fallen some time during the night. The clearing is hauntingly empty, save for a lone piece of pine, and Howl crosses in slow motion, making his way carefully for the tree-line.
"You won't get far like that."
Oh. Of course. Howl turns around. The wind descends again, shaking the surrounding branches, and Smoke emerges from a patch of shivering needles. His hands are bundled around a cloak, a coat, and a pair of laced leather boots. "You really don't deserve a second chance."
"If that's what you've decided, it doesn't matter. I'm still going to try and run."
"You won't make it a mile. All you'll be doing is denying an old woman her dues."
"They're not her dues. I don't owe her anything. I don't care if you've been hurt. You're wrong." Howl isn't quite prepared for the frenzied swell of frustration that explodes in his chest. "Are you doing this just to taunt me?"
"No, but it's a plus." Smoke laughs huskily. Or maybe that's the wind. "And it's not wrong, except in your eyes. It's what some of us need to do. We're allergic." He says the word again, rolling it around in his mouth, and Howl realizes that he didn't mishear it. "We've had too much contact with your kind. Any more could trigger a violent reaction."
Smoke tilts his head up, as if he's searching the sky for what to say next. "I want to kill you. Badly. But it's not going to bring anyone back. It won't give Criamthi any more wisdom, and it won't chop firewood for me.
I think she knows this, but..." He shrugs. "We're allergic. If you were to rub goatsgrass on her arm, she'd get spots. Same thing." Bending down, Smoke sets his bundle on the snow. "Take it, before I change my mind."
Howl hastens over and stumbles into the cold weather gear, numbly slipping his feet into the boots and yanking the coat over his head. He doesn't bother with the obvious question: why?
"I'm not doing this for free, you know." Smoke's voice filters in through the confines of the coat. "When you get back to your city, tell them there's nothing out here. No trees. No rocks. No people. Just an endless barren plain. Maybe if they leave us alone for long enough, we'll forget we were ever wronged."
Through the tightly knit fabric, the cold is still brutal. But it's muted. Slightly. "I can do that."
"I don't care if you can, only if you will." Smoke turns around and heads back towards the tent. "When morning comes, I'm sounding the alarm. You'd best get moving." There's a rustle of leather as he disappears into the warmer dark.
Once more, Howl is alone.
They find his body half in and half out of a towering drift, five minutes march from the fort. He is perfectly still—tranquil—except for the pulse in his wrist. It takes two men to drag him back to safety, blazing a new double-trail through the white.
Crunch. Crunch. Crunch.