The wind rushed past Flint as he soared through the sky, the dotted forest so far below the canopy had turned to rolling waves of never-ending darkness. It felt incredible to be lighter than air. To soar through the sky with speed and precision. To be all-powerful. The expansive horizon loomed in the distance, the open forest directly in front stretching for a hundred gallops to the world's end. To his left, the High Mountains pierced through the dark clouds that rolled over their peaks, obscuring the ground from view with its torrential rain that fell in swirling sheets. To his right, nothing but the sand stretched further than any could realistically venture. A paradise turned wasteland.
A river below twisted and turned like a gaping fissure in the world's crust, cracking the forest into two halves with its steady flow that grew fiercer with the falling rain. It sustained life. It must be protected.
A small village sprung into view; its rickety wooden wall lit dully by the waning moon. The river ran to the village edge, the forest cleared on all sides, a nuisance to its defence, no doubt. Removed as if it were nothing but an obstacle in their lives. Treated as expendable.
Flint retreated from the village and continued high above the river, keeping watch for abnormalities or disturbances that could reveal the location of those who evaded his rule. The flicker of the slightest flame reflected across the flowing river. Most likely nothing more than a savage camp. Most likely. Nothing would be left to chance. He banked and approached from a different angle. As he drew nearer to the light source, a tiny campfire revealed itself with three bodies slumped across the ground. No. Two bodies - and a great hulking bear. A bear? But that would mean… Wake up.
Flint jolted awake. Sweat streamed down his face as he frantically lashed out at the shadows that were gone in an instant. His heart pounded as he searched the sky for any signs of movement. Assess. Nothing visible. No sound. Safe. His hands shook violently as he wiped the sweat from his brow and tried to steady his erratic breathing. He looked at Yanik and Volk, who were sleeping peacefully, faintly lit by the fire's dying light – The fire! Conceal. Flint shuffled forward and frenetically scooped dirt onto what was left of the light — dousing its warmth but protecting them from the eyes that watched from above.
He sat back against a tree, grimacing from the stabbing pain in his throbbing thigh. He clutched at the wound pulsating with every beat of his heart, the heat of the infection rising through his pants. He untied his belt and shimmied his pants down his leg, revealing the black wound that looked blistered, cracked, and festered. All these years, it had refused to heal. He could not let Yanik see. She could not know. She was already developing foolish thoughts.
Flint reached out and grabbed his satchel. He fumbled around the buckle and found his medicine horn hanging from the front. He unhooked it and unstopped the lid but could not make anything out in the dark of the forest. He shuffled towards the spent fire and shook the dirt from a stick still glowing with embers. He held it up to his medicine horn and reached in, retrieving some herb, a large piece of sinew, a bone needle, and a square of cloth.
He removed his pipe, packed it with herb, and then used the stick to light his relief. He sucked at the end and tried not to think about the pain he was about to endure. She could not know. Nobody could know.
He searched the sky that held only the waning moon and the first sign of storm clouds. He placed the lit stick in his mouth and bit down to keep it in place, freeing both of his hands for busy work. The stick gave him enough light to thread the sinew through the bone needle on the first attempt. He placed the square of cloth over his wound, took a deep breath, and threaded the chunky needle through the fabric and his bruised skin, grafting them together.
He clamped down with such force that his teeth shattered the middle of the stick. Blood flowed from his thigh as excruciating pain reverberated up and down his leg. Without hesitation, he continued to thread the needle in and out of his skin, slowly tracing around the edge of the cloth.
In and out, in and out.
He groaned as blood began to pool on the ground, his teeth sinking further into the mashed stick as his jaw clenched into the dry wood.
In and out, in and out.
He made it roughly halfway and dropped the needle, taking a beat to lean against the tree and whimper. He closed his eyes and tried to ignore the wetness running down his face. He was weak. He could not even do this. He could not do anything. He was not ready. Not now, not ever. He twirled the ring that hugged his finger. Twirled it and thought of all his failures, the disappointment he had been to Mother. Mother, who had given him the ring and made him promise that he would not fail. Yes – He would not fail Mother. He would not. He repeated the phrase to himself as he sat back up and retook the bone needle. You will not fail Mother. You will not fail Mother.
He grunted as he returned to threading the needle in and out of his skin. Each beat of agonising pain bought him a moment closer to being able to rest.
In and out, in and out.
You will not fail Mother.
He turned the final corner of the cloth as his mind began to slip from his grasp. It had become nearly impossible to breathe as the muscles in his body seized, his chest clenched tight, desperate to alleviate the agonising pain.
In and out, in and out.
You will not fail Mother!
The stick in his mouth finally broke as his fingers dropped the needle, and his head fell back against the tree trunk. His sporadic breathing became a series of sharp inhales and non-existent exhales as he lost control of his movement. He had to take control. He forced himself to breathe, in through the nose, out through the mouth. Gradually, he began to relax different portions of his body. First his neck, then his arms, then his chest. Breathe. In and out. In and out.
Flint pried open his eyes, surprised to see the first light of day had dawned. He dared to glance at his no longer visible wound, now covered with the patch of cloth and dried blood. He lifted the needle and lowered his head to chew through the sinew. He tied it off to complete the task and picked up his medicine horn, removing the bulk of his remaining honey to smear across the punctures. She could not know.
He packed his medicine horn and wiped away the dried blood. He returned his satchel to its position and shuffled his pants back up his legs, covering the wound for good. He took a final deep, calming breath, hopeful of receiving a few more parts of sleep. He glanced at Yanik and noticed Volk sitting up and staring at him from across the fire pit. She turned her head sideways and fluttered her ears before standing and lumbering over to him. She moved two legs over his body and flopped herself down atop him.
“Oof,” He grunted loudly as her weight squashed him against the ground. She turned her muzzle and licked his face lovingly. Flint guided her head to his and the two held their foreheads together.
“That’s a bit cute.” Yanik yawned as she sat from her slumber. “How did you sleep?” she asked, unsurprised when Flint grunted and peered into the distance. “That well, huh?” She said as she stretched high into the air, releasing her body of the dull aches and pains from sleeping on the ground. “Do we need to find food?” Flint pointed to his bag, just out of reach of his outstretched fingers, unable to get to it while Volk had him pinned. Yanik snorted and moved to it, rifling through its contents until she found some small strips of dried meat. She threw a strip to Flint and took a bite, wincing as she struggled to chew the harsh, salty meat. “What is it?” She asked, poking out her tongue to lessen the overpowering taste.
“Rat,” Flint replied as he devoured his own.
“Rat? Eck.” Yanik exclaimed as she inspected the dried meat, turning it over in her hand. “It’s not often I miss boiled potato.”
“Potato. You’re joking?” Yanik said in disbelief, assuming Flint couldn’t possibly be serious. His vacant stare told her everything she needed to know. “You’ve never had a potato?”
“Do you hunt it?” Flint asked as he pushed Volk's midriff, grunting as he tried to relieve some strain on his chest. “That little guy with the long nose?”
Yanik laughed a hearty laugh. It felt good to be smiling again. “I can’t believe you’ve never had a potato. It’s in the ground. It’s what most commoners eat in the Capital every day. They’d think you very strange.”
“Feelings mutual.” He said. “Off.” Volk returned to her feet and instantly made for Yanik, sticking out her nose and sniffing at the dried rat she was still holding. She moaned with delight as Yanik began to pat her head and feed her the meat.
“Here’s what I’m thinking -” Yanik said as she scratched Volk’s chin. She looked sideways at Flint. “You help me return to the Capital, then I can show you around. I’ll even make you a potato.”
“Oh, come on Flint!” Yanik plead. She realised quickly that was never going to work. He needed a bigger push. “You owe me one. Which means you don’t have a choice. Don’t be boring!”
Flint froze, staring expressionlessly into the forest as he often did. She found it hard to work out what he was thinking, something that was easy in the Capital; no one had exciting thoughts there. His face rarely changed, never giving away his inner thoughts or feelings. If he had any feelings. Everything was so calculated. He took a breath. “I do owe you one,” He finally mumbled. “I’ll take you to a nearby village. From there, you can get your bearings and find your way.”
“Why are you so afraid of the Capital? You might like it.”
“That or nothing.”
“Fine, I’ll take it,” Yanik said. At least it was something — more than he had given her previously.
“Will there be people there? I don’t like people.”
“Well…” Yanik sang, knowing he wouldn’t like the answer.
“Do I have to talk to them?” He asked, turning his unamused gaze to Yanik.
“No.” She assured him as if he were a child. “Come on! It’ll be fun. What’s the worst that could happen? You can drop me off, I’ll boil you a potato, and then you won’t have to see me ever again!”
Flint sat still for a long while. “I don’t want to talk to anyone.” He mumbled as he began to pack his satchel.
“I’m certain you won’t.” Yanik grinned as she collected her gear. “Which way do we go?”
Flint searched from the river to the sky, again and again, as if something new would appear. He sighed as he stood and shouldered his satchel. “Four valleys over, there’s a village.” He said as he covered the fire and began marching away from camp. “A couple of days walk. Just follow the water.”
“How do you know?” Yanik asked. “I thought you’d never left your little hole?”
“I haven’t.” He grumbled under his breath as Volk took off into the trees.
“Then how -”
“I just do.” He cut her off irritably, “Fewer questions, more walk.”
Yanik slung her bag over her shoulder and took a final look at the campsite that had housed them for the night. It would have been nicer with a proper fire, she thought as she looked at the covered remains of their small firepit. She noticed the stream was undoubtedly higher and running more forcefully from rains that must have been in the north. Hopefully, it stayed clear of them. She watched Flint trudging away into the forest. The further from his home he got, the more likely he was to follow.
All she had to do was convince him to go to the Capital.
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