The sixth day proved to be one of the most physically demanding so far. By noon he had covered roughly four leagues, with another three in the afternoon. Under the weight of his kit the pace was brutal, but the fear of death drove him on.
The weather held without precipitation, but refused to clear up for even a moment. Still Solus shone through as a blurred golden light partially obscured by thick clouds, allowing him to maintain a roughly accurate northern bearing.
The whole morning he wracked his brain for a strategy. He knew very little about his opponent. What little he did know only served to unnerve him; the creature was neither man nor beast – capable of fearsome brutality. It was vaguely intelligent. It could obscure its presence with a supernatural stealth. Lastly: it was driven with a single-mindedness to kill him for reasons unknown.
He struggled to understand the nature of the predator and its motivations. Never had he faced an enemy like it. And then there was the gruesome challenge given with the severed fingers.
Why go through the trouble of declaring its intent like that?
He paused in his tracks, breathing heavily from the day’s exertions.
It doesn’t matter. I need to regain the element of stealth and settle a new base camp that I can fall back to. First I have to shake my pursuer.
He fell back on basic evasion tactics. Twice during the day he broke off from his bearing and took erratic and unpredictable turns. Once was just before noon, when he had crested a long, sloping hill.
Further to his north had been a gentle spread of more verdant green woodland. Far to the east he had seen a mountain ridge running north-south. The taller of their peaks still retained their white caps of snow from the winter. Nestled in the vale of the mountains were what appeared to be more woodland, darker in hue than the rest. To the north-west was the gentle, rocky decline of the hill, followed by a narrow bluff the color of heather and crumbling rock.
He had elected to break off west toward the rocky bluff. He would leave virtually no footprints on the firmer terrain, and there should be less undergrowth to disturb with his passing.
It proved tough going, however. The man had to scramble between large boulders using all four limbs. He fell once on a loose rock, bashing his knee and skinning his hand painfully. He cussed aloud and gritted his teeth. Luckily the injury proved superficial – painful though it was.
Roughly five miles from the base of the bluffs he took a break under an old oak. He experienced a remarkable sensation of weightlessness as he shrugged off his pack and stretched his weary limbs. Vying for a bird’s-eye view, he scaled the trunk of the oak until alighting on a sturdy branch from which he could see for miles around.
I’ll cut east from here. Those snow-capped mountains have to feed some body of fresh water…
He looked back south-east, from where he had come. The rocky bluffs were still visible, just as he had hoped. His eyes focused on it, looking for anything out of place.
Mid-way up it, something moved.
At least, he thought something had moved. It was hard to tell from such a long distance, but he could have sworn he had seen movement. Just a dark speck, and then it was gone. It could have just been a trick of the mind.
There it is again! Are my eyes playing tricks on me? Is it tracking me through the rocks? There should be no trace of me…
Perhaps he had just imagined it after all.
He picked his way back down the tree, but stopped short before reaching the bottom. Dotting the trunk and branches of the tree were strange, five-pointed markings smudged in a dull red.
The throbbing pain of the hand he had skinned earlier returned, but this time he did not ignore it. Still perched in the tree, he looked at his palm.
It was slick with fresh blood. The markings on the tree had been from his own bleeding hand.
Then realization hit him.
…Shit! Have I been leaving behind bloody handprints??
His heart sunk into his stomach. He remembered all the times he had been forced to use handholds to navigate the rocky slopes. His hand had been killing him, but he had just ignored it in his haste.
Idiot! You’ve just led it straight toward you!!
Seething with self-loathing, he quickly wrapped his skinned hand in a clean handkerchief after washing the raw scrapes. He mentally berated himself with an endless stream of insults which only served to further degrade his focus and self-confidence.
Feeling defeated and emotionally exhausted, he made his second maneuver west toward the line of mountains in the distance.
The following hours felt arduous. His body was beginning to fatigue from the brutal pace he had set. His throbbing hand persisted. In his head he replayed his mistake over and over again and wielded it against himself like a weapon.
To make matters worse, the terrain proved increasingly rigorous. The sloping woodland transformed into the beginnings of a soggy mire, huddled in the shadow of the mountain range. The taller trees here, with a less secure hold on the sodden earth, had recently been uprooted and dashed across the bog by yesterday’s storm. Plant debris lay flattened and scattered. Collections of stagnant water pooled up against the exposed undersides of the tree’s gnarled roots.
He used the trunks of the fallen trees as bridges to navigate the scummy pools. He moved slower now. The footing was not particularly stable, and his legs trembled with fatigue.
Finally, too drained to continue, he came to a halt two hours before sunset. He made camp under the uprooted base of a thick maple. It’s roots reached out above his head like petrified tendrils. Clods of fresh earth still clung in between them. He made use of the surrounding dead foliage to camouflage his new shelter with branches, leaves, and moss. He crawled in through the small entrance he had left.
Foraging in the vicinity of his camp would inform any experienced tracker of his habitation, so he instead allowed himself to indulge in his precious supply of venison (leaving him with three-and-a-half pounds), and finished off a canteen of water. He had one left, which would last a maximum of two days if he didn’t plan on cooking. Hopefully the mountains would provide more. If not, he would probably start suffering from dehydration by the end of tomorrow, assuming he survived that long.
Night descended. The air hung thick and humid about him. The weary traveler made no fire, and uttered no sound. There in the dark of his camouflaged den he sat with the termites and the insects, listening to the bullfrogs bellow. His feet ached. His knees throbbed. He scratched at his unwashed hair and groin. His mind crawled within the dark corners of his head like a blind pauper – depraved and miserable. Deep down he hoped just to be killed in his sleep and be done with it. His eyelids grew heavy with exhaustion.
He awoke before sunrise, curled in the dirt with his cloak wrapped around him. The muscles in his legs had grown sore and heavy. His stomach groaned with hunger. Gingerly he stepped out of his hidden den with bow in hand, fully prepared to be assaulted at any moment. There standing in the still waters twenty feet away was an adult bull moose.
Crowning its head was a rack of antlers spanning six feet, dripping with bog water. It raised its massive, bearded face from the water’s surface to regard the dirty creature before it. The man stared back. Neither party moved.
There was an unspoken connection between the two. In the man’s eyes the moose saw no hostility – only desperation. The man saw something profound in the moose’s eyes, though he could not grasp its significance or meaning. The giant slowly turned and ambled off into the woodland, leaving him alone. The area seemed calm and devoid of any signs of danger.
As light graced the blue-grey skies from the east, the lone hunter finished his preparations. Ravenously he ate from his dwindling supply of venison, leaving him with a measly pound-and-a-half. He took only small, desperate sips from his one remaining canteen of fresh water, doing his best to ignore its decreasing weight every time he put it back in his pack. His camouflaged shelter he left just as it was.
Armed and alert, he picked his way across the wooded mountain base with hopes of fresh water in mind. Every few minutes he turned to look behind him in paranoia. He had not fired his bow since hunting the deer, but he made sure to never leave it out of his reach for the moment when he would need to fight for his life. It was only a matter of time.