(This story is part of the "Early Encounters with Humans" sequence of stories -- see listings for related stories.)
The quarry was close, he could sense it, smell it, feel its presence – a disturbance in the woods, something strange, something that should not be there. Something alien. This was not the prey he was used to hunting. Something was prowling nearby – as much a hunter as hunted, so close by that every step was a risk. This was more than a game, a thrill of the hunt – would it notice?
He felt a vague, stirring feeling of danger, a cold tingle up the spine. All his senses were geared up towards the encounter, the senses of a natural predator caught all but unaware on his own territory, this place where his people preferred not to go, and he should not venture but for duty’s call. He crept in places that had grown familiar with time, knowing that this tree, that patch of shadow would provide ample cover, this brush of undergrowth would mask him scent and sound. The lore of a hunter at home. His feet made no sound, not even the slightest rustle that could betray him to this lurking other just out of spear-reach. Two legs always had to be more careful, could always trip more easily than four, but he had been born for it. No other could match him.
He all but floated over trodden black leaves and mushrooms, old soft twigs, wet earth. He paused to listen, marking his shadow stopping also. The sense of dangerous nearness was like a prickle on the skin, an inch within the skull. But he dared not take that step that would make him perceptible to the other. He knew, somehow, that such an encounter could bode well for neither of them. They sensed each other, but will never know each other by sight; he would only always suspect what he had almost come across –
Farscout reared back abruptly, catching himself with his foot in the wrong place. At his side Bracken drew his lips away from his fangs, a warning to his bond that had almost forgotten himself. What was he thinking? This was no hunt – not anymore. His instincts, the wolf-gut, had almost gotten the better of him. He was far away from the Holt and any aid. And though it was only this one, this lone human here, weak on his own –
The others would know.
A human. That was the only thing it could be. Just shy of line of sight, just barely out of range. Rationally, he knew that he knew this by scent, but his imagination insisted on more, insisted that the presence of this singular terror could be sensed like a thunder mounting, like a sickness building. That this was more than the exercise, regular by now, of avoiding a larger predator. A lone human, out here, and unaware of him.
Had to remain unaware of him. Nothing else mattered. Tribe, chief, cublings, life-bearers. Farscout thought of the human’s red blood coloring the tip of his spear, of the terror over and gone, of safety on territory’s edge, for hunters and gatherers and cublings. He thought of humans piercing Quick Fang with arrows and dooming her and the new spark in her belly to death or worse, a living death.
If he was a hotheaded youth unconcerned with consequences, if he was the angry, grieving almost-father he had been…if only, back then when the need was hot, before time tempered it like the wash of the Now-river smoothening stones…
Bracken nipped his sleeve. Farscout snapped as if out of a reverie, his own wolf, paradoxically, pulling him out of the wolf-mind. Get away. Get away. Get away now. Above all, they could never know.
It was so close now; Bomo could not have missed it if he was a blind girl-child, the presence across the green screen of foliage. It was more than his ears and eyes telling him, but the gut of a Baha man, with his hair in a hunting braid. There was something there, and it was too dangerous to be worth the glory of killing it.
Bomo knew. He did not like to trust his gut over his senses, but sometimes he knew. The faint shifting of light and shadow, patterns of color and rustling leaves and earth. Just out of sight, no more. He had his spear. A hunter should need nothing more to know what it was that invaded his grounds, and to finish it. Rationally, he knew that he did not have the senses of an animal, but he imagined he could scent this creature who was evading him, tricking him, tracking him with chilling intelligence…
He had not the first idea what it could be. It made him feel again the half-grown boy he was when his clan first came to this rich, strange land.
No boy survived his adulthood test by hunting what could not be hunted; Man had to know his limitations in the realm of the wood-creatures who stalked the night with glowing eyes. Bomo made to turn, starting to silently climb up one sturdy tree. He would be wise, and he would flee this thing, this muted presence that prickled his hunter’s senses fierce like a wolf and wily like a man…
But the Ebeans wouldn’t have. The Ebeans did not fear a thing only because they could not see it.
Bomo reached to his side. It was not the hunter’s way, but he took up the far-seer (spyglass, the dark-skins called it) that the Ebean chart-woman had gifted him with. It was not the man-hunter’s close up, spear and blood, wits and silence way, but he lifted it to his eye.
Later, deep in the woods, Farscout kept breathless attention to see if the human was still shadowing him, but the other hunter had vanished. Searching the area later, all he found were shards of unusually clear glass scattered on the ground.
Later, the Ebean chart-woman was justifiably upset with Bomo for breaking the spyglass, muttering something under her breath about expecting no better from a woods-dwelling savage, but he was too distracted to notice her. He knew he should tell her, tell someone, but he never did.
It was a curious thought he had always had, lonely creature that he was, of what it would be like if he could see himself through other eyes. If, by strange coincidence, there was another just like him in the woods. The thought was both frightening and thrilling, that another was just a breath away, a scenting, a look away, that was too similar to be alien, or without danger.
He wondered what he would look like to that other – enemy? Rival? Brother? The thought lingered.
But the thought was too strange, and the blood-beat of the hunt took it over, sooner or later.