Save Your Own Skin

      The wolf-toothed wind whipped the snow into a frenzy, and Daniel did the best he could to hold onto the calm within. His father had taught him that inner peace was a flame which no wind could touch if one shielded it properly. But the howling gusts cut so deep to the bone that Daniel fancied he could feel the flame flickering, threatening to fail. The surrounding mountains provided little cover, and the stone sentinels looked on indifferently.

      “Father, we need to set up camp,” Stefan implored. Daniel didn’t care for the quiver in the boy’s voice.

      “We go on,” Daniel said. They needed to make it down this winding slope into the dense forest below, where they might find a proper shelter to make a fire. So on they trudged through the knee-high snow, with no song to buttress them but the creaking of their horse-drawn wagon. 

      Oh, how they’d sung on the first days of their voyage. Even Bella, their old mare, had seemed chipper as they loaded her up with as many leathers as she could possibly carry.

      “Do you really think we’ll be able to sell all those at the market, Pa?” a sparkly-eyed Daniel had asked.

      Daniel chuckled as he tied down the load. “Well, there’s a good demand for leathers. I imagine after we get our spices and supplies we might have enough to fetch us a silver pound or two.”

      Stefan had never seen a silver pound before, let alone one owned by his Pa. “You really think so?” he asked.

      “You never know, Son.”

      But part of him had known. He never sold half as much as they loaded up on Bella. Daniel wanted so much for their market stall to be the grandest of any trader there, with everything on display from saddlebags to leather armor. To see his son’s face light up when they headed home with their wagon full of supplies and a few treats besides. This was to be the first trip to market for Stefan, a four day voyage on which Daniel usually hired two men to accompany him. But with Stefan in his eleventh year, Daniel believed the two of them ready to brave it alone. Master and apprentice. And for two days they went with the cool April breeze at their backs, casting joyful songs up into the blue sky above.

      He'd known they were in trouble when Stefan spotted the cougar on their third day. 

      “Look, Pa,” the boy had said. The big cat sat up on a ridge, gazing down at them with what appeared to be mild curiosity. But Daniel knew better. You never saw one of them unless they meant you to. It yawned, and Daniel suspected it was so they could get a good look at those teeth, which could rend flesh better than even the village butcher.

      Daniel raised his musket and fired, but the ball shattered on the rockface and the cat disappeared back into the woods with the grace of a phantom. The path ahead was thick with brush. The perfect place for the beast to wait in ambush.

      They should have turned around and gone home then. Struggling now through the wind and snow, Daniel told himself that he really had entertained the notion of cutting their losses and heading back. In truth, he’d barely hesitated before saying “I know another way” and piloting them towards the mountain pass, away from where the cougar had gone. It added a day to their journey, and the slopes were treacherous. But with the early spring having melted most of the snow, he believed the way clear enough that they should still be able to make it to market with plenty of time.

      Daniel had tried to keep their spirits up, whistling as they walked. But the song in Stefan had disappeared into the gaping chasm of the cat’s maw. And Stefan began to look much more like a child as his eyes were continually drawn to those dark clouds rolling in at their backs. Daniel would not let his optimism deflate. Even if it were a springtime snow squall, one last gasp of old man winter, he was sure they could weather it.

      Despite the foresight of the clouds, the storm hit them like a runaway warhorse. The wind rose like a battle-cry, and with it came a blanket of thick flakes so opaque that Daniel could barely see his own hand inches from his nose. This was no springtime squall. This was a once in a generation blizzard. But the only path left was forward. They couldn’t possibly hope to get back up the slope. So they proceeded slowly, placing each footstep carefully on the snow-covered path. The pass was wide enough to accommodate their wagon, but only just barely, and under the snow it was impossible to tell where the edge lay.

      “Father…” Stefan said. It was then that Daniel realized the tremor in the boy’s voice was not just because of the cold. His son was afraid.

      “Hush, lad,” Daniel said. “Everything is fine.” He could hear his wife’s voice in the back of his head, insisting that the boy was too young for such a trip. That putting so much pressure on Stefan was completely unnecessary. But Daniel had scoffed her aside. After all, he’d been only twelve himself when he’d gone on his first three day voyage with his pa to the city.

      “It’s not fine though,” Stefan said. Daniel turned, surprised by the how quickly the quiver of fear had turned into a flood of resentment. “I’m half frozen, and you’re still talking like nothing’s the matter. We ought to leave the cart here, take Bella and find shelter. We can worry about—”

      “I said hush, lad,” Daniel said, his own tone a rock against which the flood could only break. “We leave nothing. We are men. This is our stock and trade. Best make your peace with that now.”

      Stefan opened his mouth to say more, but then wisely shut it instead. Whether under the cold steel of the wind or his father’s glare, the boy wilted. And so on they plodded through the ever deepening snow. 

      It was only a few steps further when the frosty silence broke with a sharp crack, and Bella’s horrible shriek cut through the air. Nothing could curdle blood like the raw terror of a broke-leg horse’s scream, but Daniel knew he had no time to flinch. Not only had Bella snapped her leg, but now she pitched forward past the path’s edge and threatened to tumble right over, down a sharp incline into the rocky gulch below.

      The terrified horse desperately clawed her way backwards, one foreleg dangling uselessly, the other three unable to find purchase on the slippery ground, bleating in confused horror. Stefan dashed to grab the flailing beast’s bridle and tried to pull her back from the edge with all his might.

      “The wagon!” Daniel cried. “Grab onto the wagon and pull!”

      Stefan gave him a bewildered look, but did as he was told, scrambling to heave on the backside of the wagon. As he did, Daniel lunged forward with his buck knife and cut the tethers which bound horse to cart. Barely quick enough, because it was just then that Bella slid forward and tumbled head over hoof, her wails punctuated as she was battered by the jagged rocks the whole way down, until her broken body lay silent in the gulch below.

      Daniel and Stefan barely managed to haul the wagon back from sharing Bella’s fate. Daniel’s chest swelled with pride as he struggled to catch his breath, but the boy gazed upon him with horror.

      “You didn’t even try to save her,” Stefan accused.

      “There was nothing to be done,” Daniel assured him. “But we saved our wares, lad. Think. If we sell all this we can buy a team of horses half her age.”

      Stefan muttered something.

      “What was that?”

      “I said to hell with the wares! Bella would have been fine if you hadn’t overloaded her!”

      Daniel’s hand struck the boy’s cheek as if by its own volition. Stefan stared at him like an animal with its leg stuck in a trap, but Daniel could only look at his own hand with stupefied wonder.

      He turned his back without meeting the boy’s eye. “Up, lad. You’ve still a way to go.”

      “I have?”

      Daniel nodded. “One of us needs to stay here to mind the wares. That’ll be me. You’re lighter of foot and less likely to stumble. You just need to get down to the woods and bring back some fuel for a fire.”

      “But I don’t know the way!”

      “Nothing to know. Just follow the path there and back. You’ll have the hatchet with you, and it chops wolves as well as wood. You’ve nothing to worry about.”

      He placed the axe in Stefan’s hands, and the boy stared at it as though he’d handed him a fairy’s wand and asked him to cast a spell. “Why do the wares need minding? Ain’t nobody around for miles.”

      “Wares always need minding,” Daniel said. Did the fool boy not understand the worth of what they were hauling? “And only good habits that one never breaks can bring good fortune. You’ll understand when you’re older.”

      Stefan must have taken the lesson to heart, because he hung his head and accepted his fate. Down the path the boy slunk, disappearing into the storm. Daniel grabbed his musket and took up a perch atop the wagon full of leathers. He snuggled himself into the wares, thinking to warm himself, but they were long since frozen solid.

      They must have been on the trail longer than he’d thought, because night soon fell like a headsman’s axe. It had been impossible to track the sun’s descent through the storm, but its presence was made known by its absence. Daniels’ world was a blur of black and white, and even if could he see the trail, he knew that the path had already blown over enough to cover Stefan’s tracks. But Daniel would not abandon his post. His teeth were chattering, and he forced a mantra of something about “good habits” through the ice-covered gears in his brain.

      There was a low growl coming from down the trail. Through the haze he could see them clearly, two yellow eyes staring back at him. It was the cougar, and it had come for the skins! Daniel raised his musket and fired. The eyes disappeared, but there was no telltale howl of defeat. He must have missed. And there were the eyes again, to the side! Daniel’s frozen hands nearly dropped the gun as he fumbled powder and ball into the musket for a reload. His shot was again answered by silence. While reloading, somewhere in his mind a voice whispered that the cougar eyes couldn’t be there, floating past the path’s edge. But that voice was silenced by the sight of yellow eyes once more, coming up the path. And Daniel roared along with his musket as he sent another ball tearing into the darkness, and this time there did come a cry of pain in its wake.

      And for a moment the storm seemed to still. Time as well. For it was no cat’s scream, but that of Stefan standing there in the snow, fingers raised to the gaping hole where his eye used to be, poking the wound with the curiosity of a tot. 

      “Pa…” Then the boy crumpled in the snow, and there he lay still.

      Daniel rushed to him, wares finally forgotten, but it was far too late. There was naught to do but clutch his lifeless son to his chest, wailing at the same sky which had received their joyful songs with equal readiness just days before, as a snowy lullaby tucked them into a bed where they might finally rest.

Alex Passey

Alex Passey is a writer based in Winnipeg. He is the author of the speculative fiction novel Mirror's Edge, as well as the fantasy novel Shadow of the Desert Sun. There is also a graphic novel that he has written for called Twilight of Echelon which is slated to be published later this year. In addition, Alex has also written short fiction, poetry and non-fiction for a number of publications, most recently Broken Pencil Magazine and the Winnipeg Free Press.