Torvald sat on a rocky outcrop on the hillside and felt the icy wind blow through his thick brown fur. Down below, a forest of pine trees stretched off into the distance until they met the jagged mountains which lined the horizon; the dark grey clouds which drifted above the mountains occasionally flashed with sparks of blue lightning. He pointed his nose to the sky and sniffed the air slowly, almost as if he was sighing; powerful lungs expanded around a strong heart thumping in his chest. He was not old. Then, he brought his nose down to a tuft of grass nearby. He licked it, ran the green strips between his gums then let them fall out of his mouth.

He was dying.

Each time he breathed, ribs emerged from his sides, his hide stretching over them like the canvas of a tent; it was hard to walk; every minute of his life was an ordeal.

“I thought I might find you here.” Halvar said as he approached from behind. He was bigger than Torvald, stronger, younger. Part of one of his ears was shredded and bitten off and, on the same side of his body, he bore a messy set of scars along his neck which had failed to fully heal. Legacy of dealing with wolves.

Torvald struggled onto his hooves and turned to face him, “I feared there was a storm on its way, but it has passed us by.”

“You look weak, friend. You should rest.”

Slowly, Torvald walked up to him, “Yes, I should.” His voice was low, hoarse, almost a whisper. “It is almost time for me to pay my dues to the world.”

Halvar seemed to understand, “May I walk with you?” he asked.

“I would be grateful,” Torvald replied, dipping his head in admission.

They gradually made their way across the hillside. Torvald’s footing was slow, unsure. Occasionally he would falter and his back legs would slide from beneath him, but his friend was always there to push him back up with his nose. They went down toward the forest and stopped by a tree at its outskirts.

“We must be careful,” said Halvar, cautiously, “there are wolves near here.”

Torvald didn’t seem to worry. He looked up to the top of the tree. It was tall enough to stand out from the rest of the wood, sticking up above the canopy, solitary in the sky. It was also dead; a straight vertical pillar pointing to the grey clouds with branches sticking out like spikes, branches which should have been covered in dark green pine needles but were instead bare and lifeless.

“My mate, Eira, breathed her last here many moons ago. I’m glad that it was me who bore the burden of witnessing the other’s death, and not her.” The long trek meant that Torvald’s voice was even more laboured now than it was before.

He was quiet for a moment. At first Halvar assumed it was a sign of respect and kept his distance. As the pause grew longer, though, he felt obliged to ask his friend if he was alright, but, raising his head as if from prayer, it was Torvald stirred first. He raised his nose to the sky and sniffed the air again, as if to check that everything was as it should be. And then…

“It is time for me to die.”

He spoke slowly, clearly. Far from being shocked by the profound statement, Halvar dipped his head in understanding and they left.

 *    *    *

A procession of elks made their way across the exposed, snowy hillside. Torvald was very weak now; he was not used to walking so much in one day. Not anymore. Halvar and another walked alongside him to support him on this final journey. The contrast between them was shocking; Torvald was small, diminished, almost skeletal in build compared with his companions.

Eventually, he collapsed in the snow; the others made to help him back up, but he quietly protested, “No… this place is fine. You may leave me here.” They backed off hesitantly. Torvald looked up at the others one by one; old friends, new friends, relatives, respectful peers. These were the elks he had spent his whole life with – they were his life – and now it was time for them to leave.

“Your presence here warms my heart, but everything I have wanted to say to you all has already been said. You would do me the deepest respect if you left me to die in solitude. That is my final wish.”

Hesitantly, one by one they tore off and headed back the way they came, but with all his strength, Torvald called out, “Halvar!” The sound was still barely more than a whisper. Halvar came back toward him.

“Halvar. For now, you may stay.”

His friend lied down next to him, so as to better hear what he was saying.

“Halvar, my friend. I’ve lived a… comfortable life. I’ve done many things, met many people and told many stories. I always knew I would have regrets, but…”

“But?”

“… but what I didn’t expect was that the things I regret most are not the things I did, but the things I didn’t do. The times I hesitated, forgot, put things off. It is those unexperienced experiences which weigh heaviest in my heart. Now that I lie here, toothless, crippled by hunger, unable to do… to live any longer, it saddens me somewhat.”

Halvar thought on this. He never thought of himself as a deep thinker, but the words seemed profound. He looked at Torvald. There was age in his eyes; he had lived longer than any other elk he had known before succumbing to starvation. The moment he died a wealth of memories and experience would be lost. He found it distressing, however, that his friend felt this way at the moment of his death.

“Why are you telling me this now? Is it for my benefit? So that I have time to ensure I don’t have the same regrets?”

“It is so that you know to learn to accept the world as it is, and accept the role you played in it. I’ve realised too late how important that is.”

“I see…”

Noticing the concern in his friend’s face, Torvald rasped his final words, “Thank you… for being here with me. To share the burden of those last few regrets with you has meant more to me than you might think. I am finally content…. Go.”

Half of Halvar wanted to stay until the end, but he was mindful of respecting his friend’s last wishes. He stood, turned around and looked back, “Goodbye, friend.” But Torvald did not reply. He simply let his head fall to the snow in one last bow of respect.

As he watched Halvar walk away across the hillside, into the distance, he acknowledged that this was the last time he would see his friend. The wind picked up. The felt the snow shore up against his side, whip through his fur and past his ears. This side of the hill was exposed to the weather; it would not take long now.

His eyes fell shut.

PROLOGUE | CHAPTER 1 | CHAPTER 2

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