Whilst thou take me as thy guide?
His heart drummed in his chest like thunder.
For the wood is full of dire peril,
He awoke in a swamp of chilled sweat.
And the land cries out for Pilgrim blood…
A wave of nausea, followed by a crash of horrible pain throughout his chest.
A light seared his eyes, causing him to clamp them shut again to preserve what comfort he still had left.
Another second passed, bringing with it new and unpleasant sensations for him to experience; A dull throbbing in his legs and groin, a red-hot rash across his torso, the blasts of a crippled lung, and a headache powerful enough to be contagious.
At first, he didn’t even notice. His entire existence funneled into one thought:
What was it? What happened? What did I see?
Through the pain and torture of a freshly-roused consciousness, his mind whirled like a feeble leaf on the wind.
I can’t remember….
“No…,” he pleaded aloud. His voice sounded hoarse and brittle – more like a groan than actual spoken language.
Something profound – no, profound was far too meager a word – something otherworldly had been witnessed.
The mountain lion had shown him something so transcendently beautiful – more beautiful than the most vivid sunset – that for the first time in his life everything had been made alright. Every groove and divot of pain and suffering carved out of him since his conception had – in one instant – been smoothed out and rendered whole.
“No…please…” His lips felt parched, his throat as dry as a desert.
“I have to rem…” He had no energy left to speak. The rest of his sentence died as a soft moan of sorrow whistling between cracked lips.
Through the pain he tried to focus his anemic mind to remember anything at all – even the slightest detail. Nothing came. Even the brief sentences left to him began to fade slowly out of thought. This revelation struck him with raw terror. A scream escaped from his lips, horribly mutilated by his wretched condition into a ghoulish moan.
“I can’t remember,” he croaked. His shoulders shook.
“I can’t remember.”
He awoke shortly after. His pains greeted him again with open arms. He was lying on his back in a mess of his own sweat, staring up at a ceiling of grey stone. It was well lit – wherever he was – by flickering flame-light.
He craned his head left and right and was rewarded with a brief view of the room he was in shortly before a headache exploded across his temple.
The room was small – no more than fifteen feet across – and barren of decoration. There were no windows or sources of any natural light.
Pushed up against the walls were thin tables heavily worn with age, overflowing with strange implements; tweezers, rags, syringes, dried herbs, vials, books, a tea kettle, and a washbasin. A single wooden door, reinforced with iron struts and bars, remained shut as the only way out.
His ankles, he realized, were strapped to the table upon which he lay. His hands were similarly restrained, but at the ends of chains that allowed him enough range of motion to scratch his nose.
Just then all the images clicked in his head to form a realization; he was in a prison cell.
A jolt of fear shot through him. But then a thought came:
I couldn’t stand up even if I wasn’t restrained.
He would have laughed at the idea, but he was in no laughing mood.
For a while he tried to fall asleep, hoping to wake up later to find it had all been a dream – a terrible, terrible dream. But every time the cusp of unconsciousness came close, a fresh pang of pain shot up his back and deprived him of a well-needed rest. The headache made him want to vomit.
So instead he lay there and ruminated. The showdown with the predator seemed like an experience from another life – like it happened to someone other than him.
It had been a Wood Elf, driven by either grief, rage, or both. He could remember clearly the look of anger and sorrow in its eyes. What was an Elf doing so far south? What had driven it to commit such slaughter? He just couldn’t bring himself to believe it was all random. Something or someone had wronged the Elf, motivated it enough to kill.
Maybe it had deserved to kill him. Maybe he didn’t deserve to win their battle. Maybe it would have been best if he had not fought back – didn’t survive against all odds. If he had known he would forget everything the mountain lion (if it really was just a mountain lion) had shown him he probably wouldn’t have fought so hard to live.
But no, maybe there was still hope, he thought as a fresh wave of throbbing pain wracked his lungs. Maybe…if he could only remember!
Focusing his mind, he silenced pain as best he could.
What the hell was it? What did that creature show me??
He remembered standing up to follow the puma, with the antler bow as a crutch….
He had followed it along the snowy mountain side…
Then what?! Then WHAT!?
Nothing. He just couldn’t remember. Then another thought occurred:
Was it all my imagination? Was it just a hallucination?
He had been feverish – the sheets soaked with sweat told him that much.
He tried to think straight. There was no real way to disprove it. There was really nothing he could do but endure and focus through the pain.
Easier said than done. The man felt like a torture victim put to the knife, only the torturer was his own crippled body. He couldn’t tell which was worse; his lung, back, or his head.
His one mercy was the passage of time. Perhaps as a psychological coping mechanism, the hours went by quickly. He had – amazingly enough – fallen asleep briefly. He did not dream.
He was awoken by a noise.
He craned his head to get a look at the door as it was opened from the other side. A woman entered the room (or cell, from his point of view) carrying a tray in one hand. Her full height came up to his chest (if he were standing). Her skin was tanned and freckled from sunlight, and her hair burned with the color of fire, fashioned in beaded braids. Her clothing was simple and in dark earthy tones. Both thin shoulders peeked out under her sleeveless tunic, showing dark red armpit hair and a series of tattoos running up her arms. She brought the smells of fresh air into the room with her.
Clearly, she had not noticed he was awake yet. She pushed the door closed behind her with her leg – her hands being too occupied to do so – and crossed the small room in a few strides to deposit the tray on one of the tables. She turned around, deep in thought, and they locked eyes.
Her eyes are green, the man noted.
She looked alarmed for only a moment before she composed herself with a casual smile.
“You’re awake. How do you feel?” Her voice was clear and rustic with the accent of the Free Folk. He summoned the strength to respond without coughing:
“Awful. Where am I? Did you keep me alive?”
“I guess I did. As for where you are, this is the b- “
Just then the iron-reinforced door slammed open. Two armed men, each garbed in a dirty black and green tabard, burst into the small cell.
“He’s awake, I knew it,” said one. “You!” He pointed a gloved finger at the woman. “Not another word! The Baron gave clear instructions! Get out!”
The two stormed into the room, ushering the woman out and shutting the door quickly behind them, leaving the hunter alone again in a shocked silence.
What the hell is going on, he thought. Baron…something about a Baron?
He could hear footsteps outside the door and hushed conversation retreating in the distance. His lucid train of thought did not last long enough to ponder the strange occurrence. Breathing wasn’t so bad if he just didn’t try to move, but his head throbbed even when he kept perfectly still. He was assailed by the ache with each thrum of his pulse through his temple.
His focus drifted off.
Not long after he heard footfalls approaching again – more than one person. There were hurried voices echoing down what must have been a long hallway. The door unlocked from the other side and opened.
Standing before him was a heavy-set man well into his middle age, dressed richly in red and black. His hands were adorned with three rings – two on his left and one on his right – which sparkled in the firelight. His dark, beady eyes regarded the prostrate hunter with something he could not quite place.
There was another figure behind the larger man, but he could not make them out from where he was, lying on his back.
The ringed man entered the room, fully circling the hunter as though too wary to come within striking distance. Another man followed him inside, and closed the door behind them. The hunter painfully tilted his head to afford himself a view of the second man, and was immediately struck with an impression:
This man is dangerous.
“So you managed to pull through after all,” said the one with the rings. “I was worried you would die without telling the tale.”
He was about to summon another spurt of strength to reply when the more dangerous-looking man cut in:
“Who are you, and where are you coming from?”
“Where am I,” the hunter groaned with considerable effort.
“You didn’t answer my ques-” He was cut off by the heavy-set man, who held out a hand for pause.
“That’s alright, Duncan.” He turned to regard the hunter. “I am Baron Eugene Everette. You are in the Everette Barony, in the middle of the Silver Weald.”
The hunter frowned before coughing. It was a minute before he was able to speak again. The two men waited – the Baron quite patiently.
“Never heard of it. Did you say you’re a Baron?”
“That’s right. And who are you?”
He chuckled weakly. “You’re in the wrong century. Is this Free States Territory?”
If he was annoyed with having his questions ignored, the Baron didn’t show it.
“Technically, yes. But you’ll find that we have our own way of doing things here.”
Duncan lost his patience. He walked up closer to the hunter and looked over him.
“Now, we answered your questions, mate. How about answering some of ours:
Who. Are. You.”
The hunter could make out all of Duncan’s features now: dark hair in a topknot, brown eyes, and corded muscle down his body.
Built like a hunting dog, he thought wryly.
He was well armed with throwing knives and a wickedly curved hacking-blade at his hip. The steel muzzle of a rifle peeked above his shoulder. His breath smelled of black pepper.
He thought fast – or as fast as he could under the pain and stress he was experiencing.
“Alexander Monroe,” he lied. Sorry, Alex, it was the first name I could think of. Hopefully you’re much better off than I am, on a tropical island somewhere in the Aureate.
Duncan stepped back and shared a glance with the Baron.
He doesn’t believe me, the hunter thought. He sees right through me.
“Well, Mr. Monroe,” the Baron clasped his fingers together. “what brings you into my domain?” There was something in the Baron’s voice he did not like.
Again, he tried to think fast.
The best lie is always closest to the truth.
“I’m trekking north.”
The Baron nodded his head.
“I see. Why, exactly? And from where?”
“I can see you’re hesitant to trust me.” The Baron approached the hunter and undid the restraints on his wrists and ankles with a thick-fingered dexterity. He took a few steps back.
The hunter massaged the feeling back into his wrists, still not daring to sit upright.
“As you can see,” the Baron continued, “we have taken it upon ourselves to attend to your treatment and recovery.”
“You mean the red-haired woman that was in earlier.”
The Baron nodded, looking slightly irritated for the first time. “Yes, yes. Her. What I mean to say is – you are in safe hands while within my domain.”
“Interesting how that includes a prison cell.”
The Baron’s brow furrowed. “Understand something, Mr. Monroe: while we will gladly treat your injuries and provide you safety, it does not mean that we trust you. You are a stranger – and a trespasser at that. And until you have answered all of our questions, you will remain as such. For all I know, you are a spy or assassin with an agenda of your own.”
The hunter’s pulse quickened. That’s not far from the truth, he thought.
He kept his face passive.
“If I were a spy, I’d be doing a hell of a job,” he replied, gesturing to his broken body.
“Indeed. Now, if you would humor one last question, we will be on our way and let you rest.”
The hunter felt thick-headed and already exhausted. He could desperately use it, he knew.
“What was your experience with the Render?”
The hunter frowned. “The Render?”
“Yes, that’s what we’ve taken to calling it. It’s a monster. As of now it has killed thirty-two people.”
“They say its head is skeletal and horned,” Duncan added. “cripples its victim from a distance with a bow and arrow before ripping them apart.”
The hunter considered lying, but thought better of it. There would be no other way to explain this.
“Yes, I’ve seen it.”
The Baron’s eyes narrowed. “Tell us about it. How did you survive? Apart from our efforts, of course.”
“It hunted me for days. I tried to evade it as best I could, but lost all my supplies when I had to flee for my life. In the end…,” he trailed off, lost in the memory: the look in the Elf’s eyes, his hopeless pleading to stop the battle, and the final shot that ended it.
He realized the two men were staring at him in silence, waiting for him to continue with rapt attention.
“In the end we both fought to the death. On that mountaintop. Except, I survived.”
A great sense of sorrow washed over him. He did not deserve to survive.
He wished he could do it over again – this time convince the Elf with words he didn’t have before. Maybe, just maybe, if he had done something different, he wouldn’t have had to kill it.
There was no reason it had to come to that…
“You…slew it?” The Baron blinked.
“I think so.”
He was sick of talking to these two. Speaking of the incident left a bad taste in his mouth, and he guessed these strangers wouldn’t see it in quite the same light.
Just leave me alone, he thought to himself.
“I know my shot struck true.”
Duncan scoffed. “Horseshit. I found your dying body in the woods, not on top of a mountain.”
The hunter paused. How is that possible? Did I really make it all the way down the mountain like that on my own? He shook his head in disbelief.
“That’s not possible…,” he muttered to himself.
“You’re damn right it’s not,” Duncan said. The hunter wasn’t listening.
That’s not possible, unless… He thought of the mountain lion, waiting for him to follow.
Realization struck like a bell.
It wasn’t a fever-dream? I wasn’t just hallucinating?? That really happened?!
“I can see you’re worn thin,” the Baron cut in. “we’ll leave you to your rest.” He made to exit the room with Duncan in tow.
“Wait,” the hunter cut it before they left.
They both turned to regard him. “What is it?”
“What day is it? How long was I out?”
“It’s the nineteenth, if I’m not mistaken.”
His heart sank in his chest. “The nineteenth of Cheering?”
The Baron frowned and shook his head.
“No, the nineteenth of Esprit. You’ve been unconscious for over a month, I’m afraid.”
His heart shattered to pieces.
I’m too late.
I didn’t make it north in time.
He stared at the Baron, stunned speechless.