Friday, June 12, 2015

Beyond the Forest of the Dead - Part 6


I ate my meal with more hunger than I imagined I still possessed but carefully I watched my supplies. The horsemeat would not keep and, though I had eaten as much as I could after finding the skinned carcass amid the remains of the broken wagon, I had no salt to preserve it and no place to properly smoke the flesh and most would go to waste. I could, as well, carry only so much of the tough and slightly burnt meat and I was determined to make it last. The creatures that hunted me, haunted my last few nights, were foul to the taste and thin. There seemed no other game in this wasteland. I had no doubt I would be killing more of the black-blooded fiends but had no desire to consume their flesh until no other choice was offered.

They were like short pigs that walked on two broad, cloven hooves with sharp-nailed three-fingered hands. They did not clothe themselves but wore belts of tanned skin and held small stone-headed spears in their short and powerful arms. These were stabbing spears not meant for throwing and they used them to good effect, but my arm and blade were long and I learned quickly to show them no mercy as they surely had no such feeling within themselves and would show none to me. I had seen them eagerly lapping at my blood even fighting among themselves for the mere taste at a small stain of it after they had wounded my leg and forced me to flee. The sight had enraged me and I returned, fell upon them, and slaughtered the small party of the standing-pigs. The irony of my eating of their flesh was not lost upon me.

The sun was rising toward noon but still some hours remained before the short day would end and another of the interminable nights began. I had seen smoke in the distance from the vantage of the ridge I'd camped at and the going down-hill on the worn track was a relief from the long journey first up the mountain then across the endlessly hilly land I'd been travelling. The boulders and split rock that had lined the track disappeared on this side of the ridge and became a rough land of short weed-grass and brambles. I was overjoyed. Here was life again instead of waste and barren hills.

I sat and let my fingers pluck out the tough curled growth. It was as thick as a woven matt. I dug into a patch with my knife and cut free a small square of the turf. The roots were long and oozed with a green-yellow serum, but the earth beneath was a rich dark loam and a fresh tantalizing scent arose that tickled my memory but could not quite recall.

Several miles went by and I found myself descending into a deeper valley that stretched far into the distance. If I was not mistaken I could make out the tops of trees in full leaf and nearer ahead were bushes and beyond them the squares and lengths of fields perhaps separated by the walls of gathered stone that had been unearthed by years of plow and spade.

The bushes were thorn, wiry stuff, but very green. They had obscenely long thorns of needle sharpness, curved like the beak of some predator bird and many had ragged strips of cloth caught in their grips. These fluttered in a rising breeze and tossed and waved at me as I neared them as if in greeting. I could hear the moan of the wind and a tearing sound high above me.

Looking up I saw many clouds white and fluffed. Some seemed to be a wave of men rushing toward the sun and the far horizon and the ridge I had just descended; others were ships, horses, a castle with a tower shaken down. I was bemused and almost I forgot the coming night and the creatures it would bring. These bushes around me would be too green to burn but the thought of trees and perhaps even people made me turn my eyes and my thoughts back to the trail I followed and not the clouds.

With a start I realized that the trail had become a road. Old ruts and the shape of hooves in what had been mud and was now hardened dirt filled the track. On my left the line of bushes slowly grew higher than I was tall but on my right the short scrub had become weeds and wildflowers. There was little color but for some white lace and a sprinkling of small yellow petals in a shallow ditch that still bore some water that must have come from a recent rain. If I could find a stream or spring I would empty the brackish liquid I'd collected from a mountain pond and drink till I would burst. I husbanded my water even more than the meat I'd collected, but thankfully my thirst had been kept at bay for most of my journey.

As I passed a line of bushes I thought I saw a face staring at me from amid the green and thorny branches. I rushed toward the spot and found only a section of hide vest still bearing a woolly brown hair on one side and the soft feel of worn leather on the reverse. Carefully I removed this trophy from its captive branches and to my surprise it came free easily without snagging or tears. It was surprisingly light and seemed clean; at least clean enough for a weary traveler with torn shirt and ragged canvas cloth for a cloak. It had a musk to it, not unpleasant, animal certainly, but something that stirred a feeling from the base of my spine to the back of my head. My groin stirred too and I hardened, the thought of my last love, her lips, her open thighs... I shook myself and would have tossed the vest back into its thorny embrace, but the nights had been cold and I had to laugh at my own embarrassment in this empty land. I could have walked these miles naked, traveled from... I paused and tried to remember but it was gone. Where this strange journey began was lost to me. Though I racked my brain and sifted backwards through my memories all that ever came to me was a door, black and empty.

I dropped my pack and set my sword, point first, in the ground at hand and ready as I slung the vest around my back and dropped first one then another arm through the holes. It settled against me like a second skin. The warmth came first from my back, then my chest and quickly suffused my entire body. I inhaled deeply and for the first time in longer than I could remember I could smell the beauty of the land around me. The lush greeness of the thorn bushes, the earthy mold and loam beneath them, the small tang of the weeds that poked their green stems from between the wildflowers as they fought for the bounty of the sun. A sharp and unpleasant scent crept into the rich odor and beckoned to me. I followed it pace by pace down the road with my naked blade in my hand.

The bushes looked the same since I'd noticed the first of them lining the road like a green wall. They smelled the same, but amid them was a foul stench of decay. My sword flashed out and severed them like a scythe through long summer grass. The wiry branches sprang apart. The steel touched on old thick brambles that were entwined into a gnarled limb like a gripping hand and parted it as if it were flesh. The stump of the bush was as thick as the thigh of a rich man and still my sword cut better than any axe. The roots came free of the earth like snakes, twisted and frozen, and I tossed them aside.  

In a shallow hollow of dark earth the body was curled into a ball. All bones really; naked chest, now ribs and spine, and pants of thick woolly curls and cloven feet. The head was turned inward with the long bones of the arm over it and a scattering of fingers, and knuckles and wrists before it. I reached down and lifted it out by a horn, small but pointed, that sat upon a human skull. The jaw fell away as I raised it and looked into the open graves of its eyes. The thrill of the God long dead but never forgotten came through me and I rubbed an affectionate finger along the edge of his cheek and remembered.


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Copyright March 2014 By Jason Zavoda

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