Hello there, and welcome back to this novel! "Sons of Winter" is a bit of an experiment on my part. It is what I call a "High creative-freedom novel commission" in which the commissioner allows me a great deal of liberty to detail the plot, as well as employ any number of OCs I deem necessary to help guide the protagonist down his fated path. So, the reason why I liked to call this a personal work is because it definitely feels like one. However, after talking with my beloved patron, he allowed me to credit him in order to give proper recognition to his OC, as well as provide an example into how these sort of novel commissions look like ^^
He tried his best to follow the North Star, but as soon as the blizzard picked up, his trek turned into an aimless stumble in the dark. He could barely peer in front of him due to the icy flakes pelting him from every side, much less keep track of a twinkling dot shrouded by a thousand dun ones.
Every bone in his body rattled from the stinging cold infiltrating through the moistening leather of his leggings. The shivers crawled up his thighs, transferring into the muscles warmed by his cozy cloak, the shakes never giving him a single moment of respite. The pads of his feet had long turned numb and brittle, every step upon the ice dwelling beneath the snowdrifts akin to walking on heated glass.
"When the snow's all you can see,
White, unblemished, pristine sea,
Wade through it as if it's grass,
For the cold will slowly pass."
Aleks recited the first verse of a poem every Icehowler cub learned over and over again, yet it did little to help him cope with the despair blossoming within. A few hundred feet back, the snow had barely crossed his knees. Now, it almost reached his chest, slowing his already tedious slog to a mere shuffle. Worst of all, the snowdrifts shifted before his very eyes, the winds slowly but surely erecting his frozen tomb inch by inch.
If only he could be Nyrisa right now...
The little dragon no longer perched on his chest. After the first dozen uneventful minutes, she curled up in his arms and drifted off to sleep, blissfully unaware of the predicament they both faced. Aleks couldn't see her form through the cloak brought around his waist, so he whispered soft, comforting, platitudes to that bulge. He found it most curious, how sight made him feel so lonely and powerless, the only living creature for miles and miles around. However, he but had to shift his fingers just an inch to feel the pebbly texture of Nyrisa's scales, or simply divert his attention to the heat radiating against his palm pads to remember that Nyrisa shared his fate.
That dropping down to wait for the inevitable ending wasn't an option.
Aleks resumed reciting the rest of the poem, humming the canticles of ancient shamans, or simply tapping his claw tips against Nyrisa's scales in various musical rhythms. It helped him channel his focus away from that crippling hollowness and into much necessary distraction. The winds began to lose their teeth, and soon enough, the Snowdrift Plains turned into a landscape of eerie beauty, ever shifting, never the same. The furrow carved by his body used to be a constant, but signs of his existence already began to disappear beneath the same snow that swallowed everything else.
Eventually, Aleks's known songs ran out. The clatter of his teeth dwarfed his soft, diluted hum, and his throat tightened from the increasing intensity of his shivers. It was only a matter of time before the gloom returned, along with the painfully empty horizon.
I abandoned my people, Aleks said in his mind as he planted a firm foot forward. I had forsaken my duty. I disappointed my brothers, my father, the loving mother of a hatchling that I took under my protection to...to...
He stopped there, unable to think the rest. The truth echoed in every heaving breath he took; it rippled through his legs in the form of a dull, burning ache fueled by every step he took.
Aleks refused its tantalizing seduction, counting the steps he took instead, terrified of where his despair would lead him if he surrender to it.
He made it to a thousand, seven hundred and thirty six steps when his half-closed, frost speckled eyes barely registered the dark, even row standing against the brightening horizon. It took several slow, fatigued blinks for the meaning to hit home, but no joyous shout came, and no brisk steps speeded him towards that haven. Aleks lumbered forward at the same sluggish, monotonous pace, paying more attention to the shifting dragon in his arms than to the forest ahead.
He poked his muzzle through the collar of his cloak to whisper to her, "We're there," before he secured her under his arm, holding his left hand under her hind paws so she could find purchase upon it.
Nyrisa refused his offer, nibbling on the tip of his forefinger to express her disappointment at his lack of creativity.
Aleks sighed, placed her vertically upon his chest, and spread his cloak in spite of the freeze, allowing Nyrisa to clamber up his shoulder and curl about his neck.
"Erk!" she squeaked joyfully from her lofty perch, nuzzling at his jaw in appreciation.
Under normal circumstances, he would have chided her for exposing herself to the cold while also stripping him of her warmth. The willpower to engage in that sort of mental battle had long since fled Aleks, the need to teach Nyrisa a thing or two about the wilds now at the forefront of his mind.
If I die, she'll have nobody to impart vital knowledge unto her, Aleks reasoned, the copse of firs so close yet so far away.
"What is it the first thing you do when other fliers seek to harm you?"
Nyrisa unfurled both wings on each side of Aleks's face, pointing at the forest.
"And why is that?"
She reared on her hind legs, forepaws rested atop his head, turning her head left and right before shaking it vigorously.
"The trees make you hard to spot, yes, but what else?"
The hatchling growled in discomfort, kneading at the back of his head, pensive.
"Larger dragons and wyverns can't dive through the canopies. Don't take your size for granted, little one. You won't remain so forever."
"Mrrek..." Nyrisa whined, obviously disappointed at that prospect. She immediately sought shelter back into his arms, as if eager to enjoy the perks of her youth while she still could.
"I'll be the one nestled at your belly in three years, little Nyrisa," Aleks said, stroking her soft, almost leathery underbelly scales. "And your paws are going to grow so big, your pads will become the softest, warmest of pillows."
He slid the fingerpad of his thumb up and down the pads of her hind paw, silky smooth and blazing hot against his frigid fingers.
"You will have your voice, as well as the grace of your kind, and I..." he paused to swallow the lump in his throat before continuing, "I will be the proudest Snowfang that has ever lived for choosing me as your companion."
In truth, he resented his powerlessness, the foul choices he had made, along with his rotten body and hollow spirit. He had no future to offer Nyrisa; only the wisdom he could spare before his past caught up to him.
By the time he reached the first tree, the bruised, darkened horizon brightened to a misty conflagration of yellow hues. The blessed rays alighted upon Aleks's cheek, but they held no comfort, only gnawing urgency. He strongly doubted the arrival of a hunting squad, but even the lowliest of scouts had the ability to track and spot him on the fringes of the woods. In spite of his dire need of it, rest had to wait.
He found distraction from the drowsiness by teaching Nyrisa whatever thought happened to cross through his mind. First, he rambled on about the trees making up the northern forests, such as cypresses, cedars, spruces and firs, of which he had many examples sprouting all around him. That topic exhausted, he shifted over to the fauna, starting with the prey a small hatchling like her could hunt, continuing over to the bigger prey that would only attract unwanted attention if slain. Finally, he gave Nyrisa a brief overview on the ground predators prowling these very woods, at which the little hatchling scoffed indignantly.
"Confidence is good. It helps plant doubt in your opponent's mind, but you should never lose track of your limitations. You might fend off a single wolf, but what if the rest of the pack lies in wait, ready to pounce on you?"
"Mrrrrrrr," Nyrisa grumbled, unconvinced. Her head perked out of the neckline of Aleks's cloak, his arms and hands supporting her weight, allowing her to sit on her haunches, back pressed against his chest. It was a cumbersome position, one that slowed his gait to a languid stroll, but Aleks needed her warmth, just as Nyrisa needed the sights.
Would that his paws were as warm and comfortable as hers. Every time Nyrisa shifted her feet, the icy needles bit into Aleks's pads an inch deeper, forcing him to grit his teeth and bite back a yelp. Though the fur lining his toes made for decent insulation, Aleks had never marched at such brisk pace--and through such inhospitable environment before. Even if the layer of snow thinned down to his ankles, the ice beneath it, combined with the treacherous slopes and hills, made this terrain even more daunting than the Snowdrift plains.
"I've never ranged this far north," Aleks said to mask the shuddering, panting breaths leaving his frail form. "I heard the Night's Lights grow stronger the further north you go, until the sky is an amalgamation of various hues."
Nyrisa's frills perked in excitement, her forepaws grasping at the collar of his cloak to get her entire neck out. Aleks chuckled, ducking his head out of her way. While rearing on her hind legs, the hatchling reached past his head, their cheeks so close fur rubbed against scales.
"They only swirl through the sky at night. It's in the very name, you silly creature."
Her crest deflated, the little dragon suddenly crestfallen.
"That doesn't mean you can't feast your eyes on other colorful things. The north is renowned for its silver-backed squirrels. Try to spot some for us. It's what we'll most likely have for dinner."
One thing Aleks purposefully omitted was that this particular species, although meaty and succulent, seldom showed itself. The regular, white squirrels were plentiful enough for even a novice hunter to trap or skewer with an arrow, but Nyrisa had an innate dislike for bland colors. She couldn't suffer white, leading Aleks to believe she'd rather starve them both than employ her hunting prowess on such insignificant quarry.
Aleks rounded a ridge. He followed along the treacherous bank of a river, long frozen judging by its milky surface, then crossed it at a narrow point to venture deeper into the wilderness. The firs grew taller here, capped with a hefty layer of snow that cast soothing dapples upon him. Aleks kept close to the trees, his eyes sore from lack of sleep and also aching from his prolonged squinting. Having spotted not even one of the enigmatic squirrels, Nyrisa withered back into his arms, head leaned against his fingertips, her breathing slow and rhythmical.
I was just about to recite a tale for you, but maybe that's for the best, Aleks thought, melancholy setting over him like a shroud cast of lead. I am no storyteller, to entertain you with imaginative anecdotes; no philosopher to intrigue you with thought provoking questions, nor a poet to delight you with haunting rhymes and rhythm.
For his innate dislike of art, Aleks eerily craved to be better versed in the ways of the spoken word. Appalling as that sounded upon closer inspection, that form of art at least left an impression on others; it imprinted long-lasting memories into the minds of people and animal companions alike, reminding them of better times spent in the company of loved ones, or turning their moral compass in the right direction during crippling moments of doubt. Stories inspired people, ballads glorified past heroes, and philosophy directly influenced the laws governing every civilization.
But blacksmithing? It did naught but put swords into questionable hands, directed not by the will of their bearers, but that of their superior. Sure, Aleks could simply call them tools and loosen the chains wrapped around his mind for a day, but he could never truly untether himself. To a Snowfang, it hardly mattered whether you put a sword, a hammer, a nail or a fishhook in their hand. They'd still find a way to kill somebody with it, per his father's orders.
Aleks's scabbard felt heavier at his side. Every bump against a protruding outcrop, every knock against the trunk of a tree reminding him of the bumbling fool he was. He had forged a deadly, beautiful weapon, ornamented with an expensive gemstone, its hilt bound with whitespine leather. For all its frivolous looks and sharpness, Sharphorn lived up to its name, an arbitrary feature on Aleks's body that others would accidentally cut themselves with.
I'll practice, Aleks decided, or maybe he simply said that to banish away his stinging inadequacy. I'll practice not to kill others, but to defend Nyrisa until she can defend herself.
That last oath sounded closer to the truth. While he might never kill another on somebody's orders, he would do so for Nyrisa if push came to the shove.
Mental exertion never failed to take its toll on him. A moment spent contemplating his shortcomings exhausted him more than a full night's march, and that promise...it weighed heavier on him than all of the combined deaths back in Lothering. Those people had chosen or volunteered to be there, fully aware of their profession, rank, and orders. Nyrisa, on the other hand, had been plucked from her mother by his maddened ambitions, drilled into his head by the lofty rank he never wished for. Even his brothers must have felt this daunting powerlessness when they first became Snowfangs. He might not be able to explain it, but Aleks knew it to be so.
His right hand attempted to shift and reach into his knapsack for a refreshing swig of water, but it only moved a fraction of an inch before the brush of Nyrisa's scales reminded him of who now owned his forearms. Aleks swallowed several times to moisten his throat with saliva, unwilling to rouse the little one for such menial need.
He found the whitespine ravine somewhere around noon. Sharp, biting rays bore down on him, the permeating glimmer of the snow making his eyes water without trees to offer blessed shade. He crawled into the narrow corridor, mindful of the jagged walls and shifting floors, strewn with river stones wiggling in their icy tomb. Further in, the oppressive walls grew hollow, creating two alcoves sheltered from both stinging wind and unwanted eyes.
Aleks balanced Nyrisa on one arm against his chest as he unclasped his cloak. He splayed it along the hard-packed ground, lowered Nyrisa onto the smooth, inner surface, then bundled her in it after she yawned. One of her eyes half opened to regard him, but her pupil quickly drifted away as she chose sleep over food and water.
Aleks calmed his thirst first, after which he unclasped the scabbard from his belt, placing it against the wall to his side. He then settled in a cross-legged position to grasp his paw pads in his palms for blessed, soothing warmth. Massaging them only flared the dull pain permeating them, so he simply clasped each foot in one hand, waiting for them to throb with renewed warmth.
That discomfort alleviated, he rested the knapsack on his lap and began to scrounge through it, snarl deepening with every tool, leather and cloth strap he set aside.
No food. There was no food.
Aleks's stomach lurched, empty as it was, the shock traversing from his nape all the way down to his tail tip, fluffing it as if struck by lightning.
"I never grabbed supplies," he said out loud, as if to convince himself of the stark reality. "I expected to stay there as instructed, not leave, so I didn't grab as much as a string of jerky..."
"Mrrrrrrrrrrk?" came the inquiry from the mound of fur.
Aleks opened his mouth to put an end to this most embarrassing episode, but it was too late. Nyrisa tossed aside her shelter with a lazy push of her wings, the half-crouched hatchling starting at him.
"Go back to sleep," Aleks urged. "I'll do the same after I eat."
She cocked her head, definitely suspecting the lie, but before she had the chance to confront him about it, the hatchling fell prey to instinct. Her mouth opened wide, flashing sharp, needle-like fangs at him, bifurcated tongue extending, then curling inward with her yawn. She stretched her forelimbs first, claws protracting to grab at the cloak, her other set of legs mimicking the same gesture.
"Hrrrrrk," she growled throatily, shaking her head and flapping her wings to dispel her grogginess.
Aleks smiled at first, his hunger and irritation all but shadowed by his hatchling's adorable nature. Her sharp gaze, on the other hand, troubled him. He had seen that conviction before, and it only meant one thing.
"Absolutely not," Aleks shook his head for emphasis. "You can't do that. I forbid you."
"Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeek!" She trumpeted, spinning around to wag her frill-tipped tail mockingly at him before scooting out of the enclave and into the unknown.
Aleks stared at the empty space before him. Frozen, impotent, aghast, he remained so for a good, full minute, his thoughts clashing in his mind like two armies on a battlefield. Should he be proud of Nyrisa's initiative? Concerned that she ventured out into territory neither of them mapped out? Mortified by his complacency?
"She's a barely perceptible dragon in a territory of wyverns who would adopt her into their family on the spot. The enemy hasn't seen her either, so they have no reason to suspect she is with me, so maybe that is for the best," Aleks reasoned, disturbingly calm given the circumstances. Shock still seized his muscles; it held him in place for more than a hundred frantic heartbeats until Aleks's presence of mind returned, coaxing him to action. If Nyrisa provided the meat, then it fell to him to supply the fire.
He produced a hatchet from his knapsack, resting it against his shoulder on the way out of the ravine. Without his scabbard to bump into the walls or the ground--whichever hit it first--Aleks felt a pang of fear curdle in his stomach. The hatchet was too short, its blade too small to fend off a predator, let alone fight an ambusher.
It makes no difference. I don't know how to use it, and Nyrisa's already out there on her own, a tiny, Snowfang hatchling...
It seemed fit, that he went out there on equal footing, exposed to fate's mercy. Once out of the ravine, Aleks scouted for disturbances in the snow, some furrows left by Nyrisa's take off, or tracks bearing the shape of her tiny paws. He found neither on this side of the ravine, nor did his heart relent to expand his search.
She's fine. She has to be.
Left with no choice but to believe in her, Aleks passed from tree to tree, hacking away the drier, emptier branches. Those that boasted too many needle-like leaves burned slower, with a thicker and stronger smelling smoke.
Aleks found his task surprisingly cathartic. The clash of steel on wood reminded him of his hammer and anvil. That jarring rattle of the hatchet's handle upon impact with another surface instilled that familiar, soothing soreness into his pads, the discomfort blanketing his thoughts beneath its sting. He lost himself in the static rhythm of hacking, tearing, piling into his crooked arm, until the pile of lumber reached his chin. He threw the hatchet at the top, ready to head back to his shelter.
When he spotted the empty cloak flecked by soft, lazy snowflakes, all the bubbling frustration boiling under the surface broke through the layer of conceited calmness, a tempest of guilt and questions without answers flooding his mind.
Why did you allow a one-month hatchling into foreign territory? What madness possessed you to remain behind? Which sort of lowly scum lets a baby do the hunting for them?
Aleks stumbled forward, staggering from side to side, blinking hard and fast as if to make sure the cloak was, indeed empty. He sniffled when every image he registered turned out to be no different, stumbling into the alcove, his pathetic whimper echoing off the dark, indifferent walls. His wood crashed into a disorderly heap, Aleks following suit, knees dragged tight to his chest, arms wrapped around them.
"I shouldn't have let her. Shouldn't have. Should have been firmer. Should have been strong. Should have been so, so, so, so, so, so, so, so many other things." His voice grew thinner with every repetition of that word, the very strength he craved for fading into the puffs of white steam leaving his muzzle.
Aleks fought back his tears by lunging forward, fumbling through his knapsack with frenzied swipes. He tore open a bundle of kindling onto the pile of wood, then brought his flint and dagger above it.
"Ignite, ignite, ignite, ignite," he rasped every few strokes of his blade along the rectangular piece of stone.
The dry strands of hay obeyed the wind instead, scattering along the pile of branches.
Aleks snarled, increasing the speed and berth of his motions, the sparks flowing over the golden mottling but never setting it ablaze.
"YIP!" Aleks cried out as the blade accidentally dragged over the pad of his thumb, releasing a crimson droplet that splashed into the swath of hay.
"Blasted," he whispered, tossing aside the contents of his hands to curl his fingers into fists. "Can't even start...can't even start a fire..." a sick, low, desperate laughter crawled its way up his throat. What was he to do? Cry?
No, no, no. People cried when their loved ones passed away, or they cried in jubilation. A person such as him, who couldn't do anything proper, wasn't allowed to cry. The moment he did that, he tarnished the image of his entire tribe.
So, he laughed. His muzzle stuffed into his arms, eyes leaking their tears, his muffled chuckles slowly faded into broken whimpers that attested his true nature.
Aleks of nothing, son of no one.
Curiously, the epiphany calmed him. Aleks the Snowfang bore the safety of every IceHowler upon his shoulders on top of Nyrisa's, a crushing weight that he wasn't prepared to bear. But Aleks of nothing, son of no one, was nobody in particular. He fled a battle like any sane survivor would, spurred by his need to see Nyrisa and himself to safety. When his hatchling volunteered to hunt, Aleks allowed her to do so in spite of the risks, as he respected her free will. Normal people were allowed to make mistakes. If the worst came to happen, they simply moved on.
"I can't ever be a Snowfang," Aleks said it out loud, with the stone and ice as his witnesses. "Nyrisa's not my companion, but an acquaintance, free to make her choices and live her own life."
He lurked further into the alcove, setting his back against the farthest wall, claimed by darkness. Without a fire to banish it, the shadows claimed Aleks, hiding him from the world.
But not from Nyrisa. The hatchling ambled into the alcove, the hare held in her jaws almost as big as her. She had to keep her head pointed upward, lest she dragged her quarry along the ground. It flopped near his unlit campfire with a wet, flaccid thump, the dragon methodically licking the blood off her snout before she dignified Aleks with a curious squawk.
"Couldn't start the fire," he admitted with a shrug.
Nyrisa's wings sagged, as did her frills. "Urrrrr...." Her disappointment rushed out of her, a heart wrenching rumble that forced Aleks's face into his palms as if to cover away his shameful existence.
"Rak! Ark, ark!" Nyrisa exclaimed, leaping around their makeshift den, grabbing his flint and dagger, depositing them at his feet.
Aleks pushed them away with his toe claws. "Thanks, but I already tried. They...didn't work," he said dryly.
Nyrisa grinned at him, then turned around and basked the wood in her resplendent azure flames, a blaze bursting at the entrance into their alcove. The very ground burned for a few seconds, the too potent, unnatural heat of her fire leaving charred, darkened patches behind. At first, Aleks mistook her burning hare for a branch, only to gape at the mottled, crusty silhouette left behind by the flames.
Nyrisa strolled over to it, inhaling the smell of singed fur and seared flesh that turned Aleks's stomach, purring in delight. Her head swerved toward Aleks, an unsheathed claw pointing at the rabbit in an obvious "This is yours!" gesture. Before he had the chance to dispute her offering, Nyrisa scampered out of their den in a storm of joyful squeaks, overwhelmed by pride for being the hunter of their party.
"Go ahead. Risk your hide for me. Who am I to try and stop you?" The tone of his voice didn't come off as condemning. More like...mournful for having lost his purpose, his very identity. True, his world simplified to manageable proportions, but part of him still craved to be Aleks the Snowfang, his father's son.
What's the point? I claimed the rank, but have performed no deeds in service of my people. I wasn't a Snowfang to begin with, and only did it to pacify my insane father.
Truth had the tendency to liberate even the weariest of souls. Only by admitting his weaknesses could Aleks surmount them, and now that rank held no sway over him any longer, Nyrisa became his sole responsibility.
END OF CHAPTER 7
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