The sharp pains in his stomach had receded now only to be replaced by a strange gnawing sensation as if his inners were attempting to consume themselves. The bright red berries had looked so appealing that he scarcely took the time to chew them, instead, he just continued to stuff his mouth and swallow as fast as he could, almost choking on more than one occasion. When one of the berries did burst the juice was bitter enough to make him wince, and his mouth suddenly became void of any saliva. It was shortly after getting a mouthful of that bitter liquid that he began to experience the intense cramping in his guts, and an overwhelming urge to void his bowels sent him scarpering to the undergrowth. There he squatted with his threadbare breeches around his scrawny ankles and groaned with the agonizing pain, but his bowels were empty and the effort was all in vain. A clammy sweat suddenly covered his frail body and he began to vomit violently, how long it lasted he could not say, other than the fact he thought it would continue until death took him. Eventually, everything faded to darkness and he felt the sensation of falling.
The deafening ruckus from a murder of crows that had congregated on an ancient and gnarled oak tree finally awakened him, the lower half of his body felt unnaturally cold. Peter glimpsed down and a flush of bright red lit up the pale complexion of his cheeks, his head swiveled and his eyes darted about, he was overcome by embarrassment and self-loathing by the fact he was naked from the waist down. However, the only witness to his shameful state was a large crow that had left his companions and alighted on a rock close to where Peter lay. The bird sat perfectly still; his oversized beak raised slightly as if sniffing the scent of the vomit next to the boy’s head. The cold dark pools of his beady eyes stared at Peter with a look of disappointment, perhaps the bird had thought Peter was dead and had come for his eyes.
This dark thought galvanized him into action and he got shakily to his feet, he quickly pulled his breeches up and tightened the cord that held them in place. The crow remained watching him, and was it not for the rising breeze ruffling its feathers; one could easily have mistaken it for something carved of dark wood. The penetrating stare of those dark eyes began to make Peter extremely nervous; he looked about and picked a piece of deadwood from the ground and launched it at the bird. His arm was weak and his aim was poor, the stick missed the mark by several feet. The crow continued to stare at him without moving, it was only when Peter rushed at him that the crow lifted from his perch. Even then, the strange bird moved unhurriedly as if he felt no fear of the human, he rose into the air and flew nonchalantly to a small ash tree twenty yards from the rock. Here it sat and continued its intense surveillance of the boy, the rest of the murder took flight from the oak tree and moved quickly away. But their dark companion on the ash tree declined to follow his comrades, instead preferring to remain starring intimidatingly at Peter.
The cold stare of the creature had ceased to be intimidating and had instead become terrifying, without any idea as to where he was going Peter ran from that place. He had not gone far when his pace dropped off to a trot, and soon after that, he was walking at a slow pace. He had been getting weaker with each passing day, and the unfortunate episode with the poison berries had further depleted his strength. Apart from the bright red berries that had almost killed him, Peter could not remember the last time he had eaten any real food. Thousands if not millions had died of hunger in the last couple of years, and now he feared he would join that number soon. In the beginning, when he had left the city he found work on farms in the countryside, for his labors he received food and shelter, money had long since lost any relevance. Only those who had prior knowledge of the economic collapse had any real wealth, the ordinary people had been left with a currency that was no longer of any worth. Food was now the most valuable commodity of them all, but successive hard winters and wet summers had left even the farmers struggling to feed themselves. With the great hunger came great darkness and Peter found himself alone in an ever more terrifying world.
The road meandered through a forested area that extended as far as the eye could see on either side, by late afternoon he was so exhausted he could scarcely put one foot in front of the other. In his haste to get away from that hateful bird, he had run off leaving his water bottle behind. He had only discovered this within the past hour, and now his throat was parched and his lips were dry and cracked. He could have retraced his steps and retrieved the water bottle, but on several occasions, he had heard the flapping of wings and darting shadows on the ground. The thought of coming face to face with that creature again filled him with fear and he kept moving. Finally, Peter could go no further, his strength was depleted now, and he sat wearily on a rock by the side of the road. His mouth was so dry now that he could not even work up a drop of spittle to soothe his burning throat, even his eyelids felt too heavy to hold open. His head fell forward until his chin rested on his chest, this was it, all that was left now was to sit here and wait for his end. Everything seemed to be closing down except his hearing, for some reason it was sharper than he could ever remember. Peter heard the whisper of the light breeze in the branches, the sounds of small creatures moving in the undergrowth, the distant voice of a songbird, and something else that took him a while to identify.
Water! He could hear the sound of running water; it took a superhuman effort to rouse his weary body. Peter staggered into the undergrowth and further into the trees, stopping now and again to listen for the sound of the stream. He had gone no further than twenty-five yards when he tripped over a fallen branch, too weak now to stand he began to crawl on his hands and knees. He would crawl like an infant until he became too weak, then he would lay on the ground to rest, sometimes he drifted into sleep or unconsciousness. It was almost dark when he finally found the stream; he had crawled up a sharp incline and slid down the far side where he found himself on the bank of a bubbling brook. Peter crawled to the edge and submerged his head in the cold refreshing water; he sucked the water in and drank until his stomach felt as if it would burst. Eventually, he took so much liquid in that he got sick, and then he lay by the side of the brook and slept. It was a troubled sleep, one haunted by vivid dreams of large blackbirds feasting on the eyes of dead people.
The cold woke him just as the grey light of a new day struggled to illuminate the forest, he was still weak but better than he had felt in a while. He was amazed by the stream of clear urine that poured from him; of late all he had managed was a trickle of orangey-brown liquid. He vaguely remembered someone telling him that when your pee was that color, it meant you were suffering from dehydration. Now that he was fully awake, he tried to get his bearings, but try as he would, he could not remember which direction led back to the road. Eventually, he spotted what looked like an overgrown trail and he followed it, an hour later the trail had disappeared and he was hopelessly lost, dejected now he sat on the trunk of a fallen tree. A disturbing thought growing in his head that he would die here in this godforsaken forest, he would die here and the crow would come and pick his eyes out. He was sitting there a while when the breeze got up, and on that breeze came the smell of smoke. Where there was a campfire there would be humans, he moved quickly in the direction of that smell.
Peter’s progress through the forested landscape became painfully slow, the further he went the denser the trees and undergrowth became. On several occasions he had to deviate from his direction because of areas of thick briar and brambles; above him, the tops of the trees swayed violently as they were buffeted by the rising wind. That wind was directed downwards in places, dispersing the smoke from the campfire until he was no longer sure what direction it was coming from. The temperature slowly began to fall as the wind brought the first hint of the coming winter, Peter shivered in his threadbare clothes and the cold seem to sap what little energy he had left. The haunting image of the sharp beak of the crow plucking his eyes out once again manifested itself in his mind; his heart was racing now and his breathing had become labored. The sudden explosive cawing of a crow sent him into a panicked run, the adrenaline providing him with a surge of energy. Low hanging branches whipped at his face threatening to take his eyes out, and brambles gouged at his legs through his threadbare breeches. He was running blindly now oblivious to the skin being ripped from his face; his only thought was to get away from that eye-eating bird.
He burst through a thorny bush snagging his foot on one of the roots and went headlong to the ground; the energy burst from the adrenaline was depleted now. He lay on the ground with his eyes closed, panting, and exhausted. Eventually, he found the courage to open his eyes; he was lying in a large circler clearing. The wind was almost absent here apart from a gentle breeze, and the smoke from a campfire drifted towards him. Once he made it to his knees the source of the smoke was visible, about a hundred yards from him he could make out a horse grazing, and to the left of the animal was the campfire. Another scent drifted to him now and his stomach rumbled, the smell of food cooking filled his mouth with saliva. Everything deserted his mind now, save for the craving for sustenance, he found himself walking unsteadily towards the smell of food. As he got closer, he noticed the barrel wagon parked beneath some overhanging branches, a lone figure sat by the side of the fire with his back to Peter. His mind filled with images of what the stranger might be cooking, it never dawned on him that the stranger might decline to share his meal.
Peter halted thirty feet or so from the campfire, now that he had come this far, he found himself at a loss as to how to ask for food from a stranger. The figure at the fire seemed oblivious that Peter was standing behind him, even the horse continued grazing without lifting his head. Now that he was this close a niggling fear crept into his mind, what if the stranger reacted violently to the intrusion. In these times violent death had become all too commonplace, desperate people did desperate deeds, and the world was populated by desperate people. The fear was building in him now but his stomach rumbled with hunger when the stranger spoke Peter almost screamed with fright. “Come closer pilgrim and sit by the fire, I have food aplenty for two”. The man’s words were softly spoken in a lilting sort of voice, and the words were heavily accented. Peter moved to the fire with confidence that suddenly appeared from nowhere, almost as if he was joining an old friend he had happened upon. Was it not for the all-consuming hunger, Peter might have paused to consider his actions?
A black iron cauldron bubbled on the fire and the smell of the stew wafting from it was heavenly, the stranger beckoned at a small three-legged stool that stood on the opposite side of the fire. Peter wondered briefly whether the man had been expecting the company, meanwhile, his host continued to stir the pot without speaking or even looking up. He wore a slouch hat that concealed the top half of his face and a beard concealed the lower part, his body was covered by a long-waxed coat that was taught over his broad shoulders. On his feet were stout leather boots that reached to just below his knees, everything about the man’s garb hinted at bygone times. The silence in the clearing was almost complete except for the sound of the horse chewing on the grass, several times Peter felt the urge to disturb that silence by speaking, but he could not think of anything to say. Eventually, the man nodded and muttered something under his breath, before rising from his perch. Peter watched him as he made his way to the barrel wagon, a giant of a man was the way his mother might have described the stranger. Big of stature and long of stride the man exuded a powerful aura, a man like that could snap me in two across his knee Peter thought and shivered.
In his enthusiasm to get the hot food inside him, Peter burned his mouth and had to let the hot food drop back into the metal container. If the stranger had observed Peter’s bad eating habits, he did not comment. The big man ate with gusto, dipping chunks of bread in the stew and stuffing his mouth before chomping loudly. The meat was rich and juicy if a little too salty, and the vegetables floated in a greasy liquid that tasted delicious. Peter had eaten almost every type of game available in this area, but this meat was richer and lacked that earthy taste of the wild. Pork perhaps, but he had seen neither wild nor domestic pigs for a very long time, he remarked to the stranger how delicious the meat was, half expecting him to tell him what it was. But the big man just grunted and gave him a strange grin, it was only then that Peter got a good look at the man’s eyes. Beneath the unruly eyebrows, those eyes stared at Peter with a sort of manic glow that seemed to bore into him, those eyes were of the strangest color he had ever seen. A strange thought entered Peter’s mind that those eyes belonged to a wild animal, not only a wild animal but a predator.
That day in the clearing somehow felt like a distant memory now, yet how long he had been traveling with the bearded man Peter had no real idea. Minuets had faded into hours and hours into days. In the company of this strange man time lost all relevance, they traveled on forgotten paths through endless forests and appeared in the outside world only to replenish their supplies. In the beginning, this new life was strange and terrifying to Peter, but slowly he had adapted. The bearded giant had shown him a world outside the world, which most people never knew. In a world where a few basic skills ensured that hunger was a thing of the past, Peter had learned how to hunt and prepare his kill. How a good nutritious diet could make an emaciated boy could become a giant of a man, it had taken him a while but Peter eventually saw the benefits of this life.
Sometimes his newfound strength amazed even him; as he lifted the carcass onto the old tree stump as if it were weightless. With the skill that a qualified butcher would be proud of, he gutted his kill, discarding the offal in the undergrowth except for the kidneys, heart, and liver. The bearded man sat silently watching his protégé nodding approvingly, a feeling of pride welled up in Peter as he continued his work. The bearded man had taught him so much; in a world of starvation, there was always full and plenty if one knew where to look. The hunt had been successful today, the plumb woman would provide enough to fill both barrels on the old wagon. Pickled with salt the woman’s flesh would provide them with food for quite a while, they could journey far before they needed to hunt again. As the bearded man tended to the pickling, Peter performed the last ritual. He cut a stout hazel branch and sharpened it on either end, one end he buried in the forest floor, and on the other end, he placed the woman’s head. It was their offering to the crow god, once the bird had come and eaten her eyes, they could resume their wandering.Recommended1 Simily SnapPublished in