Who is the young man in the forest? (Chapter 1, Scene 1)
|The East Branch of the Highland River ran crisp and clear between the starkly colored slopes of the Yamayagi Mountains. Late morning sunlight filtered through the dusky yellows, patchy oranges, and fiery reds that danced in the light breeze. Snowberry Creek was wide and shallow, littered with rounded boulders that were covered with slick mosses and fallen leaves. A sturdy pair of Mountain Elk emerged from the surrounding brush, stepped daintily through the flowing waters, and leapt to cross the creek, disappearing on the other side.
A bend or two downstream, the Creek’s rocky landscape gave way to a glassy, smooth pool that rose slightly on the banks, encroaching on the dead grasses and debris. A perfectly rounded line of stones framed the downstream edge of the pool. The usually peaceful waters of the Creek gushed and spewed determinedly through the stones before returning to the natural rocky course downstream. Inside the pool, a wide array of tiny fishes and crustaceans explored the stony confines of their temporary residence.
This bend in the Creek had, over time, eaten away at the soil of the North bank, creating a steep slope on which many small trees still clung with their roots partly exposed. It was along this bank that a particularly large boulder sat, planted halfway into the rich soil on the embankment, and halfway into the crisp waters of the Snowberry Creek. And upon this boulder was perched a young man, who sat silent and unmoving, watching the pool with patient intensity.
His long, chestnut-colored hair fell messily over his boyish face, while in the back it was held in place with a worn strip of leather. The tangled ponytail was tied low behind his ears, and hung only a hand or two over the back of his thick elk-hide vest. The dark leather garment was loosely secured over his linen shirt with a simple belt, and covered his lean frame down to the hips. The young man's loose woolen pants, tattered and faded to a light tan, gathered roughly into his leather boots. His elk-hide footwear was soft and wrinkled from traveling, and would have slipped off easily, were it not for the long laces of sinew that secured the boots to his stocking feet.
The young man sat lazily sideways on the boulder, one knee drawn up by his face, and one arm pressed stiffly into the stone to bolster his weight. His light brown eyes mirrored the changing colors of the leaves, revealing just a hint of orange as the sunlight flickered through the branches above. But his eyes were not still; they darted back and forth, scanning the shallow pool before him, piercing each tiny creature with a critical glare. It was not the small fishes, nor the many-legged creatures dancing over the rocks, that interested him. He was watching - and waiting - for something else.
Finally, the man spotted what he was looking for. His lean body tensed, and he rose slowly, silently, to his feet. He reached into the side of his vest and withdrew a short, simple hunting knife. The young man stood still atop the boulder, wielding the knife, waiting for the perfect moment.
In an instant he took aim and cast the knife into the pool. It cut the glass-like surface and plunged into the clear water. "Hah!" A sharp yell of triumph escaped him as he launched himself from the boulder and into the stony waters below. He landed roughly, stumbling and splashing over the unstable rocks. The Creek flooded his boots and soaked his pant legs as he forged in to retrieve his weapon - and his prey.
"Get over here, ya slimy little…" He thrust his arms into the icy water, soaking his linen shirtsleeves, and groaned in frustration before extracting a long, wriggling Freshwater Eel. Its pale grey skin shimmered and gleamed in the weak sunlight, as its strong muscles clenched and twisted around the young man's formidable grip. The eel's writhing, undulating movements finally flung loose the embedded knife, which fell onto the rocky shore with a dull clatter.
The young man struggled to keep control over the snake-like animal, and he readjusted his grip as it slid through his fingers on its slick hide. The man turned and waded crookedly back to the shore, navigating the rocky underwater terrain while barely containing the unruly fish. "Look here, ya overgrown worm… I didn't spend all morning pilin' rocks together just to let you get away!" He finally reached the steep bank of the Creek and sat, slinging the eel over one shoulder as he reached for the knife that had fallen nearby. He slapped the long animal onto a large, flat rock, and deftly stabbed the eel's tiny head. Dark red blood crept over the surface of the short knife, but he removed it just as quickly and wiped the blood on a tuft of dead grass. "Heh…" He let out a small chuckle of relief. "Been waitin' three days for a good meal… ''
A short walk from the Snowberry Creek took the young man into the wooded interior of the Great Highland Forest. Here, the ancient trees stood like giant, muscular legs, with their feet firmly embedded in the rich soil and leaf cover of countless seasons. It was cold, for little sunlight could penetrate the thick canopy of fiery-colored leaves. Few obstacles stood in the way for the young man, except for the sparse bushes and sapling trees. The newest layer of fallen leaves had just begun to accumulate, and the papery swishing of his footsteps echoed through the quiet woods. The eel's head bobbed and slid along the leafy debris, its long body dangling from the man's arm at his side.
Finally the young man arrived at his camp. Consisting of nothing more than a meager fire pit and a small burlap sack resting by a tree, the simple encampment would have been easy to miss. The young man squatted down to poke at the smoldering fire with a short stick, reawakening a few red flames and releasing a smoky wisp. He picked up a long, slender twig and inserted it down the throat of the lifeless eel, straightening the limp, floppy fish as it became fully impaled on the twig. He then took two more twigs, each with a fork at one end, and jammed them into the soft earth on opposite sides of the sleepily burning fire. The impaled eel's twig rested perfectly across the two vertical forks, so that the animal's silky hide lay exposed over the weak flames of the fire. The young man added a handful of fallen leaves, which caught fire quickly, and carefully arranged a few larger sticks and branches in a tent-like shape overtop. Then he sat back and watched, resting on his heels, as the fire devoured the leaves before beginning its ascent along the slanted sticks. The eel's body dried quickly, and soon the skin crackled and browned in the heat of the flames.
Among the spitting pops of the fire, one single sound stood out from the rest - the snapping of a small branch. The young man turned his head, then froze, watching the forest behind him through the corner of one eye. For a moment or two he stayed like this, but then a derisive smile crept across his youthful face. He turned back to his fire with a relaxed air about him, poking again at the smoldering branches. He didn't need to see it. The silvery, coal-black scales that covered the muscular forelegs; the violet-gray claws that pierced into the leaf-covered ground. He knew it was there, and he didn't need to see it.
"What're you waitin' for, ya ugly Hound?" The young man shouted irreverently into the crisp autumn air. "Get over here so I can wring your scaly neck. You're interrupting my breakfast!"