Three Runes

Authors Note

This was a story I wrote in response to a scribophile competition (1000 word limit flash fiction) with the following prompt:

A man wakes up in a room filled with wolf portraits. He can’t remember how he got here, or who he is. Written in blood is the word, ‘Run.’

Ulfric opened his eyes and screamed. It was not a cry of pain. It was a soul-twisting howl of rage and loss.

His palms stung as he pushed off the granite floor, but he ignored the pain and rose to his feet. His hair brushed the ceiling, and he ducked. Still howling, he swung his fists at the wall of ice in front of him. Rock-hard biceps tightened and the tendons in his neck corded, but his blows left no impression.

Who was he?

He lowered his arms and snapped his mouth shut. He reached up and pushed a braid of blond hair away from his face before he looked around.

The triangular chamber was the size of a large tent and it had no visible exit. Dim blue light illuminated the room. It seemed to originate from a hazy disc on one of the walls. He realised it was the sun, distorted by thick sheets of ice.

He hugged fur-covered arms to his chest. The last time he had seen the sun like that was with Anka on the failed seal hunt. He shuddered at the thought. If his friend had pulled him out any later, he would have died there under the floes.

He shook his head. Hunting was never child’s play, but the famine had driven the men of Jarlkilde to the brink of insanity.

Child’s play.

A fleeting memory danced across his mind. An image of a boy running beside him. A boy who jumped into a pile of snow and burst into giggles. A boy who stood at his side and stared at the iceberg, big green eyes wide with wonder. His son.

Ulfric’s eyes narrowed. He could not remember anything else about his family.

Why was he here? Why couldn’t he remember anything?

He clenched his fists. He knew there was something important he had to do, but he could not remember what. Determined to find a way out, he gritted his teeth as he examined his prison.

One of the walls was covered with scarlet hand-prints. They formed the rune for ‘run’. His chest tightened. He stared at the rune for a long time. Then he shrugged, and bitter laughter echoed off the walls.

Later, frustrated at being trapped, he smashed an open palm against the ice. When he drew his hand back, blood covered his palm, but the wall was unmarked.

No matter where he stood, he could not see outside. As he stared into the depths of the ice, strange silhouettes began to move. Pictures of wolves, fashioned from shadows. A pack of wolves. Staring at him. Ulfric’s pack.

His pack.

Unsettled, he stepped away from the wall, but the pictures refused to fade. It made him uneasy to look directly at them, but it was better than trying to focus on the flickering shapes that moved at the edge of his vision.

He lay down and closed his eyes, hoping that the pack would be gone when he awoke. Instead, their presence seemed to grow stronger.

He started to dream.

Run.

His breath steamed in the air as the pack sprinted across the ice. They eased their pace slightly in the forest, but even at the reduced speed, they devoured the miles. He slipped around a tree, and his nose curled at the stink. An instant later, the barbega sprung the ambush.

 As Ulfric woke, he snapped his jaws shut in a desperate attempt to kill the monster. Then the dream faded, and he realised where he was. Panting, he hugged his knees to his chest. The raised stitching on his jacket hurt his hand. When he looked down, there was blood on the sealskin.

His stomach knotted. He knew what he would find on the wall when he looked up. Filled with dread, but needing to confirm his suspicions, he raised his head.

He moaned. A new rune had been smeared on the wall while he slept.

Hunt. As cryptic as the first rune, and just as useless.

 The hours dragged by in the small room. It took a painfully long time for the day to pass, and by the time night arrived, nothing had changed except for a growing pain in his parched throat.

Once again, his sleep was disturbed by dreams of wolves.

 Hunt.

The snarls from his pack brothers carried a note of triumph. He darted forward and ripped an exposed hamstring. It was over quickly after that, and by noon they had dismembered the reindeer. Then they headed home with the meat cradled in their jaws.

When he woke, he felt refreshed. Somehow his hands had been completely healed, and he was no longer thirsty. Absently he reached up to rub his throat. Instead of touching flesh, his fingers encountered metal. A collar had been clamped around his throat while he slept.

Furious, he tried everything he could to remove it. That achieved nothing, but he did discover three runes etched repeatedly into the iron. A quick glance confirmed his suspicion. The crimson rune for ‘share’ had replaced ‘hunt’ on the wall.

Sleep did not come easily.

Share.

The taste of triumph filled his mouth as he loped into the village. The green-eyed boy left his mother’s side and ran across the snow to pat him. That made him want to howl, but it felt good when he dropped the haunch of meat at their feet. A pole outside their tent was decorated with a row of reindeer carvings. By the time he left, the boy’s mother had added another one.

The dream shifted and pain squeezed his breast.

In an unforgiving landscape, shaded black and white by the moon, the pack scavenged on the meagre remains of the kill. The pain in his chest continued to increase. When he could bear it no longer, he lifted his nose and howled.

Ulfric opened his eyes and screamed. It was not a cry of pain. It was a soul-twisting howl of rage and loss.

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