Stragglers in the Cold

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The breeze carried the smell of dead men through the air.

The wolf stopped running, crouched beneath a tree and sniffed. His spotted gray fur was dappled by shadow. A breath of wind sent the smell of manflesh to him.

The wolf knew manflesh well. Knew it–and hated it. It was only men who killed beasts for sport and wore their skins.

Hunger coiled in his belly, and he growled, calling to his brother and sister. He raced through the trees, his packmates following on his heels. They had caught the scent as well. Breath misted in front of his long gray jaws. The snow was compact beneath their paws.

He smelled metal, then. Swords and spears, said a distinctly human voice in his head. The owner of the voice would take the wolf’s body from time to time. The wolf didn’t care. The voice had slipped into him so many times, he was just another packmate.

Beware of swords and spears, the voice said, they are made to kill you. The wolf did not mind. There was manflesh ahead. Manflesh meant meat. Meat meant survival.

His packmates followed. They went up a hill and down the slope beyond, until the wood opened before them and the humans were there. One was female. Leave her for last, the voice whispered, she is no threat to you.

The humans were roaring commands at each other. The wolf could smell their perspiration, despite the cold.

The wolf and his siblings were upon the men before they could prepare themselves. The wolf’s brother tore a man’s throat out as his sister slipped behind the other man and took him from behind. That left the female for him.

She held a sword outstretched. It shook in her hands. A voice in his head told him to fall inside her reach, and the wolf obeyed. His jaws clamped around her leg and the sword thumped into the snow.

The wolf pack dined on the manflesh that night. They each had their own human to feast on.

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Leagues away, in a one-room home of clay, straw and an earthen floor, Theor shivered as he sputtered out a cough and licked his lips, split and bleeding from the cold. He wiped them clean of blood as his mind adjusted to his human flesh. My blood, he told himself. It’s my blood. Cracked, bleeding lips. I was in my wolf’s skin. That wasn’t me. Had he truly sunk so low? He was Theor Stormcrow, who shared a tent with Captain Averon Qorik, who had led the assault on Traec Valor.

And the man who had eaten other men. How deep did the cold bite, that he’d sink to a taste of manflesh to stay alive? It wasn’t me, he thought, It was my second skin. I didn’t eat anything.

The pain in his belly served as a sharp reminder.

The voice of his old master growled at him from beyond the grave. “Men can eat beasts, and beasts, men. But a man who eats a man shall rot in the farthest flung Hell.” Have I gone mad? Theor thought, or do you truly haunt me? Will you have your vengeance yet, old man?

Farthest flung Hell. That was his master’s favorite phrase. “He who eats another man’s flesh would be cast to the farthest flung Hell, but he who takes another man’s Self as his own will go farther than the farthest flung Hell.” Or so his master told him.

His thoughts drifted back to the three humans. He took consolation in the fact that he had killed them in his second skin. His wolf’s skin. They were fleeing from the cold, and he had granted them death. A quick death. I was being merciful.

“I was being merciful,” he said aloud. His throat was raw, and every time he swallowed he felt pinpricks in his throat. All the same, he needed to hear human voices. Even if it was only his own, and it hurt to speak.

He moved to the fire, though it felt more smoke than heat.

He recalled the battle that led him to this state. When the retreat was ordered, thousands of men straggled through the forest, hungry, frightened, and fleeing the carnage that had descended upon them when the enemy’s cavalry arrived.

He’d heard talk of returning to long-abandoned homes. Others went west, with whispers of a second assault. But most were lost in the forest with no notion of where to go or what to do. They had escaped the enemy who rode them down, clad in their grey steel. Their craven’s clothing.

But now they were pursued by enemies even worse. Every day left more corpses in their wake. Some died of beasts and bandits. Others of hunger. But most were claimed by the cold.

One day, as he fled, a rider came galloping through the woods on a gaunt black destrier, shouting that they all should make for the Great River and that Lieutenant Lorik Gurnnen gathering what was left of their forces. They could combine armies and take out the enemy’s flank while there was still time.

Many had followed him. More did not.

Our army is fallen, he told himself. Our captains are dead and we are scattered, dropping like flies. There will be no second assault.

Theor might have joined Lorik if only he’d been stronger. The Great River was far away, and he would never live to see it.

He had shed a second skin seven times, but this would be his true death. Here in the cold. Without honor or dignity.

Alone.

His master’s voice echoed in his head. “You will die a dozen deaths and a dozen more, boy, and every one of them will hurt. Many times you will shed your second skin. But when your true death comes, you will live again in a simpler life.”

He would know the truth of that soon enough. He could taste his true death in the smoke that filled the hut. He could feel it in the heat steadily leaving his body. The chill was in him, now. Deep in his bones. This time it would be cold that killed him. Not war or arrows or anything else that had forced him to shed a second skin.

His last death had been by sharpened stone. Back at the battle he hung close to the woods and sent his mind into a one of his wolves–he had many wolves, though he liked some more than others. He had been riddled with arrows and came back to his true skin knowing for the seventh time how it felt to die.

The sixth had been a sword through a fox’s belly, and he the feeling of cold steel rearranging his innards. Fifth was an arrow that knocked him out of the sky, and he knew how it felt to fall to the earth. Once before–he did not remember which–he died delivering a litter of pups, leaving them alone and motherless.

His first death had come to him when he met Averon Qorik whose mace fell down upon his skull when he caught the rat inside his tent.

The cold brought him out of his memory, and he noticed that his fire had gone out. Only a charred tangle of wood remained, with embers glowing beneath the ashes. There’s still smoke, it just needs wood. Theor reached to the pile of broken branches that Baraba had gathered before she went off hunting. She had saved him in battle–was it days ago? She had driven her spear through the Valorian’s visor as he closed in on Theor. She was ready to die for me. He remembered his vows. “My life is yours, and yours, mine.”

He had not expected his vows to hold in the midst of battle.

Goosebumps prickled his flesh and he tossed the wood onto the embers. “Catch,” he said. His smile brought blood to his broken lips. “Burn. Please.” He blew on the embers and said a wordless prayer to the nameless gods. He didn’t know who to worship anymore.

The nameless gods did not answer. After three more breaths, even the smoke refused to rise. Already the little hut was growing colder. Theor had not thought it possible. He had neither flint, tinder, nor dry kindling. He would never get the fire burning again, not by himself. “Baraba!” he called out, his voice was hoarse and would not let him shout. Shouting meant pain.

But he was Theor Stormcrow. He could handle pain. “Baraba!”

How long had she been gone? Two days? Three? Theor could not tell. It was dark inside the hut, and he had been drifting in and out of sleep for quite some time.

“Wait here,” she had said. “I will be back with food.” Fool that he was, he waited. Now days and nights had passed and Baraba had not returned. Has she abandoned me?

No, he told himself. That did not matter. I will not let myself die alone in the cold. “I am Theor Stormcrow, who has died seven times. It is not fair that she live while I die. Do you hear me? It’s not fair!”

No one answered, for there was no one there. Baraba was gone. She had abandoned him, along with all the others.

It was a shame. Theor Stormcrow was once a name men had feared. He rode to battle on the back of a mammoth. He kept three wolves as a second skin, and had had many more before them. He had used every beast in the land as a second skin. Every beast but a dragon. He would give anything to put on a dragon’s skin.

He had been part of eight war councils. He had been the right hand of Averon Qorik.

And now here he was, dying in the cold.

It had grown dark and smoky inside. The falling snow had buried the hut. Theor pushed at it and the snow crumbled and gave way, still soft and wet. Outside, the night was a white death. Clouds of snow danced like specters for the moon. “Baraba.” Theor called feebly, wondering how far she could have gone. “Baraba. Woman. Where are you?”

Far and away, a wolf howled.

The cold bit Theor. He knew that howl as well as he knew his second skin. That was his brother–the oldest of the three, and the fiercest. His sister was leaner, quicker and younger with more cunning, but both he and his sister went in fear of their brother. The old wolf was fearless and savage. Like me, he thought. I should have taken my brother as a second skin. He had tried, but his brother proved stubborn, and fought him out of his body.

Theor had lost control of his second skins in his latest death. His bear had raced into the woods, whilst his hawk turned her claws on those around her, ripping apart four men before falling to an arrow. She would have slain Theor if she’d had time. The hawk hated him and had raged each time he took her skin.

His wolves, though–they were different. He’d managed to wrestle control of the middle child. The brother. His wolves loved him. They would never give him up.

They are my siblings. My pack. Many nights he had shared their bed for warmth. And when I die they will feast upon my flesh and leave only bones to greet the thaw.

The thought was comforting, in an odd way. His wolves had often scouted for him; it seemed only fitting that his body should feed them in the end. He might well begin his second life tearing at the flesh of his own corpse.

Other beasts were best left alone. Birds were the worst, to hear his master tell it. He had told Theor that he had seen many skinchangers fall prey to the delight of a hawk or a falcon as a second skin. “Men were not meant to leave the ground,” the master would caution. “Spend too much time in the clouds and you never want to come back down again. I know skinchangers who’ve tried hawks, owls, ravens. When they come back–to their true skin, they have eyes only for the skies.”

Theor was one of the only known skinchangers strong enough to wear a hawk in flight. He had taken her from his master, driving him out to claim the beast for his own. No second life for you, old man. Perhaps that was why she hated him. He needed to claim another as a second life.

Baraba, he thought.

He would be Baraba, and Theor Stormcrow would be dead. His gift would perish with his body, he expected. He would lose his wolves, and live out the rest of his days as some scrawny woman. But he would live. If she comes back. If I am still strong enough to take her.

A wave of dizziness washed over Theor. He found himself upon his knees, his hands buried in a snowdrift. Hoarfrost coated his beard. He scooped up a fistful of snow and filled his mouth with it, rubbing it through his beard and against his cracked lips, sucking down the moisture. The water was so cold that he could barely bring himself to swallow, and he realized once again how numb he was.

The snowmelt only made him hungrier. It was food he needed, not water. The snow had stopped falling, but the wind was rising, filling the air with crystal, slashing at him like his hawk’s claws. His breath made a ragged white clouds. He seized a fallen branch just long enough to use as a crutch. Leaning heavily upon it and staggered toward the nearest hut. Perhaps the villagers had forgotten something when they fled. A sack of apples or some meat, anything to keep him alive until Baraba returned.

If she returns, he reminded himself.

He was almost there when his crutch snapped beneath his weight, and his legs went out from under him.

How long he had lain there, sprawled in the snow, he could not have said. The snow will bury me. It will be a peaceful death. They say you feel warm near the end, warm and sleepy. It would be good to feel warm again.

Theor could feel the snowflakes melting on his brow. A reminder that he still had some warmth left in him.

He yearned to begin his second life. His master had said that in his last moments, a skinchanger’s powers were at his strongest, and he could take any skin he wished.

Theor knew the truth of that. He had been close to death himself when he claimed his master’s hawk. He could feel his master raging at his presence. The two fought for control of the hawk, and as he almost died then, he could feel his master’s memories fade.

It was Baraba who had saved him. Baraba who brought him back. Baraba who abandoned him now to die all the same.

He could feel ice forming in his beard. Theor Stormcrow closed his eyes. He dreamt an old dream of wolves and dragons. By the nameless gods, he wished he could take a dragon’s skin.

Theor woke suddenly, violently, his whole body shaking. “Get up,” a voice was screaming, “get up, we have to go.”

Baraba, he thought. You came back.

“There are hundreds of them!” Baraba screamed, “Men in craven’s clothes!”

The snow had covered him with a frozen white blanket. He was numbed to the pain. Flecks of snow speckled his back, melting as Baraba pulled him to his feet. “Get up.” she screamed again, “They’re coming.”

Baraba had returned to him. She had him by the shoulders and was shaking him, shouting in his face. Theor could smell her breath and feel the warmth of it upon cheeks gone numb with cold. Now, he thought, do it now, or die. He summoned all the strength still in him, leapt out of his own skin, and forced himself inside her.

Baraba arched her back and screamed.

He would be cast beyond the farthest flung Hell for this. His old flesh fell back into the snowdrift as her fingers loosened. The woman twisted violently, shrieking, and he remembered his master and the hawk.

“Get out of my head! Get out!” They shouted as one. Her body staggered, fell, and rose again. Her hands flailed and her legs jerked the way a puppet moves unnaturally with the jerk of a string. She sucked down a mouthful of the frigid air, and Theor had half a heartbeat to glory at the strength of this young body before her teeth snapped down and blood welled into their mouth.

She raised her hands to his face. He tried to push them down again, but the hands would not obey, and she was clawing at his eyes and chewing through their tongue, adrenaline feeding her rage. Farthest flung Hell, he remembered, drowning in blood and pain and madness. When he tried to scream, she spat their tongue out.

The white world fell away and a madwoman danced blind and bloody underneath the moon with the specter-snow. She was weeping red tears and ripping at her clothes. She looked as though she might start beating her chest and screaming fury at some nameless god.

Then Baraba was gone, and Theor expected to wake up in his own mind. But that was gone, too. He felt his spirit dissipate, buffeted by the cold wind. He was in the snow and in the clouds. He was a sparrow, a squirrel, and an oak. A horned owl that was him flew silently between his trees, hunting a hare that was also him.

Theor was inside the owl, inside the hare, inside the trees. Deep below the frozen ground, earthworms burrowed blindly in the dark, and he was them as well. A hundred ravens that were him took to the air, cawing as they felt him pass. He was an elk that trumpeted, unsettling the birds that he was which clung to his branches.

Overhead, a dragon passed. And for a moment that was him, too. Then it passed, and he was gone from its mind.

He tried to move from all else, but found he was stuck within everything inside the abandoned village.

Was this farther than the farthest flung hell? To be all, with but a taste of what he truly wanted?

A wolf howled in the distance. A wolf that was not Theor Stormcrow.

 

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