Sword Called Kitten Serial

Gordon A. Long

Published by

Airborn Press

   Home      Issue #15 Battle in the Snow
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Battle in the Snow

The Cat came out of her half-drowse. Swords never sleep, but there are times when only basic awareness is necessary. This early in the morning, when the winter darkness had not yet begun to fade, there was little to watch for. No larger animals moved in the snow-smothered forest, and there probably wasn't a human within three day's walk. At Trapper's present speed, that would be about ten day's hobble.

Which reminded her. That scare yesterday, plus the slog up the hillside, had put a strain on his broken leg. She scanned the sleeping man, easing the tension that the pain caused in his muscles, keeping the blood moving around the injury. It was too bad she couldn't do more.

Hmm. I wonder.

Drawing on the man's Power, she made a closer scan.

What's going on in there? I wonder how Healing works. Hmm. So those particles move that way, bringing something in, and those move the other way, taking something out. Logical. Aha! The actual Healing comes from inside the bone. It's growing! Hmm. Can I give those growing parts energy? I can give a human energy. But not too much, I know that.

Gently, she eased Power into the bone cells along the line of the break, and was gratified to see the growth speed up. If you could use the word "speed" for anything that slow.

I wonder if I can give a bit more…well, maybe not. One of the cells took on a lopsided appearance, and the Trapper stirred and moaned.

At least now I know the right level. Stay asleep, Trapper.

So, as the dawn brightened the forest, the Cat worked over her Hand, keeping him in a drowsy state while she Healed the bone of his leg.

Finally the stirring of the dog aroused her attention. What's going on, Ruffie? Any nasty wolverines today?

The dog lurched to his feet, his nose questing, ears alert. The Trapper stirred.

Obviously a poor sense of humour. Sorry about that, dog. Maybe it's time he woke anyway.

She released her hold on the Trapper's mind, and his eyes opened. "Strange dreams…" His attention jumped to the dog, and he groped for the Sword's hilt. "Something out there, boy?"

The dog relaxed and squirmed over for affection, his nose pushing under the man's hand, his hairy paws scattering snow.

The man laughed, pushed him away and sat up. "All right. Looks like I overslept. I'm awake now. I'm getting up." He swung his legs sideways. "Hmm. Leg feels good today."

I've been working on it.

The man ignored her, pulling his boot on his good foot, fastening his coat against the chill of the air. "All right, Ruffie. First coffee, then pancakes. You'll get your usual scraps, don't you worry."

As he rambled on, the man stoked up the fire and went about his morning routines. Once he had eaten, he took his crutches and dragged himself through the snow towards the rabbit run where he had left his snares set the night before.

You're in luck. You got two.

He slogged forward. "Hey, I got two this morning." He frowned. "Now, why do I think I knew that already?"

Because I told you.

"Oh, well, who knows. Happy days and happy tummies, Ruffie." He cleaned his game and tossed the entrails to the dog, who wolfed them down merrily.

So you're still ignoring me, are you?

The man wiggled his injured ankle in its bandage. "Sure feels better. Didn't expect that, after yesterday."

That's because I've been working on it. I've learned some things about Healing. I think you're going to find yourself getting better much faster, now.

"Well, I'm not a doctor, and I don't know how bad the break is. Now that I think about it, I don't know if it's really broken or not."

Don't worry, it was broken all right.

"In any case, I guess I can get back on the trail. Two more days at this rate and I'll be at the cabin. That dried meat in my cache is going to make a great stew." His mood became more sombre. "I hope it hasn't been trashed. If it has, I'm in real trouble."

The Cat could see a picture of a low log structure, its roof deeply covered in snow. Then the Trapper's mind swung to the side, where a box hung, high on the bare trunk of a large poplar. "Oh, shit. I never thought of that. How am I going to climb up to the cache with this junk on my leg?"

I'm sure you'll figure out something. Hunger is a great impetus to creativity.

The Trapper began to arrange his pack. "Oh, well, I'll think of something. Once I'm secure from attack and storm I'll have lots of time to think." He grimaced as his foot touched the ground. "I'm certainly not going trapping for a while."

Soon they were on the trail again, the Trapper shuffling forward a few steps, then turning to tow his bundle after him. They had climbed out of the creek valley the night before, and the way along the top of the bank was level, the trees spaced wider, and he was able to set a straighter course.

As they made their slow way to safety, the Cat divided her attention between monitoring her Hand's injury, watching the dog for any sign of danger, and using her own senses to look for larger animals in the vicinity. In early afternoon, her attention was rewarded. A large animal was moving slowly across their path in front of them. As far as the Cat could tell from the placid, timid mind, it was no predator.

Hsst! Deer.

The Trapper froze in place, his hand groping over his shoulder for his bow. He looked around more intently and the hand fell away. "Huh! Nothing. False alarm. Don't know why I listen to that stupid sixth sense of mine."

There's a deer ahead, stupid. Do you want meat or don't you?

The trapper slogged forward. "I'll just keep my eyes open, in any case."

The Cat watched the deer cross their route and move away, browsing on willow twigs as it strolled.

Some false alarm.

Sure enough, a few more drags of the pack and the dog's nose came up. He rushed off to the right of the trail, barking madly.

"Ruffie! Ruffie, no! Don’t chase…oh, by all the Gods, you stupid animal."

The Cat felt the deer bound away, the dog in laggard pursuit.

The man moved forward, saw the fresh tracks and sighed. "Oh, well, I probably wouldn't have shot it anyway. I'd just have to stop and dress it out. Not good for two reasons. First, I have to concentrate on getting home. Second, that kind of smell travels forever. Attract all sorts of predators, and I'm in no condition to drive them off.”

Especially if they are a wolverine.

"Especially that damned wolverine. I've just got to get to the cabin. I wonder if I can make it today."

Don't push it. I've seen the images in your mind of the creek canyon ahead.

"No, I guess I'd better take it easy. Better safe than sorry.”

A little late for that.

The Trapper slogged on. After a while the dog, panting and wet, laboured up behind them.

That was a waste of energy.

The Trapper stopped to pat the dog's head. "That was pretty stupid, Ruffie, my lad. Some day soon I might want to shoot that deer, and I can't have you spooking her."

The dog nuzzled into the trappers hand, all contrition.

He doesn't mean one wiggle of it, you realize. He thinks this is how he controls you. Next he'll be giving you the signal to feed him.

The dog reached up and licked the Trapper's cheek. The man laughed and pushed him away. "No food until we camp. You know the rules. You want anything else, you hunt it yourself. No, don't do that. You just get out there ahead and break trail." He swung his hand forward.

Yes. Out in front and be useful for a change. The Cat reinforced the command with the image of a claw-studded paw, and dominated by two stronger minds, the dog pushed forward through the snow.

The Trapper grinned. "Hey, that's pretty good, Ruffie. You know, I think you are finally improving. We might make a real hunting dog out of you some day."

With a little feline help.

The Trapper pushed ahead.

I know you can hear me.

There was no response.

Look, there’s no need for this. We’re going to be stuck with each other for the winter, and unless I give you a hand, it’s going to be difficult for you to survive. Why don’t we call a truce, just for a while? We can have a nice brawl once you’re safe in your cabin and your leg’s healed.

The Trapper hauled his bundle to him and sat on it. The dog circled back for a pat. “I’m making good time on this level ground, Ruffie. Be there tomorrow for sure. Might even make it to the canyon rim tonight, get through it first thing in the morning when I’m fresh. The leg seems to be holding up fine. Maybe it wasn’t broken after all. Just a bad sprain.”

The leg was broken.

The man wiggled his ankle. “Yep, doesn’t feel too bad. Maybe we’ll go a few more rounds before we stop for lunch.”

It’s working so well because I Healed you during the night, and because I’m limiting the pain you are feeling. How would you like it if I stopped? The Cat withdrew her control from the break.

The Trapper made it a few steps before he registered the change. “Ouch! I guess I shouldn’t have stopped. Darn thing stiffened up on me. Well, best just keep going. I’ve gotta make that canyon before dark.”

He forced himself to go on, though she could tell the pain was worse.

There’s no need for this. All you have to do is ask me, and I’ll deaden it again.

“You go ahead, Ruffie. I need you to break trail. The pain is a good thing. It keeps me from overdoing it. On the other hand, I can’t give in too soon. That’ll kill me. I’ll just go as far as that spot up ahead where the trail turns. We’ll have a nice lunch and a rest, and then we’ll push on to the canyon. All right, Ruffie?”

This is just stupid. I’ve never in my life come across someone so stubborn. What if it really hurt? Would you quit then?

He pushed ahead, panting with the effort.

I really need to stop you.  She sent a lance of pain up his leg.

“Ouch! What was that? I didn’t think I stepped on anything.” He hobbled ahead a few more steps. “I guess I’d better not put it down so often. I’ll stand on one foot while I pull the bundle ahead.”

Trying to keep his foot raised while pulling overbalanced him, and he fell, his crutches toppling away, snow crushing into his face and down his neck. He lay a moment, then hauled himself into a sitting position, his body starting to shiver.

All right. I quit. I’ll warm you up. Don’t worry, I won’t do that again. She sent blood rushing to the cold areas, sent energy to his body core.

The man basked in the warmth, but then a bolt of fear shot through him. “All right, Trapper. You’re in real trouble now. There’s no way I could be warm with all that snow down my coat. I’m starting to halucidate again. That’s how you freeze to death. Dammit! And I thought I was doing so good. Well, there’s nothing for it. No stopping, now. I get up and get moving or I die.” He hauled himself to his feet, found his crutches, and pushed ahead with dogged determination.

All right. I’m sorry. I’m sorry, really I am. It was wrong for me to cause my Hand pain. I know better. I’ll stop. See? The pain is gone now. Is that better?”

The Trapper stopped. He wiggled his injured ankle and frowned. “What happened? The pain just stopped. I don’t like that. It was too sudden. Something must have gone wrong.”

No, nothing’s wrong. I just deadened the pain a little, that’s all.

He looked around. “I think I’d better take a rest and check this over. There must be something wrong. Maybe it’s frozen. Yeah, that would do it. I was too damned busy pushing myself ahead, and I forgot to take care of my body. That foot isn’t moving, so it could freeze real easy. Especially if this darned bandage cut off the blood.”

He dragged his bundle up beside a fallen tree, batted the snow clear, and sat down. Carefully he began to pull the bindings off his bandage, laying them out on the trunk beside him.

You don’t have to do that. You’re leg is just fine. It’s not frozen at all. I’ve been keeping the blood flowing to keep it warm.

“That’s all I need: a frozen foot. Guys’ve died from that. The frozen part goes rotten when it thaws, and the poison kills you.” He continued to pull away the bandages, laying aside the sticks as he came to them.

You’re not going to die. It isn’t frozen, for the Gods’ sake.

Finally the leg was revealed, white and bumpy at the top, purple and swollen farther down. The Trapper felt it with gentle fingers. “Well, it doesn’t feel cold, so that’s all right. Ouch! Well, it certainly is still sore.” He prodded again, grimacing against the pain. “Yep, there’s something wrong back there, all right. Feels like a bump on the bone.”

That’s the place where the break is healing. It’s perfectly natural, as far as I can tell.

“Well, nothing wrong that I can see. Best put it back together and keep going. Better not put it on too tight, though. I never thought about that blood flow thing. Surest way to a frozen foot.”

You’re not going to freeze it. Put it back the way it was. It was perfect. No, not that loose, you fool!

Ignoring her with determination, the Trapper bound up his foot again. Once he had finished, he delved into his pack for the remains of yesterday’s rabbit. He shared it out with the dog, gobbled his portion down, and rose again. “Well, Ruffie. We’ve wasted a lot of time with this silliness. If we’re gonna make the canyon tonight, we’d better get moving.”

The Cat growled to herself. What am I going to do?  She checked the man from head to injured foot, noting the elevated breathing, the fatigue in the muscles, the strain on the old shoulder injury. I have to try again. I’m not going to mess with his body this time. That didn’t work.

Look, Trapper, can we stop this argument? You’re not going insane. I’m really here. Don’t you see that’s the simplest answer? I’m helping you. You can do this easily, if you just don’t fight me when I’m trying to help.

The trapper gritted his teeth and pushed through the snow. “I’m not going to listen to it. I got to ignore it. I know. I’ll sing!” He began to sing a rousing sea-chantey, using the rhythm to set the tempo of his steps.

You don’t have to do this. You’re a lousy singer. Slow down.

The man changed to a bawdy drinking song, even faster, and stumbled on, singing at the top of his lungs.

Look, why do you have this wish to die? Yes, that’s right. You. I hope you’re not blaming this on me. You’re the one who carried too heavy a pack. You’d have died in that creek if I hadn’t shown you fuel and shelter while you were blind. You’d be tromping along merrily if you hadn’t insisted on that stupid wolverine. Where is it now, I ask you? And now you’re moving too fast and starting to sweat. You told me that you were not supposed to get sweaty in cold weather. You’re sweating, don’t deny it. Slow down.

The trapper’s song died away, and he looked around frantically. Then he hauled his bundle to him, wrapped the tether around his shoulders, and turned to force his way ahead again, lumping the pack along behind him. They had moved into more open territory, now, with the trees spaced further apart, and the wind had piled the snow in drifts. The Trapper had to choose between fighting through the piles or making a longer trip to avoid them. As he worked harder and harder, the heat of his body pushed out through his clothing, melting the snow that had stuck there. The water began to seep back towards his skin. A bead of sweat ran down his back under his shirt, and he shivered.

“Gotta keep moving. I stop, I’ll freeze.”

You have to slow down. You’re going to wear yourself out, and then you’ll do something really stupid, and you will freeze. Come on, Trapper, listen to me. You know I’m right.

The man began to stumble forward faster, trying to drag the bundle through the snow as he went. “Ruffie, you gotta help me, boy. I’m really going crazy. I can’t get that voice out of my head. Talk to me, Ruffie. Help me!”

The dog circled back his ears down, tail tucked in. Anxiously, he nuzzled the man’s hand, pushing his nose underneath.

“That’s a good boy, Ruffie. That’s better. I know you love me. You go ahead now, and I’ll try to keep up. I’ve gotta get to my cabin. I’ll be safer there. Gotta keep going.”

No, you don’t. You’re going to kill yourself at this rate.

The man’s voice rose. “It’s back again, Ruffie! What am I going to do? I’m going crazy and I’m going to die out here all alone.”

He pushed forward faster, the bundle careening to one side and then the other, catching on bushes and tugging him backwards. Finally his crutch caught a low limb that stretched across his path under the snow, and the man tumbled over, burying himself in a drift.

The dog rushed back, pawing at him, digging the snow away, trying to get the man to move, but the Trapper just lay there, exhausted. The stinging burn of the new snow touching his skin began to blend with the ache of the cold from his wet clothing. He began to shiver.

All right, all right. I give up. Look, Trapper, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll stop. I won’t say another word. You just get yourself up and get moving at a decent rate. I won’t bother you again until you’re at the canyon and you’ve got a camp set up and a fire going. All right? See? This is me, going away. I won’t be talking to you again. Come on, get up. I’m leaving. There. I’m gone…

She withdrew all trace of herself from his mind, maintaining only enough contact to keep pouring energy into his shivering body.

Slowly his breathing calmed, his heartbeat slowed. He gazed around as if just coming awake. He shivered, seemed to notice his situation. Painfully he lumbered to his feet, taking off his mitts and slapping the snow out of them. He took off his pack, found a towel and dried his neck. As the cold receded, his movements became faster and surer. He repacked his belongings, hoisted them to his back and looked forward.

“Hey, Ruffie, what do you think of that? It’s gone. That voice in my head has just disappeared. I guess I beat it after all. Come on. Get out there and break trail, Ruffian, my lad. We’ve only got a few more bowshots to go, and there’s a nice little camping spot with good fuel just under the rim.”

He resumed his former pace, shuffling ahead to the end of his rope, then turning and pulling the bundle to him. Soon the energy from his Sword and the heat of his exertions began to dry his clothes, and he began to feel comfortable.

He paused for a rest and patted the dog’s head. “Well, I guess we did it, Ruffie. We beat that ol’ demon that was trying to take over my brain. We’re going to get through this, my friend. We’re going to triumph over all that Nature and the Gods have to throw at us. Just you and me, Ruffie, as usual. Just you and me!”

The Cat said nothing.