Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Stars glistened like countless jewels on a blanket of midnight black. He felt that if he stopped for long enough, he could count each and every one of them in the night sky.
And then I would freeze. Somebody would find a Lakhoni statue.
The ridiculous thought fluttered away, stolen by the full-body shudders that slammed through Lakhoni's body with terrifying regularity. He had been walking for so long that he no longer had to force his legs to move, carrying him forward through the pine trees that made up this new forest.
His eighth night in the frigid winter.
And I still have no idea if I am getting anywhere near Lemalihah.
He wondered if he would ever be able to smell anything, or for that matter taste anything, again. His face felt carved from ice, despite the swath of deer skin that covered everything but his eyes. He had punched a small hole for him to breathe through as well and had initially been amused when icicles began to form around it.
Now there was no energy for laughter. No energy for thoughts that moved far from walking eastward.
Lakhoni resisted the impulse to glance over his shoulder. Just keep going. Nobody's there. He had spent his first night away from the cavern jogging and walking, praying to the First Fathers for snow. He had decided, as the first flakes fell, that his prayers had been answered, although he was certain it would have snowed without his prayers.
What was the purpose of those prayers then?
The thought evaporated in the cold, the shivers that took control of his body, the numbness that was traveling down his fingertips.
Those first flakes had been the beginning of an angry snowstorm that had lasted two days. Was it three? It didn't matter. All that mattered was that there was no possible way any of the Separated could have tracked him. He had escaped.
A tremor of hunger flared in his stomach, fighting with his shivers. His meat had run out the previous day, despite all of his rationing. He had finished the last half of an apple this morning.
He had escaped the Separated, but he was beginning to wonder if he would simply die out here in the raw winter. As he walked, he made sure to keep his eyes open for any sign of wildlife he might be able to trap or shoot with his bow. He had seen nothing for days; only sentinel-like pine trees, snow that rippled like a shaken blanket, and vast sky.
No paths. No animals. No sign of a village or any other human.
He felt he must be the only creature that moved on the earth.
None would miss him if he simply gave in to the exhaustion that seemed to be making his bones ache. He could wrap his deer hide and blanket tightly around himself, start a final fire, then go to sleep. As he slept, his fire would surely fade, and so would he.
No. Alronna. She was out there. She had to be in Lemalihah. What was happening to her there? Was she being hurt?
Frustration kindled in him. He stoked the tiny inner fire with thoughts of the injustice and cruelty of the king. Flames of anger lengthened his stride, made him blink the chill from his eyes and focus more. I have to eat.
He decided to walk more slowly so that he might increase his chances for seeing signs of wildlife. Despite the pale light that reflected from the snow from the stars and sliver of a moon, he could make out little of detail on the snow's surface.
Tomorrow. He would spend tomorrow looking for food. Then he would resume his journey. Tonight he had to find a place to rest.
He knew what to look for: a large pine tree with wide, low-hanging branches. It would shelter him from much of the frigid wind and there was always a thick bed of old, dried pine needles on the ground under such trees. Good fuel for a small fire.
After a few minutes of searching, he found exactly what he needed. The tree stood tall, as if it were the captain of the army of trees surrounding it. He ducked low, trying to keep from knocking snow off the branches above down upon him. He lowered himself to the ground, putting his back against the rough tree trunk.
He set his bag on the ground and retrieved the spark rocks. Next, he gathered a goodly pile of dried needles, leaning to one then the other side to get as many as he could reach without having to get up. He cleared a space in front of him, exposing the hard, cold ground beneath the needles. With only a few tries, he had smoke coming from the small pile of needles he had arranged on the bare spot.
Gently blowing and carefully adding more needles as needed, he soon had a small fire crackling. He leaned in close to thaw his face. After what felt like hours, he could finally smell the aroma of burning pine.
He built the fire higher, adding some small, dead branches that were scattered in among the dead needles under the tree. The heat hurt his frozen fingertips, the pain lingering for a long time. Nothing's fallen off yet, he thought. He didn't dare to remove his boots to confirm this hope, but instead moved his feet closer to the fire, hoping the heat would penetrate the frozen leather.
Opening the blanket and cloak he had wrapped around his body, he willed the heat of his small fire into his flesh.
His stomach rumbled, jealous of the slight comfort the rest of his body was enjoying.
Tomorrow. He would kill some food…
The thought drifted away as sleep overcame him.
* * * * *
A sharp jabbing, like the point of a spear, in his cheek dragged him from the weight of dangerous sleep. Lakhoni jerked groggily awake, forcing himself from already fading dreams of cave-like darkness.
It hurt. He felt as if he were fighting part of himself that wanted to stay in that position forever, hoarding the pocket of warmth that he had trapped in his middle.
He lay curled in a ball, pine needles pricking his cheek. Black and gray ash, snowflake light, and all that remained of his miniscule fire, scattered as he willed himself to scrabble into a seated position.
The ache in his stomach felt like another spear, this one digging and twisting, seeking his spine.
He gathered his bag, grateful to the canopy of pine branches that had kept the frost from covering it. And him. Two, maybe three mornings previous, he had woken and found himself covered in a fair dusting of snow.
Dangerous. Have to move.
On hands and knees, pointy needles under his palms, he crawled out from under the canopy, lurching to his feet in the snow that came up past his ankles. It was soft and light; easily blown by the almost constant frigid wind.
Hunt. I was going to hunt today.
Lakhoni looked to the nearly uniform, gray sky. After a brief moment of searching, he found the glow that indicated the sun's position. East. He would continue east, but much slower. And he would find food.
Surely he wasn't the only thing moving in the woods. He would find a deer, or a rabbit. Even a predator of some kind. Or maybe a frozen stream that would have sleepy fish wandering under a layer of ice.
He began to walk, coughing to clear his chest. This did not feel like a spear; it was more like a small animal that was chewing its way out through his ribs. His throat burned as well. He knew these were signs of winter illness. But he knew there was nothing he could do.
As he walked, he swung his arms down periodically, filling his hands with snow and bringing them up to his mouth. Mouthfuls of snow melted as he held them until they were warm enough to swallow. In this manner, he made his careful way through the trees, scouring the ground and trees for signs of life. Scattered snow at the base of a tree. Torn bark exposing a tree's tender trunk.
There would be something. There had to be.
Hours passed. His legs moved of their own accord. A sense of futility began to fill Lakhoni. He knew he was going mostly east and felt like he would surely run into Lemalihah eventually. It was supposed to be a large city; how could he miss it? But despite that inevitability, he knew his body would only continue functioning for so long in this weather. Branches clothed with deep green winter gowns filled his vision. Trunks, dark and rough, sap frozen in lighter bumps wandered through his sight as he walked. Splotches of lighter brown interspersed with whorls where old tree branches had fallen off.
Lakhoni held snow in his mouth and trailed to a stop.
Lighter brown splotches. A tingle shot through him from neck to feet. Swallowing the newly melted water, he pushed through the snow to the tree trunk he had just seen. He bent close, examining the uneven scarring on the trunk's bark. Yes, this had been an animal. It didn't look to be too old, either. He turned to the ground, seeking further evidence. Questing out further from the tree, he found the deer droppings long minutes later. He crouched near the pile of round pellets. Taking his cloak and wrapping part of it around his right hand, he carefully brushed a small layer of snow away from the area surrounding the droppings, seeking hoof prints in the snow.
Nothing; just a uniform layer of snow.
If there had been a slight thaw, he might have found prints that had broken through a crust of snow, leaving evidence behind. But the cold had never broken once it had set in.
Lakhoni began walking in ever-widening circles around the tree trunk and deer scat. He had to be at least fifty hands from the original tree when he found a patch of somewhat bare ground at the base of a tree. Tiny, light green flecks colored the dark earth. This had been a patch of winter moss. He looked back toward the other tree, deducing the movement of the deer.
In this manner, walking in wider and wider circles around trees, ducking low branches, and shivering as his body protested the prolonged cold, he hunted. The morning passed and Lakhoni hoped he wasn't fantasizing the feeling that the spoor he was following seemed to be getting fresher.
It was early afternoon, his stomach rumbling loud enough that he was sure the noise would echo off the tree trunks around him, that he found the trail in the snow. There was no denying it; this was a deer trail. He searched the trail, seeking evidence of the direction the deer had been moving in. He searched for many minutes before he found the nearly complete hoof print.
With a brief, regretful glance to the east, Lakhoni followed the trail.
Afternoon light was dimming toward evening when Lakhoni realized that the light brown, fallen tree he had been staring at was not a tree. He immediately crouched, estimating the distance. Nearly a hundred paces. He slid his bow off his shoulder, standing behind a tree and quickly stringing it. This was harder than usual in the cold, but it still took little effort. He tested the stinging wind, then moved carefully to the right so that he could be totally downwind of the buck he had sighted.
With its antlers, it stood taller than his father, taller than even Gimno.
Giddy eagerness filled Lakhoni. Food. He tried to tell his stomach to stop complaining so loudly as he stalked quietly nearer the deer.
He pulled an arrow out of the quiver that also hung over a shoulder. Now he was grateful for the feather-light snow. It muffled sound perfectly.
Sixty paces now.
He ghosted forward, staying low and doing all he could to blend in with the trees.
The buck was alone. It nosed through the snow, seeking sustenance of its own. Lakhoni wondered briefly if it was the leader of a herd, wondering if deer missed other deer that never came back.
As he approached within thirty paces, Lakhoni chose the spot he would shoot from. A thick pine tree, its lowest branches forming a widely spreading tent over the ground, stood tall and straight less than twenty paces from the deer. He angled his movement so that the tree was directly between him and the buck. Reaching the tree, he contorted himself between branches, careful to not disturb snow or make any kind of noise.
He knew that any sound would carry a long distance in this frozen landscape.
Thanking the First Fathers, Lakhoni set his arrow to the bowstring. This would be a direct shot, but the distance was greater than he preferred. The arrow would have to fly perfectly. He caressed the fletching on the arrow, hoping to make it even straighter. He stepped to the right of the pine trunk, standing tall between two large branches.
There. He could aim just over that branch. The buck moved forward, still digging through the snow on the ground.
Composing mental prayers to the First Fathers, Lakhoni raised the bow, drawing the string slightly back. He brought the bow up enough so that the tip of his arrow pointed right at the buck's shoulder. A long distance. He expanded his chest, fighting to control his breathing and stretching his left arm forward as his right arm pulled backward. Shaky. Too shaky.
He relaxed the pull, taking long, deep breaths.
Again he raised the bow and pulled the string back. His right hand was at his cheek. He sighted down the arrow. One breath in, then out. He pulled the string back more, his right hand going behind his ear.
An explosion of noise stunned Lakhoni momentarily. At the same moment that he watched the buck jerk up, then bound away. a flash of burning pain on his right ear and cheek, as well as on his neck, struck him.
Despair rolled over him in a dark wave. He sunk to his knees. He didn't have to look to confirm what he knew had happened.
His father had taught him better than this. "Always rub your string in your hands before shooting in winter," he had said. "It's a deer tendon, so it will break because of the cold."
Lakhoni fell back against the tree trunk. He put a hand to his face. No blood, but the tension in the string before it broke must have caused it to leave a red mark on his face and neck.
He held the bow up before him and watched the two broken lengths of tendon swing gently in the wind. He wished he could take back the prayers of gratitude he had offered only moments before.
Why be grateful? He was going to die out here. Probably under this tree.