Mmm. Wulfrik inhaled deeply; drawing in sweet scents of linden and moonoak, lacewood and lavender. A perfume of sorts; subtle, though breathtaking. It brought a smile to Wulfrik’s face.
Then ever so slowly, he squinted his eyes open. Though barely at all, his lids felt so heavy.
The last Wulfrik saw was a white and budding snowstorm. But now the skies had become dusky, tenebrous and full of foreboding.
However, there before him was a most beautiful creature. A sight for his sore eyes glowing in flickering firelight. Although he couldn’t be sure whether he was seeing or dreaming her.
Underneath black scarves, a coat of shearling and a black woolen mantle was a slender yet buxom young woman leaning over him expectantly. And her hood did well to stop the snow and obscure her face. But Wulfrik saw it all the same. Even the shimmering blue tika dangling above her brows, and chestnut hair peeking out above her shoulders.
In the autumn wind, her soft blanche skin turned roseate and blush. Upon her sculpted cheeks were charcoal stars and millefleurs. And on her lips a mauve dye as solemn as her expression, and then a breath of frost.
And though they seemed kind, her dark eyes were as jade and turbid as the river where he was born. And Wulfrik saw in them a weariness often worn out by exiles, outcasts, and travellers afar.
Alas, his eyes were tired, so the girl disappeared from view. Though she remained in such capacity; squeezing his hands, feeling for the lump on his head. Her warmth and care was noticed. She had healed him, but he was still weak. Still delirious.
Who is this lass, caring for me? pondered Wulfrik.
Finally she spoke, but not quite loud enough to hear in his weakened state. Not as the flurrious mass came down upon them. It was muffled as though she spoke through her cloak, and likely not to him. Nevertheless, Wulfrik did his best to eavesdrop.
Then Wulfrik heard the scraping of clay or ceramic close to his ear, clinking of glass, and then a sudden pause. Though it was brief, it helped him to hear a shout echo across of the forest. It sounded hoarse and angry and frightened.
The voice rang out a few more times before Wulfrik stopped trying to focus on it. At that moment, he was preoccupied by the weather. The frigid air shot down his lungs. Wicked draughts and the pelt of snow numbed his face. And the bitter cold imbued his bones and penetrated his soul.
But the lass was not gone. Not yet. She sounded flustered as she manoeuvred through the drift, likely preparing to leave. Before she did, she took his hand and placed a phial in his palm then made it into a fist.
Wulfrik tried to ask who she was but his lips didn’t move and no words came out.
With that, she ran off through the high banks and ridges of clumped-together snow. Without a parting word. Finally, the remnants of the girl’s fire, likely dim grey coals now, were snuffed out entirely. Wulfrik was froze and alone again. Embracing the ice and rime around him, Wulfrik nearly drifted off.
Reuben tried to look about the darkened glade. At how bleak everything was. With bombastic winds and graupel nearly blinding him. Hundreds of dunes and satrugi filled the windswept clearing. Yet some of the grooves rose high above the others.
As he waded through the snow, he learned that beneath the mounds were felled trees. Over a dozen of them. Though it turned out, one of them was the chilled corpse of a manticore. Reuben marveled at the size of the beast. It was twice as large as those he had fought, and ten times greater than that which he and Wulfrik had tangled with in the Klu Forest. Although Wulfrik’s sword had brought the manticore down, He dreaded to think what became of the man.
He tripped over a second felled beast soon after. A crude lance protruding out of its jaws.
Despite being so nearby, and barely covered in an inch of snow, Reuben nearly walked past Wulfrik’s still form, and the ashy debris next to the man.
A minute, perhaps two, passed by in relative silence for Wulfrik, when he finally heard the howl of his name over a brutal easterly gale. Wulfrik tried to reply, but he was far too lethargic do so. Or even to move.
“Wulfrik!” his brother cried again. His once deadened voice was now audible. And Wulfrik knew right to whom the voice belonged.
Reuben knelt down to stir his fallen comrade; fearing for Wulfrik’s life. In order to snap him out of his delirium, he bellowed, “Wake up you fucking bastard!” To which Wulfrik simply groaned.
Suddenly the unmistakably harsh aroma of the spirit of hartshorn filled Wulfrik’s nostrils. Immediately he sat up, coughing and panting with each breath. And trembling from the cold.
“The girl,” Wulfrik muttered, “the girl…”
“Easy! easy!” said Reuben reassuringly.
Though still shuddering with fever, and his fists clenched together, after a few moments Wulfrik’s breathing became less shallow. Reuben was no doubt pleased to see that his friend was still alive.
Reuben scanned the area. A clearing which grew steadily larger. And he most likely wondered what Wulfrik was talking about. Who the girl was; if she was the witch. And where she went. But any footprints were long gone. And there was not a soul around, save possibly within the treeline. A treeline he could no longer see.
Wulfrik wanted to say more, but his tongue was paralysed like all the rest of his muscles.
“The girl,” continued Wulfrik more loudly, repeating the only words he seemed to be able to say.
“Save your breath, Wulf!”
By now, the witch had brought a great blizzard to blur the hunters’ vision. Making it as easy for one to lose his way in the clearing as in the forest. Reuben knew if Wulfrik was not as bewildered as he was now, he would tell him they would be dead if they wandered into such a storm.”
Reuben grinned and said to himself, “We’re as good as dead either way.”
Though Wulfrik nodded in understanding, and was able to blurt out one word, “Quinzhee!”
Long ago, the two hunters were travelling in a northern country called Foa Ly. A vast tundra, where the caribou were more common than men, and the whiteouts were known to tear off the bare flesh of one’s face.
Under similar circumstances, the men had been caught in a squall which came out of nowhere. And Wulfrik had shown Reuben how to construct a shelter out of the snow.
Ere setting to work constructing a quinzhee, Reuben first built a fire. Wulfrik sat next to its orange flames, rocking back and forth for added warmth. All the while, clutching something tightly in his hands. Something Reuben couldn’t pry away if he tried. There Wulfrik passed out.