The Mountain’s Maw – Part 2: Strange Bedfellows

It was early morning and the only sound that rung through the crisp, cold air was the crunching of snow beneath Ortan’s boots. He had been blessed with sunshine and a break in the wind and was glad for both. With his belly still warm from the ample breakfast the kind people at the Waylight had provided for him, he had set off just as the sun began to rise. He was overjoyed that it was bringing a larger share of its warmth than it had the past few days.

It had been about a week since he had left Marecade in search of his sister, and aside from the brief respite of his stay at the Waylight, it had been an arduous journey. Traveling the Kragen mountain path in winter was not a journey many attempted, and one that even fewer survived. But when Ortan had awoken to find his sister gone, he found himself with little choice but to go after her.

After their father had passed a few months ago, they had made the journey to Marecade to see him interred. After that, they had arranged the sale of their small family farm to some ambitious farmers. The sale of the land was surprisingly easy. The men who purchased it had the resources to harvest the fields, and benefit from reaping what they had not had to sow. Since then, Ortan and his sister Jesali had spent their time in a hostel in Marecade, making money off odd jobs and trying to decide what to do next.

They were now the only family each other had left, and so when Jesali disappeared without warning one morning, Ortan had set out immediately to find her. He had spoken to a town watchman who said he had seen a woman matching Jesali’s description leaving the city gates on the north road late the previous night. Armed with a general direction, Ortan had then visited one of the city’s diviners. He’d spent a small fortune on having a strip of cloth from one of Jesali’s left behind garments enchanted to help point the way to her.

Ortan held up his hand and concentrated, that same small strip of cloth wrapped around his palm and tied. He focused on his breath for a moment and then, as the diviner had instructed, reached out with his mind through the cloth, trying to feel where Jesali was. He could feel a small still hum, like an echo of an echo, calling him north further into the mountains.

Ortan fought not to dwell on the worry he felt for his sister and keep his mind focused solely on finding her. He had almost given himself over to complete despair a few days earlier but had found solace in recalling his mother’s prayers to Pelor.

“Our barns are full to bursting with the provision of your hands,” he recited quietly as he trekked, “You feed the deer and sparrow, your bounty sustains through biting frost and famine.”

The sun felt warm on Ortan’s face and it felt like a grace from the gods themselves. The surrounding forested landscape was numb and still; winter had laid its claim like an occupying army, and it held its ground furiously.

“Though mice may steal our grain, this too is Pelor’s care, for the mice require grain to live just as we. What Pelor has bestowed once, he can, again and again, so do not hold tightly to anything.”

A snapping of deadfall broke Ortan from his reverie. He stopped and listened for a moment, then slowly readied the bow from off his back. He nocked an arrow and held the bow low, but not drawn, as he slowly crept forward towards the source of the sound.

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a flash of movement and he saw what had made the noise. A rabbit, nose aloft and twitching, moved cautiously through the snowy wood in search of food. It was fat with its winter weight and the site of it set Ortan’s stomach to growling.

Time almost seemed to slow as Ortan lifted and drew his bow, training it on the small woodland creature. He took a slow quiet breath and held it as he took aim, and unleashed the pent up energy of the bow, hurling the arrow true towards his quarry.

In a matter of seconds, it was all over; the arrow had found its mark. The rabbit dropped before it even knew it was in peril; its little life ended swiftly. Ortan thanked Pelor for fresh food and trudged up to collect his kill. He removed the arrow and placed it back in his quiver seeing that it had not been compromised, and tied a small bit of rope around the still warm rabbit to hang it from his pack. Knowing the frigid air would keep his kill fresh so he could dress it later when he stopped for the night, Ortan kept moving.

The next few hours were more of the same snowy thicket. Had it not been for the charm wrapped around Ortan’s palm giving him bearings, he could have easily ended up lost in the homogenous landscape. As the day wore on, the weather that had started out almost pleasant for the region began to grow more inhospitable. As he neared the mountains the trees began to thin and the ground went from soft snow drifts that hid dead plant matter, to snow-covered hard earth penetrated here and there by rocky outcroppings.

Soon, the sun began to tease the western skyline, and the clear sky erupted in vibrant pinks, oranges, and reds. Small wispy clouds intermittently banded the sky. Ortan was breathing heavy as the ground around him grew more and more steep as he passed the timberline; the forest around him giving way to sparse tundra.

His stomach, which he had momentarily been able to ignore, began to growl ferociously again. He was suddenly very aware of the small amount of extra weight on his pack; the rabbit swinging to and fro with each footfall. Ortan was torn; finding Jesali was the most important thing to him right now, but stopping to find shelter for the night and to eat something would ultimately help him reach that goal. He would be no good to her dead; he just hoped he wasn’t wasting precious time.

It didn’t take Ortan long to find a cave large enough to make camp for the night. He inspected the mouth of the cave carefully for signs of recent habitation. Both the snow and nearby brush all looked undisturbed. He cautiously began to creep inside. There were many large beasts in the mountains that could make a cave like this home, and Ortan did not want to run into any of them.

The interior of the cave was not very deep. It was deep enough to provide plenty of shelter for the night, but not so deep that he had to worry about something lurking further within the cave. After a few minutes of searching, he was satisfied that it was vacant, at least for the time being. He had not stumbled into an active lair or den, and he thanked Pelor for that as well.

After a few minutes of gathering up the driest wood he could find, he started a small cooking fire within the cave. With the rock walls to shield him from the wind, and trap some of the fire’s warmth, he soon felt comfortable enough to remove a few layers of his snow-soaked clothing.

He hung his garments near the fire to help them dry and then began to prepare his meal. Taking a small knife from his waist, he made a small cut across the rabbit’s throat with practiced skill and drained it of blood. Then he skinned it and rigged up a spit over the fire for it to cook.

Soon the smell of the roasting creature permeated the small cave. Ortan was practically drooling in anticipation; the smell of the meat promising a warm and savory meal. Aside from his meals at the Waylight, it had been hardtack and jerky for most of the past week. Ortan’s patience began to wear thin and he wished with all his might that the little beast would cook faster.

Before he could enjoy his meal however, a low growling sound joined in the chorus of the crackling fire. Ortan felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. Near the mouth of the cave, Ortan could see two eyes reflecting back at him in the firelight. The smell of his meal had attracted a guest.

Ortan got to his feet slowly, hoping not to provoke an attack. He unsheathed his sword and held it at the ready. The creature advanced, teeth bared, maintaining its low growl. As it came forward further into the firelight Ortan could see that it was a wolf.

It was on the leaner side as far as wolves go, but still a large and powerful creature. That actually put Ortan a little more on edge. Creatures fat from ample food supplies will often leave travelers well enough alone. It’s when beasts get hungry that they are all the more dangerous.

The wolf continued its slow advance, hunger in its eyes. Its fur was mostly grey dappled with white and was matted with what looked to be dried blood. Ortan could not tell if it was that of a recent kill or the creature’s own blood that decorated its coat.

Without taking his eyes off the slowly advancing beast, he did his best to check his peripherals for the rest of the pack. He didn’t see any other signs of movement and could hear no more snarling than that of the wolf ahead of him. It seemed to be alone.

It was now about half way between the mouth of the cave and his cooking fire. It sniffed the air and licked its chops but slowed, seemingly hesitant to approach. It eyed him cautiously. Ortan could not tell if it had stopped because of him or maybe the fire, but he was glad to have a moment without it bearing down on him.

The creature began to pace back and forth along the width of the cave, keeping the same distance from Ortan. He was able to get a better look at it now. The red-orange glow of the firelight shown in its eyes and its cold wet nose. It was favoring one of its legs. Every other step its front left paw would just barely touch the ground before it hopped on to its other legs.

Ortan lowered his sword and inched almost imperceptibly forward. The wolf eyed him intensely. Then he raised his hand towards the now cooked rabbit to retrieve it from the spit. At this, the wolf growled and snapped at the air in his direction, its fur prickling up to make itself appear bigger.

“Woah, easy now,” Ortan said, hand still outstretched. The wolf continued to growl but did not advance. Slowly, calmly, Ortan removed the rabbit from the heat. He grabbed his water skin and poured some water over the meat to try and cool it faster, and ripped off a chunk and tossed it in the wolf’s direction.

It hit the ground and skittered until it came to rest about a foot in front of the wolf. The injured beast recoiled slightly at first. It moved closer to investigate, sniffing at the offering and then greedily snatched it up with its sharp teeth.

“This too is Pelor’s care,” Ortan whispered, “So don’t hold tightly to anything.”

Ortan tossed another piece and this time the wolf did not recoil. It seemed to relax, fur no longer bristling. Ortan took a bit for himself and then another to the wolf. They continued on like this, sharing Ortan’s kill amidst their silent armistice.

Eventually, the wolf laid on its belly in the dust of the cave floor and ate happily. It kept its eyes firmly on Ortan though, giving him a guarded look. Ortan sat as well, lowering himself to the ground right where he stood. All that stood between them was the crackling fire and a tense peace and understanding that this was about the food. And so Ortan and his uninvited guest both ate in the warmth and shelter of that little cave.

After Ortan had picked clean what he could from the rabbit, he tossed the bones and anything else that remained over to the wolf and then sat back.

“What happened to you friend?” He said. The wolf just continued to gnaw on the carcass, but its ear twitched at the sound of Ortan’s voice.
“How’d you get all bloody? Did your pack leave you to die out here?”

The wolf said nothing, as expected, but Ortan found some small bit of comfort in having something else to talk to.

When the wolf had its fill of the rabbit, it let out a contented yawn; its tongue curling up in between its gleaming fangs. It stood and walked in a small circle and then curled up near the fire’s warmth, resting its jaw on the floor, still watching Ortan.

“You can stay here in the warmth tonight, friend, if you promise to leave me be.”
When Ortan spoke, one if the wolf’s ears perked up and its eyes scanned him quizzically. Seemingly content with a meal and a warm place to sleep, it closed its eyes. Before long it was asleep, there by Ortan’s fire.

Ortan rummaged into his bag for something to give him some peace of mind while he slept. He fished a small smooth stone from his pack. On its surface was carved an intricate rune. He had acquired the stone on one of his mercenary jobs a few months back while he and Jesali were working in Marecade.

It was a warding stone. It allowed him to create a small magical barrier around himself while he slept. It wasn’t a particularly powerful enchantment, but it would be enough to deter the injured wolf if it decided he looked too appetizing in the middle of the night. Should the wolf try to move on him and trigger the barrier, it would most likely be stunned pretty well. Should something worse come along, it would give Ortan warning and a chance to defend himself at the very least.

He placed the stone in his palm, closing his fist tightly around it and closed his eyes. This type of magic was new to him, but the diviners of Marecade had said that the items they sold did most of the work. He envisioned a sphere around himself, just as they had instructed, and then he threw it forcefully down into the dirt at his feet. A pale blue sphere erupted from it, surrounding Ortan for a moment. It was wide enough for him the lay down in. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished.

“Ok, they said it would do that,” He said under his breath to himself. He bent down and placed a finger on the warding stone and felt it was slightly warm. The diviners had said that as long as the stone emitted a slight warmth, the ward had succeeded. Satisfied that the ward was in place, he settled in to get some rest.

The minute he laid on the ground his utter exhaustion hit him like a stampede. It was like his constant activity had been holding it at bay and the very moment he allowed himself to relax the dam failed and the wave of his fatigue enveloped him. The past week of travel had taken a lot out of him, and his legs ached from the incline of the day’s hike. He welcomed sleep wholly and unabashedly and it came in mere minutes. He slept like the dead.

Upon waking the next morning, his feral camp-mate was nowhere to be seen. His ward had remained intact and there were no signs that the beast had made any advances against him in the night. It appeared to have risen before the sun and left him in peace. He retrieved the stone from its place in the dirt, and he could feel it rapidly cool as he picked it up out of the earth. He returned it to his pack as he gathered up the rest of his things.

The fire had burned down until it just small glowing embers. Thankfully the cave had retained enough residual heat that Ortan was only slightly uncomfortable as he donned his now dry, but considerably smoke-scented wardrobe. He stirred the dying embers with a stick to expedite their cooling; kicking dust from the cave floor atop the coals for good measure.

Upon exiting the cave, he had to hold up his hand to shield his eyes. The sun shone vividly off of the snow and threatened to blind him. He gave his eyes a minute to adjust and then set about orienting himself. He once again concentrated on the charm on his palm and felt the now familiar pull as it beckoned him still in the direction of the mountains.

Unlike before, the sensation seemed somehow fuzzier this morning. The pull he felt was somehow not as sure as it had been previously. Ortan did not understand much beyond the basic workings of the charm that was explained to him upon his purchase, and he hoped that this wasn’t a bad sign. He also noticed that, contrary to his expectations, the pull seemed somehow lower than he expected, a lot lower; like his destination lay not at the peak of the mountain but deep in the earth, below the mountain itself.

He hoped that as he drew nearer the sensation might clarify and he set out once again to continue his search for his sister. The snow crunched under his feet as he walked, and the familiar rhythm prompted him to resume his recitations.

“Our barns are full to bursting with the provision of your hands. You feed the deer and sparrow, your bounty sustains through biting frost and famine.”

He trudged on, determined to find Jesali. He couldn’t bear the thought of losing his last remaining family in this world. And as he continued to make his way up the mountain, a pair of canine eyes watched him from the shadows.

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