Jakob huddled closer to the crackling fire, trying hard to warm his icy hands that clung to a liquor bottle. His body wasn’t coping well with the boiling days and freezing nights, which added to the annoyance of lugging around layers of clothing. He’d grown somewhat tired of putting on and taking off furs. At least the sweltering heat kept the forest dry and the campfires easy to start. As long as Veteemä didn’t send her rain, which was becoming harder to predict, he would have the warmth of the fire.
He reluctantly sipped at the brown liquor and tried to cover up his splutter and cough, choking the burning liquid down for its thawing effects. He glanced at the other soldiers self-consciously, making sure they hadn’t noticed, then passed the ale to Narnio, the middle-aged woman sitting next to him. She snatched the liquor, swigged from the bottle, and grinned widely at Jakob as she burped loudly. The other soldiers laughed as they mocked him, pretending to cough and choke on air. He seized the bottle from Narnio and gulped at the liquid, taking three whole mouthfuls before spilling it down his chin and dry retching as his throat tingled and tried to reject the alcohol. The soldiers cheered and made vomiting sounds, eager for Jakob to lose his stomach. He was determined to disappoint them. He lifted his head triumphantly and opened his mouth to prove he’d swallowed the disgusting liquor.
Narnio stood and held her hand to Jakob, who reluctantly passed her the bottle. She clicked at Zakar, sitting opposite her and pointed at a large log collected for the fire. He threw it across the flames, which erupted with anger and climbed above the sides of the log, engulfing it with its burning embrace. Narnio stepped onto the blazing platform and guzzled the remaining quarter of the bottle, holding it upside down over the fire to prove that she hadn’t wasted a single drop. The soldiers clapped wildly and began chanting Narnio’s name. Jakob couldn’t help but laugh and join the chanting as more bottles of liquor were passed around.
“We are not alone.” A voice carried over the top of their good time. Lord Uksmat… Yarganov – The Tormentor of Pochreka, stepped forward and threw a foreign spear onto the fire; its blade impaled with the head of a terrifying beast that had enormous fangs hanging from its upper jaw. Jakob winced as the beast’s hair caught, lighting its face while its mouth curled into an open snarl. “We are in the open forest. They are listening.” The Tormentor said, gazing off into the bush, then up into the canopy as if searching for someone standing a pace away. Jakob knew no one was stupid enough to attack a northern camp. He was sure of it. The Tormentor swung and pointed to Jakob, “You.”
“Yes, Tormentor,” Jakob stammered as he got to his feet. He couldn’t determine why The Tormentor had started directly addressing him but was undoubtedly eager to live up to his expectations. Or was it that he was frightened if he didn’t? Honestly, he didn’t know.
“Take a ration to our guests and keep watch,” The Tormentor instructed as he picked up a liquor bottle from the ground. “Let me know if he comes to. She may not know where it is, but he does.”
“At once,” Jakob said, too scared to move as The Tormentor slowly paced around the fire, taking in every soldier before disappearing into his tent. The group shuffled uncomfortably as they looked at the ground or sipped from their bottles, unsettled by the burning monster's face. All eyes moved to Jakob as he grasped a handful of smelly, dried… something. He placed it on a small plate, picked up a pail of water, and turned to the forest. It was dark. So dark he couldn’t see further than two paces ahead where the thick brush sucked up the firelight. He placed the plate on the ground, shoved the weird meat in his pocket, and leaned over the fire to grab and light a new fatwood torch. Narnio and the other soldiers mumbled their apologies and support to Jakob as he left the camp, each relieved it was not themselves who drew watch. Jakob was determined to see it as a positive. He would be The Tormentor’s favourite by the end of the trip. He was sure of it. But… why him?
His friends now quiet conversation and the fire's warmth disappeared distressingly quickly as he crunched through the undergrowth. It was only twenty paces or so, but he was thankful when two silhouetted bodies came into view. One sitting upright, leaning against the tree, and the other slumped on the ground awkwardly.
Why had he chosen me? Jakob couldn’t stop thinking about it. What was it? He didn’t come from wealth. He hadn’t been successful on the battlefield, nor were his sword skills any good. He had seen The Tormentor’s work more closely than any other. He was the one who cleaned it, the limbs and the blood and everything else. That stuff didn’t worry him. Maybe that was it; he could do the work. Perhaps he saw him as… an apprentice or something. Yes, that was it. That had to be it. The Tormentor wanted to mentor him. Jakob the Tormentor. He liked that. He would start practising now.
He threw the pail of water over the captives, causing the woman to jolt and moan, shivering as the water seeped into her thin tunic and clung to her body like a soiled bandage. She looked rather shapely, he thought, not that he would stare for long; that was rude. The man, on the other hand, did not stir. “No sleep,” Jakob said, forcing the torch into the uneven ground.
“I wasn’t,” She replied, unable to stop the chatter in her teeth. “Now, I might freeze to death.”
“Shame.” He said with a shrug before winding up and kicking the man in the guts. Jakob was disappointed to find that he was still unconscious. The Tormentor would be impressed if he could get a confession from him. “I hope he wakes up. For your sake.” Jakob grinned as he reached into his pocket and threw the meat onto the dirtiest, wettest patch of ground he could find. He took little pleasure from the act, but then again, they were the reason he wasn’t by the warmth of the fire or in his bed. He kicked the meat with his muddy boots, “Enjoy your meal.” He flipped the pail of water and placed it by a tree five paces off, then carefully organised his belongings to be within reach before laying his head back on the tree and closing his eyes.
Yanik stooped to try and get the jerky but couldn’t lower her head as her hands were tied to the tree trunk. She painfully shuffled her legs out from underneath her and craned to the ground, stretching her neck as far as it would go and clasping a piece of jerky between her teeth. She sat up triumphantly, then almost dropped it as she noticed Flint’s eyes, which disconcertingly reflected the torchlight. They were open. He was awake! He’d been unconscious so long that she was sure he was dead. He was moving his lips, trying to say something. Had he forgotten how to speak? Or maybe he couldn’t move. Only his lips moved, the rest of him staying incredibly still. She leaned in.
“Save it,” He was mouthing. “I need it.”
She dropped the jerky in her lap. “Need what?” She mouthed back, shrugging her shoulders. His eyes darted to the ground as he looked at the loose meat. “Why should you get it?” She asked, ready to protest his unreasonable request, when a stick thrashed her across the face, tearing painfully into her cheek.
“Because I’m not a prisoner,” The Pimpled Man said before gulping from his water sack. He placed it down and waved the stick in the air. “No more talk. I don’t want to be disturbed.”
Yanik sat back grumpily and held in tears as blood dripped down her cheek. She tried to distract herself by communicating with Flint, but his eyes were closed, and he was still in that ridiculous position. His body must have been in agony—his own damn fault.
Yanik closed her eyes and tried to take her thoughts from the throbbing pain. Images of her mother, her sisters, and her bow flashed into her head before the pain in her cheek would wrestle back control and cloud her calming thoughts. She considered praying to the Mothers. Her guides. Her constant. But decided to hold her prayer. She may be in greater need of it soon and didn’t want to ask too much of the Mothers. Besides, they always provided.
She persevered with a single memory, picturing herself as a child of six winters studying the soldiers who trained day in and day out on their archery. The way they stood, the way they held the bow, the way they loosed their arrows. She had nowhere to go, nothing else to do. This was her reason to live now. Every day, nothing but archery. It took her months to assemble her first bow, time after time choosing the wrong sliver of the tree and snapping the wood. She remembered the overwhelming thoughts of elation the first time she successfully attached the string to the bow, holding it aloft with feelings of relevance for the first time in her life. For now, she had a friend. Her first friend. And it wouldn’t leave her. It couldn’t –
A scratching drew her from her pleasant wanderings, inviting the pain to flood back into her senses and pull her back to reality. She bared her teeth and grunted with irritation, searching for that faintest of sounds that rang loud in the otherwise silent night. She pressed her ear against the trunk but to no avail. That fucking scratching was ruining her concentration. It was coming from Flint’s direction, but he was lying motionless with his legs bent underneath him. No animals were searching for food, nor were there branches hanging low enough to scrape against the trunk, even with Tuule-Emä’s breath. It must have been Flint. It had to be. Finding a way to annoy her while lying perfectly still. No… Not still. His thumb and forefinger were gently grating together, a single drop of blood teaming from his wrists as his fingers gradually tore through each fibre of the rope.
Yanik glanced at the Pimpled Man trapped in his own world of boredom. He would surely be searching for any means to inflict pain. She knew if she hinted at Flint’s plan, he would be delighted to ruin it. It was up to her to play her part and bide her time. She glanced at the torch, still burning strong having just been lit. She was going to be visible for at least another two sections and had to find a way of keeping herself from falling asleep.
A muffled laugh carried through the forest from the main camp, making the Pimpled Man miserably lift his head to search for his friends as if they were coming to keep him company. Yanik strained to hear what they were talking about, desperate to pick up any information about where they were or where they were going. Only tiny snippets of conversation penetrated the trees, slowly growing in sound as the alcohol wore off their inhibitions. Much to Yanik’s frustration, they were determined to enjoy themselves and talked of nothing but trivial things. The soldiers’ voices trailed off one by one as they turned in for the night.
A bitter gust of Tuule-Emä’s breath surged through Yanik’s bones, causing her to shiver so violently that her teeth audibly chattered. Her numbing extremities began to tingle, causing her to fret over the black rot that would corrupt her if she didn’t find warmth. She felt powerless to her imaginings of its icy embrace upon her fingers, frighteningly severing them from her hands, rendering her unable to draw back her bow and stealing away her only friend. She stared at the torch and imagined it extending and curling its defrosting flames around her, sharing its warmth, stopping the black rot and allowing her to keep her life. To keep her bow. To keep her friend.
Flint sat abruptly, removing his bloody hands from behind his back and gathering the jerky strewn about the ground. “Flint!” Yanik said, sitting up excitedly as if someone had just offered her a hot drink and a warm bath. “He’s fallen asleep. We can -”
“Shhh.” Flint hushed her with no other acknowledgement. He began tearing the jerky into small pieces and throwing them into the surrounding forest.
“What are you doing?” Yanik whispered furiously, leaning forward to try and catch Flint’s eye line. She wondered if the whack on the head had made him mad. He must’ve completely lost his mind to be doing something this foolish. “Stop it, now!”
“Shh,” Flint said again, throwing the final piece of jerky over the Pimpled Man’s head before returning his hands to his bindings and reverting into his uncomfortable position.
“Untie me at once!” Yanik demanded, tugging at her bindings as she lashed out with her feet. “Let me out this instant!” Yanik halted as the Pimpled Man snorted in his sleep and repositioned his head on the tree. She glanced at Flint, anger rising as she thought of all the ways she could kick him until he untied her from this abyss. One swift kick to the groin ought to do it. She grimaced with pain as she drew back her freezing foot, which felt like a thousand little pins were poking into it. She could hardly believe Flint was still lying motionless as if curled up in his warm bed. But he was motionless. His clothes were as wet as hers, his nose was bloody and bent, and his wrists and fingers were raw with rope burn. He looked horribly uncomfortable with his legs bent out of shape and his body weight pressing down through a crooked shoulder. Why had this fool not taken his opportunity to escape?
She noticed his stomach rising and falling in steady intervals. He wasn’t complaining because he was breathing through the pain in the same way she used to when Mother made her sit and pray for sections. She remembered Mother saying that with careful effort, the breath could warm her body. If he could do it, so could she. The Mothers would send her warmth as she waited for Flint to find the right time to strike. At least… Yanik hoped that’s what he was doing.
She closed her eyes and focused on the frosty night air filling her chest through her nostrils. The warm exhalation that glided past her upper lip reminded her to hold onto hope; it was warm. She focused on expanding her breath to its capacity before exhaling over the count of eight. She listened to her heartbeat and felt the blood flow to her limbs. She lengthened her exhale whenever she felt her body had adapted to the new conditions until she was eventually taking a full breath over the count of twenty-two beats.
The rustling of a nearby fern tried hard to steal Yanik’s thoughts, but she pushed through with her breath, unwilling to disturb the state she had created for herself. A hand gently prodded her shoulder, startling her back to reality. Flint crouched beside her, still pretending to be bound to the tree. The torch had fully exhausted itself, leaving only the faint remanence of flames and tiny snippets of the moon's light stopping the three of them from being in total darkness.
“Get ready,” Flint mumbled as his eyes searched the tree line.
“Hey!” Flint called out to the Pimpled Man. “Wake up.”
“Shh!” Yanik cried, worrying once again that the bump on his head had turned him into a madman. The Pimpled Man jumped to his feet in a sleepy haze as he drew his sword, sluggishly waving it around at the shadows of the trees. She could see his relief to find Flint and Yanik bound to the tree, his face shifting to a smirk as he realised Flint was now fully conscious.
“About time you woke,” the Pimpled man said before stepping forward and holding his sword towards Flint. “Tell me where it is.”
“There’s something out there,” Flint said, nodding to the forest. “Movement. I heard it.”
“You must think me a fool. Where did you put it?”
A loud crack echoed through the forest. The Pimpled Man spun and surveyed the surroundings, unable to see more than three paces in any direction.
“Who’s there?” He spluttered, lurching from left to right as if unseen movement drew his attention. “Show yourself at once!” The rustle of a nearby bush and the shake of a hanging fern broke his resolve. “Help! I need help!” He cried into the darkness, his bravado disappearing in an instant. “There’s somebody here. Something moving in the -”
The remnants of the burning torch cut the Pimpled Man off as it slapped across his unsuspecting face. His cry muted as Flint punched him in the temple and sent him tumbling to the ground. He picked up the Pimpled Man’s sword and returned to cut Yanik’s bindings. “Come on!” She cried, rubbing her tender wrists as she wobbled away from their prison. Flint grasped her by the tunic and pulled her back against the tree.
“Stay still.” He muttered, pinning Yanik’s chest against the trunk.
“We have to -”
“Still.” He repeated with such conviction that Yanik didn’t dare move. They stood silent as the soldiers yelled directions to one another, their torch lights becoming visible as they got closer and closer.
“Flint?” Yanik breathed as one of the older female soldiers rounded a tree and cast her light upon the captives.
“I’ve found them!” She shouted, walking towards them before disappearing in an instant. Yanik heard horrifying screams and ripping flesh as something tore at the women. It snarled as the other soldiers rushed to her aid, but the cries had stopped and been replaced by the sounds of a creature feasting on her body. Yanik squinted at the silhouettes of the soldiers who moved towards the flickering light of the woman’s torch that had lit one of the dried-out ferns.
“Come on,” Flint said as he ushered Yanik over the Pimpled Man’s unconscious body. More screams erupted as snarls surrounded them. Some sort of pack animal had descended upon the soldiers, leaping from the darkness and attacking with precision. Flint led Yanik around the feeding frenzy, their path now lit by the fern that had begun to burn out of control. They arrived at the back of a tent, where the camp was now unprotected by the soldiers who had run to the women’s aid. Flint hadn’t just planned an escape; it was a rescue as well.
Flint used the sword to cut a hole in the tent’s exterior, allowing them to enter from behind. Yanik almost laughed as Flint held the blade up to the naked Yarganov, who was drowsily placing on his robes. Instead, she gasped at his bare back, covered in scars from neck to navel. They intersected in every direction, his whole back unnaturally raised from his skin. He turned, unashamed, and eyed them. Both his nipples were missing, his chest the same as his back. His face remained emotionless except for his eye, which twitched uncontrollably. Yanik retrieved her and Flint’s belongings that had been riffled through and spread about the tent. She grabbed her bow and Flint’s gauntlets and daggers which were hanging from a pole. “Forty-two years and now you’ve been beaten,” Yanik sneered.
“I will never stop hunting you,” Yarganov promised them, his eye twitching like a maniac.
“I’ll never stop running,” Yanik replied as she slung her bag over her shoulder. She backed up to the rear of the tent and opened the slash for Flint. “Shall we?” She smiled. Flint excited, then held it open for her before cutting at the top of the tent, causing it to collapse. Even she had to admit this was an okay plan. She handed Flint his gauntlets.
“They’re getting away!” Yarganov’s voice rang over the commotion. It had lost its chilling edge and been replaced with indescribable rage. “With me, now.”
Yanik could taste the freedom the Mothers had delivered her. She knew they would provide. As they started into the forest, it soon became apparent they would need to double back as the small fire had transformed into a blaze that blocked their path. They stayed low as they rushed back past the camp, hiding their silhouettes from the soldiers who had abandoned their fight and joined the search. Yanik peered over her shoulder to ensure they hadn’t been followed and accidentally walked into the back of Flint.
“What are you -”
“Quiet,” Flint whispered, nodding towards the giant creature snarling no more than ten paces in front of them, hungry for blood.
“What is that?” Yanik breathed. She couldn’t see much of the creature, just the fangs that reflected the firelight and curled out of its mouth, each longer than Flint’s daggers.
“A tobras. Bad sight. Good ears.”
Yanik grabbed Flint’s hand as the two of them cautiously backed away. She looked over her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t leading them into danger, allowing Flint to keep his eyes on the creature. She stepped over a fallen tree and placed her other hand on Flint’s back to help guide him over the obstacle. He stepped on the tree and put his weight onto the trunk but lost his footing on a chunk of moss and landed heavily on the ground with a crash. The tobras snapped its head around and stared vacantly towards their direction, lifting its nose and inhaling deeply.
A moment of silence.
The tobras bolted towards them, snarling as it bounded with frightening pace. Flint jumped up and pushed Yanik aside before stamping his feet and running from the tobras. Its speed caught him by surprise and left him too little time to dodge, its enormous body slamming into him and sending him flying into a nearby tree. He lay motionless on the ground as it hinged its large jaw, ready for the kill. As the Tobras’ fang sunk into Flint’s shoulder, another shadow sprang from the forest and rammed into it. A bear. Volk! She swiped manically at the tobras and opened her mouth wide but was surprised as it regained its footing and swung its head into Volk’s side, knocking her over. She lashed out from the ground with her claws as the creature jumped on top of her, biting at her neck. Yanik whipped her bow off her shoulder and loosed an arrow into its rump. It snarled and charged at Yanik, who loosed another arrow that landed in its eye before diving out of the way of its charge. It roared in pain as Yanik somersaulted, releasing one more arrow into its side. The unkillable creature roared again, the arrow barely penetrating its thick hide. Yanik’s skin prickled as the out-of-control fire cast its light across the huge creature for the first time. Its mouth was large enough to take Yanik’s head clean off in one snap. Its fangs hung from its mouth like two blades, ready to pierce through the toughest armour. It was nimble yet solid, a giant cat that was both prey and predator. It swung around and sniffed the air, wondering which of the three targets it would devour first. Yanik glanced at the out-of-control fire using Tulle-Emä’s breath to help it take flight. It hurtled through the forest, destroying everything in its path and heading straight for Flint’s unconscious body. “Volk!” Yanik cried as she ran for Flint, shutting out the beating of the tobras’ paws as it dashed towards her. She stole a peek behind at the creature, who was a few paces away, preparing to launch itself for a final assault. As it pounced, a hulking brown body flew past her and met the creature head-on. A whimper and a snarl were all Yanik heard as the animals locked jaws and jostled for the killing blow. Yanik knelt by Flint’s lifeless body and grabbed his arm, heaving him away from the path of the fire. She shielded her face as it spat scorching embers towards her, struggling for breath as the noxious smoke filled her lungs. The tree Flint was slumped against burst into flames, showering them with cinders as the fire prepared to make its final embrace. Flint was too heavy. She was too weak. She hooked her arms under his pits as the fire pressed within touching distance and made one last effort to haul the two of them away. She flung herself atop him to protect his exposed face as the heat lapped at her unprotected neck. The smoke was so thick that all she could do was gasp for breath. Then, as suddenly as it arrived, it moved on, Tulle-Emä’s breath carrying it away as it burned a black scar through the forest's undergrowth. Yanik heard a whimper and a cry, then saw Volk running from the battle. She sat up in time to see the tobras streaming towards her. Her lungs heaved. Her eyes wept. Her limb’s felt heavier than rock. But she was not done yet! Not now. Not like this. The Mothers would guide her. A shimmer caught her attention. Flint’s gauntlets in the dying light. She struggled with the latch, trying desperately to release the dagger from within. “Come on!” She cried as the clasp finally freed, allowing her to rip the dagger from its sheath. The tobras lunged for Yanik, who flung herself backwards and the gauntlet in the air. The tobras lifted its head towards the flurry of movement as Yanik raised the dagger and allowed the tobras’ force to carry itself onto the blade. Yanik gasped as blood rained down upon them, the hulking body collapsing in a heap on top of her.
She laughed. Or cried. Maybe both as the full weight of the creature pressed down upon her, dead. “Argh!” She sobbed as she used all her strength to roll herself free from the beast’s enormous body. She rose onto her hands and knees, strained for air, and wiped the blood from her face.
“They came this way!” Yarganov said, his voice having returned to its chilling calm. “Search the area.”
“The fire was too intense, Tormentor.” The Pimpled man’s shaky reply came. “They wouldn’t have come this way.”
“That’s exactly why they came this way!” Yarganov snapped, affording Yanik a small smile. She had managed to rile The Tormentor of Pochreka.
Volk limped over to Yanik and nuzzled her in the side, giving her the strength to retake her feet. She stared at Flint’s lifeless body and gently nudged him with her foot but could not wake him from his unconscious state. Volk grunted softly and clawed at Flint’s satchel. Yanik peeled it from Flint’s shoulder, tied it to her bag, and placed it on the ground next to her bow. She sighed heavily, exhausted, then kneeled beside Flint and grabbed onto his arm before rolling his body weight and using his momentum to bundle him up and onto her shoulder. She grunted as she heaved him onto Volk’s back. She grabbed a piece of rope from her bag and wound it around Volk and Flint, tying them together before throwing the rest of their belongings over her shoulder with a groan.
“What was that?” The Pimpled Man shouted from no more than thirty paces away. Yanik held her hand over her mouth. “Up there.”
Yanik paused. She could hear it too. A sustained growl. Something huge. Something above them. She surveyed the sky through a small clearing in the trees and saw a disturbance in the clouds. It must have been the biggest creature in the world. There was only one creature that large.
“Päike, Maaemä, Tulle-Emä, Veteemä, Tarra.” Yanik whispered as she performed the blessing of the Mothers. It was time to go. Time to get far away from here. She took a deep breath, placed her hand on Volk’s flank to steady her, and allowed Volk to lead the way into the dark unknown. Away from this abyssal place.
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