Flint delicately balanced a dagger between each index finger and thumb. As all weapons forged by his ancestors were, their weighting was perfect, gently rocking back and forth but never tipping. The double-edged charcoal blades joined seamlessly with the small black cross guard that had an M at the top, a vein of ruby running through the hilt, and a W on the pommel. He stared at the daggers, marvelling at their beauty, before catching his procrastinatory thoughts and returning one of them to its gauntlet sheath. He flipped the other intricately between his fingers, bent at the elbow, drew back his arm, and closed his eyes, envisaging the dagger spinning through the air. With one motion, he reopened his eyes and let loose. The blade thundered into the small red circle he had drawn on the skinny birch tree with rubia tinctorum root.
“Thoughts?” Flint mumbled, lolling his head to face Volk’s hulking brown body. She had recently reached her full size, strong enough to take on any predator in the forest. Not that you could tell by how she was basking in the patch of sunlight that penetrated the thick canopy. “I’m improving,” Flint reassured himself. This time Volk raised her large head quizzically before lazily laying it back on the ground. Flint ambled over to the birch and retrieved his dagger, gently wiping it clean of the watery residual sap.
His heart jumped when Volk sat up with alarm and peered into the forest, her black nose twitching as it strained for scent. He gazed at the tree line as she inhaled deeply, allowing the many smells of the forest to fill her incredibly accurate nose. He often longed to smell as she did, the scent of prey or predator revealing themselves long before eyesight. Volk lowered her ears and exhaled, laying sleepily back on the ground. “Nothing?” Flint asked, reassured by Volk, who opened her mouth wide and whined through a satisfying yawn.
Flint returned to his throwing position, bent down, picked up a large stick, and moved it back three paces. He realigned himself with the birch and once again raised his dagger, holding it out in front of himself while visualising hitting the circle's centre.
Volk sprung to her feet and raced towards the source of the noise. Without hesitation, Flint had drawn both daggers and followed close behind, the two moving harmoniously as they weaved between the trees. He swiped his hand across his forehead to push his brown, wild hair out of his eyes. He then flicked the final curly strand free, which had taken up the rather nasty habit of sticking to his unkempt beard. Free from distraction, he picked up the pace and drew level with Volk. She chattered her teeth, causing Flint’s muscles to tense. The danger was just beyond the next wall of ferns. Together they burst through the threshold, Volk circling as he slid along the ground, holding his daggers aloft, ready to slice at the light brown blur that filled his vision.
“Volk.” Flint sighed heavily as she sniffed the deer hanging upside down in his snare. Hardly the intruder Volk had made it out to be. Flint retook his feet and drew his blade across the dangling deer’s throat. “Next time, just say you’re hungry.” Volk’s brown eyes tilted sideways as she innocently stared at him. She flared her nostrils and inhaled, then pawed the deer, eager to eat her lunch. Flint inspected the hoof caught in the snare and lifted the deer’s whole body off the ground. “Not again.” He mumbled, dissatisfied to see that his makeshift rope had frayed beyond repair. It was the second one to break this week. His hands ached just thinking of harvesting enough grass to make another one. He drew his dagger across the destroyed rope and sent the carcass tumbling to the ground.
An uncomfortable chill ran up his back as he knelt by the animal. Something was close. He glanced at the wall of trees five paces away, so dense, not even a trickle of light penetrated the canopy. They sat impossibly close to one another, their trunks straight up and down, creating a barrier that forced any who wanted to venture through to turn on their side—the edge of the Deep Forest. Flint had only entered once and became lost in an instant. The darkness and oppressive heat were enough to disorient even the most skilled trackers. If it hadn’t been for Volk’s keen senses, he never would’ve made it out.
Flint shook the thoughts from his mind and returned to the deer. He wasn’t in the mood to thoroughly butcher it, so he cut from its anus to its belly and lazily removed its innards, replacing only its stomach and intestines for a water skin and sausages. He threw the undesirables to Volk, who quickly abandoned the mossy log she had been licking and padded at the guts as she excitedly picked out her favourite organs, the liver and heart.
With blood dripping down her chin, she grunted in short sharp bursts as she lifted her head and stared at the edge of the Deep Forest. Flint stood and placed his hand on her scruff, patting her gently while reassuring her softly. “It’s okay.” He said, unable to determine whether he was reassuring Volk or himself.
He stepped forward with his wrists crossing over his heart and his fists facing his chest. He lightly hunched his shoulders and dipped his head politely while desperately trying to remember the word respect in their language. “Lugжat.” He said quietly, hoping he remembered it correctly.
From the forest emerged five hunters, so well camouflaged in the surrounding landscape he could hardly see them standing only a few paces away. Their faces were painted brown and green, which blended impossibly well with their clothes made from large leaves and sticks intertwined with one another. He almost hadn’t noticed their small spears easily disguised as they pressed them against their bodies. Analyse. Five. Possibly more faceless people in the trees. His daggers would quickly destroy their weapons, and Volk would be a welcomed distraction. But they were fierce warriors, skilled in poisons and traps. He wasn’t sure who had the upper hand; he didn’t know if he was skilled enough or brave enough to win, should it come to that. He held open his palm to Volk, fingers pointed to the floor.
“Vara’Tulak ä ma.” The slender middle woman said, stepping forward and bowing to Flint, then bowing to Volk. She looked from the deer sitting on the ground to the broken rope tossed to the side. “Tê Koiska nôk rohis nôk Бor pôka te -” she said before narrowing her eyes and stopping mid-sentence. She grinned. “Vara’Tulak. Me.”
Vara’Tulak nodded. “Flint rope, grass weak, bark strong.”
Flint looked at his frayed rope on the ground. “Okay.”
“We watch. You forest love. Lugжat.”
“Lugжat,” Flint said as he lay his hand on Volk’s head and gave her a scratch. Vara’Tulak bowed to Flint, then Volk, and silently backed into the forest, disappearing in beats as her camouflage took hold. “Come on,” Flint murmured to Volk, slapping her across the back.
He could tell there was going to be a storm by the thick, warm air and the single small cloud bounding across the sky despite the treetops standing perfectly still. It must have been rolling off the High Mountains. He was eager to get back to the den. He leaned down, grabbed all four of the deer’s legs, and effortlessly tossed it over his shoulder. “Why do I have to carry it?”
Volk sat staring at the sausages cooking above the fire, her mouth dripping with anticipation. The firelight cast itself ominously across the leafy ferns and tall trees surrounding the small clearing that backed onto a large overhanging ledge. It was the perfect shelter from the harsh rain and wind and tapered into a cosy Den that was tucked neatly and privately away from the world. He had grown used to the firelight’s trickery, turning the beautiful daylit forest into night-time tangled webs and outstretched fingers. The den was one of the few things that helped him feel at ease.
Flint was too busy to worry about such nonsense. He made one last skilful shave of the deer’s upper jaw, which he had whittled into a fishhook. He blew away the powdery residue before laying it down and inspecting his evening's work. His new waterskin hung drying with the pelt which would keep him warm; the bones were separated for burning, carving, and making a broth, the sinew for repairing tears in his clothes, the tail for a lure, salted jerky for future meals, and the hooves for melting, or if Volk was extra lucky, chewing.
He leaned forward to check the sausages as Volk shuffled excitedly towards the food. They had nicely browned on either side. Flint removed them from the fire and laid them on a leaf to cool. “Uh! Hot.” He cautioned as Volk shuffled within striking distance. Pausing momentarily, she ignored his advice and lowered her head towards the food. “You’ll burn yourself.” He muttered, having seen her play this game many times before. She whined as he moved three of the sausages onto a separate leaf. “Fine.” He said, pushing them towards her.
She opened her mouth wide and took them all in one go. She chewed momentarily, huffed aggressively, then dropped them on the ground. Lowering her ears, she placed her face next to the sausages and looked at Flint with sad eyes. “I told you.” He said, pulling his sausages towards him. He picked one up and tentatively blew on it before taking a bite. He welcomed the heat, which warmed his belly as the smoky meat gave him strength.
As he took his final bite, the golden symbol on his black ring flashed in the firelight. He removed it and inspected the four circles divided by a cross. He lifted the ring to examine it from different angles, as he had many times before. Was there something he was missing? Some vital piece of information that would leap from the ring and fill his troubled thoughts? Nine winters it had been. Nine long winters. Still, Mother’s words played over in his mind. A confusing tale of contradiction, instruction, and destiny that had ruled his solitary life.
He turned the ring over and over in his hands, allowing his thoughts to spiral deeper out of control. He jolted with terror as thunder filled the forest. Images of death streaking across the sky, Mother torn apart, raging flames, ripping flesh, Telesia’s golden hair alight, half-truths blurred with forgotten memories. Not forgotten. Never forgotten. Seared into his memory. He forced his eyes away from the ring and placed his hand on his erratically beating heart. The panic that followed those thoughts sat heavy in his chest, sapping his mood and stealing his newfound strength.
He leaned over and pulled his satchel towards him, retrieving his Mother’s tattered coat, which he draped over his shoulders. It had always given him comfort to feel surrounded by her. Volk whined as she lay down next to Flint and leaned her head next to his thigh as he retrieved his pipe and smoking herb. He stuffed the small chamber to the brim and used a little knife to pat it down, he placed the knife in his pocket, picked up a little stick from the fire, and used its flaming end to light his relief. Breathing deeply, he sank into Volk’s flank as the sweet, smoky smell masked his unbearable feelings and soothed his pounding chest momentarily. Another inhale. Another exhale. Another inhale. It was already gone. Best not to use more tonight.
He returned the ring to his finger. “Bed?” He asked as he sat up and packed away the goods around the fire. Volk lifted her head and tilted it sideways, looking from the forest to Flint. “There’s going to be a storm.” He mumbled as he stood and retrieved a sizeable poking stick. “Bed.” He repeated, prodding at the fire to separate the flaming sticks and logs from one another.
Volk stood and walked to the other side of the clearing. Flint watched as she passed the ferns and defecated to spread her scent around the den. She returned and stood next to him as he lifted a large sheet made from strengthened bark and placed it over the firepit, covering the coals and plunging them into darkness.
Volk’s body pressed against Flint’s as he took a handful of her scruff. She slowly guided him towards the entrance of their den. He reached out his hand and felt for the overhang, using it to guide him into their cosy sleeping spot. Volk let out a small grunt as Flint crawled inside and began to unwrap the leather straps that held pelts to his feet. “Have fun,” Flint said, removing his tattered tunic and laying it down on the soft deerskin rug. Volk turned and dashed into the forest, excited by whatever adventures awaited her in the dark.
Another rumble filled the forest as Flint lay his head on his grass pillow and pulled up his rabbit hide blanket. The soft pelts felt pleasant against his bare skin. It had always been different curling up in the den. Simultaneously feeling safe and unsafe, hidden away from the world, just the way he liked it. The faint sound of Volk crashing through the forest slowly faded into the distance, leaving nothing but the eerie sound of silence to fill the void. The all-consuming darkness left him lacking sight and stuck with his ever-wandering mind.
Another flash of light and a booming rumble was all it took to return his mind to ripping flesh, burning hair, his mother. He would not let it consume him.
“Night.” He mumbled to no one, balling up his legs to make himself as small as possible.
He looked forward to Volk’s return.