I’ve been stalking this guy for at least an hour now, running along the branches overhead to stay out of sight. An intruder to Dubawin, he’s armed with a rifle and seems to carry a sinister intent. On edge, pointed ears up and alert, head on a swivel as he keeps watch of everything around him. When I first started tracking him, I tried to conceal myself, but I soon realized that this man hasn’t thought to look up even once.
I thoughtfully rub my bow, which I’ve slung diagonally down my chest, and think about how easy it would be to end his life. A quick arrow to the back of the neck, and that’s it.
It’d be well within my rights to do so.
We’ve taken care to maintain a sort of balance with Dubawin, often at great personal cost to us. If these foreigners want to experience the forest, or travel to our lands, they need to walk the paths we’ve set out for them. Heading into the thick of the forest like this, it’s irresponsible. What if a beast attacks him, thinking him pray, then he takes out that rifle and injures it? What if he chops down a tree, or starts a fire?
The responsible thing would be to end his life, collect his belongings, then leave his body for the forest.
Yet, I can’t bring myself to do it.
What if he has a reason? What if he got lost? What if his family is desperate for food and hunting is his last resort? If I can get him to leave the forest peacefully, that would be best.
With a nod and a resolute look in my eyes, I silently run forward along the branches. The rich starry sky shines above me, and I position myself on the intruders path. Then, I use a thick tree trunk to crawl down the far side. My fingers and toes dig into the bark with a skill I’ve honed for years, and my lithe muscles flex as I slowly make my approach to the forest floor. When my bare feet gently touch the ground, I press myself flat against the wood and hold my breath as the intruder walks past.
The forest is too dark for him. The leaves up above glow, showering the forest floor in a faint, pale light. It isn’t enough for unadjusted foreigners to grasp the full details of things at a glance. As long as I don’t move, he can’t tell I’m here.
His boots crunch and snap all the leaves and twigs that cover the forest floor, which signal to my ears exactly where he is. Once he’s far enough, I carefully pull away from the tree, take the bow from around my chest, then carefully pull an arrow from its quiver. My hands are steady as I put the arrow in place and pull back the 200 lbs drawstring.
“What are you doing in the forest, friend?” I try to speak with a neutral tone.
The intruder’s ears perk, then he turns while bringing his rifle up.
With perfect adjustments to my aim, I let the arrow loose and it shoots through the air. As his rifle is still pointing to the left, my heavy arrow smashes into the metal barrel, smacking it from the intruder’s hands and knocking it off into a bush.
“Gyah!” He pulls his hands back in shock and surprise. When he turns to face me, I already have another arrow ready to go. The gleam of pale forest light against the polished arrowhead is impossible to miss. His face loses its tension, and he slowly raises his hands, signaling surrender.
“Good,” I say, keeping my aim at his heart. “Now, you know foreigners are supposed to stick to the paths, right?”
He gulps, “I know.”
“We’ve tried to make the paths as obvious and as easy to follow as possible. Tell me, foreigner, does this look like a path to you?”
His lips press together for a moment, “I’m not ‘foreigner’, okay? My name is Zenon.” He gives a slight bow to his head, obviously careful to not move too suddenly. “What’s yours?”
“Alfons. Answer the question, Zenon.”
His ears slump, “it doesn’t look like a path.”
“Then why are you here?”
He takes a second to consider my question, before letting his breath out. “I’m… my village was attacked. By a beast, I mean. From this forest. The beast killed a child, and I’m the best hunter of my village, so… I was sent to track it down and kill it.”
Hmm. If an animal left our forest and hurt a peldak, that would be a problem. The beast would of course have to be put down. “What village?”
“Trebor.” He says without a hint of hesitation.
Trebor is relatively close to Dubawin, but a bit far for a beast to travel on its own.
“What kind of beast was it?”
“It has black and white fur…” he narrows his brow. “Sharp teeth and claws. It… and…” he takes a moment to think, “the end of its tail glowed, I think. I don’t know the names of your forest creatures, sorry.”
“Sounds like a latarniak.” A ferocious, territorial predator with a tail that’s ten feet long. The end of the tail glows a hypnotizing swirl of colors, and uses it to lure prey closer before it strikes. It’s even been known to dig small holes to better hide the glowing ‘lantern’. A child from Dubawin would know better, but I can imagine a foreigner’s kid seeing that light, approaching, then being attacked. “Why didn’t you come to us,” I ask. “The latarniak that attacked your village needs to be killed, but you risk dying or making a mess of Dubawin by going alone.”
“I… have no answer, Mr. Alfons.”
Hm. He’s polite enough, and if his village told him to do it, I guess maybe his pride couldn’t allow him to ask for help.
“…very well, Zenon, was it?” I pull the arrow out of the bow and relax my arms, letting the drawstring back into place. “I understand the worthiness of your cause, and I shall help you.” With a reserved, dutiful smile, I walk closer.
“O-oh? No, sir, you don’t need to concern yourself with-“
“Nonsense,” I clap my hands on his shoulders. “You don’t know this forest, you don’t know this beast, and you don’t know how to properly dispose of the remains so nothing is wasted. This latarniak is a murderer, not something you can handle yourself. I won’t take no for an answer.”
He clenches his jaw for a second, before his face relaxes. “Very well, sir, I’ll follow your lead on this. If it’s dead, it makes no difference to me.”
So he says, but he clearly doesn’t like that I’m here. “Calm down, Mr. Zenon. When you return to your village and let everyone know the job is done, you don’t have to mention me at all.” I walk to the bush his rifle landed in, sort through the slightly-glowing branches to grab it, then I toss it. “You’ll need that.”
He catches it out of the air, and I see his shoulders instantly relax now that he’s armed once more.
“This way,” I say with a wave of my hand, “we’ve a bit to go until we reach latarniak territory.”