The Trail – Chapter 6

The traveler was roughly half a mile from the waterfall when he finally noticed something wasn’t quite right. Maybe it was the hush that fell over the songbirds, or the sudden stillness of the scavenging woodland critters, or yet perhaps the way the wind carried a different scent from the north-west. Whatever it was that finally caught his attention, he noticed it far too late.

          The man paused in his stride for a brief moment, his head filled with strategies and plans. Suddenly, something sharp touched his lower back, right above the tailbone.

          His breath caught in his throat as he froze in place. All thoughts were expelled from his mind like smoke on the wind.

The point of the blade was pushed harder against his back until he felt it pierce clothing and make contact with his bare skin. A lump formed in his throat and his blood ran cold through his veins.

          Something behind him growled with a deep rumble in its chest. He didn’t need to turn around to know what it was. Without realizing it, he started talking.

“Wait…w-what do you want from me? Why are you doing this?!”

          He realized after he had said it how ridiculous it was to assume the demon could speak Machian Common.

To his horrific surprise, it spoke back.

          So encased in fear was his mind that he could not comprehend the creature’s words – even if it were in a language he understood. It was not, but still he could tell the creature was simply talking to itself more than to him. It spoke a short sentence in a measured cadence.

          But the man wasn’t paying attention. He was wracking his brain through the nauseating fear of a painful death for a method of escape that would not end with a knife in his spine. He came up with several in the span of a few seconds, but hesitated to implement them. A single mistake here would be fatal.

The blade at his back inched up his spine. That did it. The traveler exploded into motion.

          He lurched forward while throwing back his right elbow into where he imagined the hand holding the blade was. He felt his elbow connect with something, and the blade scraped off the skin of his back with a brief, cold pain. He covered a distance of three strides forward where he hoped to be out of the range of the blade and knocked a steel arrow to his bow in a split second, spinning to face the demon with weapon readied – arrow to cheek.

But he saw nothing but woodland.

A rustling to his left – he spun to face the sound and fired. The arrow vanished from the hunting bow and reappeared in the trunk of a thin birch ten meters away with an audible impact like knuckles on a thick wooden door. He lowered his bow and glanced around in paranoia.

What the hell?! Where’d it go…?

 He darted to the left, leapt over a large rock, and ducked behind a thicket for concealment. His eyes scanned all over, groping his surroundings for any sign of movement. He was breathing heavily with the sudden anxiety of combat and felt horribly ill to his stomach.

It’s just toying with me! Where are you – you son-of-a-bitch?! Where are you…?

Slowly and as quietly as possible he loaded another arrow from his quiver. Seconds passed in a tense silence. Every faculty of his senses strained to their utmost.

The woodland lay in an eerie stillness. There he remained crouched behind the thicket, with the seconds stretching on endlessly.

I can’t wait here forever…I have to do something.

He considered moving, but when he tried, his body locked up in fear. He came upon a mental wall that did not want him to face the danger, no matter how necessary. He pushed against the fear with all of his willpower.

Move, damn you! Coward! I said move!!

The inward anger spurned his mind with a self-destructive fire, and he could move again.

Softly and quietly he slunk through the still woodland as a weak breeze stirred the leaves and chilled his ears. He made a mental note that the wind was blowing roughly northwest as he swept the surrounding trees with his gaze.

Still no sign of it.

For a second he entertained the thought that he had dreamt it all. Maybe the stress was getting to him, causing him to see things. But then he probed his lower back with his fingers and found the small hole poking through his cloak and shirt, and the shallow cut where the blade had scraped him in his escape. The bleeding had already stopped and it luckily caused him no great pain. He shivered.

The man moved slowly from cover-to-cover, hugging close to bushes, tree trunks, and other objects large enough to misshape his silhouette and trick prying eyes. But he did not stay moving for long; Hilda had trained him too well for that. He paused frequently, both to listen for sounds and to cease noticeable motion. His fingers tightened and loosened against the smooth wood of the bow in anxiety. He took a moment to draw five extra arrows to carry in his bow-hand and tie the remaining arrows in his quiver tightly together. He adjusted the hatchet in its leather scabbard such that it would not knock against the knife at his hip.

Slowly he sifted through the concealment with a calm patience that belied his state of mind. His heels rolled smoothly with each step, avoiding fallen branches, dead leaves, and hollow frost heaves in his tread.

Several times he had heard a noise – or thought he had – but could see nothing to connect it to. His mind started playing tricks on him like a torturer teasing its victim. He paused in front of a thick fallen tree trunk which acted as decent concealment, and was slowly lowering himself on all fours to crawl under it when he heard something very close by.

          He froze in place and scanned everything he could without moving his head.

With the agility of a monkey, a form roughly man-sized leaped through the air and clung to the upper trunk of a tall elm with all four limbs. It made surprisingly little noise, but still it paused after landing to listen for signs of anything that could have noticed.

          The man, still staying painfully still for fear of being spotted, could see the goat horns and horrid skull-head swivel left and right as it searched for him in the woods. The light of day now struck the creature’s back, revealing a simian tail and some strange assortment of  antlers that defied understanding. Its back was to him, and clearly it had yet to spot him.

Now’s my chance. I may never get another opportunity like this…

His beating heart drummed loudly in his ears as he raised the bow – a millimeter at a time. Hilda’s instruction ran quietly through his head.

“Point. Do not aim.

Intention, then action.”

This monster has tormented me for far too long.., he thought.

His right hand slowly drew back the arrow to chin. The muscles stretching across his shoulder blades burned with the strain of pulling to full-draw. The limbs of the bow groaned quietly with the immense tension.

The predator’s head whipped around to face the noise.

Shit!

The man loosed just as the demon sprang from the tree in an incredible display of acrobatics.

WHAP! The steel arrow burrowed five inches into the trunk of the tree and was left quivering with excess force. The predator landed nimbly to the ground, completely unharmed, and drew something off of its back. A low growl came from the goat skull that was its face.

The second the man saw his shot miss all hope died in his heart. He turned tail and ran as fast as he could. He heard his pursuer hit the ground no more than twenty meters behind him, but he did not turn to see what was happening.

As the panic of the moment threatened to overwhelm him, his training kicked in and dictated his method of fleeing. He zig-zagged to the right and sprinted for a small stream he could see between thick tree coverage, his feet pounding into the soil. Still behind him was the sounds of his pursuer, though he could not tell whether the demon was gaining or not.

The stream in the distance was fast approaching, and he could see there was a slight clearing just before it.

Perfect. A chance to make a clean shot.

          Twenty meters. Fifteen meters. Lungs burning, he broke tree cover into the clearing before the stream. Off a large stone he leaped the width of the stream with the last of his stamina and hit the ground on the other side with both feet. There he dropped to a knee, drew arrow to cheek, spun around and fired.

          At least, he got as far as spinning around. Just as he spun to face the assailant, a blur of motion caught his eye and he screamed as a grey-and-white fletched projectile sprouted from the dirt just below his groin. The arrow had burrowed so deeply into the ground that only the white feather fins remained.

“OH SHIT!” He shouted without realizing he was shouting, and scrambled on all fours behind a large rock just as a second arrow struck the spot his left leg had been a split second ago. The shaft of the arrow quivered threateningly with the force of the blow.

“What the fuck!?

He loaded another arrow as his mind raced in a state of panic.

It’s armed….with a bow?!  No…NONONO! I’ve just lost my one advantage!

He paused to listen with his back against the large erratic, his hunting bow held at half-draw.

That monster was aiming to maim, not to kill… He swallowed the lump in his throat.

He could hear nothing, but he knew better. The demon still had a bead on him. Which meant it was levelling a shot at either the left or right edges of the rock.

….the second I break cover could be my last if I choose the wrong side….

But he was far from out of ideas. He picked two fallen pine boughs up off the ground. Holding one in each hand. He tensed in anticipation before waving them out on either side of the rock’s cover.

          The pine bough in his left hand rustled as a grey arrow streaked by. It struck a tree in the distance with a resounding impact.

          A fraction of a second later, the pine bough in his right hand did the same thing.

The frightening speed of the demon’s consecutive shot either didn’t bother the man or he chose to ignore it – either way it had just given away its position. The man noted the angle of the demon’s grey arrow burrowed in the tree and mapped its origin in his head. He sprang from cover with clenched teeth and a pulse like lightening.

He darted left – only to fake and pivot back to the right with as much agility as his weary limbs could muster. He ran without looking where he was running to. He instead locked his eyes on where he had estimated its position to be, drew arrow to cheek, and fired.

Daughter of Üthwen, Mother of Rangers, please let this hit…!

He didn’t pause to find out. Gasping for breath, he threw himself to the ground and scrambled behind an old stump, trying to make himself smaller than his cover. He heard something in the distance – probably the impact of the arrow. What it struck he couldn’t say.

Long seconds passed by in silence. There he lay upon his chest, pressing himself down against the sodden forest floor. His ribs ached from trying to regain his breath with all of his body weight pressed to the ground. Carefully he edged up to peek around the stump and scan the surrounding woodland. The wildlife had long ago fled the battlefield. Nothing stirred but the breeze.

That thing’s way too quick! It moves through the trees like I walk on the ground! I’ll never stand a chance against it in the woods….

He considered the surrounding terrain, including what he had seen the previous few days, with a new perspective. His best (and only) option, he realized, had been staring down at him this entire time.

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