Wednesday, May 25, 2005

 

the child, sixty-four


On Stone went, hiking along the path through the valley. It wasn't long before he began to feel a strange - something - a tickling perhaps - at the back of his neck. A feeling that something wasn't right.

But what?

The day was beginning to be far spent. How far had he come? He didn't much want to be caught out here once night fell. Which was an odd thing for him. Why should dark bother him? He was used to making fifteen circuits round the camp every night, keeping the watch. So dark didn't bother him.

Usually.

Maybe it was the fact that he had emptied most of the company's canteens into the pot, so that the others now had precious little drinking water left. Hmm - maybe that was what was bothering him. That could be it, something that simple.

The tingling at the base of his neck kept on. And increased.

Maybe... maybe he should turn back. Maybe while he had gotten caught up in searching for the new tent pole, he had overlooked a stream back there. Maybe?

Annoyed with himself, he shook his head and pressed on.

This was getting to be a very long way from the camp, he thought, and the way was getting rougher - full of thorny bramble bushes now, and holes in the ground. Not at all pleasant. And where could there be water?

And then he began to hear something - a small and thready sound, very light, very soft.

Very wet.

Water! But not a stream. For he could see no stream here, not on either side of the path, not up under the trees. So where...?

He stopped, closing his eyes, letting his ears take over. Hmm. The sound of water seemed to be stronger in his left ear...

He turned aside to the left then, following the sound. Following, picking his way through the thorns and the ankle-twisting holes, following the sound to... Ah!

And there it was. A spring, bubbling up from the ground, splashing over a handful of rocks into a tiny pool. Water at last!

Stone knelt by the spring and uncorked the first canteen, letting a small amount of water bubble into it, then swishing the water around inside the canteen to rinse it before pouring that water out on the ground. Now he plunged the canteen into the little pool again, watching the bubbles dancing out of the spout as the canteen grew heavy and sank.

And then it was full. He drew it out, corked it, and slung it back over his shoulder. Now for the second canteen.

Hmm - that was curious. As he filled the second, Stone noticed something odd about one of the rocks beside the spring. It looked like - he came around to the far side of the spring to take a better look - yes, it looked like someone had taken a knife and scraped a letter F onto the surface of one of the rocks. Strange...

The second canteen was full now. He corked it and slung it on, then started the third. And as he was watching the bubbles flow out of the spout as the water flowed in, a sound caught his attention. A small sound, soft and thready. But growing, growing rapidly.

The tingling at the back of Stone's neck turned suddenly into full-fledged alarm bells. For now the sound became plainly... a growl!

Slowly, slowly, Stone lifted his head to look. And there, across the spring from him, standing maybe twice the length of his walking stick away - there, between him and the camp, blocking his way of return -

There was a wolf.

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