Thankfully, Anneka didn’t notice. Her eyes were trained only on her prey. Had it been different circumstances I would’ve reprimanded her, but this was one set of prints I didn’t want her investigating.
I followed silently behind her, purposefully stepping on the large paw print and using the damp, spring mud to smear away any trace of the beast’s trail. As skilled as Anneka was, she still struggled with certain lessons. Being aware of her surroundings was one of them. I hoped I’d be able to train it into her, but sometimes the only way to learn is to make the mistakes yourself.
Up ahead I saw her crouch down into the bushes. I followed suit, squatting down not far from her. I could see the buck through the trees and made a mental note to compliment her positioning later.
She lined up her shot and I watched her back as she breathed slowly, her muscles taught, but her stature relaxed. Good, Anneka. Take your time.
The very first lesson I’d drilled into her when she began hunting was the importance of mercy. Do not let your prey suffer. Be empathetic and grateful that their death in turn helps you live. I hoped that’s what she was thinking of now, but knowing her she was probably more concerned with landing a perfect shot.
The buck shifted and I watched Anneka loose her arrow. It found its mark behind his right shoulder. I wouldn’t be surprised if it pierced right through his heart.
She stayed still and calm as the beast darted about in a blind panic. I’d taught her to be careful in these moments. An animal is most dangerous in the midst of its death throes. It was one of the few lessons of mine that she accepted without protest.
The buck took off to the right and down another trail, but Anneka didn’t move until it was no longer in sight.
She stood and looked back at me.
I nodded and gave her a small, encouraging smile.
She smiled back, her dark eyes lighting up for a moment before she turned towards the trail and followed her prey.
It was in these moments, when she looked for my approval, that I was reminded of how young she still was. She was as skilled as some hunters ten years her senior, but her mental maturity trailed far behind her physical ability. Sometimes I wondered if some of that was my own fault. I hadn’t forced her to try to get along with the other children her age when she was younger, but I had seen little point. For better or worse she was always destined to be different from others.
We didn’t have to go far down the path to find the buck laying perfectly still next to a budding bush. I’d kept my eyes open for any more of those other paw prints, but luckily hadn’t found any. It was doubtful Anneka would’ve missed them a second time now that she was more alert and not so pointedly focused on taking down her target.
I looked on as she knelt down beside the fallen deer and gave it a few pats before pulling out her arrow.
“Thank you for your sacrifice,” she said softly. Again I wondered if her little prayer was only to appease me. But even if that was the case, if she made it a habit of it she would hopefully internalize at least some of the lesson.
I walked up and knelt down beside her, pulling out the rope I’d brought with us.
“You did well,” I said and began tying up the deer’s legs with Anneka, readying it to hang from whatever large stick we could find nearby.
“I feel like the Heralds were on my side today,” Anneka replied, grunting softly as she pulled the knots tight. “The tracks were easy to follow, and we never had to change our course because of the wind.”
“True, but I saw you taking your time with your shot. You’ve gotten more patient.”
She smirked at me. “I wasn’t interested in being scolded again.”
I chuckled. “Then I hope my words will continue to haunt you even when I’m not around.”
She gave me a playful shove and a glare, but it didn’t last. A moment later she was laughing softly too. The sound of it coiled around my heart, squeezing it so tight it hurt.
It was in these moments I also felt a tremendous amount of guilt. I’d almost turned Anneka away when her mother all but begged me to take her. That wretched woman, she’d broken my heart and made a child with another man. Then, when the father abandoned her, as I’d warned her he would, she asked me to hide Anneka away so he’d never know. I remembered clearly the day she had thrust Anneka into my arms, the clever witch. She knew I was weak hearted. As soon as I looked into Anneka’s eyes and her tiny little fingers curled around my thumb, I was done for. Though I vowed that I’d never be her father, both for her sake and mine, I could not help but love her. My wild, little huntress.
I turned my head away from Anneka so she wouldn’t see the emotion welling in my eyes as we hung the deer off of a large stick and hoisted it up onto our shoulders. She’d never been comfortable with displays of affection and that had only heightened since she entered her teenage years. I worried that if she felt the weight of my love she’d put as much distance between us as she could.
We made our way back to the village without incident, though we did need to stop a couple times. Anneka was incredibly strong for a young woman, but carrying a deer was no easy task even between the two of us.
As soon as we entered the village we made our way to Myrin and her team of cooking women.
“Well well, look at this beauty,” Myrin said with a grin. “Nice work, Anneka.”
“Thank you, Myrin. Think you can make me some of that special jerky like you did last time?” Anneka asked.
Myrin laughed and swatted playfully at Anneka’s ankles with her fire tending stick. “I’ll think about it, you spoiled girl.”
Anneka just grinned wider. “Oh please, Myrin? I’ll grab you more salt root if you like!” she added, bowing her head and pretending to be sweet. It didn’t quite work as well when Anneka did it. It made her look as devious as a faerie.
“Hmm, I suppose we could make a trade. Though you’d better go before it gets dark.”
“And make sure to wash up in the stream,” I added.
“Yes, Master! And thank you, Myrin!” Anneka said and ran off again. Spirits, she had so much energy.
“Was the hunt alright, Urien? You look a little troubled,” Myrin said.
“I am, Myrin,” I replied. No point lying to her. The woman had basically raised me. “But it has nothing to do with Anneka. She did very well today.”
“Well that’s good at least. Did you want to talk about anything?”
“I do, but I think I’ll take it to the chief.”
Myrin gave me a little glare. “As you wish.”
“Oh don’t look at me like that, Myrin. You already know what’s going on in my mind before I tell you most of the time. Let me have a few secrets.”
At that her face softened and she let out a little cackle. “Alright, I’ll leave you be this time. You’ll find Rommus-shi over at old Alfi’s hut. He’s helping him fix the leaky roof.”
“Thank you, Myrin,” I said and gave her a fond smile before heading off to find the chief.
He was exactly where Myrin had said he would be.
“Rommus-shi,” I called out to him.
He looked down at me from the roof of Alfi’s yurt. “Urien! What can I do for you?”
“Need to ask for a favour.”
“A favour, eh? What is it?”
“Something I’d rather ask in private.”
The chief let out a haggard sigh, but I knew he was only doing it to tease me. “Gimme a minute. I’ll meet you at my place.”
“Thank you,” I said and made my way to his yurt to wait for him.
It always impressed me that unlike some other chiefs, Rommus had no interest in flaunting his position. His yurt wasn’t all that larger, and he didn’t wear much in the way of ornaments. Though sometimes I wondered if this was a feature of Rommus’ cleverness. The villagers were so used to his friendly mannerisms that when he showed even a hint of seriousness or anger, everyone would jump back in line.
I made myself comfortable on one of the little benches and as promised he returned a few minutes after.
“Alright, let me hear it, what can I do for you, Urien?”
“My old nemesis is back.”
Rommus’ eyes widened. “Old White Foot? Are you sure?”
“There’s no mistaking that print.”
Old White Foot was a huge, starry bear that occasionally wandered down from the mountains during spring to eat. He was surly, aggressive, and made the nearby foraging trails dangerous for the villagers. He had mauled poor old Boren-shi a few years back while he was out picking berries, but it was thanks to him that the others escaped. Old White Foot travelled back up the mountain before I managed to track him down.
The last time we clashed was over a decade ago, before Anneka was put into my care. He was the only creature that had bested me so far, and I had a vicious scar on my thigh from the last time we met. Though he wasn’t without his own scars as well – I’d managed to fend him off with a shot to his hind legs and a few stabs to his shoulder just below his neck during that bloody meeting. I was lucky I was still alive, but at the same time, so was he.
“Does Anneka know?”
“No, thank the spirits,” I replied. “And that’s what I’ve come to ask you about. I want you to keep her busy tomorrow while I go hunt him down. I don’t want her trying to tail me. This is something I need to handle on my own and I can’t be worried about her safety while I do it.”
“Of course, of course,” Rommus said with a little nod. “I’ll ask Hellena for help. She’s good at coming up with ideas like that.”
“Thank you, Rommus-shi.”
“And what about you? You think you can take him on? He’s older now, but so are you.”
“I don’t have any other option. We can’t have him this close,” I replied. “If he starts marking his territory it’ll be hard to get him out.”
Rommus rubbed at his chin. “True, true. I just worry about you.”
“Don’t be. I’ve got this.”
In truth I had no idea if I did or not. It had been many years since I’d been up against anything as tough as Old White Foot. A couple dire wolves a few years back, but that was it. And they didn’t have a vendetta against me like this bear did.
“Then I wish you all the luck in your hunt, Urien. Make us proud.”
“I will,” I replied and bowed my head.
“Good. Now go get yourself ready. It’ll be a long day tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Rommus. And thank you for taking care of Anneka.”
“Of course. She’s one of ours,” Rommus said with a fond grin.
For now. I didn’t need to say it out loud, I knew he knew it was well as I did. There would be no tying her to this village. One day she would venture out on her own. But for now, she was ours, and we’d keep her safe until she was ready to leave.
I couldn’t look Anneka in the eye when she left in the morning to go escort Hellena to the sunberry bushes. It was odd when I found it easy to lie to her about so many other things. It made me wonder if I’d made the wrong call, that maybe it would have been better for both of us to trust her with the truth – that I simply wanted to keep her safe.
Or maybe I couldn’t say it to her because that was a far worse lie than not telling her anything at all.
I looked at my reflection in the bowl of water we kept in the yurt. I was getting older. My own springtime, and even summer, was over. And a part of me, a dark part that sat like a black eel in the pit of my stomach, was jealous of her. She was going to surpass me. And soon. Sure, I was a very skilled hunter when compared to normal folk, but she was something else entirely. A monster in the making. And I knew a lot of that came from her real father, which I resented above all else.
The truth was my pride was keeping her behind.
But it was too late now. She was gone and I made my decision. Everything was in fate’s hands now. I readied myself and walked out of the village with a strange sense of resignation hanging over me.
Thankfully, as I moved further into the forest, and my thoughts turned to the hunt, I felt the energy change within me. Though it had been years, I remembered this feeling. The way my senses heightened and the world melted around me. The way my heart would pound slower, but stronger, like the ceremonial drums of the dark feast.
But it also felt foreign, being out here alone. There was nothing about hunting that wasn’t somehow tied to Anneka now. I was used to moving at her pace. I was used to keeping one eye on her and the other on the forest around us. Even the sight of her back, the bobbing of her hair that she always tied back, was part of the hunt. There was no escaping her shadow.
I found my way back to the prints we left yesterday and saw the smear in the mud where Old White Foot’s paw print had been. Huge, wide, the third claw missing. Honestly, Anneka, how could you have missed it?
From there I made my way northeast to our usual foraging grounds. I wasn’t terribly surprised when I found familiar paw prints next to the early ripening berry bushes. I had hoped he would have some sort of limp after our last encounter, but his tracks looked perfectly fine. Leisurely, even, the way they were spaced out.
The wind shifted and I cursed under my breath. I’d have to change my course if I wanted to make sure he didn’t smell me.
I smirked to myself. I wasn’t usually so impatient. Yet another sign that my time with Anneka had changed my hunting habits. Still, I couldn’t let this agitation cloud my judgement. I needed to remain calm and focused. It was the advice I would have given to Anneka if this were her hunt.
I took a moment to take a couple of deep, steadying breaths before heading southeast. The mud stuck to my boots, slowing my pace, but I refused to let it bother me. There was no need to rush. I’d meet up with my prey soon enough.
The only thing that did unsettle me as I made the long loop around was the lack of usual sweetness in the spring air. It was a strange thing to worry about, but I was superstitious man, unlike Anneka. I only hoped it wasn’t a bad omen.
I had nearly joined back up with the main path when I heard a faint huff. Immediately I ducked down and looked around. There was no sign of my nemesis, but I knew in my gut that sound was from him. He was close.
Slowly I crept into the bushes and pulled out my bow, readying an arrow. Here, finally, I found a sense of calm. Anneka still couldn’t match my patience and doubtfully ever would. She wouldn’t have been able to wait for Old White Foot to make the first move. She would have tried to move closer. But I had no issue with waiting for him to come to me. I would only have the advantage at the beginning of our fight, and I wasn’t about to throw that away.
I stayed perfectly still, ignoring the stiffening in my knees and the burning in my arms. The rush of the hunt would wash over me and stamp out any signs of weakness soon enough.
The damned bear made me wait far longer than I wanted to, but eventually I heard the snapping of twigs and saw his massive form moving through the trees. His fur was a beautiful dark grey, aside from his massive right paw which was as white as snow. It was him, without a doubt.
You old bastard. As I suspected from seeing his tracks, he didn’t limp at all. He didn’t even look any different than he did sixteen years ago. How did I age and he didn’t?
I nocked my arrow and readied my shot, though I was still debating my next move. If I shot from here I’d have enough time to loose a second one, but it wouldn’t pierce as deep. If I waited until he got closer the arrow would go deeper, but I knew it still wouldn’t be enough to stop him.
My heart sped up. This was it. Our final meeting, old friend. We end it today.
I loosed my arrow and watched as it sunk into his side. Had he been a regular black bear, victory would already be mine.
The massive beast let out a horrible roar as he thrashed, clawing at the arrow lodged behind his shoulder.
With practiced, steady movements I readied my next shot. It was unlikely I’d get another perfect hit, but that didn’t matter. Injuring him would be enough.
After a long exhale I loosed my second arrow. It buried itself into his hind leg, almost the exact same spot I had shot him last time.
And he knew it.
Those furious, winter blue eyes locked onto me, sending a lightning bolt of panic down my spine that exploded in my gut.
Without a second thought I ran. There would be no stalemate this time. It was him or me. And I saw in his eyes that he was going to make damned sure it was me.
I rushed towards the thicker part of the forest. The dense underbrush would slow him down more than me. And with him injured, his stamina wouldn’t last.
But he was faster than I remembered. Or I was slower. He was gaining on me. I could hear the feral pants closing in on me.
I pulled out my knife, readying it in my right hand as I ran as fast I could. I couldn’t afford another close encounter fight with him. He would win this time, I was sure of it. I needed to put space between us so I could shoot him down.
I took a sharp right in front of a large tree, hoping it would confuse him, but he was quick.
His claws sliced through my right calf and sent me to the ground.
This was it. We were going to settle it here.
But then I saw the bramble bushes in the corner of my eye and I knew I had one last option – swallow my pride and hide like prey so that I may live a few more years for Anneka.
With a ferocious cry I scrambled into the bushes, ignoring the way they sliced up my skin and my dignity along with it. Damn my pride. She needed me. Even if I couldn’t walk again, it didn’t matter. She didn’t need my formal lessons anymore, she needed a guiding, loving hand to make sure she retained her humanity and didn’t turn into a beast herself. For there was a dark, terrifying depth to her that couldn’t be left unchecked, especially in these last few crucial years before adulthood. If I were to die here, there would be nothing to stand in the way of her spiraling down that path of no return.
A very human roar sliced through the air.
I frantically turned around and looked on in horror as I saw the unmistakable frame of the man I hated most taking my prize.
Like an animal himself, he leapt onto Old White Foot’s back, grabbing tufts of fur with his giant, bare hands. The starry bear circled and thrashed around, but the man barely flinched as he calmly climbed up the beast’s back, drew a long knife from its sheath, and lodged it deep into White Foot’s neck, right below the skull. I felt my stomach drop as hard as the beast’s body hitting the forest floor. It was a clean kill. My nemesis would die in peace. But I hated seeing how easily he had done it. It made my weakness all the more apparent.
I stood up, my chest barely clearing the bushes.
“He was mine,” I said.
Oro turned and looked to me. “So you’re what he was after. I thought it looked like he trying to catch some dinner, I just didn’t think it was human on the menu.”
He let out a savage chuckle, and I could feel rage burning up within me.
I made my way through the bushes, refusing to wince as they scratched at me. “You didn’t see the arrows in his side?”
Oro cocked a thick eyebrow at me before rolling the bear over as easily as a sleeping child. “Ah. No, I didn’t. I came at him from the other side. Still, it seemed like you had given up already, hiding in the bush like that.”
I looked down at the dead bear. This wasn’t how I wanted this to end, old friend. It should have been me to strike you down. Oro doesn’t give a damn about you. You were just another bear to him.
Suddenly my leg gave out, sending me crashing to the ground.
Oro laughed. “He got you good, didn’t he? You were lucky that I was roaming around these parts. Wrap up your leg and we’ll head back to Deer Pass. I’ll even say you weakened him for me.”
I grabbed my knife and shot up, putting all my weight in my left leg. He was twice my size and a head taller, but I didn’t care.
“You’ll stay the hell away from my village,” I warned, pointing the knife at him. “Keep the bear. Keep the honour. But I’ll kill you if you set foot in Deer Pass.”
I knew what would happen if Anneka saw him. Even if he didn’t say a single word to her, or spare her a glance, his obvious strength would inspire her to be just like him. And she was already so much like him. Selfish. Wild. My years of painstaking work to grow the seeds of empathy and humanity in her would be undone in a second. I couldn’t bear it. She could be so much more than him, and I was willing to die to make sure she would be.
Oro laughed at me again, and I saw a dark flash in his eyes. “So you won’t let the bear have the honour of killing you, but you’d let me?”
“I’d take you down with me.”
“That so?” Oro asked. “What are you so afraid of? Do you have a woman back in the village? Scared she’ll run into my arms when she sees a real man?”
He leaned forward with a cruel smile, and I sliced through the air with my knife. I was pleased to see his eyes widen for a split second as he took a step back.
“Don’t tempt me, Oro. You wouldn’t understand the strength of a man who has something to protect.”
His grin spread further as he let out a guttural laugh that practically shook the leaves around us.
“Hah! Doesn’t look to me like you’re much of a protector.”
Molten rage surged through my veins. Never in my life had I been worked into this savage state. There was no doubt in my mind that I’d follow through on my threats. I’d kill him if he got anywhere close to Anneka. I’d do anything to make sure she wouldn’t so much as hear a whisper of his name before she was ready to leave the village.
His eyes narrowed and his smile faded as he took a step towards me.
I pressed the knife into his chest. “Take the bear and go, Oro. There’s nothing to gain with our deaths.”
“Tell me your name, hunter.”
“You bastard. You damned well know my name.”
“I don’t remember the names of weak men. But at least this time you’ve shown a little pluck. Tell me.”
“Urien. Don’t forget it again.”
He smirked and looked down at my leg. “Your hunting days are over, Urien. And there isn’t much worth to a crippled man. Whoever you’re protecting will be ashamed to see you limp back without your kill. I hope your decision to live was worth it.”
“It was. And they won’t be ashamed.” Not yet. Perhaps in a few years Anneka may feel differently, but right now she still needed me.
I turned to Old White Foot and knelt down beside him. “Rest in peace, old friend,” I said and patted his head.
Then I grabbed a nearby stick and pulled the bandages from my pouch, fastening it to my leg. I’d hobble back. Shania would patch me up. No matter what, I needed to make sure I didn’t lose my ability to walk. Anneka needed that much at least.
Oro offered his hand to me.
I glared, but took it and let him help me stand.
“May your ancestors forgive you for your weakness,” Oro said.
“And may yours forgive you for your ignorance,” I said back and walked past him, refusing to wince as bolts of pain shot through my leg.
As I walked back to the village, my head hung low, I could finally see the sacrifice Old White Foot made for me. It was our special connection that triggered my pride and convinced me to go alone on this hunt. Nothing else could have made me so stubborn and foolish. Had I listened to an ounce of reason and brought Anneka with me, she would have seen Oro, and worse yet, seen him in his element. I would have lost her to him instantly. With her absent I was able to face him alone and make damned sure him and Anneka would never cross paths before she was ready.
And I had to thank that bear for my injuries too. Now I had no choice but to demand that Anneka matured. I couldn’t carry on coddling her and stunting her emotional growth. She would need to step up in my stead as the main provider for the village.
My only use from here on out would be to give everything I had to Anneka – my responsibilities, my knowledge, and my love. I would have to take whatever pride I could in knowing this was the best I could do for our clan, and humanity as a whole. For not all of us were destined to become legends. Some of us were entrusted with the duty of making sure others became the legends they were meant to be.
© Obsidian Grove 2022