As my fingers switched from being so numb, I couldn’t feel them, to such excruciating pain, they were the only thing I could feel, I cursed, not for the first time, the choices I’d made in my youth.
It’d made sense, back then. Everyone else my age was either a bully or boring, and I didn’t feel the need to waste my time on either, so instead of forming a circle of friends and being sociable, I sank into the background and preferred to remain solitary, unseen, keeping to—and relying on—myself as much as possible.
Even when I came out of my shell, years later when puberty hit (and I felt pressured to try and fit in, I can’t deny to admit), I didn’t regret my choices too much. But as I grew older and everyone else moved on and I was still left, alone, I couldn’t stop the seed of regret from not only planting itself, but sprouting until it encompassed every fiber within me.
I let out a shaky breath, the air I released forming a small cloud in front of me I could barely see. Even as a skilled ranger, I could barely make out what was ahead five feet in front of me, as I currently fought against the harshest blizzard I’d ever experienced. Yet I couldn’t turn back now, even though my body paid the price for my stubborness. This was the closest I’d been to finding her since we were first introduced, ten years ago.
I wasn’t about to give up now.
I stared out into the vast whiteness, my eyelashes thick with frozen pellets stuck to them. “Why couldn’t I have bonded with something that enjoyed summer climates?” I muttered, shaking.
Just because I wasn’t going to give up on her didn’t mean I had to be happy about it.
Still, I pushed forward. It was hard to believe it’d been ten years since we were first introduced, her as a cub and I merely ten years old. It had been a very special day for me and for the rest of the children who’d come of age in the village.
It was the day we were bonded with our companions.
Each of us had been paired with one of the six Elders, who studied us as we grew up. In their wisdom, they decided which animal would make the best companion, based on the traits we’d already exhibited and the traits we were predicted to grow into. In my group, there had been a wide range of animals chosen—the largest spread of species in living memory. From a lion to a fox, a wolf to a horse, a snake to a dragon, a griffon to a fish, we were predicted to be the most promising group yet, for what we and our companions would accomplish for the tribe.
And then there was my companion.
A lynx, with spotted gray and white fur, pointed ears and stark blue eyes.
I had named her Pointy, thanks to her ears—an unfortunate side effect of having ten-year olds name their companions after the bonding ritual. And Pointy and I bonded. Her thoughts became mine and mine hers. I could sense her presence when she was close and feel her absence when she was away.
And the moment she grew big enough to hunt on her own, she left without a thought for me.
I felt her absence every day since.
So the moment I was old enough to hunt on my own, I pursued her.
Always, she eluded me. Sometimes, it felt like a game. I’d pick up her scent or feel her presence nearby, in the forest, and I’d immediately begin track her. But as soon as I felt I gained ground, getting close, the scent would vanish and I’d lose her again.
I’d been tracking her for three days, her presence growing stronger with each dawn. She was so close now, I could practically feel her presence pulsating. Yet the storm, which had been an annoying but calm consistency since I embarked, had begun raging earlier that morning, reducing the visibility to nothing and halting my progress significantly.
Every ounce of me wanted to turn around.
My legs shook and not just from the cold. Snow reached my knees and each step tested my lower body strength as I was forced to plow through. Looking behind me, the path I’d made was quickly erased by shifting snow thanks to the wind that tried to knock me over at every opportunity. My fingers were ready to snap off, my limbs frozen, my lips cracked, with a trail of blood frozen on my chin before it could travel any farther. I couldn’t make out the lights from the village behind me anymore and if I didn’t find her today, I knew I’d be forced to turn around, else I meet my end buried in snow, my remains not to be discovered until next spring.
Teeth clacking, I swallowed hard. Just ahead of me, I suddenly could—barely—make out a thick line of trees. I’d reach there, reassess how close I believed her to be and then make my decision to pursue her or abandon the search based on that. Plus, I wouldn’t mind a little cover from the wind, however slightly.
Gripping my long walking stick tightly, I continued forward.
It took me almost two hours to reach the line of trees I’d spotted, which couldn’t have been less than half a mile from where I first seen it.
Once I reached it, I also discovered the biggest blessing the gods ever granted me with.
I stumbled inside, tracking in snow as I collapsed against the hard, stone ground. It was freezing to the touch, but to escape the onslaught of wind and ice made it a sacred reprieve nonetheless.
Crawling, I made my way over to one of the cave’s walls, squinting my eyes to look into it. It delved deeper than I could make out and much farther than I cared to venture. Instead, I collapsed against it, stripping off the top layer I wore, shaking it weakly in attempt to shed it of built up snow. I gave up after a moment, abandoning my efforts to curl inward, trying to warm myself up with my own body heat.
I knew I needed to get up and start a fire, somehow, yet the idea of returning out in the cold in search of wood and kindling was too much. I didn’t want to abandon my search, not yet, but I couldn’t go forward. Perhaps if I closed my eyes, for just a moment…
A growl came from the back of the cave.
Fear immediately laced my heart, until I forced myself to focus—and it scared me how much effort it took to do just that—and think about Pointy’s presence; the signature that only I could notice, thanks to our bonding so many years ago, her signal I’d been using to track her for much longer than the latest journey.
It was here, in that cave.
Forcing myself to stay still, I stared at the back of the cave until I noticed a pair of eyes glowing. They approached, closer and closer still, until I got a look at who they belonged to and finally, for the first time in ten years, got the confirmation I’d been searching for.
Even aged, I knew it to be her.
She’d gotten big. Her fur was thick, the white overpowering the gray that spotted her, like a stubborn undercoat that refused to be dominated by her top white layer. Her eyes were still a vibrant blue. Each of her paws were the size of my head. She walked out of the shadows and cocked her head to the side, each of her pointed ears twitching as she sniffed the air.
I couldn’t help it. I grinned, feeling my lips split open in the process, the slight trickles of blood warm against my skin. “Hello, there,” I whispered.
Oh, little one, she responded, her once youthful voice aged like the rest of her, sounding as old as one of the Elders. You never could leave me alone, could you?
“I’m your…companion,” I stuttered. “I wanted…to be…with…you…”
That desire has almost killed you.
“You’re my…alpha.” I did my best to shrug, even though my entire body continued to shake. “Didn’t…matter…what…it…took…”
Frowning, she walked over to me. With one massive paw, she pushed my shoulder down onto the ground, gently. Confused, I relented, though I didn’t have much strength to fight her. Then, she laid down beside me, pressing her body up against me until my hands, stomach and legs were covered with her fur. She tucked my head underneath her neck.
Sleep now, little one, she said. With my warmth, I promise you’ll wake up again.
I wanted to fight her. There was so much I wanted to ask her, so much time we’d missed, thanks to our elusive natures. Yet I couldn’t deny how wonderful her warmth felt and how exhausted my body was. I closed my eyes and let myself go to sleep, confident in her promise I wouldn’t die in the process.
I awoke, hours later, to her still beside me, protecting me.
Only to find that she wouldn’t.
No matter how much I pushed her, how much I screamed at her to wake up. It didn’t matter how much I begged the gods or what boon I promised them, pleading for them to rewrite the ending of this hunt. It didn’t matter what I did.
In our slumber, I stole her warmth and lived.
And she had died for it.
It would take many years to truly understand what happened the evening I lost my companion and many more to come to terms with it.
The Elders, when I returned and told them my tale of loss, had claimed that a lynx’s lifespan was short, which is why they weren’t usually chosen as companions, except in exceptional circumstances, like my own. She’d been too perfect a choice for a loner like me. I their wisdom, they surmised she had gone to the cave to die, aware that her end was near. When she felt me getting close, she chose not to run, but instead, to spent her final moments with me.
And in those final moments, she saved my life.
Just like a companion should, they had said.
In response, I left the village the next day, overcome by grief and fueled by anger, setting out to live, alone. For the Elders had been right. Pointy—my lynx—had been the perfect choice to be my companion, even if she ran from me her entire life, keeping us apart when we should have been together. Yet she’d just been listening to her instincts.
It was time I finally listened to mine.
About Nicole Evans
Nicole Evans is a writer of fantasy and science fiction. She is currently unpublished and is working fervently to get the “un” removed from that statement. With eight completed drafts in various states of revision under her belt, she has no plans of stopping. And she really can’t wait for you to read these stories.
Considering she has run out of space for putting rejections letters up on her wall, Nicole now uses her spare time doing the typical things that nerds do: blogging, dying repeatedly during video games (which she believes is retribution for the characters’ she’s killed), wishing she was the character she is currently reading about and trying to fight off the real world by living in her own head, with varying degrees of success. Nicole has a degree in Creative Writing and a minor in Film and Media Studies, and works as an evening librarian assistant. You can find her personal blog here and her book review blog here. You can read all of her Muses stories here.