"That book was awful."
"So why ask me to read it?"
"Because then, you might finally remember you like to read." Dhaymin lay back, resting against the wooden wall. He couldn't have given a shit about what the book was about, but the second Jen had noticed there were books here at all - not many, fair to say, but just a few would do the trick - he knew what he have to do. Else Jen would sit there complaining again, and he wasn't having any more of that.
"I know what I like, Dhaymin," said Jen.
Dhaymin felt the sudden lurch beside him as Jen got back to his feet, heard the sound of hollow, creaky footsteps echoing through the tiny chamber. At least they were alone and somewhere dry, better than the last few nights. Books were an unexpected luxury, but this had been a waystation on some minor border road, so perhaps it wasn't surprising someone had left a few lying about. "Hah! I doubt it! You might be the worst fighter in Kasuorvis, but there's still no shame in reading, Jen."
"And if not for 'the worst fighter in Kasuorvis', you'd be as dead as Father. You've been like this ever since he did die!"
"What?" Dhaymin lay back further, folded his arms, and smiled in the direction of Jen's voice. "Happy with myself? Why not? This place owes us, and well..."
"...there's plenty else to hunt around here, if you know what I mean!"
"Seriously, Jen. After all that crap with the ice bear?" That had been yet another stroke of luck right when they needed it. Stupid bear had wandered south, into the pine woods. Jen, being his usual self, had spent forever explaining just why an ice bear shouldn't be in a pine wood and what all this might mean. That was all very fascinating, but it had started scavenging for the past few months, and a couple of lodge-holders had been lucky to escape with their lives.
"That was just a bear, not a real monster."
"It's a fucking bear! What's the fucking difference?"
"It was only a young one, you know. Young and skinny. And a long way from home..."
Well, there he went again. It had felt skinny, when he'd gotten his hands on it. He'd touched the still-warm corpse and felt the skin slide wetly over the ribs, and it didn't take Jen to tell him what was wrong with that. But that was another book-point, because whatever fate had brought the bear here, its skin was now drying out elsewhere, and it was going to make someone a fine winter coat once they could find a decent town. If you wanted good fortune, there it was. Dhaymin stretched like a cat, in one long, fluid motion, his muscles filled with a satisfying ache. It would all be over in the morning. There'd be food and warm beds and he'd already given Jen his word, long ago. Give it a year or so. They'd do better. If Jen complained, he'd do well to remember where they were this time last year.
"I want my family back."
"I'm your fucking family!"
There was no reply for a while, but Dhaymin heard Jen's footsteps again, and felt the soft impact as he sat back down on the edge of the mattress. "I think I should get some sleep."
"You do that."
Dhaymin lay awake in silence for a while. Jen said nothing more, until his breathing slowed and quieted, and then, finally, gave way to a series of quiet little snores, as though he were too apologetic to do it properly. Only then did he lie down, shifting a little in his attempt to find a position where the rough, bumpy floor didn't poke too much through the thin mattress, and only then did he let himself give way to sleep.
He slept lightly, punctuated by dreams. Most of them were probably significant, as usual, but he'd seen them all so often they didn't matter. He'd slept through the boring parts, woken with a start at the worse ones, but they were all just dreams. Dhaymin always knew when he was dreaming, because then he could see.
It was only when he realised he was alone did he wake fully.
"mm... Jen?" But of his familiar weight, there was no sign. Dhaymin rolled over to face where he would have been and felt the hollow where Jen had been lying. Still warm, though the heat was rapidly fading. He lay in silence for a little while longer, but his brother did not return. So, resigning himself to fate, he stood back up. There would be words for this, choice words.
He'd have gone outside, no doubt about that. It wouldn't be the first time he'd run off, and Dhaymin had found him muttering "it's here, I told you it wouldn't leave me," or words to that effect. And then there'd be a bit of shouting and a few apologies, and Dhaymin would be left assuring Jen there was no sign of his creature, and trying to believe it. It wasn't quite as routine as the dreams, but he knew the pattern.
How late it was he couldn't tell, but there were no signs of life - no footsteps, no half heard voices in the distance, no warmth from a dying fire. He slipped outside, the night air cold but mercifully still. The first frosts were still a way off, but the taste of winter lay in the air, mingling with the scents of pine and loam, all the signs of the world preparing for sleep. He traced his way all around the outer wall, and set off into the forest.
This was the part he still hadn't gotten used to. His family had taught him how to find his way in the dark when he was young, even without the stars, but before... well, there'd always been chance to light a lantern if he needed to. He found himself a good, long, springy branch and snapped it off with a resounding crack, stripping away all the little twigs and needles so he had something to prod at the ground before him. Then he carved a deep, arrowhead notch in the tree bark, feeling sticky sap pour out under his fingers. It probably wasn't right, but what did it matter when it made sense to him?
He kept his ears alert as he descended the tiny, winding path that cut into the slope, his footfalls steady and deliberate. He'd been up here just enough times to know his way - there was that rock, there was that little dip that caught you out and made you stumble, if you weren't aware of it. But it didn't change the fact that this was wild forest, all silent and cold, just like home. He felt for another tree, carved another notch, and pressed on.
Jen's voice was little more than a hiss, but enough for Dhaymin to know he was close by. With a deep breath of relief, he made his way across the rough loam, his boots sinking into the soft ground. There was just enough warmth for him to know Jen had lit a lantern - he could smell the burning, in stark contrast to the cold scents of the forest. "Jen, what the fuck are you playing now? I can't-"
"Shh! It's there, don't you hear it?"
"I don't have time for this."
"No. I don't think it's that, not this time, but something's waiting..."
Dhaymin stood still and listened, as a breeze rose, ruffling his hair and clothing. It tasted of ice. The forest fell back into silence and then, just for a second, a faint little crack rang out through the trees. Dhaymin tensed, turning, very slowly, in its direction, and silence fell again. And then another one, the sound of twigs snapping, closer this time. "Wait a moment," Dhaymin said, crouching low to the ground, and holding out a hand. If it was the size he was thinking of, and moved so silently that only a few twigs broke under his feet...
Something soft and furry rubbed against his hand, and a resounding purr echoed in the air. Dhaymin in wrapped his arms around the cat's body and lifted in in the air. It dug its claws into his arm in that appreciative, I-like-you way, and purred louder, its body loose and limp.
"I... suppose it belongs to the lodge?" Jen said.
"I suppose it dropped from the sky to give you something to look at!" Dhaymin felt the cat squirm in his arms as it suddenly decided it was bored with him, and he let it go. It landed on the ground with a thump and scampered off. "Really, Jen, you are such a..." He sighed, and took Jen's arm in his. "Look, I don't know about you, but I'm fucking tired, yes? Let's go back. We can go after real monsters in the morning." He yawned. "Or the afternoon, if you like."
Close by, he heard Jen yawn too. "Mmmm. Good idea."
"Leaving me alone to find my way, what were you thinking?" A smile began to creep over Dhaymin's face again. "Don't you think I need someone to remind me to sidestep to my left?"
"Hey! I make one mistake, one time, and you don't let me forget it?"
"It was a big ledge!"
"I said I was sorry!"
"It was a very big ledge!" Dhaymin prodded at the ground. "Oh, look, a rock. Better watch out, Jen." And they made their way back to the lodge, arguing every step of the way.
Life was normal again.