This is my entry for the Review Game's April Writing Challenge Contest. The prompt was "wilderness."
Edited July 11, 2010 with the help of reviewers.
The sound of two pairs of running feet echoed through the forest.
Shadows melted into the twilight, blending the greens and browns and grays. Sight dulled, hearing was the only sense he could rely on. One pair of footsteps was his, and branches whipped past him as he bolted past towering trees. Leaves crunching underfoot were the only breaks in the silence. Along with his pounding heart. He listened.
Somewhere in the forest, the other runner stopped.
The listener slowed and ducked behind an oak, straining his ears. He tried to calm his rapid breathing, knowing that the other runner was just as out of breath as he was, knowing that he had to find the other runner before the other runner found him. Tense and alert, he crouched. His eyes darted through the darkness, desperately trying to find a moving shape.
In the distance, he heard the whisper of a stream. Had the other heard it too, and sought its cloak to drown his footsteps? The listener crept closer; sidestepping leaves and twigs, carefully controlling the rise and fall of his chest. Tiptoeing and zigzagging, he followed his ears until his eyes found the stream. It snaked through an uncovered terrain, and the listener was careful to keep to the cover of the forest.
A splash caught his attention. He jerked his head to look, but it was just an otter slipping into the water. The listener paused. He thought he heard another sound, engulfed by the hiss of the stream…
A twig snapped, betraying the other runner. The listener froze, his heart caught in his throat, afraid to even breathe lest he give away his position. He stayed low, waiting for the other to move again, to give away his position more completely. He listened.
He heard the other runner gasp, right behind him.
The forest erupted as both runners clamored across the stream, one the hunter and one the hunted. Water soaked into their shoes, their clothes, and their hair as they kicked up sprays of ice-cold liquid. Out of the open and into the forest canopy once again, sight failed the listener. A root caught his foot and he fell.
Up in a flash, he twisted behind a tree and out of the vision of the other runner. Pain didn't cross his mind; besides, water and darkness had already numbed his feet. Subconsciously, his body shivered, but he kept his teeth from chattering. Keeping silent, always listening.
The other runner was no longer running. The game began again, seeing who could find whom. As the night grew deeper and the last of the stars began to dot the sky, a chill slithered through the forest and circled the listener, locking his joints and freezing his muscles. He stood, keeping his back to the tree. He waited for the other to give himself away.
But not a peep touched the listener's ears. He waited, the cold sniffing at his toes and fingertips. He waited, he watched, he wondered…
A trail of wet footprints sat sprinkled across the forest floor. The listener traced the path with strained eyes until it disappeared into the shadows. Looking over his shoulder before leaving his hiding place, he crept along the path, the splattered shapes tracing the other runner's hurried journey as it came to a halt.
The listener heard the other's breath a moment before he saw the figure hiding behind the log. Shaking, the other was looking the other way, eyes searching in vain.
The listener tapped the other on the shoulder. The other yelped and turned to face the listener, eyes wide and frightened as the listener towered over him.
The listener smiled.