“It’s my knee you see, flares up in the cold. Will we stop soon?”
Stop? How about go back? I have my own ache to deal with and if this fool carries on for much longer-
It happens before I even think to stop and the man is lying on his back, scampering backwards in fear as I turn on him with a snarl. Back? I want to yell at him. Who is doing what for whom? Balling my fist I close my eyes, breath snorting heavily through my nose.
Helena and I parted on good terms, but those were diplomatic, leaving too many unspoken thoughts for that real touch of love. I tread the path away from the lodge in my mind, again. Replay the scene to see her arms folded at the door and a sorrowful smile delivered with a final, gentle wave. That face. Were it the prize of delivering a kick to Jormag’s scaly behind, I am not certain I would go. Four hours in and I miss her already.
Tentatively the man grasps my outstretched hand and I pull him to his feet. “Come on, we will soon stop for a rest and then something to eat.”
He nods and brushes a little angrily at snow clinging to his clothing. The man is clad head to foot in what cold weather protection Helena had to hand and looks like a cross between a fir cone and the fabled Bjarni Yeti. With an expression reflecting the cold air, he stares past me and I feel that perhaps I should say something, an apology of sorts, yet his disinterest and obvious distaste of what he sees of the current surroundings turns me with an inward sigh to resume our trek. At least I am compensated with not having to look at his miserable scowl. It does not stop the complaining though; mumbling, groaning, gasps of pain all thrown at my back to demonstrate his suffering.
Short of further intimidation I can only think to end his distress by talking over him. I call back over my shoulder, “We will be taking the higher pass, Hangrammr Climb. It will mean hard going, but a clearer trail; that and there’s less risk of getting buried.”
He sounds frantic. “Avalanches. Inescapable I am afraid.” I realise that I am enjoying this.
“Are they dangerous? I mean, what happens?”
“You die. Well,” I decide to embellish, “technically you suffocate, assuming that you do not get crushed first when driven down an icy slope by enough snow, ice and rocks to fill a decent sized lake – inevitably you do die though.”
“Oh.” He does not sound too happy.
“Of course,” I say, before he can get another pain-induced grunt free, “there is a way to minimise the risk of it happening.”
“But… what do you mean, sound?”
“The less of it the better.”
“Sound starts the avalanche?”
“Just like that.”
“Oh yes.” And then I cannot help myself, “The Jotun can hear a whisper one hundred strides off – giant strides at that.”
“The very same.”
“What are Jotun?” he hisses.
“They live in the mountains – the ones that start the avalanches. Any sign of someone not friendly to their clan will set them hurling boulders and trees.”
He squeaks, “They throw trees?”
“Oh yes. But do not worry, they are not a very good aim.” This is not really fair on the poor man. Yet it certainly makes for passing the time. After a moment I realise that he has not responded and strike up a tune, a reflective thought turned to a wordless hum and she is by my side, delighting at… everything.
“Shh.” It invades my thoughts. “Shh,” he hisses again. “Damn it you great oaf.”
“What?” I stop and turn at the same time wondering how long we have been walking for. “Did I not say-”
He looks frantic and motions for silence. “Shh, the Jotun.”
We are still a day or two from beginning the climb through the high pass and whilst there certainly are Jotun tribes that occupy that area, the chances of finding any down here are extremely slim. Except there is something going on.
A thundering bellow rips through the forest somewhere off to our right. Whilst hidden from sight it makes no effort to disguise its whereabouts as the beast’s cry is accompanied by the sound of rending wood and foliage being smashed aside. I know that call and the creature’s name is on my lips, except I realise the ground is trembling.
“Down!” It is all I can get out as we are both flung to one side of the crude trail, and only just after the undergrowth and trees explode in a shower of splinters. Something big, no something huge, pounds the ground and I catch myself hoping it carries on in a straight line away from us before instinct primes and I am up, pack dropped, rifle out and – staring into the gnarled face of an enraged Oakheart. This gentle giant of the forest is displaying none of its usual characteristics: ambling a woodland scene, immune to the course of the world in its own private introspection – upwards of ten feet in height, the wood seethes on all fours with claws that clench deep into the earth, its frame quivering like a spooked stallion, shaking a moss-strewn mane with such deliberate intent as though seeking to dislodge its rage.
My companion with no name starts screaming something about a Jotun avalanche and this is all the creature needs to clear any confusion. I back-pedal, almost tripping over the man who is still lying on his back in the snow. Just as I raise my rifle, trying to get sight of one of those beautiful amber eyes, it rears back snorting in defiance, raising two powerful forelimbs, the claws opening to scatter earthen debris. It roars again and I choose to fire. The bullet streaks along one side of its face, tearing at the bark, which the creature fails to notice as it smashes fists down upon the ground. Pitching back I try to roll, catching the sound of my companion’s scream as the ground around us erupts and nature seeks to consume with questing roots that lash out with whip-like speed to wrap my legs. I kick out at the bindings, forgetting at first that I am only providing an easier target with my manic thrashing. Twisting and turning like snakes and with a vice-like pressure one ankle is held firm, no matter how much I try to resist. The creature slams into the ground again, forcing me to look up – easy does it Asbjorn. The roots continue to tighten, but I will myself to calm in the face of this uncertain danger, drive myself to remain still and not react as I feel my other leg become ensnared.
“Try to relax,” I hiss at the wailing man. Gently I ease my rifle around to one side, arching my back so that I can keep the creature in sight. “Calm yourself,” I say a little louder this time, but he cannot hear me through the sound of his own screams.
The creature roars again, yet it is uncertain. It huffs, slamming a single bark-clad fist into the snow. The pressure around my legs begins to ease and then the man is up. I think to shout, but he is stumbling backwards into a tree, making almost as much noise as the Oakheart.
It charges, it bellows and I fire.
My mind’s eye follows the bullet’s trajectory whistling through the gaping maw, marvelling at the fact that had I hesitated for a moment the shot would have been lost, but it does not stop there. Plunging into the softer tissue of the roof of its mouth, the final resting place is the creature’s brain; a chance guess.
Its majesty is robbed as forelimbs lose control, rendered hopeless, no more effective than simple sturdy branches hacked from a tree, as it collapses forward to plough into dirt and snow mere inches from the terrified man.
“The damn tree… That tree, it attacked me!” he yells, lashing out with his foot to strike the still form of the Oakheart.
“It is done.” I am surprised at how easy it is to control my temper. Maybe it is the exhaustion from the encounter – either way I do not have the strength to teach him the respect he is so sorely lacking.
“Damn forest just turns on us like that! Did you see it?”
I can see now, the iron jaw of a bear trap clamped on the creature’s leg. “Just a lack of understanding.”
“Understanding? It’s just a damn tree.”
Recovering my pack from the side of the trail, I turn my thoughts to ahead and what is left behind. “It sure is, and a damn big one at that.”