It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Even so, the boy trudged on, for winter had come to the world, and winter suffered not the weak or the tired. He distracted himself with the strange symphony of a world gone quiet — the crunch of grass beneath tattered boots, the jingle of shells in their boxes, the far-off crash of the surf breaking on uncaring stone. All of this sound did not take the cold pain from his throbbing fingers. It did not lessen the weight of the straps around his shoulders or bring a balm to their painful digging, but it allowed his mind to wander to places before cold and pain, and hunger. It allowed him to slip into a summer that had long since fallen away to memory.

In the distance, the yipping of a grey wolf called its brethren to the kill. The boy was reminded of the scruffy deer that had crossed his trail yesterday, all patchy fur and thin limbs. He imaged it now, splay-legged, its red blood spilling out across the frozen ground and its hungry hunter filling an aching belly. At this, he smiled, but not for the deer’s sake. Like all children, the boy held a soft spot in his hardening heart for things gentle and weak, but the deer’s death meant that wolves might still roam the wooded foothills above his village; such things were worthy of the smiling in a world that grew smaller and emptier by the day. The boy now imagined himself a wolf, proud and fit for this alien world. This idea brought some short-lived but welcome comfort.

He pulled his aching body through the fence that encircled the city’s ruin, the numb clumsiness of frostbite now unmistakable on his whitening fingertips. He stared up at the distant peaks of man-made behemoths as he walked, their shining facades reflecting the too-dim sun of late afternoon back into the pale pink of the sky. In the distance, the occasional thunderclap broke the still air. The boy thought now of home, of nettle and sorrel and moss occasionally heated over the rare joy of a dung fire. He thought of friends, of finding some warmth in companionable company and in stories of the happier childhoods of memory. He thought of the cairns in the backyard, where he could sit and speak his thoughts and be heard by someone that loved him. He thought of these things and he walked. He feared that without these thoughts he could walk no more.

The lieutenant scowled with unmasked disapproval at the small, shivering child that approached his desk, his thickly gloved finger shot out like a spear, aimed at the boy’s heart.

“Who are you, boy? Where are our couriers?”

“Anders died… sir. Lucas has taken ill and can’t travel.” The boy watched a tiny brown spider scurry across the floor of the command tent. He wondered absently if the wolf would be able to meet this man’s angry eyes.

The lieutenant released a heavy sigh, pointed finger rotating to an open palm, demanding the pack still hanging painfully around the boy’s raw shoulders. He struggled awkwardly with the straps for a moment before a soldier intervened, roughly lifting the satchel and depositing it clunking on the desk. Fresh waves of pain radiated from the boy’s newly freed flesh, but he did not cry out. The wolf would not have cried out. A thunderclap rang out nearby, followed closely by the screams of dying men in the city’s heart.

The pack’s contents were removed one by one, the lieutenant’s scowl deepening with each item that came to rest on the desk before him. An ammunition can, jingling with the long, pointed rifle rounds favored by the local militia. Three small pipe bombs, Anders’ last contribution before his rattling lungs had finally failed him. A tin box of knives of varying temperament, hastily scrounged and poorly suited to the bloody work of the city.

“God damn it…” the lieutenant shook his head, pointing two raised fingers at his soldier, who turned to dig around in a nearby crate. Two long-necked, brown bottles were deposited at the boy’s feet, thin liquor sloshing around inside, “tell your people that I expect better than this.”

“We…” The boy started, a rising lump of fear threatening to choke the words, “we need food, we need clothing, we can’t…”

At another nod from the lieutenant, the soldier stepped forward and brought a stinging blow down across the boy’s face, sending him sprawling into the dirt, “You’ll take what you’re given and be glad for it, boy.”

There was nothing more to say. The boy gathered what little strength remained and returned the way he had come, bottles dangling from numb fingers.

It was so terribly cold. Snow was falling, and it was almost dark. Still, the boy trudged on, leaden movements slowing as the weight of this new world pressed down on him. He knew that he was too far from home for his thin, icy limbs to carry him. He was too tired and too hungry to distract himself with the happier thoughts of friendship or comfort or soup. An open bottle of thin, brown liquor dangled half empty from a nerveless hand as he followed the wolf’s winding trail toward the setting sun. It looked back at him now and then, its bright blue eyes reminiscent of happier times, before father had gone to the ground. The boy thought he could hear music playing somewhere ahead, the lilting melody of an old guitar, callused fingers strumming absently at a nursery tune.

 The surf was up to his waist now, but the cold was a distant thing. The wolf pressed on and so the boy followed. He smelled fresh bread baking and lilacs from the garden. He felt the warmth of a fall hearth on his face, heard the giggling of an infant playing in her mother’s lap.

The water licked at his chin now, his breath came in shivering gasps. His limbs spasmed and jerked, but those blue eyes still called him home. The wolf paused now and turned, its gaze meeting his own across the ageless waves. The boy heard the joyous laughter of a child in some far-off place and knew this voice to be his own.

March 17, 2023 04:25

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