Smoke wafted into the cold, still sky. Alcaeus rested on a bed of pine needles near the campfire, his body shivering without control.
Stoking the logs, Charis attempted to generate more heat. He tossed a handful of dried twigs and leaves into the blaze, a burst of orange leapt skyward. The young man’s aimless stare grew distant, mesmerized by the flames.
“Look, beyond the shrub,” Alcaeus pointed to a deer hidden in the shadows. “It is time, make your move.”
Charis tiptoed near the majestic creature and raised his spear. Careful to remain silent, he moved around the dense foliage and threw his weapon. The deer darted into the distance.
“I will never be a warrior!” he sat on a rock, dejected.
“You cannot give up. The strong believe, they persevere,” the elder man put his hand on his young apprentice’s shoulder. “You will rise and try again, Charis …”
“Charis … Charis, your mind wanders,” Alcaeus struggled to sit. “The fire dies,” his voice weak, his eyes glazed and distant.
“I am sorry, memories distract me. I will add more wood,” Charis grabbed a log from the meager wood pile and tossed it into the flames. “It will not be long now.”
The unforgiving cold assailed the travelers, breaching their tattered rags.
“They will not come,” Alcaeus murmured. “The tribe has moved on.”
“You must rest. The fire of illness burns within you.”
“I am but one man, feeble and old. You have yet to live your life. You can serve the tribe well if you save yourself.”
“Do not say such things. I will go sound the horn. I am sure they are near.”
The young man grabbed his spear and supplies and hiked up the hill. His lungs burned with every gasping breath he labored to take.
He scanned the countryside, not a sign of the tribe, nor a person. He raised the horn to his chapped, bleeding lips, nary a noise emanated as pain caused him to gasp. He closed his eyes and drew the frigid air deep into his lungs. Ignoring his discomfort, he put the instrument to his mouth. It sounded long and loud, like a frightened mule. He waited for a reply.
“Alcaeus, I have returned,” Charis dropped his pack near his elder. “I have brought more wood, and killed some rodents for a meal.”
“Did they respond?”
“I heard but an echo. They are searching though, I am certain of it.”
“They have moved on,” Alcaeus closed his eyes. “It is over.”
“No, you must believe. They will find us.”
Fever weakened the elder man. He dozed often, uttering incoherent ramblings in his sleep.
Charis held the days quarry over the fire on his spear, the aroma from the cooking flesh causing him to salivate. Nearly two days had passed since the two men first separated from the tribe, slightly longer since they had eaten.
“Why do you condemn yourself to die with me?” Alcaeus awoke from his delirium, “You must leave me.”
“I cannot! … I will not,” the young man pulled some broiled meat from the fire and handed it to his mentor. “The strong believe, they persevere. You taught me that. I will not give up … I will not abandon you.”
“That was a lifetime ago. I was young, and able to care for myself. It is different now.”
“Do you say that you taught me lies? I will not believe that.”
Charis added a layer of logs and tinder to the pit. The flare grew tall and bright, “They will see the glow in the dark of night.” He cleared some rocks, soothing an area to rest, “I will not give up on them, nor will I give up on you.”
The stars glistened in the late evening sky, hiding occasionally behind puffs of smoke. The merciless chill numbed the senses of the two men, the most simple tasks became painful, nearly impossible. Small steam clouds rose into the night with every shallow breath they struggled to take.
“Alcaeus! Did you hear that?” Charis sat up, his eyes grew wide.
“Your mind plays tricks on you.”
“No, I am sure I heard something,” he grabbed his horn, the sound was muffled and low. He could not draw enough air to make a louder call.
“Rest now. You will need your strength if you are to survive,” The elder man raised his head.
“Shhh, listen. They are searching,”
The faint sound of a distant horn echoed across the terrain.
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