He came from out of the setting sun and found the bear grazing in a glade at the edge of the forest, its attention fixed on the ripened berries on the brambles.
There was no time for the bow, its string loosened for travel. He grasped one of his spears, let the others fall to the ground before him, and crouched. Jaakko cursed the wind that came up from the plains behind him to carry his scent to the lumbering beast. It reared and sniffed the wind then dropped its front paws back to the earth and charged him.
His first spear caught it in the neck. There was no time to throw a second. He simply lifted another spear from where it lay at his feet and braced it with the toe of his boot. The force of the animal’s charge drove the bronze tipped shaft deep into its chest. Too close a fight to suit him, but he had intended to stalk deer and left his dogs behind.
Half the week gone with no signs, then a kill two hours from home? My luck runs as patchy as ever, Jaakko mused. He had traveled too far in search of prey and he hated to return without something to show for his labors.
He worked as quickly as he could while he skinned and carved the carcass. He rued the meat left behind but it was late. He had far to go to if he wished to see his bride and their babe, feel the comfort of his bed tonight.
He made a makeshift travois from his spears and the skin of the bear with the fur folded inside the skin. He laid the meat and skull atop, wrapped in some leaves, hoisted the poles and set a steady pace.
It was easy going for him on a well-known trail, but as he neared the edge of the deeper woodland, the weight of the meat and sodden skin he carried created a steady ache, a burning in the muscles of his shoulders, back and legs.
Something in the breeze bothered him. Strange gusts came and went through the rapidly darkening woods without any continuous direction.
There is an odd wind tonight, the huntsman thought. He dropped the wooden poles he carried to the ground and knelt.
The boughs whipped above him and then ceased gradually. The rustle of the leaves slowly quieted after the sound of the gust faded but wind still made the boughs tremble. He knelt on the path to watch the foliage above flash from dark green to almost white as the remains of the gust flipped them over and back.
He waited, listened intently.
The woods stilled as if everything had pulled in a sudden breath with the passage of the wind and was afraid to exhale. He listened, straining to catch the first sound after the gust. He realized that his heartbeat thumped in his ears and his own breath burned seeking release.
He let his breath out slowly and then breathed deep through his nose. Jaakko drew the scents of the forest in and set his mind to identifying them.
Mosses, fungi and the wet smell of decomposing leaves were familiar smells to the woodsman. The odor of the juniper, pine and the musty smell of the old oaks, he quickly recognized. He paid little thought to the sweet smell of blood on his hands and arms.
There it was. A sharp smell in the air but it grew more elusive as the moments passed.
He relaxed some, but even as the strange wind and smell abated he felt the tension that had built up in his limbs tighten into a knot in his shoulders.
The throb of his pulse slowed and faded back to obscurity while he listened to the forest come back to life around him yet he found his brows knit into a scowl. He kept his gaze sweeping back and forth as he stood once more.
He grasped the handles of his spears and continued his trek home.
The meat would feed his family. He did not prefer the taste of bear himself but it would do until he found better prey.
He would scrape the inside of the hide free of the tendons and gristle that once held it to the body and let it set in the sun until the soft skin hardened to leather. It should fetch a good price with some chieftain. The warlords all valued bearskin as a display of power and wealth, all the more so as bear became scarce in the northern woods.
The huntsman broke through the trees and paused to look about him. He stepped out into a short stretch of grassland that appeared to burn with a red glow. The sun had set below the horizon but still cast its light on the clouds above and with the night sky, growing ever darker behind him it looked like a wave of flame across the plains.
A reddish purple smudge of reflection shone at him like a beacon fire from the surface of the lake.
“Da is almost home, baby boy,” he whispered.
He waded into the tall grass and ignored the green and brown stains the broken brush left behind on his arms and clothes. He kept sight of the black stretch of forest that broke away from the deep woods and trudged the remaining distance to the edge of the lake. He arrived as the last sliver of light fled from the horizon.
Home is little more than a mile away if I had a boat.
The thought tempted him for a moment.
He could see the rounded mossy shape of a coracle staked to the shore. He could use it, he knew, and Niilo would not begrudge him the use of it but Jaakko decided against it.
It is barely a league home around the lake, and I will not need to return it if I just walk round.
He shifted his hands on the poles he carried, and grimaced at the sticky feel of the blood and offal that stayed wet from the sweat running down his arms.
I will walk the faster once I have cleaned up a bit, he decided.
He paused to watch the lights flicker and dance from the windows of his village across the lake. He dropped the handles of the litter and sat down on the boat to remove his boots.
He stepped into the water and waded out until the water covered his chest. It was still warm from the heat of day, but he knew he would be chilly when he emerged from the lake into the night breeze.
He would walk faster to regain his lost warmth during his hike around to the village.
He shuddered as the water washed over his shoulders and neck but drew in his breath and submerged his body completely. He floated in the dark for a moment then began to wipe the grime from himself.
The wind whipped around him in a sudden gust as he surfaced, a sound like the whipping of bed clothes on the drying line beside their hut on a windy day.
A black shape passed over him and made its way over the lake. He could feel its passage above him, a pressure that seemed to pull a sick dread into his guts.
He squinted, trying to make out the form, but water dripped into his eye to blur his vision and then it was too late to see it.
He shivered once, not just from the night air on his sodden clothes. He had heard rumors from travelers from the north, stories of winged beasts killing entire homesteads.
He shook his head wildly to shed excess water, and then held still, as a lifetime of hunting skills fell on him without thought.
He scanned the lake, his eyes darting up and down, side to side. He looked for movement or shadows that should not be over the lake. There was no moon to shed any light near him, only the dim windows of the distant village growing quiet for the night.
Moments passed slowly, seemed like an age to his anxious mind.
The sudden motion of trees at the edge of the forest drew his eye, just a change in the shape of the village windows as the shadow of a tree bent to obscure the glow of firelight. He could see leaves and limbs whipping abruptly where there was no wind just a moment before.
He watched a shadow settle on the dead remains of a great oak on the edge of the village. A sinuous neck swayed back and forth.
The black veil of the beast’s wings flapped, silhouetted in the light of the village hall on the hill. The dark shape grew steady even as the tree swayed beneath its weight.
The creature grew still. The hunter felt his body tighten and he realized that once again, he had forgotten to release his pent breath. He began to walk backward to the shore, strained to keep his gaze fixed on the beast.
He stumbled as his foot struck something in the muck. In the instant his gaze left it, the reptilian form disappeared, hidden from his frantic gaze.
His steps grew more certain with each pace as the water grew shallower. He moved his eyes back and forth trying to pick the winged apparition out of the darkness again and caught sight of it as it reared its neck. The undulating form tipped its head to sniff the night air.
Then it spread its wings, and dove for what Jaakko knew was a sheep pen on the edge of the village square.
The black form swooped up for a moment then plunged onto a gray shape in the pen. He lost sight of it as it dropped below the lights on the hill, but he heard the faint bleats of distress from across the water moments later.
The beast leaped once more and he saw the hellish form perch for a moment on the thatched roof of a house, then leap away out of his sight and into the town proper.
He began to run.