Torak was woken by something slithering over his face.
With a shudder he started up — and glimpsed a scaly tail vanishing into the undergrowth.
He was lying on a pile of rotting pine-needles at the edge of a silent forest. Below him, a beach of charcoal-coloured pebbles sloped down to the flinty waters of the Lake.
How had he got here? He couldn't remember.
The east wind whistled over the stones, making him shiver. His clothes felt gritty and damp, and there was a humming in his ears. He was hungry and he missed Wolf, but he didn’t dare howl. He wasn’t even sure if he could.
The mist had cleared, but an ashen haze robbed the sun of warmth. At the south end of the beach, the reeds stood sentinel. Below him the Lake stretched to the edge of sight, opaque and forbidding.
He got to his feet. The pine-needles were strewn along the shore in broad swathes, as if washed up by a great flood. And the trees, he noticed uneasily, leaned back from the Lake.
He ran into the forest.
There was no birdsong, and the trees watched him sullenly. He found a stream of muddy water and drank, spotted a few shrivelled lingonberries left over from last autumn, and gobbled them up. In the mud he saw tracks: webbed with a tail drag. He scowled. He knew this creature but he couldn’t bring it to mind. That frightened him. Once, he had known every sign of every creature in the Forest.
He wondered how he was going to survive. He had no sleeping-sack, no bow, no arrows, no food. Only an axe, a knife, a half-empty medicine horn and a pouch of sodden tinder. And he’d forgotten how to hunt.
The ground climbed, and he reached a small, windy lake where the sun stabbed his eyes and the clamour of frogs hurt his head. He stumbled back into the trees, but they tripped him and scratched his face. Even the forest had turned against him.
The trees ended. He was back at the reed-bed. He staggered north along the edge of the Forest, till he came to a place where the reeds narrowed to a stretch an arrowshot across.
Beyond them rose a granite rockface. It looked strangely enticing. Rowans and juniper clung to cracks, while ferns and orchids trembled in the spray from a waterfall. Above it swallows swooped and ravens wheeled, and on either side, Torak saw carvings of fish, elk, people: hammer-etched into the rock and painted green. He guessed that the water flowed from the Otters’ healing spring. If only he could reach it.
The reeds rattled, warning him back.
The sun began to sink, the trail veered south, and he found himself by the Lake, wading through pine-needles on a charcoal-coloured beach.
He halted. He recognized this beach. He was back where he’d started.
A horrible thought occurred to him.
To test it, he headed back into the Forest and re-traced his steps till he reached the reed-bed — except this time he turned south instead of north. Dusk was coming on when he finally stumbled onto the beach. Same beach. Same tracks. His own.
An island. The Lake had spewed him onto an island, where even the Otters feared to come. He was trapped: his escape was cut off by the Lake to the east, the reeds to the west.
The wind stirred the trees. He stared at them. What were their names? ‘Pine,’ he said haltingly. ‘Birch. Juniper?’
Listen to what the Forest is telling you, Fa used to say. But the Forest no longer spoke to him.
Gathering sticks and tinder, he blundered onto the beach and laid them in the lee of a boulder, so the Otters wouldn’t see. At first, his strike-fire refused to make sparks, but at last he managed it. Muttering, he hunched over the fire.
On the Lake, a lonely cry echoed. The red-eyed bird that had betrayed him in the reeds.
More voices joined in. Not birds. Wolves.
Leaping to his feet, Torak drew his knife. he’d always loved wolf song. But it struck terror in him now.
Another wolf called to the pack. Torak knew that howl. It was Wolf, his Wolf — and yet he couldn’t make out what Wolf was saying. The familiar voice had become as incomprehensible as the howl of a lynx.
‘Wolf!’ cried Torak. ‘Come back!’
But Wolf didn’t come.
Wolf had forsaken him.
Torak’s fists clenched at his sides. So be it.
Copyright © Michelle Paver 2020