The boy pulled the glove from his right hand clumsily. It wasn’t that he was ungraceful, but the cold seeped through his coat and his gloves and he could barely feel his hands. Being chilled to the bone wasn’t new. He suffered it nearly every day. But it didn’t get easier.

Sharp pain stabbed into his bare fingers. Carefully, he pulled an oiled string from his coat pocket and slid the loop over the end of the bow. This part was easy, but the other side would be hard. Using all of this strength and weight, pitiful as it was, he managed to bend the wood of the bow just enough for the string to reach. Twice, then three times he tried and failed to slip the loop over. Finally, it went. He quickly put the glove back on and jammed his hand under his armpit to warm.

The boy never complained. There wasn’t anyone around to complain to most of the time. Most of the others paired up for hunting, but they didn’t much like the boy and he was okay with that. He’d tried to fit in once and that didn’t work out. He’d come away with the kind of scars that don’t heal.

Around his waist, helping to keep his coat closed, was a black leather belt with a bronze buckle. The stitching was coming out in places, but it still worked. Slung from the left side of the belt was a quiver with a dozen arrows. On the right, a four-inch knife with a handle carved from deer antler. Two pine cones flanking a doe. That was the picture on the handle.

He pulled one arrow out, slowly. He didn’t want the arrows to clatter against each other and startle the rabbit. He’d seen some rabbits once in Arbordan. They had long, very soft fur. Up here in the mountains, the rabbits were much bigger. This one was the size of a dog. Not a big dog. It was thin too. Slim pickings for rabbits this far into the winter.

He leaned forward, slowly, as he nocked the arrow. The snow beneath his left foot compacted a bit too loudly. He recognized her error before the rabbit started running. Use the edge of your boot instead of the flat so you don’t make noise. These big rabbits were very fast. Within a few seconds, it was out of site.

He began tracking the rabbit. It was the first game he’d seen all day and it was getting late. Across a narrow valley the tracks led. It was still running. He made no attempt at stealth as he followed the tracks. He was going to lose the light if he didn’t move fast. Up a stony ridge the rabbit had gone. It could be burrowed anywhere around here. He hoped it was. He could root it out.

But the tracks kept climbing. The top of the ridge was more than a hundred feet above the valley. There was a thick line of trees at the top, pines of some sort. He was no botanist. He had to move fast. It would get dark faster in the trees.

He stumbled and busted his lip on a rock, getting grit in his mouth. The lip hurt, but he didn’t give it a thought. The snoot full of snow was a bigger annoyance. He finally crested the ridge. The darkness settled in a minute, as it always did up here in the mountains.

He thought about cursing his frustration, but the thought never came close to being expressed. That was his way. He thought bad thoughts all the time. He never said them, or acted them out. He just let them simmer. They kept him warm, almost.

He switched hands with the bow and thrust his left hand into his pocket. Soon, he found it. He pulled out a round stone. It shone brightly where his glove didn’t cover it. It would never go dark they said. It never had, so maybe they were right. He swapped the bow and the stone. He held the light up high with his right hand. The snow reflected the light, extending its reach.

He could see just fine now, but he wasn’t likely to sneak up on anything. His only hope was that the big rabbit was burrowed under a tree root or stone. More likely it had a thick briar patch somewhere in this wood. He’d never get to it there.

He sensed movement to his right, but his quick eyes saw nothing.  Then a huff sound came from the left, and ahead his light reflected from a pair of eyes low to the ground and they were gone.  This was bad. It was a bad winter for everyone and wolves would not let slow meat escape.

Wolves are pack hunters. He might get one with a lucky shot. He would never get a second. The boy wasn’t afraid though. Since that night in the tents with the black mountain, he’d forgotten to be afraid. When other boys felt fear, he just felt a cold, murderous rage. There was power in that rage, raw and dangerous power.  Not much use against wolves though.

He looked around for a branch low enough to get him started up a tree. Nothing close. He could sense the pack circling. Wolves were cautious around humans, feeling them out. They were patient. Nothing in the wood could take their prey from them. Even a bear wouldn’t challenge a pack.

He thought about his mother, dead two years ago from consumption. He remembered loving her. It was a muted, vague memory. His father was one of the few that the angel killed that day. Turned to black dust. He couldn’t fear but he could hate, and he hated that angel. He’d thought about attacking the angel. The thought never got close. The angel would kill him and that would be that. Good things come to those who wait, even when they were bad things. He’d have his chance at that angel some day, when he was bigger.

Only now it didn’t seem likely. Until the hooded man showed up that is. One minute he wasn’t there, then he was. The boy turned his head and when he turned back the man was there. About eight feet away, on his right. He wore long, tattered black robes. His hood totally obscured his head, and his right hand clutched a long scythe. He’d have looked like a caricature of death, but the hand holding the scythe was human, if a bit pale. The boy stared at him.

Beyond the light, the boy heard the wolves slinking away. Why they were afraid of the man he could not guess. They would not abandon a meal without being bloodied first, but there they were. A voice appeared in the boy’s head, unbidden. “fire?” it seemed to ask, though in no language. The man struck the ground with his scythe’s but and a nearby tree burst into flames.

“Food?” the voice asked wordlessly, and then the man tossed something to the boy. It was the rabbit. Its neck was snapped but it was otherwise untouched. The boy though for a minute, then decided. He took the rabbit and quickly skinned it. He ran a stick through its torso and starting cooking it over a large branch that fell from the burning tree. The man didn’t move. He simply stood there, as if rooted to that patch of ground. The boy offered him part of the rabbit when it was ready, but the man didn’t even acknowledge.

When he’d finished eating the entire rabbit, the voice suggested “sleep.”

“I’m not tired,” the boy said offhandedly. The man had saved his life, but the boy didn’t trust him. There were a lot of bad people in the world, and some of them acted on their thoughts.

“SLEEP,” the voice in his head insisted. The boy started to shake his head, but then he couldn’t. His head wouldn’t move. The ground started tilting up toward him and then he was on it.

The man moved toward him, then gazed at the boy’s helpless body for a few minutes. Then he slowly, methodically lay down his scythe, then began moving his robes.

At first the boy thought that perhaps the man was a child lover. He’d heard of those before. But then, as he saw what the robes concealed, that idea didn’t seem so plausible. The man under the robes was nothing at all like he expected. A moment later, as the man reached down with his oddly human hands, the boy realized to his surprise that he could fear after all. 

  1. Firelord Said,

    Chillie I think we should stay out of the woods!

  2. Torgash Said,

    That's some creepy shiz. 

  3. Merchant of Lokistan Said,

    Feed 'em and eat 'em. And if ya do it right, ya don't need to build a fence.

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