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Gorrup Longstorm hated that smell and he thanked the heavenly bodies that he only had to deal with its attack on his olfactory senses once every ten years. When he was forced to have to live with the odor for the week it took the unsavory brew to simmer, the response his wife had to the scent never ceased to amaze him. Dry gagging and nausea were Gorrup’s natural reactions to the large pot of black, bubbling goo; Malwanda, however, seemed to feel the complete opposite. Of course, the gruel had different connotations for her than it did for him and the mindset she maintained during that period somehow converted to offensive odor that permeated every nook and cranny into something sweet and soothing. The loving smile and melodic humming that seemed to define Malwanda during the week of preparation would lead one to believe that she’d been happy to have the aroma around all year. Gorrup knew that separation from reality well; it was seen in just about every woman in the tribe before the big hunt. It was “wildling-fever”.
Every woman had their own unique recipe that had been handed down from generation to generation and, in Gorrup’s humble opinion, Malwanda’s had to been one of the most repulsive he’d ever seen. “The worse it smells,” she had said; “the better it works.” He didn’t really know if this were actually true or not since the stuff hadn’t actually gotten the job done during that last two great-hunts, but then again, no one had really had much luck for those. That, more than anything else, was what made this particular one so important…and everyone in the village knew it. If there weren’t significant degrees of success achieved this time, it was a very real possibility that it would mean the end for more than a few family lines. One bad great hunt can happen…two in a row is harmful, but not insurmountable…three…three bad hunts in a row…three decades of returning to their little holler with empty cages…that could be devastating for everyone.
Their little town, known as Nasca’s Bosom, sat in the middle of a beautiful valley, nestled between the two great mountains, Gatarain and Nasca; and, although tiny enough to be unable to sustain a population boom, it still required a certain number of working hands in order for it to maintain any degree of functionality. In another fifteen to twenty years the village men would be fading into their sunsets with the much-needed strength of youth slipping further and further from their grasp until additional great-hunts became nothing more than suicide quests. The women would begin to wrinkle and grey while their thoughts would start to process slower and slower. Their roles as the village’s home-keepers, law-makers, judges and authorities would begin to diminish, weakening the social structure from within. With no one in the wings to take over these vital responsibilities…well…it was too frightening a prospect to think about; and for the most part…no one did.
None of that really mattered as far as Gorrup was concerned, however. This was going to be the year. There was no doubt in his mind. The stars had aligned in the night sky in such a way as to tell him that this would be the highest yielding great-hunt their village had ever seen, while a three-day journey to see the blind seer at the top of Gatarain that they’d taken last month only reinforced the notion. The old woman had peered into the void that only she could see and came back with the only five words that any of them had needed to hear: “Nasca’s Bosom will live on”. Both himself and his neighbor and best friend, Haggistern, had released their breathes in unison, neither of them even aware that they’d been holding them in the first place. The reaction was reenacted by the five men at the base camp when they’d finally climbed back down from the tiny shed precariously balanced at the mountains peak. Despite Gorrup’s constant insistence, it was the reinforcement they’d all sought and from that point forward the attitude regarding the great-hunt shifted from fearful pessimism to an excited anticipation.
Like an electric wave, the eagerness and enthusiasm spread throughout Nasca’s Bosom and, on the day before they were due to set out, the laughter heard at the Great Hunt Festival was genuine. The smiles weren’t of the forced variety and the frolicking and dancing came with a natural ease. Confidence…bordering on cockiness…was the attitude of the hour. The party ended at dusk while, for practical purposes, the mead was locked away. The hunting party was due to begin eating ground at first light so it wouldn’t do for them to not get a full night’s sleep beforehand. Having to stay up for two or three days at a time during the hunt was not an uncommon occurrence.
The men made love to their wives before retiring to their sleeping quarters. Their wives would spend the rest of the night putting the finishing touches on their, now cooled, cauldrons of bait before wrapping the congealing substance in banteen leaves and karu wax, essentially sealing it off from the outside air. By the time the men awoke, the leaves will have hardened into a secure, easy to carry, container. Gorrup was always of mixed reactions when it came to that point. He was, quite obviously, very grateful for the reprieve from the foul odor but that came with the knowledge that eventually the other cropaint bean would fall from the porregineister. There was no way around it…and that second bean was the absolute intensity of the scent after being sealed away for the duration of their five-day trek to the hunting grounds. Once it finally came time to crack that bait-ball back open…for the love of Parnissis…it was like getting hit in the face with an invisible hammer.
By and large, the great-hunt was a very competitive endeavor and was accompanied by a significant degree of wagering. Not that all of their hunting trips weren’t…but the importance of this particular one seemed to bring out levels of foolishness that they wouldn’t normally indulge in. Of course every man wanted the others to have successful hunts…but if you could make the first catch and take home the grand prize of a hundred yorps…all the better. One of the many side-bets that took place was to see who could hold their breakfasts the longest after releasing the bait. Much to his dismay and Malwanda’s delight, Gorrup was almost always the first one out on that particular wager. There was no denying the power of her brew and he knew this time wouldn’t be any different; if he were to fail…it would have nothing to do with her bait.
When the rootstichick crowed at first light, the men were already packed and ready to head out. It was generally agreed upon that they would awaken at dawn and head out within an hour but, as per usual, the excited anticipation had them all up long before that. It was a long journey before them and they were anxious to start closing that gap. In an ideal world, they would’ve ridden their faithful horkas…but their quarry could hear the galloping animals from a great distance, rendering them more a liability than an asset at the point. This was a lesson learned early on. No…this was a trek that had to be made on foot…and it did not come without its hazards.
It took a full day and a half to navigate the narrow paths and tight cliffs that led them around the great mountain Gatarain. From there, it was two more days through the Swamp of the Five Sisters. There had always been plenty of bedtime ghost stories about the goings on in the swamp as well as the five witches the swamp was named for…but the only real concern for the group of twenty-three men was avoiding the giant seething spiders and their plentiful nests beneath the murky waters. They could be very difficult to see, especially in the dark, and sometimes you wouldn’t know you were upon one until they were springing from the water and lunging at your head. This was the time when, more than any other…save the hunt itself…alertness and attention were paramount.
The only saving grace in regard to the seethers was that they were highly susceptible to fire, quickly disappearing into wisps with a bright flash. As long as the party’s exterior remained vigilant with their torches…there was rarely a problem they couldn’t handle. The five or six nests they did come across put on an impressive light show with the seethers’ kamikaze leaps into oblivion.
“We should have one of these ready for the festivals,” Haggistern joked after the last one bringing about a hearty round of much-needed laugher.
“Sure thing Haggs,” one of the younger men called out; “we’ll keep it at your place!” The laughter resumed and spirits were high when they set up camp in the small ravine that separated the swamp from the edge of the forest. For an additional two days they would still have to traverse the well-worn path that their town had stomped into existence through just under three-hundred hunts before, eventually, arriving at their destination: a spot that had been lovingly dubbed “Last Chance” many, many years ago.
Last Chance was the area where the whole hunting party would spend their last night together before breaking off, the following morning, into groups of two or three. It was a common knowledge that the wildlings would see a large group as a threat and would keep their distance. They definitely wouldn’t try to attack. Not that they were necessarily looking to be attacked; the initial plan was always bait and pounce…but sometimes having one or two of them come at you could be just as good, saving you the trouble of luring them out. Personally, Gorrup would’ve traded being ambushed for the bait-ball any day of the week.
Gorrup and Haggistern, much as they did on every hunt, paired up together. This year, however, they agreed to let Cort Steadyhand join them. Cort was one of the youngest men in the tribe and, not really having another in his own age-frame, was often ostracized from social activities. It wasn’t an intentional act of malice by anyone…it just kind of happened. He had been pestering the two older men for a number of years about joining their set. They liked to tease Cort about saying ‘no’ but that had both known for some time that that wasn’t going to be the case. He was an honorable young man who did right by his wife and…in truth…they both liked him quite a bit. He smiled a lot…and it was infectious. The only knock they had on him, if anything, was how much more energy he had than they did. When they told him that he’d be doing all the heavy lifting, he’d thought it to be more teasing…it really wasn’t.
The final, couple days of the journey were, without a doubt, the most difficult terrain of all to surpass. The forest had worked hard to reclaim their dirt road over the last decade. The unending array of foliage and green was very disorientating and there were several times that the party lost it altogether and had to fall back on the old ways by cobbling together impromptu compasses. All they really needed was a magnetized arrowhead, a pomatom leaf and a stagnant puddle to find out which direction was the world’s magnetic center and help them continue in an eastward direction until they found the trail again.
Sporadic storm-cloud explosions that gave way to salty downpours did little to aid their progress but, eventually, they reached Last Chance and set up their last group camp. They shared ale, song and story around a roaring fire as was tradition but the cheer was forced through the somber pall that hovered about them. It went without saying that the great hunt was one of abundant perils and the odds of every single man returning to Nasca’s Bosom weren’t high. There were times when that happened…but they didn’t come without their own fair share of long-lasting injuries and psychological traumas. Hunting wildlings was not for the weak of heart.
If one were going strictly by the previous numbers however, three point five of them would die on the hunt while another one and a half would expire at home from their wounds or the toxic poisons introduced into their systems. Surviving your first great-hunt was something of a rite of passage; every successful one after only added to a man’s reputation and social standing. ‘Success’ being measured as not just returning with their prey…but rather just returning at all. Gorrup himself, had seven notches on the Longstorm family pole…although the last couple had seen him return empty-handed.
The gloomy tone carried over into the following morning as they broke camp and lingered on their valedictions. There was no denying the difficulty of the moment; most of these men were more than just neighbors…they were friends, brothers as it were, and all extremely aware that this goodbye could very well be their last. It did, eventually, come to an end and by dusk the men were many miles from each other in all directions.
Gorrup’s party made camp in a tiny gully, although in truth, Cort did most of the setting up while Gorrup and Haggistern argued about the amount of ground faasini beans required to make the perfect cup of piping hot faasini. Reaching a compromise just as the younger man got the campfire going, the older men proceeded to brew a pot while Cort swept the perimeter and placed warning bells on branches every other step. Most likely, the defensive measures would be wholly unnecessary. Wildings were generally not considered nocturnal in nature, usually using that time to sleep. On the off chance that there was some activity…they almost never approached flames, seemingly terrified of all forms of fire. The alarm system, therefore, was probably a redundant precaution. Still…when hunting wildlings…no safeguard could be too many. Just about every great-hunt, it seemed, presented the hunters with new challenges. There truly was no creature more dangerous in the world…except perhaps for a grown wildling: a feral.
Ferals were extremely rare however…if they ever even existed at all. Gorrup only knew them from scary stories and tall tales told in the ale-house. The reality was that if a wildling weren’t trapped in a hunt…they, more likely than not, would not be around for the next one. Most wildlings do not survive more than three or four years, given the harsh environment and their violent lifestyles and natures. On two occasions Gorrup came across wildlings that he’d estimated to be eight or nine years old…and they were savage beasts at that. The number of fellow wildlings that one would have to cannibalize to live that long…was staggering. He had known both times, that the creatures were too far gone to be domesticated and he did the most humane thing he could; he had cleaved their heads from their torsos with his mighty blade.
Once Cort returned to the fire and was handed a steaming hot cup of faas, the three men laid out their plans for the next few days. They would, of course, use the entirety of the following day doing nothing more than surveying their immediate area. Learning every nook, rock and hill, they would make sure that there were no doubts about anything. If there a spot where they could be pounced upon by something unseen…they wanted to know about it. If there was an area that served best as a defensive stand should they need to retreat…they wanted to know about it. That kind of knowledge could mean the difference between life or death, making the landscape work for you…rather than against you.
Following that, they would set up a couple traps and then…ugh…set out the bait. Gorrup was far from thrilled about coming to that point and he’d have been lying if he said he hadn’t considered having Cort lay his bait for him. That wasn’t the way things were done though; every man laid his own bait. Just another of the many traditions associated with the hunt. After that…well…it was wait and see. That was the point when sleep would become a luxury…and one of the other reasons why they’d let Cort come along.
Dinner consisted of dried plarum roots and cured meats and before too long they were settling into their mats. It was no secret that this might be their last good night’s sleep for a while so there wasn’t a lot of chatting before sleep. Cort nominated himself for the first two-hour watch, knowing full well that if he hadn’t, his hunting companions would’ve done it for him. The young man harbored no misconceptions about his role as the ‘new-guy’ and, rather than let it bother him, embraced it whole-heartedly. He was thrilled to death to be able to spend the next couple hours watching over their fire and his friends. Even if he hadn’t been, the excitement of this, his first hunt, had him way too amped up to have gotten any sleep in that moment anyway. Instead, he put his back against a tree and did his best to remain quiet despite his normally chatty nature.
Gorrup closed his eyes and thought about Malwanda as he drifted off. He remembered that look on her face as they said goodbye at the foot of the hill. To all others her disposition was one of only stoic determination…but there was something else lingering just beneath that only he could see and it both shook him and strengthened his resolve at the same time. The unspoken importance of the moment wasn’t lost on either of them. She had leaned forward to kiss him on the cheek and whispered something in his ear. The rest of the hunting party seemed certain that she was saying, “Be careful,” or “I love you,” but that wasn’t it at all. What she had said was, “You do what you have to do,” and she had meant it…and everything that it entailed.
His wife was one of the most well-respected and powerful matriarchs in Nasca’s Bosom due in some small parts to her age and experience, but mostly because of her uncanny ability to cut through the horka-shit. She was a quick-thinking woman able to see the details of what was right in front of her…as well as the big picture. Having thrice served as the Mayor of Nasca’s Bosom, the only reason she didn’t still hold the position was through her own volition; most of the townsfolk would’ve been happy to see Malwanda Longstorm as a permanent fixture in that role.
Because of all this and more, she understood the direness of their situation perhaps better than anyone. Keenly aware of the population numbers as well as the occupational assignments, Gorrup’s wife had been living with a deep-seated anxiety that she didn’t share with anyone but him. Despite his abounding optimism regarding this Great Hunt, in the days before the brewing of the bait he saw something in his partner’s eyes that he had never seen before…never. It was fear. Easily the strongest person he knew, which was part of what he loved about her, and unequaled in mental fortitude…it was a disconcerting sight to be true. Fortunately, once the bait preparation was begun, she seemed more herself again. Even still…he hadn’t been able render that look from his mind; and then, when they said goodbye and she told him “you do what you have to do”, it was there again. With those seven little words and the darkness beneath the face she showed the rest of the hunting party, Malwanda conveyed everything she needed to. The consequences of this hunt weren’t just important…they were more important than anything. More so, even, than the lives of his friends; or even his own for that matter.
Of course she wasn’t coming right out and saying that he should sacrifice Haggistern or Cort if that’s what it took to achieve results…but she wasn’t saying not to either. Knowing his wife as he did, her words, in essence, were meant to mean that all morality was to be cast aside for this hunt; any action would be considered acceptable so long as he returned with wildlings in his cage. The idea, even as nothing more than a vague suggestion, laid uncomfortably in his stomach for the duration of their trek, like an uncooked bwacche egg; and, on a couple of occasions, kept him from making eye contact with the rest of the hunting party. Gorrup couldn’t help feeling ashamed of the thoughts that kept rolling through his mind but, in the end, it came down to a very simple lesson that they were all taught early on: there was love and friendship…and then there was survival. The two were wholly exclusive of one another.
It was great to have a buddy to share stories with, overindulge in mead, or even compete in a heated game of Chikwei or Checkers with…but these were all luxuries when it came right down to it. He cared greatly for Haggistern and some of the other men, to the point that he would’ve stepped in front of a charging kronosaurous for many of them…and for the last week he’d been mulling over possible scenarios in which their deaths could be used to his advantage. After all, the one thing the wildlings seemed to prefer more than the various bait recipes was the flavor of fresh human flesh. He felt like the worst person in the world for even entertaining the idea but the truly troubling notion refused to give him peace. Even now his slumber was fitted and besot with unpleasantries.
Tossing and turning on his mat, Gorrup barely clung to the wispy threads of sleep and that, beyond all else, was the reason he was the first to be awoken by the jingling of warning bells coming in from all directions. He was, much like his wife, the type of individual who processed situations very quickly; exhibiting uncanny abilities to both absorb the tiniest details available and incorporate them into his decision making long before anyone else even took notice of the minutia. The jury was still out on whether it was a gift or a curse…but it kicked in immediately and within a matter of seconds he had a fully informed assessment.
The very first thing that was to be noticed was the fact that barely anything could be seen in dull, muted light provided by the barely glowing embers; it was the dead of night and that fool, Cort, had let the fire extinguish. The young man had obviously fallen asleep before his allotted time to do so and, in doing so, had broken the number one rule of the hunt: don’t let the fire go out! After allowing himself a millisecond for the shock at such a fatal ineptitude to pass, his mind next targeted the multiple sets of glowing eyes which had completely surrounded their encampment. Despite hoping that they were peering back at them from wild meepers…or even a scuttle of banta-rats, Gorrup knew better. There was only one type of creature that conveyed such intensely violent intentions with just a look…they were wildlings.
Of course, this behavior went against every known characteristic they’d ever learned or taught about the beasts…but that didn’t change the parameters of their current predicament any. Every few decades the batches of wildings were prone to developing new traits that needed to be included in the updated curriculum; but it was never anything as drastic as this. Generally, the types of things that needed to be looked out for were along the lines of new noises being made or the ability to conceal themselves in foliage. In no one’s wildest dreams, however, would the hunting party expect to see a large group of them traveling together. In the past, any more than two or three of them in any one place usually meant that the wildlings would turn on each other in the most vicious of ways.
Secondarily to that unimaginable fact…what in the hell were they doing out at night anyway? Over the course of seven Great Hunts, Gorrup had only encountered a wildling twice after dark and in both instances the creatures had been extremely disorientated and on the verge of death anyway from previously inflicted wounds. He’d performed a merciful act for both of them and in the many years since it hadn’t happened again. Saying that wildlings didn’t go out at night was as much of a rule set in stone as any they had. If this no longer applied…then should they just go ahead and toss out everything they thought they knew about the Great Hunt?
Gorrup’s hand slid, instinctively, to the hilt of his sword lying, sheathed, upon the hard earth next to his sleeping mat while he continued to soak in everything he could in that instant which he knew full well to be the calm before the storm. After sensing the darkness and then the threat beyond the darkness, he noticed, with no shortage of relief, that his camp-mates were still with him in the land of the living. Cort’s head was bobbing slightly as he sat prone, his back still against the tree, while Haggistern, who laid as still as a rock, released a blustery snore into the damp, night air. No denying that he was happy to know they were yet okay, but having them continue to remain unconscious while the perimeter alarms jingled away was…with the kindest word available…an irritation.
Cort could possibly be forgiven; this was, after all, his first Great Hunt. Letting the fire go out was another story altogether, but his heavy slumber would be more the subject of teasing that actual admonishment…should they all live long enough for the topic to come up again. Haggistern on the other hand…well…he knew better; and Gorrup was more than a little pissed at his closest friend. Sure the man was accumulating the years…but they were all getting old. If his buddy wanted to continue aging, then he needed to be sharper than this and his unmoving frame was disheartening at best. It certainly wasn’t a promising sign of things to come.
One of the last qualities that Gorrup was able to take in from that moment, frozen in time, before what would surely be a furious flurry of activity, was the overwhelmingly nauseating aroma that hung, thick and oppressive, in the air around them. It was an unmistakable odor and, had he not been fueled by complete adrenaline, it would’ve probably brought back the evening’s dinner for a second trip across his lips. There was no confusing it with any other scent on earth; it was Malwanda’s bait-ball. Parnissis only knew how the damn thing had been cracked open, it was one of the few things that he took the utmost care with, but there was nothing else it could be and damned if he couldn’t taste the foulness of it as well.
So, somewhere around five seconds after opening his eyes, Gorrup came to the conclusion that the stars had aligned to create the perfect tempest of failure in the short amount of time that they’d been asleep. Their fire had gone out, their watchman had fallen asleep and, inexplicably, a bait-ball had been rendered effective; it was the ultimate triumvirate. One which, in all probability, would end in the death of one or more of them. It was likely to say that no hunter on a Great Hunt had ever been in as vulnerable and exposed a state as the three of them were right then. It seemed that the only way they could’ve made it any easier on the wildlings were if Haggistern were to roll onto his back and expose the softest parts of his belly for their consumption.
With hardly any time to plot a course of action, Gorrup sprang into action, allowing his body to act on full instinct. Unable to calculate the number of times that doing just that had saved his ass, he had no qualms about handing the reigns over to that primitive and reactionary thing inside him that never took the time to fully think things through. That thing seemed to somehow already know that if Gorrup had cried out to his companions, the wildlings would’ve been upon them before either of them would know what was happening. Instead, his left hand, his sword’s base firmly in its grip, swung the blade through the air before he’d even raised his head from the ground.
In one swift and fluid motion the sheath went flying off as the weapon sailed neatly through the dying embers of what was once their roaring fire, sending a flickering shower of sparks in all directions. The results of the flying scintilla were twofold…and pretty much exactly what he’d hoped to achieve. Both of the sleeping men received burning stings which brought them immediately back to consciousness, although Cort seemed to have gotten the worse of the two as one of the tiny bits of burnt wood caught him squarely on the cheek and caused him to cry out slightly as he awoke. Fortunately, both men were trained well enough that their first reactions upon becoming awake were to go for their rapiers as well.
The second intended result the spreading of the fire achieved was to both startle, and frighten if that were possible, the wildlings that had them seemingly surrounded. A few of the glowing bits took hold of some of the dryer portions of the foliage and ignited two or three tiny flames in the process as an added benefit. Greeted with an array of growls and hisses, the act earned him no shortage of foul reactions and, while his little light-show was over as quickly as it had begun, it still gave the men just enough time to change their odds just a bit. No longer just sitting quacklins, they were now positioned at least a little better for the coming onslaught.
Haggistern’s eyes met his own for a split-second and Gorrup was relieved to see them sharp and attentive, even through the piercing darkness that had now become that much more oppressive. Verbally describing the quandary they’d found themselves in would not be required; his old friend, weapon in hand, was already in the fray. Both men then took an additional second to cast their gazes towards the youngest of them all, but apparently, it wouldn’t be necessary to enlighten Cort either. He knew full well how deep into the well they’d fallen because, unfortunately, the wildlings were already upon him.
None of the three moons were remotely close to being full and with the scarce amounts of light they provided, visibility was horrible. As a result, neither Haggistern nor Gorrup saw when the savage little beasts leapt upon him but there was still enough to make out the forms of the little bastards crawling about him, biting and clawing as they went. Two were covered from head to toe with matted black hair while the third’s appeared to be a bright blond, although spotted with darkened patches of mud, blood, feces and who knew what else? Not exactly known for their sanitation habits, they could be, if left to their own devices, truly disgusting creatures. They weren’t very large, maybe a foot to a foot and a half long; they were less than a year old.
In all actuality, they were what one would usually consider the perfect age for trapping, but this group seemed particularly savage…and fast. It was only through the reflexes and muscle memories created over the course of seventy years’ worth of Great Hunts that the two men were able to react as quickly and efficiently as they did. An outside observer would’ve definitely been able to see the difference, especially with Cort’s wild flailing and spinning about.
Haggistern swung his sword through the air and neatly separated a squealing wilding that had become airborne before leaping over another one on the ground before him; he was trying to reach Cort. With several feet left to go his path was blocked by several more, baring their razor-sharp teeth and daring him to take another step. Simultaneous to that, Gorrup had his own hands full trying to help the boy and, after having to, with great regret, dispose of a couple more, found his own way obstructed. They were organized in a way that had never been seen before and that didn’t even touch on the size of this group; it was so damn big! None of it made a lick of sense. Wildlings had never altered their behavior so dramatically in one season. If this were solely responsible to Malwanda’s bait somehow…they might need to talk about toning it down some in the future.
Cort, becoming desperate to get the crawling monstrosities off of him, fell to the ground and began rolling in what was left of their fire pit. Still plenty hot, it did the trick and sent the three that had been harassing him shrieking back into the bush. The cost was high, however, and the young man seared his own skin in several exposed spots, adding the aroma of burnt hair to the already putrid air hanging around them. To his credit…he jumped right back to his feet with nary a whimper and, sword at the ready, sharply nodded his head once to signify to his companions that he was prepared for whatever would come next.
Gorrup knew, however, that they weren’t. He’d been given more than enough time to fully calculate their odds. Just based on the sheer numbers of them alone, the men were ill prepared to bring this to fruition. That didn’t even factor in how completely off guard they’d been caught. They would be hard pressed to kill their way out of this nightmare, let alone be able to trap any of screeching wretches…which, lest they forget, was the real goal in all of this. The entire scenario lent itself to more questions than answers…but, as far as Gorrup was concerned, there was really only one question that needed to be answered. As much as it pained him to admit it, even to himself, that question wasn’t ‘how do they all make it out of this alive?’ In a different time…on a different hunt…it probably would have been. In a perfect world…it always should be.
Things were different now, unfortunately, and this Great Hunt had its roots firmly planted in desperation. With Malwanda’s determined resolution in the back of his mind helping to both steady and prioritize his thoughts, Gorrup knew what the only answer he should be seeking was. It was the one that answered the question ‘how was he going to make it home with one or more of these things in his cage?’ It was vexing, undoubtedly, with no easy solution volunteering itself.
“Flare!” Haggistern called out to him and Gorrup knew he was right to do so. It was their only play at this point. Spolodyte flares were difficult and expensive items to create. Encased in cropaint bean pods and constructed with the utmost care by a very specialized craftsman, the flares were a precise mixture of charcoal, sulfur, sawdust, saltpeter and minute amount of the catalytic agent that created the initial combustion: spolodyte powder. Spolodyte powder, more valuable than gold, could only be obtained by scraping it from the highly explosive crystals that formed inside the Devil’s Maw volcano. The quest to gather the rare powder was second only to the Great Hunt in its degrees of difficulty and one in which the citizens of Nasca’s Bosom rarely engaged, choosing, instead, to rely on traders and traveling salesmen for any supply of the scarcely seen material.
Because of their rarified nature, each group that left out of Last Chance was entrusted with a single flare while one more was left there. They were to be handled carefully and used in emergencies only. In the past it was understood that meant rocketing them into the air to summon forth any members of the larger hunting party that might’ve been close enough to see it. The one time Gorrup could ever remember one being used was to aid a couple of hunters that hadn’t fully investigated their area first and, in their ignorance, plunged over a hidden cliff, each man breaking a different leg. Obviously, this was a completely different situation…but no one could argue that it didn’t qualify as an ‘emergency’.
In this particular instance, however, their immediate need didn’t come in the form of backup. Certainly, the untold benefit of additional men would’ve been welcomed with open arms…but that wasn’t even a thought worth entertaining. By the time any of the other hunters could make their way to Gorrup’s group, this melee would have long since been resolved…one way or another. No…what they really needed in that moment…and what Gorrup was pretty sure Haggistern had in mind when he called out for their signaling device…was light. Without at least a bit more illumination, their roles as wildling chow were all but forgone.
Besides the seven or eight holding their ground within the men’s camp, there were an indeterminably larger number diving in and out of the shadowy overgrowth surrounding them. Despite the abnormal behavior they were displaying by being here like this in the first place, it was painfully clear that they had the advantage in this current environment. That wasn’t to say that more light would provide any aid necessarily, but at least they’d have a better idea of what the hell they were dealing with.
Gorrup took a quick stab at the canvas sack lying just a few feet away but was forced to jerk back just as fast as a set of snarling teeth snapped at the air where his hand had just been. The act earned the red-haired wildling a reactionary swipe from the sharp end of his sword, wounding it enough to send it crawling away with a whimper. It opened up enough of a gap for another try and this time he managed to just hook the bag’s strap. With one continued motion, Gorrup flung the bag in Haggistern’s direction.
The movement sent several more wildlings into an attack formation and both Cort and Gorrup were forced to strike down the ones that came closest to making contact with the sack as it flew through the air and into Haggistern’s steady hands. There was more hissing and growling as the large man fumbled with the canvas container’s opening and it was almost as though they knew that he was attempting to do something that they wouldn’t like. On most days that would have been a highly improbable suggestion. By and large, wildlings were known to be relatively stupid creatures. Primitive and primal, they didn’t rationalize their way through their daily existence; they simply reacted to their base functions. If they were sleepy…they slept. If they were hungry…they hunted. If they were angry…they fought like hell in the most ferocious ways imaginable. More often than not, they seemed to be angry.
Gorrup didn’t suppose he could blame them for that though. Life as a wildling wasn’t much of a life at all. If only he could make them understand that what the hunters were trying to do for them was, in reality, a form of mercy. There was the short and filthy life of survival of the fittest…or there was coming back to Nasca’s Bosom and seeing their savagery humanely put to rest. It really wouldn’t be much of a choice if they only knew what he knew. Such was the irony of life, Gorrup mused to himself before chuckling slightly.
“Are you bloody laughing?” Haggistern blurted with disbelief as he continued to struggle with the cloth bag that was beginning to feel like a damned puzzle.
“Oh man…that’s cool.” Cort said without even realizing that the words had come out, the admiration clearly evident in his voice.
“Oh please…” Haggistern replied, the disgust clearly evident in his; “Don’t confuse ‘crazy’ with ‘cool’. That fool probably just…” He didn’t get to finish the verbal dig at his old friend. The wildlings had allowed their conversation to progress just about as far as they were going to and large number of them instantaneously sprang into action as if triggered by some unseen and unspoken command. The coordination between the little bastards was remarkable and unnerving at the same time. Leaping in and out, biting and then jumping away again…all while avoiding the hunters’ swinging blades with lightning fast agility. It would’ve begged the question, ‘were the dirty varmints really working together or had they somehow stumbled into their pattern of vicious attacks by chance?’…if there were actually any time for questions. There wasn’t.
Gorrup and Cort, being closest to each other, tried to work together in keeping the wildlings off one another while Haggistern continued to dig in the bag for the flare, a task made that much more difficult with anywhere from three to five of the hairy, little buggers jumping on and off of him, taking tiny bits of flesh with them as they went. Having been roused from a dead rest the men were at the additional disadvantage of not having their hunting armor on. More lightweight and flexible than the battle-armor they were occasionally forced to use, it still wasn’t something anyone would’ve chosen to sleep in and, as a result, their exposed body parts were paying the price.
“Dammit Haggs…can you hurry with that thing?” Gorrup cried out while flinging off a brown-haired wildling that had somehow managed to find its way to the top of his head. It seemed that they would be putting all their stock into the flare’s effectiveness after all; their options were becoming more limited by the second as their aggressors continued to flood in like sacra-roaches. The only real hope they had for survival now was that the blinding light of the flare would send the endless flow scurrying away like them as well.
Gorrup would have to put any bright ideas he had about capturing any aside for now. It wasn’t going to happen…not now anyway. Hell…they hadn’t even had an opportunity to set up the collapsible cages yet, for Parnissis’s sake. It was their first night! None of this should have been happening in the first place. Frankly, he wouldn’t be surprised at all if he found himself suddenly waking up from this nightmare, searching for a drink to wash away the taste of such a bad dream.
“A-ha!” Haggistern cried as he victoriously brandished his prize in his free hand. It was quickly replaced with another, less intelligible, cry as a sizable chunk was torn from the side of his throat sending a steady arch of blood sailing out from the gash. Perhaps not fatal, in and of itself, it still staggered the big guy; the shock etched upon his face clearly discernible…even in the darkness. Allowing his sword to clank to the ground, Haggistern clasped his hand over the gaping hole but it did little to provide the type of protection such a wound needed. Drawn to the blood like parasitic leeches, the wildlings overwhelmed him. His attackers went from three or four to, easily, ten or more.
Swarming and swirling about his frame it became, momentarily, impossible to see any of the man beneath them. Looking like some new, yet undiscovered, monster, he was covered in different, rapidly moving patches of dirty hair…and blood. More and more of it appeared by the second. Helpless to do anything about it, both Gorrup and Cort were certain that they were watching the last few moments of Haggistern Taleweaver’s life. It was, undoubtedly, not the way the man would’ve wanted to go and, having decided as much for himself, Gorrup stepped forward and raised his own sword above his head to position it for as painless a killing blow as he could administer. It would be an act of mercy and it was the least he owed his old friend. He would’ve done the same.
The blade never fell however. With one yorp left in his pouch to spend, Haggistern, much to companions’ admiration, mustered forth the strength to bring the flare’s tip close to his head where it had to wait long enough for a path to clear to his bloody mouth. Gorrup swore he could see a smile on the man’s face just before he bit down on the edge of the cropaint pod and tore it away with his teeth, igniting the blazing flash just inches from his face. The initial blast was bright enough to blind them all momentarily and hot enough to melt the skin from Haggistern’s cheeks but, given that he didn’t make the slightest noise, it was likely their friend was already dead before his body fell to the ground.
When used properly, the flare was designed to shoot up into the air; it was a signaling device. To say that Haggistern had not been adhering to the instructions as they all knew them to be was an understatement at best, but he did what he had to do. No matter how this thing turned out…Gorrup was damn proud of him and, if they ever managed to make it back home again, his wife would be shown honor for his sacrifice. The rudimentary way he’d been forced to activate flare sent it flying out horizontally rather than the vertical climb it was intended to make. It only managed to travel less than a few inches, however, before it made contact with a particularly nasty…and unlucky…wildling. Catching it square in the gut, the pressured velocity managed to carry it’s squealing body several feet before it fell to the ground on its back, the flare, still burning brightly, embedded in its abdomen.
In truth…they couldn’t have planted it in a better spot had they tried. Hissing loudly and burning as bright as the sun for a full thirty seconds, the spolodyte flare more than likely saved their lives. Terrified, the majority of the wildings did run, scurrying away in all directions. Most disappeared completely into the night…but not all. The ones that had the taste of Haggistern’s blood in their mouths went nowhere. Their hunger for flesh seemed to border on addiction; Gorrup didn’t think they could leave if they wanted to.
Lined up, one after another, they seemed totally oblivious to anything else going on around them, not the remaining hunters nor the still burning flare; they were utterly consumed by their consumption. Cort rushed forward, preparing to bring his blade down upon them and sweep them away from his mentor’s body, but Gorrup threw his arm out to stop him. When Cort turned to look at him, Gorrup could see the cycle of emotions play out; first shock, then anger, and then…slowly…understanding. Large tears pooled in the corner of his eyes, but he did understand. Haggistern was either dead or in no condition to be helped; there was no saving the man. What they could do though, was to make sure his death wasn’t without cause and, right in that moment, his sacrifice had a dozen or more wildlings lined up for the picking and paying no attention to the two men standing behind them.
It was almost a dream scenario, so long as the dream didn’t include the death of a dear friend, and they took full advantage. One by one, Gorrup and Cort went down the row smacking the soft spot on the crowns of the wildlings’ skulls with the base of their swords. One by one, they fell unconscious. When all was said and done, they managed to capture fifteen wildlings; all of which appeared to be in good condition. Haggistern’s death, may Parnissis accept him, provided them with everything they needed to bring back the largest haul ever taken by one group on a Great Hunt.
They hiked back to Last Chance once daylight arrived and set off the flare there to signal the return of all hunting parties. Not only would this be the largest haul in Great Hunt history…it would be the shortest as well. The stories of this hunt would become immortal…and Haggistern with them. Gorrup would see to it himself that the balladeers composed the perfect song to capture his legend. ‘The Saga of Haggistern’ would live in infamy and his children, whoever they turned out to be, would take great pride in passing it on.
Their journey back home took nearly twice as long as the previous trek, but they also didn’t have to manage fifteen wicker cages and the dead body of one of their own when they set out. Slogging back through the swamp in particular proved exceedingly tedious and they nearly lost a couple wildlings to hurtling seethers in the process. All in all, the mood was somber for the duration. They were all extremely happy to be both returning to Nasca’s Bosom early and with full cages…but the loss was great and weighed heavily upon them all. It was hard to be jubilant when the cost was so high. Once they did finally arrive at the city’s gates, there was no one waiting to greet them, which made sense. They weren’t expected to return for several weeks. Still, it didn’t take long for word to spread and by the time they reached the center of town a small, cheering crowd had begun to gather. It was a Great Hunt miracle.
Although the whole of the catch legally belonged to Gorrup, Cort and the Widow Taleweaver, it made no sense for them to try and keep them all. Gorrup would let Malwanda pick her two favorites, Cort and his young wife would probably take two while the widow might also take two, though one was more likely; and then the rest would be divided amongst the rest of the town, depending on need. It was an amazing relief to everyone that there were more than enough to go around this time…especially after the massive failures that were the last two Great Hunts. So much so that the town’s matriarchs immediately began planning an impromptu celebration for that evening, their ‘wilding fever’ reaching a joyously frenzied pitch.
Of course the party was for the hunters in name only. In reality, it wasn’t really the type of festivity the men had any real interest in anyway, not to mention the fact that they’d be way too exhausted to participate in anything further than a pint of ale. No…the type of revelry the women had in mind included the ritualistic ‘preparation of the wildlings’ which, next to the ‘preparation of the bait’, had to be their favorite time to be alive. Besides cleaning and shaving them smooth, it was hard to say exactly what else it was that the women did to them. Gorrup found the process to be nearly as revolting as the concocting of the bait and, even if he had the energy, would’ve chosen his bed over those activities nonetheless. He could handle a lot but dealing with the little ones was something he just didn’t have the stomach for. Hats off to Malwanda for having the ability to perform the tasks with such a cheerful disposition as she fundamentally ended the lives of wildlings.
Once his head was finally allowed to make contact with the horka-hair pillow he’d been using for the last twenty years, sleep eluded him longer than he’d expected. The image of Haggistern’s dead body refused to give him any peace, pulsating with squirming beasts and then being melted away by the spolodyctic fire. True…it had only been a day since he suffered the loss, but it seemed fairly evident that it was something that would end up haunting him for a long time. He had never before lost someone so close to his heart…it stung. Once the dark embrace of sleep did mercifully arrive, Gorrup was vaguely aware of the moisture that had begun streaming down his cheeks. The night seemed to have passed in the blink of an eye and, as far as he could tell, did so dreamlessly, thank Parnissis; but apparently lasted longer than it felt. It was evident from the streaks of sunlight splashed across his bedroom wall that it was already mid-afternoon.
Sitting upright, he yawned and tried to stretch out his aching, quest-weary muscles. Malwanda could be heard downstairs in the kitchen singing a beautiful melody that he’d not heard from her in a very long time. Another pang of painful regret for the death of his friend shot through him. This time, however, he was able to push it aside. Gorrup truly could not recall the last time he had heard his spouse sound as blissful as she did just now and her happiness was contagious. This was a time to mourn and no one would blame anyone for doing so…but it was also a time to rejoice. Nasca’s Bosom, which had been teetering dangerously close to an extinction event, was about to reap the results of a historic Great Hunt. It shouldn’t be difficult to find joy in the coming days, weeks, months and years. After all, starting this very day, he would be taking on a brand new role in his own life. Everything was about to change…and not just for his family…but for everyone.
After finally pulling away the blankets, he was initially planning to draw himself a bath but the, now pleasant, aromas that filled the house drew him downstairs instead. When he left there was only the impenetrable odor of his wife’s bait, but now it was as it should be. Fresh fasini, combining itself with sizzling strips of very special meat and buttered toast, created a lure that his rumbling stomach was unable to resist. Malwanda, as attentive as ever, must’ve heard him lumbering down the stairs because she met him as the bottom with a steaming cup of the savory brew he was craving. With just a touch of sweet-cane and a splash of jaffa’s milk, it was exactly the way he took it.
“I know it was a short hunt,” he whispered as he kissed her on the cheek; “but, for the love of Parnissis, I missed the hell out of you, Baby.” It wasn’t just sweet talk either; he was suddenly overcome by the sensation. She made up the better part of him and without her…he was incomplete. She smiled in a way that he hadn’t seen in decades, many times over. If it had taken the death of all of his friends to bring that look to her face…then it would’ve been worth it. There was no loss with a price greater than what he’d gained. It was one of those rare moments when he truly felt he’d done right by the world and could, if necessary, die contented. Not that it was a legitimate concern; he was going to be way too busy to die any time soon.
“So…” she prompted; “are you ready to see?” His stomach gurgled a reply before any words could even try to and Malwanda chuckled. He loved that sound. “Maybe you eat first,” she said between her lip-splitting grin and led her husband into the kitchen where he settled into his normal seat at the head of the table. She set forth preparing him a plate while Gorrup sipped his fasini and contemplated the gorgeous rosattas growing just outside the window. The green thumb belonging, like most of the talents in their family, to Malwanda as well. She returned with a breakfast that sent him into involuntary salivation before he could take the first bite.
The freshly baked bread melted in his mouth and the strips of meat were fried to perfection. They were of an exceptional variety that families in Nasca’s Bosom only afforded themselves on special occasions…such as this. After consuming two full plates, he wasn’t lying in the least when he told her it was the best meal he’d ever eaten. With playful arrogance she had only replied with, “I know.” Once he’d pushed back his chair and lit his pipe she asked again, “Are you ready to see?”. He could tell she was giddy, like a child on Festivus morning, battling to restrain their urge to tear into their presents stacked at the foot of the Festivus pole. Part of him wanted to tease her…toy with her by dragging it out but, in truth, he was nearly as excited as she was. He may have had no desire to be involved with the processes leading up to this moment but this…this was something he’d been waiting for a long, long time as well.
Taking him by the hand once again, she led him into her study room which, later in the day, he would be converting into something else entirely and over to the two wicker baskets in the corner. Each basket was covered with a protective mesh that concealed their interiors and before Malwanda could pull the first one away he grabbed her hand to stop her.
“Are they…” he trailed off. Her smile never faded; it probably wouldn’t for a while.
“They’re fine.” She reassured him. “Completely sedated. Will be for the next couple days.” And then; “You know that” before playfully poking him in the ribs. She was right, of course. He did know all that…but she hadn’t been there and, as far as he was concerned, it was a fair apprehension. He released her hand and she proceeded to pull back both mesh covers to reveal the contents of each. It took his breath away and for several long minutes he was unable to say anything at all…which was a reasonable reaction. There were no words to describe what he was seeing. They were absolutely…perfect.
“So this…” she began by gesturing to the one on the right; “is your…daughter. Her name is Matweena. And this…” she paused to pick up the sleeping baby in the other crib; “is Gorrup Jr. He’s named after his father…a hero.” Malwanda handed her husband the sleeping child and he knew in his soul that he’d never see anything so beautiful again. The transformation never ceased to amaze him and, looking down into that angelic face he couldn’t help but to be grateful. Before officially meeting his children, Gorrup had been secretly afraid that somewhere deep inside he would hold them responsible for the death of his friend. He knew now…that wasn’t going to happen. After all, they had all been wildlings at some point.
CREDIT: Shannon Higdon
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