Chapter 5: Warmth

Virpan drifted in and out of reality, her mind a foggy haze. She could barely feel the blistering cold anymore. Oddly enough, she began feeling warm everywhere. She felt as if she was floating on warm mist. A part of her wondered if she was in the afterlife, though Virpan found that she was too comfortable to care. Slowly the haze began to lift as sensation returned to her body. She felt warm all over.

She blinked, finally becoming aware of her surroundings. Dim firelight played across a jagged stone ceiling, and she realized she was in a small cave. The flickering light illuminated the cave walls, highlighting mysterious carvings. Smoke and steam rose through a small hole in the rock where a great churning blackness could be seen. The smoke and steam was mixed with a fragrance Virpan recognized as Jilote blossom.

Then, everything cleared in her mind. Virpan realized she was naked and almost completely immersed in very warm water. A hot spring within a cave it seemed, a small fire burning a few feet away. How she had gotten here remained a mystery for a moment. She shifted against whatever was supporting her and looked up at the rising steam.

“Steam,” she said quietly.

“Ti priggi zmadxuϸim! Tin piŋi rŋekome degr!” Said an excited male voice.

Virpan lurched away from the unseen man, her feet slipping on the smooth stone. Heart pounding, she realized that he had been supporting her weight. Virpan staggered through the water, feeling light headed. She slumped against the edge of the pool and tried to keep her head above water. The unseen man splashed through the water towards her.

“Þir uϸi wau xilŋ dwilum!”

Determined not to go down without a fight, Virpan grabbed at a piece of burning wood from the fire. She spun around, brandishing the makeshift torch at the approaching figure. The light illuminated him. Instantly her panic vanished. Before her was a slender boy, his features soft and skin pale as manioc paste. Or as pale as someone being threatened with a torch, she realized, as he was cowering away from her, his arms raised to shield himself.

Feeling a pang of shame for threatening the one who likely pulled her from the deadly snow, Virpan threw the stick back into the fire. It was a few moments before he lowered his arms, the fear in his blue eyes dissipating. He appeared to be about her age, perhaps slightly younger, about an inch shorter than she was and wore an ax shaped amulet around his neck.

“Sorry about that,” Virpan said sheepishly, now starting to turn red. “T-Thank you for saving me…”

“Ach, speak you the jungle tongue,” he said quickly, “Uϸ, err, I am Howngthirr, of Kalargn town.”

“Howentir?”

“Howng….thir.”

“Howŋgthir,” she said with more certainty.

“Did you save me?”

“I cannot take all the credit,” Howŋgthir replied, “My brother Nathlit, and big Rour deserves some thanks as well. Rour, up, say hello!”

A mass of grey beside the fire began to move. Virpan took a step back as a muzzle appeared. She realized that she was looking at a huge dog. The beast wagged its tail, Virpan recoiling slightly as the mouth came closer. Howŋgthir chuckled at her reaction. Hesitantly, she reached out and began scratching Rour’s head. A tongue emerged from his mouth and the beast stretched its legs.

“Heh, you’re no Waviwi,” she said, laughing to calm herself. “Err, what is this place?”

“A steam cave,” Howngthirr said, pointing to the walls, “these hot springs have been saving mountaineers for generations.”

“I see,” Virpan replied, looking more closely at the cave wall. “What are these inscriptions?”

“Oh, show let me you,” he said excitedly, stepping forward to the wall. “This is Nlitprig, the lady of fire, driving away Bixtnath of the icy winds.”

“I-Interesting, so, what do those little carvings mean?”

“You mean these?” he asked, tapping a short sequence of around nine signs. “That’s Nlitprig, Ne, Lat, Irg, Tun, Pling, Raw, Irg, Gih.”

“Huh?”

“They are letters,” he explained, a bit confused, “you do not know how to read?”

“Nope.”

“Ok, this might take a little while. Uh, what is your name?”

“Oh Virpan, my name is Virpan.”

“Berpaan,” he said quietly.

“No, Vi-Virpan,” she corrected, “don’t let your lips touch.”

“Alright, Bir-ver-βir-Vir-pan,” he finally managed. “This is Pling, the first letter…”

-#-

Nathlit trudged through the think snow, shivering. A bitterly cold wind swept down from the peaks, blowing stinging frost into his eyes and nose. Images of the warm cave his brother and the pretty girl were enjoying danced mockingly through his head. He pushed on, the feeble lantern light barely piercing the darkness around him.

Try as he might, he couldn’t dispel the thoughts of Howngthirr and the beautiful girl. It occurred to him that Howngthirrr had no doubt taken sole credit for rescuing her. Nathlit gritted his teeth as he imagined how she would reward her savior. He rubbed his numb fingers together, cursing himself for not thinking clearly. At long last the lights of the camp came into view.

Relieved, Nathlit raced into the cluster of tents as the images in his mind grew more graphic. The campfire offered him little relief, as it had burned down to nothing but a few smoldering embers within the stone ring. After burying his hands in the warm ashes until feeling returned, he checked the cauldron for food. Nothing but a few dollops of cold porridge remained.

Nathlit stared at the slop for several moments, thinking of the dried fruit he had left for his brother. He loaded a bowl with the remainder of the food and choked it down, finding the stuff nearly inedible. Once his stomach was full, he retreated to the tent. As he stepped through the tent flap, Nathlit struggled to remember why he had not sent his little brother back to camp and remained in the cave instead. Images of them kissing and caressing in the warmth of the cave filled him with contempt.

“He planned this from the very beginning,” he said bitterly, “He wanted to get rid of me so he’d have her all to himself in that warm, warm place.”

A loud snore came as a retort, their father Uonkshrail shifting in his bedroll. A part of Nathlit knew that his father would be angry with him, but he was too fatigued to care. He flopped down into his cold blankets and tried to get some sleep.  Visions of the day’s events danced mockingly through his head.

The girl he had saved approached him, her clothes falling away. They embraced, locking together for a time. Then she pulled away, having morphed into the fair-haired goldsmith’s daughter, her deep blue eyes staring into his longingly. Before he could act, Howngthirr rode past on a goat and snatched his beloved away.

“Bastard!” he hollered, sitting bolt upright. “Oh.”

It was morning, his beloved was miles away, and his brother was probably getting laid. He sighed, pulling the blanket off himself. As Nathlit sat up he found his imposing bear of a father Uonkshrail standing at the tent flap, stroking his long beard thoughtfully.

“Who’s wronged ya boy?” he asked a gravelly voice.

“No one dad, it was just a dream,” he replied. “Now, I need to-”

“…listen here,” Uonkshrail finished, “you left your brother out there, abandoned your task, and traveled alone at night. Nathlit, my son, I taught you better than that.”

“It was an emergency, father.”

“You never leave someone behind,” he scolded, “Get ready to head out; you’ve a delivery to make, and some firewood to pick up.”

Unable to protest, Nathlit sighed and prepared to leave. His father handed him a large pack. He eyed it, looking from it to his father, then back again.

“That’s not-”

“It’s your pack, everything you need for a rescue,” Uonkshrail informed him, “you get to complete the task you started.”

“What about going out al-”

“It is a sunny morning, not a storming evening. If you think these are equitable…then you, my son, have no business out here on the mountains.”

With a heavy sigh and an even heavier pack strapped to his shoulders, Nathlit swayed his way out the tent and through camp. A hunting dog and his master bounded past, their fast mobility mocking him. Slowly he made his way across the mountain side, the fresh snow giving way beneath his feet. Every step was a struggle, the image of Howngthirr and the girl relaxing in a pool of warm water filling him with contempt.

By the time he finally stumbled to the mouth of the cave, Nathlit was gasping for breath, his legs ready to give out. With his final ounces of strength, he pushed through the cave opening. The two of them are naked, the thought on the verge of tears. They’re naked and embracing, she’s kissing him everywhere. He turned the final corner and at last came face to face with his brother.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he croaked.

“Oh, hello Nathlit,” A quite clothed Howngthirr said cheerfully. “I was just teaching Birpan to write.”

“Wri-i-ti-uh.”

“Hello there,” Virpan said smiling, also clothed, a chisel in one hand, “I take it you saved me as well? Thank you.”

“Uh, bro?” Howngthirr said, concerned. “Hello?”

After a few moments of awkward silence Nathlit released the pack, dropping it to the ground before falling to his knees. He buried his face in his hands, truly ashamed of his brother. Finally he looked up and glared at Howngthirr.

“What’s the matter?” his brother asked, surprised.

“You spend all night alone in a steaming cave with a naked girl, and you teach her to write?! What the hell is wrong with you?!”

-#-

Virpan scratched her belly, finding the itchy wool of her new coat irritating. Still, it felt much warmer inside her cocoon, so she bore the discomfort without complaint. She stepped out of the cave where an invigorating debate was taking place.

“No you’re the girly flower!” Howngthirr shouted, “By Dwirshol, I do not take advantage of women, you honor-less swine!”

“Asking for a just reward is not taking advantage of her!” Nathlit roared, “You’re just not man enough to step up, girly!”

“Swine; nothing on the brain but eating, sleeping, and rolling in your own filth!”

“Pansy!”

“Dishonorable!”

“Get off me!” Nathlit shouted, shoving Howngthirr away.

“Gererrrere!”

The two grabbed each other, wrestling to the ground. Virpan took in the spectacle for a few moments, amused, before speaking up. “Are you two sure you’re brothers?”

Nathlit kicked Howngthirr off of him and he rolled down the hill apace.

“Unfortunately,” he said quietly, “So your name is Berpan? Interesting, my name is Nathlit, older than little Howngthirr by four years.”

“My name is Virpan, actually, don’t let your lips touch on the ‘β’ sound.”

“You are quite a lovely young woman, Berpan,” he said, reaching out towards her.

Virpan gently took his fingers; then, narrowing her eyes, she bent them backwards until one cracked. Nathlit yelped, as he pulled his aching fingers free. Getting the message fairly quickly, he backed away a few paces.

“E-he-he, so, Berpan, what brings you to the mountains?”

“She’s delivering a message,” Howngthirr said, rising to his feet.

“I asked her that, twit,” he snapped, “uh, so what’s the message?”

“Actually, I don’t know what it is,” she admitted, shifting uncomfortably. “All I know is that I must deliver it as quickly as possible.”

For a moment they stood quietly, Howngthirr pulling his cap back on. For the first time Virpan wondered what was written upon the scroll she carried. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask, though she doubted that father Sanja would have told her anyway. Deciding that the best thing to do was move forward she pushed the thought from her mind.

“I’m merely the messenger,” she said quietly, “it’s not my place to know…”

“I understand, top secret,” Nathlit said, tapping his lips. “Well, I’ll take you as far as, as-well as far as you need to go.”

“Yeah, I’ll take you that far, as well,” Howngthirr said breathlessly.

“Shut up, twit.”

“I thank you both,” Virpan said, stepping between them. “Now we should get going.”

“Follow me,” Nathlit said commandingly, brushing his little brother aside.

This was his moment to shine. Nathlit took three steps before his foot landed on a loose rock and he lost his footing. He barely felt the tumble down the hill, though it would certainly sting in a few hours. For a moment Nathlit lay still in the snow and stared up into the empty sky. The sound of the other two approaching drove him to stand up. He tried to downplay the fall with an awkward grin, but fooled no one.

“Oh, let’s just grab the stupid firewood and head back to camp,” Nathlit said glumly, trudging back to the cave mouth.

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