Fast animals and slow hunters

Fast animals and slow hunters

Arvid would never say he was thin. But then again, he certainly would not admit to being fat either. Nor was he ever such a good hunter that he was able to become truly obese. It was not that he wanted to gorge till he burst although he never did pass up a chance to properly stuff his face. He was just a tad overweight or, as he often explained to the other hunters in the village, he was big boned and had a bit of a belly, which made him look heavy.

His weapon of choice was his bow. This was not because he was a particularly good archer or because he had better aim than the others, but a bow allowed him to strike his prey without having to prowl through the bush or chase his quarry down like his companions armed with spears and javelins had to do. He was not so nimble in the bush due to his bulging belly, which was a problem when it would brush up against branches and shrubs in the underbrush making noise that alerted his prey. Certainly, his bow had been quite expensive. There were not many bows in the village of such high quality as his. So, Arvid was happy with his purchase. The only problem with his bow was, of course, having to go and retrieve the arrows, since when he missed the target, they tended to fly far off. If they did not pierce a tree they might break up into splinters against a rock, or even worse, they would sometimes bury themselves who knows how deep in the ground. Once it took Arvid one whole hour to dig an arrow out of the ground. In the end, he was so fatigued and dirty that he swore he would never do that again.

He then decided that if he wanted to lose fewer arrows he had to improve his aim. So, behind the wooden house on the edge of the village, where he lived, he would practise archery every day. To warm-up, he would first aim for the nearest beech, oak or maple tree, to then move on to the trees that were further away. When, after shooting four or five arrows, his arm would start aching so much he could no longer draw his bow. So, shaking his arm out to loosen it, he would go out to retrieve his arrows, cussing and swearing especially when he had to search for one that was lost in the underbrush because he had missed the mark. That is, until he saw that his son was having such a good time watching him practice. In exchange for instruction on how to use the bow, his boy was willing to go and retrieve the wayward arrows. From then on, since father and son spent so much more time together, Arvid was able to teach him many things. With a satisfied smile, Arvid would take his pint of mead and watch his son frolic and romp looking for his lost arrows.

All that practise with his bow made Arvid’s arms very strong, which he boasted about with the other hunters whenever he had the chance. However, he had always neglected to train his legs.

That was why when the wolves attacked, Arvid was the slowest of the group.

No one had heard their howls until it was too late: grey shadows leapt out of nowhere as they dashed through the trees. The penetrating reek of the savage animals overwhelmed the fragrance of resin and the approaching rain. All the other hunters fled screaming toward the village. The only thing Arvid could hear were the aroused snarls and the wolves’ jaws snapping behind him as his legs churned at a speed he would never have believed possible, one stride after another, as primordial terror rose icily up his back. Although he was running faster than he had ever run, Arvid continued to fall behind the other men, cursing his own laziness and protruding belly at this moment as never before. He cried out for help, beseeching the others to wait for him in a voice made shrill by fear. Yet no one slowed and no one turned to face the pack of wolves ready to strike them with his spear. This was not normal behaviour for these wild animals and the hunters did not know how to behave except to flee.

Arvid’s mouth was dry, and he was panting. He soon learned just how much he needed the breath he was wasting by screaming to keep running. Hearing the wolves' paws as they hit the ground right behind him, he was certain they were going to catch him, and he could no longer see the other hunters. Having decided to turn around and fight in a desperate attempt to survive, Arvid tripped and smashed his nose as he fell to the ground, where he could smell the odour of the leaves mixed with his own blood and the bitter taste of the earth in his mouth. He rolled over and over for a few interminable seconds and then ended up on his back, flailing and gasping for air.

Then the wolves pounced on him, their fangs tearing at him in several places, their jaws pulling at his limbs trying to rip pieces of flesh off his bones. Arvid, spitting the dirt from his mouth, screamed like a pig at slaughter. With a firm pulling bite, one of his calves was torn to shreds: the wolf’s teeth screeching against the bone made Arvid nearly lose consciousness from the pain. Suddenly an especially large wolf placed its front paws on his chest and pinned him to the ground. Snarling just inches above his face, the wolf’s slimy saliva, stinking of carrion, trickled into his hair. Helpless before the beast, Arvid screamed in terror as he waited for the coup de grâce that he knew was soon to come. The wolf bit him full in the face, overwhelming him with its fetid breath: its canines digging into the flesh of his cheeks, cutting through his skin like knives. Arvid could feel his eyelid being torn off while the sharp teeth pierced his left eye, splitting the lens in half.

With no more breath left to scream, Arvid was seized by pure instinct. By pulling hard, he managed to free his arms from the other wolves, leaving his tattered shirt sleeves between their teeth. Drawing his dagger from its sheath at his side he thrust it into the neck of the wolf that was devouring his face. Never before as at that moment did he bless his constant training with his bow. With all his remaining might, he grabbed the wolf’s ear with his other hand to give his strike leverage and plunged the blade deeply, penetrating the beast’s throat. Snarling, the wolf tried to pull its head back but Arvid held on and with superhuman effort he drew the hilt of the dagger sideways slashing through flesh and cartilage as he cut through most of the circumference of the wolf's neck. The wolf’s growling stopped with a gurgle as its vocal cords were severed and blood flooded its trachea. The lifeless beast fell on Arvid’s chest crushing him with its dead weight.

Though Arvid was glad to have dispatched the beast to its grave, he was certain that the other wolves would soon devour him alive. As he imagined his wife and son waiting for him at home, his eyes began to fill with tears with the thought of how frightened his family would be when they saw all the other terrified hunters return without him. How would his family get by without him? And what would the gods think of such a death? Would they see it as an honourable end to his life?

As these and many other questions swirled through his mind, to his amazement, the other wolves, who had been feasting on his flesh until just a few seconds before, stopped rushing at him and lifted their heads, sniffing the air in puzzlement for some moments before fleeing. Arvid had no time to wonder about their behaviour because his sight fogged over and he lost consciousness.

When he came to himself, he felt completely numb. He was unable to open his eyes and he was seized by panic. When he brought his hands up to rub his eyes, he touched his maimed face and his mangled eye, which brought a wave of exploding pain into his head, as if someone had thrown burning embers inside his skull. He groaned out loud and could do nothing other than wait for the pain to subside. When he was able think clearly again, he found himself crying. He peeled away the clots of blood from his undamaged eye, taking care not to touch the other parts of his face. At that moment, so he would not fall into the darkest despair, he had to force himself to not think about what he must look like. He concentrated on taking deep breaths to calm himself down.

The sky above him continued to become darker and darker, cloaked in rain-laden clouds. He tried to rise but something was pinning him to the ground. He recalled the wolf's corpse, but what he saw when he looked astounded him so that he froze, open-mouthed for quite a while, trying to comprehend what had happened. Instead of the beast’s furry dead body, the cadaver of a balding man in his forties with its throat slit from ear to ear was lying on top of him. He grabbed the dead man's head and turned it upwards to look at it more carefully, causing the man’s spine to give off a dull crackas the head came off in Arvid’s hand. Bringing the face closer to his good eye, he studied it. He was certain he had never seen that man in his village, he must have come from some other town. He threw the head to the side and watched it bounce and roll in the fallen leaves.

Arvid was so dazed that for a moment he stammered deliriously with a million thoughts flashing through his mind without being able to come to terms with what he had seen. He decided to put that matter aside for a moment, just to avoid going completely mad. He pushed the rest of the corpse off his body and he saw that his boiled leather cuirass had protected his torso from the fury of the pack. However, the same could not be said of his right calf, which had been completely torn asunder.

Sitting up, he found himself covered in blood and in the centre of a dark pool. There was no sign of the other hunters. His bow lay not far away, so Arvid dragged himself toward it, crawling through the blood. The leaves that covered the ground stuck to his whole body since all that blood on him was acting like glue. Upon reaching his weapon, he picked it up, as the wind whipped at the half-bare trees and lifted their red, orange and yellow leaves to the sky. He leaned against his bow to pull himself to his feet just as the first raindrops began to fall and a lightning bolt flashed in the distance followed by its accompanying clap of thunder announcing the beginning of the storm. He knew he had to find shelter and light a fire to keep warm otherwise he would never survive under the downpour in the condition he was in. He took stock of his location and recalled that there was a cave nearby. Using his bow as a crutch, held with both hands, he dragged his right leg forward as he walked toward the grotto.

As the storm intensified, the wind and water ruthlessly robbed his body of the little heat that it could produce. After some minutes, which seemed like an eternity, he breathed a sigh of relief as the cave finally came into view. He then knew he would not die from the cold and was invigorated by the renewed hope of seeing his family again. Fortunately, it had not been raining for long, so the boughs underneath the surface layer of leaves were still dry. Arvid used his precious bow to push a pile of leaves and branches inside the cave.

Grimacing with pain, Arvid leaned his back against the rock wall and let himself slide to the ground to separate the wet leaves from the dry and collect the pieces of wood. Then he took his flint and steel from his pocket and began to strike them together, directing the sparks onto the pile of dry leaves. As soon as the leaves caught, he began placing the sticks he had collected in the fire one by one starting from the smallest and then adding the larger pieces of wood little by little until they were burning brightly.

By the time the fire was blazing, the rain outside was pouring down violently. But Arvid was not concerned. He was dry and had gathered enough wood to keep the fire burning for the rest of that day and through the night. His wounds were now his most serious problem: many were deep and gaping, and he had nothing to use as dressings. His only hope was to survive until the next morning when his companions might come back and find him. So, he tore some strips of cloth from his already shredded clothing and used them to dress the most serious wound on his calf, where the bleeding gave no sign of stopping.

Needing to rest, he dragged himself close to the fire and lay on his back, so that the blaze would provide a shield between him and the cold wind outside the mouth of the cave. The flames illuminated the small cavern completely since it was not more than twenty steps or so deep and just wide enough for Arvid to lie down across its breadth. The walls were smooth dark brown rock streaked with lighter veins. On one side of the cave there were some white graffiti, standing out against the darker background, representing a profusion of stylized little men throwing spears as they hunted tiny four-legged animals. Seeing these figures, Arvid slipped into the world of dreams whining to himself about not having a pillow.

Suddenly, with a start, he woke up panting and blind in one eye. If possible, he felt even worse than before with the burning sensation on his face much more intense. The fire had died down to little more than glowing embers and the storm had passed. The woods outside were softly lit by the glow of the moon and from the leaves of the trees, water was still dripping and falling to the forest floor. It must have just stopped raining. Arvid added more wood to revive the fire. Then, after wiping his hands on his bloodstained trousers he decided to check the condition of his face. He touched his forehead lightly, feeling it encrusted with dried blood. He had no need to check his left eye to know that it had been blinded. Still, he was shocked to find that he had no eyelid and when his fingers came into contact with his ruptured eyeball a shooting pain struck his brain directly. Further below he felt his broken nose and then on the right his cheek with its rebellious whiskers hardened by dried blood, while on the left... he felt his teeth. He quickly drew his hand away and moaned. Tears began to fall from his good eye as his sobs grew louder. Even if he was able to live through the night and his companions found him, his life would never be the same. He was disfigured, monstrous. His life was ruined. He would never be the same again. He was seized by a gagging nausea and then vomited next to the fire. For several long moments he kept very still as drool leaked from his mouth onto the ground.

Arvid then noticed some orange and yellow dots of light among the trees outside in the woods. At first, he stared at them without understanding what they were. Then he had a revelation: torches! He tried to call out to get his companions' attention, yet nothing but a choked hiss came from his throat. The second time he tried he wheezed hoarsely and then burst into a fit of coughing.

When he spat, two teeth also fell to the ground.

Arvid looked at them in shock. It was only then that he noticed the coarse hair on his hands, which was much thicker than he recalled. As he examined the backs of his hands, he began to feel the bones of his fingers stretching out. He blinked his good eye incredulously as if he were awakening from a hallucination. However, he was not imagining anything. His hands were in fact becoming longer! And with each millimetre they stretched out, Arvid was afflicted with increasingly sharp pain in his hands. He gritted his teeth, as his hands burned as if they were on fire. He felt as if his leather armour was shrinking as it pressed against his ribcage, compressing his insides. He flailed trying to breathe, but his lungs could not expand, and he panicked fearing that he would suffocate. Then the laces that bound the armour to his body snapped apart, releasing his chest and allowing him to again breathe deeply. He looked down at his abnormal body, there was movement under his skin.

«No!», he cried. «No. No, no, no…», he stammered and sobbed as his insides began to roil, as if his organs were growing larger and changing position.

His bones break and then reform with dull cracks.

Arvid screamed in agony.

Was it even thinkable that the beast that had attacked him could have been a werewolf? Arvid had heard rumours of such things. Hunters would sometimes tell stories about them around the campfire at night, though he had never really believed in those tall tales. That is, not until he woke up under the corpse of a man where he had just slit the throat of a huge wolf minutes before.

The bandage on his leg was stained with blood and pus. But, when the cloth dressing was torn away, his leg underneath was completely healed! Seeing his newly formed skin, which began to sprout coarse, shaggy fur, yet, nevertheless, healed, Arvid touched his face again in a rush of hope: he found his flesh firm and grown back in all the right places! Where before there was a gaping gash in his cheek all the way through, exposing his teeth inside his mouth, now his flesh was firm and warm and seemingly in ferment under his fingers. What was so horrifying to him was the feeling that he was growing. He felt as if something was pulling at his face. Or rather it felt like an unknown force from inside was pushing his face forward.

Why me? No, no, not this!

Arvid screamed as he watched the tip of his nose being drawn forward away from his eyes.

He was transforming! This was no dream! Arvid prayed that he might wake up at that moment, wounded and stricken by fever and infection... but still human! Suddenly he understood what he was becoming - a cursed creature abandoned by the gods. He thought about his companions who were out searching for him. Just as he had seen their torches, they might very well notice the fire he had lit. They could be coming for him at that very moment! He couldn't bear the thought that he would kill his lifelong friends. All he wanted at that time was to die. Better to perish than to become a monster.

Instead, he well knew that he was not going to die: the curse that had healed him was now transforming him. The bones in his feet and legs grew longer in turn as they changed shape at the joints. He wanted to try to reach the hearth to put out the fire, but the pain of his transformation stopped him from moving. Then, his legs felt completely out of proportion, causing him to stagger and fall several times before reaching the hearth. He flung the burning embers aside with a blow of his hand spreading them all over the cave. The thick talons that grew from his fingers left white scratches on the bare stone. Deeply shocked, Arvid observed a thin plume of acrid smoke rising from the scorched fur on what had now become a real paw. His spine began to bend, forcing him into a hunched posture. One by one even the teeth that he had left fell out as they were being replaced by long serrated canines. Arvid’s back arched in pain, causing him to howl and scratch at the wall, his claws screeching along the rock face left ten white lines across the graffiti depicting the ancient hunters.

His senses had become so acute he could distinguish small details in the forest: he could see every single leaf even at a great distance with just the moonlight. The wind carried the faintest noises to his ears and the scent of the hunters was keen in his nose. He could hear the embers crackling, the crickets’ song and the sound of water dripping from the trees.

«Arvid!», was the cry he heard echoing through the forest though he no longer understood its meaning because Arvid was no longer human. He had become another type of hunter. He was now a ruthless predator who only responded to its basest instincts.

Arvid was hungry.

When the sun rose the next day, Arvid awoke in the middle of the forest completely nude and covered in blood with a splitting headache. Nevertheless, all in all, he felt good. His wounds had healed, he could walk, and his body felt as if it had returned to normal: everything except his left eye. Touching his eye, he found that the eyelid had grown back, and that the eyeball seemed to now be intact, even though he could still see nothing on that side.

He decided that he would make do with one eye. So, he ran to the cave where he had taken shelter the night before, but the stark truth shattered all his hopes: there he found almost a dozen dismembered and partially devoured human bodies lying on the ground. At the thought of having killed and eaten his old companions he was seized with an attack of nausea causing him to vomit profusely. Without even thinking about his being naked, he ran to his village praying that nothing had happened to the hunters’ families.

Unfortunately, he found no survivors there either.

Even in his own house he confirmed precisely what he had feared most: what was left of the bodies of his wife and son was scattered everywhere.

Arvid fell to his knees and cried.

He was alone.

Alone with his curse.