Willow stopped and turned to look at Rune. His cheeks were red underneath the faint sheen she could see coating his skin as he walked towards her, pushing past the leaves that occasionally leaned across the track. She shook her head and inwardly cursed herself. In the excitement at Rune's interest and willingness to follow her, Willow realized that she'd forgotten that Rune wasn't used to hiking. "Hey," she said. "Do you want to take a break? If I remember correctly, there should be some big rocks to one side of the trail, not too far from here."
He smiled. "While my pride would like me to protest that I need any kind of rest, my body won the argument. I'd love to sit. I never realized how hard hiking can be."
She winced and started walking again, but at more of a stroll. "I should have warned you better. I'm pretty much only out here with family, and they're out here nearly as much as me, so they're used to it. You're not. I should have set a slower pace from the beginning."
"Nah," he said. "I'm the one who asked you to take me. It's been interesting. And humbling. I'm sure my mom would agree that this is good for me. Her favourite saying for me is 'The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.'"
"I haven't ever heard that one before, but I like it."
Rune shrugged. "It's Japanese, that's probably why. I just said it in English."
Willow stared back at him for a moment. "Wait, you speak Japanese?"
"Yeah. My mom immigrated years ago, but she always insisted I learn both languages. She's still mad I'm not better at kanji, but I've never seen the point. I don't have any plans to go to Japan any time soon."
"I take it your dad's not Japanese then."
Rune shrugged again. "Mom says he wasn't. Never met him, so I can't say. Though given my eyes, it's most likely he wasn't. He left before I was born. Before mom even knew she was pregnant, and only a month after they'd gotten engaged."
Willow winced. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't have pried."
He shook his head, smiling. "How could you know? And it doesn't bother me. I've grown up my whole life with just my mom, and I think I've turned out just fine. Though I do have to say, seeing how close you are with your giant family makes me a bit jealous."
She rolled her eyes. "You shouldn't be. You're lucky not to have your cousins hunting you down to attack you, or popping up at the worst possible times, or scaring away yours friends, or interfering in your life the way mine all do. And I get the added bonus, because they all live here, of not being able to get away with anything. Our town's not that big, and my family is everywhere. They find out about everything I do. Everything. It's awful."
Rune chuckled. "I guess I don't envy that part."
Willow smiled at him before slowing as she caught sight of the rocks ahead. They were just as she remembered them. A tumble of grey and pink rocks half-covered with moss, completely surrounded by trees and half-hidden by the plants that surrounded them. "Here we are."
In minutes they were both settled on adjoining rocks, their backpacks lying at their feet, as they both enjoyed the rest. "I already miss the breezes up on that rise of yours," Rune said, flapping his t-shirt against his chest.
"One of the reasons it's my favourite spot. Except in winter. Then the wind chill's awful," Willow replied, before a sound caught her attention. She held up her hand to stop Rune from speaking as she closed her eyes and concentrated on her ears.
She could hear birds. But not the usual peeping, defensive squawks or soft trills she expected from most of the birds that lived this far into the forest. This was a harsher, cawing sound. This was…
Willow's eyes snapped open and she turned to Rune. "I hear crows. A lot of crows. And the only thing I know of that brings that many of them together, is food. They can't be too far from here if I can hear them. You want to check it out now, or rest for a bit longer?"
Rune was already sliding off his rock, one hand grabbing the strap of his bag. "They might leave if we wait. Strike while the iron's hot."
She grinned. "Alright, follow me. We're going off-trail, so it's going to be a bit more of a fight. Watch your feet for fallen branches or rocks."
"Aye, aye, captain," he said, mock saluting her.
Willow swung her backpack on and closed her eyes again, listening for the ahing sound the birds were making. She swiveled her head towards the right as the direction of the sound and shoved her way into the brush.
Almost immediately, she got slapped in the face by leaves as various vines and branches seemed to claw at her. Willow ignored it, focusing on her feet and feeling for what was half-hidden by dead leaves and dirt. The snapping sound from behind told her that Rune was staying close.
It took them nearly a half hour of fighting through trees and greenery before they reached the tiny glade where the birds were. The crack of Willow breaking the last branch between them and the grassy hollow sent the crows surging into the air, cawing as they went.
What had originally been a mass of black feathers and beaks, was revealed to be a fur-covered corpse. Willow took in the bloody spots that mottled the brown coat and the end of the neck, which had been ravaged by the crows, leaving hanging strips of skin and meat, besides the poking white of bone. The ground underneath the headless deer was stained red, especially around where the head should have been. She sighed before remembering Rune.
Willow turned to look at him, noting how pale he'd gone. Obviously this was his first body. "It could be worse," she said. "It could smell."
Rune visibly swallowed and nodded. "I'm glad it doesn't. With your warnings, I thought I'd have been gagging when we were in the trees."
She blinked for a moment before her eyes widened and she looked back at the corpse. He was right. The body Aunt Celeste's rangers had found should have been putrefying by now, if it hadn't been picked down to the bones. This one couldn't be more than a few hours old, given how reasonably good it still looked. "Shit."
"This is a second kill. The poachers are still here! I have to tell Aunt Celeste. Damn! Bad enough they're hunting in a park, but they're wasting their kills. If you're not going to at least eat the meet, there's no point in hunting. I frigging hate trophy hunters."
Rune looked back at the body then at Willow and her clenched fists. "Then let's write an article about it. I'll take some pictures, and we can try and spread the word. If even one of the poachers reads it and decides maybe he shouldn't be doing this, it'll be worth it."
She turned to him, eyes still hot, but nodded. "Let's do it. I'm going to have to mark the trail back so the rangers can find the spot. We're also going to have to head straight back. They'll need to get here before dark, if they want to collect any kind of evidence. The worst scavengers are nocturnal."
He nodded. "I'm following you."