When Chindren awoke, the first sense that came to him was the sweet smell of wood fire. The second was a luxurious warmth. His eyes snapped open to the inside of a log cabin. He was lying in a deep bed and engulfed in a sea of warm blankets and furs. The log walls beside and above him were darkened with years of use and somewhere out of view a fire cracked and popped.
Chindren tried to remember how he had gotten here, but could remember nothing after the cattails. He wanted to get up and look around, but the warmth of the blankets was so enticing after what he had just been through, he couldn’t make himself. He put his head back down on the soft pillow and fell back asleep.
* * *
When he awoke a second time, everything was exactly the same as it had been, and he was glad to know he had not merely dreamed it all in a state of hypothermia. By now he was sufficiently warm and rested to get up and examine his surroundings, and attempt to ascertain where he was and how it was he had arrived here. As he pulled the heavy blankets off himself, he realized he was still naked beneath them. His clothes had been thoroughly soaked and he realized they would have done him no good at the time, so he swung his legs down over the side of the low bed and peered out from the bunk. The opposite wall was only a few feet away and, like the walls of the bunk, was plain and undecorated. Chindren leaned out to look either way down the small hallway.
To the left was nothing but a small landing and a door that appeared to lead outside. There were a few odds and ends hanging strewn about the area, a couple pairs of big fur boots and a fur coat hanging on a peg. As soon as he turned to the right, he saw his clothes set out upon a chair beside the bunk. They appeared to have been washed and dried, and his flint stone was resting on top. Beyond them was a much larger room, containing the fireplace he could now see. The fire had burnt down and was now mostly ash, but would occasionally pop sparks up into the air.
Chindren snatched up his clothes and put them on as quickly as he could as he stood up to stretch his tired muscles. He grabbed his flint stone and placed it in his front pocket and walked past the chair and out into the larger room, which he approached with caution as if there might be someone there waiting to get him, as silly as he realized that was, given the circumstances. But the room, cozy as it seemed with the fire crackling, was empty. The fireplace resided at the opposite side of the room to the small hallway he came from, and to the right of it was a large and seemingly very comfy stuffed easy chair, with a small table beside it holding a pipe and bowl. There were a couple windows in this room that let in some light from the bright day outside, and another bowl on the floor.
To the left was a small kitchen with cupboards and a wash basin and a small table, pots to hang over the fire on a hook that Chindren now noticed, and another door outside. On the walls were various devices the likes of which Chindren had never seen, nor could he fathom a use for them.
Chindren walked over to the window in the wall to the right of the fireplace and looked out; however, there was not much to be seen but pine trees. He then started to walk over towards the kitchen, but just as he did, the back door burst open and in strode a huge man the likes of which he had never seen before, wearing a big fur coat and carrying a sling of dead rabbits over his shoulder and an axe in one hand.
“Whoa, boy,” the big man said with a deep voice that reverberated in the close confines of the cabin, as he put down his axe to lean against the wall by the door. “No need to be afraid, I no be looking to harm you,” but Chindren continued to back away. The big man threw the sling of rabbits onto the counter and began to untie the ties on the front of his coat. “I be the one who saved you,” he said.
“You… you’re a hunter,” Chindren stammered, not sure if he was accusing the man or simply making an observation.
“Aye, well more of a trapper these days, but a damn good one if I do say so meself,” the man said as he pulled his heavy coat from his shoulders and tossed it up onto another peg beside this door, as though he’d performed that particular action a thousand times, “and to that you do owe your life. Had I not been out a checkin’ my traps this mornin’ you’da surely woken up an icicle.”
To this Chindren didn’t have a reply. He simply stood and stared at the rack of dead rabbits that lay on the counter.
“Hungry?” the man asked with a bit of a smirk on his face. Chindren nodded. “All right then, tonight we eat like kings!” The man smiled a big grin and Chindren noticed a couple of his bottom teeth were missing. He found the sight amusing and despite his apprehension could not help but smile back at the big man. “Now, grab that bucket there and help me skin these here rabbits.”
Chindren looked to the bucket near the wash basin that the man had pointed at, and back to the rabbits lying on the counter, which the man was now untying, and back to the bucket, which Chindren now noticed was stained black. He swallowed hard, but it got stuck in his throat and he coughed.
“Not one for the sight of blood, eh?” the man asked.
“I… I’ve never…” Chindren stammered again.
“Well try not to think about it too much,” the man said as compassionately as he could. “They’re already dead. Ain’t gonna feel anything no more, so it ain’t on your conscience. I be the one that killed ’em. Now either grab me that bucket or do something useful and go feed Chuck.”
“Chuck?” Chindren asked, but the man just grinned to himself and didn’t answer Chindren’s obvious inquisition.
Mustering up his strength, and deciding that hunter or not, he owed this man his life and it was the least he could do, Chindren went and grabbed the bucket and brought it over to where the man was now beginning to skin the rabbit he had untied. Chindren held his breath and tried not to watch the ghastly scene, but his stomach was in such a sore state he simply couldn’t turn down a free meal.
After the worst of it was over, and the skin and guts of several rabbits had been dumped into the bucket, and their limbs tied together with twine, the hunter turned to one of the cupboards and retrieved a long spit, which he then brutally forced the carcasses of the rabbits onto, causing Chindren’s stomach to rise to his throat once more.
“Now take this and put it on the fire. I’ll go get some more wood.”
With that, the man handed Chindren the impaled rabbits and re-donned his fur parka as he thrust open the back door letting in a gust of cold air that caused the fire to hiss and fwoosh. Chindren shivered and once again thanked the spirits for his good fortune. The big man grabbed his axe and slammed the door shut behind him.
He made his way over to the fireplace and saw that there was already a hole dug into the far wall of the fireplace for the spit to be inserted into, and so he did so, resting the other end on another hook that came out of the near front corner, just as the big man came bursting back in through the door, carrying an armful of split logs for the fire.
“Ah, good one,” the man said after having tromped over to the fire and inspecting Chindren’s work. “I see you’re a smart one. Can figure things out on your own. That’s good.” The man dropped his load of wood beside the fire and tossed two quartered logs onto the remnants of the previous ones, poking them until he had a nice flame going. “Now,” said the man, “go get that chair I done set your clothes on and set it by that end of the spit. You’re going to turn that for me while I have a nice pipe and relax.”
Chinden nodded and turned to make his way back down the small hallway to the bunk.
“And then, my boy, you’re going to tell me who you are and what you’re doing in my woods.”
* * *
“My name’s Chindren,” the young boy said as he sat down on the chair beside the spit and began to turn it by means of a fork at the near end. “I come from Willowbrook, up the Minnoa.”
“Ah, Willowbrook. Yes I know of it. Quite a ways that is. You must have been in that river quite a while.” Chindren didn’t say anything and looked back to his work. “Chindren you say. An old name.”
“You know of my name?” Chindren asked, looking up.
“Oh yes, a great man I once knew went by that name. That was a very long time ago, when I was but a boy and he an old man.”
“And what is your name, if you don’t mind me asking, sir?” Chindren asked as politely as he could remember his aunt teaching him.
“I be Garreth,” the man replied in that deep, somewhat rattly voice of his, “…and that be Chuck,” he said, looking behind Chindren to his right. Chindren stopped turning the spit and looked behind him. The moment he saw what was standing there he jumped up out of his chair with fright with a yell of “Monster!” and knocking the spit off the hook in the process. Garreth howled with laughter.
Chindren ran beside Garreth’s chair and huddled behind it for safety as a green scaly reptile with a long tail and flicking red tongue waddled into the room, apparently from some unseen entrance of its own. He moved in a twisting motion, with the front half of his body turning one way as the back half turned the other and managed to scamper into the room and stop in front of the fire.
“He’s harmless,” Garreth said, laughing even harder as he watched Chindren cower in fear beside him for protection when only moments ago he was the one Chindren was afraid of.
“What is that?” Chindren managed to get out, having not taken his eyes off the creature since taking his position beside the big chair.
“That, my friend, is Chuck,” Garreth replied jokingly, with a big grin. “Have you never seen a lizard before?”
Chindren merely watched the strange creature warm itself by the fire, paying neither of them any attention. He had surely never seen anything like it in his life.
“No, I don’t suppose you would have, living in that pit of a town all your life,” Garreth said, picking up his pipe off the small table by his chair and pulling a small wooden box out of his pocket. “Now go get that spit out of the fire before you burn my whole house down and ruin our meal in the process.”
Chindren slowly stood up and inched his way closer to the fire and the strange creature known as Chuck, afraid that at any moment he might turn around and breathe fire at him, or swallow him whole. But Chuck didn’t seem to even notice as Chindren gradually came closer and stuck his arm out towards the fallen spit, that lay at a funny angle, half over the fire and half still in the hole in the wall of the chimney. Just then Chuck turned around and scampered off across the room, causing Chindren to yelp in surprise and jump back, and prompting another bellow of a laugh from Garreth, who had now managed to stuff his pipe and was holding it between one of the gaps in his teeth and attempting to light it with a taper he had lit on the fire.
Chindren finally picked up the spit and replaced it on the hook as he resumed his seat on his chair, casting a glance to Chuck who was now drinking water from the small bowl on the floor.
“I got him on a trip once to the Southern Isles of Kilnjarni. That was a long time ago; he’s probably as old as you are,” Garreth said, now puffing contentedly on his pipe as Chindren continued to watch the strange creature drink by flicking his tongue in and out at the dish, “though you wouldn’t know it to look at him. Still acts like a pup.” Garreth took another draw of his pipe. “Keep turning that spit!”
Chindren realized he had stopped turning and was just staring at Chuck, still amazed that such a creature could exist. “I’ve never heard of a lizard before,” Chindren said, “or Kilnjarni for that matter.” He started to slowly turn the spit again. The smell of the cooking rabbit was making his mouth water and his stomach grumble.
“Oh it’s far away from here. Few have heard of it around these parts, and fewer still have ever been there. Aye, it be a whole other world there, and half a world away.”
Chindren finally took his eyes off the lizard and looked back to Garreth and was somewhat surprised to see him puffing on his pipe, not having noticed it before. “What were you doing there, if it’s so far away, and why did you come back here?”
“That, I’m afraid, is a tale for another time,” Garreth replied, looking off as if remembering some great adventure, “but I will tell you this: though I’ve surely seen my share of the world, I’ve never been much for adventure. I feel most at home when I be alone. I don’t tend to get along well with others. Well, except for Chuck here.” With that, the lizard looked over his shoulder as if he knew Garreth was talking about him, which made Chindren laugh. Chindren could definitely relate to wanting to be alone, but the big man still scared him.
“Enough ’bout me,” Garreth said, resting his pipe temporarily on his knee and looking directly at Chindren. “How about telling me who or what you be running away from?”
Chindren was startled and suddenly apprehensive again. How had the man known? Had he inadvertently stumbled into some trap set by his followers?
“Don’t look so surprised,” Garreth said, putting his pipe to his mouth once more. “There be only two reasons a young boy like you be out here alone in the wild, and that’s the most likely.”
“What’s the other?” Chindren asked, still somewhat skeptical.
“Either what I said, that you be running away from someone or something, or you be a heretic, and up to no good.” With the mention of heretic, Chindren swallowed hard. “If it be the latter, I’da been best off throwin’ you back in the river the moment I found ya,” Garreth added. Chindren must have turned white as a ghost because Garreth smiled and added “but I seen my share of heretics and you ain’t one, my boy. Chuck can smell em a mile away anyway, ain’t that right, Chuck?” The lizard finally finished his drink and scampered back to Chindren, flicking his tongue in and out at him in and tilting his head this way and that in what Chindren now realized was an almost comical manner. “Aye, just a pup,” Garreth repeated, blowing out a ring of smoke that lifted into the wooden logs of the ceiling and blew apart when it hit.
Chindren regained some of his composure and laughed a bit. “My uncle,” he stated. “Well really the whole town. I never fit in there.”
“I see,” Garreth replied, waiting for Chindren to continue, but not prompting him to do so. After a few moments staring into the fire and remembering, Chindren did so.
“People never really understood me. They always seemed out to get me, or afraid that I was out to get them,” he said, still staring into the fire, but then looked up to Garreth as he added “I guess I feel more at home when I’m alone too.” Garreth nodded. “More than that, though, I’ve always felt that something was waiting for me, something that I can’t explain or even understand. Something good, I mean. Something big.”
“And your uncle?” Garreth asked. “Tell me more of him.”
“Oh he’s not that bad I guess, but he’s just like the rest of them. He never understood me, always teased me or made fun of me. He called me useless and said I would never be a man like his two sons would. But those two…” Chindren just shook his head. “If they weren’t picking fights with each other to see who was the stronger, they were getting in trouble with the townsfolk, always being brought home with their ears in some Missus’ fingers. Carl would always pretend to make a big deal of it at the time, but when the door was closed and she was leaving he would praise them for what they’d done. He always looked down on me, never considered me one of his own. My aunt was the only one who ever really understood me, but in many ways she was as much a prisoner as I was. Someday I’ll return for her, when I’m a man.”
“Well,” Garreth chuckled, “I’d say anyone willing to leave everything he’s known behind to go out on his own is well on his way, even if he is completely unprepared.” Chindren’s face went pink when he realized what Garreth meant. “Say, how old are you, boy?”
“Sixteen seasons,” Chindren replied proudly. “Just had my celebration a week ago.”
“Well that be old enough I do say. Here, have a puff of my pipe.” Garreth leaned forward and held the stem of his pipe out for Chindren, who slowly took it between his own fingers and held it up to his mouth. “Ever try bogweed?”
Chindren shook his head as he experimentally sucked a little bit of smoke through the mouthpiece of the pipe and immediately began coughing and sputtering it out. Garreth simply smiled as he tried again, having the same results.
“Don’t swallow the smoke,” Garreth instructed, “it’s not a meal. That will come soon enough. Just taste it.”
Chindren tried once more, this time only letting the thick, rancid smoke linger over his tongue before pushing it out again through his lips. He smiled up at Garreth at his success in avoiding the need to cough.
“There you go, like that,” Garreth said, leaning back contently in his chair and crossing his huge arms over his chest. “Go ahead, have another puff.”
Chindren repeated the process, drawing much more smoke in this time, being sure not to let it reach his throat, then tilted his head back and attempted to immitate Garreth’s process for blowing a smoke ring. Of course he was not able to, but got a kick out of it nonetheless and the two of them laughed contentedly.
“I’ll teach you how to do that later,” the big man said, still smiling.
Chindren handed the pipe back to a bemused Garreth and went back to turning the spit. By the looks of the rabbit, dinner was near at hand.
“Don’t want anymore?” Garreth asked, taking the pipe from Chindren’s hand.
“No, thank you, I’m feeling a little dizzy.”
“Aye, it’ll do that to you. You’ll get used to it.” Garreth took a few deep draws of the pipe to finish it and dumped the ash out into a bowl for that purpose already on the table. “Now,” he said, after having cleaned and replaced the pipe on the table, “how’s our dinner coming?”
* * *
Chindren could not remember the last time he had eaten so well. He and Garreth had all but devoured the three rabbits and enough hard bread and cheese to last a week back home. Garreth was now onto his third pint of ale, but had insisted Chindren drink tea, which he had prepared before the meal. Nevertheless, the two of them were in equally high spirits and had even sung a couple songs together.
“Ah, now that was a jolly meal!” Garreth announced, raising his stine in a toast. Chindren returned the gesture with his cup and a smile on his face. “I cannot remember the last time I had dinner guests!” Garreth bellowed with a deep chuckle. “To Chindren, my new friend!”
“And to Garreth, mine,” Chindren replied happily.
Chuck, meanwhile, was content with his own meal of rabbit guts and breadcrumbs, and the furs of the rabbits had been cleaned and hung up outside.
After dinner, and the remains had been tossed in the garbage, Garreth got up from his chair and invited Chindren outside. “Go grab my extra coat and meet me out back. There’s something I’d like you to see.”
Chindren raced to the front of the cabin and grabbed the fur coat he had seen previously, wrapping it around his body and tying it with the small leather straps on its front. It was a good few sizes too big, and as he looked down at himself he thought he must look quite funny, with the coat hanging down nearly to his ankles, and the sleeves hanging down past his hands, but was happy to have it and thought to himself it was better to have a coat too large than none at all.
When the coat was securely tied up, Chindren raced back down the hall to the back door in the kitchen where Garreth had exited. The room was silent and the fire low. Chuck was there waiting for him, and though Chindren was no longer afraid of the creature, he still didn’t know quite what to make of him and kept an eye on him as he made his way to the door. As he examined the back door, Chindren could not figure out how it was the animal had been able to enter of his own accord, and so silently as well. Curious, he turned around to see if Chuck was following him, which he indeed was. Chindren grasped the large wooden handle and pulled it forward with a crack as the untamed afternoon air impacted the warm atmosphere of the silent abode. Chindren’s hair fluttered in the breeze as he took a step out into the clean, brisk air.
Before him was a great forest of pines that stretched onward to either side of a narrow dirt road that lead beside the house on Chindren’s left and out towards a tall hill in the distance, that Chindren could see over the tops of the closest pines and through the gap in the roof of the trees caused by the path. To his right, and attached to the house, was an awning of sorts stretching over a pile of logs stacked against the back wall of the house, and a chopping block in its center, and held up by posts driven into the ground at either corner. At the end of a smaller path leading away from the back door and across the small clearing stood a large wooden shed, constructed of thinner beams and apparently intended for work or storage, and not for habitation.
Chindren turned to look behind him, but Chuck was no longer in sight and so he pulled the heavy door closed on its creaky hinges until it thunked into place and would pull no more. As he was glancing down at the bottom of the doorframe to make sure the door was indeed fastened, Chindren noticed out of the corner of his eye a small flap open up a short distance down the wall just above the ground, and out trotted Chuck, flicking his tongue in and out as he tasted the air. The flap was nearly the same colour as the logs and Chindren had not noticed it during his precursory examination of his surroundings.
That settled, Chindren took off at a quick walk along the smaller path across the clearing towards the large shed, while Chuck ran at a surprising speed across the grass, his body twisting this way and that as his clawed feet took purchase in the soft ground.
Just as Chindren was approaching the shed, the door opened and out walked Garreth with a look of impatience upon his face. “Ah! There you are! I was just about to come see what the hold-up was.” Garreth stood to the side of the door and motioned with his arm for Chindren to enter. “Allow me to present my workshop,” he said with a beaming grin.
Chindren stepped in through the doorframe and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dim lighting, but as they did he was amazed at what he saw. Wooden contraptions and creations of every kind lined the walls or littered workbenches or were piled in corners. Chuck scampered in through the open door. Chindren saw carvings of men and animals, sleds and snowshoes, wagon wheels, birdcages, tables and chairs. There were metal rabbit traps and slings. One wall held various sizes of shotguns and other weapons and there were carving knives, saws, chisels and planes everywhere, and this is only what Chindren could name! He stood in awe for a moment and didn’t realize that Garreth had entered until he heard him speak from behind.
“This is what I do to keep busy,” he said. Chindren didn’t turn around—he was still staring at all the various creations. “Most of this stuff’s been here for years. Don’t really have a need for a lot of it, just like to keep my hands busy.”
“I’ve never seen so much stuff all in one place before!” Chindren exclaimed. “It’s as though a whole town vanished, leaving everyone’s possessions behind and you gathered them all up in one room.”
Garreth laughed at this. “I’ve never thought of it like that before. Here, let me show you some of my finer creations.”
There was little room to walk in the workshop, large as it was, and Chindren had to move to one side, leaning against a corner of the wall that came out from beside a workbench, careful not to touch any of the tools or creations haning on it, as Garreth slipped past him. Chindren saw a painted wood carving of a scenic vista complete in its own frame, and chisels of varying size hanging near it. There were drawers and bins full of things Chindren had never seen before. The wall inside the house stood no comparison to the plentitude of visual delights that filled this place.
“Over here,” Garreth said as Chindren glanced up from his distraction.
Looking up, Chindren could see that the workshop was illuminated dimly by a couple small windows in the corner the slanted roof made as it met the walls, as well as several larger but dimmer cutouts in the roof itself, which appeared to be covered with some kind of transparent animal skin. Slowly, he made his way over to where Garreth was standing near some large aparatus Chindren could not fathom a guess as to the purpose of.
“This is my lathe,” Garreth announced proudly. “It turns a piece of wood while it is shaved, creating a cylinder. It’s great for making table legs and such, but my personal favourite is to make pipe stems. In fact, you can borrow this one until I can make you a proper one.” Garreth reached to a bin hanging beneath the table the lathe sat atop and pulled out a readily-crafted pipe, somewhat smaller than his own, and handed it to Chindren, who reached out to examine it.
“I can’t accept this,” Chindren protested, while examining the handiwork of the carving, “not without paying for it.”
“Nonsense, that is scrap—hardly worth a penny. I will make you a proper pipe. A pipe, after all, is best given as a gift, and hand-crafted for the person it is given to. Each pipe is different, just as is each individual. I need to get a better feel for you before I attempt that, though, so this will serve you in the meantime. I can’t have you smoking mine all the time now can I?”
“No sir,” Chindren replied humbly, turning the pipe over in his hands. It was plain and unfinished, and still sticky with wood sap, but it was a fine pipe and masterfully crafted, not that Chindren knew much about that sort of thing. His uncle owned a pipe, and this seemed surely at least as good as anything he had seen in Willowbrook, plain as it was.
“Now come, that reminds me. You aren’t truly using that old flint stone of yours to light fires are you?” Garreth asked, walking to another station in the workshop. “Come, you might find this useful,” he said without waiting for an answer.
Chindren stuffed the pipe into his pocket and continued to feel it with his fingers as he followed close behind Garreth, who stopped at another small table that strangely unlike every other table in the workshop was almost completely clear of objects. The table was covered with more than a few black splotches and was nearly charred in a few places.
“I call this my firestick,” Garreth said, holding up a longish thin black wooden rod. “You just hit it on the end here hard, like on a rock and it’ll light up for ya. But be careful not to get it wet, else that will render it quite useless. You can reuse it a few times, but be sure to put it out as soon as you be done with it so it’ll last longer.” With that, he held out the firestick to Chindren who shoved it into his pocket along with his pipe and flint stone. “Now be careful with that ya hear! Don’t want it going off in your pocket or your pack. Always keep it wrapped in something so it keeps try and so it don’t accidentally go off, like this.” Garreth handed Chindren a small rag that appeared to be soaked in some pungeant substance and which felt oily to his hands. Chindren pulled out the firestick and carefully wrapped it in the rag, then replaced it in his pocket.
“Alright now,” Garreth said, “about that payment you mentioned.” He looked down at Chindren who looked up in return. “I do have a proposition for ya,” Garreth said, heading for the entrance.
* * *
Once the two men were back inside the cabin, and were comfortably sitting down in their respective chairs, coats hung up on pegs, and both puffing on their respective pipes, Garreth spoke.
“The fact of the matter is, you aren’t prepared to be out here in the wild all on your own. You be young and inexperienced, and you haven’t the tools you need to survive out here.”
Chindren looked into Garreth’s eyes, and prepared for him to announce that he was going to return him to Willowbrook, to his uncle, but that’s not what the big man said.
“Now tools I can help ye with, but experience, that’ll take some time. I want you to work for me, and in the process I will do teach you about the woods and how to survive in it. I will do teach you how to lay traps and catch rabbits so you can feed yourself, and I’ll teach you how to make a proper fire and stay warm. Now I did save your life don’t forget, so I think it a fair bargain. What ye say, boy?” Garreth asked, looking down at Chindren who was clearly taken aback by the proposition.
“I… that is…” Chindren stammered slightly, then took a puff on his pipe to gather his thoughts. “Yes, I agree, that should be fine I think. Better than fine—it would in fact be most appreciated!”
“Well done, then!” Garreth exclaimed, stomping his foot down hard on the floor and causing Chuck to jump. “It will be nice to have a helping hand around here. I might actually get some proper work done for a change!”
Contented, the two of them puffed silently on their pipes for a while as each of them pondered the days to come. Chindren was concerned about staying in one place for too long, and Garreth still didn’t know about the men supposedly after Chindren. He surely didn’t want to place his new friend in any danger, but he was sure Garreth could stick up for himself, and the knowledge he offered was invaluable. A couple days shouldn’t matter, Chindren thought to himself as he took another draw on his new pipe.
When nightfall came, Garreth offered to sleep in his chair, which he claimed he did more often than not anyway, and Chindren curled up in the warm blankets of the bunk as the fire in the living room slowly died and darkness gradually cast its long shadow across the small cabin deep in the Minnoan wood.
A couple days.