Kor knelt in mulberry-colored ferns, squinting to see his target clearly. The stag’s rich russet coat blended in with the massive borwood tree behind it. A grin touched the corners of the young man’s mouth. Easy, he thought, nocking an arrow to his bowstring and drawing back.
It was a masterful shot…in any other forest. But this was the Borwood Timberland.
A scream rent the air.
Kor jolted and leapt to his feet. The arrow ripped through empty space where the deer had been standing just moments before. It thunked into the tree beyond, quivering on impact, and the target bounded into the undergrowth unharmed. A fresh supply of meat and provisions, gone.
The forester groaned. Judging by its size, the deer would have lasted through the next season, perhaps longer. He could hunt through winter if needed, but winter in Perabon meant rain, sleet, and kyrfrost—all of which made hunting a miserable task.
A soft, rolling cluck sounded overhead, like laughter.
At the sound, Kor clenched his jaw and raised his eyes. Titan-sized borwood trees rose around him like sentinels guarding an ancient, overgrown prison. Their wide branches pierced the cobalt sky. And perched on one of the massive limbs high above was a tiny, round bird. It fluffed brown feathers in a dignified manner and clicked its orange beak as though mocking him. Kor snatched up a handful of twigs and launched them in quick succession. The bird fluttered lightly from the branch, easily evading the projectiles, and uttered a taunting squawk before flying away. Kor glared after it.
Screaming hens were mischievous forest birds, dropping debris on victims at random and screeching to scare away predators and prey alike. They acted seemingly without reason. This particular hen had sabotaged Kor’s hunt once already, just after dawn. He glanced briefly at the sky, massaging the muscles in his drawing arm. The sun was far past its zenith.
Slapping dirt and fragments of rotting leaves from his staghide pants, he trudged through waist-high ferns to retrieve his arrow. He braced one foot against the mammoth borwood trunk and pulled.
The tree, a massive species unique to the Borwood Timberland, was wider than Kor could reach and taller than he could see. Eager to assert itself over the puny man before it, the tree clung to its prize. But Kor had met with the stubbornness of borwoods many times before and he pulled all the harder. The long stone tip finally came free. He stumbled back, shaking the arrow at the borwood indignantly. A creaking groan of protest seemed to emanate from its branches. Kor ignored it. It was only a tree after all.
Another scream split the air. He spun, eyes burning with anger as he nocked the arrow to his bowstring and drew back. Taking aim, he searched the high canopy of leaves overhead for the hen.
The scream came again—human and feminine.
Eyes wide with disbelief, Kor slowly let out the tension on his bowstring. For as long as he could remember, he had lived and hunted in the forest, and for as long as he could remember, nearly everyone else stayed out.
A guttural growl rumbled the trees around him. Goosebumps prickled his skin and his palms grew clammy. “Borlan.” He turned to leave, flipping the arrow over his shoulder and slipping it into the quiver on his back.
Another scream, followed by a roar. Kor hesitated, then dropped his chin to his chest with a heavy sigh. He squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his lips together. Two rules. Only two rules, Kor, and you’re about to break the second. “Blast.”
He sprinted toward the sound, bow in hand. Wide, ribbony fern leaves whipped at his thighs as he ran. He skirted a shattered wreck of a branch that had broken from a borwood tree, and vaulted a smaller fallen limb. The rest of the way was mostly clear, except for the thick purple ferns and occasional snaking roots.
The borlan’s growls grew louder as Kor drew closer and slid behind a tree. Kor pressed his back against the bark and forced down deep, steady breaths. Then he sidled along the trunk to peer around its enormous bulk. A few rods away, the borlan stood on its hind legs, forepaws planted on a borwood tree. Matted chestnut fur covered its broad back; short spines curved out through the shaggy hair at uneven intervals, and trailed down the back of the forelegs.
It snarled and snapped up at the high branches. The lower trunk of the tree was mostly bare of large limbs. Kor followed the beast’s gaze up the small nubs and spindly twigs protruding from the bark to an enormous bough. A young woman stood there, clinging to the tree trunk, just out of reach of the creature.
Safe, for the moment.
The borlan reared back, slamming foreclaws into the tree and shredding blocks of bark. It pushed off and hurled itself again and again at the trunk. Under the attacks, the tree seemed to groan and shudder. Kor drew back instinctively. He knew it would not fall. Even so, a shiver of fear went down his spine at the sight—the borlan, nearly four men in height on its hind legs, shaking a tree unfathomably taller. He gripped the spiral pendant under his shirt. A constant, almost imperceptible tingle came from the bone piece, bolstering his courage and strength.
The borlan dropped to all fours and dug at the base of the tree, sending chunks of bark and moss flying. Kor moved quickly, quietly, keeping an eye on his surroundings as he edged around the borlan. When the beast’s side was angled toward him, he crouched behind a borwood tree and slipped his supply pack from his shoulders to better free up the quiver of arrows on his back. He drew an arrow and poked his head around the trunk. A chill breeze blew past. With it came the unmistakable musky odor of the borlan. The breeze tousled Kor’s hair, tugging gently as though urging him to flee. Kor ignored it.
He eyed a spot behind the borlan’s right foreleg—not a deadly shot, but the best he had under the circumstances. An arrow there would collapse one of the beast’s three lungs and slow it, if only a little. More importantly, it would turn the beast toward Kor.
With the borlan facing the tree as it was, its heart, the most vulnerable spot in its body, was inaccessible. The heart was located closer to the front of its nearly bald, leathery chest. Behind the heart, under all the fur and muscle on its back, grew a bone plate. That bone was impenetrable, even for Kor’s vristone arrowheads. But the hardened cartilage growing over the front of the heart was not. Kor’s stone-tip arrows were just long enough to penetrate the chest hide, muscle, and cartilage, and still pierce the heart beneath.
He just needed the beast to turn.
Another breeze tugged his locks. Kor tossed his head dismissively, as if warding off a pest. With a careful breath in, he drew back on the bowstring.
Only two rules. The thought pestered him, though he tried to ignore it. Stay away from the heart of the forest, and never hunt borlan.
Another good shot. Or it would have been, had the beast not moved at the last moment. It rose on its hind legs, staggering to the right with the movement. The arrow lodged in its lower back, missing the lungs. An enraged bellow hammered Kor’s eardrums and shook the forest. Kor stumbled back at the concussive sound and tripped over a root. As he tried to regain his balance, he stepped hard on an unusually spongy section of ground beneath the ferns.
The ground gave way.
His foot plunged into a tangle of vine-like roots below and the bow flew from his grasp as he sprawled on his back on the forest floor. He jerked his foot, trying to free it from the roots, but it wouldn’t budge.
Several rods away, the borlan twisted to bat at the arrow. The feathered end of the wooden shaft broke off. Kor scrambled back, wrenching again at his root-tangled foot, trying to reach his bow. A root around his leather boot snapped, but that was all. His foot remained ensnared. He glanced up, breath catching in his throat as the beast turned round, beady eyes on him. The spines on its back and forelegs popped out farther as it dropped to all fours and charged with a deafening roar.