The Fire

The Fire

A Story by dugle
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A hunter finds himself lost in the woods.

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The Fire

When Gregor arrived at the clearing, his legs were still warm. Half-sitting, half-collapsing, the ancient man found a resting spot at the base of a redwood, the snow already settling on his tangled beard. Prying his arms from around his waist, he patted the frost off of his hide boots and sighed, the breath ragged with exhaustion. He’d made a mistake. The stars weren’t out tonight"clouds choked the sky and shrouded the forest in a hazy shadow. Silent, save for the faint padding of snow dropping from the canopy. Like a ghost, Gregor removed the leather sack looped around his shoulder and placed it on the ground next to him. His other hand grasped the bone handle of the blade sheathed at his hip and drew it without a sound. Through the dried spots of blood on the metal he spied two yellow globes a stone’s throw behind him. Gregor stared into the knife with his own globes, red and cracked from fatigue and the dry mountain air. A blistering wind whisked through the copse followed by the sound of feet padding through the snow. By the time he felt the clammy breath on his shoulder, Gregor had learned everything about his visitor.

“Are you going to kill me?” He asked, still holding the knife aloft.
        “Of course,” a raspy voice replied, “Fortune like this doesn’t come around often.”
        The wolf circled to the front of the tree, its bushy black coat caked with powder. Gregor met the wolf’s gaze and managed a nod.
        “Sure you wouldn’t rather attack from behind?”
        “I’m no cat. When I strike, my prey sees its killer.”
        “How honorable,” Gregor croaked.
        “No honor in the forest, human. Besides, you’re frozen.”
        “Are you so sure?” The wolf licked its lips, its eyes still trained on the hunter’s blade. Neither made a move, not that they could. A lifetime later, the hunter cleared his throat.
        “I don’t mean to rush you,” Gregor said, “But if you could grant an old man a small favor--"
        “I won’t spare you, so don’t ask,” The wolf interrupted.
        “Of course not. I merely request that you do something soon--it’s become rather cold.”
        The wolf flicked its tail and narrowed its eyes.
        “What does that matter? You’ll be dead in seconds.”
        “Exactly. Hurry it up.”
        “That’s a fine attitude!” The wolf barked. “Are you so eager to die? You’ve got nerve, rushing me like that…”
         Gregor stretched his neck, causing a mound of snow to drop from his woolly cap.
        “Now I know I’m loopy--being nagged by a wolf…”
        “Quiet, you, or I’ll tear out your throat!”
        Gregor blinked, his arm and blade still raised in front of him.
       “In that case, how about a different favor?”
       “Another favor! Suppose I wait until you freeze--how about that favor?”
       “There’s that, yes,” Gregor nodded, “But if you aren’t in a hurry, what would you say to a campfire?”
        The wolf licked its teeth, but said nothing. Gregor leaned toward his bag, but paused when the wolf growled.
       “We’ll need firewood,” He sighed. The wolf huffed.
       “Fool that I am, I forgot my axe.”
        Raising an eyebrow, the hunter gestured to the forest.
       “Branches will do. Hurry up, you can kill me after.”

        Snorting, the wolf vanished into the trees as quietly as it had arrived. Shaking his head, Gregor placed the knife on the ground, then rummaged through his leather sack. Retrieving a velvet pouch about the size of a bird, he untied the twine around the top and retrieved two rough-hewn stones. He held the flint stones aloft for a moment and scanned them for dampness--gray like the sea so close to his home. He forgot to check the nets yesterday. Sloppy.

         Gregor’s legs crackled as he bent to get up. Compromising, he crawled forward and brushed some of the snow away from the ground revealing damp dirt and redwood leaves underneath. Packing the surrounding snow into a wall, Gregor clustered a few stones together into a makeshift bed for the firewood, making sure to avoid the wetter ones. Finished, he inspected the flint once more and rubbed his knees, now throbbing with a dull ache. At least he could feel them.

        “You can put them there,” he said, not looking up. “I trust you only brought dry ones?”
         With a grunt the wolf reemerged into the clearing, its mouth stuffed with a bundle of branches. Glaring, the wolf deposited the firewood on the stone bed and growled, “Yes, master. Do you think this is the first fire I’ve seen?”
         Gregor shrugged.
        “How many have you built?”

         The wolf huffed and shook the snow off of its pristine coat. Gregor stooped over the pile and rearranged the thicker branches in the shape of a teepee--the smaller ones he placed on the stones. The wolf watched from a safe distance, its eyes gleaming as the hunter struck the flint together at the base of the construction. It took him a few tries with his leather gloves and stiff fingers, but with a soft crackle the tinder and branches danced to life with flame. Gregor allowed himself a brief smile. They’d need more wood soon. The wolf, grunting in satisfaction, took a seat on the other side of the growing fire.
        “Well?” Gregor asked.
        “What?”
        “Are you ready to kill me yet?”
        “Ready? Hah! I’ve only just made myself comfortable. I suggest you do the same while you still can…”

         Gregor had never heard a wolf laugh before, but tonight brought with it a slew of firsts. Adjusting his seat, he moved his booted feet closer to the fire, spots of ice gleaming in the flickering glow. He wasn’t ready to remove them yet. For a while, the clearing was silent save for the cracks and snaps of the burning wood. The wolf sat on its haunches, its eyes locked with Gregor’s"reading him.
        “Where’s your pack?” Gregor mused.
         “I beg your pardon?”
         “Your pack. Your family. I imagine they wouldn’t mind joining us.”
         “I have no family,” the wolf replied, “not anymore, at any rate.”
         “What happened?”
         “You’re rather nosy for a dead man!” The wolf snapped, not raising from its seat.
         “If I’m going to die, it couldn’t hurt, could it?”
         “You’re a cheeky one. They were all killed--struck down to the last by humans!”
          The wolf glanced off into the trees as it scratched behind its ear.
         “How did you survive?” Gregor asked, slowly untying his boots.
         “By killing them all, of course!” The wolf bared its teeth.
         “Impressive.”
         “What is?”
           Depositing his boots next to the fire, Gregor placed his feet, clad in ermine fur socks, on the rim of the construction.
         “You don’t have any marks on you. Must be quite a fighter.”
          The wolf leapt to its feet and growled.
         “Don’t you patronize me! I’ll snap your neck.”
           Raising his hands in a placating manner, Gregor bowed his head.
         “I apologize--I didn’t mean to offend you.”
          Lowering his arms, Gregor leaned over to his sack again and peered inside.
         “We’ll need more firewood soon.”
         “You’ll need nothing soon enough. Don’t you forget that.”
         “True, but how about this: find some more wood and I’ll cook some supper.”
           The wolf cocked its head to the side.
         “I smell no food. What are you getting at?”

          With a conspiratorial glance, Gregor reached into the sack and removed a bundle of thick leaves weaved into a bag. The foul odor of fungus reached the wolf’s nostrils, causing it to snort in displeasure. Gregor continued, unfastening the top of the bag and revealing a chunk of raw meat, blood still dripping from the bottom. The wolf cocked its head again, this time for a different reason.
         “The leaves mask the smell,” stated Gregor, “keeps the animals away.”
           Huffing, the wolf stepped towards the forest.
         “A clever trick. Venison, I take it?”
          Gregor nodded.
         “Five chunks. Enough for both of us, if you wish.”
         “What’s stopping me from killing you and taking the lot?” The wolf quipped.
         “Good point. But wouldn’t you prefer it if I cooked them first?”

           With a snarl, the wolf lowered its head and retreated into the woods once again. Losing sight of the creature in the treeline, Gregor went about preparing their feast. Skewering the meat on a leftover stick, he carefully stuck the base into the snow and bent the rest over the fire. Before long his nose, still stiff from the nippy air, was caressed by the scent of cooking meat and bubbling fat. The meat, sizzling and smoking, slowly but surely changed from red to pink, browning around the edges. Alternating warming his feet and turning the food, Gregor barely perceived the wolf’s paws in the snow behind him. Without a word, the creature trotted forward and deposited the new bundle of firewood next to the campfire.
        
“I can smell that a mile away. What makes you think a bear won’t show up?”
         Reaching into the leather sack, Gregor replied, “Not to worry--I’ll be dead soon.”
         The wolf sniffed. “Of course I know that! What about me?”
         Retrieving a tiny hide bag from the sack, Gregor glanced at the wolf and said, “A fierce killer can surely handle a bear.”  
         A low growl rumbled in the wolf’s throat. “Again with the teasing. You have quite a chip on your shoulder, you know.”
         Gregor smirked and lifted the skewer from the snow. Removing a piece, he waved it towards the wolf.
        “Here, you’ll need your strength.”

          Trotting over to the other side of the fire, the wolf quickly clamped its jaws around Gregor’s hand. The nip stung, but didn’t draw blood. Snatching the piece of meat, the wolf retreated to the other side, gnashing apart the meat as it went.

        “How does that feel, hmm? I can joke too.” The wolf said in between bites. Shaking the pain off of his hand, Gregor sighed and retrieved the hide bag from the ground. Pulling another piece of meat from the stick, he sprinkled some of the bag’s contents on top. The wolf, now finished with its piece, spied on him from across the flames.
        “What’s that?”
         “Spices.”
          Intrigued, the wolf creeped closer. “I would like to try some.”
          Gregor smirked. “My killer’s asking for permission?”
        
Before it could reply, the hunter offered the seasoned meat to the wolf. Snatching it, albeit harmlessly this time, the wolf tore the meat apart on the ground while Gregor watched.

“How does it taste?” He asked. The wolf growled in satisfaction, to which Gregor nodded.
  “Delicious poison, don’t you think?”
         At this, the wolf froze. Staring into the wolf’s eyes, Gregor registered fear for the first time since they met.
         
“No honor in the forest, right?” The hunter mused, not taking his gaze off of the wolf. 

Silent, the creature backed away towards the trees. Still staring, Gregor lifted the spice sack once more and sprinkled a mound on another piece of meat. The wolf watched wide-eyed as the hunter lifted the skewer to his mouth and took a large chunk out of the spice-laden morsel. Then he chewed. And chewed. And swallowed. The two sat like statues, globes staring into globes, with only the crackle of the fire to accompany them. The hunter took another piece of meat, seasoned it, and smiled. 

Baring its teeth, the wolf leapt forward and growled, “Damn you and your jokes, old man! Another second and I would have torn you limb from limb!”
        Gregor smiled and took a bite from the new piece of meat. “They’re spices. From my garden. Please have some more.”
        Seasoning another chunk, he tossed it to the wolf. Bristling with a mixture of one part anger, two parts embarrassment, the wolf gobbled it down and licked its chops.
      “You’ve bought some time, but jokes and food won’t save you, you know.”
        Gregor nodded, sending bits of snow tumbling from his beard. Seasoning the last piece of meat, he took a bite, then offered the rest to the wolf. Pulling the last piece from the skewer, the wolf sat down next to Gregor and sniffed.
       “Where’s your pack?”
        Gregor raised an eyebrow at the wolf.
       “Your family. I imagine they wouldn’t mind joining us.” The wolf mocked, licking the juice from its lips.
       “Don’t have one.” Gregor replied, flicking the skewer into the fire.
       “Is that so?”
       “I had a son.”
  
      The wolf hesitated. “Killed by wolves?”

      Gregor stared into the canopy. “No, not by wolves.”
      The wolf grabbed some branches and plopped them on the fire.
       “Then I suppose no one would mind if I killed you.”
       “I suppose you’re right.”
       The wolf paused, the fire reflecting in its yellow eyes.
       “Though,” Gregor said, returning to his seat beneath the redwood, “this dinner and conversation has made me rather tired.”
       The wolf gazed into the trees, then back to the hunter.
       “Perhaps….”
        Gregor stared at the wolf with weary eyes.
       “Perhaps I’ll kill you later, then.”
        The wolf placed another branch in the fire.
        “After all, it’s much easier to kill a man while he sleeps.”
        “No honor in the forest?”
        “Correct.”
        The wolf trotted over to Gregor and stopped a hair’s-breadth from his face.
        “However, when I strike, my prey sees its killer.”
    
Gregor nodded, his eyes heavy with sleep. With one last snort, the wolf darted away from the camp and into the trees. When the only sound left was the crackling of the flames, Gregor stretched his feet, tossed another branch on the fire, and closed his eyes.

 


© 2016 dugle



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Added on February 23, 2016
Last Updated on February 23, 2016
Tags: fiction, short story, snow, night, campfire

Author

dugle
dugle

CA



About
A California resident with way too many half-baked ideas flitting around in his head. I've written a few amateur articles for a travel site in Japan, but my real passion is writing stories. I take a L.. more..

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