(Part I can be found here).
“What did your grandfather kill to win his man-hunt?” Jack’s query brought Dominic back to the soft forest road they had been traveling together in unspoken agreement.
“I asked him once, but he wouldn’t say. Maybe he doesn’t remember. He is always complaining that his mind is ebbing as quickly as his strength.”
“It had to be something,” Jack offered.
Dominic shrugged. Jack still retained a firm grasp of the obvious, he thought.
What might be less obvious was a path that would lead them far from the forest road, even as it led closer to the Wilderman. If there was such a thing, he reminded himself. His grandfather had given him directions to follow, made him memorize and repeat them. But that was rote learning. “Turn northeast when the summit of Staid Mountain bisects twin elms” is easy to repeat, but what if you’ve never seen Staid Mountain? What if you’ve never seen any mountain?
Dominic gazed upon the snowy peak that rose between a pair of enormous elms. The trees stood alone across a pasture to his west, mirror images of each other. Even the fallen limbs of the southernmost tree were reflected by stumps on its northern twin. He sighed. Grandfather was right again. He hinted to Jack that they must follow a path close by. The youth picked one up immediately. It ran northeast.
Jack led now, his enormous boots swimming silently through the fallen leaves. No wonder he was able to track me so easily, Dominic thought. After about an hour, just as Dominic began thinking about supper and a soft place to lay his head, Jack’s right hand shot down, palm open and back. Stop, the sign meant. Don’t move.
Jack dropped into a crouch and drew an arrow from his quiver. As he climbed the ridge to their left, his body drew closer to the ground, never making a sound, never showing any part of himself to whatever lay beyond that outcrop. By the time he reached its apex he lay upon his stomach, bow in hand, arrow nocked. Suddenly, half a dozen buzzards exploded from the forest floor beyond him, disappearing into the trees.
“Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!” Dominic heard, the words trailing off as Jack disappeared over the hill. He took off in pursuit, curious to see what Jack had set off. Or perhaps more importantly, what had set Jack off.
From the top of the outcrop he spied the remains of an enormous wolf, obviously male, with a broad silver crown of fur crawling down its back. The head looked big enough to give anyone a shot at winning this man-hunt. If only one could only gain it, Dominic thought.
His shoulders drooped as he saw Jack kneel beside the beast. But as he approached, he noted the boy had not removed the head. Instead he ran a gloved hand along a rough gash that reached from the wolf’s chin to its hips. The buzzards had been feasting on the entrails that spilled from the wolf’s midriff onto the forest floor. Steam still arose from them into the brisk autumn air. This was a fresh kill. Minutes, not hours, old.
“You could take its head,” Dominic offered, even while wondering how he might shake his companion and seize that prize for his own. Maybe on the return trip, he thought.
Jack glanced at him, then shook his own.“That would be cheating,” he replied.
“I know. My grandfather insists that a man hunt honestly or not at all. I just thought I’d offer. No one would ever know.”
“You’d know,” Jack said. “And besides, it’s not enough.”
“You have lofty goals.”
“Not so lofty as those of Jemma’s father,” Jack replied. He stood up and shook some blood from his glove. The rest he wiped on the wolf’s silver cape.
“This is my second hunt,” he continued. “Because I didn’t score a head last year, I can’t marry Jemma unless I win this man-hunt outright. It’s a lofty target to reach, especially with so many hunting.” The look on Jack’s face said the target stood impossibly high.
Kneeling, Dominic examined the corpse. It was as large a beast as he had ever seen, though if someone took a three-year bear, this one might not bring a win. He wondered if Jack would have filched the head had he been alone. Jack was a good woodsman, those huge feet notwithstanding. And he was more patient than Dominic. That raised an obvious question.
“Why didn’t you get a kill last year?
Jack shrugged. “On the second day, I could have taken a she-wolf, about this size, maybe a little smaller. But she had teats. Father always said if you take a nursing mother, you slay five beasts with one arrow. Then it rained the last three days. No one scored after that day – that’s why there are so many hunting this year. Jasper won with a wolf smaller than this,” Jack nudged the snout with his toe, then turned away from Dominic, at least pretending to search for clues as to what might have killed it.
Dominic remembered Jasper’s wolf. It had teats. No, he decided, Jack wouldn’t have cheated. He was about to say something to that effect when Jack motioned to him.
“Have you seen spoor like this before?” Jack’s hand rested completely inside a fresh indentation in the muddy forest trail.
Dominic shook his head. The print was too long to have been made by a bear, too wide to have been left by a wolf. It must have been heavier than either to leave such a deep imprint. And it had claws. Dominic shuddered as he glanced at the gutted wolf. Whatever it was knew how to use them as well.
“They’re going our direction,” Jack noted, pointing to the northeast, his finger casting a long shadow upon the ground. The sun was now fading into the tops of the barren hardwoods.
“If we don’t find something in an hour,” Dominic said, “we get off the path and camp.” Far off the path. Jack nodded, then looked at the spoor again and swallowed.
“We’d better hurry,” he replied, picking up the arrow he had dropped upon first reaching the wolf, but not returning it to his quiver. He gripped it fiercely in his left hand.
Dominic led now, picking out their trail in the falling sunlight. Night fell quickly in autumn and even more quickly in the forest, but he and Jack could outrace it. Their game was not hard to track. It had fled quickly and in a straight line. And on two legs. Of that Dominic was sure, though he consciously avoided drawing any implications from the fact.
They had just crossed a welcome clearing and dropped into a stand of cedars when Dominic felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He stopped and glanced back. Jack was pointing up a ridge that rose on their left. Dominic followed his finger to a furtive shadow that disappeared behind an enormous cottonwood. It could have been a trick of the leaves had there been any wind. The track turned left now and led up that ridge. Dominic saw Jack nock the arrow he’d been holding. He loosened his sword to ensure that he could draw it if needed, but decided not to carry it in hand. Not yet.
He turned left and was about to follow the tracks up the ridge when he felt the gloved hand upon his shoulder again. He glanced back at Jack.
“What’s wrong?” Dominic asked.
“Everything is wrong,” Jack replied. “There’s no such thing as the Wilderman. It’s just an old wives’ tale. Yet I saw him watching us, leading us, as if drawing us into his trap.” He shivered and reached for another arrow. Then noticing he already had one in hand, tried to nock it again. His hands were shaking.
“We’ll be careful,” Dominic said, grasping his hilt tight lest his own shaking hand betray him. “He can’t get both of us, and one of us will carry his head home to cheers.”
“And the other?”
“Shut up, Jack.” It had been many years since he had said that.
They both laughed. Dominic felt a great weight lifted from his shoulders, and it wasn’t just Jack’s hand.
Dominic crossed the ridge and trudged back into the morass, where crooked cedars smothered the rocky outcrops that rose from the puddles and moss. No sounds arose here but the occasional suction of a boot lifted from the muck. He could feel Jack breathing on his neck now. He told himself again that there was no such beast as the Wilderman. But he no longer believed it.
Jack was examining a chunk of bloody rabbit fur beside the trail when Dominic spotted the cave. It wasn’t a high, round, open cave like he’d heard about in Grandfather’s dragon tales. It was just a black gash between tall stones that jutted from the swamp floor. He was facing nearly east now, and the last light of the setting sun fell over his shoulder and disappeared into the gash. As far as he could tell, the single set of prints led straight to that opening. Now Jack was looking at it as well.
“I don’t have a torch,” Jack said. That meant neither of them did.
Dominic drew his sword and set his shoulders toward the cave. If it was too deep, they’d have to find a place to camp, to make torches. With that thing nearby. But the sun hadn’t deserted them just yet, and Dominic decided to take advantage of its last rays before he lost his nerve. Jack was breathing heavily, but he was still breathing right behind Dominic.
Dominic immediately regretted ducking through the gash. Fetor burned his sinuses, and he imagined the soft drips that reached his ears emanated from pools of blood beneath hanging wolves, bears, deer, and men. But his next thought was that he had been blinded, for as his eyes sought the origin of the sounds, they drank in little but blackness. Except for a keyhole-shaped area on the floor immediately before him, containing his shadow and Jack’s, the cavern sucked away his vision. Still, he took a few steps forward to allow Jack to get completely inside. Then he took two more.
He closed and opened his eyes, willing them to take in the sunlight faster than it could fade. He was just tracing the farthest edge of the keyhole when a boot hooked his ankle, a hand shoved his back. He found himself sprawled upon the sticky cavern floor. Something enormous flew right over his head – he felt its breath and its hair as he fell. Jack screamed behind him, and Dominic heard a roar, a thud, and the driving of breath from a man.
He rolled to one knee and reached for his sword. It was absent from his side. He remembered that it had been in his hand when he fell, and his fingers bounced frantically atop the filthy cave floor as his eyes took in the beast, now outlined in the doorway by the setting sun. As it turned toward him, he noted that it was slim from foot to hip, male, and barrel-chested. It boasted an enormous head. Its hands, if any lay at the ends of its inhumanly long arms, were tipped with curved claws. The thing moved with the smooth confidence of a panther even as it stood erect like a man. The Wilderman sniffed the foul air and roared its triumph. Then it dove at him just as his fingers closed around a hilt…
Dominic knew immediately that he had not killed the Wilderman. From his knees he lacked the leverage to more than slice that colossal neck. The beast screamed its agony as it spun
about to face him again. But now he had gained his feet and could swing properly if only the beast came straight at him. With a howl dropping into a roar, it did just that.
This time Dominic drove the blade through the resistance of muscle and bone just as the beast slammed into him. Its weight drove him again to the cavern floor, drove the wind from his lungs. A warm stream pumped onto his face, into his mouth and nose and ears. He gagged and spat as he pushed the furry, quivering, stinking body off of himself. It kicked and scratched in the darkness.
He glanced toward the cave’s door, still squeezing his hilt with both hands. The sun was gone now. Only blood remained, in the fading sky, upon his trembling lips, and on the sticky cavern floor. He listened for Jack but could not hear him. Dominic would need light to find him.
One spark. Then a second. The cave stood silent but for the striking of Dominic’s flint on his sword’s ricasso. He blew on the spark that caught in a shredded piece of rope, guarding it with his hand, carefully nursing it into a flame. His fingers passed the flame to the twigs and leaves he had gathered from the cave’s opening.
It would only be a small fire at first. Not knowing how deep or tall the cave was, Dominic didn’t want to fill it with smoke. He merely wanted enough light to find Jack and to truly learn what he’d killed. He added more sticks until the flames at last revealed the size of the cave. It was big enough for a real fire. The more light now the better, he thought. His hands, his whole body had almost stopped shaking. Still, he didn’t want to spend this night in the darkness. He committed the last of his precious tinder to the flames.
The fire grew, throwing Dominic’s shadow upon the cave walls, providing enough orange light to navigate this new, bloody world. He found Jack crumpled beneath a jutting grey stone. His friend lived, though the blood in his ears testified to the force with which his bare head had struck the cavern wall. Dominic grabbed him by the boots, pulling his body toward the fire. He hoped to provide light as much as warmth.
Then he turned to the beast. Its enormous head lay to one side, black eyes open and thick tongue sticking between sharp yellow teeth. It looked a mix of wolf and bear in form, with a canine snout but round ears and a broad face. A silver crown of fur capped the black head and spread down the neck, widening as it came to the matted stump where shoulders should have been.
His second blow had made a clean kill. Dominic silently thanked his grandfather for the hours of practice without which he could never have struck such a blow. No suffering for man or beast, he had said. Well, this beast had suffered a little. Dominic noted that his first blow had sliced just below what passed for the beast’s collar bone. The wound had bled severely even though it was shallow. Then he saw Jack’s arrow stuck between the Wilderman’s ribs. His friend’s weapon had sunk deep, probably puncturing a lung. That shot would have killed the beast eventually, but only with shock and infection adding their own efforts to that of the arrow’s steel head.
The far end of the cavern became visible now, though the wiggling shadows might still hide smaller alcoves. Something flat and tan shimmered on the ground furthest from the entrance. Gaining his feet, Dominic crept toward that corner.
It held something like a nest, with piles of bones and matted hair festooning a crude bed. The tan rectangle turned out to be a mat of woven grass, such as the women of his own village
fashioned. From beneath it Dominic fished a pair of woven blue trousers. They had been cinched with a familiar belt and the ankles were ragged. He knew the trousers at once.
He leapt back to the fire, trousers in hand, then examined them for any sign of blood or struggle, seeking any clue as to how hard his grandfather had fought back, any clue as to how heroically he had died. There was no such evidence to be found.
From their pocket Dominic fished a silver charm. Its face displayed symbols he did not understand but had seen on many of his grandfather’s trinkets, the charms he swore by but the wise mocked him for. His blood pulsed in his ears as Dominic rolled the coin over in his fingers. The reverse boasted a beastly image, worn but familiar, with a broad face narrowing into a canine snout. He immediately recognized the Wilderman. Dropping the charm to the bloody cavern floor, he turned again toward the headless creature that lay between him and the fire.
You senile, selfish bastard, Dominic thought. You’re a beast to Jack and maybe to everyone who fears night at its darkest. But you’re still a man to me.
Drawing himself to his feet, he worked Jack’s broadhead arrow from the Wilderman’s chest. Though the head had sunk deep and fiercely fought extraction, no true hunter would believe it had slain this beast. Then he walked over to where Jack lay. His friend’s breathing was deep and even, as of a man in a slumber hard-earned. Sleep well, he thought.
Dominic picked up Jack’s bow and nocked once again that bloody arrow. He turned and by the firelight sank the arrow feathers-deep through the Wilderman’s heart. Then he dropped the blue woven trousers into the fire. While the flames jumped and filled the cavern with smoke he fell to his knees and pounded on the black, furry torso with his fists.
“You cheated!” he screamed at the headless thing that had wanted him to win badly enough to die for it. Dominic repeated the indictment until his shoulders burned, his fingers numbed, and fatigue and grief overtook him.
He was awakened by the sunlight creeping into the cave as much as by Jack shaking him.
“I thought you were dead,” Jack said. Dominic rubbed his eyes then saw the caked blood that covered his hands, tasted it upon his tongue as he swallowed, felt it crack upon his face as he smiled. He grasped Jack’s extended hand and together they pulled him to his feet.
“Congratulations on your impending nuptials,” Dominic replied.
Jack’s eyebrows rose and he took a half-step back, but Dominic led his eyes to the arrow, deeply-seated in the beast’s still heart, with a bloody finger. Your kill.
“I removed the head because Grandfather told me the Wilderman could recover from anything but that. We should get your trophy home before it starts stinking any worse.”
Jack was a good sport about carrying the massive head all by himself. After all, he was the bigger and stronger of the two.
As they followed the trail back toward the forest road, they again scared buzzards from the gutted wolf. Some enterprising youth had removed its head.
It won’t matter, Dominic thought, placing his hand atop the hilt of his red longsword, the one his late grandfather had bequeathed him. I’ll get mine next year. Fair and square.
(Part I can be found here).