Life As A Hunter
My life is hiding, hunting and being hunted.
I try to ignore the new cramp in my foot as I watch a group of men wander past. This is completely inconsiderate of them; they have no idea how long I have been waiting here - not for men, but for something to shoot. They should seek death elsewhere.
With swords drawn and darting gazes, the men move as if they’re about to be attacked. I’m in no danger from them, except perhaps of starvation if they keep scaring the wildlife away.
They stumble downstream, unaware that my loaded arrow is aimed at them. Not that I’m planning on shooting anyone, but they are food for something, and I don’t want to be next. They continue around the corner, but I don’t move. I just wait.
Pain strikes my ears. The sound forces my body flat to the ground. Armoured Dragons.
Rolling over, I peer through the branches towards the sky.
Limbs are ripped from nearby trees. The ground shakes with what could be the oversized beasts trying to take flight. All I can see is a flash of black wing or hide plating. And a leg missing its owner.
My heart is pounding, the kind of faltering, racing beat that just signals I’m alive. If those men had still been within view, and that dragon had sung its deadly tune closer to me, my insides would be mush now.
Slowly the sound of my breathing overtakes the ringing, and a scream grows on the edges of my hearing. It’s not the sound a man makes. It’s a cry, pure and fearful, from a young thing.
I hold my breath, waiting for another Armoured song.
Twisting, alert for the slightest impression that could mean someone is aiming an arrow at me. I pull my weight out from underneath the brambles and dash down the stream - a stupid direction, but the sound of a child crying is not something I can ignore.
The men didn’t have a child with them, but it’s not unusual for someone to escape slavery or the mines and seek refuge here.
The stream moulds into more twists and turns.
The shrill scream surrounds me, but there’s nothing and no one to be seen. My heart thumps harder. I have to find the source of the noise and hush it, or I’ll be watching something kill it. A few stupid dead men I can handle, innocent kids dying in front of me is completely different.
I dash through the trees and freeze. A child lies clinging to the long native grass, a young boy about three. He looks at me, his lip clamped between his teeth to keep quiet.
I touch my finger to my lips to make sure he stays that way then move past him and towards the sound.
She’s only young, maybe a year old, and she’s curled in a ball on the grass. Her short, blonde, tussled hair is exactly the same as the boy’s. Siblings? I reach into the grass, wrapping my hands around her bony body.
The boy bounces off my side and launches himself at me again.
“Leave!” he says, followed by more words that I can’t make out.
Great, now I have two screamers. Babies really, and they’re going to get me killed!
Weakness and vulnerability have their own distinct sounds or scents or some other beacon that lures predators right to you.
I scoop the girl up in one arm and the boy in the other. He’s still screaming and kicking and thumping my leg with his little fists.
Hugging him closer, I try to smother the screeching. It’s a good thing they’re half-starved, or I wouldn’t be able to keep a hold of them.
I stumble across the stream, forcing my legs to move faster. They burn through the effort, I’m a sixteen-year-old girl not a packhorse.
The forest is quiet, but quiet because we’re being so noisy, or because a predator is in the area? Something with sharp teeth, blood lust and red eyes?
Time to get out of here.
I whisper my name, “Kemla.”
The illusion of trees before me waver’s like a reflection on water then vanishes to reveal a clearing.
My ma’s a wise woman, born with magic. She spelled the area around my house so that no one can see it. They even lose all desire to walk this way, but they can still hear every sound we make.
“Let... go!” the lad growls, wriggling with renewed intensity.
I rush towards the little house.
Ma stands in the doorway, cut basket reeds spilling from her hand. Two more faces appear, squishing around her, trying to get a peek.
Ma gestures hastily. Her sharp gaze skims past me, searching the sky and the tree line.
I reach the door and am enveloped by hushed excitement. Ma slips the babe from my arms, and I scramble for some food, anything that I can put in this boy’s mouth to shut him up without hurting him.
“Shhh,” Ma coos, though the babe is already quiet.
The boy wriggles free from my arms and snatches a loaf of bread off the shelf. He scampers into a corner and fills his mouth to the brim whilst his gaze darts from me, to Ma and his younger sister, and back again.
But he’s quiet so I leave him and stand in the doorway waiting for something to attack.
Jenna tugs at my shirt. “Who’s he?”
Ma sharply waves her hand, and the girls obey.
The babe is nestled in her arms and there’s a cup of buttermilk in her hand. She’s dipping her finger in the cup then placing the drops of milk on the babe’s lips. The little arms are constantly reaching for more. They’re skin and bone, but I would expect nothing less when her only guardian was a three year old. She’s dressed and she isn’t soiled, but they’re both otherwise filthy.
Ma looks at me, a question in her eyes.
She nods and turns her attention back to the child. Her curls fall forward as she coos and smiles at the girl.
I frown. I have my good-for-nothing da’s straight, black hair.
Ma’s frustration prickles at me, and I can sense it. ‘Sense’ is my best explanation. No sound leaves her lips. There’s no gesture in her body language, but she’s obviously not impressed.
I get it. A moment of imminent danger and possible impending death isn’t the right time to complain about my hair.
Outside, the open ground and forest is still.
Keeping my external senses trained on our surroundings, I send my internal senses on a search, tracking down the others in my mind. Kassandra, Crystal and Renny are in the living room playing. Mentally I view the nearby area as if I’m a bird flying above it and spot Adah, Cadfael and Janna fetching firewood, and even though he is far from here, I can hear Tadhgh’s heavy breathing as he aims his spear at a large rabbit.
Moving in close to Ma so only she can hear me I whisper, “How is she?”
She responds with a grave frown. The child’s very young, very thin; she may not survive.
The boy’s still in the corner of the pantry, and I squat down to his level, but don’t move any closer.
“What’s your name?” I ask.
He looks at me, like he hadn’t expected me to be able to talk, and swallows his mouthful.
“Hi, Tamsin. I’m Kemla. This is my ma.” I point up at Ma.
She’s hovering over the top of me trying to listen and rock the babe.
Tamsin points up at the baby. “Thora.”
“I have something very important to tell you, Tamsin. Very important,” I hesitate; I’ve never had to tell a three year old this before. I’ve told plenty of scared kids, but not one so young.
“Tamsin,” Ma interrupts. “Shhhh or the beasts will get us.”
Wide-eyed, Tamsin nods. “Shhhh,” he imitates.
I pick up another loaf of bread and offer it to him. He grabs it with grubby fingers before flitting back into his corner.
“How long have you been in the mountain, Tamsin?” Ma says softly.
“Where’s your ma?” I asks.
“Long time gone.”
Ma and I leave him to his bread, shuffling away from the door so he can’t hear us.
She looks at me puzzled, and I shrug. I have no other information. Those men had nothing to do with these two kids. There wasn’t even a horse hoof print to tell me how they got there. If it wasn’t for the Armoured Dragon scaring the wits out of them, I wouldn’t have even noticed them.