by Douglas W.T. Smith
A man doesn’t run away into the forest. He stands by his family against all the odds that are thrown at them.
Jaeden crouched behind a fallen log and aimed at the boar, one eye staring down the arrow shaft, the other closed. His last meal was two days ago, and it had only been maple seeds and elderberries. He’d been stalking this particular boar since dawn, but now, as the sun hid behind rumbling storm clouds, he was running out of time.
His father’s words still echoed in his thoughts.
Jaeden stared at the boar, which was absentmindedly digging its long nose and tusks into a tree burrow, wiggling its rear as it gouged out a hole. In the last week, Jaeden had learned to be quiet and listen to the woods’ noises. At first, every move he’d made reverberated through the forest like an ogre’s crashing foot stomps. Eventually, he learned to be one with his surroundings, and listening to the other wanderers of the forest, Jaeden became aware of his footprints, his steamy breath, and his human scent.
A soft winter breeze drifted between the trees, carrying the scent of damp moss and wet maple. Shivers ran down Jaeden’s back, and the hairs on his arm rose to meet the cold. He had prepared for a possible turn in the weather, having donned his thick woolen cloak and leather boots before leaving home, but he hadn’t prepared himself for such a long journey.
His father had always told him to stay in Ettenhun, but after the man’s death, Jaeden spent more time in the forest. He didn’t want to attend his father’s burial service. He wanted to be away from his deranged mother and away from the chaotic outside world of kings and castles. But somehow, his father’s words had a way of creeping up on him, like the crisp wind. They slithered deep under his skin and chilled his bones.
Jaeden took a deep breath and let his arrow soar. The shot hissed forward, blue tail feathers twisting through the air. He watched it arc down towards an unaware target, finally skimming off the boar’s back into the closest tree, disappearing out of sight. The boar squealed and fled across a nearby shallow stream and into the trees.
Without pausing to reflect or search for his arrow, Jaeden chased after the animal. He knew he still had one left. His strides were larger than most men, allowing him to keep pace with the beast. The forest tried it’s best to slow him down, but Jaeden charged through. The cold, damp soil with fallen leaves slide under his quick footsteps as he sprinted after his prey, jumping over twisted twigs, rocks, leaping across the shallow stream. His determination propelled him onward, but he could not keep the pace up for long. Already, his arms and legs burned with exhaustion, his empty stomach groaned.
The boar pounded ahead, dodging grasping branches and leaping over moss-covered logs. Jaeden began to close the gap, lengthening his strides. The boar ducked under a hanging log. Jaeden jumped on top of trunk and halted, watching the animal flee for its life. Jaeden closed one eye, took a deep breath, grabbed an arrow from his quiver, and stretched the bowstring back. His chest expanded, still holding his breath, watching the boar fade into the shadows of the forest. Raindrops dripped down from the overhanging trees, landing on his hair, tickling and irritating him. Heavier drops tapped on his cloak and fell onto his hand as he aimed steadily on the boar.
He released his last arrow.
It glided through the air and struck true. The wild boar tumbled to the ground, disappearing into the underbrush.
Jaeden exhaled with relief and dropped from the log. He snuck up on the animal, knowing that with its last ounce of life it could strike at him. He noticed a streak of blood stretching out into the shrubs. He followed it further into the forest, eying the blood smeared on the ground, holding his bow with both hands, ready to strike.
As he followed the small stream of blood, thunderous clouds rumbled above him. Rain showered down. Blood ran across the rocks and leaf-covered ground. He followed the trace before it disappeared.
Ducking under a low hanging oak branch, he emerged to gaze at an enormous banyan tree. Its thick roots stretched out further into the forest, and between the limbs were dark crevices. Next to one of the roots was the boar. It was spread across the ground, staring at one of the openings, lungs rising and falling with deep but ragged breaths. Jaeden glanced at the arrow through its leg. The shot had ripped through the limb, and the boar’s dash through the woods had only worsened the damage. A stream of blood merged with the rain and streamed down into a shallow puddle.
Jaeden carefully approached the boar with his hands out, showing the animal he didn’t intend it any further harm. He crept up and crouched down, putting his bow over his shoulder. He wanted to pull the arrow out, wanted to put the beast out of its misery, but the boar stared at him, grunting with each painful breath. Raindrops thudded onto its body and ran down its cheek. It almost seemed as if it were crying.
A soft cry came from under the tree roots, and Jaeden lifted his gaze. A sounder of young boars crept out from the shadows, sniffing the air.
At that moment, Jaeden’s shuffled backward. The sight of the young boars watching what was clearly their mother stole his breath. The raindrops turned to tears, running down his face. He tried to control his wild emotions, taking short, ragged breaths, but he couldn’t stop himself. The soft cries and snorting noises of the young pups clenched his heart. He watched as they all lay down beside the struggling sow—without their mother, nature would soon claim them, too.
He had thought he could do anything to survive. Almost anything. Not this. He could not be proud of this. What was he even doing out here?
Jaeden stepped back from the grim scene. Maybe it the sadness stirring in him came from memories of his father, or perhaps he genuinely cared about this animal and regretted taking the life of another parent, causing another to suffer as he did.
Jaeden took off his cloak and tossed it over the injured boar, leaning onto it. The infants dashed back into the cave as Jaeden wrestled the sow. It grunted and kicked its leg, thrashing about to throw him off but he pressed his chest down on its torso and held its neck down. The wild animal whined and thrashed and Jaeden forced it to the ground, gripping the arrowhead. He snapped it off and pulled it through its leg. The boar squirmed and let out a piercing cry. The children returned their cries from the shadows. Jaeden pulled out the other end of the arrow and threw it to the ground. He leaped off the boar. It rolled out of the cloak, limping off to its children.
After some time, it appeared to Jaeden the boar would be fine. He picked up his cloak and left the family to rejoice in unity.
The sun appeared from the stormy clouds, shining in the forest, lighting up a brilliant spectrum of greens. Before the sun faded, consumed by another passing storm, Jaeden wiped the tear from his cheek and changed his path to follow the glistening sun ray.
He stands by his family, against all the odds that are thrown at them. Jaeden smiled, his father’s words warming his soul, as he headed off in the direction of Ettenhun.
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