Not too far away, an old man and a young girl made their way along a road. ‘Road’ may be a generous term, however; it was more of a narrow, rocky track which ran alongside a cliff which rose up out of the wood below. They were both wrapped in thick furs to shield them against the cold.
“Kayna, be careful! It’s icy around here.”
She continued to skip down the track, apparently undeterred by his protests, “Don’t worry uncle, I’m very sure on my feet!” She skipped up to him and held his hand playfully, “Maybe you should be more careful!”
“Me?” he scoffed, “How do you figure that?”
“You’re all old and rickety!”
She giggled, “Only joking. You’re not that old and rickety!” Her pony tail swung from side to side as she shook her head. Kayna’s broad smile and soft pink cheeks contrasted sharply with her uncle’s old, lined face; each wrinkle and detail carved like the cracks on the face of the cliff. He pulled her closer to him, “It’s just me being all worried.” They turned a corner to face a strong chill wind which gusted into their faces; Kayna pulled her firs tighter around her and her uncle repositioned the straps of his bag.
Eventually the wind died down, and after several minutes of uneventful walking Kayna’s uncle felt the need to fill the silence, “Let’s see how much you’ve learned, then. Name some herbs for me.”
“Fennel, thyme, sage, squill…”
“What is squill used for?”
“Very good.” He patted her shoulder proudly, “I’ll make an apothecary of you yet! Here’s a difficult one; what might myrrh be used for?”
“Err… oral hygiene?” she said uncertainly.
“No!” His hand shot out in front of her, stopping her in her tracks.
“Oh… is it an antiseptic?”
“No, I mean… shush! Did you hear that?” he flustered.
In the distance, a high-pitched whine wailed out across the crags.
“There!” His arm snapped up to point further up the cliff. He pointed to the menacing silhouette of a wolf standing on an outcrop. Another appeared alongside it. A third scampered, agile, along the cliff face above them, showering snow and stones down from above. A fourth jumped into the road behind them.
Kayna’s uncle turned to face the animal and pushed her back, “Stay behind me!” He pulled a small hand-axe from under his belt. “Go away, wolf! There is nothing for you here!” he shouted, though he suspected that they already had the scent of the meat in his bag.
He heard the patter of falling stones behind them and turned to see that two of the wolves had jumped down onto the path ahead of them.
“Kayna…” her uncle whispered slowly, “… take the rabbit from my bag.” The wolves ahead of them approached, snarling and growling at the travellers as they came. “Stay back!” the old man shouted, thrusting his axe forward uncertainly. They continued their advance. He felt his niece quaking behind him as she tried to open the sackcloth bag on his back.
“Stay strong, Kayna, I’ll get us out of this…” encouraged her uncle, though with slightly less confidence than he perhaps wanted to project.
Behind him, he heard a snarl. He spun around just in time to see a large grey wolf leaping toward him, teeth bared ferociously. Silver strings of saliva streamed from a hungry mouth. He barely had time to raise his arm, clubbing the animal in the neck with the flat side of his axe. Simultaneously the beast sank its teeth into his arm, the impact causing him to spin around and tumble to the ground.
“Uncle!” Kayna screamed, terrified. She scrambled toward the bag which had skidded toward the cliff edge in the fray. The wolf that had attacked her uncle lay motionless on the ground. He himself struggled to get back on his feet on the icy surface. The other three wolves saw their chance and converged on her. She searched through the bag frantically, tipped it out, letting all manner of items clatter down the cliff into the wood below. Her uncle, still grounded, grabbed the tail of one of the wolves in desperation. “Oh no, you don’t!” They turned on him. He scrambled into a sitting position, pushing himself backwards and feeling around for his hand-axe, anything.
The three wolves turned their heads simultaneously. At the edge of the cliff, Kayna dangled a rabbit carcass above her head for all to see. Her uncle forgotten, they scampered over to her in anticipation of the meal. Kayna threw the carcass back the way they came. It slid some way along the icy road before dropping off the edge of the cliff. The wolves quickly followed; within moments they had disappeared over the edge to carefully negotiate their way down in search of the meat.
Shaken by the ordeal, she crawled away from the cliff edge and carefully stood to help her uncle back onto his feet. They embraced. “I thought I’d lost you,” he whispered with bated breath. The predators had gone, but a fog of adrenaline still lingered around them. Once they had recovered their senses somewhat, he walked over to the cliff edge to salvage what he could from the bag. “Sorry I tipped everything out of the bag,” she mumbled.
“Under the circumstances I think it’s quite forgivable,” he chuckled breathlessly, patting her on the back, “that was some quick thinking, there. You probably just saved us both.” Spotting his hand-axe by the body of the wolf that had tried to attack him first, he walked over to pick it up. “In retrospect I think it was all rather exciting.” He picked up the axe and wagged it at the animal, “That’ll teach you feral beasts to wrangle with the Penha…” The wolf yelped and jumped back to its feet. He cried out in shock and tumbled backwards into his niece. Disoriented, the wolf ran away. “Kayna, watch out it might…” Looking behind him as he struggled up, his voice simply stopped.
Kayna, his niece, tumbled down the cliff like a rag doll. Every strike her body made against the rocks constricted his throat a little more. She hit the undergrowth below with a final crack. He could barely comprehend what his senses had just shown him; on his hands and knees, he shook visibly, almost collapsing onto the ground. The old man managed a whimper, “No…” then turned so that he was sat right on the edge of the cliff, “No!” He began to clamber down insecurely. The cliff face was full of cracks and rocky protrusions which would have made climbing down an easy affair for most, but not for an old man like him. In a desperate frenzy of panic and despair, he came down as fast as he dared. At one point he lost his footing and skidded down, only barely managing to catch himself by the tips of his grazed and bleeding fingers. He had to be careful, but not on his account; if he fell, who would help Kayna? She could be injured.
Jumping the last few feet, he rolled in the undergrowth. Only then did he acknowledge the pain in his arm; wolves could have a powerful bite, whether your arms are covered in firs or not. But that didn’t matter. There was a panicked moment in which he searched through the heather for his niece. Had the wolves taken her? Dragged her away? No. He found her sprawled out on her side in the snow under a heather bush, unconscious. Or dead.
“Kayna,” he said, kneeling by her side, patting her cheeks with his hands “Kayna, wake up! Can you hear me?” She made no response; her face was covered in scratches and grazes and scars and blood. Moving his ear close to her mouth, close enough to touch her lips, he still heard no response; his only consolation was a faint tickle of breath: she was alive. Her uncle checked carefully for any injuries; miraculously, she appeared unharmed apart from a broken arm; the heather must have broken her fall. He considered calling out for help, but he didn’t want to risk attracting undue attention; the wolves had come down there not long ago.
Instead, he found a piece of fabric from the debris strewn down the cliff from his bag and used it to make a splint out of sticks. Confident that her broken arm wasn’t going to be further damaged, he carefully picked her up and, with much exasperation, struggled her onto his back, holding her legs on one side and her unbroken arm on the other. Immediately he fell to his knees. He couldn’t do it, he was an old man, but there was nothing else he could do. Summoning up all of his strength, he pushed himself back up and managed to drag one foot forward, then the other. He headed into the wood.
Each footstep was an ordeal which required all his willpower and concentration to execute. He never stopped for fear that he wouldn’t be able to start again, that he’d just die in the snow along with his niece. He didn’t know where to go or what to do; there was nobody for miles; they had intended to camp for at least two nights before they reached Kollsvik. He could only walk.
* * *
It could have been minutes or hours, so focused he was on just moving, but darkness had fallen and it was becoming difficult to navigate the dense wood. How long could he carry on going? It didn’t matter now. Without food or shelter, in the middle of the wood after nightfall, with nobody around for miles, they were all but dead.
If it had been any darker, he might have missed the small lodge sat in a clearing among the trees. It was a humble building made of planks of wood; it had a single door, a single window and small stone chimney built against its side; the roof extended to shelter a pile of logs stacked up against an outside wall. He tried to call out for help, but all that came out was a breathless whimper. No matter. It didn’t appear to be occupied anyway. In a final push to reach the building, the old man said nothing; he just looked down at the ground, too deep in concentration, too exhausted, too focussed on getting his niece to safety to do anything else. Those last few paces were almost as hard as the preceding journey. He placed her down, desperately forced his way through the door and put her on the only bed. Salvation! Then he shut the door behind him and sat down, alone in the darkness.
Finally, he wept.