The rest of the night was long and cold. The old man found himself alternating between restless bouts of sleep and feeling around in the dark, as if in a repeating nightmare that would never end. What was he going to do? How could this happen? Was any of this real? Mercifully, morning came.
By the early morning light which shone through the small window, he checked over his niece again. There was still no change in her condition; she lay there peacefully in the bed, her eyes refusing to open. It was heart-braking.
The bed was positioned along one wall of the room while a high desk, covered in old blood stains, sat opposite; at the end of the room, opposite the door, was a small fireplace. Judging by the plentiful supplies which were stashed around the building, the old man guessed that it must be a seasonal hunting lodge of some sort. After the surreal experience of the previous day, which he was only just coming to terms with, he was coming to realise how lucky he was to have found the place.
He walked outside to survey his surroundings; he was mindful of walking too far from the lodge in case he got lost or Kayna woke up, though that prospect was looking increasingly unlikely, but he needed to get his bearings if he was to get help. Retracing the long, parallel scrapes in the snow which were his footprints from the previous night, he was shocked to discover that the cliff from which Kayna had fallen was barely a thousand paces away. Was it really that close? It felt like he had been walking for hours when he was carrying Kayna!
Those thoughts aside, he salvaged what he could of the contents of his bag. Almost all of the food had been taken by animals, apart from a few herbs; he picked up what clothes and books he could without scaling the cliff too far. If he were to injure himself, Kayna would be alone. On finding a rock smattered with his niece’s blood among the heather, the memory of the events of the previous night came back all the more vividly. Obviously she had struck her head on the rock. Been knocked out. But now she wouldn’t wake up. The old man wiped a tear from his aged cheek, “I’ll get you to safety. I’ll find a way.”
* * *
After collecting some kindling, the old man returned to the lodge, lit a fire in the hearth and melted some snow in a bronze cooking pot. He found some potatoes stored in a box of dry straw and some carrots and parsnips in a cauldron of damp sawdust and resolved to make some soup. As the water heated he checked around the lodge for other supplies; there were plenty of turnips and bags of oats, enough to feed a horse…
“I need a mount,” he said to himself quietly. There was no other way. The nearest village where he could find help was Kollsvik, the village he and his niece had been headed to, but the previous day’s ordeal showed well enough that he couldn’t hope to carry her there by himself. What he would do for a horse of some kind!
There was the more urgent problem to attend to, however, of how Kayna was going to survive long enough to reach Kollsvik even with a horse. She hadn’t eaten or drunk anything for almost a day, and would be in no state to as long as she remained unconscious; what was he to do? It was just one of the many hurdles he would have to overcome if he was ever to hear her voice again.
That moment, a pungent smell began to fill the small room. At first he checked the cooking pot, but he soon located the source of the foul odour.
He had neglected to take into account that, even with an apparently unshakable state of unconsciousness, bodily functions must continue regardless. It struck home at that moment how helpless she really was. He felt embarrassed for her, really, it just seemed… wrong.
It took the best part of an hour for him to awkwardly clean her up and re-dress her in preparation for further excretions, by which time the fire had completely burned out. Brilliant. It had taken all the kindling he had just to light it in the first place. Apparently nothing was allowed to go his way. He didn’t want to leave her again, but he had no choice, unless they were to freeze there. Satisfied that he had done everything he could for her for the time being, he set back out into the wood.
* * *
Thankfully, it didn’t take long for him to gather enough sticks and twigs to start a fire again; there was a particularly good clearing near the edge of the wood which had plenty of them under the snow. Just before he was about to turn back, he caught something out of the corner of his eye.
From the clearing could be seen a gently sloping hillside of uninterrupted white snow. Uninterrupted, that is, apart from a still form halfway up the slope. Curiosity getting the better of him perhaps because of, rather than in spite of, his desperation, the old man emerged from the treeline and made his way up toward the object. It wasn’t much further than he had already come, so it wouldn’t be too much of a detour.
As he approached, he realised what it was; the body of a dead elk, nothing more. Not that it wasn’t a rare thing to come across, but the creature, which seemed to have died of starvation by the looks of its severely malnourished state, was of no use to him at the moment. He turned to leave.
“I never suspected that Death would be a man.”
The guttural voice caught him by surprise. It was barely a whisper, but still commandingly powerful. Enough to strike apprehension, even fear into him. He swung back around in the direction of the voice and, to his shock, the ‘dead’ elk slowly raised its head, before it gave way and fell back into the snow. The sticks clattered out from under the old man’s arm. Was this elk, this animal… talking to him? Wild animals never spoke to humans!
The elk closed its eyes, “I am ready for you to take me.”
Realisation dawned; this elk thought he was Death. The sticks he had collected forgotten, the old man slowly walked backwards, as if terrified to have intruded on some sacred ritual, “No, you’ve got it all wrong,” he stammered, “I’m not who you think I am…” Were there others around, ready to strike him down if they found him with their ailing brethren in his final moments?
“You have no need to conceal yourself, Death. Who else would wear the pelt of an elk but one who deals in its final hour?”
The old man looked down at the firs he was wearing and felt them as if they had just appeared on him, “What, these?” he laughed nervously, “No, no, I… I got these from a trader.”
For a moment, the old man thought that the elk had died there and then, but after a moment’s pause, it opened its eyes again and gave a long, protracted moan, revealing the worn-down stubs of useless teeth lining his gums, “Oh… so you are a man. Leave me to die in peace, as is my final wish.” From this, the old man realised that they were both alone; no other elk was going to charge across the hillside toward him. With slight relief, he began to collect up his sticks again, “Please, do you know where I can find a mount?” he stuttered, “My dear niece is ill, you see, and…”
“If I answer your question, will you leave me and never return?” the animal interrupted. The old man gave a brusque nod.
“Men do not graze their animals on these pastures,” it replied slowly, “the ash which falls from the sky wears their teeth until they can no longer eat and they starve. As was my fate.”
“Oh.” That was not what he wanted to hear. At least it explained the large amounts of animal feed – oats and turnips – which was stored in the hunting lodge; any hunter that brought horses in the summer would be unable to graze them on the hills. If only…
At that moment, the old man jumped, wide eyed, and the sticks he had collected clattered to the ground again. A brilliant thought, a ridiculous thought, had just exploded through his mind. “Yes,” he said, “yes, that could work.” In a burst of energy, he sprinted down the hill so fast that he almost fell over. Partway down, he skidded around and ran back up to pick up the sticks, “Don’t you die. Stay alive!” he said to the elk breathlessly.
But the old man was already running back down.
The elk closed its eyes. He thought that the night would take him but, somehow, he had pulled through. Now this blithering old man had come dancing around him, throwing around sticks and asking strange questions. Was the whole ordeal a hallucination? Dying was a strange thing indeed. He sighed sullenly, “Men.”
* * *
The old man burst through the door of the hunting lodge so quickly he almost threw himself to the floor. Within seconds, he had dumped a pile of twigs into the fireplace haphazardly and was striking sparks across them with a fire steel. Clumsily, he tipped out a bag of oats and threw some into the water-filled cooking pot, mashing and stirring the mixture ferociously. Taking the sloppy mixture off the fire, he found a bag of sugarleaf in his belongings and threw some in. He found a bottle of whiskey on a shelf and carelessly sloshed some in, before drinking some himself. Just minutes after he had entered the lodge, he burst back out with a bulging water skin under his arm.
* * *
Torvald’s ears pricked up into the air. Slowly, he opened his eyes to see the old man trudging back up the hill toward him, puffing out high frequency clouds of condensation. Was this a joke? Had this man not just promised to leave him and never return? What had he done to deserve such a death?
When the old man reached him, neither of them said a word. The old man merely knelt down, worked the opening of the water skin into the elk’s mouth, and squeezed. A warm mixture exuded out from the opening. Later, Torvald would think himself weak for accepting the sustenance against his prolonged starvation. But it was warm. It was sweet. It was good. He drank.
At that moment, Torvald knew that he had denied himself his death.