Writer of the Strange and Fantastic
Growing up in southern Alabama, few things are as ever-present as pine trees. Everywhere you look their tall, narrow trunks rise up, capped in never-ending green needles that wind up blanketing the area in their brown, dead castoffs and grey cones littering the ground. I have always found them to be ugly trees, devoid of the character of broad white oaks and lacking the grace of stately pecans. Pines are nature’s filler: the tree called in when bland is the order of the day.
When I was young, our land was mostly open pasture, the product of decades of cattle farming. Almost moor-like, the pale, green sea was only occasionally broken up by bramble patches that produced juicy plump blackberries every fall. It was my happy realm of wandering and play where I conquered imagined kingdoms and fought endless wars against fearsome creatures of the mind.
One spot, in particular, was my favorite, though I only went there when my dad was working in that area because it was too far for my tiny legs to walk. There was a small spring that bubbled up from the middle of a thicket of scrubby plants and trickled out to make a thin creek. My dad once told me if you followed that brook long enough, you would find that it flowed into streams, which flowed into rivers, and if you followed them long enough, eventually down into Mobile Bay. I would leap across its banks and imagine myself following it, dreaming of getting into all sorts of adventures until I reached the vast Gulf of Mexico.
Occasionally, I would find tracks in the mud of the stream. My dad patiently identified them for me when I asked. The vast majority were raccoon tracks, of course; however, there were sporadic squirrel and opossum traces to be seen as well. I rarely saw the actual creatures that made the tracks, but one time, I did see a brace of tiny raccoon cubs peering out at me from under some briars before their dame hurried them away.
When I was six, my father sold off the herds of cattle and covered our land with a vast forest of pine saplings. Hundreds of acres, all planted in loblolly pine, spaced out in perfect rows like a marching army. He would walk with me to the edge of the rows, place his hand on my shoulder and remark, “That’s your college fund there, safer than any bank. Can't steal trees, Bobby, can't steal trees.”
The trees and I grew older. By the time I was 10, they were taller than I was. And by the time I could drive, my once pristine, grassy playground had turned into a thick, dank forest of scabby pines. You see, the planters, they put the trees so close together so they will reach up to get sunlight and grow tall and straight. But, this leaves the undergrowth to be dark and unwelcoming. What little sunlight that streams through coaxes a few straggling briars to life, and not much else.
A pine farm like that is the closest thing to a desert Alabama gets. It is a wasteland with nothing growing there to truly sustain life, beyond the occasional bird. Even deer, which cover the state like fleas on a mangy dog, avoid them as much as possible.
When the planters put down the rows of saplings, they plant them wherever possible. Very few places avoid their coverage, but areas like my little spring tend to get planted around. So, you end up with the equivalent of a tiny oasis of life in the middle of those sterile wilds. A few scattered animals are forced to stay in a miniscule area, struggling to survive in a much reduced homeland.
When I was getting ready to go off to college, I decided to walk back to that little stream, which was something I hadn't done in over a decade. I planned to take a literal walk down memory lane and try to recall what it was like to roam those low hills before the growing trees and passing years choked my childhood to death.
When you walk through a natural forest, if you walk long enough, you will eventually stumble on a game trail, which makes the going much easier. That’s not so on a pine plantation. As the trees grow taller, more light comes through, but all that seems to do is give the hardy briars the little bit extra they needed to completely overwhelm the underbrush. Practically every step was dogged by pulling briars, which quickly caused me to regret my decision. Beads of blood dotted my arms and legs as sharp needles broke through the denim of my pants and coat to nick me. It’s hard to think about the past when the present is such a struggle, so I was soon lost in the repetition of tugging the briars that pulled against my clothes and flesh and with frequent pauses to pull especially vicious barbs from me.
After some time, I eventually made it to my brook. Time had not been kind. Over the years, the once forcefully bubbling stream had wilted to a stagnant trickle, perhaps because the thirsty pines in the area had put so much strain on the small spring that fed it. It was the height of blackberry season, yet the few that were growing were tiny and withered. They looked more like soured raisins than the full berries of my youth.
I strode over to the rivulet and stood by it, remembering imagined trips to the Gulf, and a faint smile flickered across my face. I crouched down, letting my fingers drift through the tiny current, and felt its coldness wash around my fingertips.
I noticed some tracks crisscrossing the brook and peered at them. Half-remembered lessons from my dad and the boy scouts dredged up from the depths of my mind and told me they looked like raccoon tracks. They were long, skinny raccoon tracks.
I rose up and shook the droplets of water from my fingers before wiping my hand on my jeans. I put my hands in my pockets against the chill of the day and wondered what I was doing there. It made me sad that a place that was once so entrancing barely held my attention for a few minutes these days. I was struck with a bitter longing to regain the simplicity of childhood. I looked out at the ceaseless progression of silent pines, the tall, narrow sentinels watching over the small fractured remains of my childhood. I had never hated them as fiercely as I did at that moment.
As I turned to leave, a faint rustling in the thicket caught my attention. I looked left, and standing on the edge of the scraggly briars was an emaciated raccoon. Its thin fur was mottled and discolored, and its legs were oddly misshapen, the product of too many generations of inbreeding. It hissed after me in a haggard fashion and came staggering in my direction, but was too slow to be a real threat.
Shaking my head sadly, I turned and stalked off into the gloomy undergrowth of the pine forest and left the creek behind. I have not been back since.
This is the first story I ever had published, many years ago in the Rubicon, the Troy University Literary Journal. Since that is virtually impossible to find, here it is in its entirety for you to enjoy, for free.
Tales by Bob
The first fantasy story I wrote as an adult, The Wolf features my character Valko Nayden, the wolfhunter. These stories try to capture the feel of the haunted forests of Eastern Europe, in a world where magic is real.
The wind was biting as it fought to tear through Valko's worn coat, causing the grey cloak he wore to flap angrily behind him. He had long given up on trying to keep it pulled tight around him as he guided his horse along the narrow road to Sturmbad. The trees grew up to the very edge of the path, their limbs devoid of green. What few leaves that hadn't been ripped clear by the winter wind were dead and brown. Drifts of their fallen brothers swirled around the hooves of the horse, rustling fiercely past.
Carried on the wind he heard the distant howl of a wolf. He waited for others to join in, but none did. Only the one wolf cried out, long lingering howls that echoed through the forest, seeming to come from all sides to the inexperienced ear. Valko just grinned.
Dusk was falling rapidly when he came upon the outskirts of the town. Small squares of warm yellow light shown from the mix of buildings that made up Sturmbad. Most were made of wood or sod, but at the center of the town he saw a large two story building, its first floor made of stone. It towered above the much poorer homes around it and even from this distance he could hear the sounds of people within.
Above its front door a battered sign creaked noisily in the blowing wind, lit by a rusted lantern and showing the image of what might have at one time been an elk. Shaking his head at the poor representation he climbed off of his mount and guided it around to the small stables built onto the side where a youth of about nine guided her into its hay filled depths. He paused long enough to grab his saddlebags and bow from the saddle, then made his way inside.
His attempt to enter quietly was foiled by the wind catching the door and slamming it open, causing everyone to look in his direction. The inn was full of rough looking men, woodcutters and shepherds from the looks of things, men with long thick beards and rough homespun clothes in simple colours. If their gazes lingered a moment over his bow they were at least polite enough to not stare openly before returning to their drinks and games of bones and sticks.
Behind the bar stood a hugely fat man with a patchy beard that he scratched as Valko approached. Leaning his unstrung bow against the bar he reached into a pouch on his belt and set a couple of small coins in front of him. “A mug of what’s cheap. And I need a room.”
The fat man eyed the coins as though they might attempt to run away while pouring a clay cup with watery looking ale. “That’s not enough for a room. We take money up front these days.”
Valko reached into his coat, removing a folded piece of parchment. “I though you might cut me a deal.” He unfolded the paper laying it flat on the counter. It read:
Wanted: Wolf Hunters
The Towne of Sturmbad offers 20 gold coins
To whoever kills the Black Wolf,
Who has been a menace to its herds these past months
Enquire at the Forest King Inne
The innkeeper glanced at the sheet and nodded. “I should warn you, you are not the first to try. Two have given up, and one, Aethel of Bost was killed by it.”
“Aethel was a drunk. He likely went out after drinking and made himself easy prey like a fool.” He extended his hand to the man. “I am Valko Nayden”
Fat fingers wrapped around the hunters hand, sweaty and thick. “I am Durgan. I am also the mayor here, it is I who will pay you if you succeed. I have heard a bit of you. They say you are an exceptional hunter.” He looked closely at Valko. Leaning back onto the bar he thought for a moment. “I will deduct your stay from the gold if you kill it.”
The hunter nodded, taking a sip of his drink. “What can you tell me of it?”
Durgan started wiping down the bar top needlessly. “It started killing in the spring. Mostly picking off spring lambs and the like, but within a month it had moved on to grown sheep, even a small cow. Bold, though. It would take a sheep in broad day with a shepherd standing not thirty feet away. And smart. It never let itself be seen by anyone with a bow.
“It was just after the summers festival that it killed one of us.” He shook his head. “Martin was a shepherd, oldest of a few brothers who shared grazing over by the Tahlbrook. Found him one morning with his throat ripped out. Since then, it’s killed three more folks besides Aethel and Martin, and so many herd beasts that we’ve lost count.”
“We’ve tried for months to kill it, poison, traps, hunting, you name it. Nothing. We’ve killed a few wolves to be sure, but not that black one. You’ve out your work cut out for you, that’s for sure.”
Valko nodded slightly and downed his drink. Two more coins appeared. “Another.”
The wind had thankfully died by the next day, allowing it to warm slightly, in spite of the steady cloud cover. The hunter, horse left in the stable, stalked through the woods with bow in hand. He walked slowly, but purposefully, head cocked as though listening to distant sounds more often than not.
An evening spent plying the locals with drinks had gotten him far more information than he needed, but once he shifted the chaff he was left with a rough drawn map that showed him the range of the beast he felt. An abandoned mill sat near the middle of this area, and it was here he decided to base himself out of as he hunted.
A morning spent trekking through mist-shrouded woodlands had found him nothing but a surprising abundance of wildlife. The woods were thick with all manner of animals, from deer to smaller game like squirrels and hares. It was clear that nature had gotten out of balance, likely from the villagers having killed most of the wolves.
The forest was an old one, almost completely untouched by man, who kept themselves to the open patches of land. Everywhere he went a thick layer of leaves blanketed the ground, a foot or more thick in some places. It was a land that would be beautiful come the spring, but for now it was a haunted land of greys and browns.
Not long after he paused for a lunch of bread with a bit of cheese the clouds began to open up bringing a cold drizzle of rain. The drops pattered on the leaves crisply until they had at last soaked the landscape, turning it even darker than it had been that morning. Knowing what little hope he had for finding the wolf that day was now gone he made for the hoped dryness of the mill.
Pulling his cloak tightly about him he unstrung his bow to keep its string dry, carefully tucking it into his belt pouch. Grimly he strode toward the direction of the Tahlbrook, which he came upon within a half mile of trudging. It was a quickly flowing stream, one that he knew would eventually flow into the Herg River thirty miles away. But here it was a thin snake, a dozen feet deep and twice again as wide. In the spring it would likely double in size from snowmelt to the north, but that was months away still.
Following along its length he walked along the forests edge, careful to not step upon the rain slicked rocks that lined most of the creeks windings. The flowing of the creek coupled with the falling rain made it hard to hear around him, but at least twice he could have sworn he heard the call of a wolf, though from what direction it might have come he could not tell. He even took to walking with the hood of his cloak off so that he might hear better, but it was to no avail.
An hour’s trek found him overlooking the mill. The wheel still creaked slowly in the millpond, though many of its paddles were missing. He could also see a large hole in the roof, and that several of the wooden window shudders were fallen off of their hinges. It looked solid enough however, and was sure to be dryer than the steadily increasing rainstorm he was standing in, so after a minute of contemplation he headed inside.
He was surprised by how clean it was inside. It was dusty in places, but what little furniture remained was standing and intact, looking to be in good shape. There was a table with a pair of chairs, a long bench by the fireplace, and the ladder leading up into the loft, which was the likely sleeping area looked solid as well. Had it not been for the hole in the roof, which left the back right corner of the home open, and was thoroughly drenched by the time he got inside, it would have been quite nice.
It would be a few hours until dark yet, so he set climbed up into the loft and made himself a pallet on the floor to sleep on. He took time to oil his bow and restring it while he ate a bit more bread with a hunk of jerked beef, which he washed down with water from his pack. Hanging most of his clothes from the banister of the loft so they could dry, he decided against a fire, instead lighting a candle and taking out a small leather bound book, which he proceeded to read.
He was not sure how long he had been asleep, only that the candle had gone out. He knew what had awakened him however: the sound of the door slamming open. Quietly as he could he grabbed his bow and quiver and eased over to the railing of the loft.
It took a moment for his eyes to adjust fully, but he could see a shape moving around in the darkness below. The rain had stopped at last it seemed, though thunder rumbled thickly in the distance, signaling that there would be more to come soon. He notched an arrow, peering into the gloom.
A patch of black was moving around down there so deep that it managed to stand out from the nighttime darkness. Valko could see it now, and tell it was a jet-black wolf, surely his prey. Not believing his good luck he slowly raised his bow to take a shot when the unexpected happened.
The wolf stood on its hind legs, growing long and taller suddenly with a sickening noise of bones crackling and popping. It shook itself fiercely, and its skin came off, falling to the floor in one solid piece. Standing there, pale, bare skin practically glowing in the faint hint of moonlight that pooled through the hole in the roof, was a long black haired woman of tremendous beauty. She reached down, taking up the wolf skin and draped it across the bench before the fireplace. Snapping her finger and voicing a word a blazing fire erupted in it, bringing light to the room at last.
A witch woman, thought Valko to himself. He pulled back the arrow to shoot her when she spoke. She faced away from him, turned to the fire, slowly rubbing her arms with her hands.
“I see you there hunter. I think I am not what you expected. Yes?”
Valko squatted there in silence, but did not loose his arrow.
“You have come seeking the black wolf I think, but have found me instead.” She turned to face him at last, making no move to cover her nakedness. “So what will you do then? Kill a defenseless woman?”
Valko snorted with abrupt laughter. “You’ve killed five men…”
“Four!” she protested. “The wolf hunter before you, he was drunk and fell crossing the Tahlbrook. He drowned, that was no doing of mine.”
“Four then. Four innocent shepherds dead now because of you.”
Her face blazed with anger, and behind her the fire roared higher to match. “Innocent!? Bah! Those men, and two others raped me, and left me for dead! They deserve to die!”
Valko grimaced. “That’s a matter for the Kings Man, not for you to handle. What you’ve done, that’s murder. I don’t want to kill you. Let me take you into town and I’ll make sure you get a fair trial.”
“I will never go back there. Never!” With a leap she tried to take up the wolf skin and throw it over her shoulders. The hunter was quicker though, launching an arrow through its hide, pinning it to the bench.
The woman snarled, wolflike, and bolted for the doorway. Another arrow arched across the room driving itself into the frame, stopping her in her tracks. She wheeled about, hair beginning to crackle with energy as she began muttering words of power. “You don’t want to do this…” the hunter tried reasoning. As her words increased in intensity he launched one last arrow, striking her just above her heart, spinning her around and down to the ground.
He rushed down the ladder, not bothering to throw on his likely still wet clothes, and ran to her side. She was plucking futilely at the arrow sticking from her, blood coming from her mouth. “Tell me their names, and I will get you justice. I am a Nayden, a Kings Man.”
For a moment the madness cleared from her eyes, and he saw the woman she might have been, and he felt his soul tear a little at the sight. She gasped out two names, splattering a bit of blood on his cheek as she did so. He held her head close as she died, and when she at last slumped and lay still he placed her body on the table, covering it with the wolf skin.
Three days later he rode into Sturmbad, the wolfskin draped across his shoulders. Behind him, near the mill was a small cairn of stones built under an ancient oak tree. Hanging from its boughs were two men, a better marker than any she would have asked for.