Huntress 3 (2000)

In the three and a half weeks since leaving home, Shira made good time across country. She was quite proud that she’d crossed the eastern border of the Free Cities a week ago. Since then, the road began getting more difficult, especially as she often had to make her own road through the mountains. Just after midday, after a long morning hiking atop narrow ledges and overgrown ridges, the half-Elven huntress came upon a valley. The smoke rising over the rocks spoke of a village, probably one like the scores of other farming and mining settlements in the western Marches. She leaned on her spear for a few moments considering the settlement.

It looked safe enough. Moreover, she still had a good month’s hard travel before the first part of her journey, the border of Darkel Forest, was in sight. The prospect of a warm meal and an equally warm bed, not to mention a safe one, was too strong an argument. Before crossing the half mile or so, Shira rearranged her flowing hair a bit and shifted the band that kept it out of her eyes. The change should cover her ears well enough, she thought. This village was near the western edge of the Marches, but there was no sense in taking chances. People here had even more reason to fear and hate Elves than those in her homeland, who were generally bad enough.

Heaving a sigh, the huntress started off. The leather and suede that made most of her gear creaked softly with each step as she followed a switchback trail down to the valley’s floor. Her bow bounced comfortably on her back, a counterpoint to the barely audible thump of her spear that accompanied every other step.

As she drew nearer, Shira counted buildings in an attempt to guess at her welcome. By the time she reached the edge, she’d counted a little over a dozen homes, a temple, and a tavern. The temple, she decided, was likely dedicated to all the gods and goddesses, a common practice back west when a village couldn’t afford multiple temples. Her arrival had also been announced, probably by the local children. At least the four men greeting her held their picks and axes loosely. A good sign that they’d talk first.

“Good day, villagers,” she greeted them, letting her gaze roam until she spotted the archer she’d expected. Behind the village well, with a clear shot. “I am Shira of the Free Cities, traveling east and seeking food and shelter for the night . . . I have some coins and furs to give in exchange.”

The brightest looking for the four asked, “An’ where’re ye goin’ to the east, then? All alone an’ not a trader . . .”

“To Woodgard, with news for my brother, in the service of the Warden.” She’d been preparing the answer for a couple days. Given what she’d heard of the region, Shira decided it was best to connect herself with the Marcher heroes, the ones who kept most of the Elf-kin at bay.

It looked like the little lie worked. The archer lowered his bow and the other four seemed to relax. Their leader almost smiled as he introduced them. “Welcome, then, Shira of the Free Cities. I’m Jotha, tavern keeper. These’re Harek, Tolla, Joyne, and Marken with the bow.” After looking at the others, he added, “An’ if ye have news of the Cities, your meals’re on the house.”

The huntress smiled at the nearly ritualized offer, so similar to the one from her home. “Thank you, Jotha,” she replied with a little bow, “I will do my best to recall all the doings and rumors of the Cities, though my telling may not entertain.”

Two hours later, she had a bed in someone’s hayloft, Shira’d forgotten his name, and was seated in the tavern. Her third mug was drained just before finishing regaling the locals with the rumors about Lord Arthen and his wife for the second time. She gave a sigh of relief as Jotha brought out her dinner. The story had been old when she’d heard bits a month ago. Now, she was afraid of tripping up on her embellishments, since she’d only half-listened when someone told Dhom. After an apologetic smile to her hosts, she gratefully dove into the stew and black bread.

Fortunately, one of the villagers, Marik, she thought his name was, started grumbling about local problems. Apparently, he was a herdsman, not one of the miners. “Damn blasted dragons took off three sheep today,” he announced to the crowded room, everyone having packed in to hear the news, “The farkin’ Elf must be back.”

The room fell into a hush at his pronouncement. Shira could understand the conclusion, this relatively close to the Wilderlands. Still, she’’ seen enough ‘dragons’ to ask, “You’re sure it wasn’t a bear or wolves?”

Everyone stared as Marik’s face grew red and he rose to begin a tirade. After a minute of incoherent ranting, Jotha stepped forward and set a hand on the herder’s shoulder. “That’s enough now, lad. We’ve all heard it before, except our guest,” he said calmly, “and she doesn’t know the story . . . wouldn’t want her thinkin’ we’re used ta explodin’ at travelers what don’t know better.” He winked at Shira, behind Marik’s back.

Joyne took the opportunity to stand near the fire. He coughed lightly and focused on the huntress. “Pardon Marik’s outburst, please. He’s a bit excitable and has been among the hardest hit by our tragedy,” he started, to nods of assent from the others, “You see, for the last . . . fifteen springs, we’ve been periodically plagued by a dragon. Years ago, one of our hunters followed them as it dragged off a cow. He said it eventually came to an Elf, a sorcerer, who treated it like a pet. Since then, we’ve left out a cow, a couple sheep, or a few chickens for the Elf every new moon, to keep the dragon away.”

She’d heard similar stories before. “And does it work?”

“Usually, Joyne admitted, “Sometimes the animals remain, other times not. We think he is in the area only sometimes, but without a pattern. Mostly, he and his dragon leave us alone if we leave out the tribute. If we don’t, then the dragon starts stealing livestock.”

“But this sorcerer never came to your village or demanded tribute,” Shira asked, confused. That would be unusual, and would confirm what she thought the truth to be . . . a dragon clinging to a free meal. The creatures were said to be quite dumb, but they had to be bright enough to make that connection. Even the dullest dog or rat realized where free food could be had with no effort.

“That’s right, only Markan’s father’s ever seen the Elf.”

So, she’d best not question the belief without proof. That last thing she needed right now was an honor duel over calling a local’s father a liar. Instead of taking that path, Shira allowed herself a small sigh of surrender. “Where I come from, I live as a hunter,” she told the villagers, “Like my uncle before me. People called on us when wolves, bears, dragons, sorcerers, ghosts, and demons threatened their homes. And we were always successful.” Well, not always, but close enough. “In return for travel food, I’ll try to solve your dragon problem for you.”

While Markan and a few others looked skeptical, Jotha and Joyne passed a look of hope between them. The half-Elf just managed to catch the brief flare. She’d considered the matter closed for the night and began to turn back to the remains of her meal. However, Marik continued the interruption with a harsh, barking laugh. “You?” he asked on the verge of sneering, “Alone? Where our own hunting parties’ve failed? You can’t farkin’ seriously think you ken beat a farkin’ Elf alone . . .”

Someone else joined in, “Las’ time we had a damn sorcerer, granddad said they had a whole army . . . and still lost the first time. Apparently this was a commonly known story, met with resounded ‘here, heres’ and knowing looks. Shira carefully considered her answer, trying to avoid being run out of town.

“Did the army have an experienced sorcerer hunter?” Or did it bang around making lots of noise,” she replied, and took the silence that followed as confirmation, “The only way to beat a sorcerer is to sneak up on him when he’s not looking. And for that you need a good hunter.”

While Marik and a handful around him didn’t look convinced, most of the others voiced their agreement. Which kept the herdsman quiet. Shira resolved to keep an eye on him just in case, she and Dhom had dealt with his type in the past. There were always a couple who opposed involving outsiders, even well reputed ones. From what she’d seen back home, they tended to be the ones with the most easily bruised egos.

The rest of the evening passed quietly enough, with stories and news being swapped back and forth. In return for Free Cities gossip, the huntress acquired useful news about the road ahead, up to a day’s ride east or south. The whole while she noticed Marken and Marik in a corner with their heads together and a few cronies nearby. However, after a few more mugs of a local brew (from Herik’s wife, she’d heard), Shira left the company and arrived at her hayloft without incident. Within heartbeats, she was fast asleep.

Hours later, as the dawn light crept into her eyes, Shira gave herself a small stretch. Then she opened her eyes to the sight of a pitchfork leveled at her throat and a spear point against her chest. Breathing shallowly, the huntress looked askance at her assailants. She couldn’t attach a name to either man, but the faces were vaguely familiar from the night before.

“We don’t want none of you kind here,” pitchfork said abruptly, causing Shira to wonder if her ears had shown last night, “We don’t need fereign help fer our own problems.”

Spear chimed in then, “So get yerself outta the valley by nightfall, or ye might have an accident . . .”

A small smile turned her lips upward as Shira thought of things Dhom had said in similar positions. Usually made the already tense situation worse. She met pitchfork’s eyes and asked, “I don’t have much choice, then, do I? I suppose I’ll just have to leave.”

Both men looked instantly relieved. That had gone easier than they’d planned. Both relaxed a bit as spear said, “Uh, well, in that case . . . oof!”

The latter came as Shira’s boot connected with his groin. As she kicked, the half-Elf rolled away from pitchfork and made a grab for the curled up farmer’s spear. A row of pointy tines blocked her path, so Shira backed quickly to gain some ground. In the hayloft, Pitchfork had the advantage of reach. She, on the other hand, possessed experience and guile. Crouching low to better defend herself, the huntress drew her belt dagger in a reversed grip.

Shira bobbed and weaved, like an animal, as she sought an opening. Pitchfork kept stabbing at her, short and slow, not in any way professional. A short time later, the opening presented itself. As Pitchfork lunged, she batted the weapon away with her dagger, stepping in, past the tines. Her balled fist led the way once she was in reach. The punch landed in the pit of his stomach, doubling his over. Shira fluidly flipped the dagger and brought the pommel down hard against the base of his spine.

One assailant down, the half-Elf turned back to the first. She scooped up his spear and leveled the tip, one handed, a finger-breadth from his throat. “On second thought, I think I’ll stay a while,” she explained, “At least until my job is done . . . unless you wish to keep disagreeing . . .”

After he shook his head, Shira withdrew and let the farmer up. She nodded toward Pitchfork. “Take his home. You can get your stuff here in an hour, outside the barn.” She’d been tempted to make it the tavern, public humiliation, but general laziness and the effort to juggle two spear and a pitchfork that far dissuaded her from that option. The huntress followed her erstwhile attackers down to the first floor and outside. As she watched them leave, she looked for a water trough to wash off in, and resolved to sleep somewhere else every night she had to stay.

An hour later, Shira strode up to the tavern, clean and well rested. She’d checked her gear, looked over the fletchings, and sharpened her spear, all she could do to prepare. As she approached, a familiar, and small, group of the town’s eldest was already gathered outside the only public building. She glanced at the sky before greeting them.

“Morning, grandfathers . . . a pleasant day to you, though I’d move inside by midday,” she suggested, “looks like rain around then.” After a chorus of nods, half-smiles, and other wordless assent, she continued. “Could one of you point me toward Marik’s stead? I’m sure he’d like me to get started here . . .”

A moment later, directions in mind, Shira headed north of the village. The elders had been most helpful, she thought, pleased that they’d refrained from making any lewd or suggestive comments. Rather than find Marik, the huntress simply began stalking the land around his home on her own. While it would help to know where the loss occurred, Shira still wasn’t fully convinced of the attack. Even if the attack was real, the ground around the area would be too muddled to use. Sheep tracks, from the last couple days, had probably already obscured any clear signs. However, pacing the edges of the fields he apparently used may provide her with some clues. Such as the muddy depression between two low bushes.

She knelt to look at the minor trail. The close inspection revealed some sign of scaling, rows of them, from the looks of things. Possibly a tail. Probably. The other option was a belly, but the scale pattern in the soil looked young. Assuming a dragon, that was. The Marches were known for many bizarre creatures, and reptilians of various sizes. It could be one of those. Even so, the track was worth investigating. If it wasn’t a dragon, it could be a beast the locals mistook for one, she wasn’t sure how common either animal was in the area. Back home, Shira’d lean toward one of the rare dragons left in the west.

Either way, the half-Elf decided to be more careful. She rose from her crouch, held the spear point to the front, and started into the brush along the minimal trail. Until it rested, the creature had the advantage, a couple hours head start and it could make its own way. She took her time following it. If the villagers were right, it wouldn’t go far. And why should it leave? Flocks of easy prey and abundant water weren’t exactly common in the Marches.

About an hour later, she came to a wide swift stream. The trail ended on the bank. Shira knelt to take a quick drink before continuing. Using her spear for stability, she crossed the tributary with only a few minor slips and no serious bruises. A short time later, she picked up the trail again, heading north toward the wall of mountains around the valley.

Eventually, after climbing well into the peaks surrounding the settled land, she picked up tracks that were fairly recent. Thus encouraged, she increased her pace. The huntress made use of all the skills she’d learned from her uncle to keep from startling her prey. After a couple dozen yards, she froze. There’d been a voice, faint, but definitely male. It was too soft to hear clearly over the breeze, trees and other forest sounds, but she’d sworn she’d heard it. Almost straight ahead too. Her Elven ears perked up at a soft growl. that too sounded distant, but not too far off. There was the voice again. Barely audible, but there. By the cadence, the person was safe. Who, or what . . . it came from the direction the tracks were headed. Maybe the villagers were right and there was an Elf working the dragons.

Keeping low, her spear haft clutched tight in both hands, she crept forward. Unfamiliar as she was with the local flora and terrain, Shira managed to find a good pace. As silently as possible, she snuck toward the sound of the voice. That sound, muted, returned from time to time. She couldn’t make out any words, still, but the tone was clear. She’d heard it before in village after village, mothers talking to babies, soothing them. Usually the sound was answered by coos and other meaningless noises. This was answered by low reptilian growls and rumbles.

Four more trees and she began to make out words.

“Good boy . . . treat . . . good dragon . . .”

Shira paused and listened to the snatches of conversation carried by the wind. As she listened, the huntress realized that the words she heard were a common Marches dialect. She’d been hearing it off and on for days. It was a version of her own native eastern Cities tongue. the accent and tone didn’t sound like an Elf, or like she’d imagined an Elf would sound like. It sounded Human, almost identical to the villagers.

She crept closer, realizing that the man, and dragon, could still be very dangerous. With that thought, she stopped abruptly. For that moment she held still. Shira focused on the feel of the breeze against her. Not the feel, the sensation. More the direction it came from. She’d forgotten to be certain she was downwind. The Human wouldn’t sense her, but the dragon might.

An hour’s worth of heartbeats later, she breathed a sigh of relief and looked up toward the sun. Only a minute or so had passed and the breeze was cutting across her path. She wasn’t downwind, but it was close enough.

Shira started working her was forward again, slowly and carefully. The Human sounded non-threatening, so far as she could tell. She didn’t know enough about dragons to gauge them, though. Despite supported sightings, there hadn’t been a confirmed one in the Cities in her lifetime. At least not in her region. The huntress decided to treat it like a dog, for now, wary enough to think of them as particularly nasty wildcats if necessary. As these thoughts ran through her head, she came to a break in the vegetation. It seemed like a good spot to observe without being seen.

She sat on her haunches and peered through the foliage, hoping to spot the dragon or its mysterious handler. A small tremor ran down her spine as she spotted all three of them not more than six steps into a clearing. Yes, she recounted . . . one man, two dragons . . .

That changed everything.

A lone dragon, with surprise, she figured she could bring down with a careful eye shot. Tricky, but possible. Two, though, well, she couldn’t line up and shoot fast enough, while remaining accurate. Shira silently sighed, the veteran of scores of hunts. There was nothing for it, either admit defeat or . . . try to be a people person for once.

At least the spoor implied that this Human was a loner, could be a help or a hindrance. She gathered up a bit of courage, rose, and stepped baldly into the small clearing, her hands out and to the side.

Reading the man’s shocked eyes, Shira fervently hoped and prayed that she looked non-threatening, despite her gear. Both dragons spun and growled that instant she came out. Sweat beaded on her brow as she fought the instinctual urge to grab her bow or run. Her spear was back in the trees. She could feel a line of sweat running down her back even as the Human recovered a little and called both beasts to heel.

Up close, she noticed little details in that moment. For one thing, he looked younger that she’d thought, maybe thirty years at the most. And his left arm hung limp, broken, she thought. He was . . . “I’m sorry, what was that,” she said, realizing she’d missed something.

“I said . . .who are you? You must be from the village, we don’t get wanderers here,” the Human repeated, “but I know all the villagers, at least all the ones your age or older.” His hand, Shira noticed, was barely restraining the dragons. And her hunter’s eye for detail noted that he bore no weapons either, not ever an eating knife.

“I’m a traveler, passing through,” she said quickly, “but the villagers told me about this Elf haunting their valley with his dragon, terrorizing the place. I decided to see if I could help . . . in return for supplies.” No, she wasn’t going to pretend to be charitable. “I’m guessing you’re the ‘Elf’ and the villagers can’t count,” she added, with what she hoped was a disarming smile, forced as it was.

Despite his attempt to be serious, the man actually broke a smile and even chuckled. The dragons both whimpered, whined, but sat down and stopped growling. “I guess I should be happy you didn’t shoot first,” he said softly, his tone picking up volume to add, “Obviously, I’m no Elf. But, I did pick up enough of their language to tame Oric and Lessial here.”

She ignored the fact that he didn’t say where. “Shira, a hunter,” she said, changing the subject, “Why don’t you go down to the village? They probably would welcome two tame dragons . . . from what I hear bandit and wolf raids are common around here.”

“You’d think so . . ., Aidin, hermit,” he said, “But the Marches, well, most everyone around here looks unkindly on anything related to Elves. Too many centuries of raids out of Darkel, even this far west.”

From his tone, Shira gathered he’d had first hand experience with the raids. “Hermit? Where’s a hermit learn to speak Elf?” she asked.

“My old master, before he died,” Aidin explained, “Learned it from his master so he could read the books . . .” He trailed off and grew silent. Even so, she understood. And now she knew why he hadn’t gone to the village. A shaman . . . especially one taught from Elven books . . . he might’ve stood a chance to make a civilized living in the west. “How long have you been here? The villagers said they’d only had five and ten years of trouble,” she said.

Aidin shrugged, “Master died, a quarter mile north of here, over twenty years ago. I moved here, a short time later. The dragons came a little over ten years back . . . they practically wiped out the forest creatures before I found out and calmed them down. They were fine then, until the village started growing.” He almost instantly sagged then, tired she thought. Somewhat at ease, Shira sat on her haunches, silently inviting him to sit too.

He took the invitation with a grateful look, favouring his limp arm, and sighed. “There were lots of people coming from the east too, I think that’s what drove the dragons,” he said, spewing out words, “There were stories about strange things out east, but that’s nothing new.” Shira sat silent, letting the Human continue. She understood. Days, months, without Human contact and she’d talk like a raging river too. “These sounded familiar though,” Aidin continued, “Like something my master’d said. Trees, forests, that had been silent suddenly haunted. Mysterious, invisible beasts in them. An odd sense of fear from the trees.”

The huntress caught her breath, concern for his arm forgotten. Her eyes widened slightly, she leaned forward.

He caught the look and paused. For long moments, Aidin’s eyes played over her, taking in everything. Then he sighed, “You know of them . . . don’t you? You’re not from the east, so they must be appearing in the west now.”

Shira nodded, “Two, three months ago. My uncle and I were hunting a ‘haunted’ forest, for the locals. The exact same thing, feeling, was there.” But Dhom had been affected more than she had. the huntress was still working out why. So far, she’d decided on time or her Elf blood, not that she’d mention the latter here. She certainly wasn’t suicidal.

The sorcerer wrapped an arm around his knees and looked at his dragons for a while. “I don’t imagine you know what’s out there,” he asked, his tone matching the words.

“Only that the feeling seemed to come from a small group in the middle,” she said, “like they were the spring. I don’t think the beast existed either, I think . . . maybe . . . it felt, like the trees in that grove.” Shira refused to voice all of her thoughts and conclusions just yet. They were too strange to be taken as truth.

“That fits,” he said, closing his eyes, “I’ve listened to dozens of stories, bits and pieces. Following the tracks, I guess. All together, they match up with your’s. Not many made it close enough to the center, though. I’ve only heard . . . guesses, about what the source was.” A note entered his voice, Shira thought he might be impressed. Even this far into the Marches, she doubted half-breeds were common. Maybe along the edge of Darkel, if they weren’t slaughtered as babes, she thought. Still, best not to go down that path.

“So. The dragons came west,” she changed the subject, “and you decided to terrorize the village instead of earning your keep?” She knew that wasn’t true. A few sheep each month wouldn’t feed two dragons, much less a man too.

He immediately shook his head indignantly. “No, I . . . the villagers never saw me,” he explained, “a couple years ago they started leaving out food for the dragons.”

Shira smiled, “I know. But a villager saw someone, maybe you. He thought it was an Elf.”

“That would explain the offerings,” Aidin mused, “I guess it could have been me . . . I don’t think anyone else could get close to the dragons, at least not without me.”

“Unless there’s another sorcerer about?”

She was somewhat gratified to see Aidin surprised. “No, not all of us have the same knowledge,” he said, after recovering. His eyes looked askance at her, though.

The huntress shook her head. “A young man, alone, in this region,” she explained, “and unarmed, what else could you be?”

Aidin actually grinned, “I guess so . . . where do we go now?”

Shira shook her head slowly, “Honestly, I’m not sure. I was paid to drive out an Elf sorcerer and a dragon. I’ve never lost a job yet. You . . . will probably get the same response anywhere in the Marches, or so I’d guess.”

“Probably, and I’ll have to find a new home,” he added, “But I’m in a cave now.”

“And I’ll need proof that the dragon’s gone.”

The sorcerer thought for a while. Shira, finding that she liked the young man, tied to help, but even all the tricks and cons she’d seen in the last few decades weren’t working in this situation. There’d been dozens of fake dragons in the Cities, most of these relied on a lack of reliable witnesses. And all were really poorly done, so far as she could remember. Aidin looked up hopefully after she’d rejected her twelfth idea.

“I might be able . . . if I can find the right herbs and can prepare,” he said with a tentative note in his voice, “I might be able to convince a dragon spirit to appear and be ‘killed’ where the villagers can see it.”

Shira looked askance at him, “Really?”

“It could work,” he continued, getting more excited, “If I can convince the spirit, if I can find one, it could work. I could convince it to only appear for a short time . . . enough to be shot.”

“And a body?”

“It would vanish,” he said, “but they don’t know that dragon corpses don’t vanish.”

“Some might,” she shot back, considering the worst possible case, “but I can make up a reason that this one does . . . like a difference between black bears and grizzlies.”

The young man nodded thoughtfully. “Could work than I’ll move north with the dragons,” he said, “try to find an empty valley we can live in, there should be some, somewhere. This area’s not really covered with towns, yet.”

Shira looked up at the sky and gauged the sun. “It’s getting late. Can you be ready by midday tomorrow? I’ll come into the trees and ‘lure’ the dragon into the open, the fields,” she suggested. That should produce a nice public place, easily seen and good for viewing by the villagers. It’s what a fake showman with a ‘dragon’ might do back home.

“I think I can do that, if I can find two or three more components to appease the spirit,” Aidin agreed, “I’d think there should be one around here, but I don’t want to try forcing it to serve . . . I won’t take that path.”

Even though she didn’t understand, the huntress accepted that this was important and nodded. “Agreed. Midday, then, the villagers will be coming in from the fields. Just be sure you aren’t spotted.”

She rose and left him mulling over his task. Rather than meandering, Shira went straight back to the village, easily acting like a hunter weary from a day’s work. Back among people, she refused all contact except to say the day had yielded no game, though she was hopeful. As the huntress ate and listened to a plethora of local stories, she mused over the best way to play out the next day. If it went off right, she thought, she could leave in good conscience, supplies for a week and without harming an innocent man or his pets. The deal, she mused, after all, had been to solve their problem. If Aidin left the area, that definitely solved the problem.

Satisfied that her honor would still be intact, the half-Elf carefully left the tavern to find her residence for the night. She chose a barn belonging to one of Marik’s neighbors, openly determined to pick up the trail near there in the morning. She still didn’t trust the herdsman, though, so wouldn’t stay with him, and set up some noise makers, rocks on a line, near the only ladder to the loft, to avoid a repeat of the last morning.

By midmorning, Shira’d been in the trees for several hours. She found Aidin and discovered that he’d come up short in his preparations. An hour was lost in the fruitless search for an herb that would help but was apparently out of season. Despite the setback, they decided to proceed. At worst, she’d have to flee the village, which the huntress felt she could manage. Better that than staying another day and accidentally revealing her heritage. If that happened, not only would she not get paid, but would probably be run out of town, if she was lucky. Their decision made, Shira walked the woods for another hour while the sorcerer cast his net for an appropriate spirit.

She ran back toward the village once the hour was up. They’d picked a spot where she’d leave the trees, close to the village. She just hoped Aidin was watching . . . she’d never relied on a partner since Dhom broke down.

Forcibly shoving those memories away, Shira glanced over her shoulder. She spotted a dark shape and began yelling, “Dragon!” over and over until a small crowd gathered in the fields. She kept up the yells until it looked like a large enough group of onlookers, seemed enough that she guessed the dragon looked real.

After a good distance, Shira spun and fluidly dropped to a knee while nocking an arrow. A second later, the wooden dart streaked toward the dragon. As she instantly prepared a second shot, the huntress noted a faint unreality around the edges of the beast. Hopefully the villagers were too far away to notice. By then, she’d shot her second and third arrows, all clattered off the creature’s ‘hide.’ It was, she had to admit, an impressive show so far. The dragon reared up, spouting flame from its lips, just barely missing her as she rolled. A couple more of those and some half-hearted shots and it would be time for the finale. She was a bit surprised to actually feel some of her hair shrivel up form the heat. Not only that, but she’d even broken a sweat in the mock fight.

There, about half a dozen good arrows spent, the villagers had gotten a show, their money’s worth. Shira rolled to one knee out of range of the dragon’s breath. She reached back over her shoulder to draw the showstopper. The ancient heirloom of her family came smoothly from the quiver and practically flew to her bow. She was always amazed by its eagerness, projecting her own emotion onto the length of smooth polished wood. The half-Elf drew back the string to her ear as the world seemed to slow down. The voices of the villagers vanished, the dragon’s cry a dull muted roar, its charge slow and awkward.

She sighted along the arrow’s shaft, inhaled, drew the tip in line with the dragon’s eye.

Releasing her breath, she also released the string.

With an elongated twang, the ancient arrow streaked through the air.

Her eyes tracked the bolt as it flew true. The path pushing air out of the way

The dragon charged toward the shaft, breathed at it . . . to no avail.

Shira smiled as the flameproof arrow struck the beast in the eye, piercing its brain.

An instant later, the best vanished and the bolt dropped to the ground.

She sat, watching, breathing, barely hearing the shouts of joy coming from the villagers. Somehow, amidst a series of half-felt claps of congratulations and thanks, Shira found herself surrounded by mugs in the tavern. Absently, she checked, reassuring herself that all seven arrows, especially her favourite, were back.

The next day, to the congratulations of the village, Shira set off on her way once more, with payment on hand. At the pass out of the valley, the half-Elf turned to look back and salute Aidin, wherever he was. With that, she turned her back on the small valley to continue her travels.

A day later, one of the real dragons was caught and killed at the cost of several village men. Lacking recourse to a lord, a few villagers came together to track their supposed liberator, despite her two day head start.

Huntress 2 (2000)

Dhom was gardening again. His hands and small tools pierced and overturned the dark earth, leaving black tendrils on his arms and clothing. Each turn opened up and reburied the small creatures who led their secret lives underneath, which he had disturbed. Shira sighed and took this in as she came down the road toward the home she shared with her uncle. Over two score springs and she had never seen him care about what grew around their home. But for the last three months since the incident at Brindledown he rarely left the small field before their three room cottage. Tonight they would probably go to the village’s only tavern for dinner, have a couple drinks, and head to sleep just after sunset. Everything as usual, though she had a good day otherwise. Afterall, the huntress managed to find and catch the wolf pack that had been preying on Marshan’s flocks.

When Dhom looked up, Shira waved calmly, trying to keep her concerns for her uncle from showing. He would probably see them anyway, but she could try. Brushing her hair away from her slightly pointed ears and readjusting her quiver, Shira smiled and called out, “Dhom? Good day? Any problems, is Tar’s field doing well? His deer problem hasn’t returned, has it?”

Looking up from his tubers, Dhom shook his head slowly, “No one has come out all day.” He began to gather up his meager tools, “How is Marshan, niece? Are the young ones well?”

Shira unslung her bow and quiver as she drew near Dhom. He knew how their living worked and that she had not actually seen Marshan today. But she nodded anyway. If he wanted to avoid what had happened months ago and everything related to it, she would let him. He was getting rather old afterall, something she had only recently realized.

Leaving much unspoken, as was usual among the pair, both put their respective tools away within the cottage. Shira had a moment of reflection seeing her bow and quiver next to Dhom’’ spades and stakes. There had been a time when he would have set a twin to her tools on the hooks beside the door. A part of the young huntress longed for those lost days very briefly before the rest beat it into submission and hiding. Shaken from her musings, Shira moved to the door and took Dhom’s arm in their new tradition.

Their short walk to the tavern was interspersed with occasional greetings from fellow villagers. A few well wishes and calls of thanks, which Shira accepted readily, though Dhom ignored the latter. And this previously unusual reaction, or lack thereof, merely added to her concern for him.

Taking their usual table, they signaled Haru, the owner, for two meals. While waiting, both leaned back to relax. Dhom lit a pipe, a habit he had picked up in the last month. Shira watched her uncle carefully while letting the growing sounds of fellow villagers entering for evening meals flow over her. There was something a little odd about Dhom this night, she thought. Maybe something about the wrinkles around his eyes or a minor shift in the way he sat.

Once most of the meal was complete and both were picking at the remains, of what neither could recall, Dhom slouched on his bench. Lifting his mug for a sip of Haru’s homebrew, he seemed to consider his niece for a moment, then took another sip as if gathering his thoughts. A moment later he set down the mug and his shoulders heaved as he sighed heavily. Suddenly he blurted, “Yermotherelfranwilderlandsfatherdied.”

Shira’s almond eyes widened notably. This was not the sort of talk she had expected through his preparations. Forcing her face into a mask, she inquired, “What?”

After another deep breath, Dhom repeated slower, “Your mother is an Elf. She, um, ran off east, when your father died. She might have . . . made her way into the Wilderlands, maybe.”

In the silence that followed, Shira recalled moments of the past that she now understood. There was the one, in the nameless village tavern after her first hunt. Dhom had been tired and unsettled. He had said there was something important that needed saying, but kept stalling. In the end, all that came out was, “She was different.” Then there was the last attempt, nearly a year ago while they were out working. Again, all he had said was “She was different,” then they were interrupted by a flock of geese and he led them home. Neither had said anything about it since.

Dhom watched as anger and confusion warred across his niece’s features. He could almost see desire and indifference sitting to the side waiting to see which won. Who the anger was directed at: himself, his missing sister-by-marriage, or both, he could not say. But it was strange to see this battle taking place. Normally she kept as tight a rein on her emotions as he had before Brindledown. But those days were long past for him, hopefully enough remained for the daughter of his brother. Old memories he had thought long forgotten returned unbidden to his mind. Fire and stones, clubs and threshing flails. What he had just said may not have been the whole truth, but it was enough. And maybe it was better for Cioren this way, and Shira. He would have passed three score and ten winters by now if he had still been alive. Dhom’s gaze returned to Shira. From the set of her mouth and look in her eyes, it seemed that anger and confusion had reached a truce. He braced himself for what would come next. She surprised him by remaining remarkably calm. For a few moments her face became flushed and he suspected the worst, but she pushed it back with visible effort.

Finally she spoke in clam measured tones, “So that is what you have been trying to say for the last eleven years? Believe me, Dhom, I can understand why,” she sat back and looked bewildered, “I sort of guessed and its not exactly something you tell people, is it? Not that you’re off the hook for not telling me sooner, uncle.”

Dhom knew then that his niece was seriously upset. But he felt a surge of pride as well. Rather than lashing out emotionally, she had slipped into formality. Almost exactly what he had taught her from his days of dealing with officers and petty nobles. Sure, she was upset, but she had taken his lessons to heart. At that thought, Dhom tried to decide if her father would be as proud. He became so wrapped up in trying to figure out what his older brother would say that he missed what Shira had said.

Wincing as he did, he asked, “Excuse me, what was that last part?”

The ex-hunter’s belief that he had said the wrong thing was confirmed when Shira tossed him a fleeting glare. “I said that I am going to leave for a while. Maybe a couple months, maybe a few years. I was thinking about this anyway, but the moment seems best. By dawn tomorrow I will head out on the road.”

When he started to say something, she raised a hand, “Sorry, uncle. No arguments. I am firmly set on doing this. I need to find out why.” Whether the last meant why she had been left behind or why her mother had left, she left unsaid and Dhom never found out. Perhaps she was not certain what the answer would be.

Dhom gave her a thin smile, “I know, Shira, niece. I wish it could be otherwise, but I understand. Cioren would do the same. You have his stubbornness and curiosity. Take what you need from the house. I can always get more. And may the gods, especially Varphi and Majearl, watch over you.”

Huntress 1 (2000)

(Originally published in Kinships issue 2, 2001)

Shira Lightfoot sat on the balls of her feet on a slight rise of the plain. The late red light of the sun on her left hid much of the detail of her face and body under shades of red and black shadow. A group of children from Brindledown who had gathered to watch her, drifted off in boredom, then regathered, stared at Shira’s bow, which lay across her thighs. She had driven the steel capped butt of her spear into the ground. This was also a source of interest for them. The children whispered to each other excitedly, speculating on the fate of her companion.

For her part, Shira ignored the children as she was lost in her own thoughts and staring at the small forest, no more that a day’s hike along either axis, opposite her. Dhom had entered the wood when the sun was at its zenith. After hearing the villagers’ stories he had decided that the ‘ghosts’ were likely just a pack of territorial wolves. Bandits could have been an option, but neither Dhom nor his niece could see why. There were no big trade roads for days around the area. The nearest town was three days to the west. Besides, she thought, the villagers would have seen any outlaws as they came to steal or buy food and other necessities.

Wolves were pretty standard fare in the line of work she and her uncle did. But Dhom must have sensed there could be more to the village legend. Haraha, the village elder, had told them that there were stands of trees like this one all over this part of the world. He had said that many were even larger than this one. Haraha then explained that no one entered these woods anymore. They claimed that the ghosts and ruins of a civilization that had died long before the League of Carthe and the independent city-states had begun expanding east. It was said that those who entered the wood by day and did not return by the evening meal were as good as lost forever.

Dhom, who usually kept her close to continue teaching her their trade, had told her, “Shira, I agree it is probably wolves. Just in case, give me until morning. If I’m not back, find out what you can. You can decide what to do from there.” Then he had clasped her forearm and she his. Their eyes met, doing with a look what other families would do with hugs and kissed foreheads or cheeks. The two hunters had not done that for years. They felt there was an image of professionality they had to maintain.

When the sun finally sank below the horizon, Shira shivered and relaced her leather vest against the swift chill of night. She slung her bow, wrenched her boar spear out of the ground, and walked slowly back to Brindledown. Dhom was not back, but Shira felt that he was still alive out there. Uncle and niece had grown so close since her father had died and her Elven mother had left that they just—knew—such things. Even so, a shiver of doubt worked its way up her spine.

Shira did her best to sleep, after all she would need all her energy to find Dhom. Instead she tossed and turned restlessly and Sleep refused to visit her. As the moon began its slow descent toward the west the huntress gave up. She rose, rehung her dagger at her belt, shrugged into her vest and cloak and walked out into the village. Aimlessly Shira drifted through the night around the clustered homes of Brindledown. Her own village was off to the northwest and Darrow, the town that spawned and helped sustain the villages, was further west. A small place deep inside Shira wished to be back in Atwater in the small two room home she shared with her uncle. She smiled at the memory of the two of them sitting in front of the fire telling each other stories or playing drukish, a betting game Dhom had learned in the city-state of Archin when he had served in the army long ago.

Lost in her thoughts, Shira did not see or hear the figure that walked toward her until it was almost on top of her. Sheer instinct made her leap back and she had drawn her blade before she was even sure what was happening. The flash of moonlight on her polished steel stopped the figure’s advance. In a harsh dry voice it croaked, “Shira?”

Her knife disappeared and Shira slipped under his arm with a muffled cry, “Dhom! Are you all right? What was in there?” Then she noticed something else, “What happened to your bow and spear?”

Dhom only shook his head and groaned, “Doesn’t matter. Must leave. Must go now. Must leave.”

Shira’s mind raced. She had never seen her uncle like this before. Something was wrong. “Sure, Dhom. In the morning. Did you get what was out there? What was it?”

Her uncle only murmured, “Must leave. Must go now.”

The half-Elven huntress helped her uncle to the room they had been sharing. It was really the home of one of the men who had disappeared recently, but Shira refused to think of that because it was a bad omen. She got Dhom to lie down and sat over him for the rest of the night. All of her senses screamed that something completely unnatural was going on in Brindledown, but there was nothing she could do yet. Shira kept herself from hitting something only so as not to disturb Dhom’s much needed sleep. An hour before dawn began to climb over the horizon Shira’s consciousness finally slipped away and her chin drooped to her chest.

Falling into sleep, Shira began to dream. In her dream she was back in her youth. Her father, Prol, was out in the field. Tyrie, her mother was out back tending to the garden. And Shira’s older sister Kryse was keeping track of Shira and her other younger siblings. Then Darkel Forest opened up and screaming creatures spewed forth from it. Shira shuddered and woke with a start just as her parents dying cries began to reach her ears. Looking out the window of the small hut she saw the first tendrils of dawn creeping over the horizon. She tugged her rough wool blanket tighter around her shoulders. A small tear wound its lonely way down her cheek.

When dawn came in full a short time later it found Shira composed and studying her uncle’s recumbent form. After a few moments she rose with a sigh and walked to the door of the small home. Dhom’s injuries had been minor scratches and bruises, not the sort of wounds Shira expected from wolves or other predators. She stared out the door toward the small forest. There was something out there that had managed to scare Dhom although it apparently could not seriously harm him. After all the problems and creatures that she and Dhom had dealt with for the local villages, Shira had never seen him act in anyway except calm and collected. His current state reeked of sorcery.

Shira turned to reenter the hovel and came face to face with her uncle. He was staring at the wood as well, seeming oblivious to her presence. She paused and took in his features. There was more grey at his temples than she remembered and more wrinkles around his eyes and mouth.

He was getting old.

Shira shook away the thought and placed her hand gently on her uncle’s shoulder. She felt the still firm muscles underneath his shirt and was reassured. Dhom came to with a start, “I believe the villagers. Nothing we can do, Shira. We should leave now.”

His niece, whom he had raised as a daughter, could not believe her ears. Gently, but firmly, she slid past him and said, “No, Dhom. We have accepted payment and given our word. We cannot go back on our word. You taught me that.” She rummaged in Dhom’s pack and withdrew an ornate wooden box.

Sitting on one bed, Shira opened the box to reveal their one treasure. Inside, protected by a velvet lining, lay a single arrow. The shaft was smooth dark maple terminating in a bronze head. The tool had been in the Lightfoot family for generations. It was said that four hairs of a unicorn’s mane were embedded in the shaft and that the fletching was phoenix feathers. Her grandfather had said the arrow was unbreakable and fully immune to the effects of fire. Shira had her doubts, but she had to admit that it was beautiful and that she had never seen it fail, even against the most powerful sorcerers and unnatural beasts that had come into the area. Which, admittedly, was not saying much.

Dhom came back in and saw what she was doing. He closed the box. “We’re leaving for home, Shira.” His tone of voice negated discussion or argument.

With her confusion shifting to unbridled anger, Shira jumped up, “No! You can leave if you want, but I will stay!” She threw open the box, snatched her bow and the family arrow, and swept out of the house before Dhom fully realized what had happened or moved.

Shira heard her uncle following after her through the tiny village. She felt him stop by the last building and stare after her. But she refused to turn back and look. It would probably be more than she could bear. Seeing her uncle afraid of whatever was out there was just too close to the loss of her parents for Shira to deal with right now. Besides, she thought, there was still Dhom’s gear in the woods. She should at least recover any bit of that which might be useful or salvageable.

Staring straight ahead with single-minded purpose, Shira headed for the small forest.

She drove her spear point first into the ground a few strides from the wood. It would be added weight and cumbersome among the dense trees, unless she met bears or boars, she knew. Shira continued forward with her bow ready and an arrow set to fly.

As the huntress approached the low underbrush along the forest’s edge she began to feel the eeriness the local villagers had spoken of. It was a nagging, back of the mind thing, like someone coming up and poking her lightly in the arm repeatedly. Shira brushed the feeling off as little more than the effect of the villagers’ fear on her thoughts. She pressed on into the wood searching the ground and branches for signs of any creature, natural or otherwise. All she could detect were the usual small rodents and birds, and the path of broken twigs and leaves that must have been Dhom’s escape route.

Moving deeper into the forest, Shira slowly realized that the formerly nagging feeling of eeriness was steadily growing. The deeper she went into the wood the stronger the mental poking became. A few hundred steps further and Shira felt the first bit of doubt worrying at her mind.

Perhaps Dhom had been right, she thought, perhaps we should have left.

The huntress shook off the feeling with difficulty. She had to find out what was in the wood. Her duty to the villagers demanded it, as did her stronger duty to her uncle. Shira pressed on, following minuscule spoor that her uncle had left on his way in. She broke out in a light sweat that had nothing to do with the heat.

A short time later, when Shira paused for a swallow of tepid water, she felt the urge to flee pressing down upon her mind, almost as a physical weight. For a score of heartbeats she was tempted to throw down the skin and run back to her uncle. At the thought of Dhom, Shira’s resolve strengthened. She capped and stowed the skin of water. The huntress felt in her bones that she must be getting close to the prey Dhom had found.

There, she heard it. A large rustling in the brush near a stand of birch off to her left.

Shira dropped behind a log as the sound came again.

From the noise she guessed it was larger than a bear. When the sound came again Shira paused and considered.

Maybe twice the size of the largest grizzly she had ever seen. But it was all wrong. Something that big should be visible through the sparse vegetation.

She studied the trees carefully, looking for any sign of the beast while remaining under cover. Shira noted that the trees she had first assumed to be birches seemed too flexible in the light breeze. Then there were the wide, flat, fork-like leaves, unlike any she had seen before. And some had bright orange flowers on their younger branches.

The noise of the beast came again, bringing Shira back to her task. There was something odd about the sound this time though. This time it was accompanied by a feeling of fear in her mind.

Slowly, before she ran, Shira came to realize that the sense of fear and apprehension did not come from within her. It came from somewhere else.

The beast? Could it see or sense her? If so, why could she not see it?

The feeling of apprehension came to her again, this time with an image before her eyes. Shira found she could not describe what she was seeing in her head. It was a mix of swirling colors, a sense of small animals, perhaps even a clear grove on a breezy spring day, but that was the best she felt she could do. All she knew for sure was that it was a very peaceful image.

Then the animal noises stopped. Hope and fear mingled and flooded the huntress’ mind along with another image, one of the trees in the nearby grove. Shira shook her head once quickly. She was familiar enough with illusions, from her previous experiences, to realize that was what the beast must have been. But she was not yet ready to accept what the images seemed to be trying to tell her.

Thinking reasoning plant-life was impossible beyond the instincts she had seen in some carnivorous ones. At least, so she thought.

Tentatively, Shira tried to exude good feelings. She tried to transmit her excitement and wariness. She set down her bow and concentrated her entire being on remaining calm and focusing on peaceful, harmless thoughts.

She was rewarded with the scent of a spring breeze and a feeling of almost rapturous ease radiating from the grove.

The huntress shook off the reverie with a start. This was crazy, she thought. Not to mention impossible.

Shira grabbed her bow and set off at a jog back toward Brindledown. There she would get Dhom, if he had remained, and leave. The villagers’ money would be repaid. And she would never speak of this event to anyone ever again. Shira knew that anyone would consider her story ludicrous. And they would be right, she reminded herself as she left the forest.