The Trail – Chapter 5

The seventh day for the traveler seemed promising at first. The terrain dried out to broken bluffs and overgrown slopes. Life of all kinds flourished at the base of this mountain range – flora and fauna alike. Species of songbird he had not heard in a long time sang in the lush treetops above. Twice he spotted a red-tailed hawk gliding effortlessly on invisible thermals. The rocky escarpments clutching the base of the mountains were lush with spring a month ahead of the rest of the wilds.

The skies held clear and blue save for the sparse fluffy clouds drifting above. The temperature dropped slightly, but he was protected from the buffeting winds by the shelter of the mountains. His route past them became overgrown with briar and paper birch. Thorns raked at his pantlegs and ankles. His own footfalls and the rustling of the undergrowth seemed painfully loud to him, but his surroundings were rife with the sounds of wildlife.

He foraged the rich environment as he made his way. There was no shortage of edible plant life to be found. He collected stinging nettle only an hour after setting out that morning, careful not to prick himself on the poisonous hairs. Twice after that he came upon large swaths of Ostrich Fern tucked in wet soil beneath large, erratic boulders. He cut these with his knife knowing full well the danger of leaving such evidence behind. He harvested liberally from these sources while being sure not to eradicate the plant’s survival.

Around mid-morning he heard a noise ahead that could have only been made by a sizable creature. He had been on high alert the entire time, but found the constant mental awareness to be straining, which had caused him to lose his focus. With as much stealth as he could muster he snuck up on a family of wild boar, sifting through the dirt. The piglets followed in the wake of the large mother sow, making all sorts of grunting sounds. He waited for them to pass and moved on.

On the cusp of noon he became aware of the sounds of running water. Filled with excitement, he followed it to a crystal clear brook flowing from rocky slopes. Diminutive insects danced along its shifting surface. He followed the brook uphill until he came upon a small waterfall nearly twice his height.

          It scattered mist and water particles in the air, which caused the light of day to shimmer around it as though enchanted. The waterfall struck the lichen-covered rock with a crash that muted other sound, save those louder than a shout.

          Up these rocky slopes the man scrambled, and dropped his heavy pack with a loud sigh. He would now need a fire to boil water in order to cook the food he had foraged. But before that he would have to eat. He had burnt far too many calories to ignore the gnawing hunger in his gut. He broke down his pack and dug into the remaining venison.

          As he did so the man scouted the perimeter of the waterfall to get a better feel for his surroundings. Hungrily chewing into the savory meat, he hiked fifty meters up past the waterfall with nothing but his bow and arrows on his back. There he could see the slopes of the mountains. Some of their peaks were hidden in cloud and fog, but he guessed their height to be just over a kilometer. The surface of the closest one was covered with a hide of evergreens on which the sun painted the shape of the drifting clouds.

          He dug out his notebook from a pocket and flipped through its pages for mention of these, but found too many potential matches.

          It doesn’t much matter at this point I suppose, He mused to himself as he put away the notebook. Lost or not I have a demon to deal with.

He returned from his scouting to the waterfall with a fresh perspective, new information, and a few extra foraged items. These he would not be eating. He instead stowed them away in a belt pouch for later.

Finding still no sign of the predator, the man dug into his pack and began laying out each tool he would need to make a fire. With everything ready before him, he sighed.

No other way around it. I need to boil water. I’ll never survive against this monster if I’m starving.

He went to work with an uncomfortable haste in an attempt to ignore his emotions.

The truth was: he had been leaving too many signs of his passage in the last twelve hours, and the likelihood of the demon finding them was dangerously high. Any moment could become his second – and last – encounter with the predator.

He was filled with terror. But he wouldn’t look it in the face. Instead he pushed it further and further back into the untouched reaches of his mind from where he naively thought himself to be safe.

He marked two roughly six inch wide X’s with his shovel beneath as much tree and bush coverage as possible. In those X’s he dug out holes roughly a foot deep, with the two holes four inches apart. He reached in and with his hands dug open a small passage connecting the bottoms of the two holes together.

In one hole he placed small bits of kindling and burnable tinder. From a pouch he removed the milk thistle fluff he had found while scouting, and struck flint against the steel of his hatchet to nest a spark within it. The milk thistle caught fire eagerly as he blew into it to feed the flames with air. Quickly he placed it within the tinder-filled hole, leaving the other hole empty.

Like clockwork the concealed fire burned to life without a problem. From the empty hole the hungry fire drew air through the connecting underground passage – like breathing through a straw. It’s light was effectively hidden a foot underground, and the dense canopy above it would help minimize the visibility of the smoke.

He filled his cooking pot with fresh water from the waterfall and set it to boil above his concealed fire.

While waiting for the water to boil he set off with bow and arrow in hand to run reconnaissance. He picked his way slowly and cautiously while constantly keeping his head on a swivel. Of course he spotted multiple creatures in the alpine woods surrounding him, but noticed no sign of the demon.

It was impossible to say what kind of lead he had on it. In the first place, he wasn’t even sure his sighting of it in the rocky slopes yesterday was credible. He could have easily just imagined it.

But better safe than sorry. Let’s assume the worst-case scenario and prepare for it.

Worst-case scenario; the demon tracked him down through the bluffs, saw through his maneuver east, and tailed him across the bog from earlier.  In that case he might have a lead of three or four leagues at best. At worst; it knows he’s here and is watching him as he contemplates this.

He returned to his boiling water with an idea brewing in his head. He refilled his canteens and drank while he set about adding his ingredients to make a soup.

The idea stirring in the traveler’s head coalesced into a plan. He checked the sky. Roughly two hours had passed since he had set his pack down by the waterfall, making it early afternoon.

Plenty of time.

He hastened to scarf down a soup of nettle, fern, and garlic mustard – heavily seasoned with salt. He shoveled the two piles of dirt back into the holes of the firepit and re-covered it with fallen plant matter, effectively erasing any sign of it. He left his pack hidden in a bush beside the roaring waterfall and took off into the woods armed with his hunting bow.

If he was to assume the worst-case scenario that the predator was still on his trail and headed for the waterfall, then he would need to somehow lead it away using his own tracks.

He moved swiftly through the trees and over the brush without the seventy pounds of weight on his back. He didn’t bother trying to reduce his footprint on his surroundings. Rehydrated and well fed, he loped along at a light jog between pine trees laden with cones, their scales closed up in the wet weather. For over an hour he made tracks leading away from the site of the waterfall, taking random turns here and there for extra measure.

Satisfied with his progress, the man came to a stop. Sitting down on a rock, he went about removing his tattered boots as he paused to catch his breath. Once reduced to his stocking feet, he went to work quickly implementing his plan. From a pouch he withdrew several peeled strands of dogbane. He rubbed the strands together between the palms of his hands to separate the longest of them. Doing this caused his skinned hand to burn noticeably, but it did not bleed. With the longer strands left over, he spiraled each of the lengths around the other in a clockwise circle while twisting each individual strand counter-clockwise. This clockwise-counter-clockwise pattern created the friction needed to keep all the strands together and secure. He did this rapidly with the practiced legerdemain of a tailor. The final product of his efforts was two strong cords of roughly four feet in length.

With his handmade cords and all the fallen twigs and small sticks he could find he began strapping the dead foliage to the undersides of his stocking feet in what looked like a bizarre display of lunacy. He hung his boots off his belt by the laces and awkwardly trudged off into the woods.

He made another random turn before doubling back toward the waterfall. Glancing behind him revealed his now pseudo-conceal tracks in the dirt. No longer was the tread of his boots clearly giving away his position, and the tell-tale sign of a footprint instead looked like a scuffled patch of earth in no discernable shape. The odd assortment of twigs, leaves, and sticks tied to the undersides of his feet soon became unbearably uncomfortable. Satisfied (and a little proud) of his efforts to thwart his pursuer, he discarded his bizarre footwear for the comfort of his worn boots. Eager to return to the waterfall where he had left his pack, the man strode quickly through the brush with high hopes.

He never made it back.

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