This story is part of a series, this is the twenty-third part.
You can read the first story here: The Wanderer, Part 1
and the most recent story here: The Wanderer, Part 22
Tas woke with a harsh sneeze that echoed off the trees and shook a bit of snow into his eyes. He shook his head to get rid of the dusting of snow in his hair then stood to shake the rest of the snow from his clothes. Yao had pelted a deer three nights before and made jerky with a lot of the meat, so they wouldn’t need food for another month. Plenty of time to get wherever they were going. Yao still hadn’t said anything really. He just walked
Yao was already awake and about; he had just finished making his morning tea and handed Tas the scalding cup, which he had learned to hold carefully with his sleeves after Yao poured it. The old man seemed to be impervious to the heat and he chugged it like it was lukewarm chocolate milk.
In the past days the old man was silent; as they approached the upper heights of the mountains Tas could see his gaze darting up the mountain, looking for things Tas couldn’t see. Somehow seeing them. Tas didn’t know what the old man was doing, but he was certain it involved magic. There was a blur in his eyes, and the freedom in his expression were unquestioning, hollow, simply euphoric. As they continued their walk forward and upward Tas pulled him back by grabbing his arm.
The old man shook his head for a moment, then his eyes refocused on Tas, “Why’d you do that? I was watching them!” He pointed at the huge ice wall in front of them, nearly covered in white wind from the hearty winds passing through. After a minute or so of staring Tas could just barely make out a couple of black dots slowly climbing the white sheer cliff. They looked liked ants.
Tas felt his arm grabbed violently, but didn’t respond. He knew that Yao was playing some game. He began to zoom in further on the climbers, deepening his concentration until he saw them much closer. He could still feel Yao’s grasp grow tighter on his arm. What was the old man doing to him. He could see the powerful strokes of each climber’s iron traction against the ice now, he was so close. They wore suits with spikes pointed downwards to keep them flush against the ice, black and grey and silvery fur lined their bodies and heads. In this part of the world Yao said it never melted.
He felt his vision increase further and could nearly see their grizzled faces. There were more than eight climbers that he had counted, though there could have been more below. Each was a man at least twice as old as Tas, each had a mantle of some extravagant type of bear. Not old men, but certainly strong men. They tore up the cliffside as they passed through, moving steadily upwards. They wore furs from all kinds of animals, wolves, elk, bears, including one that was dressed in all white, probably from a polar bear. The man was massive to match, but Tas thought for a second about how much help the man would have needed to kill such a creature. These men must be elite hunters. The fur looked whole and his eyesight grew even more powerful to see it closer. But he decided it was enough and his head was already hurting again.
He closed his eyes and grabbed Yao’s arm, moving it away from him. Yao huffed and walked away, but it took a few minutes for Tas’ vision to return. When it came back, it was still a bit blurry.
“Don’t worry boy, it’ll return in the morning all the way. Probably better than before honestly.” Yao gave him a little wink and a big grin as if he’d just handed the world to Tas. Tas didn’t really understand, but he knew that Yao was smarter than him. He was far too light-headed to think rationally right now. Maybe he could do it himself now that Yao had taught him? He got up and forgot all about it in his suffering in the cold with his headache.
They continued walking through the snow, both were well fed from the big stockpile of jerky that made when they killed an elk a week ago in some lower forests so they had plenty of energy. They had to take their time to get used to the altitude and to ensure that they arrived unseen. Yao said that it was essential.
Tas and Yao made their way leisurely and slowly up the trees and through the snow. It was colder up here, but their newly tanned hides kept them warm at night. Each day was a day of drudgery, looking, and boredom, though they were both beginning to run low of energy. The snow seemed to take it from them.
Yao continued to lead through the enormous patches of trees, some that were wider and taller than anything Tas could have imagined. These trees seemed to grow up into the sky and their bark was thick as armor.
They went through the largest patch of trees Tas had seen yet, before emerging from the trees into the center of a group of buildings. They were small white huts made partially from snow, partially from treated wood. It was cold enough up here to ensure that the ice would not melt and each hut was closed shut with a large chimney billowing up into the sky. Tas counted twelves huts, but he was sure that he missed some. And he was only looking at a single area. They continued to trudge through the snow, moving towards a larger, more central location probably. Yao seemed to move very cautiously, as if he were ready for the worst possibility. But they continued through the rusty pink dusk they could barely see through the scattered storm until they arrived at a particularly small hut with a noticeably bigger-than-average chimney.
Yao led them inside to be greeted by a woman who could have been the same age as Tas’ mother. She turned out to be Yao’s niece, as she explained while she gathered things for Tas to bath and redress. Her name was Yaina and she said that she would make sure that Tas was ready for what would happen in the morning. Yao nodded his approval and went upstairs with her to talk of what had happened to them, and why they had come here.
Tas was exhausted, his head hurt from the long days of walking through ice and sleet. He would rest for the night and was happy enough to not move at all after finishing his shower and dressing in his undergarments for a quick rise the morning.
Yaina brought him soup as he was settling down for bed, some light potato with a morsel of cheese and some tomato. He ate a few bites, then told Yaina he was finished. He rolled over onto his back to go to sleep. She paused for a moment and rubbed Tas back slowly, her hand was like a motherly protection, he could feel himself nodding off to sleep, slowly yet surely. He hadn’t been touched in so long, not at the monastery, not really in his travels with Yao. He could feel the warmth spreading out from her fingers.
He opened his eyes one last time, but fell right back into a dark sleep.