Yanik silently worked the deer sinew around both ends of her yew bow, attaching the new horsehair string she had taken from the Wildman. It wasn’t a challenging job, but it was time-consuming to get right, and doing it wrong had fatal consequences. She sighed as she held the bow in front of her, struggling to accept the mismatched sinew that stuck out on her otherwise perfect bow like a rat on the Mountain Throne. She aimed at a large knot in a nearby aspen and pulled the string back, allowing it to thwack the air as she released it. The tension wasn’t perfect, far from it, but it would do until she got home.
The Wildman unexpectantly leaned forward to check the fish cooking on a small fire, making Yanik instinctually reach for the dagger sitting by her side. He was too terrified to look at her as he turned the fish and slumped back onto his log. “A bigger fire would cook that fish quicker,” Yanik said, resting her bow against the rocks behind her. “It would be warmer too.”
“No.” The Wildman barely grunted without taking his eyes from the fire.
Yanik scowled at him as she grabbed a bowl of deer fat and retook her bow, delicately oiling it to ensure it would arrive home safely. The spattering of the fire, the rubbing of the cloth, and the bow twisting on the leaves were the only sounds that penetrated the lasting silence.
She heard a loud sniff and turned to watch the bear inquisitively inspecting Redg from afar. It seemed intrigued, as if it had never seen a horse, and took a step closer to sniff his saddle, becoming confused by the scent of Yanik’s various goods she had attached to him. It cautiously pointed its twitching nose closer and closer, padding in with utter silence.
“Volk.” The Wildman warned, nodding his head away from Redg without taking his gaze from the fire. The bear – Volk, took one last sniff, lumbered over to the Wildman, and collapsed on the floor with a huff. He reached his hand to pat Volk but snatched it away as if the act she had taken was of a great offence, and he was not yet ready to forgive her.
Yanik had never met anyone as cautious as he. He’d hardly spoken since the river, instead opting to remain silent and still for sections as if Yanik was a significant threat to his existence. Granted, she may have threated him once or twice, but she was hardly as dangerous as his camp’s positioning. Most people avoided the Open Forest like the plague, let alone tucking themselves up against the Deep Forest where the Ferals lived. Maybe she’d threatened him more than once or twice… And taken his belongings. Still, something felt off. No not – off wasn’t the right word; something felt different about him, his energy was distinctive. He held a strange kind of authority. A silent authority… Or something like that.
The sun had dipped below the horizon, throwing the surrounding forest into ominous darkness. Yanik had felt uncomfortable traversing in the daytime, let alone trying to find a new space to build a camp at night. Shelter was vital to survival; if she moved along now, she would surely be left without it. “You’re not going to like what i have to say,” Yanik said, startling the Wildman. “Repairs took longer than expected. I don’t have time to build a camp. I’m going to stay the night.”
“If I refuse?”
“Then you’ll have to leave.” Yanik smiled as she picked up his dagger and twirled it. “It’s rather generous of me to let you stay.”
“What about that beast.” He said, nodding to Redg.
“What’s wrong with Redg?” She asked, lifting her hand to pat his flank.
“He smells - and he’s easy to track.”
“Firstly,” Yanik said with irritation, “You may have bathed, but your clothes certainly smell worse than Redg. Secondly, I love him as you do your precious Volk. Thirdly, he helps me travel.”
“I didn’t have to move until you showed up.” The Wildman grumbled, throwing a small branch on the fire. “Now everything’s contaminated.”
“Contaminated?” Yanik crowd in disbelief. “Redg hardly smells that bad.”
“By you.” The Wildman said, glaring at her through the corner of his eyes.
“Real charmer you are.”
“I don’t believe in charms.”
Yanik was unsure whether to laugh or explain how he had misunderstood, but the silence that followed and the Wildman’s despairing face stopped her. She watched him thoughtfully as he unblinkingly followed the small dancing flames leaping into the air. He was terrified. Possibly on the verge of tears. A twinge of guilt struck Yanik as she saw the grown man as nothing more than a little boy - a little boy terrified of his encounter with another person.
She returned to oiling her bow, unable to stop herself from glancing at the Wildman and replaying him catching the arrow in front of his face over and over. A little boy could not have done that. Not to mention the throwing knife, which had cut her bowstring from at least fifteen paces away. She had never seen anything like it. Her mind flickered to the stories Mother had told her growing up. The others who were banished from their world, the world they helped to create, then hunted down for - but this was just a lost man in the forest. Yanik had to get home to Mother. And yet…
“Tell me…” Yanik started carefully as she glanced at the Wildman. “How have I contaminated this place?” Nothing but silence as Yanik waited patiently for a response. “I didn’t think you had an answer. You’re just scared of a girl.” She said as she grabbed a large log and threw it on the fire, spitting embers high into the air.
The Wildman immediately leapt forward and removed the log, tossing it to the side with a hiss. “A human always means more humans.”
“Well, you were here, I don’t see other humans,” Yanik said, gesturing to the emptiness around them. “Doesn’t that kind of ruin your theory?”
“No more talk.” He grunted as he stood and retrieved an oversized black coat, so tattered Yanik thought it would fall apart in a stiff breeze.
She couldn’t help but chuckle to herself. “You call this talking?”
“How often do you -”
“And not listening.” He cut across her, sitting back on his rock. His eyes glazed over as he stared into the distance. Stared for a very long time at the nothingness in front of him. He closed his eyes. The sound of the river and Tuule-Emä’s breath gently rustled the trees, becoming louder the more prolonged the silence was. His eyes shot back open and darted to Yanik as she placed the wooden bowl back on the ground and her bow behind her. He looked away with embarrassment when their eyes caught.
Yanik wiped her nose on the back of her hand before stretching her arms up and saying, “You’re a bit of a Värk, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what that means.” He sighed as he placed his head in his hands, massaging his temples.
Yanik smiled to herself as she leaned forward. “It means -”
“I don’t care!”
“That right there.” She said, grinning at the Wildman. “Perfect example of a Värk.” She stood and unlatched her water skin from Redg’s saddle, gulping at the quenching liquid from within. She whistled merrily as she returned to her seat, stopping suddenly as she felt the Wildman’s eyes fixate on her belt where the small silk pouch with the elixir hung. She instinctively placed her hand over it, eager to protect the vial within. The Wildman sat still as he had the rest of the evening, but this time he was fiddling with a ring on his finger.
“What’s that symbol?”
“You said no more talk.” She replied.
The Wildman was unable to hide the disappointment on his face as the ring continued to twirl round and round his finger. He stood abruptly and retrieved the log he had tossed to the side, placing it back on the fire. He removed the fish from the heat, laid it down on a smooth rock, and produced a cutting knife from his jacket. Yanik sprung up from her seat, almost tripping as she scrambled backwards and grabbed her bow, eager to place the fire between them. The Wildman didn’t even look at her as he cut the fish into three, throwing the tail peace to Volk and laying the other two on separate leaves. He placed the knife on Yanik’s piece before sliding it over to her side of the fire. He picked up his own, returned to his seat, and began munching on the white flesh.
“I overcooked it.” He mumbled, shoving more fish into his mouth.
Yanik watched Volk inhaling her food, then turned to see the Wildman gulping it down in the exact same manner, as if it were their last meal. She sat back on her log, returned her bow behind her, and cautiously picked up the fish, placing the cutting knife with the Wildman’s daggers.
“The symbol has many meanings.” She explained as she tore off a piece of the stringy meat. “The pictures in the circles change their meaning. There are two that people are most familiar with, the first being the four factions united under the Korol.”
“What’s the meaning of that one?” He asked, his mouth overflowing with food.
“You don’t know the Mothers? Everyone knows the Mothers. They created everything.” Yanik said as she inspected the four circles, each with an intricate drawing of a Mother. She tore off a scrap of meat and placed it into the fork of a tree as she muttered a prayer under her breath.
“You’re wasting food?”
“You really don’t know? It’s an offering to the Mothers.” Yanik replied, retaking her seat. “As thanks for providing.”
“They didn’t provide.” The Wildman murmured to himself. “I did.”
“They allowed you to provide.”
“It’s a waste.” He said, shaking his head. “We’re a part of the forest as well.”
“Which is why we should give thanks.”
The Wildman crinkled his nose as he finished the last of his fish and placed the bones to the side with the rest of the waste. “Seems your Mothers didn’t get the thanks.” He smirked, gesturing to Volk, who was already at the tree taking the meat from its fork. She finished it in one bite, then lumbered to Yanik, who gently held out her hand for Volk to sniff.
“I disagree.” She said as she warily pat Volk under the chin.
“Volk.’ The Wildman snapped, pointing to the space next to him. His face screwed up as Volk lay down on the ground next to Yanik, basking in her double-handed pat. He turned away, hiding from the firelight, but not before Yanik saw wetness in his eyes and his hands tightly bawled. He gently rocked back and forward, silently muttering to himself, his breathing erratic as if the wind had been knocked out of him. He started panting as he mashed his fingers into one another, turning them white with the pressure he applied.
“I know this is less than ideal,” Yanik said, trying to calm him down. His sudden change scared her. “It’s only because I’ve nowhere else to go, and it’s not safe for me to leave.” The Wildman stopped rocking back and forth as he returned to playing with his black ring. “I’ll go first thing in the morning… Before you wake.”
“No.” The Wildman said suddenly and aggressively. His eyes flicked back and forth between his spinning ring and Volk lying next to her. “Get some sleep. I’ll point you in the right direction tomorrow.”
“Thank you.” She said as she scooped up his daggers, stood, and retrieved a blanket from Redg. “Where should I sleep?
“You don’t have a shelter?” Yanik asked.
“I… Sleep in the den.”
“Looks lovely!” Yanik said as she picked up her bow and entered the den, spreading out her things and making herself at home. “It’s nicer than I thought!”
“Not tonight.” She heard the Wildman say to Volk. “Bed.”
Yanik watched the Wildman as he eyed Volk releasing her bowels in the bush. Once she finished, he lay on the ground by the fire under his black coat, his chest gently heaving as if struggling to take a full breath. Another pang of guilt hit Yanik as Volk entered the den and curled up warmly at the end.
“There’s enough room.” She said, moving her bag out of the way. The Wildman rolled onto his side, facing away from her. She sighed, still confused about what to think of him, scared of his desolation yet oddly drawn to it. Was it possible? Could he really be - “I’m Yanik, by the way.”
There was a long pause.
“Night Flint.” She said as she laid down and made herself comfortable, looking back at him one last time.
“Night,” Flint mumbled under his breath, all the while spinning the ring around his finger.