Short fantasy fiction
In the General Direction
The snare had been reset, clumsily, by whoever had taken the game from it. From a distance of ten paces she could see the evidence of meddling with the trap, as well as the absence of her dinner. Whoever had reset it was not a hunter, just a considerate thief. Circling away from the first snare, she could see that the second one, tripped and empty. No fresh meat tonight. She gathered both snares and tucked them into a pouch hanging from her belt.
Shouldering her pack, she turned back to the game trail. The sun was nearly down, casting long shadows across the forest floor. Traveling at an angle toward the setting sun, more north than west, she had no destination in mind other than a sheltered spot to spend the night. A rabbit for dinner would have been nice, but the dried meat in her pack, stewed over the fire with some spruce tips would make a hot meal.
Within half an hour she found a tall spruce with long branches draped to the ground all around. She ducked under the overhang of boughs and found the duff underneath dry and springy near the trunk of the big tree. She set to work, clearing the duff away from a space for her fire. Scraping the dead needles and branches down to bare dirt, she came upon a stash of hazelnuts, hidden by an absent-minded squirrel last fall. Now the double handful would be her breakfast. She set them carefully aside. She made her small fire close enough to the trunk to avoid catching the overhang on fire. The smoke found its way up through the branches of the tall tree to dissipate high in the forest canopy.
She poured water from her water-skin into her small cooking pot, shredded a few strips of dried meat from her pack and seasoned it with tender new-growth tips from the tree. By the time her stew was ready, full darkness had fallen. She made a hole at the edge of the fire for the hazel nuts and covered them over with dirt and embers. Spreading her sleeping mat she covered herself with her traveling cloak. Her camp was cozy, her belly full and she slept easily.
The howling of wolves accompanied by the smell of roasting meat woke her. She came awake instantly alert but confused. Wolves rarely cooked their prey. She slipped from her cozy nest to the edge of the overhanging boughs. The wolves were close. Two or three from what she could hear, not silently stalking prey, but having cornered it, they now discussed what to do next. She felt for the hilt of the slim knife at the top of her boot, and edged her way from under cover.
Once free of the concealment of the tree, she saw the winking light of fire through the trees. Someone had camped in a small clearing about 100 strides from where she stood. The fire looked fairly large and she could see the silhouettes of two or three slinking shapes lurking at the edge of the light.
Keeping downwind, she crept closer. After thirty or forty strides, she saw the man standing by the fire. The aroma of roasting meat grew even stronger. She circled around keeping the fire between her and the wolves, moving as close to the fire as she dared. The bare carcass of a rabbit, head and feet still attached hung suspended over the fire on a branch. Meat juices snapped and flared in the flame.
A small man in a monk's robes crouched by the fire, one hand on the branch that held the meat. He was obviously not prepared to face wolves, and at the same time, not willing to give up his dinner. His round face reflected the firelight, his eyes darting nervously from one canine to the other. They stared intently at the man, yipping to each other, wanting the meat but not trusting the leaping flames.
From the shadows, she spoke, "They want the rabbit."
The man flinched at the sound of her voice, but kept his eyes on the wolves who now sat in a semi-circle around his camp.
"It's my dinner," he said.
"Give it to them."
He leaned to the side, trying to keep one eye on the wolves and still find the source of the voice from the woods.
"I'm hungry," he said. "I haven't eaten in three days."
"Hungrier than three wolves?"
"Blast," he said.
"Yeah," she said. "Give it to them anyway."
The man stood for a moment, clearly torn between his hunger and threat of the wolves. He was short, stocky, his hair receding from his forehead, but long in the back and gathered into a queue. Obviously, against what passed for his better judgment, he reached for the spit over the fire.
"Toss it as far as you can," she advised.
He threw it in a sweeping arc over the heads of the waiting wolves, sailing the rabbit and the spit into the bushes behind them. The three wolves spun, leaping over each other in their haste, and followed the spit into the brush.
She stepped into the light while he watched the mad rush after his dinner. "You had better come with me before they decide they want seconds."
The man spun to face her, dejection clear in his face. He tilted his head back to look her over. In the firelight, he saw angles and shadows. Her nose, mouth and chin all straight lines, eyes hidden, jaw an angled slash. Her hair hung in an unraveling braid over her shoulder. She stood a full head taller than he, slender, clad in a leather jerkin over a homespun shirt, leather trousers tucked into knee boots. A leather belt around her hips sagged with the weight of assorted pouches, pockets and purses. He noticed the hilt of a large knife in a sheath, a sling and a small coil of braided leather rope.
"But, I'm still hungry."
"I have food."
"Truly. Dried mutton, a little dried pink fish, and some nuts."
He pressed his hand against his stomach which rumbled loudly.
"Let's go," she insisted. "One rabbit is not going to take care of three wolves for very long."
The dry branches he used for fuel had burned quickly to ash. She picked up his water-skin and ignoring his sputters of protes, dowsed the embers. Shoving the water skin into his hands, she took one last look around, picked up his little cooking pot from the edge of the fire, walked off into the forest. He could follow or he could be wolf entre. After a few seconds of hesitation, he came crashing after her.
She walked in the opposite direction from her camp, then circled back around toward it. She didn't want the wolves following a direct trail back to where she slept. They walked through a small clearing she had noticed earlier where patch of meadow mint would help disguise their scent. Back at the spruce tree, she ducked under the overhanging boughs into her camp.
The man crawled noisily after her and looked around. The small light of the fire flared as she added some dry twigs, sending shadows dancing and stretching away into the darkness.
"Cozy," he said.
She removed the cooking pot from her pack, added water from her water-skin and set it on the stones in the fire. Then she pulled her pack forward and fished out a strip of dried meat. "Eat it slowly," she warned.
From one of many pockets she pulled a handful of meadow mint and added it to the water just as it started to boil. She set the pot aside to steep.
He gave all of his attention to the meat. Heeding her advice, he nibbled at the food, chewing and savoring each bite with exaggerated enjoyment.
A last he paused enough to say, "Thank you. This is the best thing I've ever tasted." He sighed a bit dramatically. "And for the wolves, too. All I could think was how much I wanted that rabbit."
She smiled and handed him the pot of tea. He took a long breath of steam as if to clear his head, and then sipped the hot brew. "And that's good too," he marveled.
"Where's your bed roll?"
He shook his head, his mouth working on another bite of meat. "Don't have one," he mumbled. "I sleep on the ground. I do have the water skin, though, and a cooking pot."
"And how long have you been on the trail?"
"I never found a trail," he said seriously, wiping his fingers on his robe. "There was supposed to be one, but I never found a sign of it. I'd say I've been walking for about a week."
"You've been sleeping on the ground for a week and haven't eaten in three days?
He shrugged his shoulders. "When the Brothers told me the god would provide, I suppose they didn't mean it literally."
"The Brothers?" The hairs lifted on her arms.
"Brothers of The Order of Mystery," he replied. "They, ah , sent me on my way from the monastery. On a quest, you see, to find myself."
Religious orders tended to give her shivers. "Without a bedroll?"
He shrugged and finished the tea. "Their way of helping me find my own way."
"Well, I have one, and I'm going to crawl back into it. Saving monks from wolves in the middle of the night is tiring work." She pointed to the pile of duff scraped away from the fire. "If you make a nest in that you will stay warm, mostly." While the little man set about making himself a bed, she broke green branches from the spruce and banked the little fire. She slipped the long knife from her boot, snagged her pack for a pillow and holding them both close, turned her face toward the fire and went back to sleep.
Just before dawn she rose and stirred the fire to bring embers to the top of the ashes. Adding small dry twigs and setting the monk's cooking pot--after a good scouring with spruce needles--on the embers to heat water. It was nice to have two pots, one for tea and one for cooking. She dug the hazel nuts out of the ashes and set them aside to cool.
The monk crawled out of his nest of needles while she rolled up her felt sleeping mat and secured it to her pack. The knife slipped neatly back into the sheath in her boot. The monk disappeared behind the trunk of the big tree and reappeared just as she added the last of the meadow mint to the boiling water. He squatted by the fire and accepted a portion of the roasted nuts. They cracked and munched the nuts in companionable silence and took turns sipping from the tea pot.
"What do people call you?" The monk brushed nut shells from his lap into his hand and added them to the fire.
"I am known as Walker," she said, adding her collection of nut shells to the flames.
"You keep a good camp, Walker," he said. "I'm grateful for your hospitality."
She passed him the last sip of tea since it was his pot, and watched as he poured it onto the ground. "And we are grateful to the goddess for her good shelter and food."
"What was that for?" Walker asked.
"A thanksgiving offering for the gifts we receive from the goddess."
"If there is such a thing as the goddess, I always figured it's a better to put any gifts to actual use, not dump them out on the ground." Walker poured the contents of her water skin on to the fire, dousing the flames and stirring the ashes to get all the embers.
"But," the monk argued, "isn't that a waste of water, pouring it onto the fire like that?"
Walker shouldered her pack and tucked the empty water-skin inside it. "The waste would be letting that fire get large enough to burn the tree and maybe the forest along with it." She ducked under the overhang of the tree and he followed.
The sun was beginning to lighten the day, the air cool and damp, and the shadows under the trees still dark and long toward the west. For the first time the travelers saw each other in the light of day. She looked again at the short stocky middle aged man with a receding hairline dressed in monk's robes. He was a study in browns, hair, eyes, and robe, all in shades of sienna. His round face had a contented look, his eyes kind and his mouth bracketed with good humor lines. Around his neck, she saw a leather cord with a bit of bone threaded on. The top of his head reached her shoulder. His chest was broad, his bare legs muscular and sturdy. He wore open sandals and his feet were decidedly grubby.
Her pack with cooking pot tucked inside and sleeping pad strapped across the top hung off one shoulder. Shaking spruce needles from her long cloak, she slung it over the pack and fastened it under her chin.
"What are you called?" she asked.
"I am simply Brother, until I find my true calling."
"Your mother named you that?"
"Yours named you Walker?"
She shrugged at that. They were parting ways anyhow. Names didn't matter. But she was surprised at the tug of regret she felt. Two cooking pots had been nice.
"Where do you go from here?" he asked.
"Walking," she said. "First, to find water, and then . . ." She shrugged again. She was, after all, just walking.
"Then, I would like to travel with you for a while," Brother said. He slipped the handle of his cooking pot onto his belt and tied it with big knot. "I am not sure of my way just yet, and I need to fill my water-skin also."
"This way, then," Walker said, and turned her back to the new day. "Trails usually lead to water."