With the arrow nocked and his knuckle tucked into the corner of his cheek, Adam Farwour sighted down the shaft of the missile that would end the hart's life. He held steady another moment longer, to contemplate the breeze on his face and adjust the elevation of his shot to compensate, and then let the arrow fly.
For a heartbeat, the world was a still, quiet place, painted in the golden hues of early autumn. A bubble of silent potential expanded with the track the arrow carved toward its destination, filling in again behind its passage like rainwater seeping into a wagon rut. The trees swelled with the calm, their sagging bowers and ancient trunks offering no resistance to the missile as it threaded its way through their midst toward its inevitable destination.
Through the underbrush, it was difficult to tell if he'd missed his mark or if something had startled the buck at the last second, but the beast was suddenly crashing down the forested hill, the arrow jutting out of its flank instead of its neck.
He swore as he leapt from his hiding place and pursued. The shot had sunk in deeply – only a few inches of shaft before the fletching had been visible – so the hart wouldn't be moving nearly as fast as it would have otherwise, but he'd still have to give chase.
To Adam's left, Seigi exploded through the underbrush. The boy had leapt into motion almost the same moment the hart had startled. He moved without noise, implementing the hunters' tricks Adam had been teaching him since he'd been young: running on the balls of the feet, staying downwind of the prey, treading only on leaves soaked from groundwater.
Adam followed, calculating the lay of the forest ahead. He knew there was a clearing some four hundred paces further in this direction, eastward, but the hart would probably stick to the underbrush, fearing another attack. As they ran, trees and other vegetation flashed by in mottled swirls of green and brown and sickly orange, the colors of the summer bleeding away.
Seigi leapt over a fallen trunk, altering course southward in anticipation of the hart's movement.
Without warning, the bushes to Adam's left sprang to life.
He controlled the cry of alarm that seized his throat, leaping aside and reaching for the hunting knife on his belt. His fingers relaxed – though his heart did not immediately – when he recognized the human profile and the face of Jamin Turneth.
Adam sucked in a breath. "Gods, Jamin – am I the prey now?"
The other man's lips quirked upward. "For all the noise you're making…"
"This way!" Seigi called, invisible now in the distance. He had altered course again, Adam could tell, and was now moving toward the clearing.
Jamin and Adam followed.
Moments later, the sun was overhead and the trees were falling away behind them. Ahead, Seigi had come to a halt, but he wasn't reaching for another arrow or for his knife. Adam slowed as he reached his son's side, but felt the air in his lungs dissipate as though he'd put on another tremendous burst of speed.
The three hunters had reached the base of the clearing's incline, a gradual raise that culminated in a hill tufted with wild grass. It was the highest point in the Gairuvigan – more commonly called the East Wood – offering a clear vantage point above the trees, nearly 100 miles of visibility in all directions on a clear day, and had proven useful for observing distant troop movements during the war. The remnants of a wooden observation tower, now eleven years derelict, kept watch in isolation, painted in splotchy layers of bird feces and strangled by wild ivy.
Somewhere, overgrown with weeds, an entrance to an ancient mine had been carved into the side of the hill. The cavern had once connected to an extensive network of underground catacombs, mined by Easterners as far south as Kirk until the mineral deposits had been depleted and erosion had collapsed the deeper passages, and had been used during the war as a munitions cache.
Seigi sucked in an audible breath.
At the bottom of the hill, twenty paces from where the hunters stood, the slope cushioned the hart where it had collapsed in a snorting, struggling heap. The beast's lower body was gone. Black blood soaked the ground and collected in hollows of soil. A gray snake of intestines uncoiled in the grass from beneath ragged flaps of meat as the beast's two remaining legs kicked against the earth, desperate to run. Its movements were slowing though its glassy eyes were huge and terrified.
Jamin made a noise in his throat, somewhere between amusement and incredulity. "Was that a broadhead you were using, Adam?"
Seigi approached the dying beast, unsheathing his knife. Without hesitation, he cut the animal's throat, unleashing more blood on the forest floor, and smoothed the matted fur of the hart's face until the last of its life had drained away. The boy's eyes, so dark and serious for a mere sixteen summers, found Adam's. In the face so similar to his own, Adam read the question that was also on his mind.
"Whatever it was, it was really fast," the boy said.
"Too fast to be a bear. Or a wolf." Jamin approached the dismembered animal. Sinking into a crouch, he rested the shaft of his longbow against his forehead. "And the wound is too big."
"No teeth marks," Seigi noted.
Adam searched the line of trees surrounding them on all sides. The weather defied the sudden chill he felt: the sun was warm and blessedly present. The breeze stirred the brush as if ruffling the hair of a child.
Jamin leaned an elbow on one knee and crossed his forearm over his mouth. "Almost looks like…"
Seigi studied the older man's face. His bloody hands were poised over the hart's enormous head. "Like what?"
After a moment, the other hunter snorted a laugh. "Broken bread." He let the bow rest against his shoulder and mimed twisting a loaf with both hands.
"Something startled the buck," Adam said, "and it wasn't us. It heard something else."
"No tracks, Father." Seigi rose to his feet, swiping blood on his trousers. "Whatever it was, it moved quickly and trod light."
Jamin turned his face to the sky. Though the other man had seen no more summers than Adam, the war had creased Jamin's face prematurely. The afternoon sunlight on his face rendered the purple hollows beneath his eyes more pronounced than usual. "There's not much daylight left, Adam. Should we risk trailing it?"
Adam pursed his lips. The alternative was to return to their camp at the edge of the Gairuvigan, and that didn't feel much like a safer option.
Seigi slung his longbow over his shoulder and cupped it at his side. "North, east, or south," he said, surveying the surrounding trees. "If it behaves like any other animal, it wouldn't double-back the way we came – it would keep going."
"If we each take a direction, we should come across it somewhere." Jamin looked to Adam for confirmation. "I don't like it either. But we don't have many options. Who knows how far the other hunting parties have ventured by now."
"Some of them may have encountered it already," Seigi said.
Nodding, Adam pointed past the observation tower. "I'll go north. Jamin, you go east. Seigi, head south." He speared his son with a look he hoped would communicate the weight of caution he was feeling. "We return to this spot before sundown, whether or not we've found anything. Agreed?"
"And watch out for any sinkholes," Jamin added, hitching his bow higher on his shoulder. Gairuvigan was a precariously perched forest, trees planted in sand. Even the vast network of root systems anchoring the soil together couldn't keep the old mines from yawning openly at the sky.
Both Adam and Seigi nodded in agreement, and then they separated, leaving the carcass of the hart to be reclaimed by the forest.
Adam glanced at the sky, noting the amount of daylight left, as he headed northward into the shade. The hours had aged quickly, so their search would only encompass several miles' radius before twilight would force them to cease. Instinct warned him it would be a fruitless endeavor, and he considered turning back to call it off, but the knowledge of a monster rampaging in the seasonal hunting grounds – with so many of their party unaware of the danger – solidified his resolve.
In all, there were about a hundred men in the forest with them, broken into groups of no more than three or four. It was a small army, but it was a divided, vulnerable, and unsuspecting army. The East Wood had been home to nothing more dangerous than the occasional wolf pack in the past decade, and those yapping predators feared the scent of men enough to keep their distance.
This was something else.
They had to do something.
A hundred paces into the underbrush, Adam felt the chill of foreboding increase. The fear prickling his flesh was like stepping into an icy rain. He thought that he should get a hold of himself, but the primal need to flee was almost overpowering.
He sucked in a breath. Something was happening here, something not natural.
Pausing, he reached over his shoulder to check his quiver. Eleven arrows, each tipped with a heavy broadhead – bigger and wider arrowheads intended for killing harts. He was a fast draw and a good shot, but without any knowledge of what he might face, he still felt ill-prepared.
Movement to his left spun him in that direction. A crackle of underbrush, swaying branches. Adam sighted down the arrow he'd nocked, staring into the dense foliage downhill from where he stood. There was no path, but the minor clearing where he found himself allowed him a free range of movement. The trees stood more closely together in the direction he was aiming, clustering in an interlocking web of branches and brambles.
Something was in there.
For an eternity, Adam waited. His arm began to tremble with the weight of the bowstring, but he refused to relax. He waited a while longer, sucking steadying breaths past his gritted teeth. There was no noise from the thicket, but he knew something was there, invisible, but staring back at him with hungry, yellow eyes.
He took a cautious step toward the brush –
– and saw an explosion of stars before his eyes as something heavy struck him from behind. His quivering hand released the arrow into the bole of a nearby tree, and he went down hard. He could feel moist earth beneath his fingers, but that was it. The world around him was a blur of indistinct shapes and colors, hot and violent colors.
"Seigi," he said.
His head was ringing, spinning with the howl of his own breathing.
Without conscious thought, he crawled forward. Safety was in front of him if danger was behind. He moved as quickly as he could, numb fingers and knees moving the dirt beneath him.
Another blow caught him in the side and he felt himself leave the ground – only to find it again solidly. There was no pain, only a sense of… openness. Exposure. Like the world could peer into him through his ribs, and all the love and care and ambition he'd ever carried could escape and collect in a puddle.
He rolled over on the ground, saw the sky, saw the blur of shadow that moved to overtake him –
And then nothing.
The boy was looking down at him, and it was then that Adam knew he was leaving his own body – leaving through the gateway of death to rejoin the gods. It was a blessed final vision, the sight of his son's face, his lips moving, calling for him.
Jamin Turneth was there too. Why would the gods show him that face as well? Had the beast gotten him too? Jamin Turneth, the man who had once saved Adam's life at the Battle of Sandy Pass, wheeling his horse into the path of a charging pikeman, sacrificing his mount to avert the thrust Adam hadn't seen in time.
Jamin's face seemed distorted. Sallow and rippling, his skin loose and pallid, eyes sunken and limned with yellow haze.
The sky moved sideways, or maybe the trees were circling in a festival dance. The twilight sky, a purple quilt striped with golden rays, bled rapidly into blackness – muddy water seeping up through the soil – and was pierced almost immediately by blazing white light, burning away the dust and tracking high overhead.
For an eternity, those were his days: a blur of pain, travel, pain. The road and the fields. Heat of day, chill of night. Sometimes Seigi's face overhead, sometimes Jamin's. Adam passed beyond consciousness. Wild thorns at the edge of his vision, flush colors and blinding light giving way to impenetrable darkness. He rested beneath the undulating sky: day, night, day, night. There was the uneven ceiling formed by his own hands, giving way to the clearest blue sky, the horizon of oncoming twilight, and then, abruptly, the cold clay of a shadowy ceiling.
And the soothing voice of an angel. An angel. His wife.
Sheba, his savior.
One who is given her name meant.
The ceiling was his bedrock and Sheba his emiska – his messenger, his emissary. Gradually, over hours and days, proportions returned. Adam returned to himself, his bandaged and swollen body plastered to the old bedframe, a limp, boneless pile of flesh buried in woolen blankets. Healing and pain and blasted itching were infuriating synonyms. His meals were broth, crudely poured down his throat, which collected the hot liquid like a rain barrel and gradually allowed the moisture to trickle into his belly.
As his consciousness stabilized, Seigi and Sheba seemed to materialize beside him and become a constant presence, disappearing only momentarily, in shifts, to eat and to manage the affairs. Despite his discomfort and disorientation, the days became remarkably pleasant. His wife kept him company in the bedroom when she wasn't cooking or washing. Both she and Seigi would climb onto the big mattress with him – Sheba, reclining on her pillow beside Adam's, and Seigi sitting between them, his back to the footboard and his long, teenage legs folded beneath him. They took their meals that way for days, and sometimes all three of them slept together in that big bed.
They all knew what they'd stolen from the jaws of death.
Sheba talked to him and with Seigi, but it was some time before Adam was able to speak in return. With effort, with water poured into his mouth by the steady hand of his wife, the sandpaper walls of his throat opened enough to allow speech – questions, mostly.
Sheba smoothed the hair from his forehead. Somehow, even that gentle act managed to send a shockwave of pain through his entire body. "A week under the sun, two weeks in the house," she said softly. "You've been to the very edge, my darling. The gods have been merciful."
Merciful or cautionary? A man with a clear conscience might have agreed more heartily, but Adam had been plagued with a nagging sense of guilt ever since he'd returned from the war. Swallowing was still difficult, but he managed it. "What happened?"
On Adam's other side, Seigi gently squeezed his father's right hand. Desperately, Adam tried to tighten his fingers around his son's, but they refused to respond.
"We never saw it," the boy said. "I heard it first to the east – the way Jamin went – but followed it northward. I found you on the ground." His gaze trailed downward, resting on the bed. "You were almost gone."
Adam swallowed again. "I thought I heard it in the woods. Attacked me from behind."
"No one else saw anything," Seigi said. "Maesro says the hart are traveling in larger packs than usual, though, and Seth found a couple carcasses like the one we came across, but no one else was hurt. No tracks anywhere but ours and the hart – just disturbed brush. Something's definitely still in that Wood, though. Something dangerous."
Sheba's eyes moved from her son's profile to meet her husband's gaze, but she said nothing. Adam longed to lift his hand to touch her face, but the best his arm could manage was a useless twitch beneath the bed sheet.
"Jamin's been by to check on you," Seigi said. "He's been worried about you. Wishes we'd stayed together."
Adam felt his body shiver involuntarily, sending a ripple of pain across his abdomen. A sudden, strange image flashed before his eyes – the remnant from some nightmare he'd had while he was unconscious: the face of Jamin Turneth, horribly distorted, bleeding from eyes that were yellow and feral.
"Adam?" Sheba asked, concerned.
He rolled his head sideways on the pillow.
"Pa," Seigi said, abruptly changing the subject. His lips were curling in the type of grin that – despite his striking maturity – revealed he was still just a boy. "Drew and I got a big one. 20 hands high. Mama insisted I needed to go back out after Jamin and I brought you home, so I met up with Drew and Uncle Cornelious going out with the Risbeths, and we went back into the Wood. Two days in, we sighted this big hart and felled him. Uncle Cornelious says he's taking the credit because he was upwind of it, which caused it to run right toward us."
Adam tried to smile and felt his face had managed it well enough. "Always needs someone to do his dirty work for him."
Sheba tucked the blankets in around him, leaning in to kiss his cheek. "This time, it was you who needed some dirty work done for you. You need more sleep, love. We'll leave you to it."
Adam inhaled deeply, breathing in the warm, clean scent of his wife's body. It felt wonderful to inflate his lungs fully, but his ribs and side ached with the movement. "I can't sleep for the rest of my life."
"No," Sheba agreed, getting to her feet and smoothing the sheets behind her. "But for the rest of the day, yes you can."
Seigi squeezed his hand again and rose. "I love you, Pa," he said, and turned to leave.
It took all his might, but Adam managed to close his hand around Seigi's. The boy stopped in his tracks, though he could have easily pulled free, and looked back down at Adam. He seemed so tall and impressive at that moment, though he'd only seen sixteen summers.
Adam's throat was too tight to speak, but Seigi seemed to understand. He squeezed his father's hand with both of his own, and turned to leave the room again.
Sheba followed in their son's wake, pausing only to blow out the candle that flickered on the bureau and draw the curtain, leaving the room in a state of semidarkness. Adam felt her kiss his face once more as she passed, but his eyes were closed again and the weariness was dragging him into the healing void.
In the kitchen, Seigi stopped, planting his hands on the back of his father's chair. His insides were strangely conflicted – a mess of relief and fear and pride and anxiety. He tried to sort through it, an endeavor not unlike slogging through rain-drenched streets toward home, but found it impossible to decipher his true feelings.
Buried beneath it all was a sense of forgotten purpose – a needling sensation he'd carried with him since that day all those years ago when the storyteller had come to town. Seigi could point to a number of moments that seemed like turning points in his young life – moments stretched against other moments that had altogether steered him to this current moment. There had been his first kill in the Wood with Pa, when he'd been so overcome with excitement upon felling a hart that he'd leapt and shouted, and then promptly seated himself on the forest floor and wept with uncontrollable grief. There had been the very first time Esther Barada had touched his hand, when they'd hidden from Drew during hide-and-go-seek behind Gray Bagham's barn; his body acutely recalled the tickling thrill that had passed through him at the contact. There had also been that heated argument with Sheba over accompanying the logging crews, when he'd unexpectedly found himself outside of himself, watching the fight take place as an observer, and somehow – despite his own stubbornness – understanding his mother's perspective as well as his own, like they were individual treatises written out on sheepskin and laid on the table for evaluation.
This was another of those moments. In this one, he felt the fragility of his father's life, a pillar he'd trusted to hold up the roof of his entire life. The pair of years Adam had been absent in the Great War were an indistinct blur – a childhood experience he could barely remember. Until that moment that he'd come across his father lying prostrate on the forest floor, his sides torn open and blood soaking his clothes, Seigi had never expected to see Adam Farwour so helpless – at least, not before he'd grown old.
Seigi sucked in a deep breath to stem the disconcerting tide, lowering his head in a brief prayer of thanks. Haneth smiles with the sun upon us. Lilith mourns her fallen children with rain. Noir yields from the soil. All is provision for posterity.
Sheba's cool hand rested on the back of his neck.
Seigi turned and stepped into his mother's embrace, pressing his forehead to hers.
"Thank you for bringing him back," his mother whispered, her eyes closed tightly. She'd cried so many times over the past few weeks, which told him her inner feelings weren't any less askew than his own. "You've been so strong for him. Thank you."
His throat tightened. "Mama, you've been wonderful too."
"Not nearly wonderful enough." Sheba stepped back, her forehead creasing and smoothing with the course of her hidden thoughts. "I want you to know…" She faltered, looking up to evaluate her son's face and placing her hands on his cheeks. "I want you to know, Seigi… that your father and I tried to give you brothers and sisters. We didn't want you to be alone. We tried, Seigi."
The pulse of emotions in his chest suddenly included a horrified sort of confusion – the type that arises when a new problem is discovered, a problem with no solution and no reason.
"I… I don't understand, Mama," he said after a moment, swallowing hard.
Her face contorted, a strange fury that was a deep discredit to her beauty. "There's something wrong with the world, Seigi. Something deeply wrong." She looked up at him, and her eyes were dark with the purest anger he'd ever seen. "Do you feel it too?"
He opened his mouth without knowing how to respond. That persistent, neglected concern clenched his heart, as if with confirmation. Yes! He thought. Yes! But didn't know why.
"We wanted to give you brothers and sisters," Sheba said again, shaking her head slowly, "but we couldn't. There's less life in the Hill than in the past. Less children. We're sick, I think, but not in our bodies. There's something wrong with the Realms. You've seen it too – in the forest. Things that are but shouldn't be."
"Mama, what are you – ?"
"No, no." Sheba blinked, and tears fell from her eyes, but she finally released his face to wipe them away. "No, Seigi, I'm… I'm wrong. I'm very wrong. It is the will of the gods, nothing more. Haneth smiles. Forgive my doubt, Seigi. I've just… I've just been so very afraid."
Seigi nodded. He felt anything but reassured, but somehow he could rest in the knowledge that he wasn't alone. "Me too, Mama."
For a long moment, his mother studied him. Her face transformed as the seconds passed, moving from concern to resolution to fondness. Her serene visage returned in increments as the evening sunset intruded through the kitchen window, illuminating the dust motes lingering in the air between them.
Touching his cheek one more time, Sheba turned finally toward the hearth. "Have you finished dressing and wrapping that hart of yours?" she asked, blowing out a heavy breath. "I had Wynn Packard bring by another sack of salt by for you."
The carcass of the noble beast was still hanging in the coolness of the Barada's vegetable shed, still retaining a few of its choicest cuts. The boys had been evenly dividing the portions between their families and had almost completed the messy chore.
"I'll go do that now, Mama," Seigi said, and headed for the door.
"Supper will be ready shortly," Sheba called after him.
He stepped out into the brisk evening, closing the door after him. Twilight stretched over the horizon, pressing night onto the roofs of the houses all around. Across the street, the Foldon boys were herding their goats back into the paddock, leading with lamps hanging from their staves. Beyond their woodshed, the Risbeth's window glimmered with cookfire; smoke rose from the chimney, whisked into a frenzy by the high breeze.
Seigi set off down the path toward the Baradas' homestead at a trot, stuffing his hands into his pockets to keep them warm, but still relishing the chill. The cold brought clarity, and the task at hand brought purpose. Something might be wrong with the world, certainly. But it could at least wait until the hart was skinned and supper was ready.