The Trail – Chapter 8

The wind lashed at the man. A haze of drifting snow flurries and haunting cloud banks obscured his view.

Gingerly the traveler picked his way between cold grey rocky outcroppings, clutching his arms tightly to his chest with numb hands tucked into his armpits. Loose shale gave way beneath his heels and tumbled into the shallow crevasses of snow. His genitals had shrunk closer to his body in a desperate attempt to conserve body heat.

With each exhalation the cold crystalized his breath and bore it away into the ether. Every time he felt a small piece of his strength leave him.

Suddenly in mid-step his foot punched through a deceptively deep snowbank, causing him to careen forward onto his face. His hands shot out from beneath his armpits to soften the fall, and they too when straight through the snowbank.

Cussing the foulest of curses under his breath, the shivering man scrambled upon the ground before tearing free his leg from the snow, losing his boot somewhere within.

His bare toes poked through his thinning sock, looking grey and unhealthy.

Plunging his arm down into the hole his leg had made, he fumbled about for his lost boot. Eventually he tore it free from the depths, though now full of snow and ice.

“Fucking…GODDAMN IT!”

He almost hurled his boot in rage but regained control at the last second. This was all very typical, he thought. In the man’s mind his life was a chain of events to be endured, not enjoyed. For some reason he, singularly, was selected to struggle, not sail, through an ever-compounding series of hardships.

He did not question this understanding. He accepted it like he accepted the sky to be blue. Of course things were this way – how could they be any other?

“What a fucking joke.” He knocked the snow loose from his boot and jammed his now freezing foot back into it.

Even to his own ears the endless stream of indignation sounded pathetic, which only served to further fuel the fire of his resentment. So around and around the cycle went, heeding neither health nor happiness.

The anger remained as a lump in his sternum like a smoldering coal. There it singed his psyche, eager to burn anything in sight. But it was not all bad. The man had made the anger serve a purpose; there was nothing else he could have really done with it. The fire inside demanded an outlet – something to burn out against. It pulsed within him like a second heartbeat. It fueled his weary body, warmed his shivering limbs, and endured the buffeting winds. It could bear hunger and stare down fear, and he was in desperate need of both. It was really a saving grace – for without a channeling outlet it would have melted his mind.

How many minutes had passed before he had become aware of himself again he could not say, but it was too late. His hunger and exhaustion had caused him to lose mindfulness and become lost.

He took in his frozen surroundings. Before him was stone and snow, behind him stone and snow, and to his left and right; much the same. The darkness of night, combined with the haze of icy clouds, left him blind past ten meters. He squinted through it, trying to find something, anything that would reorient him, but the mountain rewarded him with nothing but a grey indifference.

He grabbed at the edges of his fluttering cloak and wrapped it tightly about his shoulders. He shivered constantly, but he knew the signs of severe hypothermia, and he had not yet reached it – though it was only a matter of time at this rate.

He picked his way across cold stone until he came to an outcropping that hung out far enough to provide him with meager shelter from the wind. Here he huddled and sought for a plan. The wind sliced across the stone with a woeful howl, hungry for his warmth. That gave him an idea.

When he had first spotted the strange structure in the distance earlier, the wind had been striking at his back. Now, it was striking his right side.

I’ve gone too far right!

It wasn’t much better than a theory, but it was all he had. Out from under the stone he scrambled, and reoriented himself such that the wind blew against his back once again.

He was extra diligent as he went, knowing full well what could happen up here, should he become truly lost. As he went through the flurry, bent forward, cold and hungry, he began to imagine the battle that would soon ensue.

He could not ask for a better battleground. This frozen shelf could very well end up being his final resting place, but at least here he would stand a chance.

He was born for cold climates, and had braved far greater elevations in the past. That being said, he couldn’t help wondering about the predator (he could no longer call it a demon with any confidence). Try as he might, he simply could not remember anything about what its voice sounded like, it’s scent, or even its garments (if it indeed had any at all). The memories were largely dominated by the image of its horned goat skull and…something with antlers.

The memories of the creature that stood out sharpest were the paralyzing fear and stress. Over and over and over the image of the arrow missing his groin by centimeters looped in maddening repetition. Since then his nausea had not truly abated. Neither did a morbid curiosity at what it would have felt like, had the arrow struck its mark.

The man inched his way carefully around a cold boulder sporting grey and green lichen. On the other side lay a strange scattering of stone rubble, clearly man made. What its original design could have been he could not say, but clearly it was large in scale.

He knelt down before one such chunk of rubble, roughly the size of his own body, and examined it. No decoration, no artistic design; clearly it had made up a piece of a purely functional structure, whatever that might have been. The age of the masonry he could not decipher, but clearly it was sourced from local rock. He saw one side of the piece was cut to be curved and almost bowl-like.

He stood and looked around at the similar pieces of stone rubble dotting the hazy landscape to his left. For a second the fog rolled back, or was perhaps parted briefly by the wind, and the standing remains of the structure was revealed – a long stone slide held up by ten foot pillars that marched away downhill.

The man blinked in wonder. He had never seen such a thing in the wilderness before but he could recognize the architecture to be an aqueduct In an age long ago it must have carried fresh water from the mountaintop to a settlement or fortress. Now no water ran along its lofty channel, but its remains could still prove useful. The rubble provided good cover and concealment, and the portions of it that still stood would serve as a clear landmark.

He had roughly twenty square meters and an unknown amount of time to work with. It was a great relief to have something productive to put his mind to.

Carefully he laid out his belongings to take stock of his resources. The list was unfortunately short: a hunting bow, twenty-eight arrows, cloak, hatchet, knife, some charcoal, some handmade cordage, a pinch of milk thistle, a handful of berries, and almost half a royal worth of silver. It wasn’t much, but he had made do with much less in the past.

He went to work establishing a new base. First, his priority had to be warmth. The wind was the biggest factor. He could survive for a while yet without food and water. He wrapped his hands in the corners of his cloak as he went about hauling fallen rubble beneath the looming aqueduct above. Ice and snow crunched beneath the soles of his boots.

Within five minutes he had erected a serviceable shelter of hewn stone, stacked against the wind. In this he huddled with his hands tucked within the folds of his clothing. Still no sign of the enemy.

Although he did not notice, the man’s pulse had quickened and his mind had sharpened. He had a goal again, one he could immediately and actively shape and strive toward. The excitement of seeing a plan take shape swept him up and, at least for a time, spared him the realization that he was decorating what could end up being his own grave.

The man took brief breaks in his hut while he applied his modifications to the battlefield. Here and there he rearranged the rubble light enough for him to lift such that it would provide maximum cover against a ranged attacker (assuming said attacker came from upwind). He tired quickly and his fingers were eventually too cold to perform fine motor functions, so back to his shelter he retreated to further plan.

He hastily scavenged among the mountain ferns and bushes for viable tinder. Wood was out of the question, given the lack of trees, but there was always plant life of some form or another to burn. He scrambled back into his hut with an armload of somewhat dry bush tinder and another armload of wetter material. He made a small stove out of three or four large rocks, and filled its innards with the drier plant tinder. He covered his pile with another stone and scurried off again to forage.

The hunter hurried back to his rickety stove. Without flint he could not strike a spark. He could have improvised with sticks, but he had none of those, either. He produced from his numbing hand a large shard of pink quartz – a lucky find. It wasn’t as good as the flint from his tinderbox, but he could still strike a spark off it with a little skill.

He chiseled at the quartz with another stone until he had made a sharp edge. Then he held the pink rock and carefully struck against the upright edge with the steel of his knife. One-two-three, sparks scattered at his strikes. With the utmost care he ignited the remaining milk thistle in his belt pouch.

Like carrying a fragile baby he gingerly lowered the smoldering tinder into his tightly packed stove and blew into it. It smoked against the plant material and eventually caught fire after thirty minutes of nail-biting work. It took every trick in the book to keep the sad fire from dying out, but he was much warmer because of it. Atop the stove he laid out the wet tinder that would not catch and allowed the fire to dry it.

Eventually he deemed it safe to leave the fire for a few moments. To each strategic piece of cover he went, taking his arrows with him. Behind each position he stuck five arrows point-down into the ground, as well as a small pile of stones. That left him with eight arrows in his quiver. He dumped them on the ground and took his knife to the quiver.

He cut off the shoulder strap and shaved off the ends to be left with two strips of leather roughly twelve centimetres in length. With the point of his knife he drilled a hole in their ends and ran the homemade cord through both of them, making a small cradle with the two straps overlapping each other. Certainly his bow was by far his most effective weapon in his arsenal, but an arrow is far too light to fly true in mountain winds. A heavy stone, however…

He loaded a smooth rock into the leather pouch and took aim at a piece of ruined masonry. He whipped the loaded stone over his head by the ends of the cord and let fly, hitting a piece of rubble from twenty-five feet with the projectile. The force of the impact shattered the fist-sized rock into three pieces and scattered rock dust into the wind. He nodded his approval. Should the wind prevent him from using a bow, his handmade shepard’s sling would have to do.

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