Hunting in the Snow
James D. Swinney
It was cold. Damn cold. The kind of cold that forced ordinary folk to stay indoors, hiding beneath piles of warm blankets and lying by the fireside. Ordinary folk would take this day as a respite from the unending cycles of work that were their lives. Ordinary folk would shield themselves from the weather, delaying any travelling or shopping they had to do. Some might think the cold a blessing; others might think it a curse. No matter what they thought or did, though, ordinary folk would stay as far away from the outside as possible.
Cothien Dameth, however, was anything but ordinary, in this way. Unlike most sane people, he chose this day to spend outside, trekking through the forest and through the snow. He withstood the cold, pushed through the rough weather—he’d born tougher conditions anyway! — to partake in his favorite activity; namely, hunting Elves.
That was until the storm, however. Blizzards had ripped through the area for the past days, their winds so strong they could uproot trees, so cold they could freeze a man faster than he could spit. The snow piled so high that it covered smaller trees. It fell so heavily, its individual flakes the size of a copper penny, that it made seeing anything nearly impossible. For a while he stumbled around in the freezing white, attempting to find his way out of the forest, but that proved fruitless.
Now, one gruelling step after another, Cothien trudged his way through the ever-deepening snow. Piles of the frozen white powder poured into his boots as he walked, soaking his already numb feet into blocks of ice. The storm seemed to grow worse even as he moved through it, the only thing protecting him from the cold and wind being his fur clothing, though it was doing a poor enough job of it. His cloak had enough holes in it that it almost let through more snow than it kept out.
His quiver bounced against his back in the wind, though it was almost out of arrows. He’d caught little enough game, and, in this weather, it only took one miss in the darkness to lose an arrow. Slung about his shoulder haphazardly, his bow had been his only hope of sustaining himself over the past few days, for the sword at his side was little good at catching food. It seemed that the only thing it was good for, really, was weighing him down. So many times had he wanted to throw it down, to leave it to be buried under the snow, but it was at those times when he recalled the last time he had come up close against an elf without a sword. He shuddered at the memory.
Surrounding him for as far as he could see were the dense pine trees of the forests of Norn Khourt, some of the thickest woods on the continent. There were supposed to be all manner of hideous creatures in these woods, not the least of which were the Elves. They were ugly beasts, tall and winged and pale. They had no mouths with which to eat, but it was said that they took their sustenance from the trees themselves. Their lack of mouths, however, was made up for by the presence of huge eyes that shone like lamps even in the darkness. These features made them look almost childish, but only for a moment. They may not have had long, sharp fangs or claws, but their wrath was something wise men feared.
Still, he’d give anything to be facing an Elf over the eternal snow, falling incessantly from the pure white sky to blanket the already white ground. His hands felt like to fall off, his feet like they already had. The wind had long since blown away the scarf he’d once worn, so his face was numb as well. If he escaped this alive, Cothien was convinced that he’d be short a nose on the other side.
There seemed to be nothing and no one in that forest apart from himself and the snow. The tall, spindly trees shot like pillars of darkness into the infinite whiteness above, only to be lost in the snow, just like he was himself. He had never been lost before in his life; from his earliest years his father had taught him the ways of the huntsman and the woodsman, so he’d never been caught like this. Now he was saddened more by the fact that he had broken that perfect record than by the imminent death that loomed in his future.
It was then, in his pitiable state, when Cothien stumbled onto the river. It was not a river he recognized, despite his familiarity with the area, but it was a sight for sore eyes despite this. Its banks were lined with huge drifts of snow, but its waters remained unfrozen, though it didn’t seem possible. Despite his misgivings about that, it was his best chance for survival. He could follow it to civilization, to some town or village built on its frozen shores. And he was so thirsty…