Chapter 16: Pursuit
Days passed while Les lay motionless along the walk beside the alley where the two rotting corpses attracted flies, vultures, and scavenging beetles. He could hear the sounds of the world as it carried on without him. Once and again, he tried to open his eyes and found the city of Dem swirling around him, rolling back and forth, under and through him with dizzying vibrations. He was content to close his eyes again and listen to the world resonate garbled messages of self-fulfillment and pleasure quests in the garden of vice where he lay.
From the east, a dark mist floated past the city gates and drifted in, around, and through the grimy walls of Dem’s barracks and chambers, up alleys and down— searching. At last, it came to hover above the pathetic form of a man who was less than a man. His shriveled form lay as if splattered against the filthy pavement in an unnatural puddle, suggesting an invertebrate creature had been poured out of a bowl.
The Shadow slowly descended and fluttered around the man who was less than a man. It seeped into the spineless mass through his eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin. The puddle grew long and rigid, finding strength to roll over and rock itself up on wobbling knees. Blinking in the darkness, as if through a veil, the man who was less than a man peered through dull orbs and languished through dulled senses to comprehend his whereabouts. He had the sensation of floating. Drifting up from the pavement, he glided toward the eastern gate. Not understanding where he was going, or why, or how, he simply moved. He enjoyed the sensation of motion and purposed to let the wind carry him wherever seemed good. He had no goal or aim outside the draft that caught him up and propelled him forward. Destination was immaterial. Motion was all that mattered.
Les enjoyed the sensation of floating past the world around him. He could see the sights, hear the sounds, but they did not penetrate him. His pitiless eyes were unmoved by the tortured cries of the weaker vessels falling prey to the will of the strong and mighty. He witnessed robberies, ravishment, plunders, and murder. Marauders roamed the countryside below him in search of mischief; he saw it all like a spectator watching a stage play. It was all very entertaining. His heart was untouched by the suffering of society’s victims. After all, they were merely reaping the harvest of all they had sown. What right did they have to even feel regret or despair? Life is what each man makes it.
As he floated past the city walls, the Shadow dove into the darkened wood. He drifted, ghost like, through the somber forest. All was quiet now. The cries of the city faded to silence. Only the wind whistling through the brittle limbs of the petrified forest could be heard in round, muffled tones. Les became aware of his aloneness. He began to think.
The image of his wife flashed across his mind. How he hated her! In all her quiet beauty, with her selfless diligence and ridiculous code of honor, the flames of hatred burned in his heart toward her. He hated her for not loving him. She went through the motions. She worked, she obeyed, she even availed herself to him. But underneath all the acts of perfection, there had been no passion for him in her heart. She had endured him; that was all. How he hated her for that!
She was capable of passion. He had seen it. He saw it in her interactions with her children. Often he drifted into the little hovel without their knowing of his return. He saw them play. He heard them laugh. They carried on in his absence as if life were one big game. Their games and mirth always came to an abrupt end each time he appeared. How he hated them for that!
He had seen passion in her eyes that night she had brought home those repugnant weeds. He laughed a boastful laugh to himself when he recalled her crestfallen face when he had thrown them into the fire! How he loved to dampen her high spirits! What right did she have to any simple pleasure other than catering to his whims? Her duty was to him, and she performed her role as wife with all the passion of a slave.
For some reason, his mind drifted back to the early days of their union. He smirked when he recalled the passion she had displayed for him then. But the faint vestiges of a near smile curled into a snarl when he recalled the disappointing looks she would give him every time he made a mistake. Her expectation of honesty was naïve. How he hated her for that!
At that moment he recalled his duty to Cam. He had been given an assignment. The lust for revenge welled up in his mind. His excitement to execute his task overflowed in a broad echoing howl that reverberated through the dead forest like the crash of thunder. He began to sniff the air for her scent. He would know it anywhere. Les once told his wife that he could pick her out of a crowded room blindfolded. Now she would learn the truth of that!
Les no longer floated. He no longer merely drifted. Les soared! The hunt was on. His revenge was imminent. He was impatient to find this gentlewoman and deliver her barely breathing body to the altar of Cam. Oh, the abuse she would suffer along the way! The sport he would enjoy! All the pain, all the emptiness, was all her fault! Being bound to her was like being tied down like a dog, with a chicken coop just inches out of reach. And now, he had finally broken free! The ecstasy he felt was immeasurable. The anticipation made him giddy with delight. Cam’s enjoyment of the torture he inflicts increases congruently with the purity of his victim’s heart. She would feel the retribution in her flesh and in her soul! And he would find favor in the warlord’s eye!
Les darted through the trees. He flitted around the scorched remnants of his cottage. He lunged toward the northern peaks, following her soft scent, which lingered in the air where she had passed. He would find her. His hands would soon engulf her face, his talons riffle through her hair. He could almost feel his arms enfolding her in their final crippling embrace. How he yearned to impose himself on her! His will would crush her. He could already hear her whimper, pleading for mercy. He would show her none. Les was positively drunk with delicious anticipation.
He fluttered around the rotting carcass of the fowl Stranth and Onar had killed in the woods close to the cave. He slowed his pace. Drawing near to inspect, he circled it slowly. Les absorbed the glorious scent of decay. He could smell Ava’s fear lingering from the day the beast had attacked. He also smelled the lingering odor of the bravery his boys had shown; he felt something like pride and something like remorse. He did not understand either emotion. He shook himself like a wet dog trying to dry himself and floated on past. How he hated them for not telling him of this feat!
Coming to the pinnacle, he floated down into the ravine. Onar’s vine caught his eye. He flew back to the top and grabbing hold of the vine, swung down to the bottom like a child at play. Again, those strange emotions swept across him. He paused long enough to look back to the crest and to imagine his sons swinging down into this ravine with all their boyish bravado. He sniffed his way to the boulder encircled by the cluster of three trees. He discovered the cave’s entrance and went in.
Oh, the scents! How forcefully they hit him! He rolled on the remaining bearskins like a dog scratching his back on the ground. He snuffled and snorted, getting as much of a snoot full as he could. The scent of love lingered here very strongly. He pawed at the fire pit and breathed the remnants of a home fire where pheasants and rabbits had roasted. He investigated the tunnel, discovering the down shaft and the cave in. He detected the aroma of heartache and rejoiced in it. He bounded out of the cave and sat perched on the boulder where Ava and Archer had sat a few nights before. Les picked up Archer’s scent for the first time there. He snarled at the impression of bravery and selfless courage. Inflamed, he let out an angry roar!
So, she thinks she’s found a champion, a defender . . . We’ll see . . .
As he was about to spring to the top of the ravine, he noticed the little white flowers. He sniffed and snorted at them. Ugh! They made his spikes stand on end. So this is where she got them! ‘Just off in the woods somewhere,’ she had said. They’ve been coming here for ages apparently and keeping it from me. How his hatred for her grew! What right did she have to keep anything from him? The flowers were dried and shriveled now, but he could not resist the urge to paw and claw at them. He wanted to destroy the little plant and its putrefying perfume that spread throughout the ravine as he scratched at them. Finally, he had to escape the overpowering smell, and he bolted up the hill like a whipped puppy, yelping for mercy.
The scent of the elpece flowers clung to his snout. He snorted and snuffled at the ground, even rolled in the decaying leaves and brush to relieve himself of the festering odor. His agitation grew until he flew into a rage, racing back down the hill to the remains of the fowl. He rolled and tumbled in the remnants of the carcass until that was all he could smell around him. What relief!
Returning to the top of the hill, he found where the horses had been tied to a fallen elm. Four horses. Only then did it occur to him to question whether Stranth and Onar where traveling with their mother, or whether they were separated by the cave in. They had all stood in this spot at one point or another. He followed the tracks leading to the east side of the ridge and continuing toward the south. He could not detect the scent of his boys as he went and concluded they must have been separated by the quake. He wondered for the first time if his children were still alive. Hatred for Ava swelled as he considered the incompetence she showed as a mother by dragging them off from their home. If they had stayed at the hut, no harm would have befallen them. It was not her place to endanger his children. How indignant he was at the thought of her running off! How selfish and impetuous he convinced himself she was after all!
When he traced them to the cave exit where the boys emerged from the belly of the mountain, he was struck by the letter M and the smile beside it on the face of the rock wall. He sat down on a stump across the little pathway leading down the hill to stare at it, and ponder its significance.
Bewildered that its meaning escaped his understanding, he sorted through the scents lingering in the stale air. He waded into the cave and sniffed around as far back as the drop off to the lower cavern. He surmised that the boys must have passed this way. Theirs was the only scent he found in the cave tunnel. Ava would be searching for them, and the markings on the wall outside must be some sort of a clue to their destination. The smile was perhaps a signal to their mother of their well being. They didn’t want her to worry. How touching, he thought with a sneer. He resented the mutually protective feelings the three had for each other. He blamed Ava for fostering such sentimentality in his boys. To Les, concern for others was a symptom of weakness. Survival is all that matters in life. Survival demands the ability to guard your own skin and count everyone else expendable. His boys needed to understand the world in which they lived in order to survive. One thing was apparent, however; the apron strings seemed to have been severed. The dongrel longed to see the look of pain he was certain this brought to Ava’s countenance. Anything that brought grief to his wife’s heart was cause for celebration in Les’s mind. How he hated her!
Les went back out of the cave again and sat on the stump. Listening to the water tumbling over the face of the mountainside, he sat staring at the letter M through the gloomy mist. The smile seemed out of place.
He floated upward to get a better view of his location. Hundreds of feet above the mountain peak, he looked through the fog and discovered the river off in the distance. He could practically hear the bitter waters spilling over the rapids. A bridge extended across the divide just north of a fork in the river. Les knew that bridge. He had crossed it years ago with his family in tow.
Ava had a brother there. It wasn’t more than a couple of days’ ride from the river. He sneered at her stupidity. Her brother Madsen was a small-time opiate dealer. Did she really think he would help her out, or that a residence there would be an improvement to the peaceful seclusion and convenient distance from an active trade post their cottage afforded them? He hated her for her stupidity. I’ve got her now! He thought to himself triumphantly as he glided toward the bridge.
Gaining the portico to the bridge, he leaped upon the sentinel by surprise. Raising him up off the ground by the throat, he barked, “I’m looking for two boys. Have they passed this way?”
“No, none but search parties looking for a woman with two children, boys also, I hear,” came the labored reply.
“Have a man and woman with four horses crossed?”
“No, just the search parties,” he barely squeaked.
Les dropped the man with a growl. The man crouched down low, quaking with fear, not knowing whether this dongrel intended to devour him on the spot.
“What signal are you to give if you see a woman traveling with two boys?”
“Two green-fire arrows shot up into the sky.”
Les didn’t really pay attention to his answer. He was trying to decide if he should track them down along the river or press directly on to Middletown and wait for them there. He elected the latter and drifted across the rickety bridge that swayed and creaked as he passed, even though he did not step a foot upon it.