After stoking the fire he cooked up a warm, watery broth. He had spent a long night trying to figure out how to feed Kayna without choking or injuring her. It was not a process he had enjoyed. Among the cooking pots and spoons in the lodge he had found a very long ladle which was presumably intended for use with a cauldron; the ladle had a long, slightly curved handle which was curved in a gutter-like fashion for strength. Several times a day he carefully fed the handle down his niece’s throat and ran broth down its length and into her stomach. Every time he did it he worried that he would accidentally suffocate her. It was one of those things that you hate doing to a person, but you still do because you love them. He had done that a lot recently. He sighed.
There was only one thing for it.
Hesitantly, he rummaged through his sackcloth bag. Most of the things he had managed to retrieve from the cliff had ended up scattered about the lodge; on shelves, on tables, on the floor. But one item had remained deep within the confines of the bag; he’d almost resolved to leave it at the bottom of the cliff, but it was too precious, even if he had originally resolved never to use it, even then, in such a dire situation.
He pulled a folded piece of fabric out of the bag; it was faded and laddered, betraying the antiquity of the item concealed inside. That item was a leather strip strung through what appeared to be several yellowed teeth; halfway along the strip was attached a beige coloured spike carved with arcane spiral patterns. He had been given the item many years ago by a person who claimed to be a druid with ancient knowledge that had been passed down through the ages. From a time when all animals and humans lived alongside one another. From a time when magic and sorcery was everywhere. He had been told that the relic was capable of curing any ailment, any illness that befalls one with a worthy soul, but there would be grave consequences following its use; greedy souls would be alerted to the relic’s existence and would endeavour to take its power for themselves, and if the item was taken from the person it had healed, their ailments would soon return.
He picked up the leather strip by each end and let it hang in front of his eyes. He couldn’t place his finger on why, but somehow the relic didn’t look right. It looked unnatural. A visual reminder of the harrowing events that might ensue if he used it.
All that was required was to tie the relic around her and the magic would take effect. So he had been told. He brought the ends forward and tied them around her neck, then slowly withdrew his hands; the spike felt warm to the touch. Wearily, he stood back and leaned against the wall. Kayna remained still.
The old man didn’t quite know what he should expect to happen next, so he wasn’t too troubled by Kayna’s continued unresponsiveness. It must take time for the relic to take effect; he had done all he could now, played every card in his hand, and now all that was left to do was wait. On that realisation, a heavy fatigue washed over the old man; he had done so much over the past few days, gone through so much physical and psychological stress, that only now, when there was nothing left to do, did his body finally accept that it needed rest.
He let himself slide down the wall and slumped on the floor. The prospect that his beloved niece would soon return to him warmed his heart slightly, but there was a prodding reminder in the back of his mind of the grave consequences that would follow. Who were these ‘greedy souls’ he had been warned about? How would they be alerted of the relic’s existence once it had been used? Were they evil wizards? Demons? Dragons, even? No matter. It would be worth it. It’s strange how the people closest to you can take over your whole world when you’re on the brink of losing them. Despite arguments, tussles and all the other petty quarrels of everyday life which more often than not were over nothing and amounted to nothing, there was an overarching bond that transcended all else. He would have to remember that when she recovered. He would have to tell her.
With that, his eyes drifted shut and he gave in to sleep.
* * *
The faint voice was only just perceptible. The old man’s eyes fluttered open, then closed again, only allowing the briefest of blurry, incoherent images to enter. He rolled stiffly onto his back; his whole body ached from sleeping on the floor.
His bleary eyes snapped open as the voice forced its way to the centre of his attention.
“Kayna?” he managed to murmur, still dazed from sleep.
“Yes, uncle, it’s me!”
He stood up to behold the most wonderful sight he’d seen in a long time; it was his niece! She was standing, smiling, well! A warmth electrified his whole being, mountains of pent up worry and heartache tumbling off of his back in an instant, “Kayna, you’re awake!”
They embraced warmly, “I’m all achy,” she giggled.
“I expect you are! You’ve been asleep for days, I’ve been so worried about you!” he said happily. Her uncle was elated; they were still hugging, he too scarred by the preceding events to let her go. Eventually, Kayna pulled away. She had a vitality about her that was absent before; her skin glowed in the flickering orange light of the fire, her hair was smooth and shiny, even the layer of dirt that had previously clung to her had seemingly disappeared.
“How did you do it? How did you make me better?”
Her uncle gestured casually to the relic strung around her neck, the spike resting neatly in the centre of the symmetrical arrangement of irregular teeth, pointing downwards toward her heart.
“It’s a magical relic, capable of curing any ailment.”
Kayna’s smile faltered and she looked down at the item as if she’d only just noticed it. It crossed the old man’s mind then that she was wasn’t wearing her furs, she was wearing her dress. She must have changed her clothes for some reason after she awakened. Strange. He didn’t remember retrieving it from the cliff. He continued anyway…
“Now it’s very important that you keep wearing this, or…”
“You stole it.”
“What?” The conviction of the statement stopped him in his tracks. Her tone had changed completely.
“You stole it and now they’re going to come and take it back!” There was urgency in her voice, fear even.
“Kayna, settle down,” he said uneasily. He tried to gather her into his arms but she pulled away, “They’re already here!”
As if on cue, a harrowing howl emanated through the atmosphere, followed by a couple of distant barks. Kayna was panicking, “I need to give it back. Quickly!” She rushed for the door.
He tried to stop her, but tripped on something and tumbled to the ground. Everything went dark. A sudden chill wind whistled across his face. He twitched and writhed on the floor. He couldn’t open his eyes. Why couldn’t he open his eyes? He clambered upright and forced his eyelids open; the fire had been extinguished, plunging the lodge into darkness. The door was wide open, banging violently on the bed as the wintery gale poured in from the outside.
Without another thought, he bolted out into the wilderness.
It was barely dawn. The cold morning had been engulfed in a ferocious wind which pummelled every pore with the icy darts of snowflakes thrown up by the breeze. Half-blinded, he pounded through the forest, screaming desperately for his niece, “Kayna! Come back! Where are you?” He couldn’t see her anywhere. Hurt and confusion filled his soul. What had just happened? He didn’t understand. Was it something to do with the relic? He just didn’t know.
If he had been thinking straight he would have traced her steps from the lodge, but he wasn’t. This was no ordered search. This was a desperate strike out for someone who, for a second time, had slipped between his fingers.
A loud bark snapped out to his right and he whipped around on impulse. He lost his footing and tumbled to the ground, throwing up an explosion of snow. In the frantic chase he hadn’t registered the barks and whines emanating through the forest. Wolves. On hands and knees, he spotted a sinister shadow bolt across a clearing in the distance. It wasn’t Kayna. He was helpless. There were wolves everywhere. He couldn’t see them but he could hear them. Paws padding through the snow, occasional barks of communication.
Raw instinct took control as the old man struggled up and bolted in the other direction. Immediately he became aware of a sharp pain which flashed down his left leg with every pace. He must have injured himself when he fell. Pushing the pain aside he ran onwards. He felt like some helpless prey animal being hunted down by the pack; in effect, he was; the wolves were surely pursuing him, and they couldn’t be far behind.
He redoubled his pace, throwing aside snow covered branches and thrashing through barely-visible undergrowth. He was certain that, any moment, he would feel the stab of teeth sinking into his skin, the despair of falling to the ground and the horror of being torn to shreds by hungry carnivores. All in the knowledge that Kayna, so vulnerable, would be left alone in the wilderness. Out there, somewhere, without him.