This is the sixth chapter in an ongoing fantasy novel being released part-by-part, every Thursday.
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Time passes strangely for those alone in the wild. Each moment is a struggle for survival, every second is so all-consuming that months drift by without notice, each day is like the last and with no reason to expect any different in the coming weeks. Life is lived entirely in an agonizing battle for the present.
Months and years drifted by, marked only by the depth of ice needed to be chipped through to get to water. In this way, Cursebrand spent four winters in the valley beyond the Bear’s Maw. He had learned quickly why nobody returned from the valley: there were indeed bears there. They were larger than the ones he had seen near Almdalir and reacted poorly to being startled. He had nearly lost his arm in his first encounter with one by a riverside. He had survived only by throwing himself into the current.
He also had a real chance to test his bravery against a cave lion. His bravery held, but the lion reacted less well than the imp had to being stabbed in the face. Its skull was much thicker, and Cursebrand had earned himself a gaping wound in his chest before he was able to turn the spear onto more tender parts of the beast.
The recovery from these, and other wounds, tested him greatly. He was beset by fever and infection, and with nobody to care for him had to fight through the pain and delirium to feed himself. He was unsure if it was the demon within him or the guiding horns of The Ram that saw him through those times. He suspected it was both.
After four years, though, he was no longer a bumbling explorer in the valley, he was one of the animals of the land. The wolves had learned to leave him be after several lessons at the tip of the spear. The bears treated him as one of their own, still an enemy, but one whose territory was not to be invaded without consequence. He had grown fur to match the beasts. His arms, chest, and legs carried dark hair to match his skin, and he had a thick and tangled beard. A result of too much bear meat, he thought.
So much an animal had he become when humans finally did breach the Maw, he nearly attacked them for the intrusion onto his hunting grounds. The sight of swords at their sides gave him pause enough to reconsider and stalk them instead.
They spoke to each other as they stumbled stupidly through the woods. It took time for Cursebrand to make sense of the words, as he had not heard a spoken syllable in four years. Even his inner voice had fallen silent, and the words of the invaders chirped out like birdsong at first.
There was a single word that brought language back to him. “Aleks,” the short one had said. “Aleks.”
Cursebrand looked at the taller man. He was broad and strong. His golden hair was tied back and he wore a white over-shirt emblazoned with the sign of the Ram. He wasn’t at all the boy he remembered, but the eyes and the face, they were familiar. It was his one-time friend, there, in his valley.
His immediate fear was that they had finally come hunting for him, but the short one’s rambling allayed those quickly, “Well there are certainly bears here,” he said poking some stool with a stick. “But I can’t imagine trying to drag them back over that ridge.”
“Oreamnos will show us a way, Brother Erik,” Aleks replied confidently. “The High Priest has given us assurance of providence. This valley has been protected until now so that Almdalir could feed the pilgrims in this time of need.”
“As you say, Brother Aleks. But the Ram could have bloody well knocked an easier pathway here.”
It seemed as though Aleks was about to respond when he was interrupted by a fearsome growl and the thrashing of trees. Cursebrand chuckled as the two men fled in terror from the massive mother bear. He considered intervening, but he knew this bear and she would not stray far from her cub. She would simply chase off the careless trespassers and return to her fishing. The lesson would serve them well, he thought; it was certainly less harsh than his had been.
He shadowed them until they left the valley the following day, leaving much on his mind. “Providence, indeed,” he thought. Oreamnos had allowed him to stay on in this haven and had given him fair warning that his time had passed. He had learned to listen when the mountain spoke, and this could not have been more clear a message if it had been punctuated by an avalanche. He packed his furs and his stores of dried meats and made for the ridge under the cover of darkness.
Mountain climbing in the dark is generally ill-advised. Despite his quick feet and strong hands, scaling the Maw with a weighty bundle was very slow going and by sunrise, he had barely managed to scale to the top. As dawn broke, he sought a hole in which to hide for the day. An uncomfortable and difficult to reach little crevice served his purposes and he spent the daylight hours peeking out at his old town.
Much had changed in the intervening four years. There were twice as many buildings as before and the area seemed filled with people. There seemed a constant stream of travelers coming and going, so much so that the treacherous old routes though the passes were easily visible and well-worn pathways. Around the town, there were more men in the same over-shirts that Aleks and Erik had been wearing. It was difficult to discern from so far away, but their posture and general lack of movement made them look like they were guarding Almdalir, though from what he couldn’t imagine.
The biggest change, though was that there was a building made of stone, massive compared to the little wooden houses around it. The old worship hall had been replaced by a huge stone temple, which seemed the focus of all activity. Cursebrand couldn’t begin to speculate as to how this thing had come to be in the center of his old town, but he felt that it was likely to blame for the crowds and invasion of his hunting grounds.
Annoyed as he was at being forced out of his valley, he did not begrudge Oreamnos the needs of his followers. He had been allowed to live, had been given refuge. In hindsight, perhaps he had been kept alive as warden. He had prepared the area well for more delicate men to enter; the lions and the wolves had learned to fear them, and the more aggressive bears had become meals and clothing long ago. There were other mountains and other valleys somewhere. If the Ram willed it, Cursebrand would find them.
As the sun rolled high into the sky, Cursebrand’s ruminations on his destined path were interrupted by a party of intrepid hunters attempting to navigate the ridge. It was Aleks and Erik again, as well as a half dozen other men, armed to the teeth with spears and swords and bows. He wondered about the swords. He’d only ever seen one. It had hung in the mayor’s house, an heirloom from a forgotten time. Now everyone seemed to have one hanging off their belts, impeding their climb. They seemed pretty useless as hunting implements and he wondered what these men in their bright, uniform over-shirts, expected to find.
These thoughts quickly fell away, though, as he noticed two others that had accompanied the men to the point that climbing became dangerous.
They were women.
They were enchanting.
They were both dressed in the loose white shifts of temple maidens which pressed against their bodies in the stiff breeze of the high hills. Their blonde hair whipped around their smooth, pale faces. Brandon narrowed his eyes. The woman that Aleks was speaking to was familiar. She looked like Katarina’s mother but she was younger, cleaner, smiling. His chest pounded as the truth sunk in, it was Katarina. Four years had turned his childhood friend into a vision of surpassing beauty.
He was overwhelmed with guilt but he felt the demon within him trying to quash that. It wanted her. He knew not for what, but the urge to take her away with him into the hills consumed him. He turned away and stared pointedly at the most interesting stone he could find. His heart pounded. He sweat all over. He could hardly breathe. He’d not been so terrified since his first fight with a cave lion and what was worse, he enjoyed it. It took all his strength of will to fight the demon’s desire. He definitely needed to get away from humans, for their own sake.