That was how it continued. Twice a day for the next several days, the old man would come up the hill to feed Torvald the warm gruel from a water skin. He tried to refuse but, though he grew stronger by the day, he was still too weak, too hungry to resist. They didn’t talk during these feeding sessions; the old man just held the water skin and Torvald just drank, each gulp pulling him further and further away from the death that nature had intended for him.
On the fourth day, he became strong enough to stand. It was time for answers.
Shaking and stumbling like an unsure calf, one by one, he brought each leg to a standing position. The days of exposure on the hillside had taken their toll. Not at all confidently, he began to plod down the hill, following footprints softened by light snowfall into the forest. Halvar had warned him not to enter the forest alone, but those experiences seemed to be of a different life. Torvald was still toying with the idea that he was, in fact, in some confusing manifestation of the afterlife. If he found this man, this spirit, whatever it was, perhaps he could discover what in the world had happened to him.
Torvald didn’t need to go far. As he entered a clearing just beyond the treeline, he found the man collecting sticks from the forest floor. There Torvald stood for a long while, watching him go about his business. He had never met a man before – at least, not while standing – humans and wild animals didn’t interfere with each other in Bjorgyn. A person who had spoken with a wild animal was a person with a story to tell.
Torvald almost bolted. Wide-eyed, he looked on as if surprised that the old man could see him, as if he somehow had the privilege of seeing without being seen. Unabated, the man trudged across with a mixture of elation and awe, “I can’t believe you actually came! I thought you’d just run back to your herd!”
The elk flared his nostrils then turned away, refusing to speak. Despite his initial intentions, it seemed unnatural to talk to a man; it was against everything he had been taught, every instinct he had trusted and followed throughout his life.
Stopping in his tracks, his elation stumped, the old man sighed, “Oh, don’t be like that. I know humans and wild animals don’t talk to each other here but we spoke before…”
The elk gave no response. He didn’t even look back.
“You wouldn’t come here if you weren’t going to talk to me, surely?”
Despite the edge in the old man’s voice, the elk gave no response. They both stood there for a moment, weary, several paces apart. The man furrowed his eyebrows, “What’s wrong with you?” he snapped, “I fed you. We talked. Now you find me just to act like that didn’t happen!”
Still no response.
In a sudden burst of frustration, the old man threw his bundle of firewood to the ground, “I saved you from starvation!” A blue, ungloved finger pointed accusingly, as if to stab the elk through the air. He took a tentative step forward but didn’t dare come closer to a creature so many times larger than himself, even if it was in such a malnourished state. The man’s face was torn with frustration, “And you come here, as if to give me something in turn, as if to help me… you build my hopes and then… and then…” Tears ran down his mottled cheeks, but his eyes were full of anger and conviction, “… and then you… you mock me like this! You make me a fool!”
“I thought you were Death.”
The man hesitated, his anger temporarily replaced by curiosity, “Wh- what?”
“I thought you were Death!” Torvald turned and brought his growling voice to full force. The old man stumbled backwards into the snow. “If I knew you were nothing but a man I never would have spoken to you! You raised my hopes, you made me a fool.” He hammered out his words, clouds of condensation spraying out of his nostrils, before screaming “You made me think I’d reached something after!”
Torvald’s voice echoed through the clearing and birds scattered into the sky. Unexpectedly, the old man started to cry. Torvald snorted and trampled a circle in the snow, over and over again. He’d come for answers, an explanation for why he had been clawed back from the death that was meant for him, only to find that the being that had done so was nothing but an old man. Men were always meddling in nature, not content with the natural order of things; this was why they and the wild animals stayed so far apart. Torvald flicked his ear in response to a whimper from the ground,
“You would have died…”
“I should have died… you had no right to take that away from me.”
“I know, I… I know…” the man sniffed, “… but it’s just… my Kayna.”
Torvald paused a moment, his heart softened slightly by the mention of a name.
The old man pushed himself into a sitting position and struggled up from the ground, “My niece. She’s desperately ill, but I can’t take her all the way to Kollsvik all by myself, I need help. You were…” there was a glimmer of hope in his voice now, “You were all I could turn to.”
They paused. The old man looking desperately to the elk, the elk still trying to make sense of the peculiar situation.
“I could never enter a settlement of men.”
“But Kayna, she’ll die…”
“As I was meant to. You must accept that that is the way of things. Now leave me in peace as you promised in the first place.”
Torvald began to walk away, back to his resting place. He was still weak; he couldn’t stand for long. A few days lying in the snow and he could forget about this strange business – talking to men, drinking strange gruels, walking into the forest – just as Halvar had left him.
“No! Please! Wait!”
He heard the old man calling in the distance, but he didn’t look back. The business with his niece was unfortunate, but humans and wild animals were not meant to interact in that way. It wasn’t how the world worked. He was no beast of burden. His affairs in this world were finished.
* * *
A silent Kayna lay motionless on the bed in the hunting lodge, a small fire glowing in the fireplace at the end of the room. She didn’t appear particularly peaceful – as if she were sleeping soundly – or unwell – as if she was trapped by some sort of hex – she was simply neutral. Distant. Inexpressive. She was like an empty vessel; there was a body but no mind, no soul.
The door handle rattled and the old man stepped in, stamping compacted flecks of snow off of his boots as he dragged a large bundle of sticks awkwardly into the confined area. The lodge’s small supply of wood had quickly been depleted after several days of continual burning to keep the punishing cold outside at bay. The man shut the door and looked over to his niece, still lying there unmoving; he worried every second he had to leave her alone to collect wood. Worried that some troupe of miscreants would kidnap her from the middle of nowhere, or that some wild animal would take her for an easy meal; he knew well enough of the wolves that populated the area – had heard their howls in the distance – though, thankfully, he had never seen them down in the woods. Yet.