This post is from an ongoing story titled The Wandering Stranger.
Alone in the field he stood, feeble against a backdrop of black and grey—black and grey from the angry storm clouds stretching straight to the horizon. His head was upturned, scanning the sky for anything unusual, but there was nothing to see. A deep rumble sounded in the distance. It was all the Wanderer needed to egg him on.
He began at a brisk pace. A drop fell on his face, followed by another. Drops gave way to a drizzle. The Stranger quickly looked back to see if he was still alone.
There was no one.
Again he picked up the pace, to keep in time with the rain, which was now a steady downpour. It didn’t take long for him to break out into a run. The sky belched thunder once more, and then again two seconds later. It then became dark. All that could be heard was the roar of rain, and the crash of thunder. Overhead a spear of lightning arced across the sky; another one followed it, splintering into three different directions.
The Stranger let out a guttural shriek. His foot caught itself on a rock; a split second later and he was down on the ground, rolling in the muck. He slid down a shallow hill into a small stream. Coughing for air he struggled to lift himself up, which he managed after struggling for a full minute and a half. With his heart pounding he began his pace anew. He was teary eyed. During his brief struggle, the wild thought of drowning had strayed into his mind.
To drown in a stream would mean a miserable end. But it would end this curse all the same. It was, after all, the curse which had forced him to leave his home, abandon his name, and wander forever.
It was also the curse which had given him a new name: the Wandering Stranger.
His reverie was quickly shattered. Lightning struck the ground ten feet ahead of him; even from a short distance he could smell the charred earth and feel the crackle of energy in the air. He veered off to the right in his mad dash. What he needed, more than his name, more than anything, was shelter.
Something in the distance caused him to squint his eyes. In the gloom he could see a copse of trees up ahead. He felt a gush of relief.
For what seemed to be hours he ran, slipped, and fell on his way to the copse. When he finally reached the shelter of the trees the Wandering Stranger let out a triumphant yell. Looking around he noted that the copse consisted mainly of birch. The trees glowed white. He could hear the rumble of a nearby river; at this point it would be swollen. He leaned against one of the trees, feeling its smooth trunk against his spine; every part of his body ached from exhaustion, and the cold only added to his pain. There was nothing he could do about it, as usual.
It was his curse.
A surge of red hot rage surged through him; it came and went. He would wait out the storm here, even if it persisted all night. No one would look for him in such adverse weather. Any trails left behind, any scents, and any signs would be washed with the passing of the storm. For now, he was safe.
He closed his eyes.
When he opened his eyes again, the Wandering Stranger was greeted by the morning sun. He winced. With his bones aching he sat up right, then stood up. He was still soaked all the way through, but it would soon warm up. From what he could recall, the storm had gone on well into the predawn hours. A yawn cracked his jaws wide open.
Looking around, he examined the aftermath of the storm; twigs, sticks, and branches—all of them widow-makers on their own—littered the ground. Immediately he began searching for a weapon. Casting around for straight, thick branches, he finally found what he was looking for. He needed something that was strong, sturdy. After testing his find, he pulled a knife from his belt. Getting down on his knees he began to whittle away at the knobby bits, then proceeded to sharpen one of the ends into a point. It took him a while, but once he was done he cleaned and sheathed his knife.
Muttering that he had made better, the Wandering Stranger got to his feet. After venturing a few feet he came to the river. Its waters had gone well past the river bank. Solemnly, he watched as bits of debris floated down the choked waters. He looked behind him.
There was no one to be seen, yet there was someone following him, even if they were miles behind. It had happened to him before, he had looked back to be almost overtaken. Shuddering at the thought, the Wandering Stranger set off alongside the river, mindful of keeping a good distance. One false step and he could crash through an overhanging bank. Although he would need to ford the river, he did not want to be near water this deep. He would seek out a narrower, shallower part.
The sun was at its highest peak when he came to a suitable area; here the river was nothing more than a burbling stream. With a wry smile he leapt across. He landed lightly on the other side. It wasn’t much of a jump, really.
His journey had taken him into another wooded area. The scent of pine filled his nostrils. Taking a look around he noticed the start, or end, of a path; judging by the wear and tear of the asphalt the path was quite old, unused even. At least in this area of the wood … Travel worn as he was, the Wandering Stranger was not one to give up a good mystery. He was curious as to where this path went. So he followed it.
The pine wood soon gave way to a well manicured park: an open field with few rolling hills, and several trees standing out in the open here and there. It was deserted, but that didn’t surprise him in the least. People were not on his list of things to see. He took a deep breath, and the Wandering Stranger found that for the first time in months he was relaxed; his pursuers were far behind him, following a false lead no doubt, and he could relax. The park was very nice as well. It had a calm atmosphere, and was quiet; every so often a robin would sing a few notes from a nearby bush.
So far the path he was taking had a bank immediately to his left, overgrown with brush. There were plenty of willow trees which meant that there was a creek, or some form of water, down there. At times the trees would thin and he could see dirt paths leading down the slope. After an hour or so the path veered away from the bushes, leading the Wandering Stranger down a gentle hill, and then across a road.
He stopped to take in his surroundings. On the other side of the road was the other half of the park. To his left the road ended in a dead end. However, to his right he could see houses. They were probably a kilometer down the road though. He could just pick out a few people in the yards of maybe two or three houses; they were far enough to look like ants.
At one point in his life, he had lived in a house too, but not like these. These were unfamiliar dwellings, yet he wasn’t shocked by them.
With a shake of his head he began to cross the road, looking straight ahead of him, eyes on the path. Without warning a loud shriek broke the calm silence of the park, stopping the Wanderer dead in his tracks. Every fibre of his being froze as the shriek painfully died down. It was still echoing in his head moments after it had gone, replaying itself over and over in his mind as he desperately searched for an answer.
What had made the shriek?
That was the question.
But what was the answer? It had sounded human, but from experience he knew not to take things at face-value. The world was, unfortunately, not as simple as it appeared to be, and many things could be deceiving. Too many things had been just so, as a matter of fact. Further down the path he saw what looked to be a raven. The bird was hovering over something.
Gripping his spear in one hand, the Wandering Stranger set off at a trot. He was going to find out what that bird was hovering over.
By the time he had reached the spot the bird was long gone. What he found was a tree stump.
A butcher knife was stuck in it.
A group of children could have done this as a trick, he mused. They had seen him walking down the path and on seeing that he was a stranger they had decided to play a prank on him. It was a simple explanation. It was also erroneous. He could feel it in his gut.
On seeing the knife his blood was not the only thing to run cold; the whole air around him was like ice when it had been warm just minutes before. Without hesitating he wrenched the knife free from the old stump, and made his way to the creek, holding the thing away from him as if it were a diseased thing. Once he neared the banks he chucked the knife into the dense brush and walked away. As soon as he was back on the path he started to jog. Hunger gnawed at his belly, and he winced.
The food that he had from before was likely gone, or the little which was left had spoiled from the rain, whichever came first. It was likely that he would have to forage.
All thoughts of food left his mind. Loud rustling and cracking came from the spot where the knife was thrown.
He broke out in a mad run. This time he would not look back. The path lead him into the woods again, and he followed it, dashing over fallen branches and cracked pavement. As the woods began to thin once more he realized that the path was leading him back into the small town. A thought occurred to him then: he was hungry, and here was a small town; he could easily walk into a shop, get something to eat, and no one would follow him.
If anyone was following him. The rustling in the bushes could just be a curious animal. A small part of him—the logical, rational part—chided him for being paranoid. Pushing that thought aside, the Wandering Stranger did the one thing that he did not want to do.
He thrust his spear into the bush.
It was just as well that he did, for at that exact moment the path was intercepted by another road. Turning right, he left the path, slowing his pace to a walk. Someone watched him from their front porch. He stopped to look back at them.
“Afternoon,” the Wandering Stranger began, “I’m just passing through, do you know of any good places to have coffee?”
The woman sat up in her chair. She was maybe in her late fifties. A crochet hook was in her left hand, what looked to be a hat in the other. Looking at him curiously, she answered him: “The Cloudy Cafe; you’ll find it on Wentworth.” Giving him one last look, she returned to her hat.
“Thank you!” The Wandering Stranger continued on his way. On closer inspection, he found that he quite liked this town; its inhabitants were friendlier than in some places, strange places. And the houses were all well kept, normal, each with its own manicured lawn.