The man in the woods started his fourth day with a groan. His waking mind tried to remind him of where he was or what he was doing, but he was too groggy to listen. He pushed himself off his bedroll, joints cracking, and stumbled over to a tree, where he let loose a stream of piss as he rubbed at his eyes.
Oh, right. Now I remember. He sighed. Sonuvabitch. Now I want to go back to sleep. I never should have agreed to this.
He mechanically began breaking down camp. He lashed his old, dirty bedroll to his pack, along with his hunting bow and four arrows he had set by his side as he slept. His leather quiver was still stuffed full with thirty fresh arrows, capped with a lid to prevent them from falling out or rattling too loudly.
As he squatted down to finish off the remains of last night’s supper, he took in the canopy of sky above. A thick, pale cloud cover blotted out direct sunlight but could not stop a general hazy light permeating from above. The man ate and analyzed the weather. The cloud cover wouldn’t last. From the east he reckoned clear skies would prevail by mid-day.
Saints, I could use a drink. He grimaced as his thoughts wandered to the day ahead of him.
Finished with his breakfast, be buried the scraps in a deep hole pre-dug the night before and covered it with earth. Left out, the remains would attract all sorts of predators, and sooner or later they would be able to follow the trail left behind by his passing.
He allowed himself a swig of water from his canteen to wash down the meal, packed his mess kit and remaining item, and shouldered his hefty pack. With the birds and woodland creature alive and flourishing about him, he set his bearings and continued north for the fourth consecutive day.
None of this he did with a smile. He knew he was most likely walking to his death. The trail was probably one-way. Definitely one-way. The thought made his seventy-pound pack seem like seven hundred pounds. Fuck, he thought to himself for the hundredth time. I’m going to die out here and no one will even know. Stop acting like you have a chance of coming out alive.
His world had been much simpler and safer before. Why had he agreed to this? He could be tucked safely awar in his little corner of the woods, with only the worry of his next drink to preoccupy him. But had that ever made him happy? Was such a fantasy even possible?
Every step felt so futile to him, and this thought, combined with general hopelessness, made him stop in his tracks. It was like two warring armies brought to a weary standstill. His stood there for what seemed like an hour, but in reality was only a minute. His hopelessness turned to self-pity, which turned to frustration, which turned to movement, which got him walking again.
This pattern of pausing mid-walk in silence happened to him most days. Usually the pause lasted from one to five minutes, but in the end he always kept walking. Secretly he was afraid he wouldn’t keep walking one of these days – and if so, what would happen to him?
A sound in the distance snapped him out of his thoughts. His ears perked up. It sounded like running water. He quickened his pace in the direction of the sound, careful not to lose his bearings in the process. He scampered through a forest alive with other noises – mainly birdsong – but the subtler sounds of rustling bushes, creaking trees, and soft wind were just as plentiful. He emerged from the familiar dense thicket onto a steep river bank. The river in question spanned almost twenty meters and caught the now golden sunlight in its clear depths. In some places the water had been diverted and gathered into stagnant pools of froth and scum, but the main body ran swiftly along its channel.
The man frowned. He knew nothing of a river of this size anywhere nearby. This was a troubling sign. Either he was far off course, or he had somehow missed a mention of this. His broke down his pack on the river bank and rummaged through it, pulling out his small notebook and stubby pencil. Hastily he flipped through its pages, muttering to himself the whole time.
This can’t possibly be the Old Beck, can it? Please don’t be Old Beck. If I had come off the hill last night…must have been a league and two miles from the…
Finally he stopped on a page and went still as he performed a few mental calculations. He made a note on the next page, stuffed the notebook in his back pocket, then scratched himself in thought. Here was a choice to make; either he returns to his original course and ignores the river and its implications, or he follows the river in hopes of finding some new landmark. Back and forth he paced, scratching his beard as he considered the choices.
Rivers meant life. Edible plants often grew along the sides of bodies of freshwater, no to mention the possibility of fishing. But most importantly it offered a constant source of hydration – the lack of which would kill him within a few days. His brow darken at the memory of the all-too familiar experience.
But at the same time, every other beast would covet this water just as desperately as he would. ‘Where there is prey there is predator,’ as Hilda had taught him. There was still the problem of his whereabouts. He could well be utterly lost.
He fought down most of the panic rising at the thought. Losing your head was a sure way to die out here, he knew. He decided it was better to take it slow and cautious.
He started to set camp and end the day by the rushing river. He had got as far as setting his socks out on the warm river rocks to dry when he remembered his mission.
He was struck with the monumental importance of his task. Lives were at stake. He was no longer a washed-up hunter getting drunk in the woods. He had a dire purpose with equally dire perils involved.
And if he failed…
With his heart pumping an electric anxiety through him like caffeine, he rapidly packed up, laced his boots, and took off on his original bearing, headed north.