“Curly, if you don’t keep quiet, I swear on Avandor’s gates that never again will I bring you on a hunt.” I said to my brother who was shuffling his feet in the fallen cedar leaves above me. His wild, curly black hair shot haphazardly around his dirt-smudged face.
“Sorry Van,” he whispered back wearing an apologetic smile.
I’d spotted fresh frenala tracks in the mud and had followed the trail up to a bush covered hole in the centre of a leaf littered mound. The dens, though large were very inconspicuous and only one who knew the forest well could tell the difference between them and the small grottos which dotted the terrain.
Au Valley was rich with game and blessed with even fewer predators. Mountain goats, deer, rabbits and wild ox frequented the valley and the surrounding hills. However, the frenala was like walking gold. A good-sized nala could make you enough money to last six months when sold in the markets.
“Remember to let go of the net as soon as the frenala comes out.”
“I know. I am not a baby.” he whispered as he seemed annoyed.
“You are Babu’s baby. If anything happened to youshe would kill me or pester me enough to make me wish I were dead.”
I was not opposed to the idea of spending time with my younger brother— at home. But when I was on the hunt, I had my own space. It was the only place where I felt that I truly fit in.
The air, sky, water and land were untouched and unruly. It was a state I envied. There were no laws in the forest. No strings reining you in. The forest was a place where I could just . . . be. But that had ended now.
I kneeled in the soft dirt and waited until the air had stilled before lighting the gathered kindling.A small blue flame appeared and a thin wisp of smoke filtered up through the straw lattices.
I pushed the burning pile further into the hole and signalled for Curly to throw the net down.
“What is happening Van?” whispered Curly. As several moments had passed and there was only an eerie quiet coming from the hole.
“I don’t know. Pull the net out of the way.” With the net gone I slid along the mud and pushed my head into the burrow. The flame was still burning, illuminating the rocks lining the walls. My breathing hitched as one of the rocks blinked.
“Curly, the net!” I said just as an angry squeal broke the silence.
“The net! Curly, the net!”
I rolled out of the way just as the meshwork fell in place. The sliming, dark brown snout of the animal pop outside. Three of its beady eyes rolled to look at me before it charged into the trap.
“VAAAAN!” Curly screamed as he fell from the top of the lair and onto the netting.
“Let go of the net!” I said as I ran behind him.
“I can’t. My hand is stuck.”
“ByAvandor. I am dead. I am so dead.” I muttered and threw myself down on the net. The extra weight caused the animal to rear up on its hind legs and crash heavily on its side. I drew the dagger hitched at the side of my belt and cut him loose.
I rolled off taking him with me. “Are you hurt?”
He shook his head. “Good, climb the tree and stay there.” I said giving him a boost. Once he was secure, I turned to face the thrashing animal.
It stood at five feet and weighed twelve stones. Four tusks sharp enough to gut a man, extended from each side of its snout.
The beast was tangled in the net. I charged towards it, grabbing its upper horn and swung myself to its back. It bucked forward slapping itself against a tree.
“Babu’s boots,” I huffed digging my hand in the scruff its neck, willing myself not to fall off.
It squealed in protest and reared on its three hind legs.
“VAAAAN!” I heard coming from above me. I looked up in time to see Curly losing his grip from a slender branch on which he was precariously perched.
“Out of all the trees.” I muttered. He landed behind me on the nala’s back.“Hold on tight!” His arms coiled around my waist.
The animal let out another squeal, turned from the tree, and started towards its den.I wound my legs around the nala’s middle, crossing my ankles under its gut. With one hand, I pulled myself up closer to his head and pulled it back.
“Van hurry!” said Curly from behind me.
I looked up briefly and saw that the hole was getting dangerously close. There was no way it would be able to fit all three of us, without any of us losing a head plus several limbs. I brought the other hand with dagger under the animal’s neck, and made a single swipe. I could feel the warm wetness,spewing unto my hand. The nala cried out again, but the sound slowly faded. His pace also slowed to a trot, then to a walk.
“Put your feet in front you. This is our stop.” I said to my brother as I unhooked my legs from under the nala and stretched it out in front of me. The beast took another step and then stopped before if fell heavily on its belly. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief wiping my soiled hand across my forehead. On any other occasion the blood on my face would have bothered me, but it didn’t matter now. We were alive.
I placed my feet on either side of the animal and stood. Curly’s hand fell from around my waist and I hopped over to the animal’s side.
I walked briskly around to the front of the animal. Its breaths were shallow and eyes still blinking I swiped the dagger under its neck. The body fell still. No need to let it suffer more than necessary. I wiped the blood from my hands into my trousers, they were old and had similar stains from previous hunts.
I took my eyes away from the animal’s peaceful face and then looked back at my brother, who was still sitting on the nala’s back, his face still ashen, as the colour was yet to return.
I told Babu that he was too young. He wasn’t ready for this. I certainly wasn’t ready for that. We both needed a distraction.
“Come,” I said handing him the knife. “You make the first cut here if you want to skin it whole.” His first cut was tentative and his hands still shook.
“We nearly died.” He whispered.
“It isn’t always this way, but at least I got the chance to ride a nala. Next time you can do this alone.” I smiled.
“Next time I will buy meat in the market.” He muttered as he joined me at the side.
“To each their own.” I said patting him on the back. He smiled and started skinning the animal once more, this time with surer strokes.
With the carcass lashed between poles and the offal buried we finished just as the first signs of day had started to appear. I gave Curly the bag with the hide before trudging through the forest to our home in Au Valley.