THE HUNTRESS AND THE LOST CUB

Trust yourself. Believe in the vision.

I crouch in wait at the base of an aging birch tree, drawing the gray fur of the Wolf Mother around me to ward off the chill. The familiar smell keeps me calm and drives away the anticipation of the hunt. Even still, I am cold. Off in the distance, I can see the great stone wall marked by a crescent moon. Behind it looms the True Moon, full and bright. With or without its light, I see all – moss draping the wall, a snake slithering through the dead leaves on the forest floor, a lone hare warily sniffing the air, the horned owl staring at it from a nearby tree bough… nothing escapes the eyes of a hunter.

Heavy clouds threaten to hide the moon and drench me in rain. I grit my fangs and growl a warning at the sky. My prey could arrive at any moment, so I cannot afford the smoke of a campfire. Arté saw the hunting party beneath the light of the True Moon. Her visions always came to pass. This is the third night of the True Moon, and it could only last two more nights at most. There is no mistaking the landmark either – there are other walls in the world, yes, but I have seen none marked with the sign of the moon besides this one, the one that guards the Fields of the Fallen.

I scaled that wall once when I was young and curious. Inside the walls, there is a valley of iron that houses a field of sand, perfectly flat and full of forgotten bones. None of the skulls I saw belonged to beasts. I recognized it as a sacred place, a place that Death visits often. I pondered its purpose, knowing life must be taken so that life may continue, but I had never seen a beast that could consume so many. As a younger woman, I was puzzled, but now I grasp the truth: they were consumed by the Moon, a beast so great that it can chase the Sun across the sky. Knowing this, I would not choose to disturb the dead again. Let them rest: they belong to the Moon now. It is the way of the seasons.

The owl swoops down from its perch and tackles the hare, rending the rabbit with its talons, beating its powerful wings to stay upright. The hare struggles and cries out as it is ripped apart. The owl squeezes tight with its claws and tears at the hare’s throat with its beak. The hare goes limp, and the owl begins to peck away at its meal. Life is given so that life may continue. This is the way of the seasons; as the summer burns away the spring, so does the winter bury the fall, and so it goes.

The sound of fluttering wings fills my ears. I look up and spot a cloud of bats take off into the night, off to the east, near the great wall of the Moon, where a city of stone lay in ruin. My prey has arrived… and they are clumsy. I stand and pull the great bow off my back, fixing one end in the earth and bracing it against my boot. The Ashwood bow staff stands as tall as I, and with a shaft as wide as my wrist. The wood creaks as I bend and string it. The bowstring hums quietly as I pluck it once to test the tension.

Arté had noted that the invaders carried rifles. She worries too much and she also thinks too highly of the rifle. A gun is just a tool, a loud one. The hunter is the one that kills, not the tool. This place is a full day north from our home, the Ivy City. Every time the Unfed have come to raid our home, they have come from the north. Killing three men with a bow would be easier than killing dozens with a rifle. Arté could not argue with this, and so I set out alone.

Long strides carry me through the forest and towards the stone forts and towers. Their empty windows gaze at me like dead eyes, silently watching each step. The winds that carry the gray clouds moving overhead pass through the windows and whisper their secrets to me. The stone towers are now home to bats and other beasts that might give away my presence, so I stay outside. A hunter’s greatest tool is surprise. The wind also carries with it the smell of my prey; the scent of liquor is strong and it is not carried by any beasts besides the ones I have come to hunt.

I soon find myself standing atop one of the many bridges joining the winding roads that crisscross the city. My father had a word for this type of rock: concrete. It was made by hands, not by nature, and it was difficult to destroy. Surveying my surroundings from up on high, I see nothing but cold stone forts staring back with their empty eyes. It was a place like this where I’d lost him. Blood trickles from my lip as I bite down on it, stifling the memories of the past. The hunt was not the time to remember the dead. The pain brings focus with it.

A stag bounds into view and it pauses at a crossroads, unsure of where to run. I fight the instinct to draw an arrow. The resounding crack of a gunshot startles the stag and it leaps away, now bounding down the road. I drop into a crouch and peer over the edge of the bridge. The sound of angry voices and stomping boots echo against the stone ruins lining the streets. By the time the hunting party made it to the intersection, the stag had run off down another road, out of sight again. The confounded men now stand in the middle of the crossroads, arguing with one another.

“You fucking idiot! Why did you shoot!?” One man’s gruff voice rings out above the others. He stands tall and I am reminded for a moment of a brown bear rearing back onto its hindquarters. He and the two other men turn and confront the fourth. I can tell the fourth is the runt of the pack by his small size as well as his slumped shoulders. No, I am mistaken; the fourth is not a man, he is just a pup.

“I had a clear shot! It’s not my fault, it’s this piece of shit rifle! You guys took the good ones and left me with this garbage!” The runt fires back. His barks are shrill and tense, full of fear. I continue to watch as I reach behind my head. My fingers close around the feather fletching of an arrow, which I draw from its quiver and notch against my bowstring.

“Give me that!” Another one of the men, also much larger than the pup, stows his own rifle by slinging it behind his back, then he grabs the runt’s weapon. He holds it up, aiming down the sights for a moment, then pulling the bolt back and inspecting the breach. I can see his lips move as he murmurs something but he does not give the rifle back to the pup yet.

“I told you already. You don’t shoot alone. You wait until the rest of us have a shot too. That is how we operate! You just cost us our first real meal in days!” The leader speaks again, still angry. “You shot first because you wanted to say you killed it, dumbass!” He ends his angry rant by cuffing the young one with the back of his fist. The runt’s head snaps to the side with the impact. No response from the runt here. The men turn away from the stunned pup, whispering to one another, and I can’t make out their words. I can guess what they’re saying though. Arté’s visions have always come true. I think about how many paces it would take to reach the pack: about sixty, I’d say.

“Alright Petros, it’s been decided…” The leader speaks to the runt as the other two men circle behind him. The young one looks over his shoulder nervously, not sure what to do. I can sense fear and desperation now. One of the men slams the butt of his rifle into the runt’s back and he yelps in pain. The other man follows up by kicking him in the back of the kneecap, dropping him to all fours. The leader continues to address the pup.

“Since you scared away our dinner… you’re going to take its place, Petros.” The leader lowers his voice now and I can barely make out the words. He levels his rifle at the runt. A new scent invades my senses as a little pool begins to puddle up by the cub’s knee. One of the men notices it, points, and starts to laugh. The other man waves his hand at the leader and points at a machete hanging from the leader’s belt. My jaw clenches in disgust. These are the Unfed.

“You’re right, not worth the ammunition.” The leader says as he slings his rifle and draws the machete instead. The man standing behind the boy kicks him in flank, flattening him out onto the concrete. He slings his rifle and kneels so that he can wrench the boy’s arm away from his body and straighten it out, pinning it flat against the concrete. The third man plants a foot on the pup’s back, pressing his weight down on him. The muzzle of his stolen rifle rests against the back of his head.

“This has been a long time coming, you little shit…” Now the leader positions himself to take the pup’s arm with his machete. I stand up and take aim. The muscles in my arm flex against the mounting tension of the bowstring. Breath in. I imagine the arrow piercing flesh and adjust my aim. Breath out. The leader raises his machete on high and the tension disappears as I let the arrow take off towards its target: the only one with a rifle in his hands.

“What the fuck!?” The leader yells as my target staggers forward and slams into him. I notch another arrow as I breath in again. The second man releases the boy’s arm and stands up, fumbling for the rifle slung over his back. I picture my arrow piercing his chest as I breath out and release. The man raises his rifle and turns towards me just as my second arrow tears through his flesh and impales him. Blood leaks from between his clenched teeth as he falls to his knees. One left.

“Wait! Don’t kill me! Don’t!” The leader shoves the dying man away and raises both hands in surrender. He looks around with the wild eyes of a doomed animal and his machete clangs against the concrete. I notch another arrow and breath in once more. I can see the final shot hitting its mark. I breath out, pause, and release the straining arrow.

It whistles through the air before finding its new home in the leader’s throat.  The leader falls backwards onto the street, clutching at the wooden arrow shaft sticking out of his neck as his boots kick the ground in agony. All three of them bleed out before I can make my way over. The young pup is still curled up on the ground like a newborn, passed out in a puddle of piss and spilled blood. What a sorry sight.

“… Boy.” My voice does nothing to rouse him. I nudge his leg with the tip of my boot a few times. Still nothing. I stand over him now, planting one foot on either side of his torso. I bend at the waist, leaning down to slap his cheek. Still nothing. Did he die of fright? I slap him like I mean it this time and then he wakes with a start.

“W-w-wolf…!” He yelps as he looks up at me in fear and confusion. I cock my head to the side, then realize what’s going on. Right. I peel my skull headdress back to reveal my face, but it does not bring him any comfort. I should have expected this kind of reaction. After all, a minute ago he was about to become a meal.

“W-w-woman!? Wolf woman!? Wolf woman!!” He continues to cry out in fear as he holds his hands up in front of his face, as if that would protect him. I sigh, looking up at the True Moon for a moment. Don’t doubt yourself, Roré. You know this boy’s value. I look back down at the boy and plant one hand on his chest to keep him from moving. Then I ball my other hand into a fist and strike him through an opening in his guard, careful to hold back so I don’t kill him by accident. My punch connects squarely with one side of his chin and his head snaps to the side. His eyes roll back into their sockets. All is quiet.

I look down at the boy and inspect him. He’s young, maybe fifteen or sixteen years old. His hair is so short that he almost looks bald and so I can’t tell what color it is. The blood splatters on his face glisten in the moonlight. It looks like his lip is split, but otherwise he’s not too badly hurt. His complexion is pale and judging by his cheek bones, he wasn’t very well fed. Truly the runt of the pack. No matter to me, I’m not here for a meal.

Not long after, I find myself entering the woods south of the city, this time with a teenage boy slung over my shoulder, bound and gagged, but still alive. This young cub, betrayed by the Unfed, would prove to be a valuable source of information for my pack. He knows where our enemy sleeps, he knows their number, and he knows their habits. Whether or not he is able to run with the pack is less important than the information he will provide us.

The hunt is over and it is time to return home.

THE HUNTRESS AND THE LOST CUB
Written by Jungle.
© 2021, all rights reserved.

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