The path curved abruptly just ahead. Heavy foliage veiled its further windings, even encroaching on the dirt roadway itself. I stepped carefully over a fallen tree branch.
Folding my cloak tightly around me, I braced against the icy wind. The chill seemed to suck every bit of air from my lungs.
There were no friendly huts here, their chimneys puffing woodsmoke. No fellow travelers had passed me for miles. No human sound reached my ears save my own heavy breathing and the thud, thud, thud of my boots against the frozen ground. I was alone.
Or so I thought. When I rounded the bend in the path, I froze. Ahead was a clearing in the woods. On the frosty grass lay a stiff figure; a man so affected by the cold that his skin looked blue. The man was hatless, his shirt and trousers tattered as if torn in a fight with human or beast. His face was bruised and bloodied to a grotesque degree.
On first glance, I thought the man was dead. After staring at the body for several shocked moments, I realized that the chest rose and fell in shallow breathing. He was alive, if barely.
Before I decided what to do, a light hand tapped my shoulder. Startled, I jumped and turned around. A stocky man in a plain brown cloak and a full beard stood before me. He smiled, revealing one gold tooth amongst the white ones.
“Sorry to alarm you,” he said. “What seems the trouble here, sir?” He followed my gaze, studying the injured man carefully.
“I do not know what happened,” I said. “This man has been badly hurt, yet he is alive–"
“Only a shadow of life remains in him,” interjected the bearded traveler. He was leaning over the body. “There can be no hope for recovery.”
“But I have some balm,” I offered, pulling a cork-stopped bottle from my bag. “It is said to have healing powers great enough even to restore a man on the brink of death.”
“Save your healing potion,” the traveler replied, eyeing my bottle with evident skepticism and amusement. “This man is past help. Come, let us walk on together.” He gestured toward the path.
For one moment I hesitated, my gaze traveling from the corked bottle in my hand to the disfigured face of the wounded man, his blood stark against the colorless winter grass.
My heart was a frozen stone. Clenching my jaw, I put away the bottle and continued on my journey.
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