Continued from Tales from the Bog (III): Owl and the Frost
In the midst of summer, the marshes are teeming with life; birds singing to each other, little critters diving in and out of the deceptively shallow green waters of the bog and the bigger, more mysterious predators and prey hide among lush bushes and misty nooks and crannies. It is a secretive, bustling world of unseen movement that can be felt only by intuition and perceptiveness.
As Garric moved soundlessly through the thicket of the marshes, the world around him was frozen dead, snow dribbling from the led grey sky. It was a second day for Garric on his own as he made his way south, covering on foot distances of fifty kilometers and counting. The wolf pack was on his trail, so with only one hour of sleep, Garric felt the fatigue coming on, but refused to give in.
It has to end soon. It HAS to! This mantra ringing in his head kept him going, but with every step deeper into the swamp and snow getting thicker, doubt crept into Garric’s mind. And it wasn’t unfounded: the snowstorm was brewing very close and the frost bit harder and harder as he travelled further south – a very different story than what he imagined. This is not natural. It cannot be!
With the snowfall obscuring much of his vision, Garric couldn’t see, but heard very well: paws hitting against crunchy snow – the pack that was hunting him since Halftown. The snowfall became increasingly thicker, snowflakes fell in large chunks and Garric could not see further than his sword, unsheathed for a while, as soon as he picked up on the sounds of wolves closing in on him in the distance. Although it was hard to tell, but the little light there was slowly gave way to darkness of the night and Garric found it increasingly difficult to navigate bumpy swamps, often getting stuck in hardened bushes, tripping over fallen trees or slipping on frozen water.
No other choice.
Garric stopped and crouched in the empty trunk of a fallen tree. It gave shelter from the falling snow and gusty wind as well as blocked his scent from the keen noses of hungry wolves, at least for the moment. Garric caught his breath for a second, rubbing his gloved hands together before diving into the pouch for a small torch he lit with a flint and firesteel, securing it upright with a mound snow. With this little source of light, Garric could finally see the extent of the snowstorm: it was windy, snowing so thick he wouldn’t be able to see further than his own nose tip and the temperature was falling rapidly – he could feel it on his toes, which he tied up with hempen sacks hours ago to save his hairy feet from frostbite. Now he wasn’t sure even that will help if he would keep moving. But if he would stop, there’s no knowing when the storm will pass, nor if the temperature will increase again in daytime. Garric had to move, he made that decision. It didn’t matter where, but wherever he was going, he better get there fast before he died out here of cold and his bones got picked by the wolves persecuting him. Once more Garric rubbed his hands and dove back into his pouch, taking out last bit of jerky the stockmaster packed him and other rangers with before leaving, as well as another small grey bag, putting it in front of him. Garric ate the jerky fast, feeling it rough on his parched throat, then he took the waterskin he carried on his chest under the dirty cloak to keep the water from freezing with his own body heat. He took a few sips and returned the skin back before it froze over again: it was half full, sufficient to last, yet not heavy enough to hinder his movement. He stared at the small grey bag with an empty look, steeling himself for what’s to come. Garric closed his eyes and sat still, ignoring the bitting cold on his face, the numb fingers and toes, the distant sound of howling in the wind. He then reached towards the bag and pulled out a single, dried piece of dark purple mushroom with black stalk and ringed underbelly. Quickly, the halfling put it into his mouth and gulped without chewing, feeling the hardened piece slide down his throat, leaving bitter aftertaste which made him gag. Waiting for puking reflex to pass, Garric stilled himself again, closed his eyes and waited.
Slowly, like chicken coming out through the eggshell, sounds closed in on Garric, even the most distant sounds of branches crackling in the wind, snow crumbling under a paw, heavy panting of a young wolf in the pack, the howl of the wind that turned sharp to heightened senses, the extremely close crackling of fire on his miniature torch now sounded like steel getting hit rapidly right next to his ear. Garric retreated his mind from overwhelming amount of sounds, knowing the worst is yet to come. He then lifted his eyelids fast, knowing it’s better to do it fast and get it over with.
The empty, rotten cavern that formed within the tree provided a tunnel view of the snowstorm in front of him, only now Garric’s eyes travel rapidly between focusing on an individual snowflake to overlooking the silhouette of his own footprint, hundred meters away, being snowed over. He turned his gaze slowly, pupils dilated to their brims, to the left, seeking out the pack of hungry wolves that followed him – Garric observed the pack leader stopping to sniff one of his footprints not three hundred meters away. He knew he had to move.
Ignoring the vertigo and stomach in protest, Garric dropped the torch into the howling snowstorm and without hesitation ran out into the darkness. The wind was strong, but not strong enough to knock him over, so Garric bent forward and ran on, keeping his eyes open and sword in hand. His newly acquired vision and hearing helped him orient himself in the blizzard, so he moved swiftly, jumping over and avoiding bushes, ice, fallen trees and rocks. More importantly, he gained an advantage against the hunting wolves, although he could still hear them on his trail, relentlessly pursuing probably the only potential meal in this forsaken bog. The marsh began to slope downward and Garric had to focus on keeping himself from rolling down. After twenty minutes that seemed like an eternity, he finally found himself on even ground, only to be led to more slopes. Yet for at least a minute Garric stopped to catch his breath. When he finally could focus the senses to his immediate surrounding, he understood it was a mistake to go down. While he was carefully sliding down the slope, the wolf pack caught up to him and on the small plateau before the next slope, he could hear and see them encircling him. The silent, low growls that normally he wouldn’t hear indicated the predators were getting ready to jump him.
Garric sheathed his sword and pulled the bow from his back, an arrow from the small quiver on his side, tensed the bow horizontally and waited. His gaze was jumping from one wolf to the other, the predators keeping their distance in their circling but slowly closing in. Garric could see their every movement, the misty breaths coming out of their jaws, the bony, meatless edges of their bodies, the sharp claws, the gleaming fangs. One, the youngest of the pack of six, lost the patience and jumped forward. Garric’s arrow pierced the air and went right into the wolf’s chest, causing a high-pitched squeal, blood dripping and collapse. The rest of the pack followed, snarling at Garric. He ducked from the attack of the first wolf and jumped away from the next. Two more got behind him, one bit his forearm, but Garric tore it away from its jaws, leaving part of his coat sleeve and flesh behind. The second animal from behind went for his prey’s legs, but was quickly met with a kick as the halfling lunged away, only mere feet from the remaining two large males.
Either he avoided the sharp fangs or ran away – those were Garric’s options as the entire pack minus one member that laid squealing in the reddening blood pond encircled him again and the halfling found himself between the wolf pack and the slope behind him. The pack leader, a large male that would be even stronger had it not been starving, lunged at the prey. Garric tried to avoid by sidestepping on the edge of the slope, but slipped on a snowed-concealed root and fell down, the wolf on top of him, lunging at his face, while Garric kept his arms at the animal’s throat and jaws, trying to keep the deadly fangs away. The hungry wolf and the halfling rolled down the slope, struggling against each other. Finally, Garric’s arms gave in and he felt the sharp pain of fangs digging into his shoulder and screamed out into the night. The wolf, feeling the warm blood on his fangs, went into a frenzy and bit Garric again, this time on the right arm. Garric screamed again, trying to grip his sword with his left arm, but afraid to let go of the wolf’s throat as it might just eat him alive then. A sharp pain in Garric’s back informed him of the terrain change, as they started hitting rocks and trees, growing on the downward slope. The wolf lunged viciously at his prey, bitting its arms, shoulders and sides as it could. A sudden bump on Garric’s head left him only semi conscious for half a second as the halfling and wolf came to a halt from their rolling. That half a second gave the wolf a chance to bite into Garric’s neck. The halfling could feel the hot breath of the animal, but his beaten up body could not resist and the hit on his head was causing dizziness. Garric closed his eyes.
This is it.
He couldn’t remember well what happened, but he could have sworn the crushing weight of the wolf disappeared instantaniously and the sensation of flying through the cold air wasn’t unpleasant. Perhaps death wasn’t that bad after all. There was no pain, only flight and levity. And light. And warmth. No more cold and darkness, no more running and starvation. Just a soft release. And silence.
This is it.
The first sound that made its way to Garric’s consciousness was that of crackling fire. Then a stone being dragged through steel. Then a swooshing sound and a dump on the snow, a loud hoot. Then, a strong, yet subdued female voice:
“Hush, Mocks. You will wake him” it shushed someone called…Mocks? Garric felt warm and comfortable, almost as if being wrapped in fur blankets and sitting by the fire, like he used to when he was sick. As he slowly opened his eyes, he indeed found a large fire dancing happily in front of him and pelts framing his vision of two figures behind the said fire.
For one on the right the contours came quite clear: an owl, but giant, brown, with bright yellow eyes, towering over the flames and the figure sitting on the left. It, on the other hand, had humanoid features, but they were somewhat enlarged, the size of no human or elf Garric has every seen. His eyelids felt heavy, he wasn’t sure if his face was swollen, or these were the after effects of the mushroom he ate wearing off. He tried moving his right arm to touch his face, but only felt sharp pain shoot up his entire body. He groaned. Then heard footsteps closing in.
“He doesn’t look well enough to move yet” the female voice spoke again “do another flyby, Mocks. We will stay for now” Garric felt a warm touch on his forehead, emanating a vibration that reverberated through his entire body. The pain subsided and he felt slipping back into the soft world of silence.
“Rest, little one. You are safe with me.”
Garric lost all notion of time. He would wake up, stir, feel the gentle touch and vibrations, then fall back into nothingness. He remembered waking up three times, with the giant woman being there all times and the owl only once. Every time he woke up, Garric could make out his surrounding better and better. They were resting in a cave, how big, he couldn’t tell, but it was laid with multiple pelts and a large fire in the middle was kept constantly burning. The giant woman was always there, sharpening her enormous blades or crafting arrows as he woke up. Garric formed a pretty good image of her face and it was like nothing he has seen before: sharp, angular face with straight nose resembled elven features, much like long pointy ears, yet the ears were longer than normal elves, tips bending backwards. The hair was long, very long, all the way down to the waist, braided and colour of cinnamon. The eyes were the most interesting: almond-shaped and almost entirely white, only traces of green left, as if someone erased ink badly. As her enormous hand, more than half the size of Garric, moved to touch him, he could see strange tattoos or symbols on her palms that ended with sharp nails on the tips of her fingers. She was dressed entirely in animal pelts: pantaloons made of white deer skin, tunic of boar pelt, held together with several tusks, gauntlets sown together from tender white ermine and boots of bear fur. Garric also noticed a large sword gleaming against the light of the fire, often laid on large bear fur spread on the floor of the cave, as well as an elegant bow of extremely white wood Garric didn’t recognise. These details put together an image in Garric’s mind of an efficient huntress that he was unsure was real.
On his fifth awakening, Garric felt he could move without too much pain and exited the pelted crib for the first time. The large woman on the other side of the fire observed him with a smile. Garric limped towards her, feeling weak in his knees. He sat down halfway in front of the fire, clutching his side. He noticed that the top cloak was gone and so was his gear, but before he could ask about it, he saw them next to the bed of pelt he laid in, all neatly put together in a pile. After that issue passed in his mind, he couldn’t think of what to say other than:
“Thank you” he muttered in halfling without thinking.
“For what?” the woman answered fluently. Garric looked up at her empty white eyes.
“I assumed you saved me from that wolf.”
“Oh, that was Mocks making her rounds” the woman looked back towards the fire “she brought you here and I just took care of you. But you’re welcome for that at least.”
“How do you- No, what are you?” Garric frowned at the large woman. She smiled back at him and fixed her enormous braid.
“I go by many names around the world, but for you, I am Zvora.” Garric processed the name for a while. It felt familiar, yet, he couldn’t place it anywhere other than a legend he heard humans and elves say often in their villages.
“Like the hunter goddess?” Garric raised his brow.
“Not like” she laughed, the sound echoing through the cave “I am her. Well, at least that’s the name people give me. I am merely a caretaker.”
“A caretaker of what?” Garric wasn’t convinced. Yes, she looked strange and was larger than anyone he has ever seen, but to call oneself a goddess felt a little bit over the top of what Garric could believe. There was a silence for a moment before Zvora said anything. Finally, she spoke again:
“I care for life in the woods, the marches, the fields, all that is free and primal. I also are for dead of these lands, but not all of them.”
“Well then, I regret to inform you that you’ve done a shit job, given the situation outside” Garric wanted to indicate towards the exit of the cave that had only one corridor from where the sound of howling wind came, but the pain was still there and he bit his lip from sudden sharpness of it. Zvora, surprisingly, nodded in agreement.
“The winter has gone on too long. I’ve been unsuccessful in hunting the source for many months, but finally, I felt I was close” she stood up and Garric saw that the cave ceiling was barely above her head, so much so she had to walk bent a little bit, holding onto the ceiling itself. She stopped at the turn to the corridor where the sound of howling wind came from “but the snowstorm came and me and Mocks had to decrease our efforts. But we’re close.”
“Close to what, exactly?” Garric tried, but failed to stand up. He remained seated, feeling the wounds pulsating under his shirt. He lifted it from his belly and saw red spots where the wolf bit him, but they were not scars, rather looked like skin irritation. He pressed on it. The pain pushed back, but the wounds didn’t open.
“Kirsika” Zvora whispered. Her words were ominously followed by harder howls of the wind.
“Who?” Garric never heard of that name before, but something in Zvora’s voice sent chills down his spine.
“Kirsika. A wraith of sorts” Zvora returned to the fire and sat near Garric. He noticed she obviously tried to not touch him by accident: as he felt small next to her, she probably felt extremely large next to him “she moans and sobs and brings frost from the darkest depths of the ocean and spreads it with her sobs”. When Zvora touched her polished sword, Garric noticed the intricately etched runes that he couldn’t read. It was an elegant weapon, thinner at the hilt and smoothly broadening and sharpening again at the tip and if Garric could was right, it seemed lined with silver.
“And you aim to kill this…Kirsika with that?” Garric pointed at the sword.
“Yes” Zvora confirmed. Then she reached her index finger towards Garric and touched his forehead again. He could feel the soft vibrations flow through his body again, alleviating the pain, yet it didn’t put him to sleep this time “you know, I told you so much already, yet you didn’t even tell me your name, little one.”
Garric could feel the tease, but given his predicament, he subdued the anger threatening to boil over all of a sudden.
“I’m Garric Falry” he said curtly. Zvora smiled and removed her finger from his forehead.
“Well, Garric Falry, from your gear I take you for a hunter, yet hunters don’t go out alone in such conditions. What happened exactly?” Garric swallowed.
“Me and a group of rangers came down south from Halftown, looking for game” he explained “we separated to cover more ground and hunt. I’ve sped up and went further, got chased by wolves and…well, now I’m here.” Garric suddenly felt a bit of panic in him as he had no idea how much time passed or where he was. Zvora could probably read the panic in his face, or his mind, Garric couldn’t really tell, as she answered his immediate questions:
“You’ve been here for five days. You’re still in the marches and you’ve reached quite far south, but you will still find frost everywhere.”
“Five days?!” Garric stood up a bit too fast and had to grip his side and shoulder this time. Zvora gently put her large hand around him and helped him sit back down without falling “I need to go back! I don’t know where the rest of the rangers are, but they might need help if they caught the same blizzard. I have to go!”
“You can’t leave just yet” Zvora shook her head “that wolf bit you deep, you need to heal. And besides, there is a far better way of helping your fellow rangers out.”
“And what is that way?”
“Once you heal up enough, how would you like to go on a wraith hunt with me?” Zvora leaned closer to Garric and he could see, or at least guess he saw the sparkles of excitement all hunters get before going out on a prowl “it will be the hunt of your lifetime, this I promise. What do you say?” Garric thought that last question was superfluous as no one, if she really was who she said, could refuse a goddess. If anything, he owed her and if this Kirsika was indeed real, he might just end this frost altogether.
And that will be better than just bringing game.
This is it
To be continued…
Featured picture credit: Wooded view near Barbizon by Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, 1900. Currently displayed in Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.