On the first week, when Anya does not arrive for our usual meeting, I worry for myself. I wonder if I can scrounge enough food to survive until the next time she arrives. We have passed more than a week without an exchange before. Sometimes she travels with her father, to make trades in far-away places. I remind myself of this, while my insides claw with insecurity. She saw my deteriorating body. I am not well and perhaps she does not want to return.
On the second week, when again she does not arrive, I worry for us both. I cannot recall a time when she failed twice. My situation becomes more dire for it, but hers must be worse. No matter this wicked spell binding me here, or the creatures that haunt my clearing, the woods are dangerous for earthly reasons too. Fierce, quiet wolves stalk the forest floor. They howl only when the kill is certain. They revel only when their stomachs are full. When I tend my traps, I feel their patient watching. I catch flashes of their haunches and their snarling fangs. The black powder in my rifle keeps them at bay. It is a kind of magic too, my own magic, and one Anya does not have to protect her.
The towns are worse than the forest. Ugly, drunken men—wolves of another kind—stalk those. They leer at Anya as she passes through the streets. I see it in my mind. They want to feast on her beauty and to break her bright disposition, a temporary salve to their malaise. I never saw one, and I never will, but I am certain the cities are yet the worse than that. Anya speaks of their towering buildings, taller than trees, and their crowds and their shops and other awful things that fascinate her.
On the third week, Anya still does not arrive, and my worry becomes fear. I fear we both are dead, because I cannot bear a reason that would keep her so long, save for death. If I were to accept that her absence was choice, that she chose the towns and cities over me, I would rot where I sit. I am dead without the food she brings regardless, but dying with hope alive is far better.
For three days I’ve slept only in fitful naps, drifting off when my vigilance fails. I pass the nights cowering behind my axe with my back pinned to the furthest corner of my cabin. Today, I know that thirst will kill me long before the creatures breach my door. For weeks I drank from muddy puddles in the field. They turned my stomach sour, but satiated my burning body. Now, there are no puddles. I search and search, but only find handfuls of damp dirt.
Today, I decide to face death. I rise from my corner and I break the barricades on my door. I shamble through my clearing to the edge of the forest and drag my axe with me, even knowing my arms no longer have the strength to swing it. As I stare into the depths of the forest, my body quivers. I wish I had more powder for my rifle, but that magic ran out. When my traps turned infertile, I ran out of coin to feed my rifle. All magic has a cost.
I wait and listen at the tree line. I pierce through the ringing in my ears and cast my senses deep into the woods. The creatures are not careful like wolves. I search for their footfall, but I find absolute nothingness. Not even the crows move. I listen for hours. Still, I hear nothing. The forest ahead is a void. I begin to hope that the creatures are gone. I wonder if their hunger drove them to a new land, to drain it dry like they did mine. This is a reckless hope. They could, of course, be lying in wait too, more ravenous than ever.
I break the tree line, something I have not done except in distant memories. My heart thunders in my ears as I stumble from trunk to trunk, and catch myself on branches when my legs shake. My strength has waned with the famine of these weeks, but my senses have not. I feel the pull of the water. I know its location. At first it is only an artifact of my extreme wanting, but soon the babble of the creek is real. It propels me through the pain of aching legs and burning lungs.
The features of this forest are named only by me. I know of one other trapper who crosses these lands, but he never lingers, just as I would not on his. Perhaps he does have a name for it too, but I call this place Lilliput Creek. The finches used to gather here and bounce along its banks, leaving trails of tiny footprints.
A shiver washes over me when I finally catch sight of the creek and see Lilliput running strong as ever. I rub my eyes to be sure, but still it flows with fresh, clear water. I run—or I do the nearest thing my body allows—and I shriek like a mad man as I splash into the water.
I am a mad man.
I drink and drink and drink. My stomach complains. For weeks it has held no more than a mouthful of liquid or food at time, and this is a buffet. I gulp water down until my belly distends. It revolts. I vomit sour-water and undo every bit of progress. I sit. I scoop a fresh handful, and I sip instead of gulp, and it feels like it will stay.
I have been shivering ever since I left the cabin. I am a sack of bone and skin. Even a coat made of the thick pelts I collect would not help me now. I lay in the water anyway. I watch the stream carry away layers of dust and stink from my clothes and my hair. I lean my head back and relish the cleansing rush of the water over my skin even as my body protests the aching cold.
But upstream, something disturbs the flow.
At first glance, I think it is a boulder. No. I roll over onto my belly and lie low into the water line. The figure moves. It dances in the stream.
My heart slams behind my ribcage as I scramble out of the water and bound for my axe at the banks. My feet slip in the mud, so I dig my nails into the dirt and crawl on all fours like a wretch. At last, my hands find the smooth grip of my salvation.
I spin to face my attacker, but it has not advanced. Convulsions of cold roll over my body as I hoist the axe with my quaking arms and warble my fiercest battle cry. My chest heaves and my pulse throbs so hard it blackens the edges of a vision with every beat. In my waterborne celebrations I forgot why I fear the woods to begin with. The creature lies in ambush, taunting me to make the first move.
It has arms and legs. It has hands and feet. Its skin is pale and smooth like porcelain—almost pretty. I work the handle of my axe and shore-up my grip. It wears clothes. Human clothes. A brilliant red cloak trails down the stream like running blood.
I advance, moving like a knight in heavy armor. A wide stance helps me overcome my weak legs. It will not see me falter.
I close the distance and ready to throw my shoulders and hips into a mighty swing. If it wants a fight, I will indulge.
But it doesn’t. It isn’t.
This is not one of them.
The figure is Anya. Her milky eyes stare back at me. Her bright cloak swirls around her beautiful face. Purple tinges her skin, and trails of deep veins mar the surface.
The axe slips from my hands and tumbles into the water. My jaw quivers. Tears muddle my vision as I dive for her body. I scoop my arms through the water where it should be, but I catch nothing. I stand and rake my hair away from my face. I become frantic, casting spires of water in all directions as I search. Lilliput is a gentle creek. Its current could not carry a body, I know this, but I splash downstream to search. I find nothing.
Perhaps she sunk.
I trudge back to the place I saw her first and I dig down into the muddy bottom. My heart leaps when my fingers find grip on something solid, but as I trace its line, I realize it is only a root. I try to stand and pull my arms free from the mud, but the mud pulls back. I pull up again with the full strength of my body. It pulls back harder.
Tendrils of black muck begin to crawl up my hands and wrap around my arms like oily vines. I cry out and thrash, but they tighten their grip. They pull me down so my face is only inches from the water. They begin to wrench me down further, until I can only find breath by craning my neck so hard it feels like my spine will snap. They make sure I know with agonizing certainty that I will drown.
But I am a hunter. While my body may be weak, my heart is not.
I dive down and dig my teeth into the root of the tendril nearest my right hand. A foul taste fills my mouth and the scent of sulfur consumes my nostrils, even underwater. My stomach revolts, but I grind my teeth into the root until its grip falters. I pull my right arm free and reach out toward the shore, knowing I will find it. Even in my despair, I never lost sight of it.
My hand finds the worn grip of my axe. I lift with what strength my shoulder has and I slam the head of the axe down onto the root binding my left arm. It sends a quake through the tendrils, but they do not loose. I dig the blade in and begin to saw. The tendrils shiver and I launch backward, breaking their grip.
They whip and coil behind me as I clamber to the banks. As soon as my feet find the forest floor, I run.
I tumble through underbrush and slam through branches, but I keep running. The thread in my mind that guides me back to my cabin snaps. I forget navigation. I keep moving until I no longer recognize the trees, until all my trail marks and blazes are gone. I run until the forest goes by a different name.