Story III: The Kindred of the North

Each step forward in the land of endless light was a burden to him. The skins he wore were hot and stuck to his skin. The breeze that burned past him stunk of carrion and pollen. This land was unfamiliar to him, yet, he knew that this was the place where he had the best chance of locating some game.

Talith strode through the valley headed north towards home. He had been venturing in the distant southern lands for many weeks but had not made a kill for his kindred. Along with his massive form he carried a sleigh filled with supplies: salts, leather wraps, bedding, carving knives and other things he might need to preserve fresh meat for the long journey home. On his shoulders he wore the burden of the families who were going to be hungry. He had nothing to bring to them, no nourishment for the Tor children whose aching bellies had driven him into the Fold in the first place.

As he ventured further into the twilight, the smells of home came back to him. He could almost taste the snow, and the bitter wind that sung in pain. He himself knew a new kind of ache, that of disappointment. On this three-week long divergence into the south, he found nothing, and was returning to his tribe without one morsel of food for himself or anyone else.

The further he ventured, the darker it became. The shadows were lengthening, and the cold was increasing. Soon his boiling blood began to cool, and things felt more natural. The south was a putrid land, but rife with things to kill, as he was told. All the preparation for his journey had been for naught. He saw no elk or deer, no goats or boars. Just the rotting, fetid carcasses of the dead. The vile stink of decomposition was what he would remember of a land emptied of living things, harboring only the black harpies circling, waiting.

As he neared the base of the Ranges, a storm was beginning to form atop the mountains. He peered north, seeing now his journey up this valley would be halted by the onset of weather. Talith looked ahead and saw a line of trees and a small grove where he could make camp. It was still a long way to go, but before the sun was finally beneath the horizon, he would be there.

***

It lurked in the dim light of the north, and it had been watching. Talith did not see, but as the sun became nothing more than a feint glow distantly, it waited for him. The creature was massive; more than 20 feet tall and lined with patchy white fur revealing scaly grey skin. Its wide eyes were used to being in the darkness, but it too had come south in search of food. Now this unsuspecting Tor had ventured past it, caring the sweet, sweaty scent of tired muscles and flesh. It stalked from a great distance, always being sure to hide itself in the lengthening shadows. As the Tor crept close to the scattered woods at the rim of the valley, it soon knew it would taste blood on its lips again.

***

Talith reached the area he felt was a safe place to make camp for the resting hours. Even though he was not able to commune with the Stream himself, his bones ached, and his arms hung limp, desperate for rest. Now he was finally close enough to home to start to feel at peace. He pulled his sleigh beside him and began to offload his burdens. Talith used a shovel to clear the ground, which had a crispy permafrost layer hiding the fertile soil beneath. He stretched out his skins to make a bed and went about gathering some branches to erect a shelter. He covered it with the remaining pelts he carried with him. This was enough to keep him protected from the bellowing front that was now rolling down the slopes headed his direction.

As the clouds began to snuff out the fading light of the distant sun, he felt both like he was coming home, but also telling some of the children that they would starve.

The darkness created by the storm enveloped the valley with a thick rain of frozen water developing into a cold slurry along the ground. Talith dug out a trench around his hut and forced the water away from his bedroll. He had but a small supply of cured meat that he had prepared on one of the first days of his hunting expedition, from a weakened boar that he had slaughtered. It was lean and starving, which had made it easier to kill, but by now, nothing would be left of it to bring home. It was much the same with all the other creatures in the southern lands; they were lean and famished, not ripe for eating. Talith felt the guilt of knowing he had failed his people. They depended on his strength and his cunning to bring them the game they could not harvest safely in the north, and now, he would come back to them with an aching belly of his own.

***

It had his scent filling its nostrils. Lurking a good distance away, it watched as the Tor pitched his little tent and readied itself for rest. Soon, it would slowly stalk, and move in for the kill. Its lips were wet with the anticipation of filling its mouth with juicy flesh and cracking bones in its teeth. The anticipation for this starving monster was nearly too much to bear, but still, it lurked silently. The Tor made no campfire, but it wouldn’t have mattered since the creature had already acquired a liking for the sweat of this unsuspecting Tor. Like so many others that it had eaten, this one would be no different. Only that the creature hadn’t fed itself in such a long time, that it would savor every last mouthful as it devoured the blood and meat of its prey. As the Tor in its hut settled down to rest, the storm was beginning to come down and wet sleet mingled with snow fell all around. The pounding noise of the rain hid the creature’s steps as it crunched across the tundra and came closer and closer to the sleeping Tor.

***

The wind was whipping circularly around through the trees and flapping the skins of Talith’s hut frantically. There was a piercing scream to this wind, and it kept the Tor’s eyes open as all light vanished and the fury of the weather became the only concern. As Talith tried to close his eyes and pacify his body, a snap of unexpected thunder filled the air.

***

The creature had at last come close enough to see the Tor’s camp clearly, and it now began to crouch and approach slowly, from downwind. It too heard the crackle of thunder in the air but was too preoccupied with the coming kill to pay it any mind. As the last obstacle was cleared, the monster leapt high into the air and raised its massive fists up above its head, bringing them down into the tent and shattering the structure. It quickly scraped for the Tor but found only an empty bedroll. Releasing a cry of frustration, the creature stood upright, towering amongst the tall northern trees.

It was then that a furious bolt of charged lightning split the sky and blasted the creature over its left flank. The energy ignited fur and ripped the creature’s thick skin with an electric hiss. Bellowing madly, it exited the trees and rolled in the falling snow to extinguish the fire.

It was then that it saw the Tor, standing in the open clearing of the valley floor a short distance away, holding its tiny axes in each hand.

***

Talith saw it in the reflecting light of the ice forming on the ground, and it was truly more massive than he had ever heard tell of. This Hunter was three times his size, and as its large eyes acquired him, he knew that he had but one chance to make a stand against his impending death. The Tor always know that their end is never far when traversing the Ranges, but now, as he stood face to face with the enemy, he felt the minutes of his life slipping away.

It charged, burying its fists into the falling snow, headed straight for him. Talith only had once chance, and he took it.

***

As the creature, enraged, charged the Tor, it’s prey suddenly hurled one of its axes which then lodged itself into a big wide eye of the Hunter, shattering its forward progress and sending it caterwauling into the freezing dirt in a crumpled heap. Grasping frantically at its impaled eye, it lurched forward in a maddening frenzy and smashed Talith with the back of its hand. The Tor was struck hard flew through the air, disappearing into the darkness.

***

A second bolt of lightning struck the creature as it roiled on the ground, igniting its fur once more and sending it into a frantic frenzy. From the woods, one of the tall trees suddenly became uprooted and drifted through the air towards the creature. The tree tilted and smashed the massive body of the Hunter several times until it was pinned flat on its belly, whimpering in a state of disorientation. Then, without hesitation, a third blast of lightning shattered the creature’s skull sending bone chunks and brain pieces all over the valley floor, with the smells of crisped skin and cooked meat filling the air. The storm overhead was passing, and the light of the distant sun returned to find the once hidden scene occupied by a carcass of massive proportions, and a black cloaked Shifter emerging from the shadow of the treeline.

The Shifter walked over to the far western end of the valley, where Talith had landed. He was broken in all his joints, shattered against some jagged rocks with a bit of blood leaking out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry I could not save you,” The Shifter said as he knelt beside the dying Tor.

“You are a shifter.” Talith said in the common tongue. “You tried to save me. You did not let it feast on me.”

“I will save you now.” He said, wiping the blood from the dying Tor’s face.

“Save my people.” The Tor whispered as his breath was leaving him.

“We are kindred, you and I,” The Shifter said. “This land is our home and we must look out for each other.”

“I go to my ancestors.” The Tor said.

“You go with honor, Talith son of Kaylor. You go to them as a slayer of the Frozen Hunters. Your people will know what you did today. They will never forget your name.”

Talith died there in the frozen mud of the Trader’s Fold, only a dozen miles from the beginning of the Ranges. He would not see his home again, but because of him, his people would live.

***

Sefarian skinned and cured the Frozen Hunter and all the bounty of its flesh. He stacked it gently on Talith’s sleigh and wrapped it in the skins the Tor hunter had used as protection from the weather. He grasped the massive sleigh’s reins and marched slowly back up the valley, towards the base of the mountains where Talith’s people dwelt.

***

When he arrived, they gathered around him. They saw Talith’s axes, and knew he was dead. No Tor leaves his axes behind. Sefarian the Cobbler told them of how their brother of blood had died, trying to bring them enough food to survive, and that he had. He had killed a Frozen Hunter with one throw of his axe. That he was the bravest tor this Shifter had ever seen.

“Tell your children of Talith the Slayer. He gave you this flesh of his own life, so that your children would know his name.”

Sefairian did not stay, and the Tor gifted him some of the bounty he had brought back to them. “I will always be near. We are kindred of the north. We must look out for each other.” And with that, he trudged off into the icy fangs of the foreboding Ranges.

 

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