A Stag Shed of Its Antlers
The Mad Poet woke to hot sunlight, buried to his neck in gray ashes.
Grunting didn’t make the sun shine any less brightly, nor did his groaning sooth the pain which swam throughout his body like small trout in a brook. There was nothing small about Albey’s pain, though it was not quite as excruciating as it was the night before. The palaver with Gobon surely played some role, but though the Poet is Mad, he is not a fool. He overexerted himself hauling Ram’rl’s armory into The Lodge, and for what? So the metals of the weaponry and armor could all melt together in the blaze? So the floor could be burdened with just enough weight to collapse into Iuqon’s lab, which Albey set to burn regardless?
Albey brought his right hand unto to the center of his chest where ornate engraved metal bound around a leather pocket once sheathed an enchanted quill. Some of the casing survived the blast, but what remained was bent out and flayed like the petals of a violent flower, ragged and sharp, far too dangerous to keep on his body. The tunic below seemed to be unscathed, though, so there was that.
With great effort he rose to a sitting position. Mounds of ashes fell off him in dusty waterfalls, poofing into the air all around him like clouds of pollen in the springtime. He seemed to be in a pit, one wide enough to rest a sleeping ‘man and deep enough to act as a shallow grave, though the first handful of dirt had yet to be thrown in. The harder he tried to remember the previous night the foggier it became… there was the housefire, the chase, the palaver with the ‘man in white inside his eerie hollow, then… he shook his head. It was as if a tactile haze, nothing delicate about it, had settled around a specific chunk of Albey’s brain, preventing him from recalling exactly what happened once the talks began in Gobon’s lair.
“It’s my own fault,” Albey grunted to himself, arms crossed at the wrists with his hands in his lap, head hung low so he could not see over the edge of the ashy firepit. “Iuqon warned me Gobon wasn’t to be trusted, that if I encountered the fiend I was to write swiftly and vanquish him, but… I failed.”
A pair of red cardinals flew overhead then and landed on a high branch at the treeline, but not to nest. Both were males, judging from the color of their plumage, and they watched the ashy ‘man with great interest. The worms and grubs had all gone back beneath the surface by then; there wasn’t much else for them to do.
“No, it’s worse than that,” he grumbled, hinging his head back to stare up into the cloudless sky. The sun was approaching its peak… or had high noon already came and went? Just how long was Albey asleep for? “I trusted him. I followed him into his camp and joined him at the fire. I think… or… did I? Did he cause the great blaze which took The Lodge, or did he save me from it? We were surely in his lair… and there were… bottles… yes, full bottles, and… did I drink of them? Or was it something else entirely he offered me to sooth me of my ailments?” What was it that Gobon offered Albey in his eerie lair? Did Gobon offer the Mad Poet anything at all? He shook his head again, but the haze did not lift. “It’s not important now. The fiend could come back at any moment, I can’t just sit here like this.”
But where is here? Albey didn’t recognize the area as he stood up on wobbly feet, needing to clutch the stones ‘round the pit to support himself at first. Nor did he recognize the trees, odd and pointed things rising from a carpet of dull orange with what appeared to be fuzz growing from their branches. He noticed the two cardinals eying him and made no move to shoo them away. They flew off on their own.
As he climbed out from the pit Albey would have thought he put on fifty pounds during the night did he not know better. He was never a large ‘man, described by others as wiry more than anything else, but like his two comrades, his strength had left him. It would come back in time, once he had some food and drink in him, but the going would surely be tough until then.
The clearing was featureless, Albey found, with no paths offering a way in nor out. Nothing but sand-colored dirt and the firepit in the center presented in the barren clearing, aside from the cabin between the pit and the treeline behind him. If the building had windows they were either sealed with precisely shaped logs or taken out altogether; it stood a solid cube of felled trees with a flat roof covered in twigs and moss, and a chimney of gray stone which protruded from one side. Every step he took felt like he sprinted a trek, but the idea of a home he’d not have to build himself did much for Albey by way of motivation. There could be a bed in that cabin, supplies with which to start a fire in the fireplace at the base of the chimney, caches of food and clean water. There could even be another human waiting inside, although he recognized such as wishful thinking. Whether high noon had come or gone, Albey laid in that firepit well into the morning. Were anybody living in this glorified shack, surely they’d have roused him from his trespassing slumber by the time he woke.
Plopped in the dirt at the foot of the door – a single piece of wood, it appeared, impressively enough – was a ratty straw mat which bore the word Welcome. Albey couldn’t help but chuff at this as he wiped the soles of his moccasins clean, leaving caked gray streaks beneath him. He knocked once on the solid door, then twice. Waited. Went unanswered. Knocked a third, then a fourth, then a fifth time, all in rapid succession, each bang of his knuckles against the knobbed slab harder than the last.
“Hello?” he called loudly with one hand cupped around the side of his mouth. The other hand rested securely on the doorknob jutting without empathy above its empty keyhole. “Is anybody there? I’m going to come in.”
Only the sound of wind through the trees and the chorus of forest-dwelling denizens doing whatever it is they do. He turned the knob and pushed. The door did not budge.
“Locked,” Albey said, then tried to open the door again. ‘Twas still locked. Misery came to him in the form of trembling legs, and Albey crouched down on the welcome mat. “It’s fine, they’ll be back. I just have to wait.”
But how long could a lost ‘man wait with the claws of hunger gripping his belly and the maw of thirst biting at his throat? How long could a lost ‘man wait for nothing to happen, as Albey knew he was? There was no ‘man living in that cabin, the clearing was dusty and swept by the wind without trace of a single footprint. There must be water nearby, he imagined, within walking distance at the very least. Food he could worry about later, as the human body can last strates without eating so much as a single bite, even one as gaunt as Albey’s. Water, though, is a different story, a tale which would end days before the Calla hid the moon from the night sky.
“The Calla,” he said under his breath, as if remembering a terrible secret. Albey dug into his pockets then, panic seizing his face even after he revealed the folded sheet of papyrus upon which he scrawled the seven runes. His heartbeat slowed as he studied the ink. “‘Twas Saturday as the moon was rising… so now it must be Sunday.”
With eyes a’squint Albey peered at the sun, as if to confirm this. The sun, passionate and livid, stared back without a word.
“Yes, surely it must be Sunday, a day of Life. I could not have slept through an entire day, I’d have been picked alive by the birds.” He slid his finger down the length of the sheet, counting the days in his head. He stopped on Friday. A day of War. The last rise of the sun before the Calla followed darkly behind. “Only five days left.”
Albey folded the papyrus and returned it to his pocket, then got back up on his feet and stared at the cabin, wondering what secrets it may hold behind its locked door.
“I must get inside before the end of the strate.” He turned around then and scanned the treeline for movement. Saw nothing but those strange fuzzy trees. Their branches rose and fell in the breeze, as if they were waving at him. “My Life very well may depend on it.”
It occurred to Albey that his Life very well may have depended on a great many things which seemed to be out of his control. He was lost there, stranded in a foreign patch of an endless wood he hadn’t wandered nomadically since his beard was merely stubble. He had nothing to eat, nothing to drink, and the aches in his body showed no inclination toward alleviating themselves. There was a shelter here but he was unable to enter it, and a firepit with no wood nor tinder with which to get a fire started. A grace period does exist when a ‘man comes to a new area in the forest; for a small amount of time the local denizens will steer clear of him, as the smell of ‘man is unlike that of other lifeforms, but it could only last for so long. Whether they are of gray fur or of blind white eyes, the wolves would soon be upon the Mad Poet if something else didn’t get him first. Without his quill and scroll he was not totally helpless, but to claim Albey had any sort of advantage would be an egregious mistruth, false hope to the most heinous degree.
“Stop it,” he commanded himself, drawing a breath and holding it in. He released it slowly, cheeks puffed out as though he had stuffed his face with more than enough food to chew on. If only. “The cabin exists, therefore someone has to have built it. Somebody once lived here if they are not still living here; they chose this location for their homefront specifically. They may have even cleared the trees away.” He looked down and kicked the dirt then, watching a small cloud of silty dust rise and dirty his shoes. “It’s been barren for a long while now. The cabin has likely stood here for many strates, and there were ashes in the firepit, loose and dry. Unless this is all another one of Gobon’s tric–”
He banished that last thought from his head, exiled and never to return. Just like his fr–
“There was a fire here recently,” as he sat back down, crossing his legs beneath him. “They were likely outside during the Halla, using the light of the full moon to collect extra firewood, burning some of it to keep warm. Mayhap they were even cooking food, if this branch of the forest provides it. The white hounds got them.”
Unless the builder of the cabin perished in their sleep, taken by hunger. Or worse, by thirst.
“Yes, the wolves of the Halla got them,” Albey asserted. “Believing otherwise is foolish and little else.” Then, as if to remind himself of the fact, “And I am no fool. I’m simply a Poet who shall never write again.”
Time would tell the truth of this matter regardless of what Albey chose to believe; the Mad Poet would get into the cabin before the day of War brought the Calla, he would not allow himself to be taken as prey like a stag shed of its antlers. Nay, Albey planned to live only a long and splendid Life, and when the time for his Death arrived as it shall for every ‘man, he would fall with honor and dignity like his comrades at Jericho Tower; he could think of no other reason for his surviving the ordeal. Yes, the way inside the cabin would reveal itself to him in due time; everything was as it should have been, just as it always is. His only concern then was finding a source of drinking water; the body can last strates without food, but without water only mere days would be left.
Turning his palms to the infinite blue sky above, Albey rested his hands on his knees and closed his eyes. Slowly he drew breath in through his nose, held it, and let it pour gently from his lips. The forest held many secrets, offered plenty of knowledge – all Albey had to do was listen.
This has been the first subchapter of the first chapter of The Face of Fear, a novel about bigfoot written by the writer in Untitled Bigfoot Project. Here is everything you need to know about it:
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