Note: This one is pretty long (albeit the payoff is more than worth it). I've included about the first 2000 words here with the rest available via PDF.
The Hunters and the Hunted
By Patrick Christensen
I had already known that even in the best case scenario this weekend was going to suck, however fleeing for my life before the Wild Hunt took my expectations of disaster and laughed at them for not being hardcore enough all the while rolling them for their lunch money.
Normally you couldn't convince me to venture into a forest for love or money, except I'm here because my dad guilted me into it and bought me a sweet new desktop as the lure for his trap. Let me try again, you can get me to wander into a forest with love and money but you better have a goddamn lot of both.
My dad and I get along great I swear, it's just, I'm a geek and my dad... isn't. In fact my dad is an avid outdoorsman, which makes us something akin to oil and water. Mostly we accept each other as the flawed individuals we are, but occasionally we try to get one another to appreciate our hobbies which is why my dad has seen all of Firefly and I can light a campfire using steel and flint. Don't judge me, I resisted as best I could, but some knowledge just seeps in.
Anyway, when I moved to California for college I swore that I was done with nature. Trees? Who needs 'em. Fresh air? Overrated. Sunlight? Bah, at least indoors I'm at less risk of skin cancer. My dad on the other hand gave me several recommendations for good hikes in the local area. I ignored him, but over the years his hints became more insistent until last week he finally took action.
I'd just graduated this year with a comp-sci major and managed to get a job in an electronics repair shop. Yeah, not the most glamorous use of a degree, but it was a job and I'm kinda desperate moneywise. Fucking student loans.
So by chance my birthday was last week, only a couple weeks after entering the workforce and my dad decided to buy me something nice as a combo birthday/graduation thing. That something nice was a new high end desktop. Okay my dad didn't actually buy the computer, he told me to pick what I wanted and he paid for it. Neither of us are idiots. Anyway, along with my nice new toy he bought me top end camping gear, I mean tent, backpack, portable stove, the works. Now just when I was about to smile and politely put the gear in a closet until I could throw it out my dad looked at me and said, "Son I'm proud of you, you've started out on your own and as much as it pains me to say you don't need to rely on me anymore. This is a moment every parent knows is coming, but when it arrives we aren't ready for it."
Crap, I was tearing up a little. I mean sure I'm not really an emotional guy and all, but he was looking so lost as he was saying this I couldn't just look away. Embarrassedly I shuffled my feet a little and started to mumble something about how he'd always be part of my life, even if we didn't see each other quite as much when he looked at me and said.
"I hope the gifts I've given you remind you of me and you put them all to good use."
The slight emphasis on all gave away the game. He was guilting me! On my birthday! I was preparing to angrily tell him off for pushing his expectations on me when I reconsidered. Damn it, this was my dad, the guy who went along with my hobbies just to find a way to connect with me. The guy who actually sat down with my D&D group and gamed with us for a session just to understand what I was doing with my time; which, while hugely embarrassing for me at the time, was actually pretty cool of him to have done.
I looked my dad in the eye and said, "You got it dad."
That was all it took, some things can be communicated with only a look and a tone of voice. My dad graciously acknowledged his victory by not mentioning it any further. The rest of the day passed and we made small talk until it was time for him to go.
A week later I'd looked through some possible hikes and selected a two day backpack through a trail not far from where the I-5 meets the 89 in Castle Crags State Park. So it was going to pretty much be: drive in, hike for half a day, set up camp, spend a night outdoors, hike out, go home and get blitzed. My dad had actually bought equipment for both me and my friends on the idea that misery loves company. I wouldn't actually mind company as a night alone in the woods wasn't all that appealing, but when I explained the situation to them they just laughed at me.
Okay fine, if our positions had been reversed I would've found the whole thing hilarious, but I wouldn't have laughed in their faces. Probably.
So maybe my friends and I aren't the outdoors type and expecting them to join me in my exile was a bit much. Still they're good people as evidenced when my buddy Mike expressed his concern for my safety.
"Hey, haven't a lot of people gone missing on hiking trails lately?" He asked, "maybe you shouldn't go out right now. I could see you being abducted on your own and butt-raped by hobos or something."
"Don't worry about it," I replied. Sure it was cool he was worried about me in his own way, but he was questioning my manhood and that couldn't be allowed to stand. "It's the beginning of hiking season, there's always some idiot who overestimates his orienteering prowess and gets his dumb ass lost."
"Alright," he sighed, "but you better not get bit by a werewolf."
I laughed. Yeah Mike may be a bit rough around the edges, but I know he'll look out for me. Not enough to, you know, actually go camping with me, but he'll be there in spirit.
"You're way too much of a wuss to be a werewolf. You wouldn't do anything cool if you were turned. If something that awesome happened it should happen to me."
Yeah, I don't know why I hang out with him either.
So Saturday found me dragging my skinny carcass up a trail carrying the weight of the world on my back. Alright so maybe it was more like 60 pounds, I'm not exactly a bodybuilder; anything over 20 pounds took effort.
The hike was like every other pointless expedition I've been on. Lots of exercise punctuated by repetitive scenery. Look a tree! Some sort of squirrel thing I'm pretty sure isn't actually a squirrel! Another tree! Excitement!
Fortunately I managed to straggle into a campsite before daylight was completely gone, nothing sucks more than trying to set up camp in the dark. I even managed to get my tent set up before nightfall. Hah! A triumph of man over his environment! My stomach grumbled to remind me that I'd been burning energy lugging Sisyphus' stone on my back all day so I started making an extra large pot of pre-made stew. Iron chef I am not.
She appeared just as the stew was ready to eat. From the moment I saw her I knew there was something about her that drew me to her. That would ensure I would follow her every whim, even if it had me braving the depths of hell, just that she might look at me with favor or perhaps turn her smile my way. Perhaps it was the way the firelight reflected in her warm brown eyes giving the impression of overflowing vitality. It could have been her shy smile that looked like it might either flee or embolden itself into a different aspect. Mayhap it was that her every movement flowed with an otherworldly grace. Or maybe it was because she was half naked.
I'm a guy, sue me.
For a second I thought I was hallucinating because there is no way any sane person would wear what she was wearing. Her outfit, and I shit you not, was a medium length skirt and a short top, what's the word for it? Oh yeah, a jerkin. Both of which were made entirely from animal skin. When I say that I don't mean she was wearing an ensemble of fur or leather. I mean someone, probably her, had hunted down small four legged critters, killed them, skinned the little bastards, and stitched their dead hides together into what I could only describe as an Animal Rights Activist's worst nightmare using what I strongly suspected was sinew. I also suspect she hand-sewed it together herself; the stitching was uneven causing the hides to push together and pull apart creating a tapestry of gaps that revealed tantalizing glimpses of her bare flesh.
She drifted slowly into the light of my fire and asked, "Would you mind if I shared your fire?"
Alright, was she suspicious? Possibly. Was she crazy? Probably. Was she hot? Definitely! Decision made I stood and welcomed her, "Fair lady be welcome at my camp, for it is truly fortunate I am to share such a wonderful evening with one so beautiful as you. Please find a... rock and be seated."
Gah, okay not the smoothest beginning. I'm a little out of my depth when it comes to the opposite sex. My strategy in these situations is to be as dorkishly amusing as possible in the hopes that chicks would find me charming enough to stay around and hopefully go from there. It wasn't exactly the best plan, but it was what I had and now it was making me sound like the lead of a bad romance novel.
"A gentleman!" She exclaimed, "I've been forestbound for some time now and most I approach aren't so kind as you, it was what made me so cautious in approaching your camp." She smiled as she dragged a rock to the fire. Whoa! She chose a large one for her seat, weak she was not.
So apparently when a crazy chick approaches you from nowhere at night, talking like you grew up in a Renfaire was the way to go. Learn something new every day I guess. I was about to reply in the same vein as I had started when the act of sitting teased open a slight gap in her skirt around her waist and I found my attention riveted by what was revealed. Or more accurately what wasn't revealed, for one second I got a flash of thigh and nothing else. I think she wasn't wearing underwear.
I tore my gaze up to her face, fortunately she was looking at the stew instead of at me. That was good because I'm pretty sure gazing at a woman's crotch like you have x-ray vision pretty much precludes any chance you have of dancing the horizontal tango. My thoughts raced, I hadn't seen any cloth through the gap in that one instant but maybe she was simply wearing a thong or something skimpy like that. On the other hand, what if she was starkers under there? Maybe if I played this right I would have the opportunity to find out for sure.
Quickly to make up for my slight preoccupation I offered, "Um, I'd offer the rest of the stew since you seem hungry, but I, uh, don't have any extra bowls or eating utensils."
"That's no problem!" She exclaimed happily and proceed to grab the pot and eat from it with her bare hands.
Okay that was unusual. The pot was off the fire, but it should still be hot enough to burn. I guess it wasn't as she wasn't screaming and flailing her hands about, instead she was sitting there devouring stew as if it was her last meal on Earth. Still it wasn't weird enough for me to ask her to leave. To be fair she could have walked in and announced she was the sovereign queen of the moon and then proceeded to attempt to find out what this thing humans call love is from me and it still wouldn't be weird enough for me to ask her to leave. Actually if that was how things went tonight I'd be completely okay with it.
I was just finishing my portion, watching her eat may have been fascinating but it grew awkward after a bit, when she slurped the last from her cupped hands and looked up at me. Realizing I had seen her lapse of etiquette she immediately grew embarrassed. She coughed a bit looked, down at her hands, seemed to decide that since she'd already lost it she might as well continue on, and licked them clean.
"I'm really sorry about that." She apologized to me, "It's been so long since I last had cooked food I forgot myself. Most of my meals I take raw. Still it was an inexcusable lapse and as your guest I am ashamed."
Raw? I guess she was some sort of back-to-earth vegetarian or some other such nonsense. Wait, that couldn't be right. She'd eaten the beef along with the veggies so meat probably wasn't an issue. Maybe she lead some kind of hunter-gatherer lifestyle? Eating plants she harvested, hunting animals for food. No, she'd still need to cook the meat, unless... raw? No let's not think about that, back to the situation at hand and no time to spare for what only happened in my imagination. Probably.
"It's no problem, if you were willing to risk cooking your own hands along with the stew just for a meal I can't fault you for it," I allowed. I faltered for a second then recalled basic social graces and scooted forward a bit offering my hand, "My name's Robert by the way."
"Where have my manners gone?" She wondered aloud, "I'm Ruth and it is my pleasure to make your acquaintance." With that she took my proffered hand and shook it firmly.
"So you're a Bobby, huh?" Ruth continued, "So Bobby what brings you up this way?"
"I'm not a Bobby." I explained seriously. I knew it probably didn't seem that big a deal, but I was no Bobby. It's important to stick to your principles a after all. Otherwise you get stuck as Bobby for the rest of your life. "I am a Robert or if you must shorten it, a Rob."
Ruth pouted cutely, "But that makes you sound like such a fuddydud."
Fuddydud? Who used fuddydud anymore? "That's fine, so long as I'm a fuddydud named Robert," I countered. "Anyway I'm up here because-"
"That really doesn't matter," Ruth interrupted, looking sharply at the sky.
Wow, that was rude.
"I hadn't realized the time," she continued, "I was going to talk with you some more, but my friends are going to be waiting if I stay here much longer."
Oh. Yeah of course she had friends, this was starting to feel familiar; a hot girl had walked up to me out of nowhere, smiled a little, and then asked me to do her homework... I mean share my stew. Fuck, I was back in high school! Now would come the part where she was happy to get to know me, but she had things to do as far away from me as possible and she would appreciate it if I didn't tell anyone she had ever talked to me.
"You see my friends and I are having a party out here," damn it here it came, "and I was wondering if you would perhaps like to accompany me?"
There it was- Wait, what? She was actually inviting me? Holy crap I'd never been invited to a party by a hot chick before! Oh man I could actually score tonight, I mean she must like me at least a little if she was inviting me to her party...
In the middle of the forest...
During the dead of night...
Fuck me. I had almost fallen for it. I had almost been stupid enough to walk off into the woods with an obviously crazy woman wearing animal hides. I was an idiot. I looked that treacherous bitch right in the eye and stated as firmly as possible, "I would love to come."
What the hell? Maybe all that sparkled really was gold. Maybe to get what you want in this life you simply had to take what chances would come no matter how insane they seemed. Maybe as she was carving out my heart in sacrifice to her dark gods I'd get a chance to cop a feel.
I mean, you never know, right?...
“The Tome of Bill is copyright Rick Gualtieri. This story is licensed under the Creative Commons as derivative, noncommercial fiction.”
Wow, 60 pages of story set in another slice of Bill's universe. Both ambitious and awesome - a kind of parallel to Bill's own origin story with a really fun twist. Thank you so much for both your entry and for helping me kill an afternoon, Patrick! Your effort is most certainly appreciated.
Have a story idea of your own? There's still about a week left to go in the contest.
So what are you waiting for? Get writing!