The man strode through the dense brush of the woodland. His head and shoulders were dappled by broken spring sunlight that permeated the forest canopy. A cold breeze ran its fingers through his hair and cooled the sweat on his neck. He was surrounded by a droning symphony of cicadas. Songbirds competed with one another in mating calls as small mammals darted from tree to tree in search of edible treasures on the forest floor. His nostrils were filled with the rustic scents of pine and birch and fresh loam, liberating his mind from worldly concerns for a brief time.
He had parted ways with the mystery river from yesterday. He had unintentionally strayed east some ten miles, which proved to be a blessing as he came across a familiar mountain range clearly labeled in the notebook he carried.
So the panic of being lost no longer assailed the travel-stained woodsman, but other thoughts did.
The nights were the worst for him. He was used to solitude and the way it plays with one’s head, but out here, knowing he was walking toward mortal peril, his mind fell into a deep darkness. Left with nothing but time to while away as he waited for the reprieve of sleep to take him, he mulled over his failures – some larger than others.
I feel like a fraud. And rightly so. I’m no Ranger…
He stared at the crackling firepit and wondered how things could have been different, how he had plenty of chances to change, and how each step he had made up until now felt like a deep, aching loss. The campfire had more life in it than his unblinking eyes, reflecting the dancing flames. It was on nights like these that he seriously considered giving up. The temptation to flee from the responsibility before him tugged at his cancerous heart like a bowstring.
But while his mind listened to the temptation, his body – for whatever reason – would not respond. And as the morning came around and he rose from an exhausted sleep he continued north. Why wouldn’t he just run away? He didn’t have the answer to this.
The start of the fifth day proved bleak and dreary. The sun was nowhere to be seen among the canopy of grey. Toward what the man thought was west the dark atmosphere had coalesced into thunderheads.
At the very least, rain. At the very worst, a powerful storm.
“Storm Father have mercy…”
By his best guess it would be over him before noon. He had roughly three hours to prepare.
He considered the options as he walked with a renewed pace. He would need shelter to wait out the storm – and that would cause him to lose precious time. But losing your bearings in a lightning storm would be even worse, he countered.
Perhaps I could turn this to my advantage, he thought with building determination.
He had spotted several fresh instances of scat just earlier that day. The pile was still warm, and contained samples of the local bushes and shrub. The pellet shape removed any doubt in his mind: deer. Probably a herd of half a dozen. It wasn’t long after that he came across their trail, well-trodden through the undergrowth. It ran roughly east-west, with a northward curve toward the east.
The ground was too dry to spot any definitive prints, but with any luck they were headed northeast, not west. They could be within two miles, maybe.
He scratched a memo into his notebook and took the deer trail northeast. Ravens cawed dark omens at him from the trees as a chill wind broke against his back. The leaves rustled and loose branches tumbled to the ground. He took a moment to dig out his grey cloak from his pack and cover himself from the chill.
An hour passed and still he saw no sign of good shelter. His mood dropped with each passing moment. To the west approached a thick grey sheet draped across the horizon: rain. It accelerated in its approach, as if impatient to claim him.
Just then, coming around a sharp bend in the trail, the man came upon a structure in the distance. He almost missed it with its grey color blending into grey surroundings. The man approached it with a measure of caution. Too many times had he walked into an abandoned building, only to find a wild animal claiming residence.
Perhaps it was the weather and the way the incoming storm made the hairs on his arms stand up, but he felt a growing discomfort, and paused to retrieve his hunting bow from the side of his pack. He bent the stout limbs of the bow by one end and strung it to complete the weapon.
In a calm but quick manner he uncapped his quiver, drew out two arrows, and re-capped it. They were both black-shafted broadhead arrows fletched with hen feathers. He hoisted his pack on, nocked an arrow to the bowstring, and held the other in the same hand that held the bow. The entire time he kept a wary vigil on his surroundings.
Approaching the building, he first noticed the antiquity of it. It’s stout grey stone masonry harkened back to the Freedom Era. It resembled what would have been a watchtower back in the days of the Pilgrims, but the second and third floors had both collapsed, leaving the first floor with half a roof. Nature and the vast passage of time had assimilated what remained into the landscape.
A sturdy elm had dug its roots right through the southern wall, and a large dirt mound of thriving fungus had developed where the exposed portion of the roof would drip the most water in a rain.
He approached with both hands on the bow. Through the open stone entryway into the single decrepit chamber nothing moved, and not a sound was made. He entered and took a look around. The bit of roof remaining would serve him well in the storm, and only having three walls was better than having none.
That being decided he dropped his pack and bow inside, drew his hatchet and made quick time in gathering and splitting a modest supply of dry wood while he still could. The first rumble of thunder came from far away, but still it reverberated in his chest like the beat of a drum. The wood gathering had worked him into a sweat, and his preparation time was just about run out.
Quickly he snatched up his bow and quiver, leaving everything else behind in the ruins.
The man found his way easily enough back to the deer trail just as the storm broke overhead. He moved slowly now as the sheet of rain smote his hooded head and cloaked shoulders. The water ran down the bow and across his knuckles. A white streak of light appeared behind him for an instant. He counted.
The resounding clap of thunder followed. He tried not to let it unnerve him, but secretly he was unable to. Now the only sound to be heard was the static drone of rainfall accompanied by the baritone of croaking toads. Any sounds he made were practically silent.
He was afraid he had lost his quarry until he came upon fresh tracks in the slick, muddy ground. He followed them, lost the trail, then picked it back up again several minutes later. Twice he had to double back and start again. The hellfire of lightning grew closer. Another flash.
The resounding blast of thunder deafened him and caused the bones in his legs to quiver. But it also startled something else in the wood. The man spotted it, and froze in place. A four-legged creature gracefully bounded over a fallen tree and trod a few meters further in agitation. The man’s muscles in his legs groaned in protest with how still he had been crouched – but he couldn’t afford to be spotted.
He could just make out the deer’s head in the downpour. It turned to look toward him. It’s large upright ears twitched. Then it turned to look the other way. The man didn’t hesitate. He moved as smoothly as possible behind concealment and raised the bow with an extended arm. Without moving the bow, his right hand drew the arrow back until his knuckle touched the base of his jaw. He let out the air in his lungs until he could feel his heartbeat. He waited for a moment in between beats, and fired.
The deer fled in a few panicked bounds before bleeding to death out of sight. The man made a noise of triumph and gave chase. The other deer still hidden from him in the storm bolted off into the woodland.
Now sopping wet, the man stooped over the body to maneuver it when his heart leaped into his throat and he gave a straggled cry of surprise. An equally startled murder of crows abandoned their meal in a fright. He was indeed standing over a body – but not of a deer.
The mutilated corpse of a human lay bloated and decaying in the storm. It’s chest was opened and feeding a mound of scavenging larvae. Its eyes and genitals had been long picked clean by vultures, with no sight of its clothing to be found. The hunter could tell the body was male by the tuft of bloodied blond beard left clinging to what once was a face.
Why is there a person out here? Am I near a settlement?
The smell that was dampened with distance and rainfall was now oppressively strong. The man lowered himself to his haunches, his face furrowed and disturbed. A cause of death was largely impossible to determine. The corpse had been ravaged and picked apart for too long.
The opened chest cavity stood out the most to him. The meat that clung to the ribs had been thoroughly picked off and eaten, but not by the same animal that had opened the chest.
He ran through a quick mental checklist of local wildlife that could have caused this chest wound. The list was frighteningly long. Plenty of beasts could have done this, but he struggled to think of one that would.
To kill a human, only to leave their body to the scavengers? The man was stumped. He couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But he had a growing suspicion the culprit wasn’t just some wild animal. It was something that killed for sport, not for necessity.
That narrowed the list of suspects drastically. Bandits, maybe? Leave it to a person to horribly butcher their own kind. But he wasn’t convinced. It wasn’t an outlaw’s style to go through all this effort, especially after they’ve already taken the victim’s valuables.
That further narrowed the list. He backed away from the corpse to escape the wretched smell of death. He had started shivering as a result of being drenched by the rain.
A white blinding flash connected sky to earth and struck him with the resulting thunderous clap. The man didn’t flinch this time. He was brooding too deeply in his own thoughts. He retrieved his deer carcass in somber dread.