The orc heaved a large bag out of the water and flopped it on the ice with a jarring metallic clank without looking away, then spoke in exactly the sort of deep grumbly voice that she had imagined. “I have one more load to get. Sit tight – I won’t be long.”
Aithne couldn’t have responded had she wanted to but he didn’t seem to expect a response – he turned and jumped back into the water. Aithne spared a moment to marvel at the orc’s ability to swim in such icy water as she clambered to her feet and started moving.
The ship had run aground – or a-ice – on the edge of a series of ice floes, dotted here and there by the occasional hulking mass of an iceberg. They were separated from each other by degrees that varied from a few inches to several feet. She could see the hazy signs of shore in the distance and felt hopeful that a path to it could be found. She shuffled her pained way to the edge of the iceberg, which sloped gently on the far side to the water’s edge where a smaller ice floe seemed to beckon in encouragement. She eased her way down the slope and stepped carefully onto the ice floe.
It was slow going. Every breath was like a stab in her chest and the smooth ice shifted under her weight. She moved with the constant fear that one of the floes would tip over as she stepped on it and slide her into the water. Even with her caution and the pain, she moved faster than she would have like – the Beast would be coming her way soon and he had already proved himself inured to the harsh weather. He would not be hampered in his movement. She fought an urge to turn around.
She reached the edge of the ice floes just as the sun informed her that there was only an hour of light remaining. The shoreline – and the trees just beyond – tantalized her with their nearness. Just twenty yards of dark, freezing water separated her from…
“I told you to sit tight.”
Aithne yelped and dove without another thought.
Her limbs went numb immediately. She had imagined she might – just might! – reach the shore but she wasn’t even sure if she was moving. She felt like she was flailing at the water but the surface seemed further away with each heartbeat and the light from above was blotted out as if something had stepped in front of the sun and the murky depths rose and then…then she felt warm all over, as if she was wrapped in a cozy cocoon of blankets and she smiled and relaxed and let go.
So…cold. It pierced her, like a thousand needles jabbed into her skin at once. She shifted, which only brought more pain, and her teeth began chattering. She forced unwilling eyes open and peered through slitted lids.
A fire crackled nearby. Beyond that, daylight shone upon a rock and ice strewn shore. She heard waves breaking on a shore but could not see the water from where she lay. She eased her head into motion, taking in more.
A shallow cave, more of a depression in the side of a hill or mountain, blocked the view to the sides. She lay along the back wall covered in a blanket made of some sort of half-cured fur. A giant dead half-skinned creature slumped against the wall beyond her feet. It took a few moments for her brain to recall the word for it.
“T…troll.” She whispered the word through chapped lips, then licked them with a dry tongue.
“Ah, you’re awake. Good.”
Aithne winced as Borkul’s huge form shifted into view from the far side of the fire. He looked unfazed by the cold, though he wore only the thin linen prisoner’s pants. He wasn’t even wearing a shirt. What was he, anyway?
“That was stupid. Brave, but stupid. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered pulling you out but I need you. You’re my key to getting to where I need to go.”
“Wh…” Aithne’s lips were too dry to make words. She licked them with her swollen dry tongue again. The orc reached behind him, then revealed a leather water skin, which he set in front of her. She eyed it for a long moment, then forced her arms into motion, picking it up, unstoppering it with a shaking hand, then lifting her head just enough to take a sip.
The water was brackish and stale, and the best thing she had ever tasted. It lit a trail of relief through her mouth and she felt its path all the way down into her belly. She took a breath as if it were her first and then took another drink, letting the water wash around her parched mouth before allowing it to follow the first drink. Somewhat revived, she lifted herself up to drink more as a sudden vast thirst filled her.
“That’s enough for now.” Borkul reached out and grabbed the water skin from her weak grasp and she let out a small cry as she grasped at the air left behind. “Drink too much and you’ll just get sick. We’ll take it nice and slow. I need you to be healthy.”
“What…what do you mean?” Aithne’s voice came out roughly, as if she had been gargling sandpaper. Which was exactly how she felt. “Why do you need me?”
“To make money, of course. I was a little worried about how I was going to do that, to be honest. Sure, I could rob some people, but that kind of thing tends to attract attention. Which is why I was in the bottom of that boat. I don’t have time for that kind of attention. So you’re going to make money for me.”
“I don’t…I don’t understand.”
“Don’t worry about it for now. Just rest. I’ll explain it all to you when you get a little stronger.”
Aithne found herself nodding, so she stopped and shook her head instead. Not that it mattered. The little exertion she had put forward had been enough to sap her strength. She laid her head on…what was she laying on, anyway? She shifted enough to look and found the reason Borkul wasn’t wearing a shirt – it had become her pillow. She grunted. Had she the energy, she would have tossed it into the fire, but her arms felt heavy as lead and refused to obey her. She sighed and settled onto the shirt and watched the flames until sleep overcame her once again.