Thursday, July 29, 2010

Servant of the King Chapter 21

Chapter 21
            He lay on his back in a patch of sunshine in the middle of a clearing. He thought he could hear the daily noise from his village, somewhere just beyond sight as he turned his head to the left and right. Laughter, sharp voices, the noise of someone chopping wood or something similar. The warmth felt so good, as if it were a friend he had not seen for years. Or like his bed after a long day hunting with his father and Lamorun.
            Something was wrong. He tried to push himself up to go and join his village, but he couldn't move. It was not so much that he was paralyzed, but that his limbs were too heavy for him to lift.
            That was okay, it was warm here and he was comfortable.
            But his family. Something told him that he hadn't seen them in a while and that they wanted him home soon. Perhaps for dinner. He had to go to dinner.
            He still couldn't move, although his stomach seemed to be twisting tightly.
            He had to get up. Had to see his mother and father, Lamorun and Alronna.
            That was wrong. Lamorun had died in one of the king's useless wars on the Usurpers.
            At the thought of the Usurpers, an image of a footprint outside of his family's hut came to him. What did that mean?
He struggled to make connections. If only he could stand, he could walk to the village and someone there would help him.
Someone there.
Everything in his body told him not to move as consciousness invaded. He opened his eyes, brown pine needles blurring into long spears that a rodent might use.
A dream. As he thought the word, he became instantly aware of the frigid temperature that seemed to want to absorb him and the tiny pocket of slight warmth in his torso. He had fallen asleep under the tree.
He had to move. Had to get up.
Groaning in pain, he forced himself to roll off his side onto his knees. When he put his hands down on the ground to steady himself, pain lanced through his fingers. He looked at fingers and hands; they were pale in the dim morning light that filtered through the canopy of pine branches. At least I can still feel them.
He began to crawl out from under the tree, then realized he had left his bag and bow. The quiver still hung over his shoulder. With that thought came dull pain from where the quiver must have been pressing into his side and back while he slept.
Pain means I'm not dead yet. But one more night like this last one and Lakhoni wasn't certain he would make it through.
"I have to make it." He grunted as he dragged his things with him. He pushed his body to a standing position. Aches and stiffness forced him to try several times to straighten his back. "It can't be that far." He reached down to pick up his bag and bow. His movements were slow in the quiet of the winter morning. Slow like an oldster.
"It can't be that far."
He glanced up and only then realized that the sun was shining brightly over the mountains. The frigid wind had died too; perhaps the clouds had taken it with them as they departed.
He leaned toward the sun, willing his legs to move and catch him before he fell. It seemed that with every step, a shudder would course through him. He caught his cloak tighter around his body—or at least as tightly as it would go now that he had to carry his bow tucked under his arm. As he walked, he tried to jam his hands under his arms while still holding the cloak. He angled his breathing alternately up and down, first into his leather face mask and then down into his tunic.
The moment of warmth each breath gave fled too quickly in the face of the cold.
Every few minutes, interspersed among handfuls of snow and long, slow breaths, he would say it aloud again. "It can't be that far."
The morning passed slowly and quickly. He felt as if each step lasted an hour or more, but when he looked up into the sky, the sun was somehow behind him already.
Hunger pangs struck hard as afternoon dimmed into the evening.
He had been scouring the terrain as he walked, moving between patches of forest and open ground. He had seen no sign of any other living thing or anything edible.
Dark fell quickly. Only minutes before the sun's glow faded completely, Lakhoni found another sheltering tree.
Small and medium branches littered the bed of brown needles under the tree.
The thought of a substantial fire made his movements even clumsier than the cold had made him. Finally, after several tries, he had smoke coming from a pile of needles. Blowing gently, he added small twigs, then some small branches.
The fire's heat and warm glow seemed to kindle greater hunger in him. How long had it been? Two days? Three?
If only he could eat leather.
He held still, trying to catch the thought that followed his wish.
There. He searched the ground from his position between the fire and the tree trunk. He found a rock that was about as wide around as his hand was long. It was flat on one side, but had a very shallow cavity in it. He found another rock and started scraping at the cavity in the first rock. It didn't take him long to realize that he was making no difference.
He put the flat rock right next to the fire, then carefully sidled to the right, leaning out far enough to pick up a handful of snow. He placed the snow in the cavity of the rock; the snow melted almost immediately. Reaching to his belt, Lakhoni pulled his knife from its sheath, then carefully cut a tiny chunk of his cloak off. This he placed in the water in the cavity of the rock.
He sat as patiently as he could, for as long as he could, feeding the fire. The small amount of water actually began to bubble after a while. He left it for a few minutes longer, then used his cloak to protect his hands as he eased the rock away from the fire to cool down.
He could wait no longer. Taking the rock in leather-wrapped hands, he lifted it to his mouth, slurping the hot liquid up. A faint hint of deer meat filled his mouth. With his tongue, he took the small piece of leather out of the rock cavity and chewed on it. It was tough, but he could almost believe he was chewing on a very tough, overcooked piece of deer meat. His stomach rumbling, he chewed, praying that even this small bit of nourishment would keep him alive. He felt his eyelids getting heavy.
            "Too tired," he said. His unused voice sounded strange to him. This diminishment of his energy felt like it was a bad sign. He guessed that it would simply continue as his body fought the frigid cold with so little food to fuel it.
            Shaking his head, he repeated the process of making leather cloak soup. As he did, his thoughts turned to the buck he had tried to take the… How long ago was that? Was that yesterday? How did deer do it? They seemed to manage winters fine. He thought back to the buck pushing its nose through the snow, seeking food. He knew that they ate winter moss throughout the season, but was that all they ate?
            Winter moss. If it could feed a deer, could he eat it too?
            Lakhoni pushed himself away from his small fire and tiny amount of bland soup. He scrabbled under the branches of the pine tree and, the darkness nearly complete but for the stars and a rising moon, searched the woods for one of the rare winter-naked trees. It didn't take him long. Finding one, he fell to his knees and dug through the snow at the base of the tree with leather-covered hands.
            Starlight illuminated the winter moss, making it look pale and almost ghostly. Lakhoni pulled some and brought it to his nose. The smell of green things filled him, sending images of spring into his mind. He touched his tongue to the moss. No flavor. Next he took a small bit into his mouth and chewed. He had eaten grass before and this tasted much the same, only heavier—closer to what he imagined earth would taste like.
            The flavor wasn't one of the several flavors his father had taught him to watch out for as poisonous.
            "It couldn't hurt," he said. He stood and returned to his shrinking fire.
            Lakhoni broke the moss into tiny bits and added it to the already hot water in the cavity of the rock. He would leave it longer this time to see if the leather would soften more. He sat, adding fuel to the fire, the moments of near-comfort allowing him to send his mind on old paths.
            The Separated could not track him. He felt confident that he had thoroughly escaped them. Maybe they thought he had died and expected to find his corpse in the spring. He planned on disappointing them. He felt that these moments of clarity were an opportunity for him to confirm his objective in being out in this terrible cold.
            Alronna had been taken from the village, along with something else that came from under his mother's sleeping mat. Something about the size of a new baby—if that baby were in a square container of some kind. His village was gone, the people murdered.
            Justice or a sister? He snapped a thin branch over his knee. Am I after only Alronna, or am I supposed to bring justice to our family's murderers. Lakhoni sat there, waiting for his leather moss soup, looking inward for the rage that had filled him so many months before—the anger that had fueled him less than a week previous.
            He could not find it. No storm roiled in his soul anymore. Instead, he found a banked fire, its heat and glow nearly gone. He couldn't call it rage or fury. He didn't know what to call it, but it felt like the gently glowing coals of this fire were not wood coals but were something stronger, harder and hotter. Like they were stones heated by a mighty force and made to glow in darkness, lighting the way through a journey.
            Finding and rescuing Alronna would not be enough. The king and his raiders must answer for their crimes. It had to be like in the village. If someone stole something, they were made to return it, then they had to receive a number of lashes to their hands, then serve the person whose property they had stolen.
            Restitution. There had to be restitution and justice. He fed a stick to the fire before him. He didn't know how he would be able to mete out that justice. But he also wasn't supposed to be alive and wasn't supposed to have been able to escape from the Separated. I've made it this far. I'll find a way.
            Not because of anger or grief, but because law demanded it.
            Maybe not the king's law, Lakhoni thought, but a different kind of law. "Something greater," he said. He reached for his miniscule amount of soup and brought it to his mouth. The rock's heat felt good against his leather-covered hands. The soup's flavor was stronger this time. Leather moss soup was not delicious, but it was better than nothing.
            As he lowered the rock, the heat he felt gave him another idea. He found more rocks under the tree and put them all just on the edges of his mid-sized fire. Then he sat there, chewing leather, feeding the fire and resisting the urge to make more leather moss soup. If he wasn't careful, he would eat his entire cloak.
            Just before sleep took him, Lakhoni arranged the warm rocks in different positions along his body, curling around them. His stomach still rumbled. His toes still felt as if they were steadily freezing. But a feeling that he had crossed some kind of horrible chasm filled him. As if a difficult bridge had been traversed successfully.
            He wasn't finished yet. Not going to die under this tree either.

*          *          *          *          *

            Lakhoni came to a stream early the next morning. He guessed it was about four paces wide. Ice and snow covered it. How thick could the ice be? He found a dead branch and swept the snow off a small space near the stream's bank. Next he found a rock and, crouching low, slammed it into the ice. Cracks formed with the first strike. Only three hard hits later, freezing water splashed up as chunks of ice split apart. He had a hole that was about a half pace in width.
            ”Now what?" The idea of catching a fish had so overtaken him that he hadn't thought about what he would use to do it. He stood there, looking blankly at the hole he had made. He needed a net, but it would have to be small. And what would he use to make the net?
            He could use an arrow head as a hook and lower it on a thin strip from his cloak. "Bait?" he asked himself.
            No idea revealed itself. He had a hole in ice, and perhaps fish swimming in the water underneath the ice. But he had no way of catching one.
            "Sorry stream." He walked several paces to the right, then crossed the stream quickly. Orienting himself on the sun again, he left the stream behind. "Is it better to talk to streams or to myself?"
            He let the question dissipate in the still winter air along with the cloud of his breath. "If the stream talks back, that's probably better," he said, a grunt of laughter following. He laughed again, this time louder. It hurt his chest and throat, but felt good somewhere else—somewhere deeper. "Better if a stream talks back!" The bursts of laughter felt wild. An abandon he had never felt before washed through him. "So talk back, stream!"
            Lakhoni flung his hands out wide, welcoming the odd sensation that filled him. Nothing mattered beyond each breath, each step. If he could beat the winter with leather moss soup, nothing could stop him. And if winter won the day, so be it. All that mattered was that he still breathed and would fight for each breath. Exhilaration filled him. His bones seemed to burn with a sudden power. "Talk back!" He laughed at the clouds forming heavy bundles in the west. He screamed at the frozen woods and brush. He fell to his knees, bellowing his defiance. His chest and throat burned. His stomach was a chasm that would never again be filled. And still he shouted.
            He didn't know when his screams became tears. He only knew that he found himself on all fours, his feet and hands feeling as though they were frozen to the ground. Tears poured off his cheeks, and out the slits in his mask, dropping and leaving tiny holes in the snow beneath him. He lowered himself so that his forearms rested in the snow and tried to catch his breath. He had to keep breathing. The snow felt soft beneath him, strangely warm. It would make a nice bed.
            No. He still had several hours of daylight. He could walk more.
            But a little rest. Maybe some leather moss soup. He could find a tree.
            Lakhoni felt his body pulling downward—the ground reaching up for him.
            Why not?
            Nobody would know.
            He heaved in a freezing breath. Sharp pain, like tiny icicles, jabbed the inside of his chest.
            Nobody would know.
            But he had to fight for each breath. He could breathe just as well, maybe better, if he were walking. He pushed himself up, scrabbling through the powdery snow until he was on only hands and knees again. He pushed again, arching his back and getting his feet under him.
            He stood. Pain. There was pain and breathing. That was all.
            He looked to the crisp blue sky and found the sun.
            Tucking his bow under his arm and his cloak tighter around his shaking body, Lakhoni took a step forward.
            A spasm of coughing burst out of him.
            He took another step.
            He breathed in, holding the air until it felt warm again, then blew out, first into his mask, then his tunic.
            Another step.
            He found himself in a wide pasture of rolling mounds of snow. The forest had ended.
            Another step. Another breath.
            No more than an hour had passed when he saw the glint of fire and the shadows it threw on a circle of stone huts. 


Jeremy said...

This was my favorite chapter so far.

JaredNGarrett said...

Right on! Why?

And thanks, Jeremy.

Jeremy said...

Because of the struggle and resulting triumph. It's my favorite part of fantasy.