Aloy saw a track and, as she bent low to examine it, recognized it as one of the new animals she had encountered since coming here. Deer, she thought to herself, big enough to make a profit on the meat. The imprint of the hoof in the mud gave her a direction and a distance, and she was quickly off in pursuit, stalking through the underbrush as quickly as a quiet gait would allow.
Her senses were tuned to find her prey before it noticed her, but her mind wandered aimlessly as her years of training kept her feet. As she peered through the low branches and heard small creatures scatter through the underbrush at her approach, Aloy couldn’t help but wonder inwardly about her strange surroundings. She had been in this new place for only a matter of days, and the similarities between here and home were enough that the foreignness could still sometimes catch her off guard. Deer were new, for one thing. They looked like a cross between a grazer and a charger, but they were so much smaller, and of course, they were animals instead of machines.
Machines were another thing. The landscape felt strangely quiet and ominous without the herds of striders and tramplers, or the occasional sawtooth or behemoth. Aloy had never really thought about how much she relied on machines for things other than useful parts. The different kinds of machines had oriented her in space by alerting her when she was moving to Oseram or Carja or Banuk territories. Even though it had only been a short time since she’d learned to override machines, she’d grown accustomed to using them to cover long distances. And while she’d professed to hate the attention, she had gotten used to being recognized in the larger towns and cities where she went, recognized as the girl who tamed the machines; it helped to have clout in new places.
And here she had none. When she’d found herself in these woods four days ago, delivered here by unknown forces after climbing down what she thought was a mountain in the northern Sundom, she’d quickly learned how lost she felt without her reputation. Nora Anointed, Machine wrangler, Savior at the Sun spire: no matter how little thought she gave to her various names, they had protected her, parted crowds for her, given her food and lodging in new places. And here she’d so far had none of that.
The distant crack! of a twig underfoot snapped Aloy fully back to her present task. She immediately stopped in her tracks and scanned the area in the direction of the sound. Sure enough, an eight-point stag stood quartering away from Aloy, its head inclined to the ground in search of the next bite. Aloy felt her heart jump in her throat as the thrill of the hunt took over. As quietly as she could, she knocked an arrow into her bow and drew it back to her cheek. From her vantage point, she had a clear shot straight into most of the vital organs. She exhaled deeply and held her lungs empty, steadying her hand and drawing the arrow the final few inches before loosing it. It struck true, and the beast made a pathetic warning moan as it fell into a kneel. Aloy heard the sounds of other large animals taking off deeper into the woods. Her heart leapt again, and the adrenaline of success pushed her into a sudden sprint towards her trophy.
When she arrived at the point where the deer had fallen, she could hear its labored breathing and felt a pang of guilt. She preferred a clean kill; these animals were so much larger than what she was used to, but it still felt like a failure not to kill in one hit. She took her knife from her boot and gave the creature a quick end, driving the blade deeper into the heart than the arrow had managed to go. She felt the last breath heave out of the stag, and its life along with it. “Thank you,” she whispered. That, too, was new.
She knew she couldn’t carry the whole carcass back with her, so she began to cut the best meats from the bone as the butcher had shown her. She wrapped each piece in paper and packed into her satchel, stacking and stuffing them so she could carry more.
Aloy had been slicing and packing for more than a quarter of an hour before she felt eyes on her. She did not move immediately, but instead listened hard for clues as to who or what was nearby, watching. After a moment, she decided whatever it was was being too still to be an animal predator, and too close to be an animal prey. She gripped her knife tightly and, taking a quick breath, spun as she stood.
“Show yourself,” she said firmly into the trees. She needn’t have; the man was already visible, about twenty paces off, situated between two trees in what appeared to be a cautious, if not fully defensive stance. Aloy could not see a weapon, but she did not lower her blade: the man’s arms alone were large enough to be weapons unto themselves.
They stared into each other’s eyes for a moment, quickly analyzing whatever threat might be there. He was an older man with a neat but bushy beard. He was marked with paint or perhaps a tattoo that, from what Aloy could see, coiled itself around his body like a constricting snake. He wore gauntlets and a belted shoulder armor of furs and leather, all of which covered less than a third of his upper body. As he stood there, tense and searching, Aloy surprised herself when she felt familiar jolt of adrenaline just looking at him. The thrill of the hunt, she thought to herself without fully understanding why.
“Are you alone?” Aloy called to him, stealing quick glances to her left and right.
He said nothing, but she saw his face relax. Her obvious caution seemed to have reassured or calmed him, which in turn calmed her. She lowered her blade a few inches. He lowered his fists and stood straighter.
Aloy glanced back at the stag on the forest floor behind her. “If it’s meat you want, you can have what’s left.” She didn’t think he looked particularly needy, but she knew she hadn’t seen him in town so he could be low on supplies. Without turning from him, she reached behind her and grabbed the strap of her satchel, pulling it over her head. “If you follow me, I will know,” she said darkly. “So don’t follow me.”
Her bag was painfully heavy, and she had to shift it considerably as she stood and backed slowly away. The whole time, he watched her go but didn’t so much as move his head. Once she felt she was at a safe distance, she turned and peeled off into a sprint, back the way she came, stabilizing her satchel to her side with one arm as she ran. She didn’t stop until she was on the edge of the forest.
Once she was clear of the trees and could see the road back to town, she stopped and bent at the waist, holding the stitch in her side with one hand and supporting herself on her knee with the other, her bag hanging low to the ground. She kept looking behind her compulsively, though she was certain the man hadn’t followed her.
She’d couldn’t remember anyone so threatening as he had looked, and yet he didn’t seem any more aggressive towards her than she had been towards him.
He, too, was in that forest for survival. He, too, was on his guard. He reminded her of the Nora who became outcasts: always anxious, sometimes frightened, never fully prepared. And there was something else, too, a feeling Aloy had grown all too familiar with in the past few days, an emotion she felt she could read in the way the man had looked at her: grief, not for a person or a place, but for an understanding. Grief over the loss of knowing what you could expect from your world. Grief over the ground that has fallen away under you, leaving you exposed and vulnerable. It was a feeling the other outcasts had always had, but Aloy hadn’t truly experienced until she had come here, wherever here was. She had never really felt “home” anywhere anymore, but she now knew what it felt like to be “un-home.” And, she thought maybe the man in the forest did, as well.