Sleep is death.
That was the first rule of the Whitelands and Senya clung to it like a drowning woman clinging to a piece of driftwood. Three days had passed since she first clambered into the saddle; three days of harsh winds and relentless snowfall, of backache and saddle sores. Hell, three days of loneliness.
It was the loneliness that killed, after all. Far too easy to close your eyes and drift away to darkness, when there was no one there to tell you otherwise. All it took was a moment, a resting of the eyes, then the darkness was on you, sweeping you away to oblivion.
Knowing this, Senya kept her eyes wide open and the moment she felt herself slipping her father’s words would echo up from the depths of her memory. There was a time he had schooled her in the arts of surviving the white waste, but it was that first rule that kept calling back. Sleep is death, his gnarled voice warned. If there is no shelter and no fire, then sleep is death.
So Senya forced her eyes open, her teeth clenched against the cold, fixing her gaze on the darkness ahead and heeling her mount onwards into the frozen night.
The horse stumbled beneath her, almost losing his footing on the icy rock hidden beneath the deep snow. Senya clung tightly to the reins, heels dug in, her tight lips muttering a prayer to the Great Hunt. They wouldn’t let it end like this, surely? There was still too much to be done.
The moment dragged on painfully, Senya’s heart in her throat as the old horse scrabbled for a hoof-hold. Then, at last, he caught himself, planting his feet and regaining some composure.
His breath exploded from his nostrils in a cloud of misty relief, then he trudged on through the snow as though nothing had happened.
Senya breathed her own sigh of relief, one numb hand slapping the horse on the neck. If anything was going to get her through this, it was old Rhine; the last thing either of them needed was for him to break a leg. ‘I’m awake now,’ she told him. ‘No need to do that again, eh?’
A few hours later, the sun, or what little there was, had fallen behind the western mountains, dragging the temperature down with it. The cold was sharp enough to cut right through the thick layers Senya wore, sinking its teeth through fur and wool and cotton, until she could feel it in her bones. Her hands ached with the numbness of it, one holding desperately to the reins of her mount, the other fixing her hood in place against the bitter cold winds of the north.
Even then, with the wind howling through the mountains ahead like some carnal beast, lashing at rider and horse with waves of ice and snow, the tiredness started to take hold once more. Senya’s eyes grew heavier, her lids slowly closing…
Sleep… is death. Her father’s voice, tired now, less convincing.
…and her eyes flared open again, Senya jerking awake with them, almost toppling from the saddle.
She glanced at the sky, hoping the movement of stars and moon might tell her how long she’d been drifting for. Sadly, the sky was as grey and forbidding as it had been these past three weeks, with every frozen day blurring into the next.
‘Should have listened,’ Senya muttered, finally admitting to herself what everyone else had told her before she set out. It was folly this mission. Suicide. To cross the Valorian plains in the midst of the worst winter in living memory? Impossible.
Yet Senya lived for the impossible. Her father was called the Ironheart, a man who forged his name working the Whitelands, scouting well beyond the safety of Valorian lands and reporting back on Basilian movements. His name dwarfed most others among the Valor, and Senya was tired of living in its shadow. It was time to make a name for herself, she had decided, time to forge her own destiny.
If she could do what no one else could, if she could defy all expectations, then perhaps her own name would come to stand alone. In time they would forget that she was Senya, daughter of Finn, child of the Ironheart. Instead, she would be only Senya, the Longclaw, or the She-Wolf, or whatever other title her deeds earned her.
But if not, a dark voice whispered, if you die instead… you’ll be lost to your father’s shadow for all eternity.
Senya glanced at the sky again, watching the grey clouds twist and convulse overhead, her body trembling almost painfully in an effort to keep her warm. ‘Should have listened,’ she muttered.
Below her, old Rhine snorted his agreement. The horse, at least, showed no signs of tiredness. His heavy hooves trudged through the snow drift without pause, his dark flanks caked in white powder. He was as strong as they came, old Rhine, unflinching and unrelenting in his desire to fulfill his mistress’s demands.
‘Someone had to do something,’ she told him, patting the gelding’s neck and dislodging an avalanche of snow from his shoulder. ‘Without us, the city starves. But with us, the city has a chance. We’ll be heroes, Rhine. They’ll make kings of us, you’ll see!’
If you survive this, that dark voice whispered.
Senya rode on a while longer, violent gusts of wind battering at her, lashing snow at her frozen red cheeks. She peered into the gloom, searching for shelter but finding nothing. No trees. No caves or rocks or crevices of any kind. Just a barren, frozen waste. She soon felt herself drifting again, her eyelids drawing slowly closed with every breath. After all, why not? If she could just rest her eyes for a moment, she would soon feel refreshed.
Sleep… is… dea…