Even if the villagers had gasped, Jarren had not heard them as he made his way through the clinging brush and headed deeper into the Pines. He let no fear show on his face as he left, and had no fear on it now, for he let his anger at anything and everything overwhelm him and take control. Fear would come later. He needed to get as far away from those human monsters as possible before dying horribly by the claws and teeth of some wild one.
Jarren never slowed, walking aimlessly and allowing an emotional blindness to push common sense from his mind. He lost track of time, and after a while realization that he was lost sank in and now he faced a danger even his frantic planning had not foreseen. How was he to return now? Even if he got a kill, how would he haul the game to the village before the following morn? Where was the village? He would have cursed himself for his foolishness, but that blind drive had been the stopping factor preventing him using the bow and bringing the chief down like an animal.
It was then that he noticed how numb his legs were, that his feet felt like they were being pricked with tiny white-hot needles, and how his toes seemed to have a dead feeling that for some reason Jarren felt outweighed the other discomforts. He removed his doe-hide boots, seeing his feet swelled and toes an unhealthy bluish hue.
Jarren flexed his fingers, and discovered them through disuse as blue as his toes. Cold sweat ran down his eyes and cooled his chest as he looked around at where he had stopped. Just like at the edge of the forest, the massive pine trees seemed to have no limit. Trunk after thick trunk fractured his view of surroundings, their appearance so similar that Jarren had to rub his eyes to keep from thinking he was seeing double.
It was now that fear began to take hold, its icy fingers turning the young man’s head this way at that at noises that weren’t there and making things that flitted within the corner of his eyes. Once again he felt more helpless than an infant, for even they had someone to look out for them. All he had was the neglecting villagers and a chief who brings uneasiness to every place he goes.
Maybe it was better like this, came a doubting voice in Jarren’s head, none of them wanted you back at the village, so what better thing to happen than for you to disappear in the Pines? Why not just sit here and let your next life bring comforts stolen from you in this one? Why not—
He didn’t mean to shout, but the voice in his head made him more uneasy than he had ever felt in his life. He didn’t want to believe a word of it; wanted only to be left in peace at the cabin and live his pathetic little life. But no . . . that was not how it worked. Not now and not ever. The way of life that had governed his people demanded that every male on his fifteenth birthday be put through this rite of passage, be abandoned in the Pine Forest to collect meat and bring it back to the village for others to feed upon. Traditionally none of the first kill is fed to the hunter, for he must learn that his life will demand many sacrifices for the welfare of the village, and therefore must go without when necessary to feed those who could not provide for themselves.
These thoughts burned his mind like a fire, throwing bitterness into the stewpot and taking a turn with the ladle. The young man had to control himself, though. He had to. Jarren forced himself to lean against one of the massive pines and collect his thoughts and emotions. The day had only begun, and he could not have been walking for more than an hour. Why, then was it so dark? So eerie?
It was like nothing Jarren had ever felt before; something that crept into his subconscious and lurked like a sentient being. There was no noise, and so every breath the young man took seemed amplified out of proportion. Every adjustment his foot made in the dead, dried pine needles boomed through his thoughts. Every sound was a wolf with gleaming fangs, a bear with knives for claws.
But if there was no noise, were the fuel for his nightmares imaginary as well? It did not seem like any life could be supported here. Even deer breathe, and Jarren was sure that such a noise would break the Pine’s stillness as fully as his own beating heart. His muscles were tensed, but Jarren had still seen nothing to worry over. The longbow in his hand was strung already, and the young man did not even notice that his nervous hand had brought one precious arrow onto the string.
That is, not until he saw a shadow dart between two trees and an arrow, his own arrow, soaring swiftly from his hands and disappearing into the gloom. The realization that he had just lost one of his five arrows had not yet entered his mind before Jarren caught himself continuing to stare hard after the fleeting shade. He stood frozen for a few moments, not daring to believe that what he had seen was real. It had to be his imagination. There was no other way.
Do you hear me, Jarren? You didn’t see him. He wasn’t there!
Yet even so the young man could not help but drift his hand to the dirk resting upon his light hide belt.