A terrible thought arose in the mind of the frozen boy.
<A sightless corpse, frozen to stone and bone, never to move again.>
“I know. He’s lucky. He’s still breathing, isn’t he?”
Another thought rose.
<Bone cracking in the jaws of a great beast.>
“No, you are not eating him. That’s why I’m here, to make you better food, remember?”
A third image crossed his mind.
<Bone cracking in the jaws of a much smaller beast.>
“No, Pick isn’t eating him either! He’s not your dessert, and that’s final. Go check the stables if you’re so hungry, eh? The stew will be done shortly.”
A great beast snorted in response.
The boy felt warm fur beneath his fingertips, the weight of a thick blanket covering him, and an enormous pillow behind his head. The smell of roasting meat filled his lungs. Something was very wrong. Besides, of course, the fact that he didn’t have the strength to even raise a finger. He tried opening his eyes, but the fire light proved too much to handle. He couldn’t feel his toes… exactly. Something pressed against the bottoms of his feet, warming them.
He wasn’t dead. Not yet.
A strange concept emerged in the boy’s mind, as if placed there by something else.
<A large wet tongue lapping against a human face.>
A voice answered the thought.
“If you mean to eat him, absolutely not. If you mean to be his friend, then… fine. Warm him up a little. But let the poor boy sleep for a while, will you?”
A monster approached. Large enough to block the light. Its footfalls cracked to stone and slid across dirt, and a great body came to rest against the boy’s side. Then, a large weight settled across his legs, and the smell of a wet dog arose. The boy tried to open his eyes wide, and a face came into blurry view.
A face? What made the boy think it was a face? Not a human face. Wait, a dog’s face. Or was it a wolf? It was too big to be a wolf’s face; the boy thought it a matter of fact that wolves do not grow to such sizes. The head of this wolf lay as large as an apple crate, as large as a wolf should be by itself. A great black nose sniffed at the air like bellows, a gray-and-brown muzzle sat across the boy’s lap, and bright reflective eyes darted to and fro to some other points of interest in the room in which the boy lay. The boy strained to lift his head, and saw a pair of furry ears curiously rotate as it heard a myriad of homemade noises.
The wolf growled as if tired. The vibrations shook the boy’s bones. His fear may have been frozen before, but like the rest of him, it began to thaw. The anxiety grew quickly. Try as he might to still his timid voice, he couldn’t help a small squeak of panic.
The wolf’s closest eye quickly switched upon him, and the whole head rose and cocked to one side.
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
<A human rising from bed and smiling.>
Mostly true. Except the boy did not feel like smiling. A voice then called from further inside the room, as if alerted by the thought in the boy’s mind.
“Are you sure, Pick? Is he awake?”
The wolf bent his great head down and sniffed at the boy; the stale, humid dog-breath might as well have been steam. It growled and yelped a quiet affirmative. Then, the prediction came to pass: the wolf’s tongue emerged and shoved the boy’s hair to the side with a single terrible lick. The wolf was tasting him! The boy tried to lift his arms to fight against it, but they remained uselessly at his side.
“Ah, he is awake!”
A dark figure appeared in place of the firelight, and stood above the boy. It certainly didn’t look wolf-shaped. No, a man. Everything was still blurry. The man knelt down in front of the boy and rested his hand on the boy’s forehead. Then his nose, and his ears.
“Well, kid, looks like you’re not a popsicle. That’s good news, right?”
At this moment, the boy realized he’d been shivering terribly. He opened his mouth, and the cold of the mountain fell out of it.
“Wh-Wh… whe… wh-where…”
“Hey, it’s all right my boy, no need to worry yourself, I promise. Just relax and warm up. You were out in the cold for hours.”
The boy blinked, and his stomach twisted. The man came forward and sat himself down at the boy’s side, pushing the giant wolf away in the process. Not only did the wolf not straight away eat the man in response, the wolf simply growled in protest and stepped over both the man and the boy. It then laid its great body down and placed its head across the boy’s lap. Its paw gently dug against the fur blanket, and the wolf watched him with an adorable brown eye like a patient puppy. The boy wasn’t sure which one to be afraid of first, man or beast.
The boy had no idea what to make of the man. He dressed like a scholar or a teacher, in fine trousers, a loose-fitting doublet, and a thin leather jacket with a wide collar. He also wore thin spectacles that surely gave him an age beyond his own. He didn’t seem at all like the hardy specimen of manhood that would live this high up a mountain. His tan face reflected something foreign, though from where Aeo had no idea. His words were very plain, however, giving no hint.
“By the Goddess, I can’t believe you decided to climb Falas in a blizzard like this,” the man said. “You’re one brave boy. Put you down for a whole day. You must have been running away from something fairly frightening to force you this far up.”
The man placed a hand on the boy’s face, just beneath his left eye. The touch reminded the boy of the terrible bruise that dominated his face, and the fact that blood was slowly rushing to the spot.
“I’m guessing you didn’t do this to yourself.”
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
<The color purple. A human falling out of a tree.>
“Yes, Pick,” the man said to the wolf, petting its nose. “Something like that.”
The boy’s eyes widened. The man could ‘hear’ the thoughts too. The man noticed the boy’s silent stare and smiled, pointing to his temple.
“I’m sure you’ve never heard a wolf speak before, have you?”
The boy slowly shook his head.
“Apologies, I suppose we should introduce ourselves. My name is Leon Sirelu…” The man placed a hand on the wolf’s nose. “…this is Pick. And you’ll meet his mama Shera when she comes back. Welcome to our little home on the mountain.”
Pick gurgled and licked the fur blanket.
<A human boy petting a wolf’s head.>
Leon laughed at the thought.
“Yes, you little scoundrel,” said Leon, leaning over to pet Pick. “I’m sure you’ll be great friends.”
“Wh-why… Why d-does…” the boy whispered.
Leon waited patiently.
“H-How does… h-he… talk… in m-my head?”
“I don’t know for certain,” Leon answered. “It’s curious, isn’t it? I’ve actually tested a few things with Pick. Did you know you can hear them from about half a mile away? And they can whisper too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. It’s as plain as if they were talking out loud. Though some of the images they use tend to get… lost in translation. Especially from you, eh Pick? It takes some practice to understand sometimes.”
Pick blinked a few times and started to pant.
<The color green. A wolf howling.>
“That’s right, it’s fun to talk.”
“Wh-What… d…does… g-green…” the boy attempted to ask.
“I believe that means he’s happy,” said Leon. “So when he howls, or talks, it makes him happy. Isn’t that right Pick?”
Pick let out a small airy howl.
“All right, down to business,” said Leon, bending forward. His hands reached under the blankets and lifted the boy’s arm up and out. Leon grasped his hand; the warmth filled it immediately, and made the boy’s skin burn. “Can you feel my hand?”
The boy nodded.
“Good. Hmm, you’re still cold. I’ll get you a couple warming pads for your fingers. At least you managed to keep them warmer than your toes. How about them? Can you feel the heat down there?”
The muscles felt tense and sore. But the fur blanket slowly wiggled back and forth.
“Okay. Try not to move them too much right now. I’m sorry to say you’ve got a mild case of frostbite there. They’ve started to turn a might black. Your ears, too. It’ll take some time for the right color to come back to them.”
Leon peeled the fur blanket back, and lifted a rubber bottle from the boy’s chest, testing its temperature. So that’s where the weight came from.
“B-Black?” the boy whispered frightfully.
“Oh, only slightly, nothing to worry too much about,” said Leon. “Nothing some time can’t make better. I’ll go refill a couple of these bottles in a few minutes. In the meantime, get some rest. I guarantee you’ll start feeling better after a good nap. And I’ll leave Pick to make sure you stay toasty warm.” He pat Pick’s nose. “Can you do that for me, boy?”
<The color green. A bright fire in a circle of rocks.>
“That’s right. Just don’t light him on fire, right?”
Pick let out a series of grunts that sounded like dull laughter. Leon lifted himself, but stopped midway.
“Oh, before I go… Do you have a name, kid?”
The boy cleared his throat.
“Aeo, s-sir,” he said.
“Aeo. Wonderful! Very good.” Leon jumped to his feet. “And we have some elk stew cooking over the fire if you’re interested. I’m sure you are! So don’t fall back asleep just yet, perhaps? You won’t want to miss it. A full belly makes sleep all the better anyway.”
Leon rose to walk to the other side of the room. Aeo might have stayed quiet and went back to sleep, or waited until the food was done. But there was something deep inside him that needed attention, something that Leon would certainly need to know.
“W-Wait, L-Leon, sir… Um, I…”
“Yes?” Leon said.
“I… Uh, I n-need… to u-use the toilet.”
“Oh. Of course you do, of course, um… I suppose we should get that figured out now, shall we? Don’t want you standing just yet. Oh, where did I put that bucket…?”