A broken branch, the exposed core still bright creamy-white.
A flattened patch of moss, trod on by some heavy foot.
A thin smear of blood—true, red blood, dark and tacky, still drying on the rough bark.
A trickle of that other fluid—green, faintly luminous even in the daylight, as thick and greasy on her fingertips as blood. She supposed it must be blood, or whatever served them for blood.
Tracks. Signs and portents as clear as the thunderbird bearing down through the clouds. Her enemy had left them for her, she knew. He’d been careless in the beginning, but he had a better understanding of her now. He knew that she was a hunter, as he was. He had, Naru thought bitterly, seen and accepted the truth of her more easily than Taabe and the rest. If the hunter had wanted to move with stealth, he would have. He’d wanted to make sure she would see—would follow.
Do you think I’m blind, hunter? I thought you knew me better than that.
She left the trail and slipped into the forest on her own. Laying traps was not, perhaps, the strategy of a true hunter, but Naru had little interest in what the men of the People thought properly bold and hunterly. She intended to survive this hunt.
She nearly caught the hunter, too. Drawn by bait as easily as Taabe’s lion, he stepped within range of her axe as he studied the fallen trapper. He moved as she threw, though, and the axe handle thumped harmlessly against his shoulders.
There was no time to retrieve it. She disentangled herself from the cord and ran. The prey again, and him still after her.
She lost him. She thought she did, anyways, having run until her lungs cramped and seared and then scaled a tree, hoping the height would keep her far enough from his notice if he came this way. But when she crawled down, hours later, her axe waited at the foot of the tree, the woven cord neatly coiled beside it.
Back and forth. Was this a game, to him? Was he toying with her? He was invisible, sitting still, but his great heavy feet betrayed his tracks when he was careless enough to step on yielding ground. He was careless less often now, and Naru followed only the occasional mark of a heel or clawed digit in the dirt, but it was enough.
She found his camp, or a clearing she thought might be his camp, and she left his odd, segmented weapon nearby. Then she crept away, and she was quite sure he didn’t follow.
Not until later.
Back and forth. He left an animal’s skull, gleaming white and cleansed of flesh and filth. Naru didn’t recognize it. A massive, blunt-nosed lion’s skull, maybe, if any lion ever born had fangs that stout and that long, with a pronounced sagittal crest along the top of its skull that suggested that it had a bite to match those colossal fangs.
A threat? A promise? A gift, or a warning?
Naru did not know. She decided to take pity on the lion, who likely had done nothing to antagonize the hunter that stalked the forest now, and spoke words to honor its life.
She left the hunter a bouquet of water hemlock, with its tiny white bunches of flowers like clusters of stars.
The hunter left her a flower from another place, another world, with elegant violet petals frosted in royal blue. She admired it, from a distance, and crushed it beneath a rock.
She left the hunter a cruel iron trap, pried from the ground and staked back down in his path. She heard the snap and the roar—he had grown careless again—and followed the trail of unnatural green drops through the dark.
She watched him tend his wounds, crouching in the shadows beyond his shadowed camp, and her grip tightened on her axe.
I could kill you, monster, she thought, but she did not.
She should have gone home, gone back to the People. It had been days now—days and days. They could have moved on without her by now, she realized—could have assumed her dead, like the rest of Taabe’s hunting party, and mourned her. The monster drew her farther from the life she knew.
It led her willingly. There was a thrill in hunting it hunting her, in trading their gifts. Their scars. The next time Naru caught it unawares, her arrow drawing a line of green fire across its bicep, she did not run from its roar. She stepped out of the cover of the trees and faced it. Dared it to step closer, to end the chase in its brutal, clumsy way.
I could have killed you.
She pointed to the glowing line on the hunter’s arm, then to the vulnerable skin of its throat, and she could see that it understood. She had won, or could have won, a dozen times. Just as the hunter could have won.
In the end it was the hunter that flinched from her gaze. She tended its wound, smearing it with her own salves rather than the odd, hissing tool that it had cauterized its own injuries with. Her fingertips skated over its flesh—surprisingly hot, despite its almost reptilian appearance, and smooth, despite the darker pebbled stretches on its skin.
Its hands—huge, clawed, monstrous—touched her in turn, and it cocked its head, those odd eyes fixed on its own hand as it stroked her arm. Touching human flesh without violence.
“Hunter,” Naru said, touching one of its silvery fangs. All teeth, no lips—all harshness, all sharp edges.
It spoke, but she could not understand its language. Perhaps it called her Hunter in turn. Her fingers tangled through its and she drew it to her. She drew herself farther and farther away from home.