The Hunter had reached the end of the road.
Though he had managed to ride north for two days now, the river had shrunk to little more than a torrent, and he was far enough from the sea that the influence of the Wicked Fae easily overwhelmed any conventional attempt to contain it.
Tall grey pines shot at the cloudy sky, their outlines covered by crimson growth. Red sap dripped down their branches and formed small stalactites on the ground. The Tide was mounting.
Some were already moving. Shaking just a tiny bit, like an egg about to break.
He gave them a wide berth.
Still, though the forest was not yet thick enough to impede any passage, it’d be dangerous to pay little mind to its warnings.
He released his grip on the sled’s reins and let the old engine slow down and fall into the tiniest of hums as it came to a stop right at the centre of a meadow.
Air smelled like fresh resin, and it carried a distinct scent of too-sweet peaches.
Yes, it was definitely time to lay down for a while.
The Hunter stood up and took a walk, stretching his back. All those hours driving almost drove him mad.
Once Verna said that Erepeople used to do it all the time. But then again Verna also believed the war against the Fae could still be won.
“Good luck with that…” he hummed, taking a long look at the treeline. The crimson sap was pretty much everywhere, but he could see almost no thorns. It should be relatively safe until he set up everything he needed.
First thing first, a fire.
He walked back to the sled and produced a thick faggot of dry tinder that had been caught way to the south. It should burn without invoking anything’s, or anybody’s anger.
As he prepared the stone circle where to set it up, something hard and cold pushed against his sternum and he found he had forgot to give back one of the crude firebombs from Trefiumi.
He put it away. Useless load, but couldn’t exactly lit the fire with that. Rookie mistake.
No, it took him a long time and more than some patience. Wood was dry, but the air was humid and there was no sun he could use to lit the fire up. It was a tiresome job but little by little, by scratching together stick against stick, the first few sparks and then flames began to lap at the kindling. A whiff of smoke made him cough.
Clearing his throat, he sat down by the fire for a bit, making sure it grew strong enough. More often than not, a strong gale would come out of nowhere to extinguish it at the last moment.
Little by little all the noises disappeared, save for the crackling of the fire. Shadows lengthened and colors grew dull. The same oppressive presence he felt when mounting guard in Trefiumi came back, a sort of dull pressure in the air that made every breath harder.
His rifle was still tied to his sled.
“No need for that,” he said to the forest. “I’m just here as a guest and I’ll pay the price required.”
The pressure did not relent.
From the edge of the trees, where sunlight was dimmer, came the echoes of a low growl.
He bit his lip.
He had planned to do this later in the evening, and maybe after a quick dinner, but this was a warning he couldn’t ignore.
He stood up and began to disrobe. Off came his coat, the leather straps and hooks holding most of his tools together, and the steel chainmail that he had asked Arguta to make. He smiled at that. She’s probably be offended he did not regard it strong enough to protect him, but he was getting ready for a hearing, not to get stabbed.
Though stabbing would soon be part of the bargain.
Half-naked, he let out a long breath, as long as he could. When his lungs began to burn, he slowly breathed in, savoring the scent of peaches and the tinge of resin and damp earth.
He opened his arms, displaying the cicatrized map of his body. Around his neck and wrists he still bore featureless skin, but the rest was a mess of wound tissue, scars upon scars upon scars, as if an old tree had covered him with its pale bark, sucking out every drop of pigmentation and leaving him wrinkled and creased.
“I come here in peace,” he started. “I rid myself of iron. I bring no salt. I have been asked to fulfill a geas, and this demands I trample over leaf and root, I enter the realm of the Queen of Thorns while she draws breath.”
A pause. The pressure did not ease. In fact, it felt like some unseen eye pressed against his neck, peered through his muscles and his veins.
“As proof, I offer my blood in payment.”
He unhooked the only weapon he still bore, a short obsidian knife, and unsheathed it. The blade’s edge seemed to burn as flames glistened all over it.
Then he set it against his chest and began to carve.
No matter how hard the scar tissue had grown and re-grown over the years, the glass blade did not care for such silly things as leather-hard skin. It gladly bit through the flesh – he tried to stifle a grimace, but his hands still trembled while he slowly carved a circle around his chest.
“I ask for safe passage,” he panted. “For each drop, a mile. For each drop, a night.”
Then he carved another symbol inside the circle. Two angles, one facing left, one facing right.
One thorn for the dawn, one for the sunset. “If this offering pleases you, grant me a swift and trustworthy stride through the Old Country.”
The forest spoke no answer.
With each heartbeat, a little more of his blood sputtered out, falling in rivulets, painting his scarred torso crimson.
He blinked. Beyond pain, a certain kind of weariness crept in. Blood loss started to take its toll as drops kissed the keen blades of grass.
A creaking noise came from all around. Shady forms and figures appeared behind the circle of trees, taller than he was, taller than any human ought to be, but they stayed far and indistinct.
Whispers in a language that sounded like grinding ice echoed around, grating on his ears.
He blinked again, breathed in some air – the smell of peaches now ever stronger. Sweet, too sweet, like flesh left rotting under the sun.
He did not speak again. If the Wicked Fae heard him (and how could she not, when he came stomping and yelling right at her door?) she was taking her time to answer.
Shadows lengthened again in a kind of drowsy dance.
He kept his back straight and his blood kept pumping out.
And the figures around him crept ever closer.
Each breath more painful than the last, like having needles piercing his flesh each time.
The fire died its slow death.
When the last ember whiffed out in smoke and only the ominous glow of a leaden twilight separated treetops from the sky, a single drop of his life fluids floated in the air.
It rose until it was level with his weary eyes.
His wounds closed, his skin patching over itself with a sound like ripping leather.
Blood calling upon blood, it turned into a sphere. He saw his own reflection upon its dark surface.
It burst out in a shower of droplets. They fell on the ground forming the picture of a perfect circle, but only half of it was red. The rest only showed the round outline.
His blood evaporated in white mist, leaving no trace.
Then any strength left him and he fell on his naked back, groaning where an unseen stone bit into his back.
At least it didn’t cut through. Spirits knew he had lost enough blood already.
She had granted him time until the next half-moon. Twelve days.
But he had been under similar constraints before. And surely hunting this girl down wouldn’t be as hard, would it?
Pic by hiveworkshop