A Boy Apart

A Boy Apart

The boy sat huddled next to the dying remnants of a small fire.  His name, Gundr, meant ‘fire’ in the First Tongue.  If he listened closely he could no doubt hear the ghosts in the wind cackle in mockery.  As if they understood the joke that had been played on him at birth.  He wondered, not for the first time, if his mother had known something when she named him.  His father said she had named him with her dying breath.  There was power in such a naming.  The strengthening power as his twin brother received, as well as the cursing.  

He pulled his furs tighter across his back in an attempt to hide his shivering shoulders.  He clamped his teeth together to keep them from chattering and fought a desperate urge to toss another brick of dung onto the embers.  He would not.  He could not.  Dung was too precious to waste for his benefit alone.  He needed to save the valuable fuel for the nights when winter’s teeth were truly deadly and not just gnawing and bothersome.   After all, he chose to be out here on the wind-blasted tundra.

As if summoned by his thoughts a gust of wind slashed through his furs and his muscles seized.  As always, that wind whispered a thousand, hissing voices in his ear that he was unfit for this place.  Too weak.  Gundr found he could not argue with those voices and inched himself closer to the dwindling fire in search of warmth.  The wind laughed at his efforts.  The laugh, so mirthless and cold, made him look over his shoulder for its source.  He could see nothing in the muted light of winter.  Nothing but lazy drifts of snow swirling over barren fields of ice and rock.

Soft voices drifted on the wind from a huddled group a stones throw across the fire from Gundr.  He felt envious anger kindle within him as he looked upon those gathered.   Most of the hunters stood bared to the waist as they made ready for the hunt.  Yet, they were no more bothered by the wind and cold than a Tusker or Great Bear would be.  The wind twisted their long, white hair and made dance the feathers and charms that decorated their braids.  

Gundr nearly stood and flung his furs to the ground.  How else would he master the cold if not by facing it?  Instead, he pulled the shaggy furs tighter and flexed his fingers against the stiffness the chill brought on.  If he stood he would draw attention to himself and that he did not want.  They had finally come to accept his presence and he would not risk gaining their attention and the displeasure that would be sure to follow. 

 ‘Accept’ was too strong a word for their tolerance toward him.  They endured his presence much as a tusker suffers a tick-bird pecking at its flank.  On second thought, he supposed that was a bad comparison seeing as the tick-bird at least provided some benefit for the tusker where he brought none for the hunters.  It was more likely they tolerated him because his father was a Ruus.  A chief of the tribe.  

Movement from across the fire caught his eye as the Huntress, prime among those gathered, strode through a knot of hunters like a proud mother.  Her head, engulfed by the jaws of a small bear skull, was festooned in feathers and talismans taken from the beasts she had conquered and taken into herself.  She was powerfully built.  Even now, in the suffocating grip of winter, she was more muscle than not.  Her ribs protruded and her face nearly looked hollow, but no one would say she starved.  

She walked between two hunters. Iosefka and Warbird, a young, mated pair whose pale skin was covered in ash that would better conceal them.   Wielding a stick the Huntress poked and prodded them.  She examined them as she would a horse or hound she contemplated bonding.  She poked the lumps of flesh at their flanks and tested the firmness of their legs and shoulders.  She checked the color of their teeth, then tongue.  Satisfied, she marked them with the tip of her fire-blackened stick.  A talon upon their brow. 

“Eagles.”  The huntress said.  She then motioned her head sharply to the side and the pair loped off, bows in hand.  

Gundr averted his eyes as they trotted passed, neither of them glancing down.  They did not simply ignore him.  It was somehow more.  Gundr could feel them not looking at him.  As if doing so would invite misfortune to their hunt. 

He looked back up slowly as the Huntress came to the brothers.  Three men who looked to be carved straight from the white stone of the Mountain’s own flesh.  The brothers had names but it was so difficult to tell them apart that when anyone referred to ‘The Brothers’ there was no question about which brothers you spoke of.  They did not conceal their pale skin with ash and wore nothing but leggings and moccasins.  They were painted in red runes and staves of power.  Violent slashes of color that were nearly painful to look at.  Their mother was Star-Touched and had no doubt ornamented them herself.  Their long, white hair was braided and adorned in small bones and sticks that clicked as they moved.  Everything about their appearance said ‘See me’.  The Huntress did not poke and prod these men.  Their virtue was plain for all to see.  They wore the scars of many hunts upon their flesh and a ferocity shone behind their eyes like the glowing embers in his fire.  His father had said that the brothers burned bright from within and here Gundr could see just that.

“Boars.”  The Huntress proclaimed and the brother’s teeth gleamed in the night as they smiled in unison.  She drew upon their visage the tusks of the boar.  Long, sweeping things that began at the corner of their mouth and rose to their temple.  Again, she jerked her head to the side and the brothers snatched their spears and pounded towards him.  

He quickly averted his eyes but not quickly enough.  The butt of a spear cracked against his head and he felt the warmth of blood spread across the back of his scalp.  He did not cry out or move to cover the wound.  Not until he could no longer hear the heavy footfalls of the brothers did he quest his scalp with his fingers.  He was split, but not badly enough that his attention wandered from what was now taking place. 

The next group the Huntress approached was altogether different.  Where the brothers had looked upon the Huntress in reverence and Iosefka and Hamar looked upon her as a mother.  These hunters watched her approach as would equals.  There were five of them.  Old hunters all of them, but not old with infirmity.  These were old with the wisdom and cleverness that came with surviving twenty winters and more as a hunter.  

“I need Wolves.”  She said.  The remaining hunters simply kept staring at her.  None even rising from their haunches at her approach.  “I would have you drive the herd into the Howling Wood where the Eagles and Boars can maim and wound.  I would then have your help in the kill.”  The hunters still said nothing.  “This day I hunt a bull.”  She proclaimed, her chin raised in challenge.

“It is the time of mating.”  A man said examining the shaft of a spear set across his legs.  He need say no more.  A bull tusker in mating season would have more tusks than the boy had fingers, all the length of his outstretched arms.  They would be filled with inner fire from their desire to mate and a herd of tuskers during mating season would be filled with dozens of bull males vying for their choice of the females.  

“The herds remained on the ice fields for nearly a moon.”  The Huntress said calmly.  “They have lost most of the young males that truly threaten us and most of the others are little more than fur flung atop bones.”

“We are little more than skin flung atop bones.”  Another hunter said.  Vulpa, a woman who moved like a hunting cat as she rose, nesting her spear in the crook of her arm.  “Winter has taken its toll on us.  Hunting a bull will cost us much, and if we fail…” The woman let her words hang in the air like a body from a tree.  

“That is why we must take a bull.”  Huntress said.  “The time of mating has rekindled the dominant bulls.  They are thick with muscle and fat as none of the others are.  One such bull will help sustain us through winter’s brutal end.”  

“The Awakening is nearly upon us.”  Vulpa said.  “Is it wise to risk such a thing with such a responsibility this close on the horizon?”

“I would have us go to the Awakening more than skin flung atop bones.”  The Huntress said producing nods from among the old hunters.  “The Kua will not doubt be well fed if they continue to disobey the Seven and venture south upon the Mountain’s Fingers.”

The old hunters seemed to dwell on her words.  Some still watched her as if she might say more. Gundr envied the Huntress her ability to not only withstand their silence, but to speak with such venerated elders as equals. After what felt like a long moment the Huntress raised her chin.  “My spirit is that of victory.  I go to do a thing.”

Smiles crept onto the faces of the old hunters as they slowly rose.  

“Be at ease, Huntress.”  An older man whose hair had mostly gone to silver said as he used his spear to rise.  “Your rhythm suits us.  We will be as wolves on your hunt.”

The Huntress nodded stiffly.  “The Star-Touched has dreamed of the wind and says the Mountain will let loose a storm this day.”

At the mention of the Mountain the boy’s eyes flicked up to that dominant silhouette that blotted out the stars to the north.  Even in darkness it shone.  A titanic shadow deeper than the predawn sky that could not be ignored.  Somewhere up there on that perch of divinity slumbered their God.  

And in His reverie he pulls the sun low and plunges His land into the Black Winter.  The Time of Slumbering Light.

The old hunter nodded.  “A storm means the Tuskers will seek shelter in the wood.”

“Where we will wait.”

“And when the storm descends into the wood?  What then?”  Vulpa asked.  

“The Mountain is merciless, but righteous.”  The Huntress intoned.

The hunters all nodded in unison, shouldered skins that held water or dried meat, and paused to stare a moment longer at the Huntress.  There would be no nod of dismissal for these hunters.  They set off in the direction the other hunters had gone in their own time.  The boy made himself small beneath his furs and did not look up as the hunters trotted passed him.  He could feel their gazes upon him like switches across his back.  He could feel their contempt for him.  Their pride that they were not what he was.  Different.  Weak.  He half expected one of them, in a stroke of mercy, would run him through, stake him to the frozen ground here and now.  He calmly stared at the ground between his feet as the wind taunted him with its hissing laughter.

After a time the boy looked up to see the Huntress was still standing there watching the empty space the old hunters had just been.  She exhaled heavily and nodded to herself and Gundr could see now that she hadn’t been confident the old hunters would accompany her.  She turned towards him and began to run toward the others.  

The boy stood quickly.  He shrugged off his pelt, the cold immediately sinking its icy fangs into his blued skin.  He bit his tongue fiercely, the pain and the taste of blood barely enough to keep his teeth from chattering.  His shuddering shoulders, he was unable to hide.  He would make himself seen by the Huntress, even if she would not make him a hunter.  He would make her deny him.  Again.  

“I can hunt.”  He managed through shuddering lips to her as she loped by.  She did not even look back at him.  She never had.  Not since he’d started watching them.  He never really expected her to accept him.  Oh, he hoped she would.  He prayed to the Mountain that He would take the weakness from inside of him so he could do… anything.  He wanted to contribute.  He longed for responsibilities such as his father had.  Such as all of his people had.  Everyone was expected to do their part.  Everyone except him, that is.  All he was expected to do was forage the nests of tree-rats in search of their carefully hoarded winter stock.  A child’s task.  Something to keep him out of everyone's hair, he suspected.    

He felt his knees strike the cold, hard ground and there he sat staring into the dwindling flames of the fire. 

Some time later, how long he did not know, he felt heavy furs placed on his shoulder.  Daylight had come.  As much as it ever did during the winter.  The sun did little more than bathe the land in dull grays from beyond the mountains. 

A heavy hand rested on his shoulder and squeezed slightly.  Gundr continued to stare at the lazy strands of smoke spiral up from the ash and into the laughing wind.  The hand moved to his head where it stroked his hair back from his face.  A warm, calloused hand. 

“Gundr.”  His father said.  His soft voice rumbling like distant thunder.  Gundr took a deep breath, comforted by his father’s presence.  “Come, boy.”  He said as he gently tousled his hair and walked off in long, snow-crunching steps. 

Gundr rose on wobbling legs and collected his bow and quiver.  The killing cold of true night had given way to a crisp, sharp cold that Gundr could tolerate with little more than shuddering shoulders.  As he turned to follow his father he nearly ran into his brother.  

“Move.”  He told Ursen’s feet.  When his brother remained in his way Gundr looked up.  His brother was head and shoulders taller that him and half again as wide with skin as white as fresh snow.  His eyes were pale as ice as Ursen stared down at him.  It always angered Gundr to look at Ursen.  “Move.”  Gundr said again as he felt the heat of anger blossom within him. 

“You worry father.”  Ursen said.  

“Well he shouldn't worry about me.  I can-“

“You're right.”  Ursen cut in.  “Father has everyone else to worry for.  He shouldn’t worry for you.”  

Gundr opened his mouth to say more but Ursen turned and walked away.  He was left with no other choice but to follow in his brother’s shadow.  As always. 

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Evan McCleskey

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