~28~

Six days into the Snow Winds and the small, one-roomed, stone cottage was snowed in up to its shingled roof. Lexi's wounds had all healed and her muscles had stopped aching. She had regained full use of her injured eye, though the surrounding tissue remained red and tender. Having been stuck in one place for such a length of time had caused energy to build up in Lexi and she could not stop pacing. She was impatient to continue her journey, and Pavarni had not let her step outside for any length of time.

The door squeaked open and Pavarni stepped inside, three pheasants thrown over her shoulder. Lexi paused just long enough to glance at her before continuing to pace up and down the length of the room.

"When can we leave?" she demanded as she spun on her heel and strode down to the other end of the cottage. "Not one flake of snow has fallen all day."

"There is plenty of time yet," Pavarni murmured in response.

"I don't have time," Lexi snapped. "I have to get moving as soon as I can. I cannot afford to linger any more than I have to." Although Pavarni's expression barely changed, it was clear to Lexi that she was becoming tired of her continuous demand for updates. But if the Breeders had any sense, Lexi was sure that they would be moving again, and she had to follow. "Please," she added in an attempt to win the psychic round.

Pavarni said nothing as she pulled off her cloak and set about preparing the birds. The pair of them had gotten through Lexi's small wrap of meat in two and a half days, leading Pavarni to leave the safety of the cottage and hunt out any wandering animals. Needless to say, game was few and far between.

"Pavarni, you can sense how much I need to get moving," Lexi continued.

"And yet you neglect to tell me why," Pavarni pointed out, her attention still on the meat.

"Is the reason important?" Lexi muttered, scowling at the floor.

"Not at all," Pavarni said. "I will accompany you whether you decide to tell me your motives or not, but I cannot get a real sense of your urgency if you decide not to tell me what it is you are searching for." The psychic put down the bird in her hands and looked towards Lexi. "You aren't being chased, I can tell that much. Whatever it is that requires your attention is important, I grant you. I am up to my knees in snow outside. How do you expect the horses to travel with any sort of efficiency?"

Lexi looked away, knowing that Pavarni was right but could not bring herself to admit it. "If it does not snow for the rest of today, can we leave tomorrow?"

"It is not the snow that is the issue, Alexia. It's the time it takes to thaw."

Pavarni knelt beside the birds and continued plucking their feathers while Lexi returned to pacing.

The two girls remained in silence for a long while, Lexi's boots scuffing against the wooden floor the only sound. Her strides lengthened and she quickened her step, becoming too restless to control her speed.

"Can you not put me to sleep until the snow has thawed if we cannot begin soon?" Lexi asked irritably.

"I could, but it would not be very polite."

Lexi snorted softly and Pavarni bounded to her feet, surprising her. The psychic strode past Lexi and grabbed her sword from where it stood beside the door, pulling it free of its sheath with a ring of metal. A flicker of panic swept through Lexi's mind as the young elfish woman pointed the sword at her throat. The edges of the blade gleamed a brighter silver than the swords of both Demitri and Cassius, but the fuller was tinted a faint green. Pavarni sensed Lexi's wariness.

"We may as well put our time and energy to good use," she pointed out pleasantly. "Draw your sword."

Lexi hesitated. Pavarni raised one challenging eyebrow and the corners of her mouth tilted up in a smile that revealed the two, small, pointed canines. They were not nearly as impressive as those of Malachai, but intimidating nonetheless.

She reached for her sheath and pulled her sword slowly free.

The pair stood several feet opposite each other, sword points aiming at each other's chests. They stayed this way for many long, silent seconds; Pavarni's eyes bore deep into those of Lexi while the shifter tried to watch out for any giveaway signs of attack.

Pavarni lunged. Lexi brought her sword up to block the attack with less than half a second to spare. Without pausing, Pavarni lunged again, swiping her sword at Lexi's left side, and then her right. On the fourth attack, the force of the colliding blades sent Lexi's sword through the air, clattering against the stone wall and falling heavily to the floor.

Pavarni rested her blade against Lexi's shoulder and smirked just slightly. "Pick it up," she commanded.

Lexi did as she was asked and the two began again. Lexi was reminded of the one, brief fight she endured with Nerezza, but Pavarni's skill was far greater than Nerezza's. Even her trial fight with Demitri had not been this quick. Though Lexi began to predict her attacks, it never took longer than half a minute for her sword to be twisted out of her grip.

The fights continued and Lexi began to tire. Pavarni started to frown.

After the twelfth time Lexi's sword clashed to the ground, Pavarni lowered her sword and was clearly not interested in continuing. However, Lexi was full to the brim with fury at her own weakness. She grasped her hilt and swung at Pavarni. The psychic, of course, predicted the attack and swept the sword easily out of the air and raised the point of her blade to Lexi's throat before she could follow it.

"Pick your enemies carefully," she warned in a low voice.

"What use are enemies when I cannot best them?" Lexi spat.

Pavarni ignored the hostility and lowered her sword. "Retrieve your blade. I will teach you how I was taught."

"I have been taught how to wield a sword," Lexi replied irritably.

"Clearly not very well," Pavarni replied coolly. "Retrieve your blade."

Lexi was in half a mind to defy the psychic, but thought better of it. If she refused, Pavarni would just influence her to do it anyway. Her arms aching, Lexi snatched the sword from the floor and faced Pavarni once again.

"Ready?" Pavarni asked with a raised brow. Lexi nodded impatiently. "Left." Pavarni swung to the left and, due to her forewarning, Lexi blocked the hit with relative ease. "Right." She flipped her sword round to the other side and the blades collided, the sound echoing off the stone walls.

Pavarni continued to speak the direction for Lexi to block, and though her speed had not lessened, the fight lasted for several long minutes. Already exhausted by the previous fights, Lexi soon lost speed and strength. When at last Pavarni knocked the short sword to the floor, she sheathed her own blade and replaced it by the door before returning to the birds. Lexi was still for a few minutes, catching her breath, before she picked up her sword and sheathed it.

She turned to her hammock and collapsed down into it. Pavarni knelt in silence while she prepared the bird meat and Lexi regained some energy.

After a minute, Lexi sat up. "I appreciate your help, and I don't feel quite so bad about myself now, but an enemy will not give me forewarning during a spar."

Pavarni gave an amused smirk. "Most potential enemies will not be quite so skilled with a sword." Lexi's raised brow caused her smile to widen, revealing two, small, pointed fangs. "As you practise, you will start to see the signs of which direction an enemy will choose. But for now, I will do all the fighting, should we need it."

Lexi scowled. "Are you saying I'm incapable?"

Pavarni shrugged and said nothing. She pulled a knife from her right boot and began carving the meat into slices off the carcass of the birds. Lexi lay back in her hammock and stared up at the wooden beams supporting the roof while she waited for the meat to cook over the fire. A few moments later, she sat up again. "Have you seen to the horses?"

"They are fine," Pavarni assured her. "The colt is gaining a little weight, but your stallion seems to be more careful with his eating."

Lexi nodded in acceptance. Pavarni halved the meat and placed one set onto a clean but ragged cloth, handing it over to Lexi, while she began nibbling on her own. Lexi ate hungrily; they had not managed to eat enough while cooped up in the middle of the forest, snowed up to the roof.

Even after eating the meagre meal, Lexi still felt hungry. Though she did not complain, Pavarni noticed her discomfort and offered the remainder of her share.

"Do you not want it?" Lexi asked, feeling she should refuse but unable to deny the food.

"I can survive without it," Pavarni assured her. The psychic stood and returned the knife to her boot. She shouldered her quiver and picked up her dark recurve bow, pausing by the door to clip the sheath of her sword to her belt and pull her cloak over her shoulders.

"Where are you going?" Lexi asked, her tongue burning from swallowing too fast.

"To see what else I can find," Pavarni replied vaguely, pulling her hood over her head. She pulled open the door and a blast of icy wind swept through the cottage. Lexi shivered and Pavarni disappeared, leaving her alone.

Pavarni did not return until late in the evening, and she returned empty handed. The sweep of cold air awoke Lexi from her slumber and she sat bolt upright in shock, rocking the hammock to an extent she almost tipped out onto the floor.

"Be calm," Pavarni said, speaking lowly against the darkness, for the fire had almost dwindled out of existence.

Lexi settled back into her hammock and pulled the blankets up to her chin. "What news?"

"Game is few. I found nothing other than a few wood mice, and they are barely a mouthful. What took most of my attention were the humans blundering through the woods, so it is hardly surprising that the animals have retreated to their homes."

Lexi sat up again, panicked. "Humans?"

"I did not have the displeasure of asking them personally, but no other Neäkan would disturb the woodland in such a way." Pavarni pulled off her cloak and left it in a heap in the corner, beside her sword, bow and quiver.

"What are humans doing in the forest?" Lexi demanded.

"It was hard to tell, for there were many, and they were distant," Pavarni explained. She seemed at ease, so much so that Lexi quickly became infuriated. She paused, lying back in her hammock and closing her eyes. "I expect, however, that word has reached them of a certain white-haired, pale-skinned young woman with a rather prickly heritage."

Lexi frowned over at the psychic, who lay seemingly oblivious to her tension. "Could you tell where they were from?"

"Haston, no doubt, for you were there not one week ago. With the knowledge of your name and past, you have become much more valuable."

The two remained quiet for a little while and Lexi relaxed enough to lie back in her hammock. "If they are in search of me, if they believe I am the daughter of Marielle, then they will not stop until they have found me. Why are you so…untroubled?"

"Untroubled?" Pavarni asked. "Is that how you see me?"

"Well, you certainly don't seem worried."

"I am not worried. But I am not untroubled. The humans will not find us this night, or the next or, indeed, the one after, for their progress is slow. However, we will not be able to linger as long as I would have liked." She paused for a long while and Lexi began to believe she had dozed off when she spoke again. "We will be back on the road by tomorrow evening."

Pavarni turned over in her hammock, ending the conversation.

Lexi tucked the ends of the blankets all around her to dispel as much of the cold as she could before closing her eyes. She had little less than a day before her journey continued. Her wounds had healed, her eye was of use again, but she could not help wishing that she had a few days longer.