They come to the mountains: eight men, alien. Intruding. They are lost, but they move with precision, with a shield of self-assurance and identity. In their eyes, it is they who belong. The gentle waving underbrush. The lazy and condescending trees. The farther peaks, which are distant and yet looming. These are alien. It is these that intrude.
They wander slowly, meanderingly, but they are bound together by some auspice of their homeland that gives them purpose, some camaraderie that is stitched together by all the things they have together seen and all the things they together refuse to see. Still, they fear the trees that are not their trees and the sun that is colder than their sun.
They stay within an orbit of each other, slogging through mud and fog and overgrowth. They look more about them—above, behind—than forward and though they are proud men, warriors, they move with a kind of involuntary hunching in their shoulders, as if the green is heavy, a burden. It is not just the oppressiveness of the overwhelming life that bends their necks. Their eyes, the broken twist of their mouths, these speak of an inner weight too, a yoke crafted of memory and loss. They are men without a place and the homeland to which they cling no longer clings to them.
There is no road. They come upon a game trail and coalesce into a single line as they follow it, but it is fickle and soon, it ducks beneath the giant bole of a fallen tree and does not emerge so they drift apart again, some taking great steps over tangling and swollen brambles or pushing through webbed and dripping rhododendrons. Others wander behind, moving as the forest allows them to move.
They are soldiers, so they talk as they walk. One speaks of his wife and children as though there were still alive and waiting for him somewhere. Another describes the genitals of a whore he once laid with and he and another man spend time comparing the women they have bedded. The man in back, the smallest of them, sees a bush with red berries and laughs, reminding them of the time they huddled in a dry river bed and ate the berries they found there, then missed the battle as they huddled with cramps and the flux.
At this they stop. They look at the small one and the man beside him punches him in the arm. In their faces is disgust painted on expressions of gaunt longing. One of them, a roundly muscled man with one side of his head shaven and tattooed grabs at his belt. Another rubs his thumb across his cheek, traversing the ragged scar that burrows through an unintentional beard. They stare and the forest whispers apathetically around them.
“You should have seen this girl,” someone says and they are in motion again.
One of them does not speak. He moves in front, silent and aloof. His back is a treatise in confidence, certainty, but his face speaks nothing but the horror of a man who sees the avalanche coming. They are used to following their captain and the stars, but here, the stars are unknown and so their dependence on their captain is absolute.
Winter is becoming lost in the saturation of spring. A soggy greenness is emerging from the blackened bark and the mud and there is almost no sound but dripping and evaporation.
Their packs are light and as they roam, they watch the budding forest with their mouths, unsure yet if desperation has driven them to experiment in this foreign land. In other lands, they have skill with hunting, but here their efforts bring nothing but frustration.
Markers of animal life engulf them, but the creatures these markers signify remain hidden in the claustrophobic vastness of the wilderness. Whatever beasts these strangers’ weapons and tactics are meant for, they are not well-adapted for the thick-skinned, gigantic creatures of the mountains who leave track and spoor but seem to exist merely as ghosts. The men push through aimlessly, teased by the satiation they cannot see. Occasionally the small one in back chuckles to himself when they pass a bush laden with weird fruit, but eventually even he gives up.
At least there is water and the band stops frequently to glut themselves with empty, stomach-filling nourishment. Once, they come across a clutch of five raven eggs. The captain walks ahead and the men eagerly crack them and suck down the slimy embryos.
At night, they huddle in the lee of the sprawling roots of colossal maple trees, cold and wet. Most nights, they cannot find enough dry wood to make a fire. Eventually they leave no watch and simply crawl into the shelter where the lines between them blur in the craving for heat. In the dark they hear the spectral bugling of elk and the calling of other creatures. Beyond are strange noises they cannot define, like the forest is speaking in some foreign tongue whose grammar is subtle and complex and full of hidden, terrible things.
The man with the scar mutters that they are walking backward in time to an age when the understanding of the world was not limited by the understanding of men. The tattooed man tells him to shut up and one of the other men—a lanky man with braids so tangled they have become like single, matted strands of hair—sings a quiet hymn to a god whose altars they will never see again. The sound is impotent in the swirling vapors of their breath and the dark.
In the morning, they peel apart, damp and cramped, and sit in the foggy cold, thinking about far away meals and the lands where they could see the sun rise. Then the captain rises and puts on his tattered, storied armor like it is a mantle, a mask, a character he must play even though the actor is old and broken and will someday be swallowed up in the role. He pushes on, knowing the others will follow, knowing they will gird up, take on their own iron husks, but wondering if they should. He wonders if he alone remembers the failures of the past, the losses that scattered them all and made gallows of their home.
The endlessness and repetition of their days is suddenly and finally broken when they come upon an oblivious and enormous red deer, standing in tableau amid the alder tendrils and the trunks of morning mist. Without word or thought, they shed their desultoriness and become beings of action again. They spread slowly, each man taking a different path, each man preparing his own conquest.
The eagerness in their cheeks betrays more than just starvation. They have hunted animals like this in their homeland, though never so large, so they find use again and it spills out of them. They fit arrows to strings and raise bows to half height in motions that are like the thoughtless touch of old lovers. They crouch and stalk, bound up with a tension that goes beyond the tautness of muscle into the worlds known only to philosophers and priests. They have no plan but to kill, no thought but to survive. The deer lifts its head and they stop. It looks and waits, then returns to its meal.
The captain shifts his head and listens. He has no bow and carries instead a long, gold-inlaid knife carved in the hilt with the visage of an antelope with serpentine horns. He stands, a mirror to the stillness of the deer, listening. Slowly, he lowers the knife and raises his hand. Almost as one, the men halt, though their desperation is dragged beyond them by some fundamental inertia. The captain glances at each of them, and slowly they crouch to the earth, immersing themselves in the verdant veil of the forest floor.
Their quiet, expectant panting is heard only by the remnants of the winter chill. To the deer, the forest is full of faceless dangers and it is not yet ready to play its part. It keeps its head to the ground, unaware that it guards the crossroads between peace and violence. It takes a slow step forward, quietly raking the frozen earth in discreet, delicate arcs. In the indistinct morning, it stands like an anchor in the mountains, holding to it the trees and the flowers and the roots, as though the world is waiting for it to move before the world itself can move on.
But it is not this abstract, metaphysical attention that gives pause to the captain and his men. They have experienced the calmness of death many times and they no longer notice it. The deer stands before them, but they watch the captain, their loyalty stronger than their hunger. His ear is turned, his face dark. They do not have to wait long to understand his inaction.
Between one breath and the next, the stillness becomes the roaring and shouting of men. A second party exhumes itself from the umbrage, living phantoms of primal death. They move as a single predator and one that knows its prey. The stag tries to flee, but is hedged in by broad, stone spear tips, and bucklers, and the snarling faces of men drenched in paint and feathers and bone. They look like men, but they also look to be agents of the forest, a natural part of the ring of life and death. To the captain and his men, who come from lands where men fashion the lands to their own will, this is somehow damning and they feel deep within some primal guilt they cannot name nor really understand, but that which tangles itself up in their hunger and desperation.
The deer tries to jump, but men are in the trees, shouting and waving their weapons. The animal bends to wildly scrape this barrier with its antlers, but this is what the predator is waiting for. It surges, shifts, and one man emerges. He is giant, almost a thing out of myth, the shaggy contours of his bearskin robes mingling indeterminately with beard and hair.
Without pause, he exploits the animal’s newly exposed neck. He takes advantage of his momentum and his weight and sinks his knife into flesh, displacing a gush of blood. The deer rears back, its front legs spasming, its antlers shivering, seeking vainly to stop its own end by punishing the source of its pain. Hunters rush in, drawing away the attention of the throes. Others help their leader escape, but their protection is unnecessary. The red deer moans, then collapses and the shock of the forest at this violence is palpable.
The wild men grab the antlers—which are now only the dead branches of trees, reaching toward the yawning canopy above with the story of what could have been—and the chieftain calmly stabs the thing through its eye into its brain. It shudders once more, then becomes just another part of the forest, a new life that comes only through death.
The captain and his men look at each other and at the huge and steaming carcass, counting the members of this new band, who are unaware of the starvation watching them from the trees. They do not speak but set in to some ritual butchering of the animal.
In terms of numbers, the strangers are outmanned two to one, but they look at their swords, at the crude spears of the aborigines, and they are emboldened. The captain’s face is bleak and weary. His men shift and prepare themselves and when he stands, they all stand and unleash the fury of their exile on their unsuspecting competitors.
Before the aborigines can even look from their prize, three of them are plucked into the underbrush by the invaders’ arrows. If the others are surprised, they do not show it. To them, the forest is full of death and the captain and his men rush in and find themselves set against a pack of men with broad arms and broad chests, swathed in the skins of their prey and the mud and paint of their homeland. In their eyes is the attestation of their old camaraderie with death, but also the bright mandate to preserve life that is in all mortal eyes.
The exiled soldiers fight as men fighting men. Each is alone, but his action augmented by the tactics of his companions. As the aborigines swarm forward, they drop their bows and draw swords and seek to engage their enemies as individuals, but these huge men move as one, as if they are an appendage of some vast organism, guiding them with a single purpose. They swirl and dance, like a dust devil in the plains of the strangers’ nativity, so the soldiers struggle to find purchase for their steel.
Still, they are soldiers, well-tried in many battles. Their armor is more than a match for the black igneous spearheads and their swords sharp. And so they flow and surge, little ribbons of blood becoming a connective tissue as sword or spear hooks into skin and draws the crimson thread into the forest air. The soldiers shout, bellowing epithets at these savages, calling coordinating commands to each other. The aborigines are silent, except for the tiny, unconscious gestures they make to each other to signal their role in the larger act.
As the natives careen and swoop, the soldiers begin to understand. They remember the way these men took the deer, hedging, forcing, waiting until with precision the neck was exposed.
The captain understands. He has fought many battles, known many enemies, and he sees. They are the deer. He is the neck and as soon as the realization comes, he accepts the challenge, crouching low, his sword behind him. Though his eyes are on the aborigine chief, he knows what the others are doing. His men fight hotly, desperately, and the aborigines fight in return, but their actions are not aggressive. They are stalling, containing, controlling.
The captain shifts his shoulders. He has been trapped, prepared for the attack of the chief, the hunter, the killer. Instead, he strikes first, as men from his country would.
“To me,” he bellows and as one, his men charge with him toward the chieftain.
Finally, the wild man makes a sound, roaring as he is denied the honor of the kill and the aborigines are released from their predatory ritual. There is no more dancing, no more swirling. There is just blood and death. The tattooed soldier collapses as one aborigine brushes past him and cuts through the back of his leg while another opens his throat as he falls. Another soldier hacks into the shoulder of the second of these, leaving him to stumble into the anonymity of the forest floor, his head flopping weirdly and coming to rest at a bloody angle, pressed up against a black-and-lichen covered stump. The other wild man stumbles and fall as one of the soldiers, the small one, retreats to the edge of the battle with his bow and begins to fire into the mêlée.
In the chaos, the chieftain comes for his prize. He pulls from his bearskin a pair of heavy, stone axes, throwing aside his spear. The captain is back to back with the soldier with the scar, fighting off a trio of aborigines, who press in with their spears. The man with scar grabs one of these and breaks the haft with the hilt of his sword, but one of the others digs into his side, beneath the metal plates in his armor. He cries out and it mingles with the barking of the chieftain. The wild man harrying the captain disengages and moves to the man with the scar, who, swearing loudly, rushes in to grapple the one with the broken spear.
The captain does not hesitate. He jumps at the chieftain, lunging with his sword. The aborigine hauls back and strikes in kind. The young air, more accustomed to the organic vocalizations of nature, exposes the clash of obsidian on steel. Once engaged, neither warrior can extract himself and so heroic blows and broad swings are replaced by groping hands and ill-aimed cuts. They wrestle madly with each other, each trying to pull away to find the definitive strike, but their efforts are marked only by growls and spit. Their blood, drawn from ruined mouths and wild steel, rubs together on them, mingling and forgetting its origins.
And in their mutual purpose, they become as one creature, moving in synchronization as their violence seals them. The influence of this strange bond seals their men as well. Against the primeval background of the emergent forest, opening from the winter cold, glistening with layers of life and death that make shadows of the warring men, the strangers and the aborigines briefly elicit a grim union.
With a bellow, the captain disengages from his opponent and stumbles back, holding his sword before him to discourage a charge. The chieftain is on one knee, axes held wide, teeth bared. His shoulder is a bloody tangle of blood, flesh, and fur. His face is bleeding. The captain looks no better. His eye is swelling and part of his leg is torn open. He swings his sword behind him, bellowing out to his forgotten god and building momentum for a final, deadly charge. But this murderous tactic is forestalled by a bellow of a different kind.
This sound is the kind that is heard by the bowels. It is both native and alien, as if in its initial resonance, it holds some fellowship with the natural world, but in its echoes it is something weird. The mêlée—that strange marriage—is dissolved, the warriors divorced. Each stands alone, isolated now in his own fear, looking into the canopy that is still bandying the echoes of the shriek.
It’s as if all the dark, unnamed fears of the soldiers have taken a form. As children, they were weaned on stories of these distant, uncivilized places and the horrors that dwell there, but as men, as soldiers they had come when they had no other choice and had found nothing but starvation in the face of abundant life.
Again, the forest is dominated by the noise. The small soldier falls to his knees and begins to pray. Two others make gestures that had once been worshipful. The aborigines stand, impassive and somehow out of place in the echoes of the sound. The captain looks at the aborigine chief.
The source of the terrifying call first appears as a shiver in the trees, a distortion of movement obscured by the fog-blackened trunks. But it moves quickly, approaching with reckless speed until the trees that stand as witness to the violence of the men are themselves violated and torn asunder. The men watch impotently, covered in blood and mud and shock.
The thing is revealed, but little can be made of its features, for it does not slow. It’s as tall two men and wide, barreled and hard. It is the color of wet earth and moss, with arms and legs like a great, scaled ape, but it has three tusks, two on the left, one on the right, long and curved and thin, like huge, ivory sabers. Between these, dangles a thick and muscled trunk that snakes in front of the abomination like a third arm.
Even in the brief moment in which they consider it—before it begins killing them—the men know that it is not a thing of this world, and yet maybe it is and that is the source of their greatest dread. It is an ancient thing, a deeper, more fundamental part of the ancient forest, a secret hidden from the perception of men and yet somehow always there, a piece of the world men were never meant to know.
The unity they knew in violence matures into a oneness in fear and they are fixed, as though in their horror, they grow roots and try to become a part of the impassive forest around them. In a way, it works. It does not acknowledge them as it passes any more than it acknowledges the trees. It furrows through hoary and wizened arbutus, sitka, hemlock, the man with the braids, and two of the aborigines without any discrimination. Its claws and tusks and muscles swing and sway with urgent, infernal purpose and most of the men are thrown to the earth by splintering trunks and terror.
Briefly, it pauses and turns. Its small, alien eyes sweep the clearing, ambivalent of wreckage or dismemberment. The uncaring gaze stops at the captain and the aborigine chief. It raises its trunk and sounds itself again, then continues its destructive path.
The sudden deficit of sound creates a kind of aural vacuum that subdues the groans of the wounded and the sobs of their companions. The sudden union of the men by the appearance of the thing is now consummated by the mingling of their blood and their flesh across the flowering earth. The man with the broken spear is unaccountably in two pieces and the soldier with the scar lies in the mud, his head crushed and, for some reason, vomiting out a vapor that could be either steam or smoke.
Panting, the captain and the chief examine each other. It is clear from their composure, from the looks of resignation and hatred rather than fear, that both have seen demons before, and that both now consider a new and different hunt. The captain is angry and resolute, the aborigine eager and almost reverent. Neither knows the cost of hunting a demon, but both know that such a thing cannot be left among the breathing.
The chief is the first to move. With no preamble, he turns and sprints through the fallen vegetation after the beast. The captain looks briefly at the remnant of his men, then follows. Hunters from both groups trail behind, full of energy and fear. The cool mountain air is still refreshing, despite the corruptive power that has laid waste to their companions.
In the clearing, silence returns and excitement is replaced with the natural functions of the world. The bodies of the dead—man and deer—are already being reclaimed by the things of the forest.
The two groups that are now one drive the demon before them. At first, they move quietly. They weave between the trees, following the wreckage, preparing themselves for the cataclysm that is to come.
But as the chase matures, the attitude of the aborigines changes. The chief suddenly raises his head, as though he is listening to something, or smelling something. A grim smile breaks through the already crusting blood on his overgrown face and he barks at his people. Immediately, they take on a different tactic. They shout and beat their weapons against their shields. They make no attempt to conceal the sound of their pursuit. The strangers look to their captain, to each other, but are quickly drawn into the frenzy of the men who have recently been their enemies. They join in, beating their armor with their swords and singing all the battle songs they ever knew.
Slowly, as they holler and whoop and watch the attitudes of the wild men, they begin to understand. This is no longer a stalk. They are no longer the hunters. They are pushing the thing, though they know not toward what.
The aborigine chief begins to run with more confidence, his broken face taking on a kind of ecstasy. He knows the forest and responds to its guidance in ways the captain and his men can only fathom in their own homeland. The captain is skeptical, but he allows the attitude of his new ally to bolster him. His expression, lettered with a kind of relief, shows that he understands. He looks at his men running alongside the aborigines and smiles grimly. He waves his sword and screams old war cries from the time when he once belonged.
The demon knows they are behind it now, but it does not turn against them. Its tusks and its scales are still glistening with the blood of their fallen companions, but it does not attack. It sees what they do not and so it runs on and though the men do not know it, it is afraid.
It is fast, but hindered by the closeness of the trees and so the men stay behind it, running, shouting. Dimly in the trees, ghostly shapes appear, pacing the men as they scream and charge. At first, these have no shape, cyclones of spirit matter and foliage. As they run, they become more: streams of forest material rolling like a verdant flood, defined only by their force. In their chaos, they come and go. The earth rumbles when they appear and is quiet when they vanish.
The strangers are uncomfortable with these newcomers. They look nervously to their flanks as they run. The captain seeks comfort from his aboriginal counterpart, but the chief seems to have lost his mantle too. He runs with his men, as though they are now being led by some other, larger source. Something else is chief. Something else is the hunter.
The aborigine glances at the captain, his eyes excited and the captain nods. When the phantoms appear, the strangers keep their faces forward and they tense their muscles to conceal their fear.
The phantasms begin to appear with greater frequency, though not with greater definition. They remain ephemeral, presences beyond the scope of mortal understanding, if not beyond mortal perception and the men who had followed the captain wondered what strange agreement had been made between the world and the forest to weaken those walls that they had once thought inviolate. The demon begins to whimper and bleat, but it runs on, and the men run on after it.
Soon, the landscape changes, though not in any natural way. They run by trees and branches, but now these living markers are joined by manmade objects: crude, rough statues, spears shoved in the earth and adorned with fetishes, feathers and pelts mingling among the newly-budding leaves. On the ground, the mummified remains of children sleep in lidless cairns and the trees are cut and carved in primitive pictograms.
The demon does not notice. But the aborigines begin to slow, looking nervously at each other. The phantoms vanish and do not immediately reappear, though their weight still presses against the men. The strangers also slow. The captain grabs the chief by the arm and urges him on. The chief shakes his head and, as the trees thin to unveil a clearing, he stops completely. His men crouch around him, breathing heavily and watching. The captain stops as well.
The aborigine looks to the various talismans that surround the clearing. His face shows that his observation of them is not random. He intends for the captain to look as well. He lifts his hand, his palm facing inward, and looks up. Then, he sweeps his palm to the ground, looking around the grove significantly. He prostrates himself, as do all his men. The captain narrows his eyes.
He looks at the totems, then at the genuflecting men and shivers uncomfortably. The small soldier mutters some kind of devotion and marks himself in a way that, among the pageantry of this demon hunt, is wholly extrinsic. The captain shakes his head slowly, his brow furrowed, and he looks deeper at the aborigines. Then there is some motion on the field and he turns and sees into what they have driven the demon.
At the far side of the clearing, the forest itself has taken some terrible and animate shape, rising up to indulge in the hunt for meat, or ritual, or sport. It is a being describable only by elements from which it is made: trees, loam, rocks, lightning, thunder, organic detritus. Through its body course legions of beetles and maggots, vibrant leaves and budding fruit, trees and storms and the forest’s mastery of life and decay. The captain and those who came into the forest with him fall to the earth beside the aborigines. They do not understand the words the others use in their devotions, but they mimic the sounds and the sentiments. The forest god rises above them, a thing more natural than nature.
The demon stops like the hunted thing that it is. It cannot flee. Certainly, the captain and the aborigines stand between it and the forest, but it does not see them. It snarls instead at the creatures that rematerialize behind them, the phantoms that have accompanied the men and have driven it here.
They are akin to the forest god that they serve, but they are smaller, lieutenants. As they emerge into the clearing, they robe themselves in the same trappings, giving shape to their shapelessness. Now they are like men, like enormous wild men going to serve their chief, but their pieces are held together by vegetation and remnants of animal life. In one, they see the face of the soldier with the scar, his bearded mask peering out destroyed, and yet whole, as a part of this larger, terrible thing. The hunting party advances, hedging in the trapped demon, forcing it to engage with the forest god.
Finally, it does, panicked and lost among these terrible foes. It lashes forward, squealing and bellowing. It thrashes, but the forest god is patient. It allows its party to agitate the prey, to expose it through its own thoughtlessness. And when the moment is right, when the group of demigods working together as a single being have drawn from the demon the fatal motion, the forest god strikes.
With what, none of the men can see, but they have each dealt the death blow before. It is an eerie, narrow thread that binds them and so when the forest god lunges, the men know.
The demon screams and flails as any dying creature does. The forest god and its cadre back away, waiting and watching. They stand ready to prevent any mindless flight, but more, they wait for the demon to die. It does eventually, as all creatures in such straits do, and when it does, the otherworldly creatures settle down to consume it, to break it apart, and to take away with them those pieces that are their due.
They do not notice the men who watch this dissection. The captain and the chief sit together. They are insignificant, pitiful against the forces of the forest, exposed as tiny and perhaps meaningless pieces of some larger scheme. And yet in it, they have been insignificant together. The captain looks at the men who once followed him and smiles. He looks at the chief, at his men, at the aborigines and in them all, he sees the forest god and the demon, the trees and the mud, the push and the hunt and the budding sense of belonging. The chief nods his head.
As the gutting draws to a close, the unearthly beings are slowly reclaimed by the forest. The remains of the demon begin to break apart, swarmed over by uncounted chitinous things until it is nothing.
The men stare and sit motionless as the forest becomes a place of mortals again, as if they are an anchor in the mountains, holding to it the trees and the flowers and the roots, as though the world is waiting for them to move before the world itself can move on.
It is not long before one of them shifts. Another rubs his stomach, and another looks to the sky and sniffs the air.
And then they are off, searching for the body of the deer they killed, searching for food and survival. From their movements, their behavior, it is unclear that anything has changed among them, but in their midst run five men. They are given away only by their armor and their weapons, for now they move as the aborigines do, or they soon will.
The day grows warm and the remaining snow melts into the soil, losing itself in the continuation of all things.