A cloud of mist materialized around grey feathers of an arrow, forming hoarfrost immediately. The longbow was tensed and ready to send arrow flying through soundless, frosted air. The sharp tip followed a small, white rabbit that made its way through frozen mounds of leaves and moss, occasionally stopping and twinkling its pink nose and snapping its ears, listening for danger. Another breath of mist covered the feathers, as the shooter released the arrow without hesitation: it pierced the still, grey air with a swoosh, followed by a loud squeal and then there was finally some color introduced into the frosted world – red. The arrow hit the rabbit straight in the neck, piercing its jugular which was now forming a bloody puddle on the snow. The shooter sighed and moved barefoot through the snow swiftly and soundlessly. The hooded hunter, dressed in grey horsehide cloak lined with white fox fur, knelt at the creature and inspected the kill: malnourished, with very little fat to speak of. The shooter sighed at the pitiful future meal and removed the arrow from the rabbit’s neck, took the rope hanging on the side of his belt and wrapped it around the creature’s hind legs, tossing it over the shoulder. It will have to do.
The hunter looked up at the lead-colored sky and cursed: it was hard to tell time when the sun barely emerged from the thicket of clouds. As the figure lifted its hooded head, his face was finally illuminated by the shy winter light, revealing a young, pale olive-green skin, striking golden eyes in an oval face, peering from under a fringe of hay-colored hair…and height – no more than a meter, which aided the hunter in carrying himself swiftly through the frozen wood, nimbly avoiding frozen puddles of ice where the bog used to be the deepest. The miniature hunter leaped forward and nimbly made his way through the frozen marsh, zigzagging through scarce thin trees and icy puddles, leaving only puffs of misty breath behind. The marsh was dead silent, no wind rustled scarce, naked thin trees, no bird or critter made a sound and neither did the hunter.
But he did freeze and duck behind a mound of whitened long grass as soon as he heard a dull crack in the distance. His white-grey cloak masked him as part of the scenery, as he carefully lifted his head up, making just a few centimeters between the snow and the fur of his hood to observe the origins of the sound, his hand instinctively slipping onto leather-wrapped hilt of his shortsword. The hunter slowed his breathing and waited, listened patiently. The footsteps were swift and silent, but his trained ear could hear the rustle of frozen leaves, faint crackle of frozen snow and most importantly, the pattern of the footsteps. The clench around the hilt relaxed as he recognized: another halfling. That same moment, the thought became matter and a small figure appeared within his line of sight, dressed in heavy fox fur hooded cloak, sewn together from several brown, black and ginger animals and intentionally dribbled over with snow to provide cover in the frozen bog. The hunter recognized the foxed figure immediately:
“Noirin” the hunter called out and the foxen figure stopped in its steps, lowering itself almost to the ground, arm reaching for a longbow on the shoulder. On the moment of recognition, the foxy hunter relaxed and approached the white hunter casually.
“Fancy meeting you here, Garric” it was a rusty female voice coming from under heavy brown hood, Garric could only see the grin and a small chin buoying from the darkness “I see you got one”.
“Can’t even make a decent broth with this” Garric fixed the rope on his shoulder and sighed, seeing Noirin come empty handed. He didn’t even have to ask how her hunt go. The female halfling stopped a meter before him and fixed her hood, revealing a short braid of copper hair and lightly olive skin with sharp nose and a pair of amber eyes. Although hard to tell, she looked similar age to Garric.
“Met any of the others?” Garric turned and stepped away with Noirin following closely: they moved through the frosty bog swiftly and in tandem.
“No, but they should be making their way back” Noirin nimbly jumped over a fallen branch, repeating Garric’s actions impeccably “nightfall is close, I can feel the chill changing.”
“You’re right” Garric dove under a fallen tree, followed by his companion “let’s hope they had better luck than us.”
After another quarter hour of traversing the frozen open bog, the pair entered equally frosted and naked maple forest. Diving between the trees, the pair stopped only once: they heard a rustle of the snow under dozens of paws, snorting, heavy panting and intermittent barking of a wolf pack, roaming around these parts. Garric quickly hid the carcass of the snow rabbit under his cloak to stop the smell from reaching the predators. Him and Noirin leaned against the trees, breathing slowly and silently, staring at each other for a tell to run. The pack passed without stopping and the pair could breathe easier. They gave another ten minutes to pass until they moved again, giving the line of tracks left by the pack of eight hungry beasts a wide berth. Before long, they approached the part of the marsh that was thickest with forest and could make out strange contours rising from the tops of naked maple trees.
“Days like these I really fear returning, you know” Noirin sighed as both stopped to gaze upon dark angles and streaks of light smoke seemingly disappearing into the heavy lead sky.
“I know” Garric fixed the rope over his shoulder again, more out of habit of carrying larger prey, yet now feeling how miserably light and bony the stiff rabbit was against his back. It and hopefully some more winter game from other rangers would have to sustain the a population of over three hundred halflings. With their winter stock dwindling and the frost failing to recede, the gatherers cannot leave to pick roots that spent months in frosted ground, maturing and ready to be boiled and eaten. A group of rangers were sent daily to try and find game that emerges to check for the spring, but the chilly weather and deep snow keeps the game animals in and hunting them or even finding them becomes impossible. Garric grunted as he felt the pangs of hunger rumbling in his own stomach as he tried to push away thoughts of warm rabbit casserole this miserable little critter will not be able to provide. Noirin put her hand on his shoulder and squeezed hard.
“How long has it been since you ate?” she asked.
“Yesterday morning! Alright?”
“No, not alright” Noirin sighed and dove her hand into the depths of her cloak, rummaged for a moment and pulled out two pieces of dark red dry jerky, giving it to Garric.
“It’s deer. Couple of weeks old, but still nutritious. Eat it.”
“Alright, alright!” he took the two pieces and put one in his mouth. Even the hardest, driest piece of meat tasted sweet and full, and his stomach happily accepted something more than plain water. He tucked the other piece away into a hidden pocket.
“Thanks” he grunted, not looking at Noirin.
“No problem” she smiled at his hood “let’s keep moving, the night is almost upon us.”
Indeed, as they moved along, it became harder and harder to see and the pair started making more and more noises, tripping over small branches and crushing the snow under their feet, all the while the distant howls of wolves became louder and more frequent, echoing throughout the forest. As darkness engulfed the pair entirely, they lit small torches carried in pouches on their belts and continued slowly, carefully stepping through frozen moss and tree roots. As they approached an area where maples grew together exceptionally thick, they stopped at a large stump, strangely uncovered by the snow. The pair stopped in front of it, the stump reaching to their chest. They looked around the dark forest, only light coming from their miniature torches. Amidst wolf howls, the pair was listening…and heard: footsteps, one pair, two pairs….three pairs. As they determined the direction of footsteps, they saw in a short distance two…no, three baubles of light, bouncing in and out of vision between trees. As they grew closer, three figures emerged, all in cloaks of animal pelts and snow.
“Evening, brothers…and sister” a voice of an older halfling came out of the darkness.
“Evening, Cathar” Noirin nodded to two younger halflings in the group “Kolm, Faolan. Any luck?”
“Hardly” Faolan, the shorter, fairer one with coat of several wolf pelts strung together, dropped two squirrels and a francolin, tied up on a single rope. His bright blue eyes, even in low light of the torches, sparkled with anger from unsuccessful hunt and hunger “Kolm got nothing. NOTHING!”
“Keep it together, boy” Cathar, the oldest of the group, with a silvery hair and a scar across his nose that’s been broken a few times, stepped forward and dropped a young deer, a foal, in the middle of the group.
“It can’t be…” Noirin squatted next to the dead animal “it’s this year’s offspring, frozen to death. Which means-”
“Which means it’s spring already, just no one told this damn bog about it” Cathar spat on the ground, as if letting the land he lived on know his opinion on the long winter.
“We must go deeper into the marches” Garric said, putting down his lousy kill next to others “south, that’s where the spring comes from. There’s bound to be game there, ripe for hunting.”
“Don’t start with that again” Faolan waved his hand in dismissal “the elders won’t let us go and you know it. Heck, I’m even tempted to slip away myself if they would let me in later.”
“Or give you any food” Kolm, who remained silent until now, spoke in high-pitched voice: not only was he the youngest, he also had a bad throat infection during his childhood that left him speaking very little in order to be called the Squeaking Kolm less. His hunter friends knew of the nickname, but never made fun of him since he joined “they guard it day and night, otherwise it would be all gone by now.”
“I’m sure there are ways and we won’t survive much longer unless we do something!” Garric was fuming on the inside: the elders forbidding anyone venturing beyond Halftown in his eyes meant a certain death for all.
“The elders want to go to Braulic, that human town, to trade” Faolan said with a considerable amount of distaste for the idea.
“They’ll give us in to Meerstrandian “protectors” in no time” Garric retorted, using the word protectors with open mockery.
“Gentlemen, I know this topic is important, but can we at least talk it through somewhere warm?” Noirin was visibly trembling, even under her thick cloak “up there we’re starving, not out of firewood.”
“Noirin’s right. Let’s get inside.” Cathar took his fury gloves off and put his hands against his crackled lips: the old hunter made a sound, not unlike an owl hooting: hoo, hoo hoo, hooooooo, hoo, hoo hoo, hooooooo. After a short while, on top of the stump, a rope ladder materialized out of nowhere.
“Ladies first” Cathar signaled Noirin to climb.
“Why? So you could stare at my bum?” she laughed at their embarrassed stares “I will pay the price to get to the warmth faster. It’s freezing!” she hopped on the ladder and made her way up swiftly, followed by others.
As they reached the top of the rope ladder, Noirin was the first to lift herself up through a small cut out threshold and found herself on a walled, round landing with a thick stone pillar in the center, embers simmering on top of it, emanating heat and light. Noirin approached the pillar and extended her gloved hands towards the embers, feeling the warmth travelling down her hands and through her body.
“Evening, Noirin” a halfling, dressed in grey and holding an crossbow greeted her from the other side of the landing “any luck?”
“Not for me, Graham” Noirin shook her head “others got a few.”
“Why do I get a feeling it’s nothing to write home about?” Graham approached Noirin, looking resentful, the furrow of his thick brows cutting deep into his forehead “you’re rangers. You’re supposed to be good at this!” he was coming closer, crossbow firmly in his grasp “or are you hiding the game for yourself?”
“No, Graham, I’m sorry, but you know the situation” Noirin started backing away, aware of the walls surrounding the landing “the animals, they-”
“Excuses!” he shouted, spit coming out of his mouth “I don’t want to hear-”
Graham stopped mid-sentence as a hand landed on his shoulder and painfully pulled him back, ramming him against the landing wall.
“Apologise” Garric felt the accumulated furry of hunger, unsuccessful hunt and accusations thrown at them almost every time build up and explode at Graham “apologise to your only source of nutrition, so just in case you live long enough, we wouldn’t send you out to the wolves ourselves.
“Garric” Noirin said silently, approaching her fellow ranger, but keeping the distance.
“But she said-” Graham started, but the crushing pain of elbow in his throat silenced him immediately. The other three rangers stood near the pillar of embers, watching the scene silently, not one moving to stop Garric. Faolan was nodding in silent agreement.
“We work as a unit, as one. Insulting one means insulting all of us. So go on. Apologise!”
“Garric, please” Noirin came even closer “he didn’t mean it.”
“Of course he did! He think only of himself, doesn’t he?” Garric intentionally squeezed his victim’s arm tighter, making Graham cry in pain and drop his crossbow.
“I’m…sorry” Graham pushed the words out through his crushed throat.
“What was it? We didn’t hear you.”
On the moment, Garric released Graham and he slumped to the ground, coughing violently and gasping for air. Garric kicked the crossbow away from his grasp.
“I think your shift is done for today” he said, fixing the rope of the rabbit around his shoulder and left through a threshold opposite of the one they came in through, his footsteps making soft creeks in the darkness.
Everyone stood there for the moment, not saying anything, just looking at each other, Graham sitting against the wall, panting heavily.
Cathar interrupted the stillness, reeled in the rope ladder, took up the foal’s carcass and left after Garric without saying a word. Kolm and Noirin followed, both coming empty handed. Faolan, taking his kills, kicked Graham in the shin for good measure.
“This is so you’d remember what Garric said” he spat “we’re all hungry, pal. Keep it together, or it’s wolves for you.”
With that Faolan left the landing to join his fellow rangers in entering Halftown – a town suspended on the trees.
To be continued…
Featured picture credit: Wooded view near Barbizon by Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1900. Currently displayed in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.