Chapter Eight: "As The Days Pass By" (part 4)
Hale crouches down beside his brother, breathing as shallowly as possible. The air before his nose clouds dimly in the predawn light, drifting up and away on the mountain breeze. It is absolutely freezing now, the ground crinkling solid beneath his boots. All around, each leaf and tree and patch of grass is frosted with the beginnings of winter snow. Overhead the sky is pale, clouds twisting in, promising the first snowfall of the season before the end of the day.
Next to him Louk draws in a slow, measured breath, eyes trained on something that Hale can’t see. He notches an arrow to the string of his bow, sits up straighter as he draws back. Two seconds pass in tense silence, and then the arrow is loosed, whistling through the trees before thwunking hollowly. A muted roar shatters the morning calm, and a thud soon follows.
All is silent after that.
“You get it?” he asks, slowly standing up to lean against a tree and peer into the shadows.
“What do you think?” he brother retorts, already bouncing along, coming up alongside a downed black bear with an arrow snapped in its massive chest. “Taa-daa!”
“Good one,” he says with a pleased smile, dropping back down.
The next hour is spent with him skinning the bear while Louk searches around the spot for more prints in the frozen mud. He comes up with only squirrels, and the two silently decide that the bear is enough for now. They pack up the meat and the pelt, and then set off back home, weighted down by the massive load, but still brisk in their walk back home and to warmth.
“You think we’ll make it in time for breakfast?” Louk asks over his shoulder, climbing over a section of loose rocks before turning to help Hale traverse the same spot.
“With the pace you’re setting?” he wonders with a snort. “Yeah, definitely.”
“Good. I’m starving.”
Hale laughs, clapping his brother firmly over the shoulder. “You’re always hungry. You eat more than me sometimes. It’s strange because you’re still so small, though,” he teases, ruffling Louk’s hair now which gets him an aggravated shove. “Oh, don’t be like that. Remember what Kaethe said? You’re pretty tall down in Eiveyn.”
“And how does that make me feel better?”
He shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Louk cracks a smile and moves on from the subject that has been known to drive him into brawls down in Knoll. “So what do you think of our two Eive refugees?”
“Well, first off, I think you should stop calling them Eives. It’s kinda rude, according to Kaethe.”
“Eh. Rett doesn’t mind. He calls us ‘Filthy Barrens’ and ‘Giant Spawn’ and ‘Rocks-for-Brains’. It’s a symbiotic relationship we have going on. He insults, and then I insult, and then somehow he ends up threatening to kill me even though I’m the one with a bow so it doesn’t really make sense.”
He comes up alongside his brother, nudging him with his elbow. “Uncle Den mentioned that you almost took away his ability to have children.”
“I didn’t almost. I knew what I was doing . . . he moved at the last second,” Louk murmurs, staring dejectedly at the ground.
“Wait.” Hale pulls up short, gripping his brother’s jacket, wrenching the younger boy to a harsh stop. “You were really going to . . . to . . . ?”
“No. I was just kidding. Eiylahm, Hale. You’re acting like I’m crazy or something, which I’m not. I was just joking around.”
Hale relaxes in relief. “I never said you were crazy, Louk. You’re just . . . really out there, is all.”
“Different you mean?” his little brother grumbles, kicking a stick.
“Well, yeah. But everyone’s different in some way.”
“Some are just more different than others, right?” Louk says with a bite that tells Hale that his brother has been feeling off for a while; that he’s been feeling like he doesn’t fit in for a while and it’s now just becoming too much to keep to himself. And he’s with just Hale so he feels safe enough to share, the only way he has ever known how – with one weighted remark and the rest just speculation on the older brother’s part.
He grabs Louk by the shoulders, dips down to eye level and asks, “Who was it this time?”
Louk shrugs and looks away, wrenching himself free to poke needlessly at a pinecone in the frozen muck.
“C’mon, buddy. Who was it?”
“It’s not nobody,” Hale persists. “Who was it? Was it Reuben?” Reuben is a boy Hale’s age and just a little bit bigger than Hale is both tall and wide. Once upon a time the two of them had been close, practically best friends, but then a few years ago Hale had found out that Reuben, behind his back, had been antagonizing his little brother and bringing others in on the tormenting fun. By afternoon the very next day Reuben had been bruised and bloodied and refusing to tell anyone who had done it to him – fear for his life or something else that Hale had threatened to rob him of being the reason behind the silence. Uncle Den had known, uncovered the truth in the way only his uncle has ever been able to read his nephews, and punished Hale for it. Only, once he’d told the older man the reason why Uncle Den had said that he’d done good; had clapped him on the back; had made him promise to always look out for his brother, which Hale has always taken to heart.
Even now, so many years later where his little brother is trying to distance himself and prove that he isn’t some weird, awkward Barren who is better as a bruising-bag than as a contributor to the military – or society on the whole.
Louk shrugs again.
“Hale, it’s nothing, okay? I can handle it.”
“But you don’t have to. You shouldn’t have to.” Hale reaches out once more but winds up just grappling on cold air.
His little brother pulls himself away and starts walking towards home. “I’m hungry, Hale. Let’s go. Rett’s makin’ breakfast and he said that it’s gonna be scrambled toast and syrup. That stuff’s delicious.”
He lets Louk change the subject, following slowly behind him, thinking and worrying because he’s the older brother and he will always look out for the little brother; because, aside from Uncle Den, Louk is all the family he has left – he’d listened to his mother die, watched his father die, seen countless others fall from disease and weather and fights and sheer stupidity, but he will never let that same fate come for his baby brother. “If a little weird,” he plays along distantly, only part of his heart into it while the rest is too busy thumping hungrily as he tries to figure out what to do next.
“Yeah, but it works!”
The tense air lightens considerably between them as they make for home, and by the time they’re in the front yard they’re laughing and throwing pinecones at each other – although it’s more of an act from Hale who is still too worried to bother with his aim and all his pinecones pathetically miss.
After putting the meat and pelt in the storage hut up back they rush inside, smelling breakfast on the air and seeing Rett standing at the stove flipping toast. Kaethe is setting the table and Uncle Den is reading through a report with a cup of coffee in his hand. The three of them look up at their entrance.
“You boys have a decent morning?” their uncle asks.
“Yep. Louk here hit a bear. We got a good pelt to go along with it.”
Uncle Den beams at his younger brother. “That’s great.”
“You’re acting surprised,” Louk grumbles. “I’m the best archer in all of Barrow for a reason. When’s breakfast? I’m hungry.”
“That’s all he’s been talking about since we started home,” Hale murmurs.
“Wash your hands. It’s done,” Rett says, grabbing a plate of scrambled toast and setting it on the table.“Awesome!” Louk cries, walking to the washroom to clean up. Hale follows slowly behind, and then they’re all sitting down to breakfast, a strange, mismatched family if there ever was one. When breakfast is over and the kitchen has been cleaned, Hale joins his uncle on the road down to Knoll.