When the pot is boiling on the fire
and cold sits crouching
outside, underneath the trees
like a hungry beast waiting.
When the howling in the smokehole
echoes the snuffling at the door,
and the trembling of the walls
is like the heartbeat of the storm.
Then the gods of wind and air
demand their portion
Pellan wrapped his furs around his shoulders and touched his wife upon her cheek. The hartwa was dark and cold. The fire was down to embers. The fuel was nearly gone, and it was too late to go for more. He was too weak from hunger, and if he did not hunt now, no amount of fuel would keep them all alive.
He had hunted three times in the last few days, with only a squirrel to show for it. He needed a deer. Nothing smaller would sustain them.
Pellan looked at his son as he lay sleeping next to his wife. The boy was terribly thin. His chest moved as he breathed, and his mouth moved as if suckling. His wife had no more milk for the boy, and would not have it again, not until there was food in her own belly.
He closed the hartwa door tightly behind him.
Outside the sky was gray and smoke-blue with clouds that brushed the treetops. The gods of wind and air had gobbled up the sun. Pellan started down the path to the creek, crossed its frozen surface, and entered the pathless woods beyond. An hour later he topped out on a bluff that overlooked the valley.
There was no sun, but there was a bright spot where the sun hid behind the clouds. There were words to say, gestures to make, that would make the sun appear. That was what the priests said. That was what the old women said. Pellan made no invocations. He had grown too bitter for belief.
He had an iron axe, stolen from his master when he went feral. He had a spear. He had desperation. It would have to be enough.
There were no deer in sight. He stood still, patient as the rocks. He had no energy to waste on wandering through empty woods. He watched. He waited. His belly growled and the valley below misted over, but it was not weather mist, it was in his eyes.
Hartwas, meat sheds, barns, rows of straight-line snowbanks where fences lay overtopped: this was the world he had lived in before hunger and rebellion drove him to the hills. Now he ate his fill in summer and starved in winter. The serfs who lived below never ate their fill. They nearly starved in summer and they nearly starved in winter. But nearly starved is better than truly starved.
He could have raided them, but they were his own people, or had been. He would die before he would steal from his own kind.
That was easy enough to decide — for himself. It was harder to make that same decision for his wife and child. More Wednesday.