Author: Rayne O'Connor PM
The village of Kinsway has been thrown into chaos. Seven people have died at the hands of the daemons and the Hunters have trained to take them down. But then they find a girl in the wood, and for one Hunter, everything she ever believed, will change.Rated: Fiction T - English - Fantasy/Romance - Words: 3,147 - Published: 12-05-10 - id: 2870788
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Night was closing in, but the Hunters cared not. They were on the trail of the daemons, those responsible for seven murders over the past three weeks. The land of Kinsway had always been a peaceful one, but recently, the crime rate was rising rather alarmingly. Where there once were the occasional pick pocketing, now there were corpses, riddled with multiple stab wounds, lined up behind the church, awaiting their turn to be placed in the ground. These creatures they were hunting were the cause. And if Antony, the current leader of the Hunt had anything to do with it, the beasts would pay.
To his left, Antony saw his second in command give the signal seconds before a volley of arrows were let loose towards the underbrush. Suddenly the forest was alive with movement as the daemons leapt from their hiding places and ran from the Hunters. Antony charged, along with the rest of the Hunters, towards the retreating beasts. Here and there his ears caught an agonized grunt as an arrow found its mark in reptilian hide. The hunters followed the sounds of cloven hooves and the marks left on trees by the creature's claws. His breath became quick as Antony spotted out of the corner of his right eye, one of the beasts only a few paces in front of him. Taking aim with his arrow, he waited to get to the clearing that was just up ahead to fire. It was a female, he made out the slightly shorter horns and the shapely curve of its breast, and slung across its back was a bundle of leather. A child. Best to end them both, thought Antony, than to allow it to grow into a monster. The clearing was close, about fifteen meters ahead. This would be simple. But horror struck as he heard an ear piercing scream come from his left.
Antony gave up chase and turned towards his left. There, just ahead in the clearing was a young maiden, about twenty five years of age, with pale skin, black hair that stuck about an inch from her head, and dressed in men's traveling clothes, he figured from another region, knelt on the ground. But what brought the bile to his throat was the very still body of a blonde girl about the same age that was draped across her knees and the blood that covered the raven haired girl's hands and tunic.
More Hunters entered the clearing, some carrying horns from their kills, and stood around the perimeter as Antony knelt near the girl. She did not look up but instead stared at the twin gaping holes that punctured her companion's chest. Antony looked at the lifeless girl and nearly gasped. She looked so much like his own daughter that, if he had not turned to see her standing at the edge of the wood, dressed in her ceremonial Hunter's armor, he would have cried on the spot. Slowly he put a hand on the shocked girl's shoulder. She did not flinch, or move away, but still just stared down.
"My dear, are you alright?" Antony asked in a soft and shaken voice.
"Se' terad kala…" The young girl said in a tongue that Antony did not recognize. He looked around to his fellow Hunters but all of them shrugged their ignorance.
"Pardon miss, I do not speak your language. Perhaps…" his words died on his lips as the girl turned to face him. Blood was spattered on her face and the tears in her golden eyes threatened to spill over.
"My friend was hit by two stray arrows," she said, her voice slightly quivering. Antony reeled at this information. It was not the beasts that killed this girl, it was his own Hunters. The girl stood, dusting off the knees of her trousers and wiping the tears from her eyes. With a look of pure determination she held her hand out toward Antony, who took it lightly. "My name is Te'la. Do not feel guilty for my friend. I was out here to try to stop her from taking her life, but I was too late. Look by her feet." Antony turned and saw a small vial near the fallen girl's feet. Picking it up, he gave the vial's opening a quick sniff and almost gagged.
"Wraith's blood?" He asked, looking at the girl on the ground.
"Yes. Your men, I'm sorry," Te'la said, nodding to several of the women lining the trees, "your… Hunters gave a more swift and painless death."
Realizing he was still holding the girl's hand, he gave it a brief squeeze. "My name is Antony, Commander of the Hunters. If it pleases you, M'lady, we are heading back to Kinsway, just outside the forest here, and you are welcome to join us."
"Thank you, Sir." Te'la said, looking slightly guardedly at the Hunter's lining the forest.
"Reginald! Bring round Titan," Antony yelled towards one of his subordinates, "and mind the ground. Won't do us much good to have a horse with an arrow in its hoof." He cast a glance at the ground and noted the multitude of arrows that littered the clearing. He grew pensive knowing that two of their weapons were responsible for the girl on the ground. "Sashara," he called over his shoulder. His daughter came to his side and glanced up at her father, noting that he looked greatly worn from this evening's Hunt.
"Yes Father?" She asked in a lilting voice.
"Tell the others to begin gathering any arrows that are still of good quality. Resources are thin and we can not be wasteful." Antony said, running his hand down his daughter's back, thanking the Gods that she was alright. Normally he would not show her affection on a Hunt, but seeing Te'la's friend had stirred up fears that he had not felt since Sashara first joined the Hunters. He could not stand the thought of losing the only blood he had left that was not killed by the daemons.
"Father?" Sashara asked. Her father looked to her, "I miss her too. But I'm alright. We will stop them. Mother's death will not be in vain. But now, let's get back home. Olaf is probably worried about me."
Antony rolled his eyes. While he loved Olaf like his own son and thanked the Gods that his daughter had found a man to adore her, he marveled at the fact that they still acted like little children with a first crush. He sighed happily as he watched his daughter walk off to take charge of the troops. He had a lot to plan when they got home. There was the next Hunt that would take place in a fortnight, but before that he would have to prepare to give his little girl away. The wedding was set to be held in a week's time, and he could not be prouder.
Shaking his head, he turned back to Te'la, who was seemingly watching every move that the Hunters made with a vague interest. "We will travel back to Kinsway. Unfortunately, it is a day's trip away on foot, so we will have to set up camp. You are more than welcome to ride Titan for the journey."
"Thank you M'lord," Te'la said, her voice low, as if she was speaking in private.
"Will you require us to send word to…?" Antony started, not exactly knowing how to finish his sentence. She was obviously from another region and he was not sure exactly whom he would be sending word of her whereabouts to; parents, husband, some other relation.
"There will be no need. I am alone. No family to speak of," she said, with a hint of sadness in her eyes, no doubt for the family she had lost. Antony wondered what else this poor child had seen.
"I am sorry. Forgive me if I am being rude, but where exactly do you hail from?"
A flicker of some emotion flashed across the young woman's face. However, it was gone but a fraction of a second later. She turned her face towards the commander, "I am from a small village just to the north of Westmarsh."
"Westmarsh?" Antony's face became horrified as he remembered the name, "Unbelievable," was all he could say.
"And why is that Commander?"
"Well, it is only speculation, seeing as we have not been able to spare any to a quest for answers, but we have reason to believe that the daemons, the creatures that were in the woods just moments earlier, come from that area."
Te'la's face was a mask of shock. She was about to say something to Antony when Reginald came through the brush, Titan's reins in his hand and tears streaking his face. It took Antony only a few seconds to register the body of a young Hunter slung over Titan's saddle.
"Gods no…" Antony muttered, running towards Titan. As he ground to a stop, he reached out for the fallen lad's hand. Taking the boy's wrist in between his fingers, Antony checked for any sign of life. With a muffled growl he released the arm, letting it fall limply to Titan's side. He spun of his heel and advanced toward Reginald. "Report!"
Reginald choked back the sob that was threatening to escape his throat, "I found him on the path to retrieve Titan… I was walking past the valley, when I noticed Hunter robes on the rocks below. I rushed down and found him there. It appears his neck was… snapped. I thought maybe he was paralyzed… He was still breathing when I found him…" at this point, the pain wracked sob escaped. Reginald released Titan's reins and fell to the ground on his knees, gloved hands covering his face. "What am I to do?! I was his guardian! I failed him!"
Antony looked down at his life long friend, his emotions warring between anger and sorrow. Anger that a Hunter especially one as young as seventeen, had died, and deep sorrow, not only for the dead boy, but for Reginald. To be a guardian, and to lose your charge, was one of the worst misfortunes that could befall a Hunter. For the second time this evening, he sought out his daughter.
Sashara was stock still, the arrows she had collected fallen from her grasp, her eyes glued to the body on the back of the great warhorse. She took a few steps forward as if she were in a trance. "Devon…" The name came out just barely above a whisper, but it reached her father's ears.
Tears began to stream down her face as she continued forward, finally coming to a stop before the young man's face, which hung unmoving. Slowly she removed her gloves and reached out a trembling hand. Her fingers rested on his cheek, stroking the quickly cooling skin. She looked from the dead face, to the face of her father, to the huddled quivering form of Reginald, finally coming to rest on the face of the woman they had found. She then turned to look at her fellow Hunters. "Another life has needlessly been lost. To those of you who have Hunted with us, you are reminded of the pain," she saw faces she had come to know, each streaked with tears, "to those of you just beginning, look."
Many of the new recruits looked away. "Look at him!" Sashara yelled, the hand not resting on the fallen boy clenching into a fist. "How many of you knew him? How many of you trained with him? This was but his second Hunt, and now look! This could have easily have been any of you! It could easily be your friend, your brother, your love! Look at him and know that this is why we are here! This is why we fight! These…," she paused, looking to her father, "these beasts know no sorrow… They know no sympathy… They will not rest until they see each and every person you know and love cut down! This," she said, moving aside and pointing her finger at Devon's face, eyes unseeingly staring out at the gathered Hunters, "this is why we can not rest until each and every one of those monsters have met our blades… Now come. Each of you, new and old, come! Come and look upon the face of your fallen brother!"
With that, the Hunters lined up and, one by one, came to look into the dead eyes of one who had been one of their own. Gasps and sobs echoed through the clearing as each came forward. When all was quiet, there was but one person left standing in front of Sashara and Devon. Te'la looked at the boy, her face unreadable, before she stepped forward, her hand reaching towards his face. Sashara watched with apprehension as Te'la's fingers touched his face. Slowly Te'la allowed her fingers to brush across the young man's eye lids, closing them as she leaded forward. "Em' ta s'olie, paidan," she whispered. Reaching into her shirt, she brought out a wooden talisman that hung from her neck by a leather thong. Reverently, she placed the talisman first to one of the dead boy's temples, then the other, before slipping it back under her shirt.
"What did you just say?" Sashara asked curiously. While at first she felt anxious, seeing this outsider moving toward the boy she once knew, now she felt almost at peace, as if the odd words and movements of this woman had somehow relieved her sorrow.
Te'la straightened, eyes closed, and sighed, "Go in peace, brother."
Shocked that one who did not know the boy would wish him such kind words in death, Sashara nodded, "That was kind of you. And the necklace?"
Te'la reached for the thong around her neck and pulled the talisman out, allowing it to dangle in the air between them. Sashara studied it, noting the intricate design. It appeared to be made of hand carved stone and depicted a tree, the foliage and the roots combining seamlessly in a circle around the trunk. "It is the symbol of my people. It is the tree of life. Tradition states that when one is born or dies, it is to be placed on either side of the head so that their mind may remember the tenets that they are brought up on. Everything is connected. Everything comes back. Nothing is forgotten…" Te'la stopped and looked directly at the talisman, as if remembering a pain, not yet past, "and everything must happen as it should…"
Antony came around from the other side of Titan. "Beautiful words," he said gently, as he lightly laid a strong hand on his daughter's shoulder. Looking around to the collection of Hunters, he squared his shoulders. "We must move out." Leaning down, he laid a hand on Reginald's back, causing the distraught man to look up. "Come on, Reg," he said, reverting to the shortened name they had used as boys. He held out his hand and helped Reginald up, looking into the man's bloodshot eyes.
Reginald sniffled and ran his damp nose across his sleeve. "How am I to do it, Antony? How do I tell Enid she no longer has a son? How am I to tell her that I let him die?"
Antony sighed, "I do not know my friend. She will mourn… But I am sure that she will not blame you. She is a very sensible woman. At least we are bringing his body home, so that she may have closure," he said, placing Titan's forgotten reins into Reginald's hand.
Reginald stared down at the reins in his hand, and then looked with dismay to the boy sprawled across the back of the horse. "At least I can do that for her."
Antony clapped Reginald on the back and gave him a brisk nod before turning to face Te'la. "Unfortunately, you will be unable to ride upon Titan, but if you become fatigued, you have only need let me know and I will stop."
Te'la gave the man a warm smile, which also held a bit of amusement. "No fear, Commander. I may not seem it, but being from my region, I am quite used to journeys on foot that last much longer than a day." She looked over her shoulder for a moment before looking back to the Commander. "One inquiry I do have… what am I to do once I get to Kinsway? I know no one in that village…"
"You may do whatever pleases you," Antony said, looking at the girl with curiosity.
"Of course, but, what I mean to say is, where will I stay?"
"Oh! Of course! Forgive me, my mind does like to take a break every once in a while," he said to explain his lack of understanding of the question, "You may stay in one of the inns if you'd like. I will speak with them and let them know of what transpired here. They will undoubtedly allow you to stay for free. Or, we do have barracks, if you'd rather the company of the Hunters."
"While I thank you for your hospitality, I think I would prefer an inn, if it is no trouble to you," Te'la said shyly.
"No problem at all, M'lady," Antony said, beginning to bow. Before he could complete the bow, however, he felt the woman's hand on her shoulder. He looked up, tired grey eyes locking with shining gold.
"Please. I am no better than you. There is no need for you to call me 'M'lady' when I have already given you my name." She gave Antony a stern look, daring him to challenge her.
"So long as you also call me by the name I have given to you," Antony returned.
Te'la smiled and nodded. Giving his shoulder a squeeze, which surprised Antony with the strength he felt behind it, Te'la turned away and walked to the edge of the clearing. Reaching behind one of the trees, she pulled out a rather large black traveler's bag and slung it onto her back. She turned and made her way back to the group of Hunters, all of them prepared for the day long journey ahead. "I am ready," she said, looking to the people who were about to become her traveling companions. She was ready… for whatever this journey would bring her.