The blistering snow burned her exposed cheeks and she pulled her fur cloak to her face, which immediately slipped back down. Her breath burned inside her lungs in a thousand stabbing pains, but she persevered.
Her heavy, snow-laden boots dragged through the layers of whiteness blanketing the mountainside. She glanced up through the slated bone aperture over her eyes, protecting her from the most blinding rays of reflected sunlight, and saw his figure mere meters ahead. He laboured through the deepest snow, plowing the path for her. Soon he would tire, and they would trade off again. That’s how it had to be.
Every few hours, they would stop to rest, cloaking themselves in a shared wolf’s fur, stitched with heavy leather seams. They would eat dried meat rations, chewing through chattering teeth. Then, they would pack up their measly belongings wordlessly, and the other would take up the lead through the snowy mountains, forging their own path through the untouched snow.
“The ancestors favour us,” he told her as they huddled close beneath the furs in exhaustion.
“What makes you say that?” she asked, trying to get comfortable.
“The lights,” he said, looking up and breathing in the musky scent of the furs. “They are brighter here. They strengthen us.”
“Brighter because we are closer,” she told him. She, too, had watched the coloured lights, peaking through the pinpoints in the inky black sky. They were spirits, sent to protect them and guide them to the font of the Lidthstone. They were not the lucky ones, though. They were merely the deliverers, chosen to shoulder the burdens of their tribe.
“You miss her,” he said, his mouth turning down. “I am sad for you. She was—strong. And different. The Lidth will suit her.”
“I miss her,” she agreed. “We don’t know how they will be changed when they come back.” Though the furs trapped in their warmth, she couldn’t help but feel the familiar shiver pass up her spine. It curled around the back of her neck like the claws of a feral beast.
“She is in the lights,” he told her. “She will come back.”
“Yes. But I will not be with her.”
“It is not decided.” He paused. “Goodnight,” he said, and pressed his eyes shut. She stared at her brother as he drifted into his dreams, feeling like a kid again.
Finally, her sore muscles relaxed into a comfortable space and she too drifted into sleep.
A few days passed before it took him too. It started just as it had to the others. They sat huddled beneath the fur, sharing the last of their waterskin when he pulled his foot from his boot with a pained expression.
He unbandaged the foot and revealed his three smallest toes had blackened completely. “It has caught up to me,” he said. “I am next.”
She tentatively took the toes in her hand and inspected the blackness. “It can’t be.” She knew it was. “It should have been me. I’m not strong enough to bare the burden. I am not made to be alone.”
“I thought the spirits had called me to the Lidthstone.” Her brother said softly, taking her hand gently from the foot and rebandaging it. “I will go as far as I can with you, but the ancestors have made their decision.”
She stared at him.
“Take my spiritstone with you,” he said, “when I’m gone. Don’t forget it. I know you’re afraid, but you can’t forget it.”
She touched her forehead to his and let out a small sob. “We never should have gone.”
“We had to,” he said.
“You are my family, little bror.”
“So, don’t forget it.”
“I will bring it.”
He held out his wrist, where four inked lines stood in stark contrast to his pale skin. “And I will remember you. I won’t let the light take my memories.”
“We don’t know what it will do,” she said.
“I know it wouldn’t take you from me.”
“My spiritstone won’t continue.”
“No,” he said sadly. “But you will be the Lidth.”
“I never wanted that. I never wanted to lead.”
“She will be so proud of you.” He smiled and wiggled his foot back into the boot. “The lights are peaceful.” He decided.
“I wish life could be peaceful.”
“Yours will be,” he promised.
“I miss her,” she said.
“I know.” Her little brother glanced down. “I’ll tell her.”
“You won’t. You won’t need to.”
But she was wrong, and it took him too. She left his body to freeze like the others, but not before she removed his spiritstone and stored it with the others. The lights in the sky danced and ushered her on.
Drektah was alone on the mountain.