by Ashlee Willis
Bow, arrow, knife. That’s all Theron had ever needed. With those three things, he could eat, protect, kill. With those three things, he ruled his own world.
He had received word days ago from a village in the north, farther than he had ever traveled, requesting his services.
Begging is more like it, he thought wryly as he recalled the meeting he had had with the town leaders.
“A beast haunts our wood,” one of the white-haired men had said to him in a voice spindly with age. “It has been here for generations, but it’s never once attacked any of us – until now.”
“What sort of beast?” Theron had asked. Dragon, chimera, gorgon? Theron had hunted and killed all these creatures before, and many more besides.
A shuffling of feet, clearing of throats, was his answer. Finally: “We … we don’t know for certain,” one of the men admitted. “But,” and his face grew dark, “it has taken – killed – three of our own of late, and has left no trace of them behind. Whatever it may be, it’s a danger of the worst kind.”
“Why not send one of your own after it?” Theron asked bluntly. “Why me?”
“We did,” the white-haired man said. “The first of ours the beast took was my granddaughter, who was only in the wood looking for herbs. But the second two it took were the ones sent to search for her. Both full-grown men. Both fully armed.”
“So you see.” One of the others grasped Theron’s wrist. “You see why we need you. We have heard you are the best.”
“I am.” There was no hesitation in Theron’s answer.
“Well, then.” All eyes turned to him in judgment, expectation – hope. “Prove it.”
The wood was dark, darker than Theron would have expected for early winter. The trees were straight and high, and – astonishingly – many of them still had leaves, which blotted out the already feeble rays of sun.
So much the better, thought Theron. The darkness could work for his benefit. He would wear it like a cloak. Taking in his surroundings, he felt the familiar tenseness creep into his muscles as he entered the trees. Alert senses, sharp eyes, sensitive ears – the hunt had begun, as had his thirst for it.
All other thoughts were wiped clean from his mind. Even the reward the villagers had promised him – nothing to scoff at – was shoved aside. This was why no one could match him. This was why he was the best, his services in constant demand, his name spread far and wide. For anyone could learn to track – anyone could learn to see and smell and hear the right things. But few could turn their bodies into the instrument that Theron’s became, made for one purpose alone. And few could slip into their prey’s consciousness and fears as he had taught himself to do.
And he had learned it at a young age. “When your father beats you from the time you can walk, and your mother would curse you as soon as speak your name, you learn to adapt,” Theron had confessed with a laugh when questioned once where his abilities came from. “You learn that strength is not solid like a rock – but fluid, like water.”
He had never revealed so much of himself to anyone before, never spoken the words of his past aloud. But the girl who asked him – years ago, now – had been different. Special. But she was gone now, too. Gone, shoved to the back of his mind and heart like everything else. And he was free to fill the emptiness in him with the hunt.
“You can’t run forever from the things that haunt you, Theron,” she had said to him.
“I can try,” he had told her jokingly, trying to ignore the pain and pity in her sweet eyes.
Now here he was, still running. But he was running to something – not from it. And those two things were worlds apart – weren’t they?
Theron squatted and brushed his fingers across the ground, sweeping a leaf gently aside. The giant print of a winter-stag was pressed into the cold, hard dirt. Not what he was hunting, but – he thought –something to remember. The racks of winter stags – made entirely of ever-frozen ice – sold well in the south; the price of one would keep him for half the year at least.
A noise made him lift his head. His eyes were keen as they scanned through the most distant trees. The sound had been like none Theron had ever heard before – and he had heard a great many. A cry, wild and empty. The moment it died away, he could not remember if it had been closer to the mewling of an infant, or the roaring of an angry dragon. He shook his head in confusion and frustration.
Out of the corner of his eye he saw something flit from a pile of leaves, spiraling up into the high branches of a tree.
Only a sylph.
Theron watched the tiny creature fly higher and higher, its wings fanning like two golden leaves sprouting from its back. The movement of its flight, so familiar to him, brought him calm. He breathed deep before shouldering his bow and trudging deeper into the heart of the wood.
Around noon Theron found the first sign of the beast’s presence. A tuft of hair, black as night, stuck on the low branch of a hemlock. It was like nothing Theron had seen before. It shone, beautiful as starlight. He pressed it to his nose and coughed. It smelled of death.
He knew beyond a doubt that it belonged to the beast. He knew also that this beast was like nothing he had hunted before. And the challenge of it sent a thrill right through him. The danger of it lit his senses on fire.
After that, the signs were easier to spot. More black hair, faint trails beaten through the sparse underbrush, hardened piles of droppings, each as large as his fist. Once even the suggestion of an enormous paw print, though it was scuffed almost beyond recognition. A lesser hunter than Theron could not have done it. He shifted through the trees like a wraith, tasting the wind, careful that his own scent caught the faint breeze and drifted far behind him. His strength never faltered, and he didn’t stop once the whole day through for food or rest.
The fever of the hunt ran through him. “Like a disease,” she would have said to him, all those years ago. “Like a passion,” he would have corrected her.
The cave was deep in the forest, at its very heart. Theron reached its entrance just before sundown. Vines hung like frilled curtains over the black gape of its mouth. The cave itself receded into the side of a slope in the forest floor that was so gentle it might have gone unrecognized by casual eyes.
But Theron’s eyes had spotted it long before he reached it.
Perfect. He smiled to himself. The creature had trapped itself.
For a moment – only a moment – he let the thought of his prize money flit into his mind. The things he would do with it. Maybe he would go east and look for her. Maybe … maybe he would stop hunting, stop running, just to be with her.
The scent of rotting carcasses rose to meet Theron like a slap in the face. What manner of beast keeps the remains of its meals inside its own lair?
His skin tingled with anticipation as he ducked beneath the rocky cave opening. Stepping gently over piles of bones, Theron swung his bow off his shoulder and strung an arrow in one silent movement.
Yes, the beast was here. The same scent of darkness and death that had been upon its hair permeated the still, cool air within the cave.
He crept further into the shadows. Every moment he expected to hear a warning growl, see the deadly glint of eye-whites or the flash of bloodied teeth. He was ready for it. He had lived his life ready for it, taught himself to fight this thing before ever he needed to fight it.
When the black form loomed ahead of him, he shot immediately. The twang of the arrow sounded odd in the of the cave walls. The next arrow was strung almost before the first had hit its mark.
No angry roar, or scream of pain. No sound other than the clatter of bones, picked clean, beneath Theron’s feet, and the echoed drip of water from a cold, rocky corner.
Theron crept closer to the still, black form. He reached out to touch it. His hand came back with a clump of black hair, bright as starlight, and with the warmth of blood from fresh wounds. No rise and fall of breath. No life in the creature at all.
Dead, then. The beast was already dead.
Theron felt a sigh go out of him. Tension drained from him in a wave. He could still claim the prize, he knew. The villagers need never know the beast had already been dead. But that wasn’t it. He had wanted this kill. He had longed for it. How many hunters got the chance to kill the unknown? To slay the unseen?
Yes, he had wanted it badly. The knot that had been forming in his chest escaped in a single sob. It hit the walls of the cave and turned back on him like an accusation. He turned from it, left the cramped, rocky space and burst out into the darkening chill of evening. He turned a full circle, gazing up at the silhouetted trees, their leaves dancing and glowing with sylph light.
Maybe it’s time for a change, after all, he told himself. Something pushed at his heart, tiny and persistent. Hope.
The cry erupted from behind him, on the embankment opposite the cave. It was as wild and empty and desperate as it had been the first time. Like a child’s yowl of helplessness and a dragon’s furious fire together. Deadly.
Theron went still. His heart beat its regular, steady rhythm. His blood ran as warm as always. But his heart was like a rock inside of him. He had been duped. He had been led, like a senseless animal into a trap. Here was the unknown, here was the unseen thing, still alive and at his back, just as it had always been.
Before he turned, he let his gaze wander to the black mouth of the cave once more. Whatever creature lay in its depths had only been the bait.
And he, the hunter, had been the prey.
Strength, he said to himself, is not solid, like a rock, but liquid, like water.
He turned slowly, not bothering to lift his bow.
Strength is not hard, like a fist, his heart chanted. But fluid, like blood.
He lifted his eyes, dark with long-awaited understanding, to see the fate he had created for himself.