Jak awoke in hell, fingers and toes afire. Burning up! Drums thumping ominously in his throbbing head. Aargh, which circle was he in? How far down had he fallen? The seventh he guessed judging by how hard he'd landed... Not only was he bruised but crushed and constricted with his arms pinned to his side… Probably tied up to be tortured?
Hell stunk too. No surprises there, but strangely not of sulphur and brimstone but a damp musty funk. His face felt furry… Even his tongue tasted hairy…Was he becoming a werewolf? Damnation! He had his heart set on being a demon… Mostly for the wings...
Against his aching body’s advice, he forced his eyelids apart. Ahh, devilish illusions …
He appeared to be sleeping peacefully on the Towers’ floor, pinned under a blanket and a slumbering Fang with Squirrel curled in his cloak’s cowl, snuggling tight against his head… How hurtful and cruel…
Then it struck him. It was way too cold for a hell… And too weird for heaven… He had to be alive!
It was a miracle! Against all odds… Unlikely at least...
Sensing his return to the land of the living, Squirrel stirred then clambered across his face to nip at Fang. The wolf drowsily rolled off Jak's chest then loped off outside. Somehow propping himself up onto his elbows, Jak surveyed his surroundings with bleary at first, then teary eyes, awash with gratitude. He was alive. For the moment at least.
With a series of grunts and nods he sent Squirrel scurrying to fetch his fire kit from the shelf. The little beast tugged the leather bag by its ties to the edge of the shelf then rabbit- kicked it off. Scrambling face first down the tree, he dragged the kit into the reach of Jak's frigid hands.
Jak beckoned him closer. He’d promised to do this and there was no time like the present. He could collapse and die at any moment… With their self-sufficiency still one key skill away…
He’d struck a hundred fires in front of the boys - mostly using the twig-rubbing method and neither had paid any attention. This time, Squirrel realised he was being taught. Twitching in concentration, he watched intently as Jak crawled about collecting a small pile of his whittling shavings, straw and twigs. Jak’s frozen fingers wouldn't obey, so it was a painfully slow process. He showed Squirrel every stage, letting him sniff the char cloth that came out of his tin before setting it atop his heap of flammables. Finally Jak jabbed his piece of fire steel into the ground next to the pile and scraped the flint against it. As it sparked so did Squirrel’s interest. Every flicker reflected back in the oily black orbs of his eyes and he gave an excited squeak as the char cloth caught. Jak puffed gently on the fledgling fire, instantly it blazed bigger. Squirrel shuffled nearer and blew too. When the flames leapt towards his face, he shrieked and scuttled away. Jak hoped his small fry friend hadn’t been seared or scared away for good... Seconds later however, he'd snuck back, mesmerised.
As Jak gingerly shifted the flaming pile to the stone-ringed fire pit, he could hear flint strikes, the sizzle of sparks and squeals of delight. Jak shivered; he had a little firebug on his hands.
Still crawling he snagged his blanket and dragged it nearer the blaze. Struggling to sit upright, he showed Squirrel the fire-tin filled with cotton swatches. Shoving it into the flames with a stick, he sent Squirrel to fetch jerky while they waited. Chewing, he crunched and stretched his still thawing fingers before fishing the fire-tin out of the now roaring fire. When it was cool enough, he opened it to show how the cotton had become char cloth. Squirrel sniffed once and Jak could see he understood the process. Great, cause he was plumb tuckered-out… Blessed oblivion claimed him again.
Jak woke clammy in the cold night despite the crackling fire. Turning over to thaw some more, he reached for a slab of jerky. Soon salty energy was surging through his insides, towards his frozen fingers and toes. The warmth also seeped into him from without; when the two met in the middle, Jak expected he’d be well again.
If the furry firebug - at it again with flint - didn't burn down the towers, it appeared Jak was going to live. Still, how dire was the damage done? Wincing he shucked off his boots and socks to survey his feet. His left ankle was black and blue, blown up like a balloon, but more concerning were the two blackened toes he could see but not feel.
"Gangaree" he believed it was called. His old army medical book would insist he amputate. Lop them off now and be done with it, before the rot set in. If he allowed the malaise to spread, he might lose a whole foot or a leg. Best to do it now before he got cold feet - get it? That was funny, but the next bit wasn’t. Crouched forward, he fumbled for his hunting knife, steeling himself to saw the two toes off... Whomp, in a blast of blinding light he passed-out again...
Mid-morning, Jak woke sweating up a storm. Either he had a fever or a blazing fire was burning him up. Both were true as it turned out. He was feverish and the fire hadn't died, because Squirrel wouldn't let his new friend go gentle into the good night. The little tyke must have tended it throughout, Jak thought. He shook his head to dispel the dream, but it was real. Even now, the squirrel was selecting kindling sticks and poking them into the pile of burning logs, as if he were completing a puzzle. Jak shuddered at what he’d unleashed on the world.
He was so caught up in Squirrel's antics he almost didn't notice the feeling was back in his fingers and toes. Springing bolt upright he examined his blackened pinky and near neighbour. Beneath a layer of soot and mud they were fine and fully functional. His feverish roiling mind found that really funny. Lucky he hadn't chopped them off, he laughed - it'd be cutting off your toes to spite your foot! He slumped back down, feeling dizzy from sitting up so fast.
He awoke again in the afternoon, to find Fang licking his face. The wolf had retrieved his bloody backpack all by himself, and also a scattered selection of logs - by Squirrel's orders no doubt. Jak sat up slowly and stroked his friend's fur. Never one to miss out on a cuddle, Squirrel was soon occupying his other hand.
"Thanks guys," he mumbled gruffly. "You saved my toes, and my life."
He dozed fitfully for a few more hours, before forcing himself to his feet, staggering through the snow to the outhouse.
"Feed a fever; starve a cold," he was fairly sure his gran had told him, so he forced food down despite his lack of appetite.
Even snowbound and sick, he had things to do. On wobbly legs, he reached for his hatchet before stumbling outside to chop kindling, with Squirrel a keen observer. After months together, initially relying on body language, tone and volume to communicate, they had developed a sixth sense between the three of them. Still, being shown fire lighting had been an epiphany for the squirrel. Seeming to see himself as human now, he began actively mimicking or participating in all Jak's activities.
As Jak hacked, Squirrel would snaffle the odd piece of kindling that met some esoteric selection criteria and drag it away to the fireside.
After an afternoon nap, Jak showed Squirrel how to douse the fire and setup smoking the deer to make jerky. Squirrel watched rapt, even though the heavy lifting was way beyond him, Jak marvelled at the little mind working overtime. It appeared they were both planners at heart. And in the head, of course.
Jak may have been infirm, and meat may have been plentiful for the moment, but he hadn't forgotten his overnight trip back to the cave. While wolves could go days without food, though it wasn't optimal. However, Squirrel's new found independence had inspired another idea.
As night fell, he got Squirrel to feed Fang - a task best done from a distance, as the big, bad wolf tended to be his most savage with the bloodlust upon him.
Earlier in the afternoon, he'd cut a hearty chunk of fresh deer, wrapped it in rhubarb leaves, and thrown it into the upper branches of an oak. Now he called Fang and sent Squirrel into the tree. With a few words of encouragement, Squirrel put two and two together, and pushed the meat package off the branch. Instantly Fang wolfed it down, and just as quickly Squirrel cottoned on. Jak made up more meat packages and stuck them in the same branch. Fang just as quickly figured out where his new food source was and had taken to whining and wheedling at his little friend. Every time he did, Jak growled at him and the few times Squirrel tried to sneak up the tree, he got told off too.
The next day, he stuffed the sides of his Sarkian boot with snow, to arrest the swelling on his ankle. He noticed there wasn't much wriggle room, and he had to really to force it in there. The stolen boots were becoming a snug fit, a good sign for his future growth. Feet first, and like Fang, the rest would just fall into place.
The wolf was growing ever bigger; he must be ninety-plus pounds and more than four-feet tall at the withers. Even Squirrel was growing; he was almost a foot and a half tall excluding his tail, and seven pounds if he were an ounce. Probably the biggest squirrel in the whole forest if not the world, now that Jak actually stopped to consider it. Definitely the smartest. More like a large marmot in size. He wasn't fat at all, but he'd certainly never fly like his flatter cousins. It was strange how when you see people - even furry ones - every day, you didn't notice their growth.
Squirrel also had surprising stamina for his species. Accompanying Jak and Fang on their forays; he ranged much farther afield and ran a lot more than the average squirrel too. Consequently, he was far fitter and fantastically strong in the forearms and legs.
His young charges' improbable length and girth was probably due to Jak feeding them so well; nevertheless, he took great pride in their size and strength. Every day, Wolf Clan was getting bigger, better and stronger. Gran would heartily approve. They were just waiting on Jak's spurt to complete the set and fulfil their potential.