Arthur’s evening, when he’s not Hunting (or filling orders, or cursing software, or . . .)
Kssss! Blade slid across gleaming blade. Skender pressed the attack, using his greater strength to force Arthur back. He bared his teeth and twisted, then ducked to the side and feinted with his left hand. A deep snarl greeted his evasion and Skender swung hard. Too hard. Arthur leaped, then shoved his brother’s shoulder as he came down. The blow caught Skender at full extension and off balance, unable to regain his footing. Thud, he landed on his face in the soft dirt of the practice ring. Arthur staggered, caught himself, spun, and came up on guard. Red haze filled his vision.
“Break! Break now!” two voices commanded. Ladislu and one of the Healers, Arthur’s younger sister, ordered the halt. Arthur saluted and sheathed his sword. He breathed slowly, pulling the still-warm, humid air into his lungs. He exhaled fury and adrenaline both with the breath as he calmed mind and body. Murmurs rose from the younger Hunters. He turned to face them. Silence, and two stepped back, away from him. Arkady swallowed loudly, face pale. Perhaps he would cease pushing his seniors for the next while.
He turned back to face his older brother. Skender rolled to a seated position. “Damn it, Boianti. Too much time you spend with that lemur. You are half become one.” No malice in the malediction, perhaps a touch of humor. Skender accepted Ladislu’s extended hand, regained his feet, and kept his weapon. Ladislu sketched a bow and backed out of the ring. Skender saluted both judge and opponent, then slid his blade into the sheath hanging between his shoulders. He breathed hard, beads of sweat making his forehead shine in the dim light from the lamps in the now-empty barn.
“Point to Boianti,” Ladislu declared. “But that was a true desperation counter, sir.” The faintest hint of disapproval colored his dispassionate tone.
Arthur nodded only sufficient to be seen by the judge. He turned to face the younger Hunters once more. “What result should that move be used against many of the beasts we hunt?” he asked.
Quiet. He heard Skender—no, felt Skender—moving to stand at his left shoulder. Georg shifted his weight, then said, “Sir, it might catch you in air, impale you should it posses claws or digits of sufficient length and strength?”
“A second beast, concealed, could catch you as you land, sir?” Tadeuz spoke with greater confidence. He had survived an ambush, but not without a scars.
“Also correct.” He waited.
Rendor spoke from the pool of darkness where he and several other inactive Hunters stood. “Sir, a magic user could cast a spell to catch and hold you as you descended, or to tangle you as you touched ground.” We,” he gestured to the Hunters, “do not always consider magic literally under our feet. Shadow, the big redhead, Silver would all do the like.”
“As would the sorcerer called Spots,” Skender growled. “Here, at this moment, we Hunt no known magic users. That is . . . not always so.”
Arthur inclined his head in agreement. “Exactly so. The Terrible Hunt.” He let the others nod or snarl. “Strong magic aided us. Come the future?” Hunters Hunted against magic users, more often than not. So had it always been. The pups needed to learn that, or die.
Rendor bowed, left the shadows, and approached the ring. “Florian,” he called.
Florian grinned, teeth full bared, bowed with an extravagant flourish, and joined his elder in the ring. Nikolai, Florian’s Hunting partner, rolled his eyes and whispered, “Lady of Night, lend me patience,” sufficiently loud for all to hear. Florian ignored the jibe as he and Rendor saluted the judge, then each other. Skender stalked to the left. He passed behind the judge to stand as secondary watcher. Skender’s fingers flicked the pattern of dismissal. Arthur acknowledged the command and departed for the main house. He smiled to himself, once clear of the other Hunters. He had not bested his brother for several years.
Soft summer stars shimmered above him. The waning moon slept yet, her light hidden by the gently rolling land. A bat fluttered past and avoided him with an adroit tumble. The child bemoaned her inability to enjoy nights as she had once done. He inhaled. Warm, life-rich summer night smells flowed around him. The usual night sounds of the home farm filled his ears. “Who-hoo!” He froze, one foot on the lowest step of the main house.
He drew the silver dagger from his boot sheath and triggered the shield spell in his signet ring. A faint bitterness tainted the air. Where? He turned, listened, tasted the wind for more hints.
“It passes, Hunter. It lingers not.” His eldest sister spoke from the deep porch surrounding the house.
He bowed to her and returned weapon and shield to their proper places. “It watches.” He climbed the steps and joined her.
She nodded, then gazed into the night with white-clouded eyes. What did she see? “It watches and waits. It is canny, and old.” She turned to him. “That concerns me.”
He opened the house’s main door for her, then followed her through. A shield closed behind them as the door latch touched the plate. “I shall wash, then join you,” he said. He did not care to eat while smelling of dirt and sweat.
Food, his eldest sister, and Raj and Corava awaited him in the small dining room. “Eat, please,” his sister ordered. “We have already dined, including you, small mistress.” She shook a warning finger at the Pallas cat. Raj gave her a look of feline hauteur and remained in the chair, head well above the top of the table. Arthur ignored the determined stare and served himself. He murmured his thanks, then sat and ate.
“Before you inquire, that is not Charles the Bold Bird in the stew.” His eldest sister’s irritation drew a curious look. “Skender knows better than to go into the poultry yard without performing the proper rituals.”
Again, he smiled at his brother’s expense. “Indeed. All know that monarchs demand the honors due their dignity and rank.” And due their very sharp spurs and beak! “I confess, I still savor the memory of Tay and Rodney fleeing in panic from Charles’ wrath.”
He sipped the dry summer white wine, blended with a hint of sweet apple juice. His thoughts returned to the Hunt. “The undead. A full Hunt at the dark of the moon?” Which would also be midsummer night, he realized. Would the two balance?
Corava turned her hands in a gesture of uncertainty. “Something else shifts, sir, and we . . . are not certain which is a greater threat.”
Alas, that matched what Tay had said the day before. Perhaps the two would meet and destroy each other? No, such never happened in his world. Use one evil to track the other? No, but . . . “Imperotessa, could Wings track the undead in owl form?” He would have Silver request Wings’ assistance, should it prove possible.
The large cat’s golden brown eyes narrowed, and her long whiskers tipped back as did her ears. He heard the swish of her tail. “It is possible, Pisicagheara, but only should she find the nosferitau with eye first, then her mage and Silver help track the ill presence. Wings recovers from a hard working, and might refuse.” Her tone implied likely refusal.
“Thank you.” He stood. “And thank you.” He bowed to his sister, and then to his sister-by-marriage.
“You are welcome. May the Lady watch you this night.” His sister locked eyes with him. “Go wary, brother. We know not the second presence.”
He inclined toward her once more. “Wary shall I go.”
He heard the other Hunters dispersing as he descended the steps behind the house. Where could he rest? Not on clan land. Like as not one of the two creatures of darkness had begun to track him. Not the concealed place in the warehouse, either, not tonight. One of the pups would challenge him, or think to take him by surprise. Arkady, mayhap, or one of the others who still did not truly realize the price of failure. Four years had passed since he or Skender had blooded a fellow Hunter outside of formal training. Fifteen, perhaps, since either had killed a fellow Hunter. The youngsters grew overbold.
He studied the stars and tasted the wind’s scent as he prowled through the shadows. A hint of river, so faint as to be almost unnoticeable, caressed him. “Thank You, Lady of Night.” He started the nondescript dark sedan and drove with care down the faint tertiary path away from the home farm. It required him to open and close a half-hidden gate. The hinges resisted, then protested as they complied. Someone had failed to do his duty to ensure that the gate could be opened. Someone would regret that carelessness.
Arthur drove slowly once he reached the edge of the bluffs over the river, upstream of the city. The valley below grew rugged and narrowed, with a half-dry, marshy side-channel for part of the run. No one had cared to settle the flood and miasma prone stretch. Now the land belonged to River and Devon Counties, preserved for nature. No one knew of the old mine—or perhaps quarry—tucked into the bluff. He had found it by accident, then found its secret and took both as signs, with gratitude.
He parked in a secluded opening and listened. Only the proper night sounds came to his ears. A small animal hurried about its business, and the breeze whispered in the heavy summer leaves. The air smelled cleaner despite the heat-miasma rising from the bar, muddy places below. Arthur nodded to himself and crept down a small, twisting animal trail. The narrow way descended below the crest of the bluff, hidden by the heavy canopy and thick trees. A skunk had expressed pungent displeasure, nose-searing displeasure. Raccoon scat and half-eaten sumac buds littered the ground. Deer had nipped tender shoots here and there. All appeared well, for the moment.
He waited several minutes before he eased down the slope to the old mine. Or perhaps quarry, but the work stopped where a coal seam faded into the bluff. Nothing moved or appeared to have changed, so he ventured into the darkness. Unlike the spring cavern, this remained dry. Animals avoided it, for reasons he did not quite understand. The floor sloped up, climbing a few feet as he walked, bowing lower as the tunnel progressed. Not sand but fine stone covered the floor, smoother than the sandy stone and not as gritty to the touch. The passage widened once more, allowing him almost to stand. The tunnel seemed to stop, save that it turned hard to the right. Air moved, warm in summer, cool in winter. That had reassured him—a second way out existed, even if it would take much work to find and use.
Over time he had cached a few things here, weapons, food, other necessities. All wise Hunters did such, if they could. None knew when friend might become foe, alliances shift, and the Hunters become hunted. Better to prepare for dangerous times then to die for lack of a place of refuge. Arthur brushed off the stone bench left by the long-forgotten miners and spread an old, dirt-brown blanket across the cool, tight-grained stone. He could sleep on bare stone, had done so in the past, but preferred not to save of necessity. He removed his boots and set them and his knives within easy reach. He lay down and composed himself for rest. “Great God be with me, if it is Your will,” he whispered as he closed his eyes. “Lady of Night, watch over Your servant and protect me if it is Your will.” He slowed his breathing and relaxed tired muscles. Rest came easily.
(C) 2021 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved