Snow piled high outside the small cave. Elki felt very fortunate to have found shelter. The weather would continue to get worse. Elki dropped her bundle of supplies and began to gather dried twigs that an animal must have dragged into the grotto for a nest. She pulled out a flint and started a small fire. The cave was damp and close, but she had known worse conditions. The flames did not give off much heat and the smoke gave off an acrid stench, but it might be the difference between life and death. Shortly, Elki went to the cave mouth to survey her surroundings. Snow covered the mountainside in a heavy blanket. She turned back toward the fire when a movement caught her eye. Far to her left, a dark spot against the white background moved in her direction. Someone or some thing tried to reach her shelter. She had two choices; she could leave and risk freezing to death, or she could stay and hope the creature would be friendly. Elki had little faith in the stranger's kindness. Few beings held her people in high regard. Most would consider all Myku repulsive and loathsome. Elki decided to stay. She had gotten here first and her chances with the stranger would be better than her odds in the snowstorm. She moved back to the fireside, drew her knife, and waited. If the creature had any awareness at all, it would already know someone waited in the grotto. After a few minutes, a voice called out over the wind. "You, in the cave. I need shelter and I mean no harm! I'm coming inside." She immediately responded, "Come ahead! There's room for us both." A heavily bundled body soon filled the entrance to the cave. After it beat the snow from its clothes, it bent down and entered the grotto. Elki realized she might have spoken too soon about there being enough space; this stranger was enormous. When the creature lowered its hood, Elki saw that it was a Hetfud. He had yellow hair and black eyes. She could also sense the strength he possessed in that huge body. She felt extremely self-conscious about her small size and unusual features as the Hetfud stared at her. The long nose, grayish skin, and black hair that distinguished her race, caused revulsion in most other creatures' eyes. "You're a Myku," the Hetfud said. Elki could see the disgust in his eyes and hear the hatred in his voice. 'My people's history has created a barrier that I might never get beyond,' she thought. "I am," Elki responded. "My name is Elki. Please come to the fire, I'm sure you're cold." The Hetfud stared at her a few moments longer and then almost reluctantly moved closer to the fire. "My name is Tybron." He continued to watch her closely as he knelt beside the fire. Irritated, Elki said, "I'm not a snake! I won't bite you when you turn your back." "Myku, I've known your kind my entire life. You're a deceitful and conniving people. I won't trust you, so don't even try." "My name is Elki, not Myku. You may have known some of my people, but you don't know me!" Tybron stood up. "I'll leave. The smell in here is turning my stomach." "If there's a smell, it came with you!" Elki yelled. Tybron had reached the cave entrance when she cried out, "Wait!" He stopped and turned. "What is it?" "You can't go back out into that storm. It's nearly dark and the storm's getting worse," Elki said. Tybron would know of her people's innate ability to sense the weather. "You will die if you leave." He must have realized the truth in what she said. He came back to the fireside. "I'll stay until the storm is over, but not a moment longer!" "Suit yourself," Elki said. "I was just going to fetch a little snow and make some rabbit soup. Would you like some?" She had a feeling she knew the answer to that. The Hetfud would not trust her or her food. "I'll just eat my jerky. I'm not very hungry." Elki sighed and then got a pot from her bundle and started the soup. A short while later, her soup was finished cooking and she started to eat. The smell filled the enclosure, even overpowering the woodsmoke. After she had eaten a few bites, she caught the Hetfud looking at her. "The soup is good and there's plenty," she said. "Are you sure you don't want any?" "If you're going to have extra," he said, "I'll try some." Elki watched as he spooned the soup into his cup. She could not help smiling. "I'm going to sleep," she told him. "It was a very long day and I'm tired." He just stared at her as she lay down and rolled over. The wind continued to howl outside the cave. The next morning the snow fell heavily outside the grotto. There would not be any travel today. "We're very low on kindling," she said. "I'm going out to find some." "No," he said. "I'll go. I need to get out and breathe fresh air anyway." Elki did not object. "If you're lucky enough to see any animals about, we could use more food. I've enough for a day or two, but this storm might outlast that." She noticed the large Hetfud carried a sword, but she did not think that would be very useful in killing a rabbit. "Would you like to borrow my bow? It's small for you, but it should work." Tybron just shook his head and pulled something out of his coat. Elki saw that it was a sling. "This will serve my purpose, if there's anything to be had." He shoved the weapon back in his coat and strode out into the cold morning. Several hours later, she began to worry. Tybron should have returned by now. The snow had slacked up some, but it remained very cold. Perhaps he decided to leave me, she thought. He obviously felt no compassion or kindness for her. Nevertheless, she did not think he would leave. She could not take that chance, anyway. Elki bundled up and made her way out into the cold. She had perhaps three or four hours of daylight remaining. The snow left no trace of the path Tybron had taken. Luckily, the terrain dictated the most likely course. Elki started in that direction. Less than two hundred yards away and somewhat behind the cave entrance, she saw a hand and part of a leg sticking out of a snowdrift. She hurried to his body. When she knelt over Tybron, she realized he still lived. His breathing seemed steady, but he had a nasty bruise on his forehead. After a more thorough inspection, she saw that his leg was broken as well. Elki knew with a head wound that Tybron needed to be awake. Not having any other way to rouse him, she began to slap him in the face. The first few slaps did no good. She hoped she did not hurt him, but she started slapping him hard. After the second slap, he blocked her hand and opened his eyes. He seemed confused at first, but then focused on her. "You can stop beating me now." His voice was weak. "You've bumped your head. I was afraid you might not wake up," she said. "You ... may ...be … right," he replied weakly. He gathered his thoughts a moment and continued a little more strongly, "Don't think can walk on leg, either." "I believe that you have little choice. If you stay here much longer, you'll freeze to death." Elki thought for a moment. "You can use me as a crutch and I'll help as much as I can." Although Tybron was much larger than she was, it was the best she could offer. Luckily, he had gone uphill on his way out and the trip back to the cave would be mostly down. "Grab the wood that I found," he said. She gathered what she could and then helped him to stand. His weight caused her to buckle slightly. "Are you going to be able to do this?" She noticed that he had two dead rabbits tied to his waist. "I can manage. Perhaps I won't have to beg you to eat my soup tonight?" He did not respond. The trip back to their shelter was worse than Elki could have imagined. The last stretch, they had to pause every few minutes. When they had at last gotten inside, Elki collapsed. She knew she had to get up quickly, though. The fire had gone out and the temperature dropped steadily. She got up, started the fire, and put some snow on to boil. After Elki had finished, she went to tend to Tybron. She had glanced at him several times to make sure he was awake. She dressed his head wound and then looked at his leg. "We're going to have to set this," she said. "You aren't like other Myku," he told her. She paused in stunned silence for a moment. "Never mind that. Place your leg against the wall and prepare yourself." He did as she said, and she popped the bone back into place. He did not even grunt. She rigged a crude splint with some of the kindling and some leather cut from Tybron's coat. It would do for now. She went back to preparing the rabbit soup. When it was finished, she handed him a cupful. He surprised her by handing her a piece of hard tack bread from his bundle. "Thank you," she said. "No, I should thank you. You saved my life." "I needed the rabbits and firewood," she laughed. "You aren't like other Myku," he repeated. "My family left our village when I was very young. We lived alone in the mountains for most of my youth. I recall the few times we saw other people; their reaction was much like yours. Loathing and hatred." "The Myku have a reputation." "Yes, since then I've met some of my people. I see where the reputation comes from, but it's wrong and bigoted to claim all Myku are alike." He simply shrugged. "All I ever met." She suppressed her anger and asked, "What about you? What's your story?" "I don't really have a story. I've been a soldier and a hunter for most of my life." "Game hunter?" she asked. "A hunter of people," he replied. "You're an assassin!" "Call it what you will. I don't kill people unless they need it." "And who decides if they need it?" she asked sarcastically. "I do." He stated it as if he expected no argument. She suddenly had a terrible inspiration. "What are you doing in these hills? I mean, this area is remote and dangerous at any time, but especially this time of year." "I've been contracted to do a job," he told her. She could tell from his voice that he was hesitant to tell her more. "Who is it?" "I don't think that's any business of yours." He paused a moment and then continued. "It's a Myku. But I'm sure it's no one you know, since you weren't raised among them." Elki was disgusted. "Who hired you to kill this Myku?" "I doubt you know him. His name is Shelton. He's a munificent wizard. This Myku's been telling people that Shelton's trying to establish a kingdom or some such. According to Shelton, the Myku is a terrible creature that no one in the region likes. Shelton has tried to reason with it, I mean him, but the Myku continues to slander Shelton and create rebellion." Elki knew the answer to her next question before she asked it. "Who is the Myku?" "His name is Kief, but I am sure . . ." "That's my father!" Elki yelled. "You were hired to kill my father!" "That can't be," Tybron began. "It is! And I know the Shelton you speak so highly of. He's an evil scoundrel. He pretends to protect the local people; all the while, he's killing, pillaging, and robbing them blind. My father has done what is right and noble in resisting that beast." He stopped arguing and sat in silence. Elki wondered what he was thinking. She did some quick figuring on her own. She realized she had Tybron nearly helpless. She might be able to kill him now and save her father's life. After all, the Hetfud was an assassin! She also concluded that Tybron had these same thoughts. He might try to convince her that he had changed his mind until he was stronger, and then carry out his plan. He might even kill her. She doubted that he would do that. She had saved his life, after all. Some time later, Tybron spoke again, "I've already taken his money." "His blood money! It was squeezed from innocent people by that horrible wizard you serve." "What proof do you have that Shelton is so bad? I know I'm not from around here, but he seemed honest enough to me." "What proof could I give you? All I have is my word and my actions. Since you hold Myku in such low regard, I'm sure that means nothing to you." Elki understood that she did not have what it took to kill this injured Hetfud. Perhaps if he did not lie there wounded, she could do it. Of course, if he were in good health, she would not stand a chance against him. Even so, she would wait. The next two weeks passed very slowly. Tybron's condition improved daily. The storm subsided and the weather was finally clear enough for travel. Their conversations had been cordial, but not overly friendly. They got along, but not as great friends. They were more like allies of necessity. He needed her and she needed to convince him of her and her family's sincerity. Either that or she would have to kill him. She also realized that she had bet her father's life on her ability to do one or the other. Finally, one morning she walked into the cave and found Tybron packing his belongings. "I'm leaving," he told her. "The weather is good and I'm strong enough to travel if I'm careful." Elki knew that was true, but dreaded this confrontation. "Are you sure? The melting snow is quite dangerous and slick." "I'm sure." "What are your plans?" she asked tentatively. "I've decided that a moral and honest creature like yourself couldn't come from a father who was amoral. At least you wouldn't be so convincing if he were. You saved my life when you could've left me to die. You didn't try to kill me when I slept helpless beside you." Tears filled Elki's eyes as she asked again, "Then what are you going to do?" Tybron stared at her for a moment. "I'm going to return Shelton's money," he said as if it were the simplest thing in the world. "He'll not be pleased," Elki said. Tybron shrugged his large shoulders. "I'm not pleased, either. He played me for a fool. He attempted to have me kill a guiltless creature. I'm no hero, but I'm also not a murderer. Shelton will pay a dear price." An enormous grin split Elki's face and she said, "Can I come with you?"
x x xA simple tale of survival with a bit of a twist, this story captured my imagination. Something tells me that Shelton is in for a tough time from these two. What do you think?