Telling Tales 121
The air filled with a toxic, almost fat, earthy stench that nearly caused him to gag, followed by a breeze carrying the clean odor of new rain. Thunder rattled in the distance. The sounds of the creature grew nearer and nearer. The soldier didn’t want to move for fear he’d make a noise, or trip, or do something else that might draw attention to himself. Trees cracked and branches rustled and the uneven breath of the large creature drew his eye to the movement not thirty feet away.
It wasn’t a moose. It was too dark. Black fur, mostly, with hints of white. No antlers and a small head. A large bear? It carried a dead thing in its mouth, the likely reason why its breathing sounded tired. It did not move like a tired thing. It strode forward, crashing through the underbrush, occasionally stopping when its prey’s leg caught on some branch or tree trunk or rock. The head was too small for a bear. The soldier breathed in through his mouth so as to avoid the horrible smell that followed in the creature’s wake, but even so he could practically feel its horribleness coating his mouth and more than once he had to choke back a gag or a cough. A flash of light and sharp crack of thunder told him the storm was getting closer, the only respite for his attention and the only break from the stench.
Although it didn’t slow down, now that the soldier could actually see the creature, its passage through the forest seemed to take more time than ever. The soldier was painfully aware of every slight breath he took, every small scrape against the tree. There was no way the creature could hear him, he was sure. Logically, that made sense. Nevertheless, he could not help but imagine that it was going to turn and see him at any moment.
It did not see him. It walked on, lugging the dead thing in its mouth (which the soldier became convinced was itself a bear), until the smell of lightning burning air was stronger than the creature. The storm rolled closer and closer. “That was a lucky thing,” the soldier whispered to himself. He wondered what had happened to Cardinal and to the not-lynx. He wondered how much time, exactly, had passed.
“Truth,” said a high-pitched voice above him. “It was lucky.” The soldier nearly fell over so quickly did he swing his gaze up. On a branch not ten feet away sat a weasel-like creature, examining him in careful detail. “How’d you do it?”
“How did I do what?” asked the soldier in return. “Are we talking about the same thing?”
“If we’re both talking about Aniwye, then we’re talking about the same thing.” The animal paused. “You’re not from around here, are you?” It leaned toward him and took a sniff.
The soldier stiffened up at the implication that he might smell, particularly in light of the monster that had passed. “I beg your pardon! And no, I’m only passing through. My guide or companion or whoever he his has gone on ahead.”
“Some companion,” sniffed the creature. “I’m a fisher.”
“You look like a polecat.”
“A fisher,” it insisted. “What are you?”
The soldier blinked his surprise. He looked down at his body and back up at the fisher. “I’m a man. What do you think I am?”
The fisher shook his head. “You look like a man, but you don’t smell like one. So what are you, exactly?”