Of Lonely Hermits
In the icy wastes of the far north, the lone man is not only a dead man, but a mad man.
In the icy wastes of the far north, men are rare. The only society in
that land is a scant number of isolated villages. In order to survive
their harsh and barren environment, the people have taken to
following a strict culture that punishes those who cannot directly
contribute to a given group’s survival. This practice has lead to the
creation of a class of hermits confined to the mountains. These
individuals are condemned to solitude; they are banned from
approaching or interacting with villages and only survive via their
own means. In such a brutal environment, isolation is more than
death; it is madness.
Covann slept lightly and with great effort. His hands gripped the
mouth of the bedroll with all desperation in the cold’s siege. In
full clothing, gloves, boots, and roll, he still felt as if he only had
his beard and hair to keep him warm. Only at the feeling of wind
hitting his face and stinging his chapped lips did he finally give up
the facade and release his tensed eyelids.
At first, Covann was blinded by the pure white of the snow
peeking through his loose tent flaps. His hand moved to shield
him but quickly slapped the ground when its owner came to a
realization. He slept the morning away.
Still wrapped in his bedroll from the waist down, Covann dove
onto his belly, slipping his head through the tent’s opening like
a terrified grub. Around him sat hundreds of berry bushes, the
perfect food for northern caribou, empty of all bounty. His face
fell slack, dipping his beard in the snow. The herd he’d tracked for
months passed him while he tried so desperately to sleep.
One year, four months, two weeks, and three days in exile sat
poorly with the man. Food was always rare, but the winter made
prey scarce and cautious, and this time his last good meal was
three weeks prior. His stomach felt deep, almost heavy with pain,
ironically bloating his belly. He thought of scooping snow into his
mouth with his tongue for a moment, desperate to alleviate the pain
and almost willing to ignore the fact it would melt instead of feed him.
His debilitating malaise subsided at the sound of commotion in
the bushes. Carefully lifting his head, Covann was blessed with the
sight of a fox desperately gnawing at bark. Its thinning white coat
barely covered an emaciated form, but even the thought of peeling
a sliver of muscle from the critters’ tiny bones made him wet in the
mouth. Surely it wouldn’t be able to run, so thin, so weak, so easy.
His steps were slow, pushing the soft powder at his feet as
carefully as he could manage. So close, he wanted to jump, but he
had to get closer, just a little closer. His stomach twisted in painful
hunger, so desperate for the poor fox.
Suddenly, a horrible sound tore the skies, a brawl of high and
low pitches echoing off the very clouds in a roar that alerted the fox.
Covann pounced, his arms thrown out wide like a vast net before
crashing into the snow. His hands scrambled to pin the critter,
receiving an onslaught of scratches and bites to his unprotected
face. He grabbed the tail; it slipped. He squeezed a paw; it jerked out
of his grip. His hands closed on its neck; he was bitten on the nose
hard. Before Covann knew it, the fox had gone, leaving a trail of
tiny tracks and him lying in the snow, exhausted and bleeding.
Covann languished, the cold burning his fresh cuts and his
hunger squeezing his midsection. In his despair, the wind seemed
to whisper goading words demanding his demise. Death was not
certain, though—he had one more option.
Covann walked with weak feet. In his musings of better times, he
remembered an old tactic his father would employ in such winters.
While the wastes were frigid and cruel, they played host to many
peaks and clearings. One could see far with little obscuration atop
such wind-scarred cliffs.
For some hours, he trudged through the winter powder, his
supply pack weighing him down and aching his shoulders. On
the horizon sat a beacon of a mountain, its sharp slopes cutting
the whitened winds. The pointed pillar’s black stone drew out the
man’s awe despite his desperation. The sight drew further memories
thought lost, of shamans swearing of great cities built by men with
forgotten magics to emulate the land’s cordilleras. The memories
brought warmth and kicked his feet forward.
Other thoughts of laughter and sweetness pulled him further
still, forgetting his soreness and hunger. Such alleviation made time
melt into a leisurely river, only freezing back into its true shape
upon reaching the mountain’s base as he was greeted with a strange
sight. In the mountain’s trunk sat a grand door, as black as its host.
The oddity’s sheer size dwarfed the man, with at least a hundred of
him able to march the threshold side-by-side. Upon it sat strange
carvings beyond his understanding.
Whether he had been away from human thought for so long
or the symbols were never known by him was not his concern. All
his strength could not part the anomaly and he had no time to; His
death sat on the ground while his life stood on the summit.
Leaving his pack on the snow, Covann pounced on the
mountain’s face. The jagged rock bit at his hands through his gloves,
its coldness stinging him like a salt-tipped knife. Length after
length—span after span—slip after slip. The wind stung, the stone
bit, the muscles ached, and the hunger grew. Never did the agonies
let up, leaving a mark upon his sanity as he pulled himself onto the
His body rolled onto the near-flat surface of the mountain’s top,
collapsed onto the tightly packed snow. He sunk, but not by much.
Desperate gasps took hold of the thin air, rubbing relief on his
sizzling fibers. He wanted to rest, he needed to rest, but rest was
Covann climbed to his knees, then to his feet. His eyes beheld
an overwhelming sight; his entire world laid before him in humbling
smallness. Great forests of pine framed vast tundras populated with
uncountable herds of caribou. A great work of white and green
playing home to a host of brown food. A long exhale poured out of
Covann’s mouth, a deeply needed relief that was soon soured.
In the corner of his eye, Covann spied a growing storm stirring
in the eastern sky. He turned to see its grey mass churning, angrily
sweeping up snow just to blow it back down to the ground, onto
something . . .strange.
His eyes squinted, parting the wind until his memory slapped
him. He was looking at a village.
Two dozen tents made of furs and fats sat in the tundra, all of
them collected around a totem-encircled bond fire. Covann was
entranced by the blaze, its warmth and intensity beguiling his knees
to shuffle its way. The oranges, yellows, and reds formed a beacon
of promise; of food—guaranteed food, shelter, real sleep, and
people . . .people . . .people!
He heard laughs, cries, moans, screams—felt hugs, kisses,
caresses, pats, punches. He heard people . . .then he remembered.
Even if they didn’t know him, the villagers would sooner spear
him than take in a wildman, a forgetter of human tongues. They’d
likely string him up as an effigy if they knew he was an exile, a
breaker of sacred rules.
So Covann sat, and he watched. A man, marked in shamanic
fetishes and charms, approached the fire, staff in hand. His mouth
made strange motions whose sounds could not reach its snooper.
He threw his arms up, down, outward and inward—jerked himself
to and fro and danced as if warring spirits took him as battleground.
The storm responded with matching strangeness, its anger growing
as something inside fought it. The something thrashed in the
maelstrom before tearing its way out and spewing westward toward
The intensified clouds revealed a hideous thing. A massive beast
filled with screeches and roars, gliding on the winds with sailed
forelegs and wrapped in white, matted fur. Its long neck ended in
a head crowned with horns, tusks, and antlers browned with old
blood. Its twisted face pouring smoke from its short snout, and thin
lips opened to a cage of teeth, releasing terrifying sounds of death
and predation. The storm chased it, and Covann raced downward.
A dragon prowled his world.
The Hunter acted swiftly, scaling the height and retrieving his
things from the snow. The pain of the climb did not plague his
mind, nor the heaviness of his pack or the splinters of his spear as
he pulled it out. The caribou were plenty, but dragons’ bellies were
He interrogated his mind for the closest prey, squeezing
information like a barely damp rag. Should he go north? Warmth.
Should he go southwest? Smiles and hugs. Food. Home. Death.
Suddenly, a caribou screamed in the distance through the trees.
There was no time; the dragon would take his prey if he
waited even a moment. He sprinted into the woods, kicking up
snow, knocking against trunks with his shoulders. The hissing of
the creature poured upon him, filling him, becoming him. This
new beast could feel spittle pool in its cheeks—oozing out of its
mouth and flooding its beard. This beast could feel the wind grow
stronger, its encroachment on the tundra coming to an end. It
pounced from out of the trees, mouth-frothing and eyes filled with
hunger. The storm was upon it, snow pouring from the screeching
sky, mouthing the sounds of his own madness. Food, food, food,
he saw it walking upon the tundra, not grazing but walking with
caution. Brown fur, brown antlers, food, food, food! The spear lept
from him, defying the wind and delving into the food’s flesh. Bones
broke, the hips had shattered, no running, only feeding. It dove
onto the food, its screams, and gasps sailing past the beast’s ears. Its
fingers came upon the flesh. First, fur was ripped from skin; then,
skin torn from muscle. Fingers delve between the fibers, pulling
proteins and sinuses, ligaments bending like wet twigs and veins
slinking outward to stick to the beast’s hands, pouring blood onto
It was food; it tasted wet; it was raw; the storm lifted; Covann
felt confused. The beautiful white was stained red, so was the
caribou’s brown, so was he; so was the dragon in front of him.
Covann froze in absolute, irresistible horror. The beast stared
him down, its black and brass eyes like two explosions within
deep voids. The impossible orbs nearly popped out from the red
and white snarling face of the monster. Its jagged, tusked teeth
flashed their revolting brown as a putrid sulfur breath assaulted his
scratched face. It stood tall and belched flame.
Every cell screamed in unfiltered agony, pushed against a wall
of pure obliteration until skin peeled and flesh was tender. Covann
felt as if wrapped in a cocoon of both burning and numb meat. The
pain was too much; worse than the cold, worse than the hunger,
worse than the soreness, worse than the salt tipped knives. . .almost
as bad as the loneliness.
A blackness came down from above. It was wet and stunk of
death. It closed. . .if the jaws of his monster hurt, Covann didn’t—