by Shawn M. White
The moon hung bright and full in the clear night sky. Markus sat huddled in the darkness listening for the fall of footsteps. He’d been squatting in that same spot nearly an hour now and his legs were beginning to ache with the effort. He knew he had to wait just a little longer, no reason to blow perhaps his only chance.
Then the sound came, the light snap of a twig. Only ears trained as his were would have picked up that sound. He carefully shifted his eyes to the left, waiting to identify the Shadrack. He waited for the beastly outline to manifest as it moved from the shadows. It made no other sound aside from that lone crack. But one misstep was all it took to lose your life out in these woods.
Markus’ wooly black overcoat, made from the hide of a were-beast, hid him perfectly. Even the moon’s brilliant glow couldn’t break down his darkened shield. He sat silent as death, waiting for the creature to come just a little closer. His hand flexed silently on the hilt of his broadsword.
He couldn’t count the amount of times he’d been in this position. Days spent scouting the area, days more stalking his prey. Always respectful of the danger involved. He never sought a kill that couldn’t kill him. It was the challenge of hunting the most vicious monsters on the planet that brought with it a sense of pride and confidence he couldn’t gain anywhere else.
But the truth was he’d rather be back home, where the only thing he’d have to fight would be his stomach after eating his wife’s spicy beef stew. He’d been at this year after year for twenty years. Soon he knew he’d slow down just that fraction of an inch and would no longer come home. That scared him.
He’d never felt scared before, and knew it was the Creator telling him it was time to hang the sword up. His wife had been pleading with him to do it for years. But the joy of the hunt had never left him. It was only in this month, with this hunt that his thoughts caught up with him.
The Shadrack slid across the ground directly in front of Markus. Distracted inside his head he hadn’t noticed or heard it move that close. A bead of sweat broke out on his forehead and rolled down his cheek. He ignored it and tightened the grip on his sword, his tool that had been by his side for every hunt he’d ever participated in. Now he would use it one last time, for one last kill. Then, he would ritualistically clean, sharpen, and polish it before hanging it over his fireplace. It would be a priceless ornament in an otherwise humble home.
Markus breathed in slow and deep, inhaling the strong odor of the Shadrack mixed with the thorn-berry he’d smeared over his skin to prevent his scent from giving him away. This particular beast had a vivid sense of smell. Markus had discovered that fact when he purposefully left a shirt stained with his sweat and blood wrapped around a branch high in an old pine tree. Watching the beast pass by the tree, Markus noted the way its head perked up and its nose sniffed furiously, finally turning to the tree, climbing it and ravishing the shirt.
The Shadrack’s clawed, hairy foot dropped to the ground mere inches from where Markus waited. Markus could feel the thumping of his heart in his ears. The adrenaline was pumping through his body, giving him that familiar feeling of elation.
The time was drawing near. He licked his lips; they were getting a little too dry for comfort. Sweat continued to bead on his forehead. For once he wished he hadn’t shaved his beard. The sweat was running down his face in streams. It was so hot and humid, even in the dead of night. The huge overcoat he wore wasn’t helping at all. His tunic and trousers were soaked.
He started to feel edgy and his heart raced when the Shadrack’s head perked up and sniffed and snorted loudly. It sniffed again, and its head started turning rapidly. It had caught scent of something threatening and Markus decided to stop pushing his luck and act.
He turned his eyes and looked up at the monstrosity who, frighteningly, was staring right into his own. They stood in contest, Markus’ blue eyes looking into the burning redness of the beast’s. A heartbeat or two was all that held them, and the quick thumping of Markus’ heart made that shorter than brief.
Markus whipped the sword out of the cloak so fast it hardly had time to shimmer in the moonlight. The hair-covered beast jumped back on amazingly springy legs, sending it far out of Markus’ grasp.
The heavy coat Markus wore fell to the ground as he jumped up, giving him instant relief from the baking heat. Not that it comforted him. Right now he was in trouble. He’d lost the only advantage he held. Now he was at the mercy of his prey turned predator. He could only hope his instincts and reflexes wouldn’t let him down.
He didn’t have time to gather himself before the Shadrack leapt from a tree and in one quick swing it swiped Markus across the arm then disappeared once again. It was a rough blow that hurt. Those claws were sharp. Markus slowed his breathing and tried blocking out the painful burning of his arm. He could feel slick blood running down his bicep.
He wasn’t scared. He learned long ago that fear would escort him to the grave. He still felt confident he’d get his kill. It would just be harder than he anticipated; a lot harder.
He heard movement behind him and turning swiftly he arched his sword deftly. His reward was an agonized grunt and a stream of blood spraying his face. But as frantically as his eyes searched the trees he saw nothing. The only sight standing out was the moonlight reflected on his blade around a thin dark streak.
He held his stance firmly; it would be useless wandering through the darkened woods searching for something he couldn’t see. He couldn’t run. Better to just wait, the creature would be careless, at least Markus hoped.
A gently breeze passed through the trees, caressing Markus’ right cheek. It carried with it the familiar odor he’d smelled not too long ago. It was strong and pungent; the creature was near. Without hesitation Markus turned to his right, driving the long broadsword into the darkness between two wide trees. His effort was met with resistance.
He extended sword with all his strength and it slid sickly into the Shadrack’s thick, muscled body. Markus could feel the heavy weight of the creature’s slack body balancing upon his blade. He withdrew the steel quickly and it was followed with the final exhale of air from the lungs of the dying creature.
The large body dropped to the forest floor with a thud and lay silent. The steel of Markus’ broadsword that had once glistened white was now covered in a thick wash of dark-red blood. Markus used the black overcoat to wipe it clean then tossed the wooly garment aside.
He sheathed his sword and stepped over beside the fallen hairy mound. The only thing left to do was drag the carcass back to his campsite, which lay quite a fair distance north of this spot, strap it to his wagon and take it home to be sold.
He took a last deep breath as he stared at his final kill. He had to admit he had had a good run. Then again the only way he couldn’t admit that was if he were dead. He knew he’d kept lady luck in his pocket. He’d need her no longer. Now all he would ever need was milk by the gallons to comfort a stomach unaccustomed to spicy beef stew.
Copyright © 2006 by Shawn M. White