My fingers tingle and ache at the memory of the taut arrow and bow-string across my jaw. I missed my chance to let fly, and now my quarry flies. I shall not be bested so easily. I return the arrow to my quiver and grip my bow loosely. I angle my head now to the crisp dawn and draw breath, allowing the myriad of scents to paint a broad image in my mind of the unseen and the remote. My strides are brusque, yet measured. I must save myself from the folly of a young man's game. No haste is needed here.
I can smell it. It has long ceased its jeers of victory and freedom and hobbles beyond my sight, into the refuge of these western hills. I wager a day ahead; such was my delay. My thought and will is now bent upon it, and my strides take me forth across the many tiered mounts, some crowned with lonesome trees, others with jagged teeth for rocks. The day wanes into dusk all too quickly, and the scent remains. It is what men would be calling the Late-watch. The stars are silent and hidden, and the wind sleeps. My mind tires, but my will remains. I stride on leisurely, winding my long legs in tandem with the meandering scent. I will close my eyes and walk on, into dream and reality.
* * *
A stumble, and a sharp awakening into my surroundings. I have not slept, but lulled repeatedly through the night. I find myself still walking. Dawn heralds its coming, and I have lost my bearings. My legs know the scent better than I do. On I go until I see it. A discarded pauldron, almost bathed in the wretched scent, cast aside in exhanged protection for speed. So it is aware I am not relenting...it must have caught my scent downwind, and knows the game is afoot. The hunt is only beginning now.
It is the second day and nought has changed. Infact I am sure the scent grows dim, and I follow but a whisper in my mind; a hunch that one can only guess. Still I go on, and espy a glint in the midday sun from afar. There is water there, a large stream winding its way for leagues akin to unchecked ivy. Man or beast, it will be parched. I make my way there, and my legs groan; the muscles long turned numb, and only the memory of my rhythm kicking them onwards. Endurance.
The rain at last falls, after so long threatening its coming above; and I have slowed my wandering to but a beggar's pace. My cloak and frayed hood shields me as it may, but my heart is heavy. Print and scent will mingle with the moist, and be blurred even from the most attuned hunter. Now the hunt tests. Blind walking is all that is left, even if I miss a vital clue.
I know not how much time has past, nor can I say which side of the dawn-call I am near. My mind is delirious from the toil. My shallow breath is timed to the heavy fall of each foot, in tandem with the dull thud of my bow upon the ground; I no longer have the strength to stand straight. My slouched shoulders are as chains to me now, but it is not yet intolerable and my heart will not misgive. The rain has ceased, and the damage has been done. But I know the mind of that which I hunt. It will have rested, thinking I, an old wanderer, am bested by distance and weather. I gain my lost day.
I fall to my knees, and realise suddenly it has long been sunlight. My legs plea for an end, and so I yield...if only for a few moments. Staggering to a stone, I bow my head into my knees. Moments pass, and I allow myself to chance a slumber. But then my will stirs, and my endurance is rekindled; my gained day shall not be wasted. Here the hunt pushes the hardest. Of all my toils, they all pale to the deed of mustering the strength to rise from that stone and take the first renewed step. I cannot feel my legs, cannot think, only smelling that lingering scent.
* * *
The last day, and I am rewarded. What fortune. I see it from afar sooner than I smell it, nought but a third of a league ahead. It is crawling over the hill on all fours like a beast. But it is more Man-like in true stature. Suddenly I stride harder, and use the pain to my advantage, allowing my own face to grimace openly. I refuse to run. Nearer now, I can hear it...yes, its hideous gurgling on the wind. I am not yet close enough to pity it, however. Onwards I go.
Even my mind did not fathom when it happened; my foot fell upon the earth with a rousing thud, and I saw now the thing of which I had sought so dearly as plainly as my own boots. It was no farther than man-high's length in span from me. The smell was acrid, it's gurgled moans of sheer dispair and crippling exhaustion loud, and its every twitch and movement to struggle onwards at a snail's crawl was pityful to behold. It knew I was there, finally. It knew I had come, no faster than a man's sunday stroll for nigh on three days. Indeed by my reckoning this was Oranor, and the pale sun was high.
At last I level with the creature and look down in weariness, the hideous thing wincing and struggling, as would any Orc that had suffered such a trial of cruel endurance. I do not know if it was of the common or its own hideous speech that it spoke, but its eyes of hatred bore into me and I knew well its desire against me. I cannot blame it; a slowed reflex from the hunter, a chance for the prey to flee, only to be caught by three days of endless toil, and with no weapon weilded on either side, be found wanting in the face of an endurance test. And so I still draw no weapon against it now, no bow is raised, or sword unsheathed as I permit the poor creature's last act; with effort, the withered and crawling Orc grasps at my mud-caked boot, using the last of its will in hateful defiance. Its passing then was as swift and easy as its final grimace, and I stood there looming over the fallen form, unsure of what thought to muster. Weariness clouded any sense of triumph.
With a lasting cursory gaze over the corpse, I turned and staggered onwards at my measured stroll. The hunt was over.