The fallen leaves softly crunching under my feet weren’t doing me any favours. They hid the tracks and made it difficult to move quietly and keep pace. Boars didn’t have the best hearing, but they were far from deaf.
At least the creatures were a hungry sort and left plenty of evidence between the rooting in the ground and the absence of low hanging berries on the shrubs. The warm scat also made it obvious I was getting closer to the sounder. I had five arrows on me, and I hoped I’d be able to use at least two this hunt, if I was lucky.
I stopped for a moment and took a breath, trying to calm myself. I could feel my heartrate pick up just knowing I was getting close.
“Keep me steady, heralds,” I whispered under my breath. Focus on the hunt. Be patient and wait for the best moment. Be merciful to my prey.
With that short prayer I pushed on, though I wasn’t as focused as I wanted to be. It wasn’t uncommon to have boars in our woods, but not this close to our village. They were emboldened by something. Or perhaps driven our way somehow. I wanted to know what it was so I could deal with the root of the problem and not waste time thinning out a sounder that was just going to repopulate and stick around.
Still, a selfish part of me was grateful for the opportunity. It wasn’t often I got to hunt boar, and the change of prey was exciting. I wasn’t satisfied simply being a deer hunter, someone who simply killed easier targets for a bit of food and hide. I wanted to be able to hunt all sorts of animals so I could understand the instincts of any creature I came across. My master always seemed uneasy when I mentioned this, though I wasn’t entirely sure why. I assumed it had to do with the fact that he loved me like a daughter, and as much as he loved teaching me the ways of the hunt, he didn’t want my curiosity to be the death of me.
Over the soft rustling of the dying leaves still clinging to the poplars, I finally heard my prey. Soft, distant grunts. They sounded calm, so they must have been eating. The stream was a bit further away so they wouldn’t be stopping for a drink.
I stalked closer, mindful of the wind. Boars didn’t have the best eyes or ears, but not many other animals could compare to their snout. One tiny whiff of me and they would bolt.
As I stalked forwards something caught my eye on the tree – a large scrape mark that tore off a chunk of bark. It could have been a deer or an elk, but that was awfully low for their antlers to reach.
I gasped softly, the answer hitting me like a gust of wind in my chest. A great boar. I couldn’t be entirely sure, but the height of the marking and presence of a nearby sounder made it a likely possibility. I’d need to investigate as soon as possible. If I could take him out, as well as the lead sow from this group, there was a good chance the sounder would back off. Or at least be easier to thin out.
“Focus,” I whispered to myself. This was something to deal with later. I could still hear the sounder nearby and they wouldn’t be feeding forever. I needed to take the opportunity while I had it.
The wind was on my side, even if the damned leaves weren’t. It didn’t take long for me to lay eyes on the group as I hid myself behind a thick poplar tree.
“Patience,” I whispered under my breath. Watch them. Pick out the lead sow. Without her wise guidance, the group may return and grant me the opportunity to take another.
There were nine of them in this pack. Six females and three males still too young to leave the pack. It didn’t take long for me to pick out the leader. She was the only one that wasn’t completely hypnotized by the proverbial feast of berries that surrounded them, and would occasionally scan her surroundings with black, beady eyes.
With practiced movements I pulled out my bow and one of the heavier arrows I’d brought specifically for this hunt. Boar hide was far tougher than the deer I usually hunted. Since I wasn’t strong enough to wield the bows my master did, I would need to get closer. I exhaled silently and inched forwards.
Even after years of practice the thrill never subsided. I could hear the blood pounding in my ears as I readied myself for the kill. I slowly breathed in through my nose and let out another deep and silent exhale, emptying my lungs completely. I couldn’t afford shaking limbs if I wanted to place my mark. If I missed this shot, I wouldn’t get another today. The sun was already sinking in the sky, and it wasn’t wise to tempt fate by remaining in the forest after dark.
My eyes never left the sow. She grazed at one bush, then another, before finally moving into a favourable position. Only then did I ready my shot. I was strong, but I could only hold the string for so long before my arm started to tremble.
A sudden noise to the left – perhaps a small bird hopping on dry leaves – grabbed the sow’s attention and caused her to turn, perfectly exposing her left flank to me.
I loosed my arrow.
With satisfaction I watched it pierce past her shoulder and into where I knew her vital organs were. She wouldn’t last long. It was the most merciful death I could give her.
The boars squealed almost all at once and darted around in a panic before charging out of the area. Despite the chaos, I kept my eyes trained on the sow.
Staying upwind and a safe distance behind, I pursued. An angry boar was a dangerous boar, and I was in no mood for injury. Not when I wanted to hunt an even bigger prey tomorrow.
I followed the trail of blood for a while before I found her lying limp on the ground. She seemed dead, but I didn’t want to take any chances or disturb her final moments. I took a few moments to wait silently in a nearby bush until I was certain of her passing. Once I could see her chest was no longer moving, I approached and gently laid a hand on her side as I retrieved my arrow.
“Thank you for your sacrifice.” I pulled out my hunting knife, leather tarp, and length of rope. She was too big to completely carry back on my own, but I’d take what I could manage without slowing me too much.
With the best cuts bundled in the tarp and tied tightly shut with the rope, I slung the makeshift bag over my shoulders and set out, my hunting knife still in my hand. I wouldn’t be able to reach my bow if trouble came up.
I kept to the wide trails and took the most direct route I could back to the village, hoping any opportunistic scavengers were far more interested in the carcass I left behind than what I was carrying with me. The sun was dipping behind the mountains when I saw the fires burning, lighting up our little round yurts with a familiar glow.
“Anneka!” Called my master as I approached. I wasn’t surprised that he would notice me first with those keen eyes of his.
I smiled as I walked up to him. “Master, I come bearing success and meat for the tribe.”
He laughed. “Of course you do. Come, let’s get it sorted out for the women to cook.”
Without another word he led me to the north side where a group of three women were huddled around a fire cooking fish on long, damp sticks.
“Anneka,” greeted the eldest one, her grey hair pulled back in neat braids. “Looks like you’ve brought us something more interesting to cook than fish.”
“I have, Myrin,” I said with a respectful little bow of my head and took the bag off my shoulders and laid it over to the side.
“Been a while since we had boar. Think you’ll catch any more?” Myrin asked.
“I don’t know. We’ll see,” I replied. I didn’t want to worry her, or more accurately the younger women next to her, with mention of the great boar I was hoping to hunt down.
“We’ll leave this in your capable hands, Myrin,” my master said, apparently not interested in chatting any longer.
“Of course. Thank you for the meat, Anneka,” Myrin said.
I nodded to her and walked off with my master. He didn’t speak until we were well out of earshot of anyone else.
“It’s not like you to give such a vague answer when it comes to hunting, Anneka. What are you hiding?” my master asked, seeing through me like fresh, mountain water.
“I found something while I was on the trail,” I replied. “And I wasn’t hiding it. Well, not from you. I didn’t want to worry the women.”
He smirked. “I see. Well, we’re alone now. What did you find?”
“Marks on a tree that I’m pretty sure belong to a great boar. They were deep and far too low to be deer or elk. I was thinking it may be why the other boars are coming in so close.”
My master hummed and nodded. “It’s possible. We should speak to the chieftain about it. This is not something we should keep from him.”
“If you say so, master,” I said.
“I do,” he said and led me towards the chieftain’s large yurt at the north end of the village.
It wasn’t that I didn’t respect the chieftain, I did, but sometimes it seemed so bothersome to have to report every little thing to him. It wasn’t like he was going to go hunt the boar.
“Urien, Anneka, come in,” the chieftain greeted as we pulled back the thick leather tarp in front of the entryway. He was eating with his wife and the village priestess around his small fire.
We walked in and took our seats on the ground across from them.
“You still haven’t washed from your hunt, Anneka,” the chieftain’s wife said with a little smile, her eyes going to my bloody hands.
“Oh,” I said, my cheeks turning red with embarrassment. Often my master reminded me, but he was preoccupied as well. “I’m sorry, Hellena-shi, should I go wash and come back?”
The chieftain waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t worry about it this time.”
I watched his wife give him a sharp look, obviously not appreciating her desires being overruled, but I wasn’t about to get involved in that. Hopefully my sincere apology and offer to wash would be enough to keep me in her good graces.
“Tell us about your hunt,” the chieftain said, biting into the fish he’d been keeping warm near the fire.
“It went well. I managed to kill the lead sow,” I said.
“Excellent! Do you think they will return?”
“It’s possible. If they do, I’ll bring back some more meat for the tribe.”
“We’d look forward to it,” the chieftain said with a pleased smile.
My master nudged me, obviously wanting me to tell the chieftain of the other matter at hand.
“There’s something else you should know, chief. I believe there is a great boar roaming the territory. Between the marks I found and the fact that the other boars have wandered so close make me think this to be true. I intend to go out tomorrow and investigate.”
The chieftain’s brow furrowed, making thick lines on his forehead. “You’re skilled, Anneka, but conquering a great boar is no walk in the forest.”
“I know, and I won’t take this prey lightly, but I want to take on this challenge.”
“I’ll go with you,” my master said.
“No,” I said and looked to him. “Please, master. I’ll be tense if you’re there. Let me try alone first.”
My master stared at me for a moment. I hoped I hadn’t offended him. It was tough making these decisions, especially in front of others. As skilled as my master was, he couldn’t do what he used to, not since his leg went partially limp. He could walk fine but running was out of the question, and if something went south with the boar there was a chance I wouldn’t be able to protect him.
“Two days,” my master said. “If you haven’t felled him, you will accept help.”
“Understood, master,” I said. That was fair. If I couldn’t do it in two days I’d consider it a failure myself.
“But be careful, Anneka,” the chieftain’s wife said. “You are valuable to our village. Please think of us as well as your pride.”
I clenched my teeth, but bowed my head to her all the same. I hated when my faults were pointed out so bluntly, but she was right. I would be of no use to the village, or myself for that matter, if I let pride or the thrill of the hunt cloud my judgement.
“And stay within the warded area,” the priestess, Jashni added.
“I’ll do my best,” I replied.
Jashni’s eyes narrowed slightly. She was only twice my age, but she acted as if she were as old and wise as the chieftain’s wife. The dumb woman hadn’t earned it. All she did was walk around all day putting talismans on trees and praying. I was pretty sure she was taking advantage of the village with her priestess act, doing nothing while still getting the benefits of food and protection. Sometimes I worried I wasn’t much better considering I had no true family here. My master had adopted me as his daughter and the village treated me as a member, but I always felt like a bit of an outsider. At least I could comfort myself knowing that even though I did not share blood with these people, I actually protected them. Nobody ever saw these demons or faeries Jashni was supposedly protecting us from. Great boars, however, were a real threat.
“I suggest you do better than your best. My powers will not save you outside of those wards.”
“I understand, blessed one,” I said.
“I hope you do.”
My master grabbed my shoulder and gave it a squeeze. It was a very solid reminder to keep my mouth shut disguised as a loving touch. He knew I had very little patience with that woman.
“You should prepare yourself, Anneka,” my master said. “We can go over training tonight or we can stay here and go over other successful, and not so successful, boar hunts with the chieftain. He’s heard plenty of stories that would do you benefit.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to listen to a few stories,” I said. I wanted to conserve my energy for tomorrow and was admittedly very curious to hear about other hunters. “I’ll go put my things away and wash up.”
“Hurry back,” the chieftain said with his usual, half-toothless smile.
I gave him a little nod then rushed out of his large yurt and over to the little one I shared with my master. Most lived with their family, but my master and I only had each other. I didn’t mind, it meant we had plenty of space, and I wasn’t forced to socialize with anyone I didn’t like.
Once I had put my weapons away in my corner of our home and washed my hands and face, I passed by Myrin and grabbed a couple fish and a handful of berries. I wanted something to eat while I listened to the stories.
When I returned to the chieftain’s yurt I was relieved to see that the other two women had left. I didn’t want the chieftain or my master to feel like they had to hold back on the gory details.
“Hopefully you’ll still be interested in eating all that once we tell you the first story,” my master said, eyeing the handful of food I was carrying.
I shrugged as I sat down near him. “I’ll be fine.” He of all people should know I wasn’t easily disturbed.
“I hope you will be. And I also hope your pride won’t get in the way if you start reconsidering going out on your own,” my master added.
“It won’t,” I replied, hoping that to be true. It was no secret that I hated being seen as cowardly or foolish.
“Well if you’re ready, I’ll tell you the first story,” the chieftain said. “Unfortunately it involves some men your master knew and it doesn’t end well.”
I nodded as I started to nibble on the fish I brought, encouraging him to go on.
“They were from Chief Renor’s village. Three of the best hunters went out, hoping a bigger party would help them in the hunt. They were quiet, patient, and extremely careful to stay upwind and behind the trail of the great boar. When they finally tracked the beast down, the lead hunter, Jorn, loosed a very skilled shot. It was perfectly placed, but the thick hide prevented it from piercing deep enough to reach the heart. All it did was make the great boar incredibly angry. It turned on them and charged. None of them were ready for how fast it moved. In order to protect the other two, Jorn made sure he was the one to attract the beast’s attention.” The chieftain’s brow furrowed into a pained expression. “He paid the price for it. He couldn’t get out of the way of those tusks. They tore him right open.”
My hands stilled for a moment. It finally hit me that this great boar would be the first prey of mine to ever have a chance of doing as much damage to me as I could do to it.
“How big are the great boars?” I asked, doing my best to keep my voice steady and non-chalant.
“As big as bears,” my master said, eyeing me carefully. Damned man, I wished he’d stop looking at me like that. It was as if he were testing me. Waiting to hear me say that I’d back down, or at the very least accept help.
“Did the other two get away?” I asked with my mouth half full, casually taking another bite of my fish.
“They did. They returned with a bigger party and poison arrows. After watching Jorn fall, they were a lot more concerned with killing the beast by any means than preserving the meat,” the chieftain said. “Nobody else was injured after that first fatal mistake. They stayed up in the trees and made no careless moves.”
That strategy would definitely get the job done, but I couldn’t help but feel that it was a horribly cowardly way to kill a beast.
I popped a few berries in my mouth, trying to get re-interested in eating. I would need the strength.
“I’m guessing most of the bad stories end that way,” I said.
The chieftain nodded. “Most skilled hunters are able to get that first shot. The problems come after. Those great boars won’t be felled by a single arrow and you need to be prepared for that.”
“But I will have better arrows,” I said. “I’ll be taking the new ones we traded for last moon.”
My master nodded his head in approval. We’d traded many furs to get those new iron arrowheads from the town a couple days trek south of us. I say we, but I’d never set foot in Oakmire. We sent our best trader to deal with those people. He understood the ways of the townsfolk with their strange coins, noisy contraptions, and tall buildings. Tales of these places disturbed me like these boar tales never could. It sounded awful, like being trapped in a cage of your own making. Why anyone would choose to live in a town, let alone a city, was beyond me.
The only thing I appreciated about the townsfolk was the way they worked with metal. Better arrow heads. Better blades. I enjoyed fancy tools and felt no shame in saying so. I’d much rather use the metal arrows than rely on poison.
“They’ll help, but you’ll still need more than that on your side,” the chieftain said.
“Well how did the others hunt without using poison then? I doubt they had iron arrows.”
The chieftain chuckled. “What they had was madness. And I’m certain Oro was the maddest of them all.”
As soon as the name was uttered the yurt fell as silent as a winter night and just as cold, like a curse had settled upon us.
“Oro?” I echoed. I’d never heard that name before.
“We try not to talk about him.” I looked to my master and for the first time in my life, I saw a darkness in his deep grey eyes. Whoever this Oro was, my master did not like him, and I was quite certain my master liked everyone. He was not one to hold hate or grudges in his heart. “He is not a man to aspire to.”
“This is true,” the chieftain said, his eyes noticeably avoiding my master’s. “I shouldn’t have brought him up.”
“But he was successful and his story could help me,” I said.
“You couldn’t do what he did,” my master said. “It would be a pointless story.”
“It’s not pointless at all, I need to know so I won’t foolishly attempt anything similar! Please, master, let the chieftain tell me,” I said, trying to appeal to my master’s concern for me. I didn’t want to reveal that I was just as curious about the man himself as I was about how he killed the boar.
“Fine. But I don’t want to hear any more about him after this.”
“I understand,” I said. I wouldn’t be able to push my luck any further when it came to this topic. My master spoiled me, but there were still a few lines that he would not allow me to cross. I just never expected that one of those lines would concern a person I didn’t even know existed until now.
“Oro isn’t exactly a hunter, I should tell you that first,” the chieftain said, keeping his eyes trained on me. He still seemed unwilling to look at my master, and I couldn’t blame him. I wouldn’t be surprised if my master had a few strong words for him after this. The chieftain might be head of the tribe, but my master was one of the most respected men in the village, and one who always supported the rule of the chieftain. It wouldn’t bode well for the two of them to be at odds.
“What is he then?” I asked.
“Well, a bit of a madman as I mentioned. There’s a reason he doesn’t belong to any clan. No village would be able to handle him for long and luckily he’d never be interested in staying anyways.”
I nodded a little, trying to hide my growing curiosity. A nomad? Very few men were able to live that sort of life. Taking on the world alone was difficult not just physically, but mentally as well.
“Truthfully, he’s the best warrior I’ve ever seen. Hell, the best warrior anyone will ever see for a long, long time,” the chieftain said with a heavy sigh, as though it pained him to admit it. “He was the same age you are now when he went after the great boar alone. He hadn’t even planned on it. Just like you, he just happened to discover the tracks and markings on the trees while out on an expedition. He stalked it for a day before he finally found it.
“Like the other hunters, he carefully approached and managed to get off a good shot. And just like the others, it wasn’t enough to truly damage the great boar. It charged him. But this is where the story changes,” the chieftain said and leaned in closer to me. “The boar never got the chance to impale him. Oro let it come at him and dove to the side at the last moment, grabbing the arrow that was still sticking out of the boar’s side and used it to leap onto its back.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Impossible.”
“I would’ve thought so too, but I saw the boar after. It had all the wounds he said it would.”
“He wouldn’t be able to stay on a boar’s back!”
“But he did. He held onto the arrow with his left hand and with his right grabbed his knife and stabbed it into the beast’s side with all his might, deeper than the arrow was able to go,” the chieftain said as he spread his arms wide, pretending like he was Oro holding onto the arrow and stabbing the boar.
I laughed softly at the chieftain’s energetic performance and shook my head. “There’s no way.”
“He lied then. Something else must have happened.”
“It didn’t,” the chieftain said and leaned back. “It threw him off after that, but the knife did the trick and he climbed up a tree to get away as it thrashed to its death. I was one of the ones to help carry the boar back. The wound was indeed a knife wound. The arrow was still stuck in its side. And more importantly, Oro had barely a scratch on him while that boar was definitely dead.”
“I can believe he killed it, but not as you said he did. This reminds me of those ridiculous faerie-tales you used to tell me as a child. You’re trying to make a fool of me, aren’t you?” I replied.
The chieftain glanced to my master.
My master let out a huff, sounding more than just a little annoyed. “It isn’t a lie. And Oro wouldn’t lie either. The man doesn’t give a damn about anyone, least of all their opinions. He had no reason to make it up.”
I blinked, surprised that he would stand up for the man despite very obviously not liking him.
“Point is, I don’t want you trying to do what he did. You wouldn’t be strong enough to get a knife into a boar and you’re too light to try to stay on the back of one for long. You’d be tossed in a second.”
“Now that I can agree with,” I said.
“And you’re still wanting to go? Despite knowing that only a madman can take down a boar alone?”
“I am. If I have to run, I’ll run. I know the woods and I know my ability,” I replied.
“Then what is your plan?”
I licked at my lips as I considered. No matter what, I was taking the new iron arrows so I’d have a better chance of piercing deeper into the boar’s tough hide. The only other equipment I was considering taking with me was the weighted net I had been itching to try out. But it would be difficult to move as quickly and quietly with something so cumbersome. It also took some time to set up the trap and there was no guarantee that the boar would set it off. However, if successful, it would hopefully trap the boar long enough for me to loose all the arrows I needed to bring the beast down.
“I’m going to take the net,” I said, making my decision. “I realize there’s no guarantee I’ll manage to trap the boar, but if I do, I’ll be able to land as many arrows as I need to take it down.”
My master rubbed at his greying beard. “I agree with the idea of it, but you of all people should know that hunts rarely go according to plan. Also, that net is a damned clunky thing to carry. You won’t be able to move as swiftly and silently as you’re used to.”
“I know, but I feel it’s my best option. From your stories I better understand how dangerous the great boar can be, so I’d rather not leave it to a contest of chance and reflex. You always say that a hunter’s best weapon is preparation.”
My master sighed heavily. “I know there’s no point talking you out of this, but I do hope you’ll not do anything foolish. The great boar is not worth your life. A wound to your pride may sting, but at least it’s temporary.”
“I understand, master, and I won’t take any unnecessary risks.”
He smirked at me. “If only I could believe that. Just try to make it back in one piece.”
I smiled a little. “Yes, master.” I looked to the chieftain. “Do I have your blessing as well, Rommus-shi?”
“You do, Anneka, but I echo your master’s sentiments. Please be careful. We care much less about the boar than we do about your safe return,” the chieftain replied.
“Understood,” I said and popped the last of the berries into my mouth. “Well, I’d better get some rest.”
I stood and gave the chieftain and my master a little bow of my head before heading out of the yurt.
I was exhausted. My arms felt heavy as logs, and I could feel the grasp of sleep creep around the edges of my mind. But despite this, I found when I returned to our yurt that I was in no mood to settle down. Fear and excitement danced around like fireflies in my stomach. I took my time washing my hands and face then grabbed my tools so I could clean them as well. Anything to keep my hands busy.
I was certain the great boar was going to be a majestic creature, despite how dangerous I knew him to be. Then again, maybe the danger was part of the majesty. He’d certainly be a welcome change of pace from the small game I’d gotten accustomed to hunting.
Though I’d never admit it to my master, I was beginning to fear that hunting was losing the lustre it once had when I was a younger girl. I knew if I even mentioned such an idea he’d scold me soundly. “The thrill of the hunt is the mark an amateur, do not chase that feeling! Hunting is about serving the community, not your own selfish excitement.”
I sighed heavily and made my way to my bed, snuggling under the heavy pile of furs. Perhaps we’d never see eye to eye on that. If we didn’t chase the feeling of being alive, then what was the point of it all?
I left in the middle of the afternoon and returned to where I saw the initial markings, hoping I could pick up the trail from there.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t that easy. For one, the stupid net was heavier than I thought it’d be. I’d have to drop the thing if I needed to bolt. The other problem was that in order to even see the trail I had to shuffle the leaves around, which meant making additional noise. The whole thing was more tedious than I was used to. It wasn’t often I was trying to track a singular, specific prey.
It also didn’t help that luck wasn’t on my side. The trail was old. For all I knew the great boar had moved on from this area. After all, most boars didn’t come this close to the mountains since food was more readily available downriver. The fact that he was up this far in the first place was a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it was the lack of competition? The fact that mountain berries ripened later in the season? Or maybe something else was driving the boar population in this direction.
The old tracks eventually guided me to the stream. With no sight of the boar, or any other animal for that matter, I took the net off my back so I could take a moment to stretch and rest.
Truthfully, I was getting frustrated. I hadn’t found any fresh leads, and having to constantly be on alert was mentally taxing. I sprawled on the ground to look up at the sky, watching the clouds slowly dance and morph like a drop of blood in still water.
“Heralds, give me a clue,” I whispered.
I took a deep breath and slapped my hands against either side of my face, leaving a sting on my cheeks. I needed to clear my head. Stop thinking like a human. What does the boar want? What is he doing? It isn’t mating season, so he won’t be trying to meet up with the other sounder. He’s most likely trying to fatten himself up before the winter season when food will be a lot scarcer. He’ll also be stopping to drink from time to time and this stream is the best water source in this area.
Feeling a bit renewed with fresh insight, I picked myself back up, slung the net over my back, and began quietly following the stream in the hopes that I’d find some fresher tracks along it.
Hours passed, and I wasn’t having much luck with this plan either. But at least the sound of the water was soothing. In this calmer state I was able to remind myself that even the best hunters didn’t always catch the trail right away. The forest was massive. The great boar could be anywhere. All I could do was make educated guesses, follow my instincts, and hope luck was on my side.
While these thoughts placated me for a time, another near hour of following the stream with no clues was chipping away at my optimism. Where did this damned beast run off to? Was he not thirsty? Or was I going in the completely wrong direction? I just assumed further downstream the berry bushes would be over-picked by other animals. But were boars even smart enough to realize that?
I was also getting dangerously close to the wards. The priestess was able to place them quite a ways out, but apparently her powers could only extend so far.
I rolled my eyes. Superstition and nonsense. Why people continued to believe in that stuff was beyond me.
With a small sigh I stopped walking. I needed to change tactics. There was an area not far from here that might still have a good selection of berries, but it also didn’t have much in the way of tree cover, which would be troublesome for many reasons. Still, it was my best shot. If the boar wasn’t there I’d have to double back south.
Veering east I quietly made my way through the underbrush. I had absolutely no trail to follow and I was moving entirely on instinct and hope. But at least I didn’t have to keep my eyes on the ground and could stay a lot more aware of my surroundings.
Then suddenly, my luck changed.
I nearly gasped as I saw the alarmingly large pile of dung on the ground. It wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t cold, either. He had been here recently.
I poked around in the leaves and grinned to myself as I found the trail once more. Again, it wasn’t fresh, perhaps from yesterday, but it was still a very good lead.
My heart started to speed up knowing there was a far greater chance of seeing the beast now. I needed to be alert. Careful. I couldn’t afford any wrong moves that might reveal my position.
Thankfully, the trail veered back inwards into our territory, away from the wards. But my luck was snatched away as quickly as it came. The wind suddenly picked up amidst the thinning trees and blew against my back, sending chills up my spine. I didn’t like this. If that boar was downwind I was going to be in a lot of trouble.
And that was the problem. Not only did I not know if the boar was downwind, I didn’t know if the boar was anywhere near me at all! Yes, I had a trail, but it wasn’t terribly fresh and these beasts could travel fast and far if they wanted to. The only thing I was certain of is that I couldn’t stand there doing nothing, I needed to make some difficult decisions.
“Damn it,” I cursed softly, knowing my answer almost immediately. It wasn’t ideal, but I needed to press on. This was the only lead I had, and I wasn’t interested in backtracking into the thicker part of the forest in the blind hope that the boar had returned there.
I debated pulling out my bow, but there was no point. If the boar saw me before I saw him, there wouldn’t be time to shoot. I would have to drop the net and get up a tree.
Slowly and carefully I continued on. My gut was as tight as a drum. I was playing with fire being upwind of the trail like this, but I wasn’t about to back down. Not when I was so close.
As I pressed on, time seemed to stand still even though I knew I’d been tracking this newest trail for nearly half an hour now.
Then, finally, I came across fresh scat. It was practically steaming. My nerves went wild, and my eardrums thrummed with the sound of my heartbeat.
I knelt down slowly and scanned the area. No sign of the boar.
Assured that I was currently alone, my eyes darted around, searching for a place to set up the net. The trees were sparse in this clearing, but luckily I managed to spot a small cluster just southwest that would work perfectly.
Silently as I could manage, I made my way to the group of trees and gingerly took the heavy net off my back. Unlike other net traps that would scoop the animal up off the ground and let them hang from a branch, this one would fall from above and hopefully tangle the beast up.
Damn it. I forgot how cumbersome this trap was to set up. I needed to climb up four different trees to attach the corners, and then return to each and adjust them so the mechanism would trigger properly once I set up the bait. And all the while I needed to keep my eyes and ears peeled for the boar itself, which was difficult to do when I was up in a tree wrestling with this contraption.
By the time I was up in the fourth tree I was seriously doubting this plan. There were far too many things to keep track of at once. I had not practiced this enough. There was now no doubt in my mind that the Herald of Focus heavily favoured me over the Herald of Patience. I felt far more secure when I was running on instinct with only my bow and my agility at my side.
Still, I managed to set up the trap with no issues until the very last adjustment. In my eagerness to get down the tree and be done with the stupid net I missed my footing and fell to the ground with a heavy thud.
“Ugh!” I grunted in annoyance.
A deep, feral grunt replied back.
I turned my head to the right and saw a large, dark shape move out from behind a cluster of bushes. My blood froze like ice in my veins. It was him.
Like I’d been warned, he was the size of a bear. No, he was bigger. The tusks were at a perfect height to tear open my stomach. His maw was large enough to crush my head in one bite.
After a momentary, startled truce, the great boar squealed and charged towards me.
He moved fast. Impossibly fast for his size. For a moment I was paralyzed, unable to make sense of what was happening.
I broke through the shock with an internal scream, and the fire of adrenaline hit my veins as I scrambled off the ground and dashed towards the thicker part of the forest where I’d hopefully have the upper hand. There was no chance now of doubling back to try and get the boar in the trap. It was all for nothing.
The deep, terrifying thuds of his hooves were closing in on me faster than I could have ever imagined, and I couldn’t risk looking back to see just how close he was. Was this it? Was I going to die right here and now?
I let out a horrific cry of fear and rage.
No! This was not the beast I was going to lose to.
In the corner of my eye I saw the perfect tree to scramble up. But I had to veer right, and he was already practically nipping at my heels.
Stop thinking and just do it! He was going to catch up to me no matter what I did!
I slammed my foot down into the dirt to pivot right. I risked a glimpse over my shoulder and saw him. He would clip me. There was no avoiding it. Either it was my arm or my leg. I’d make it to the tree, I knew I would, he wouldn’t be able to turn fast enough. But I had to sacrifice something to ensure my safety.
Without a second thought I thrust my arm back, hurling the rest of my body forward. My arm wrenched backwards as the boar caught it on his tusk, but my initial momentum carried me far enough to move out of his path. I prayed the injury wasn’t as bad as I feared.
But I didn’t have time to check. I poured every ounce of my will into the simple mission of getting to that tree. My body was numb. My mind was blank. It was years of playing in the forest that had my body moving without the need for my mind’s commands.
As I hoped, the boar wasn’t able to pivot fast enough and must have skidded past me, buying me valuable seconds. In a few swift movements I was up the tree as high as I could go, and only then did I dare to look down. It was a good thing I traveled up as far as I did – the beast hadn’t forgotten about me and managed to hook his front legs onto the lower branches, heaving himself momentarily up off the ground. The tree groaned under his weight.
I looked down to see the boar staring up at me with his cold, black eyes. Jets of steam poured from his nostrils, expressing his primal annoyance. From somewhere above him, drops of red liquid fell and splashed onto his snout. I had a moment of confusion before realizing that my arm was the source. A huge gash ran from my wrist to my elbow. There was no pain yet. Good. I needed to use that to my advantage. There was still a chance I could shoot an arrow into this damned boar and retain at least a shred of honour.
I pulled out my bow and grabbed an iron arrow. But as soon as I notched it I knew I was in trouble. Even though I couldn’t feel anything, my right arm was in shock, the muscles weak and uncooperative. There was no way I’d be able to pull the arrow back far enough to pierce through the great boar’s thick hide.
Now I understood why my master insisted I try to learn how to shoot with my less dominant arm. I hated the training. It was awkward and miserable and I loathed anything that didn’t come easy to me. But I was sure thankful for it now, even if it pained me to admit my master was right.
It was far from elegant, but I shifted my position on the tree, hugging the branch between my legs and planting my feet on the trunk to steady myself. Nobody but the boar would see how artless I looked and I needed every advantage I could get. Carefully I moved the bow to my right hand and nocked the arrow with my left, pulling it back and aiming down at the boar that was still thinking I’d come down and let myself become his dinner.
My right arm trembled a little, but I forced it into position, locking my joints so my bones were doing most of the work. All I needed was my arm to stay stiff, that was it.
I breathed in slowly, then exhaled, taking my time to line up my shot. Patience. There was no rush. I was safe up here.
The beast reared back then slammed its weight back onto the tree.
I let out a choked gasp as my chest collided with branch below me. Had I not locked my legs around it I might have been knocked to the ground. I’d have cursed if I had the breath to do so. Since when could old boars learn new tricks?
I couldn’t let this rattle me. Take another breath. Focus. My goal hadn’t changed.
The wind gently brushed against my skin and I smelled the sweet, thick scent of decaying leaves. The world slowed. My panic subsided. There was only me, the boar, and my intent.
With one last exhale I loosed my arrow.
There was a moment of stunned silence before the boar let out a piercing squeal that I was sure would be heard deep into the forest. The shot wasn’t perfect, but it was damned near close enough. If I was lucky, the tip might have reached his heart or lungs. If not, it was still a damaging blow.
The boar frantically bashed into the tree once more before tearing off to the northeast. From my vantage point I was able to watch it until it reached an area where the trees thickened once more.
Only when I lost sight of it did I let out a long, relieved breath. I put my bow away and reached into my pouch for the bandages I kept there. It had been a long time since I needed to use them.
I tried to wiggle my fingers and was pleased when they moved exactly as they should. It was a superficial wound then. Deep, and dangerous if infected, but I’d still be able to shoot once it had time to heal. For now I simply wanted to put pressure on it and dampen the smell of blood. I didn’t want my injury to attract any opportunistic predators.
Once I bandaged myself up and thoroughly scanned the area for any sign of danger, I climbed down the tree and followed the trail of the great boar.
For a moment I hesitated, my master’s voice echoing in the back of mind. “Once the hunter is injured, the hunt is over, for the hunter’s pride can be just as dangerous as the beast itself.” Damned old man. The boar caught me by surprise, but that wouldn’t happen again. I could definitely get another shot or two in. Besides, I was perfectly fine setting my pride aside and shooting from the safety of the higher ground, so it wasn’t as if I was totally ignoring my master’s lecture.
I stuck close to the trees, making sure I had access to quick escapes if need be. It was also a hell of a lot easier without that stupid net slowing me down. Spirits, I hated that thing. I had been a fool to rely on it.
My arm was starting to throb, but the pain hadn’t set in yet. I didn’t even want to know how bad it was going to hurt later, but I put it out of my mind for now. That boar wasn’t going to get the best of me again.
The trail was easy to follow. The broken twigs, scattered leaves, and occasional drop of blood made his direction all too obvious. The closely packed trees made me feel calmer. More places to hide. More opportunities to climb. I felt in control again.
I only paused when I saw a familiar marker on one of the huge oak trees. It was one of the priestess’ wards, painted in white and black.
With a soft sigh I put my hand on the tree. “Forgive me, priestess, but I have no time for this nonsense today.” I gave the tree a pat and stepped past it.
My gut churned uncomfortably. I’d never gone past the wards without my master by my side. And every time we did he was on edge. Everyone in the village was swayed by superstition, and I convinced myself this was the only reason I felt ill at ease.
With a resolute shake of my head I pressed on, ignoring the gnawing worries that clawed at my insides. The only difference between this part of the woods and what lied beyond the wards was unfamiliar terrain. And I was confident in my navigation skills, so the chances of me getting lost were next to none. I had absolutely no reason to acknowledge the irrational fears buzzing around me like a cloud of gnats.
Still, there were real threats to keep in mind, namely the boar I was tracking. There would be no room for mistakes. By the spirits, I was lucky I didn’t injure one of my legs, and that the wound to my arm wasn’t the slightest bit deeper.
Eventually I heard the sound of water. There must be another stream here. It was a good landmark to note. I only hoped I wouldn’t lose the trail of the boar if it decided to wade in the water.
As I passed through a thick clump of trees and bushes I finally caught sight of the stream. Yes! My prey was here as well. He was standing at the edge, looking as if he was trying to find a way to cross, when suddenly he froze.
Did he smell me?
I ducked down low and shifted behind the nearby bushes. No. That couldn’t be it. I was definitely downwind. Not that there was much wind in this area to begin with.
“Looks like we found dinner.”
The sound of the voice made me jump. Who in the hells would be coming from that direction? Another hunting party?
From the other side of the stream a number of dark figures emerged from the trees. I hated that I couldn’t see them clearly, but I wasn’t about to give away my position, not when I had no idea who they were.
Suddenly, the largest figure bolted towards the river, leaping it in a single bound. He slammed down in front of the giant boar like a strike of lightning, spraying dirt everywhere. As the cloud of dust settled, I had to blink twice to believe what I was seeing. Had my own arrow not been sticking out of that damned great boar, I could have sworn it was just a regular-sized boar standing in front of that towering figure.
“Goin’ somewhere, piggy?” the man asked. His words were thick, as if he didn’t quite know how to speak the language, but I understood him well enough.
The great boar squealed in reply and lunged forward, chomping down onto the man’s leg with his giant, terrifying maw.
My hand leapt to my mouth, muffling my gasp.
The man threw back his head and let out a horrible, savage laugh, just standing there as if this beast that nearly killed me was no more a threat than a bothersome child. He then bent over the boar and with inhuman strength started prying open the beast’s mouth with his bare hands. And he kept prying it back. He didn’t stop until he ripped the boar’s lower jaw clear off then slammed the remains of its head back into the ground, the creature’s bones crunching in tandem with the most sickening, wet sound I’d ever heard.
Only when he crouched down to inspect the kill did I understand that what I was seeing wasn’t a man at all.
It was a demon.
Skin the colour of stone. Tusks protruding prominently from his mouth. Two horns, one broken, growing proudly out of his sloped forehead.
For a moment I wondered if I was hallucinating. Dreaming. Caught in a strange nightmare. I’d heard the stories enough times that my mi