As the sun gives birth to a new day, I can hardly feel my limbs. I’ve been running most of the night. I slow down to a walk. My dead loved ones’ voices speak to me as I dream, but I never see their faces. I reach for them in the fog, I search for them in the weightless place I’m trapped in, but I can’t see them. With a groan, I wake up beneath a bright sun. Clouds move in to shield me from the flaming intensity. I dig into the sack for my canteen and drink as much water as I dare. I have to save some. Black stars fleck my vision as I stand too quickly. I should have sought rest under a tree, but exhaustion took over my logic after moving all night. I start again on my trek north – the same direction that the river flows. I should be meeting it again soon.
The sun dips close to the horizon. I’ll walk most of the night then find a shaded place to sleep in the morning.
I think of the people back at camp. They probably discovered the storyteller’s body well after sunrise. Even if they wanted to seek vengeance for her murder, I am hours ahead of them. They’ll never catch up to me. A smile slowly spreads across my face. They tried to forget the sacrifice of the men who gave their lives for them; now they’ll have to face death again. I killed their precious Almaz. She made her mark, but it cost her her life.
“You deserve to rot, bitch.”
I smile at the memory of when I stood over her. Once she stood so proud and tall, but now she lies dead in the dirt. A reminder that all people are little more than the earth that they walk on.
When I find the river again, I stop to fill my canteen and wash my face. I seek out a long stick and fashion it into a spear. I take the hunting blade out of my pack and attach it to the shaft. I wander downstream and catch two red carp. By sundown, my meal is cooking over a modest fire. A herd of deer walk past, unbothered by my presence. They move elegantly across the shallow part of the river. An image of Almaz stepping lithely down the gully flashes across my mind. I throw a stone angrily at the water, which startles the last deer in line to run across the tributary. The wench doesn’t deserve to be a part of my memories. She’s dead and her stories have died with her.
“May she be tormented in hell for taking the glory that should have been given to others,” I declare.
The strong never need to brag. That was how I knew she was weak. I never wanted recognition for fulfilling my duty in the war. I just wanted people to appreciate our sacrifice. Instead, I was treated like a ghost at the camp, conscious, but barely living.
I eat my meal quickly then kick dirt on the flames to put them out. A series of distant yelps pierce the air. Just when I wonder what sort of creatures could utter such a pathetic sound, a chorus of howls erupt. Wolves. I pick up my pack and walk along the river. I didn’t realize the predators made such whiny sounds, but they must be upset about something. A tickling sensation fills my stomach as I imagine the far off places I’ll see in the coming weeks. The world is mine to explore now. I am free from the depression that once held me in its grasp. It’s a wonder I didn’t leave the camp sooner.
Howls fill the air again as I trudge through a boggy area. They are getting louder rather than further away. Muttering a curse, I jump up on a large rock to escape from the black mud all over my shoes. There must be better footwear out there somewhere, perhaps at the place by the lake. I nearly forget about the wolves as I walk begrudgingly with black mud sticking to my feet. Yelping erupts surprisingly close to me. I stop and scan my surroundings.
“When you walk into the woods at night and hear the howls of wolves, it is best to climb up the closest tree you can find.”
My scalp tightens as a chill rushes down my spine. I have my spear, but that won’t keep a pack of hungry predators at bay. I rush over to a tree that has thick branches hovering low enough for me to reach. Tying my pack around my waist and dropping the spear, I grab onto the branch with both hands and pull myself up. I balance on the branch and climb up to the next one as the howls and yelps become louder. Panting, I stop on the third branch and look down. Several four-legged shadowy creatures erupt into the area.
“You can’t get me, you stupid beasts!” I yell.
Leaning against the gnarly trunk, I listen to them whimper and scratch at the bottom of the tree. I know they can’t get me, but the realization that I was moments away from being eaten alive sickens me. The dark sky slowly lightens until the sun’s first rays create a beautiful orange glow along the horizon. I watch the sunrise and wish I was alone in the field to enjoy it. I look down and meet the gaze of a black wolf with yellow eyes. It bares its white teeth at me, its gaze is empty.
I dig into my pack and find an apple. I eat it slowly as the wolves move around below. I’ll sit up here for days if I have to, but I know there’s no way they’ll wait that long – no matter how hungry they are. Soon they’ll figure out that I won’t be climbing down to offer myself as a meal for them. I nod off a few times, always waking up to my limbs jerking. The branch I’m sitting on is wide enough to balance my body on, but the bark is rough and it hurts my ass. I close my eyes and think of my childhood home to pass the time. It was the only house for miles in that area surrounded by golden wheat fields. Life was simple then, but rumours of violent bandits looting and killing country families caused my parents to seek safety in numbers. When we moved on and settled at the camp, it was supposed to be safer there. First the fever hit and everyone over the age of seventy passed away along with some younger people. Both my mother and father were among those we lost. No one could have known that a great battle would happen soon after.
“One tragedy always seems to follow another,” I mutter. “It never ends no matter what we do to try to stop it.”
All the young men were so enthusiastic to fight for our land, including me. I remember feeling no fear as we marched off to fight. We fought, because it was the right thing to do. I wonder if it’s better to fall in battle so you don’t have to go on feeling guilty about those who died. For some reason, fate chose me to survive. I’ll find my way in the world somehow, even if that means I’ll have to do it alone.
A breeze rustles the leaves of the trees, kissing my glistening skin. The wolves still wait for me below. They’re banking on the hope that I’ll fall from the tree, but it’s not going to happen. I rub my arms then wrap them around myself. It’s going to be a long day.