Another night another dream but always this. He is stalked. Still no names, still no plot.
Feeling mostly affectionate and concerned mostly with eating and drinking
Mindset: Introvert - Negative - Uncertain - Thinking
Time: The Past; Primary Sense: Touch; Us and Them: Them
29 minutes at 54 words per minute
The word hung in his mind overriding the feelings that he usually had at this time of the cycle of trees and forests and leaves. There was no denying it, no denying the fear that the concept brought to his mind or the sudden quickening of his pulse at the mere idea that it was true. Evidence was everywhere he cared to look, the incessant birdsong had shifted in pitch and timbre from warning that a human was abroad to the gossip that something was afoot. Ignore that at your peril, the words came back to haunt him.
And there was the rustling, or the absence of it, in the undergrowth amongst the bare branches reaching up into the heavy sky awash with clouds fit to burst with snow and ice and cold. Nothing was coming close, they all sensed the danger with him and they were not afraid of anything he brought to bear.
Slim pickings, little growth, and a longer snap of cold that he remembered so that the usual food sources for this area of the woodland for this part of his own wide journey were simply not there. No chicory or chickweed, no root or tuber, no eggs in the nests of birds in the heavy crowns or the buds of new life blossoming on the trees as they reclothed themselves for the glory of sunshine and dryer weather. Only the feeling that whatever was doing the stalking was closer now and was probably not human.
When he had been left to his own devices, when his mentor pronounced him ready, he had been keen to leave that warm embrace and go about his own business, to taste the freedom and the solitude of the hunter and news bringer. His recall, his ability to associate one thing with another and create patterns resulted in the skill of story-telling. He could move people and he could track the dynamics of a group through simple observation. Nothing he could do would change them but, in knowing, he found that many sought his counsel. That was enough to tell him that paranoia was a useful trait and that had made him careful when travelling, and that may yet be his saving grace. But it was not a human mind that now had him sighted and tracked, of that he was certain.
A human mind would be weighing advantage and trying to ascertain when he was at his weakest through observation but this, this was different somehow. Like the thing doing the stalking was less familiar with humankind and was, instead, trying to assess his behaviour as would one that did not know anything about his kind. It was best summed up by the fact that he had slept on the floor, rather than his usual tree-top nesting, the night before in order to draw out those that followed him, keeping his belongings separate and foregoing the usual ritual soaking of his circle with piss. That would have tipped a human mind that he was aware of them and would have called them forth to deal and to talk, to exchange both threats and seek compromises, but there had been no approach. His overt display of willingness to talk had been ignored.
If a human wished him harm, his mentor had taught him well on that point, then there was not much else he could have done. But, in that case, they would have waited until he was sleeping to make their own plans and the morning would have been met with a careful ambush or clue as to his follower. This morning, crisp and cold, brought nothing of the sort. Looping round over his path the previous night brought little in the way of tracks or obvious spoor. Whatever stalked him was not something he had come across before, but there were clues in the branches, snagged on the jagged edges of wooden hands rising in supplication and on the leaves with horns of the evergreen trees and shrubs that exploited the dormant canopy. Here there were hairs, there the stink of dung and there again the shine of new urine. No, it was no human that stalked him, and there was the unsettling possibility that whatever it was was not alone.
Standing now on a well-used deer path cut through two groves of impossibly old trees, trees that would have been old even as the mountains rose about them, he was certain at least of his need to see what it was that caused him to breathe heavily but carefully. Even the steam from his breath was dangerous now and the sweat from his exertions nothing more than a signal to those that followed to track and deliberate. Cape stowed in his pack, he leapt to the lowest bough and scrambled into the canopy once more, careful to avoid the saplings and the squirrel nests for now, and out onto the main thoroughfares above ground. If there were hair and fur on the lower branches beneath his progress of the previous day then it was unlikely his pursuers had the ability to climb in quite the same way. Perhaps they relied on him being on the ground to pick up his trial. He would put that to the test.
A hole in a trunk, larger than his fist, and he found a cache of chestnuts undisturbed. Thanking the forgetful creature that had collected them, he took enough for his fill, and then scrambled up another layer of branches: emboldened. His luck was changing, he had some food now, he had the ability to attack the pangs in his stomach and to concentrate more keenly. Safer in the second canopy layer, amongst the hanging ivy and above the roof of the domes of holly and bramble, he squatted to take stock. Normally there would be berries to be harvested and nests to pillage - eggs enough to fry and eat on rudimentary fires that would attract little attention at this height from a multitude of nests - but there was something not quite right in the balance around him and, though there were nests, the nests were bare.
No point in having a fire, he supposed, but he peeled the chestnuts and chewed the white flesh reflexively, before spitting it out and resolving to wait. Raw nut flesh would work at a push but he wasn't starving yet. There. He heard it. An animal noise, an inhalation that was out of place and the sudden startling of a songbird, a thrush, from the forest floor.
Still, he listened more carefully, the wind was obligingly absent for a moment and he heard the throaty growl below. It was sniffing at the place where he had entered the canopy. A grey form, difficult to measure size from the vantage point he had chosen but a definite muzzle reached the bough he had used and the hind legs carried the weight of the creature well. A second approached, grey against the brown floor, and again on hind legs. Some muffled grunting, like the barks of wolves but missing the guttural quality of their voice, and the second retreated out of sight. Realisation. These were humans, but they were like none he had encountered before. A pack.
Pack? If they were a pack then they were hunting and if they were hunting then they had chosen him. And if they had chosen him then they knew not the ways of the forest. They knew not the ways that he had known from birth nor those that he had been taught by his mentor. That meant two impossible things: they were from beyond the forest and they were using him to learn about the ways of those from the forest. They were not just stalking him but they were hunting him as one hunts prey to learn rather than to eat. Except this time he was the hare.
But he was no hare. A hare was, at heart, dumb and stupid - it followed the patterns that it needed to avoid the predators that were of greater concern than humans and was easily outwitted and out-thought. They had observed him but he had his first advantage, they did not use the trees. Likely they thought in two dimensions, they would think of the land and they would think of the trunks but they were not familiar with the canopies and the branches.
The first, the one with the muzzle that reached the bough, seemed satisfied and began moving forward again. Still no move to enter the canopy and still no look upwards. Let them see him up here, they did not climb and the bows that he could now discern would be of little use to them in this new game. He had invited them to talk in language that they did not understand and they had not decided to show their hand. He would try again, but from a position of safety in his curiosity.