**UPDATED** Now Chapter 23!
~From Book One of The Hunted MageTrilogy: HUNTSMAN~
Three steps. That was all.
Jaakko felt a chill run down his back as he faced the mouth of the ravine. It was little more than a break in the tree covered ridge but it stunk of death.
The slightest breeze wafted up the slope and through the gap in the stones.
The smell of flesh left to rot, he thought.
The trail went through the cleft. There was almost nothing discernible as sign of the beast passing. There were no broken trees or gouged earth, nothing he would look for if he were hunting elk or boar. Just a furrow of pressed earth as if something of great weight had been pulled along.
It had puzzled him until he found branches pressed deep into the ground in the track. He could see it then. The dragon’s great weight slithering along the ground and sliding over the pine boughs.
He crouched beneath thick boughs of an evergreen and watched the path ahead. Three steps to the rock cleft. They seemed a mile to him.
The breeze blowing up to him was good. It carried the stench to him but his own smell would not alert the beast in the ravine.
Just take the last bloody steps! Craven!
There was a jug of liquor back in his camp. He thought of it with longing. He saved it for the trip back to the nearest town. He kept listening to the muted sounds of the woodlands and tried to put the drink out of his mind.
A sudden rush of wind followed by a warbling growl floated through the dense forest.
He half stood and took a step backward hunched beneath the arch of the limbs above. His heart thudded in his chest. He made himself pause and listen as his mind kept screaming at him to flee.
A distant roar made him take breath once more. He felt his heartbeat slow.
It was moving away.
To hunt. It may not be gone long. This gully is its lair. It must be, he thought. There was a hint of desperation in the last words.
His hands tightened on the shafts of his spears. He held two in each hand and thought with longing of the others he had left far behind him. The curved bronze tips glinted in the mottled light.
I am a fool to have left them. The shield as well!
To return for them was not a choice he dared make. He was here and the beast was not. He may never again get a chance such as this.
He lifted an arm to wave the foliage away from his head and took the three steps in a rush, his breath loud in his ears.
He dropped to the ground before he entered the cleft in the rocks. The beast was wily. If it suspected he lay here in wait and returned Jaakko had no wish to stand out upon the ridge. The sun held little strength this deep in the forest. It struggled to break through the thick layers of foliage above him. It would show him clearly in the mottled dimness of the gully below.
He crawled on his belly far enough to slide into a clump of fern that strained upward seeking the light. The fronds were high and heavy leaving low tunnels of space beneath them.
He looked for a moment down the gorge and felt his guts clench with anxiety.
The trail was barely discernible in the dimmer light. It dropped sharply away from where he stood and wove in and around the jumble of moss covered boulders. It was a steep and treacherous descent.
Huge trees stood with their roots curled around the boulders and growing directly atop the massive stones. There were fallen trees across the path, whipped by storm or pulled by the dragon’s passing. They lacked the depth they needed to withstand either. He could use them to climb in places if he dared.
I must. There is no other way down. I am close, he thought.
His pace slowed to a crawl as he tried to move quietly through the tangled limbs and, in some places, entire trees that barred his way.
His spears became either staffs for him as he slipped along the side of the ravine or he passed them beneath the harness of his pack to free his hands. He was forced to slide on his stomach over the faces of boulders so thick with moss he could grip it in tufts to keep from plummeting to his death.
This is an ancient place, he thought as he dropped slowly down into the gloom between three huge stones. Aside from hell-spawn, who else has set foot in this pit?
There was a stillness that unnerved him. Since he heard the roar growing fainter the air did not move. Even in the deepest wood there was always the slightest of breezes flowing about him.
The air grew cool as he descended and held him with a clammy grip and soon he could hear the burble of a stream to his left.
The gully widened now and the trees grew thinner around him. The light was no brighter. It was still a jumble of slick rocks in his path.
Jaakko could not take a breath in the still, cold vapor that filled the gorge. The stench of rotted flesh grew with each step.
He stopped as a new shape rose out of the mottled shadows before him.The surface had leveled and instead of just rocks he could see dirt and the beginning of a path worn smooth by the dragon’s body.
A mound of tangled bones lay before him, yellowed with age and half buried in the mulch of fallen leaves. His eyes slipped past the remains to the ground beyond and saw more of them.
The bones of elk, deer and bear were visible in the pile.
He stepped around the mass of bones. They were all chewed clean. He could see the bite marks of the dragon on the shattered ends of the larger bones as well as smaller marks from other animals. They had finished cleaning the carcass when the monster had had its fill.
He had stalked his way another half mile through the ravine when he came upon a skull.
Jesu, save me! It feeds on men as well.
The yellowed teeth leered up at him. The dome of the skull was crushed and left chips of bone in the mulch as he tipped it over with the butt of a spear.
Christ, have mercy upon this soul. He could not have deserved to die this way. None should end as this monster’s feast.
He tried to move on and found he could not. The black holes on the skull held him fast. He stared into them as he knelt. He gently worked the skull loose from the dirt and rotting leaves that held it. He turned it over and began to pull the shards of bone from the earth. One by one, he placed them inside. The tinkling sound of bone striking bone was deafening in the still air.
Jaakko brought the remains to the base of the thickest tree he could find and began to dig a shallow hole with his belt knife. There could be no pyre, certainly not this deep in the forest and with nothing left of the man to burn.
Jesu, guide his spirit to his loved ones. This is all I can do for him.
He lay the skull in the hole and scooped the loose earth over it.
Will anyone find what remains of me? He shuddered with the thought.
He returned to the path with a sick dread that filled him as he crept forward. He had covered another mile when he began to hear a droning sound.
The smell of dead flesh was thick now and he began to see beasts only half eaten cast into piles. They were too rotten for foxes and wild dogs to feed upon if there were any in the woods that would dare come this close to the beasts lair. Flies and ants worked steadily upon the remains. The incessant buzz of the insects filled the air. He tasted bile at the back of his throat as he stepped amid the piles of rancid meat the beast had discarded. The flies rose up in a cloud as he passed revealing the wriggling mass of grubs on the carcasses beneath.
Jaakko covered his mouth and nose with a sleeve. He sped through the last of the dead flesh and spat to clear the taste from his mouth as he saw the first sign of the beast.
There were no animal remains here. The marks of pressed earth he had been following were everywhere and he could see the deeper depressions the creature made as it hauled the carcasses away from its lair. There were places now where he could see the scrapes of talon in the moist earth.
It was completely still now. The sounds of stream and insect were gone with only the rasp of his breath in his ears and the thud of his spears upon the ground as he walked. The silence pulsed in his ears with his heartbeat.
He cursed at his own noise as he crept forward. His hands were clenched tight on the hafts and his gaze darted from the ground before him to the trees above. His skin crawled with the thought that the thing was perched above him in the leafy roof of the ravine waiting to drop upon him with a shriek. His neck tightened and he felt the flesh of his arms raise into gooseflesh.
He passed an enormous fallen oak that lay alongside the path.
The signs of the beast’s passage disappeared in the space of a step.
Jaakko dropped into a squat with spears held out before him and high over his head. His breath became a ragged, fearful pant as he turned to face behind him.
Trap! It is here, it knows, he screamed in his mind.
The terror at the thought made him weak. He could not flee, only hold his spears high. It was a slender hope that he could hold off the monster with these. He kept pivoting to watch the forest around him. Every sound was that of the dragon behind him and he would spin around with a new surge of fear.
The minutes passed. His terror slowly abated and he was able to think clearly once more. He was still panting yet turned his attention to the trail around him. He had missed something and he should not have.
I am a fool. Only an ugly death can come of stupidity like this. What have I not seen?
It was on the trunk of the fallen oak. It lay flat along the edge of the trail. The roots were massive and had pulled free from the ground when the tree toppled. They reached well beyond his height in a grotesque tangle of grasping fingers. It had done well to grow so large as far into the woods as it was but the soil was too thin over the rock to support the tree’s height.
He had been too intent on the trail ahead to see the gouges above his head. Claws had grasped the bark and dug furrows in the wood.
It leaps over the tree to the space beyond! It has built a fortress for itself.
He saw as well the bole of another oak, thinner than the one that lay along the path. There was a place on it, just below the first fork of limbs, that was worn smooth. The bark had been stripped from it. It was as wide across as both of his hands with fingers splayed.
It grasps this trunk for leverage as it leaps over the dead fall.
He crawled along the base of the oak and found that the gap below the trunk had been crammed fill of rotted logs and mulch. He should have been able to slide beneath it to follow the monster’s new trail.
He walked back a few yards to go around the exposed roots and found the way barred by a felled pine. He lifted a bough and tried to push his way through. Two steps was all he could advance. The weight of the trunk pressed the branches too close.
Too dense to pass through. And far too noisy.
He pulled out of the foliage as quietly as he could, cursed the dead branches that snapped underfoot and crept to the far end of the oak. The area around the crown was as fortified as the roots.
The only way past is over the trunk. That hell-spawned beast!
He took a pair of hide strips from his pack and lashed the four spears together. He would have to throw them over the tree and into the lair beyond. He winced at the thought. There was no way to climb and handle the length of them.
Weaponless and climbing the beast’s wall! You are a fool!
The pine that lay against the tangle of roots was large enough that he was climbing through both in moments, his face full of sharp needles and moss.
He spent a few moments at the top of the root ladder, considered his choices and puffed his breath out in a sigh. There were no tendrils of root that would let him climb high enough to cross over the trunk and drop to the other side of the tree.
I cannot reach it. Not while keeping my grip on the roots. Damn the beast.
He set his feet so he would not slide down the roots and pulled the pack from his shoulders. He threw the bag over the bole of the tree. He heard the rustle of undergrowth as it hit the ground beyond. It sounded like a long drop to him.
I cannot stop now. I will see Lohikaarme’s lair. The bastard snake cannot keep me out.
He stood on the last of the roots that would support his weight and gauged the distance to the top of the trunk. He felt weak as he thought of the distance. He had not eaten since the day before and he would regret that as he tried to pull himself over.
He took the handle of his knife and held a deep breath. With a grunt, he stabbed out with the blade as he leaped. He drove it with as much strength as he could muster at a spot just over the curve of the trunk. He felt the jolt of it in his shoulder and hoped the tip bit deeply enough to hold him.
He had a moment to feel satisfied before he felt the knife begin to bend toward him. With a curse, he scrambled and threw one leg over the trunk to find purchase. Just enough of his weight lay across the trunk to keep himself from sliding backward but not for long. He needed a hold to push himself past the top of the trunk’s circumference.
He squirmed toward the center point of the trunk and, for a moment, he felt secure.
He sprawled across the trunk, as flat as he could lie and wiggled the handle of the knife to free the tip from the wood. It was still embedded too deep into the trunk to pull free. He sat up slowly with his legs straddling the tree and pulled harder at the knife.
The knife tip came free, wrenched loose by the weight of his body. He kept hold of the handle as the force of his pull brought him past the peak. Too far past the peak. He slid slowly down the curve of the tree. He grasped at the surface of the trunk.
Oh, Jesu! Help me!
He scrabbled with his free hand along the surface to push his body back up but the rough bark crumbled under his fingers. His lack of food betrayed him now as well. He had too little strength to stop the inexorable slide he felt. He jabbed the knife once more into the wood as he fell. The blade turned on a knot in the tree and wrenched his hand in a painful jolt.
The blade spun away into the mottled gloom of the ravine. With a last desperate lunge he dug his nails into the bark once more but he was far too overbalanced. He felt his fingers bruise and sharp pain in the tips and he fell.
It was a long drop. He hit the ground on his side and felt ribs crack. The air gushed from his lungs at the impact and he saw black shapes float in his vision as he struggled for breath. His muscles convulsed for a moment then relaxed and let him take in the cool, close air of the gorge.
He lay as he had fallen and gasped for several long minutes. He faced the oak and when he could think clearly, he could taste the thick musk of the reptile on his tongue. The air was filled with its stench.
He rolled onto his back and, with a groan, sat up. There was a burning pain in his side but he could breathe deeply again.
He shifted to the left and onto his knees.
Holy Mother of Christ!
His pack lay on the mulch of dead leaves and pine needles several feet away and beyond it…
There was no path, only a mound of limbs and clods of earth. It looked huge from where he knelt but he judged it to be waist-high if he stood.
Do I want to stand? It is a nest, a bloody nest!