The Forbidden Hunt
The Forbidden Hunt
A cool breeze swept across the forest floor. The rustling of the leaves covered the sound of the young hunter’s movements as she crawled into position behind a tree. Her raven black hair fell just past the nape of her neck. She pressed a simple wooden longbow against her chest. The quiver on her back held just four arrows. She peered around the tree, her clear skin easily visible against the dark bark of the tree.
Just pass the bushes ahead of her were four deer of varying size. The closest one would be the easiest to hit, but it was too small to feed the others. In the center of the four was a large buck, with quite a large rack. The hunter would not be able to carry all of him, and she hadn’t thought to bring a cart. A doe moved out from behind the buck, she was larger than the other deer but smaller than the buck. She would have to do. Remorse flashed through the hunter’s mind. – Was this a family of deer? – The guilt was quickly replaced by the sad reminder that her own family was taken from her. — Why should these deer remind me of my family? They’re only animals, — she reassured herself.
The hunter retreated behind the tree, suddenly realizing that she had forgotten to notch an arrow. Cursing her stupidity, she carefully and quietly pulled an arrow from the quiver on her back. The shaft was long and hand carved. It was one of only four arrows she had remaining from the bundle she had recently crafted. – I better not miss this time, or I’ll have to return empty-handed. – The hunter crept out from behind the tree and silently notched the arrow to her bow.
The arrow she chose was the straightest and most balanced of the four in her quiver and the only well-crafted arrow remaining. The hunter hissed in pain as the bowstring grazed her arm. The rush of the deer as they scattered drowned out any noise created by the arrow’s impact. The hunter sat in anticipation. – Did I miss, – she wondered. A moment later a soft thud reached her ears.
“Yes!” The hunter pulled her fist to her chest triumphantly; her aim had been true. The hunter stood and excitedly hoisted the bow over her shoulder.
“No potatoes and bread for dinner tonight! We’re having a real meal,” the hunter sang as she skipped into the clearing. The others would be so proud when she arrived. The housemaster would overlook her sneaking out that morning as she would get the biggest portion. And Marifa would be jumping for joy at the opportunity to cook with fresh meat.
She searched the clearing in the direction the doe had run. The hunter’s excitement grew when she discovered the blood trail leading into the forest. Judging by the amount of blood, the deer could not have gone far. She walked through the trees, careful not to lose sight of the trail. It did not take the hunter long find the doe; its corpse was lying on the ground as though it had merely fallen asleep.
The hunter knelt by the deer and bowed her head. “Oh, great Kadüve.” Her voice was soft and reverent, barely audible over the sounds of the forest. “I recognize Thy dominion over the land, and over the animals that feed upon it. I thank thee for Thy gift, that it may feed my brothers and sisters and bring them great joy.”
The hunter opened her eyes and drew a knife from her belt. She proceeded to clean her kill in reverence before cutting the edible portions into large chunks. The hunter wrapped these pieces in leather and stored what she could in pouches by her sides.
“It is good that you honor Kadüve in your kill. I would have been obligated to arrest you for poaching otherwise.”
The rough voice startled the hunter. She peered through the trees around her, trying to find the source of the voice as she reached for the dagger in her belt. Who are you? Show yourself.”
“I am Ban. Sentinel for the Shaforesi, the clan that protects this forest.” A young man, no older than the hunter walked out from behind a tree before leaning against it “You have nothing to fear from me; you have shown respect to Kadüve. However, these forests are not safe for pretty young girls like yourself just to wander through alone, but I suppose you already knew that. I could walk with you to the edge of the forest. If you’d like.”
The hunter examined Ban; he carried no visible weapons. His tattered brown shirt was thick but had no sleeves, revealing Ban’s muscular arms, which he held folded in front of him. His skin was slightly darker than hers, and his face was hard but welcoming. The beginnings of a thin black beard were visible along his jawline. His eyes were a peculiar tone of green that captivated the hunter’s attention.
“Do you mind if I take from that doe what you cannot carry ?” Ban stood there, waiting for a response. He was quite respectful, unwilling to approach without the hunter inviting him. The hunter realized she was staring at Ban, then looked away, pretending to check the ties on one of the cumbersome pouches of meat by her side.
“Take what you want; I have what I need. I know the way back to the city; the journey is easy enough.” The hunter began walking away, paying close attention to the strange man who was now walking toward the deer.
“Won’t you at least tell me your name?” Ban lifted his head toward the hunter, who turned to face him. For a moment her hazelnut eyes connected with his.
“My name is Ayela.” The hunter’s voice was timid, almost shy.
“A pleasure to meet you, Ayela. I do hope we meet again.” Ban stood, holding his fist over his chest before nodding his head at Ayela. “May the forest protect you on your journey.”
Ayela quickly turned away from Ban and began walking through the woods, retracing the steps she had taken during her hunt. She tried to push Ban out of her head as she walked. But her mind was stubborn. – Who was that man, and why had he acted so strangely? – She hated puzzles.
It was noon before the high walls of the city came into view. Not a single building could be seen over the city walls that towered over everything around them. This was Hatave; the largest city in the known world. Hatave was Ayela’s home . . . at least for now; she planned to leave as soon as she was able. As usual, the city gates were packed with hunters, farmers, and all manner of people waiting to get into the city. Ayela looked across the crowd to the gate guards. – Crap, – she thought, as she recognized the long blond hair of one of the guards. Ayela pulled her hood over her face as she approached the gate.
She cautiously moved through the crowd, being sure not to look at the guard. She was almost past the gate when an armored fist grabbed her arm. “Sneaking out again are we Ayela?” The guard was taller than her and much stronger.
“Hey, Kiyle… I was out hunting.” Ayela looked up toward the guard wishing he hadn’t noticed her. “I didn’t think your shift started until this evening.
“I started early when I didn’t find you at your house. You weren’t hunting in the forest, were you? You know that’s not safe. Eema will be furious.” The guard's voice was that of concern as he led her through the gate and into the city. “You’re much too young to be outside the city alone.”
“You’re one to talk, Kiyle. Being a guard is dangerous too, and you’re only 16.” His superiority complex was something of a wildcard to Ayela. She admired his confidence and strong will, but it did get annoying sometimes. “I brought back something this time.” Ayela’s excitement dripped from her voice as she pranced beside Kiyle, skipping across the uneven cobblestones beneath their feet.
“So you did, and an impressive amount too, judging by those satchels. But I’m not sure it will be enough to placate Eema” Kiyle stopped, his expression turning cold and emotionless as a woman emerged from a large wooden building ahead of them. The woman was only slightly older than either of them. Her skin was pale white and seemed to glow against her impossibly black hair. Over her right eye was a single crescent-shaped red tattoo.
“Kiyle, it’s only Marifa. If you’re going to be my boyfriend, you’ll have to get more comfortable with my friends regardless of their race.” Ayela pulled her hand away from Kiyle, irritated at his usual stubbornness.
“Drakes and darklings have always been on opposite sides. You know this, Ayela.” Kiyle was whispering now, as Marifa jogged toward them. This was Kiyle’s one fatal flaw. He could not get past what he was brought up believing, that all darklings were servants of Resaguka, God of darkness.
“Ayela! We’ve been worried sick! Eema is furious at you for leaving without pass. And frankly . . . I’m not too happy about it either.” Marifa hadn’t even stopped before she had her arms wrapped around Ayela. “We were all so worried, lil’sis. You could have been killed.”
Ayela blew a strand of Marifa’s hair out of her mouth before replying. “I was only gone for a few hours, and I didn’t go too far from the city.” Ayela looked toward Kiyle, only to find that he was out of earshot. His red cape rippled behind him as he headed back toward the city gates. “Besides, I actually brought something back this time.” Ayela was far less enthusiastic than before. It was hard being such close friends with a darkling and a drake — two races who so often fought against one another on principle alone. She wished dearly that she could change Kiyle’s view of darklings, and make him realize that they weren’t all bad.
“Come inside, lil’sis. We’ll cook that venison before Eema comes back from the markets, she only left a few minutes ago.” As always, Marifa was thrilled by the opportunity to put her cooking skills to the test.
As they walked toward the building, a cloaked figure caught Ayela’s attention; it appeared to be watching them. However, when Ayela looked at the figure, it ducked behind a corner into an alley. Ayela started to ask Marifa about the figure, but something pulled the words out of her mind, and she ultimately forgot what she had seen.
They entered the house and were greeted by the excited voices of 6 young children. “Ayela! Your back!” yelled one. “Did you get something this time?” Asked another, excited.
“I did, but you’ll have to let Marifa cook it first.” At this, all of the children screamed in excitement and ran into the common room to play. They danced and chanted in celebration for the excellent meal, they were soon to have.
The sweet aroma of fresh meat filled the large house that Marifa, Ayela and the other children called home. Yet even this pleasantry did little to calm the headache that Ayela always developed when listening to the other children’s screams as they played in the common room. This headake was worse than usual; if she hadn’t been helping Marifa cook their dinner, she would be upstairs in the bunkroom with her pillow over her head.
“Eema may be unreasonable sometimes, but she does have a point. Southtown is a dangerous place to be in the late night and early morning hours. You may think you are old enough, but your only 15 years old. And there are people in this city that would kidnap you if given a chance.” Marifa was much calmer in her lectures that Eema. Despite how much Ayela hated to admit it, they were both right. If someone had decided to grab her off the street or forest road, she could not have stopped them.
The meal was almost ready. Several of the children were chanting merrily about the fresh meat when the front door creaked open, ushering the room into silence.
A large, heavyset elvan woman rounded the corner into the room. In her arms, she held a basket with several fresh vegetables and potatoes.
“My my, Marif. That does smell amazing.” The woman walked across the still chamber to the kitchen, glaring at Ayela as she entered. “Might I ask where you obtained fresh meat for such a meal?” The woman eyed Marifa suspiciously before looking toward the now simmering pot of stew hanging over the cooking fire, which had died down to coals.
“Hi, Eema, the stew is almost ready. And I didn’t steal the meat if that’s what you’re asking.” Marifa could hardly contain her delight; she was practically dancing as she continued to stir the cauldron.
“I went out hunting this morning, I killed a doe and brought. . .” Ayela tried to hastily explain herself to stay out of trouble, but Eema cut her off.
“I forbade you from hunting young lady. It is dangerous for any woman to walk through Southtown alone in the dark, even more so for a pretty little girl like yourself.” Emma's face was bright red as she yelled at Ayela, who hung her head in frustration. “You may have gotten lucky this time, but you mark my words, one of these days you're gonna find yourself in an unmarked grave along the forest road.”
Ayela lifted her head to meet Eema’s brown eyes. “I wanted us and the children to have a real meal for Kings day!” She was furious, Eema had been to the markets, and brought back nothing special, not even a melon like she had promised the week before. “Every kid with a family gets a feast, or a cake, or something special to commemorate the founding of The Union, but we’re always forgotten; we get nothing. If you won’t get it for us, why can’t we get it for ourselves!”
Ayela’s hair whipped her face as she turned to storm out the door. Eema’s iron grip caught her arm, as she shoved Ayela against the wooden wall of the kitchen. Marifa winced at the sound of Eema striking Ayela’s cheek. The force of the blow was enough to slam her head against the wooden wall. Ayela would have fallen to the floor if she had not been held by Eema. “You will not talk to me that way! I work like a mule day and night to feed all you delinquents; you may not have parents, but at least you have a roof over your heads.”
“The stew is ready!” Marifa yelled over Eema as she began to raise her hand again. “Won’t you try some?”
“And Marif, your job is to watch the children at night and when I’m gone. You disappoint me.” Eema let go of Ayela to grab the spoon from Marifa’s hands before thrusting it into the stew. She fished around for a good-sized chunk of meat. Finally finding one, she held it away from the pot to allow the air to cool the meat.
Eema’s eyes calmed as she savored the rich venison. “Ayela, you are not permitted to leave the house for two weeks, except for our mandated trips to the library. If you do, I shall give you a beating like you have never had before.” Eema handed the spoon back to Marifa before barking an order through the wall of the kitchen. “Children! Dinner time. Set the table.” Ayela was sure to stay out of Eema’s way as she walked out of the room.
“You’re lucky I’m a good cook.” Marifa kept her voice low so as not to be overheard by Eema, who was now walking upstairs to her room.
“Thank you,” whispered Ayela, relieved and hopeful that tonight's meal would subdue Eema’s wrath.
To be continued. . .
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UP NEXT – The Forest Path, following a young boy set on his path, unaware of where it will lead.
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