Mountain pass, part four

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Drizzling rain made the ascent slow progress. Horses slipped on the wet ground. Harbend swore. Wagon wheels were the only things never slipping in the mud. Oh, no. They got stuck instead and brought the caravan to a halt.

He added a groan to the oath. He still remembered the last wagon to get mired. A groom was lying stretched out in a wagon now, a broken bone and a torn back tormenting him after a fall under the wheels when they finally managed to get the wagon moving again. Harbend sighed silently and forced his horses to drag the wagon yet another few paces forward. They were closing to the highest point and the track was becoming steeper and steeper. They weren't late, but the weather played a dirty trick on his plans and he could feel the rain slowly turning to snow.

He started to get worried. Discomfort was close to turning into real danger. Earlier, in Erkateren, he'd been concerned they'd be forced to turn back if snow caught them, but now he knew they were no longer able to do so. Too much of the track behind them was destroyed by wagons passing over it, and so they needed to push forward across the summit and down into the relative shelter beneath it. How long before they were there? Half a day, a day or maybe more?

He struggled forward with his wagon again. Stumbling and slipping in the mud he almost fell. The temperature was dropping fast now, and he was almost numb with cold before he realized the wind had caught up, beating wet snow against his already soaked clothes. He staggered on for a while and was surprised to see night falling. Far away in the distance he heard a voice. Then it was closer and he found himself face to face with a screaming Arthur.

"Get in you bloody idiot!"

"What?" Harbend tried to shake off Arthur's hands.

"Get in and change clothes! Hypothermia."

"What?" Sleep. Sleeping would be so good.

"No matter. Get the hell into your wagon! Now! You'll freeze to death. I'll handle your horses."

Harbend was too tired to argue and allowed himself to be dragged to the wagon. After a couple of failed tries he managed to climb into it. Another dark shape followed him and helped him strip. It was strange. He knew he should feel cold standing naked with only thin cloth sheltering him. He allowed himself to be helped into dry clothes and was too numb to complain when he was wrapped in more cloth. After a while warmth came, and with warmth a peculiar stinging pain, but somehow he managed to fall asleep anyway.

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