The Skeleton Throne

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Frostbite: Mountain Guide

Frostbite: Mountain Guide

Year 1056

Khole was a handsome young man who lived alone in a cabin in the mountains. He had not been alone for very long.

Khole was not a good hunter. Rarely he returned home with small game. Often he went hungry as he tried to make scraps last. Once he stepped out into the woods late at night, desperate and starving, and cried out to the mountain for mercy. A stranger appeared at his cabin the next day. Khole did not have any food to spare for the stranger. The stranger did not leave, but in a way, they did not remain, either. Khole had food after that.

Another stranger appeared a while after, looking for their friend. Khole was not hungry, so he shared a meal with them. He told the stranger that he had not seen their friend, that he did not know where they may have gone. That perhaps they had headed up the mountainside. The stranger asked Khole if he could help them over the mountainside as well, and Khole did something he had never done before: He agreed to help.

Khole led the stranger up the mountainside. The way was treacherous but Khole had grown up on these mountains. He had taken the time to travel the wilds and learn about the dangers they harbored. He had to, if he wanted to continue living alone. If he wanted to continue living.

As they traveled the stranger shared supplies with Khole. They helped keep each other warm and they helped keep each other fed. Khole helped the stranger look for signs of their friend, though he knew they would not find any. When they crested the mountain and reached the safer passes on the other side the stranger thanked Khole and gave him payment for his service. Then the two went on their ways; the stranger heading forward down the mountain and Khole heading back to his cabin. He considered the currency he had now. It was not something he needed, was not something he could use on the mountainside, but it was something he kept.

Khole did not see anyone for a long time again. His food ran out once more, and again he paced the mountainside at night, fervently begging beneath his breath for the harsh wilds to spare him a little longer. Yet another stranger showed up to his door, and again Khole was able to stave off the hunger he felt.

More strangers started appearing, this time as a group, and briefly Khole feared they were looking for someone who had vanished. He was confused when they asked him if he would guide them up over the mountainside. Khole agreed again, and spent the next several days leading the group up and over to the safer passes beyond the peaks. Again the traveling group shared warmth and food and paid him for the services and he returned home with more trinkets he did not need.

The people who came to him in need of a guide continued, and the more they came, the more they offered to Khole and the better off he became. He traded currency to a traveling hunter and in exchange now had better traps for bringing home game. He accepted blankets and pelts from those traveling without money, and his cabin slowly grew warmer and well-stocked. For several months he began to live in comfort, the ebb and flow of travelers who required his guidance never being too much to overwhelm his solitary lifestyle, but they were always present at opportune times so that he could keep new items coming in or trade currency for repairs or upgrades to his home and traps. For a long time he did not have to worry about food, and all memories of desperation, of when he was starving and cried out to the mountains, began to fade from his mind.

Then one day, while he was in the middle of guiding a group over the peaks, something came to him. A dark thought that wriggled in his mind and bit at his desires. He was warm, he was not hungry, but as he watched the small group sleep – a brother and sister traveling with one other who had no relation, only the happenstance of arriving at his cabin on the same afternoon as them – he felt an urge nudging at the back of his mind. He worked hard to ignore it at first, but it did not stop. It grew, more and more, stronger and stronger, dancing darkly in his thoughts like the shadows cast by the campfire’s flames. Khole did not close his eyes and lay back, but instead sat up quietly and watched the people as they slept, focusing hard on minds beyond rest and deep within dreams.

One of them stirred; the sister. She woke up sleepily and looked around, then rubbed her eyes and squinted at where she thought the form of her resting brother should be. He was there, Khole knew, but somehow her mind did not. She looked around, then turned her head out to the darkness beyond the firelight. There was nothing, Khole knew, but somehow she heard something. She stood, quietly slipping from her bedroll, and headed out into the snowy wilderness. Khole waited and then got up and followed after.

“What are you doing out here?” His handsome voice was full of concern and she gave a startled gasp, all at once embarrassed as she realized it was only their guide.

“I’m sorry,” she admitted, looking sheepish. “I just… I woke up and my brother was gone. I thought I heard him call my name out here...” She looked out across the mountainside, the light of the moons reflecting on the white snow around them and illuminating the night clearly.

“Everyone is back at the camp,” Khole assured her warmly. “Your mind was probably just playing tricks on you. The thin air can do that sometimes.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” she agreed reluctantly. She doubted what her eyes saw, but she was uncomfortable so far from the camp. She wanted to believe everything was alright, that it was just a trick of her mind.

“Come on, we need to get back. It’s not safe to wander out here at night. The light off the snow and the shadows can play tricks on you.” Khole motioned for her to follow and she anxiously abided. She did not question as he led her closer to a rocky ledge. He beckoned her to look over, and cautiously she did.

“You see?” He gestured. “With the way the light reflects of all the snow, you would hardly have been able to tell there was a drop off here.”

“You’re right,” she said with a nervous laugh, clutching her cloak and drawing it in closer to shield against her nerves and the cold of the night. She did not feel as apprehensive about the ledge as something in her mind felt that she should.

“How far down do you think it is?” Khole asked as he focused past her, looking to her eyes but beyond them. She shrugged and took another step closer to the ledge, peering down, curious to judge.

“Fifty feet, perhaps? Maybe more?”

“It is quite a ways,” Khole stated with casual musing.

“It is,” she agreed, shifting the cloak on her shoulders uneasily.

Khole turned to look to her again, gazing past her slate-gray eyes as he gave her a warm grin. “You could jump down there,” he told her pleasantly.

She laughed mirthfully, her stance relaxing. “I could, couldn’t I?” She echoed, turning to look down the fall again. It did not seem so high.

“It’s barely five feet down. You could land so easily.”

“I think I could,” she agreed. Then she stepped forward and was gone.

The snow far below looked beautiful as it seeped with red, and Khole made a note of where to return to later.

“I’m so sorry, I don’t know what must have happened,” Khole sincerely consoled the brother. They had been searching for his sister for the better part of the next morning. Her footprints had led out into the snow and then been lost. “She shouldn’t have wandered off alone like that in the night. The light from the snow can be deceptively confusing,” Khole reasoned, though he knew it would not take the pain away. He frowned at the brother as tears rolled down the man’s cheeks and put a hand on his shoulder.

“I know what it feels like to lose a sister,” Khole said, his voice soft and vulnerable in its sincerity. “These mountains can be a dangerous place.”

The brother nodded. He hated it, but he understood. He and the other remaining traveler made it over the peak of the mountains within the next couple of days, and though he paid the guide for his services, he left the mountainside feeling heavier of heart.

Khole, however, felt lighter. Energetic, even, as he detoured to take home his newest catch. He was slowly becoming a better hunter, and although he could make do just fine with the food he was able to trap and barter for, nothing tasted quite as sweet as the meals that reminded him of his sister, and somehow of his father. It sated a hunger within him that no other meat could manage to quiet.

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