Hunters


let's see, there's violence, though not really gore


Eye of my eyes, sight of my sight.

The call was carried by the wind, whipped high above the craggy rocks and snow-swept land and delivered to the circling hawk. Who swooped, falling down through the gusts like icy grey death. It landed on the outstretched arm, talons scrapping across the leather gauntlet as it edged into position. Goker was a scout as well as a hunter and he edged back along the rock ledge towards the rest of the hunting party. The nomads of the western face of the Sea of Clouds did not yet have their own word for war but they knew this was a very different type of hunt from chasing mammoths through pine forests.

Seven men and two women stood clustered beneath the pine boughs as Goker leapt down from the outcrop. All carried the long bows and poisoned arrows typical of mountain hunters while the beading and markings on their furs identified their tribe. Bahar, unmarried still, had black bands on her face marking her as an adult while Tutku, who had given up womanly ways to become a shaman, had the left side of her head shaved and the other half in a long braid. The men wore their beards long with claws and talons from important kills braided in prominent places.

Hikmet, their serkan, nodded to Goker and when the scout had given an affirmative. Then he motioned for the others to follow. The mountains had many paths, though they were often shrouded in mists. The great animals had worn ruts over the backs of the ancient stones while smaller prey had carved far narrower tracks that crisscrossed the forest. And then the lowlanders had come and cut a wide road along the old mammoth trail and they had paved it with cobbles up almost this far. The people of the fens had been moving steadily east and up since Hikmet's grandfather's time. That was when they had discovered the ore that made up the bones of the mountains, the ore they made their swords and arrows from. They had built mines, and towns, and fortresses once the nomads realized the game was fleeing before the smog of their furnaces.

"Remember," Tutku said, tapping her obsidian knife against her thigh. "For the ones in metal shirts strike at the gaps: neck, armpits, face, backside."

"They swing wide," Goker said as they followed the reindeer track around the rock outcrop. "And they can shoot a moving target about as well as the shaman can pee on her feet."

Tutku shook a rattle of goblin teeth and jubjub feathers at the scout in annoyance and pulled the head of her yeti pelt over her head. The fangs hung down around her forehead while the empty eye sockets stared at the surrounding forest. The others widened the respectful gap around their shaman while Goker made the sign for warding off evil.

Hikmet held up a hand and the others froze instantly. The snow beneath their feet had been packed to ice by the passage of many hooves and feet, but the wind howled through the snowy branches and carried the sound of other movements up to the hunting party. They advanced more cautiously behind their serkan until they reached the edge of the forest and could see the stone walls. The mine was enclosed by granite walls nearly twice the height of a grown man though inside the buildings were of wood except for the mine entrance. That was also stone. After a few years, enough flaming arrows from the forest had taught the lowlanders the value of stone inside their compound as well as out.

This mine was the furthest up the mountains and some years the lowlanders managed to hold it. Others they had abandoned it for the winter, sometimes even for spans of years in which the forest had a chance to regrow. The lowlanders were constantly cutting down the trees to fuel the furnaces but instead of giving them time to regrow they spread the circle of open land wider and wider, pushing the mountain tribes higher and closer together.

The hunting party settled where they were, sinking into crouches beneath the shadows of the trees. Soon the sun would dip behind the mountains and the guards in the fortress would light watchfires. But they would not be able to see in the dark and the smell of smoke would mask other scents that otherwise might have warned them.

Once darkness had fallen they rose and stretched, but still they waited. It wasn't until the night was fully black and their eyes had adjusted to darkness that Hikmet gave the signal. As one they rushed forward from the trees, spreading out while running low over the ground. The soft crunch of snow could be taken for the footsteps of other animals, if any inside were perceptive enough to hear it. Somehow they reached the walls without raising the alarm cry and Goker wondered what stupid guards they had posted that night.

Tutku reached the wall first and broke her rattle against it, releasing the magic Levent, the shaman of the Hyrax tribe, had shared with her. The magic spread out along the wall, twirling smokey tendrils around each of the hunters. Goker felt a tingling in his legs as the magic found him and he knew it was working.

"Jump, jump," Tutku hissed, before following her own directions.

She crouched and leapt, springing at once from the ground to the top of the wall, where she scrambled to land without falling. Hikmet followed with the rest hardly seconds behind. At the top Goker released Emin again and the hawk soared above the fires of the mine, calling as he ascended into the sky. But the battle cry was lost in the din. There were strange noises coming from inside the fortress. It was always loud, chaotic sounding, with constant crashing and shouting but now the shouts sounded different, panicked. People were rushing from building to building, some had weapons and at least one of the wooden structures was aflame. No one looked up at them.

The yaksha, the yellow-eyed, black-fanged hunters who begrudgingly shared their big game ground with humans, had said they thought there was something wrong with the humans at the mine. But yaksha always thought there was something wrong with humans, especially lowlanders. No one had really taken them seriously when they had passed by a few days before. The yaksha had claimed that there was something wrong all across the lowlands and that the people of the fens were setting fire to each other. Hikmet had said that lowlanders had these kinds of customs.

There was a terrible undulating scream from the nearest building which ended in a gurgle. The hunters on the wall drew their bows as a dark shape burst through the doorway. A person hit the ground hands first, but as the form rolled to its feet Goker saw it was a woman cradling something strapped to her chest. She turned and ran towards the wall as more people barreled through the doorway.

"Look! Look!" the shout went up from the men chasing the woman and their steps faltered as their eyes found the wall. Goker could understand their language, he had spent enough time on the border lands and among the traders. The shout was picked up by more people in the fortress as they too looked up. "The wild men have come! The wild men are here!"

"She has a baby," Bahar said and Goker saw suddenly that she was taking aim.

She loosed the arrow and it flew over the woman's head and into the body of one of the miners. The hammer fell from his raised hand and the man slid to the ground, clutching his chest.

"Why are they fighting each other?" Ozan shouted as the others followed Bahar's lead, sending arrows over the woman's head. Ozan was the youngest in the party; he had felled a taileypo but had never had to kill a man.

Hikmet nodded to Goker and the scout dropped to the ground below as the running woman fell to her knees. He stalked forward as if he were approaching wounded prey. Even when the poison took them they could still lash out, sometimes with more fury than when they were first hit. She rocked forward, huddling over the baby until he was steps away. He tried to ask if she was hurt, but the words came out garbled. He could understand much of what they said but he had trouble putting the words together himself. He tried again, focusing on the one word.

"Hurt?"

She looked up suddenly, reaching out a hand that was covered in blood. Her arm was covered in blood and the red was speckled across her face. He could feel the magic on her and wondered if she was a shaman, repelled by the idea of a shaman having a child. She said something, kept saying it, over and over, getting louder as she inched towards him on her knees, dragging first one a little closer and then the other. He couldn't help himself, he took half a step back. She looked more like a cursed spirit than a woman. And then he understood her.

"She's saying 'help'!" he called up to Hikmet and hoped the others would not mock him too much for his show of cowardice.

She caught at his coat, leaving trails of blood on the smooth fur. Still she babbled. On either side of him hunters dropped to the ground while others spread out along the wall, running bent, bows drawn.

"Well?"

Goker started at the sound of his serkan's voice behind him. He had not heard Hikmet hit the ground or walk forward.

"She says they're killing children," the scout said as the woman babbled on. "She's says help her, help her baby."

"Ozan!" Hikmet called.

Goker stood in awe as the serkan strode forward and grasped the shaman woman under her arms and pulled her to her feet. He took her by the arm and handed her to the boy, who was nearly shaking at the knees.

"Take her, protect her, and maybe someone will make a song about it later. Kill the men." Hikmet paused and looked over the chaos of the mine. Now three buildings were on fire and the screams filled the night. "Unless they ask for help."

"How will I know if they ask?!" the bewildered boy cried.

"They won't be trying to kill you. Probably."

The serkan drew his bow and shot a miner running between buildings. The man stumbled into the safety of a doorway but the poison would get him, eventually.

"We are still here to destroy them, now it will be easier. Don't forget."

Goker and Ozan grunted a response and they separated, each going in a different direction. They would sweep from the walls in towards the center, driving the miners like sheep. It did not quite work that way. Women, children, elderly, and even men ran to the hunters calling for help. Tutku said she had never seen so many shamans in one place. Some could release magic that would stop an arrow or set a building on fire. The woman with blood on her hands was their serkan and once she stopped babbling, she called orders that the other lowlanders followed. After two hours dead and dying lay in the open and all the remaining miners had locked themselves inside the stone building that led to the mine.

Hikmet called the hunting party together in the open space before the mine and the shaman people clustered behind them, all talking at once.

"Can you collapse the building?" Hikmet asked.

Tutku crouched on the ground and traced sacred symbols in the dirt. They stood in silent reverence as the shaman crafted magic. After some time the lowlanders fell silent too. Goker felt them moving closer and tensed. His hand rested on the handle of his obsidian knife and he saw others reach for their weapons as well. The woman with blood on her hands stepped forward, her black hair shinning in the light of the burning buildings. Her baby's cries could be heard now above the crackle of fire but she made no move to quiet it.

"What is she doing?" she said slowly, pointing at Tutku and breaking the sacred silence.

Goker put a hand over his mouth and she copied the motion. A second later all her people did as well and the scount would have laughed had it not been so serious.

Tutku brushed off her hands and got to her feet. They all waited for her to speak but at first she only stared at the building, as if she could will it to fall without releasing any magic. Then she sighed and pushed back the yeti head.

"I don't have enough magic. The building is too big. Maybe they can do it if we can tell them what we want."

The hunters exchanged looks but they waited to hear what Hikmet would say. His choices were usually the best, which was why he was serkan. He tugged at the tooth of a shunka warakin[1]that held the place of honor in his beard and looked up at the smokey sky. The woman with blood on her hands stepped up beside Goker and dropped her hand from her mouth.

"Can you understand me?" she asked.

He nodded.

"Let me talk to them. I will tell them to go away and not to come back."

He translated this for the hunters but had no way of telling her 'they always come back.' Instead what he said was: "Why?" The woman frowned, her eyebrows scrunching together and lips twisting as she patted her baby on the back.

"Why?" Goker said again, gesturing from the stone building to the group of lowlanders. "Why hurt?"

"Our king," she paused and he nodded. 'King' was a word he knew, it was like a serkan for the lowlanders. "Our king does not like magic." Here she waved towards Tutku. "He has made a rule, a law, that says kill all magic users."

"Shamans?" Goker said, waving towards Tutku as well. "Kill your shamans?"

"Yes."

"That's insane!" Bahar exclaimed once he had translated.

The disbelief was universal; the hunters had never heard of anything like it. Shamans were crucial to the life of the tribe, not having one was a great misfortune. As for killing one, it would be better to kill your entire family first. Hikmet held up a hand and they fell silent.

"Lowlanders have strange customs. They are mad to do this, but then all lowlanders are mad. We will let the shamans deal with their people as long as they can make them leave. That is a shaman's right."

It was nearly dawn when the door to the stone building finally opened and the miners appeared. They edged out into the open, axes and swords clutched close to their bodies. There were perhaps twenty left, though some were bleeding and others were burned. The hunting party stood well back, bows drawn and aimed, though Hikmet had told them not to loose their arrows unless the miners tried to attack. The lowland shamans were closer, though still beyond reach and those that could do magic were also waiting. The wind blew chill down from the mountains, warning of snow. The grey clouds hunger lower, the forest mists denser, than they had been the day before.

The miners crept out of the fortress gates into the cold grey mists beyond and the lowland shamans slammed the gates behind them. Goker and his hawk watched them go, shuffling and stumbling down the road like men in a daze. He wondered if any of them had thought to bring food, if any knew how to catch it and where they would get to before sundown.

It took more time before the hunting party could leave. The lowlanders carried out everything they valued and tried to present it to Hikmet and Tutku. Mirrors, shinny metals, swords, axes, furniture, anything they could lift they tried to give away. The serkan shook his head at all of it while Tutku, as a shaman, accepted a mirror. It fell to Goker to explain that the lowlanders could keep the fortress, if they kept the miners away and left the forest grow. He hoped they understood. He did not want to have to come back and fight like this again. He did not want to have to put an arrow through the woman with blood on her hands and make an orphan of her child.

The hunting party left as the mists swept down towards the valleys and the first flakes of new snow began to fall. They followed the reindeer track above the fortress before crossing over onto the larger mammoth trail. At this rate they would reach their camp before noon. Even if they couldn't see the sun they would still know when it reached its height. Above them a great aiolornis[2] let out a cry as it swept down on its prey. Without a word they turned as one towards the sound. The huge birds often followed herds and were good meat themselves if nothing else could be caught.


Um, Happy Boxing Day? I originally intended to set this in an earlier period and end it with the hunters 'going over the top' so to say, but then I decided that might be a little cruel and it was Christmas, so I gave it more resolution. I've probably been reading too much stuff related to WWI lately. This is set about thirty years before my main story The Opal Fox.

[1] shunka warakin- an enormous, bone-crunching hyena

[32] go ahead and google it, an ice-age bird with a 17 foot (5 m) wingspan