Lauren hated the tiny snakes – about four inches long, kinda like worms, but green and scaly – in the long grasses. For that reason alone they had chosen the hillside, but now that plan was moot. She didn’t want to go, but Gabriel was right: the trees weren’t protecting them. Before completely abandoning Judas, he wanted to try the meadow, though they wouldn’t need meat for a while. Their kill would likely be scavenged by all sorts, monsters and people alike, but so long as they minded their own business, Lauren wouldn’t be territorial over their kill. It wasn’t exactly like the meat could be refrigerated anyway.
Lauren watched Gabriel drop a plastic bag – presumably laden with monster meat – into the creek to keep it fresh and nearby. “You should get some rest,” she told him. Their routine had her on watch during the day, and him at night, with both of htem hunting or keeping camp at dawn and dusk. It was well past sunrise now, and if he didn’t sleep soon, he’d be too weak to keep watch on his own tonight.
“I’m fine.” He clearly wasn’t.
“Look, if I slept now, the slithers –” Lauren’s name for the tiny snakes – “are going to be drawn to this.” He exposed the inside of his arm, where blood was steadily oozing from the wound the monster’s horn had gouged earlier. The next moment he pulled it away again, wiping the excess blood against his core, where he had evidently been painting his gray t-shirt since the incident. “It needs to be cauterized.” They both knew that. “And for that, we need a fire. And to protect that fire from the storm, we need a shelter.”
“It’s not going to storm,” Lauren countered.
“It’s like this every day. It burns off by noon or so.” She smiled at him, confident. “You don’t know because you’re normally sleeping by then.” Like he should be now.
“This doesn’t feel different to you?” he asked, peering keenly across the horizon.
“Not really, no.” Wet was wet, wasn’t it? “I’ll make you a deal,” she offered. “If it’s not a torrential downpour by noon, you settle down for a nap like a normal human being, okay?”
For a long moment, Lauren was afraid he wouldn’t answer her. Instead Gabriel was just staring at the trees in the direction of their former camp, again wiping his oozing arm across his shirt absently.
“Gabriel?” What was he looking at? If anything real.
Her question seemed to snap him out of his reverie. “Fine. Deal. But until then, we keep working.” He glanced around the spot she had chosen for their new camp – along the banks of the fast-flowing creek and near the only copse of trees in the meadow. They’d be helpful in building a quick shelter. “Did you want to make a salvage run first, or stay here and find some dry wood and rocks?” The rocks were for the fire, she understood. Any stones they’d pull from the creek would be a bad idea to put next to the campfire.
“You okay hauling stuff on that arm?” she asked, seeing smears of red down to his wrist as well as along his shirt.
“I’m not the one I’m worried about.” He wouldn’t admit defeat to what he saw as a small injury.
She smiled at him, trying to ease his nerves after the last encounter. “Hurry back, then.”
“Of course I will. Because when I come back, you get to make the next salvage run.”
It was as close as he usually got to joking with her. “Yes, sir,” she smiled back, saluting and hefting her axe.
Lauren was convinced she detected a grin in that eye roll before they parted ways.
Over the next few hours, they slowly put the lean-to together. Mostly they used what could be collected from their former camp, trading off between salvaging and rebuilding. Lauren watched the skies as she worked, and to her disappointment, they grew more – not less – gloomy. Their former camp was only a quarter of a mile or so away; therefore, she was even able to harvest some of the coals from their fire that morning. She used her axe to split a line for ventilation lengthwise along a long-dead log, then carved soft splinters from the center of the top. Combining that wood with the coals, she was able to coax flames to join them again.
By noon it had begun to drizzle. “It’s not torrential,” she told Gabriel when he returned, her partially-woven roof in tow. She had chosen her words with intention.
He looked up, letting the rain wash his face and hair. She couldn’t help but admire him in that moment. His courage, his understanding. His tenacity to work even when he had every opportunity to rest. He was a good man.
Then he blew a droplet off his nose and was back to being Gabriel again. “It’s enough to put that fire out.” The rain. He nodded to her meager and cold flames.
“It just needs to be fed.” To prove her point, she wedged her knife into the split in the log and twisted it. Air raced up the new path and the flame answered with an extra few inches. So there! In this wilderness, it was with pride that she called herself the fire tamer. It obeyed her.
“It’s a fire, not a pet,” Gabriel reminded her. He hefted the woven branches in her direction. “Help me with this?”
By the time they got it up – and staying up – the skies had opened up into an undeniable downpour. The waxy cedar greens formed a decent shield underneath, and sturdy enough to hold the weight of the pine needles, which served to direct the water away. It would keep them and their fire dry enough until the storm passed.
Lauren watched Gabriel rub his oozing arm against his shirt again, seemingly unaware of his actions as he studied their work. She knew without asking that he was watching for dripping in their roof.
“It’s itching, isn’t it?” she asked instead.
“What?” Then he seemed to comprehend her question fully. “It’s annoying, that’s all.” As if the matter were settled, he turned his back on her, examining the far edge of their humble shelter. “We’re going to need more rope soon.”
“Gabriel.” Lauren stepped past the growing campfire to meet his eyes again. They both knew that there was something about the home-wrecker horns that infected whatever they skewered. “If we don’t cauterize it soon –” The sight of the blood drying slowly on his shirt caught the words in her throat.
Gabriel put his hand on her shoulder. Lauren knew he was trying to comfort her, but it only served to expose his injuries more. “If you get yourself in a dangerous situation, I’m not coming after you. And you don’t come back to protect me, if the situation is reversed. You keep living. Understood?” She understood enough to know he didn’t want it to be her suffering that injury.
But Lauren had no intentions of dying anytime soon. She did, however, see an opportunity to bargain. Whatever it took to get him to rest. “Yes,” she responded. “Only if you don’t wait until it’s too late.” She understood his reluctance – cauterizing was a torturous process – but it was better than having to amputate. “Please.”
He only watched her a moment longer before releasing her shoulder and sighing, hanging his head. That was enough to let Lauren know that he would acquiesce. She waited until he nodded, though, then flicked open her knife and wedged it between two rocks near the fire to heat it.
She could hear him wrapping what little rope they had left around the tree that supported their shelter, and looked up in time to see him slide his calloused fist between the twine and the bark, bracing himself to keep the arm open to her work. They’d been through this before, but it didn’t make the hot metal hurt any less. They could only prepare and hope they didn’t draw too much attention with his screams.
“Do it,” he ordered, looking away from his outstretched arm. Instead his eyes landed on the fire over her shoulder. She suddenly didn’t want to.
Lauren’s knife was likely plenty hot enough now, so she used a cloth to grip the handle, knocking any loose ash free on the rock. “You should really read,” she told him, speaking more to distract him than reprimand. “When I was younger, I’d read a book a week.”
“That explains a lot.” His gruff answer was only to hide his fear of the next few moments, she knew.
Lauren lifted her knife, knowing that time was of the essence now. “You’re just saying that because you’re –” She pressed the flat of the hot blade into the oozing wound.
His yell of agony robbed the breath from her throat too, even louder so close to her ear. She felt him crumple toward the pain, into her back and shoulder. But she didn’t allow herself to let up, instead keeping her eyes on the wound as she turned the knife with a fresh sizzle. It took all her effort just to keep her own composure as he bit the back of her shirt in an effort to stifle his screams. She could smell the meat of his arm searing, like the dinner she was hoping to prepare that night.
“– Jealous,” she finished. Gabriel’s howls had turned to ragged gasps into her hair. “That’s it. It’s over.” She saw his tanned-turned-white hand fade back to its normal color as he released the rope.
“Thank you.” He only managed a whisper in her ear.
“I’m sorry.” She couldn’t meet his eyes, so she continued to watch his hand as it abandoned the brace on the tree altogether.
His other palm landed on her shoulder, patted it once, then all his weight disappeared from her entirely.
Lauren took a moment, staring into the rain, to collect herself. She’d forgotten how much she hated doing that. Hunting and killing animals was fine – it was part of life now – but to hurt a human that had done her no harm was unfathomable. Unforgivable. Worse, she hated hurting Gabriel in any way.
She she took a deep breath and held it, forcing herself to smile before spinning on her heel to face him again. “Better?” she asked.
“No need to sound so chipper.” He had recovered his breath faster than she had. Gabriel’s eyes were still closed, neck stretched to their shelter overhead. “I think I will take that nap now.”
About an hour later the rain lightened, and Lauren felt brave enough to pull a book from her bag and read by the gaps in the clouds. Frankenstein. She’d read it before, but not recently. It was one of her favorites, too. A man-made monster, lost in the wilderness, trying to survive. Trying to figure out who he was. Hunted, with only books to keep him company. For a long time, that was her.
Lauren glanced at him, sleeping mere feet from her. He was twitching, likely form nightmares again. She didn’t know how to help him. Only give him the chance for peace while he rested.
The day slipped into evening, and with it the light faded away. So Lauren tucked her book back in its place, preparing the tough meat from their kill into a soup with some carrots she found not far from the edge of the meadow. As she cooked, she watched their meager pile of firewood dwindle. She may as well collect some before Gabriel woke. He shouldn’t have to risk splinters in his already-hurt arm.
Not far from camp, at the edge of the meadow, she found a fallen tree. The jagged wood at its base told her it was probably the wrecking-ball-rhino that had taken it down. Quite possibly the same one they’d killed that morning, now that she thought about it.
Working the axe blade out of the hard oak wood was at least as difficult as swinging into it. Slowly she managed a pile of branches and logs of varying thicknesses, each with a different purpose. Thin for fire-starting, and the thick ones could be put on the fire now to keep the slow burn through the night.
The evening’s light had nearly died when she heard the foreign sound mid-swing. The axe blade didn’t divert its momentum, biting deep into the wood. The felled tree resounded on impact, making the initial crack of a twig difficult to pinpoint. So she froze, leaving her axe where it was for the moment.
When Lauren didn’t’ hear anything, she held her breath. If the one who had broken the twig was prey, it would freeze, like she had, then resume. If it was a predator, it should begin to creep closer.
There, to her right. A small sucking sound of a paw – or foot – leaving the forest mud.
Lauren turned to face the noise, struggling to see anything in this weak light. She should have brought a torch. Nothing.
Then she saw it: a face, monochromatic and blue but a sneer clear in the last vestiges of moonlight. As soon as she saw him, Lauren spun, finding the axe handle where she left it and tugging. The dead oak didn’t want to give it up. Panic made her hands slick, and the night kept the handle hostage.
Lauren glanced back to where she had seen the glaring man. Nothing. Had she imagined it?
Snap. This time from immediately behind her.
She didn’t even see the thin metal wire cross her line of vision, only felt it as it dug into her throat. Air locked into place at the metal’s command. She couldn’t breathe! She could only feel her skin gatherign under her nails as she shredded at her throat, trying to get the merciless wire away.
Gabriel! Where was he? Asleep, as she’d left him. But she needed him! Lauren was trapped, unable to even collect the air she needed to shout and rouse him.
Terror swept over her as she struggled, quickly followed by a darkness soaking the edges of her vision – one she couldn’t attribute to the setting sun. Giving up on her throat, she reached for the axe again, if for no other reason that the comfort it provided when she felt the handle against her palm.
It eluded her, taunting her fingertips as the blackness closed in.
When Lauren awoke again, the sharp pain of the cutting wire had moved from her throat to her wrists. She was seated on the ground, propped up against the tree. Her hands were up, and cold, crossed over her chest as if she were a corpse, ready to be buried. The metal cable forced her hands back, past her shoulders, and held her spine flat against the tree.
“There she is. Good morning sunshine!” There was nothing good about how she felt.
Lauren’s eyes were the last to start working, but when they did, the first thing they told her was that it was still night. Next they landed directly on a woman squatting in front of her. Apparently the stranger was talking to Lauren. The woman was maybe ten years older than her – it was the best guess she could muster by the firelight – and had stringy clumps of hair swaying gently as the woman bounced on the balls of her feet, watching Lauren expectantly.
After the strangulation, it felt like her voice had to claw its way out of her throat. “What?” Lauren had to ask.
“Coast is clear, Hannah. No one followed us.” The voice came from over Lauren’s shoulder. The man behind it stepped into their line of sight, standing tall above the crouching woman. Hannah. Lauren’s mind assembled the information slowly.
Hannah nodded, but her attention never left Lauren. “What do you know about a key? One that can let us into the walled city?”
“Huh?” She didn’t mean Gabriel’s key, did she? How could they possibly know about that?
“A key. The key,” Hannah repeated. “Rumor has it someone in this area has that key. Someone like you. It’s not on you, so tell me where it is.” A shiver struck through her at the thought that any one of them might have searched her thoroughly enough to be confident in that fact.
She wasn’t going to say anything. Lauren’s wits were returning now, enough to stop her from giving up Gabriel. “I don’t have it.”
“So it does exist.” Hannah’s response was almost immediate and not what Lauren had expected. Oops. “You must know where it is.”
Lauren decided it was wiser to keep her trap shut.
“Look honey. I’m more than happy to burn this whole forest down to find it, you included.” Hannah slid a step closer without standing from her squat. “Or you can tell me where it is, and we’ll both go on our merry ways. Agreed?” Her breath was awful.
Lauren refused to say a single word.
Gabriel’s eyes opened slowly, reluctant to give up the last bit of sleep. His body had needed it, and didn’t even mind the new shelter that much. When his eyes opened again, this time they noticed the lack of sunlight outside. It was his shift? Why hadn’t Lauren woken him sooner?
Sliding the blankets and tattered sleeping bag aside, he sat up, lifting the cover from the shelter to fully see the campfire on the other side. As he did, he detected a hint of smoke. Not the pleasant, sweet scent of wood burning, but something far more acrid. Food? Whatever Lauren had put on was burning.
Annoyed, Gabriel snatched his machete, suing it to lift the tiny cauldron from the coals. The soup was overdone, verging on mush, so Gabriel scooped some water from the creek and added it back to the pot. No need to waste what was left.
Where was she? A quick glance at the sky told him that they were several hours past sunset, the time they both knew she was supposed to wake him. She must have decided it was nicer to let him sleep. As much as he appreciated it, his irritation at her kindness was overriding everything else. She knew better.
She wasn’t anywhere near the campsite. Out getting more wood? They decidedly needed it. Gabriel stopped what he was doing, listening to the night. No chopping sounds. But her books were in their usual place, and her axe wasn’t.
Gabriel only managed to wait about two minutes for her. Silence.
Pulling a long but thin oak log from the fire to use as a torch, Gabriel started to walk the perimeter of their meadow.
He was barely a quarter of the way around when a glint of firelight caught his attention. No, it was too small to be an actual fire. More like a shimmering answer to his own torch. What could be out here and that reflective? Obviously it wouldn’t be a lake, not if Gabriel wasn’t looking straight down at it. Not moving water either. No sound of that but the creek behind him.
Gabriel quieted his step in the soft, wet grasses as he approached, alert for any threat. A voice in his head mocked him, pointing out that the torch was far more telling of his presence than his soft step. Never mind. The glint was a thing, not a monster.
An axe. It was upright, blade biting deep into an ambitiously sized fallen oak. Lauren’s axe. The sight shook Gabriel’s core and stopped his feet still yards from the scene. He had been prepared to accept the fact that she was out there, wandering uncomfortably far from camp as she explored the forest. Probably even singing to the animals she came across instead of hunting them. But out there, unarmed? In the dark, without telling him how to find her? Alone?
Or worse, not alone. Monsters he would kill because he needed to, but when it came to humans, the mere thought sent his lip into a violent curl.
Gabriel kept his eyes in the mud as he stepped from the meadow to the forest, spotting Lauren’s footprints easily. The toe of the mark was deeper than the rest – she must have pranced. If there was a threat, she hadn’t detected it. That didn’t mean much.
The moment he reached the felled tree, Gabriel’s increasingly racing heart stopped cold. The ground had been turned to mush with clear signs of struggle. The thrashed ground seemed confined to this area, with one deep set of prints – human, but not Lauren’s – leading away from the scene.
Fear turned to fury in the back of Gabriel’s throat as he hefted the axe free with a mighty yank. It was time for him to go from prey to predator.