Snow tumbled, swirling and dizzy from its fall. It melted on her bare arms, face, and legs with a shiver as she lay; half conscious.
She had never seen the snow before, in her bedroom with its window boarded tight shut. Never seen it turn everything a pure white and blanket the trees and the ground with its fine powder. She smiled faintly at the irony that she hadn’t even now, her eyelids were too heavy to open, and she was too weak to force them. The smoke that had seeped into her lungs escaped in a white cloud with a quiet sigh that parted her frozen lips. Surely this was her last breath. At least she had experienced its gentle touch. She had always thought that it should feel warm and fluffy from what her brother had told her, but it was cold and numbed her limbs. Still she was happy. At least she didn’t die in that burning house, fate had spared her that much.
Eventually the cold turned to fire that burned through her bones, and with the pain she slipped into the darkness underneath; suddenly, like a child on ice.
Maybe pain is psychological. When you feel the knife slice deep into flesh, touch bone and come out burning with bile, feel the warmth of blood slipping down skin, and are reminded about it with every stinging step, you want to do nothing more than close your eyes and scream. At that point, you should want to give up. It should hurt too much to carry on. It should, and with all the blood that was flooding from me at this point, I should have been on my knees begging for darkness to come and relieve me of all sensation. And I wanted to, every stumble and every throbbing ache pleaded with me to stop, to give up and fall-down into the snow. The burn yelled at me and told me that this was pain, so loud I could hear nothing else.
But it didn’t hurt me. Not really. The wound’s incessant cries were far away, somewhere lost in the acres of forest behind me, being steadily buried with every inch of falling snow and every step that took me further into the forest’s darkness. I don’t think I even knew what pain was anymore, or if I ever had. Numb. I had lost any semblance of feeling, and in its stead, I had only purpose.
I watched my bare feet fall in front of each other without knowing how they were doing it. They seemed nothing but clumsy imitations of steps, as if I was a baby learning to walk all over again, with only the dimmest idea of what I was doing as they carried me deep into the woods.
I looked around. A dream-world. Dark trees stabbed tall from the glowing paleness of the snow, reaching up into the empty sky above. I looked upwards at its dizzy heights, but even my eyes were failing me at this point, everything tumbled back, and I almost fell, my body saving itself only with a staggered step forwards. It refused to accept what was coming. I tried to focus on my feet as they began to move yet again, but my head was tilting from side to side like I was floating in water. The blackness was spinning, even though in the centre I could still see the mottled purple of my limbs pushing out before me, still rhythmically trailing deep gouges in the snow as they did.
Purpose had made me run, and keep running, it had also embedded in me the need to get away. I couldn’t remember why, but as I began to wonder, I realised it didn’t matter anymore, my limbs would no longer listen to me anyway, and they fell away. There was nothing left in me, the darkness grew. Before I knew it, I was kneeling in the bloody sludge, then I had a mouthful of ice. Twisting onto my back, my eyes searched up into the night sky as if it was my comfort. Starless. I slipped away as my body crawled its way further among the darkness, on some mission I knew nothing of. But I didn’t care, instead I closed my eyes with only the vague sense that when I did someone else opened them.
Flakes slowly filled the faint imprints of footsteps that led to the body and disappeared back into the trees. And there he was left, sprawled in the calf-deep snow; his skin white, the pale blue uniform he wore tainted red at the leg, a slight smile on his ice-blue lips, looking like a blood-stained angel.
He was found later that night, not dead. He was alive but only just. The people who found him were from a small village nearby, they had been searching the forest for supplies to use during the winter when their village would be locked in by walls of snow, when they saw him.
They rescued him in what would normally be presumed an act of kindness, but they had in fact argued over it for some time. They had always been religious people and they may have once been good people; they lived in a state of isolation in the woods, purposefully inflicted so that the ‘heathens’ outside could not corrupt their fundamentalist beliefs. They had also not too long ago faced a curious ultimatum. They had gotten sick. Despite all their precautions somehow the infections from outside had made their way in. So, when a doctor from Mallogal had turned up on their doorstep they had the choice to reject him and slowly watch their village die, or let him in and push away all that they stood for: that God would protect them through all their trials and that no heathen Mallogolian was going to try and change them again. It was this unfortunate rift that had first caused them to leave Mallogal in favour of the vast uninhabited plains of the Old Country: pushed out for their religious zeal whilst the country transferred its beliefs to science, doctors, and politics. They had chosen life, of course, but that didn’t mean they were going to make it easy for the good doctor.
The divide could be seen in this scene quite clearly. There were nine men; six strong and burly with each beard longer and wilder than the next and all wearing the pelts of their kills proudly atop their clothes, some manly idea of bravado. There was one much taller man who, though he wasn’t massive like the others, had a dead deer tossed over his shoulder casually and who could probably have fought off all the others, even if it was only because his intelligence could have sidestepped all of theirs, pushed them to the floor, and then convinced them to tie themselves up for their own sakes. There was also one small child who appeared to be accompanying his father, he was wearing a hat that seemed to be the wiry-haired head of a bear that was about five times bigger than his own, and carrying a hunting knife longer than his forearm. Finally, at the end of the line, there was Fred: a young man who could best be described as an arrogant little weasel who, the whole village was convinced, couldn’t have shot a rabbit if it was two feet in front of him, bright yellow, and already dead.
“What is that?” He squealed.
Their voices came closer.
“A girl?” Fred continued.
“No, it’s a man.” Another speaker answered, spawning disappointed looks all around. “Look at those clothes. Looks like he’s from Mallogal.” There was a pause as they all considered the implications of this. Mallogal was everything they hated in this world, even clothes from there were worthy of nothing but to be burned in their eyes.
“Is he diseased?” A further away voice asked, both cautious and curious at the same time, as if he was leaning forward to see, but also keeping his distance, just in case. Like he was half certain that the body would suddenly move to rise out of the snow like a wicked creature from its grave. The people of this village were not in any way superstitious, but that didn’t mean they weren’t prone to moments of weakness. And there was something about this site that inspired other-worldly thoughts.
“Doesn’t matter either way. Just leave him.” Fred said, sounding a little further away than before, he had backed away instinctively from that pale figure and back towards the safety of the familiar tree-line. “Don’t dawdle here, let’s just be on our way.” He took another step back and this time motioned for the others to follow. He paused when he saw no one else had moved at his gesture, they stood still looking at the golden-haired body; hard faced, and clutching onto the bundles of wood that were their lives for the winter with white-knuckled fists.
“It’s not disease that’s got this one, I’m sure, just look at his face.” The tall man said. “Not a mark on it.” He stepped closer and crouched right next to her, blue eyes startlingly bright as they reflected the white of the snow. The others watched disapprovingly: breath clouding in the cold air.
“You’d better be sure because if you get sick, we’ll have to leave you out here with him.” One of the men retorted; slowly, taking his time. He had been ambitious; started making the threat before he knew how he was going to end it. Probably thinking that he had never wanted a doctor in the first place, so he could go ahead and get the disease, for all he cared. He hadn’t really thought it through though, choosing to infer that the doctor who, earlier that month, had saved the lives of, not only his mother, but his grandmother, father, and cousin once removed, could possibly be abandoned in the woods only one mile from the home that he was perfectly capable of finding his way back to all by himself. The doctor ignored him and, without so much as a hint of indecision, reached out for the young man’s forehead.
Fred, despite every other person shaking their head in frank disbelief, nodded his approval, desperate for anything that could be taken for agreement with his own idea, even poorly formed insults. He then proceeded to present his case to the others. “Even if he doesn’t have it we can’t possibly feed another person, we’re starving as it is.” He pleaded. “How could we afford to feed another person, especially one who looks like he needs a good amount of recovery time before he could possibly be any benefit to our village?” He seemed desperate for approval; not a natural leader then, but he was having a good go at it.
A second gruff voice from near the back of the group spoke “Yes. My girls are dying, my wife has another child on the way, and there’s not one of us who have extra to spare for a stranger.”
“Yes!” Fred agreed gesturing to him with an open palm as if saying; look, the big, tough guy in the back agrees with me; and therefore, so should you! He looked around the group for any minute sign of approval he could attach himself onto. “We should take care of ourselves before we give up anything for an outsider.” He prompted, nodding as if he thoroughly agreed with himself enough that he hoped someone else would be stupid enough to do so too. He made unconvincing eye contact with his watery grey eyes with each square face. “Come on! We must go, before we run out of daylight hours.” He mimicked walking back into the forest several times on the spot, again hoping they would see him doing it and, for some reason, choose to follow. But he was no natural leader. It took someone else to finally, through no persuasion of his own, take a step back. It was only then that all the men began to step away towards the trees, breath clouding in time, and slowly away from the scene in the clearing. Fred, ignorant of his insignificant part in this change of mind, walked proudly at the front, leading his glorious procession away from the poor dying man.
It was a good thing they stopped or he’d very likely have ended up thinking even more of himself than usual.
“It’s only a child!” The tall man who crouched beside the body shouted at their backs. He had made no sign of moving. “Have you no pity?”
“Dad.” the bear-headed child suddenly piped up, pulling on his father’s tail; a small, bushy thing which had originally belonged to some kind of racoon-like creature before he had spotted it and decided it would look better attached to the back of his belt. The child could hardly be heard as the men began to murmur, just making noises that sounded vaguely as if they were attempting to justify themselves to the doctor, though they would have assured you they didn’t care what he thought. “He’s bleeding, the doctor can fix him, can’t he?” He tugged at the stripy tail until his father grabbed it and held it up to his chest, looking down at the boy and searching for his eyes somewhere under the bear’s empty sockets. The boy pushed up the bear’s muzzle up over his nose and stared up with big, grave eyes at his dad’s weathered face; especially at his long beard and the eyebrows which were giving his animal disguise a run for its money.
As he stared at the boy he could have sworn his eyes got bigger and bigger. Eventually he jerked his gaze away from the hypnotic stare of the boy, and looked over to the person behind him. Sighing he addressed no one in particular, “We could take him, but only if the doctor takes responsibility for looking after his recovery.” The doctor, who was still sitting by the body, now trying to warm his frozen hands in his, looked up at him; surprised he had an opinion at all?
“He’s the only one with any money around here and it would be better than leaving the body out here.” He braided his beard as he spoke and then closed his eyes tight as the silence stretched. The doctor wandered if all the thinking might have broken his brain. All the others were also silent and standing still.
The men had stopped like statues when he spoke, they didn’t expect him off all people to want to help but they saw the little boy next to him who was giving them all the eyeball-job in turn and understood. In various disgruntled sounds, they seemed to have developed the ability to communicate without the need, being tough men and all, and they all walked forward until they were close enough to see the individual flakes of snow on the man’s face.
“Is he even still alive?” Fred asked, leaning over her, and wrinkling his nose in distaste “More dead bodies is the last thing we need. The beasts will smell the blood and be out any minute if we don’t move.”
“He’s alive, I assure you.” The doctor answered, a curious look on his face; Fred had been right for once. “Very cold though, he might have been out here for a while.”
“Well better get her moved.” The man with the little boy still clinging to him made a reach for her and swung her over his shoulders like a limp carcass. That, at least, he could understand.
Fred looked at him, horrified, and then just shook his head as if in disbelief. “Really, do you even know what you’re doing? He’s still injured and when they smell his blood every animal in this whole forest is going to be out to get him. Can I make a request?” He smiled, a sticky little grin. “When they come after him can you run the other way, that way at least some of us may survive to look after our families, okay?”
“Or.” The man glared down at him. “Why don’t you just trip over, and then we can all get away and go home.” All the other men cheered; that is a great idea, was the unanimous thought as they nodded approvingly at each other. “We’ll look after our families and you can just die here in the woods. It’s not like you help your family anyway; I know your mother, she would just say how great it was that you could be useful in the end.” He jabbed a finger at him and leaned forward over him as he spoke. He looked an awful lot bigger than Fred in his shaggy jacket and with his dark, wiry beard.
“Well.” Fred sniffed, pretending to be braver than he was as he cringed away from the huge man. “Better you than me carrying him. We’ll see how fast you can run with him on your back.”
“Just a bit faster than you with nothing on yours, I should think.” He grinned. He had thought of that one very quickly, the others were also impressed and elbowed each other and laughed boisterously. “Or did you forget that you’re the only one that didn’t catch anything this whole hunt.” He gestured at his little boy who had a pheasant over his back and was holding a hare by its ears in his small fist; even as his arms stuck out to the side with the huge layers that he had been stuffed into.
Fred wrinkled and then twisted away, already marching back into the forest.
They watched him go and then the doctor spoke again. “He’s right though. We need to get out of here or we’ll all end up dead.” He glanced from side to side into the immense darkness of the forest, with a disturbed look. The group began following the angry little figure into the forest, and he, in turn, followed them: more of a leader than poor Fred without even trying. He was looking down at his now bloody hands with deep wrinkles forming on his forehead, deep in thought. So deep in thought, in fact, that he didn’t hear the soft padding of something large in the dark treeline on the other side of the clearing, or see the two yellow eyes that watched him, unblinking, from within.
At the front none but the little boy, who jogged on his father’s heels, noticed the gentle whisper of the golden-haired stranger’s breath as the group’s heavy steps thudded through the snow, and none too watched, transfixed, the icy hand that with every movement swung like it was waving to the trees that creaked and swayed behind them.
He was frozen cold, but they set him down in the doctor’s home and there the doctor lit his fire and wrapped the man in soft quilts to melt the early winter snow from his bones. Briefly the man opened his eyes, they were the colour of the bright amber fire that simmered by his side, though dull and hooded due to his current state. The doctor found the source of the blood and carefully wrapped the wound, watching the person that lay, fitfully asleep, with concern etched on his brow, wondering just what could have happened for such a young man to end up here, in the middle of nowhere, with such severe injuries. He noted there was blood and skin beneath his nails like he had fought someone off before he had run away. There was a lot of pain in that wounds of that man’s body, but the doctor could barely see half of the turmoil, most of it was happening below the surface. To that man, there was not just him lying there in that seat, there were many, and they all dreamt together: the same dreams, again and again.