BIT BY BIT (Foxfires I)




He looked after her for as long as she let him. Though the wind tore through the grey stones of their fortified shelter, and the snow fell up to the roof beams. Though there was nothing to eat but frozen horse meat and nothing to drink but festering ale and rank bog water. He stayed because he could not bring himself to leave her all alone, and they covered themselves with sheepskins and slept more often than not.

It was on the darkest, coldest night of all that it first happened. He put a hand out to shrug the sheepskin over his shoulder and brushed the roundness of her breast. And even though they were so tired, so hungry and so rigid with cold, they bent towards each other. Their lips touched.

This was all they had. For many days. And then the snows melted. A trickle of fresh water ran past the dwelling. Small, white, cotton-top flowers grew from the putrid bog. Life.

“Go,” she said to him, as she had said many times before, “I am forever in your debt for staying with me so long. But now you must go.”

He protested. But the beauty of the valley beyond caught his eye, and he found it more beautiful than she, who had become wasted and gaunt over the winter. He thought of the pastures and woods and the ground soon heavy with swaying crops and grazing animals.

“I will return,” he told her, “I will come back with food and build you a better place to live.”

“No,” she said, “Never return to this place.”

“Then come with me.” An impossible request.

“You know I can’t leave.”

He looked into her eyes of a blue so bright it was as if they held a trapped piece of summer sky. He saw that she was stronger, and he saw she meant what she said.

She turned away from him and did not turn back again. Not even when he stood up. Not even when he gathered his few possessions together and walked away.

He kept his staff before him, pressing it down as hard as he could into the marsh before each cautious step, his thoughts on the smothered bodies of his tribesmen below him. Several times he felt a pull on his leg as the bog sought to reunite him with his people. Once he lost his leg up to the thigh in the foul, squelching mud, and struggled so hard to get it back again he thought he was a dead man.

As the advisor crossed the bog the sun moved across the sky, past midday and on into the afternoon. When the pale, yellow disc sank below the hills, he sank to his small island of wiry cotton-topped grass and slept without dreaming. Morning came with the skylark’s song, and he began again. Another day passed by.

When he had taken five steps, one after the other, on firm, solid ground, he knew he was free. His ordeal was over. The fortress glared back at him when he turned one last time. The woman, now a small dot slumped against the grey walls, did not move. He wondered how she would fare, all alone in the middle of the marshes, on the side of a wasted moor. He wondered that several times over the following days. But then he came across a village and people who were willing to take him in, and he found himself almost happy, almost belonging. The sun warmed his skin, food swelled his belly, the sound of fresh river water and lowing cattle smoothed over the bad memories. And he thought no more of her. No more of Berber and his tribe. At last he had only to think of himself.