Some of the content of these pages has been changed during the final edit and will be different to the published book.
Sah Lee was now twelve, just old enough for her first real hunt. Tef Dor, the hunt leader, led the pack forwards in the dusk, through the thick clumps of sharp-bladed grass. The dry sandy soil beneath their bare feet was still warm from the blazing midday sun. The cool dry breeze brought the musky scent of their prey toward them. Sah Lee edged forward through the pack with an impetuousness that had often got her into trouble as a cub. “Get back!” hissed Sah Lek, her mother’s sister, but Sah Lee pretended not to hear her.
The pack slowed as they approached their prey. They needed to get as close as possible before the Imaya they were hunting noticed them. Sah Lee dropped to a crouch as they inched their way forward. The scent of the prey was now heavy in the air, bringing back her earliest memory of her mother, Sah Krin, returning with a fresh kill to their village.
Just a few meters away the Imaya stood grazing, with a calf at its side. They were lucky to have found them separated from the herd. The pack paused, then, as one, they exploded forward and pounced. The Imaya cow and her calf went down immediately, not standing a chance of escape from the tearing and slashing of teeth and claws.
Sah Lee was the first of the youngsters to reach the calf. She sank her pin-sharp teeth through the thick fur of the calf’s throat and tasted the sweet metallic tang of its young blood. The calf fell, its lifeblood pumping through the great gash that Sah Lee had torn through its neck.
The prey were dead. The pack lifted the two carcasses aboard sledges. Eager hands grasped the poles to drag the sleds back while Sah Lee danced at the front to crow about her part in bringing down the calf. They would soon be back at the settlement and eating fresh meat; no need to chew on roots to keep away the hunger pangs tonight.
The sun had left the sky now, but the light of the moons was enough for them to see their way. The rings of icy particles they called the Necklet that circled their planet were sparkling high above as the sun shone on them from below the horizon.
This was a joyous day for Sah Lee. Her first kill on her first hunt. The taste of the calf’s blood was still on her lips; the blood covered her from chin to feet. These memories would stay with her for the rest of her life.
It was fully dark when they arrived back in the village. By the light of the dim lamps that lit the open area in the center of the village, the carcasses were quickly skinned, and the hides stretched across frames ready for scraping and salting before being made into leather.
The fire in the shallow pit in the middle of the village was already burning, casting a flickering light across the gathered villagers. The children helped the adults butcher the carcasses into joints ready for the night’s feast. As Sah Lee was now a fully blooded hunter, they excused her from the preparation work and she sat with the other hunters, swapping exaggerated stories of their part in the hunt.
When the fresh meat was laid out on tables, the four youngsters on the hunt were each given a quarter of the calf’s heart to mark their participation in their first successful hunt and proudly ate their share with the still warm blood dripping down their chins. The elders presented the cow’s heart to Tef Dor to mark the honor of leading another successful hunt. Then, the whole village took their turn cutting lumps of flesh from the joints laid out and sat around the fire to eat them. The elders collected slices of liver and portions of the best parts of the Imaya cow and took them to the enclosure where the males were kept. Sah Lee didn’t know why they bothered to feed the males. They did nothing useful for the village, but whenever she questioned why they were given precious meat from the hunts, her mother and aunt dismissed her complaints, saying that the males were ‘necessary’ but never explaining why.
At the end of the feast, they packed away the remaining meat. In times past the remains would have been wrapped in leaves and buried at the base of rocks in the shade, but now they stored the meat in plastic boxes in the community refrigerator. They wouldn’t eat this raw, but they would cook it over the communal fire and eat it with leaves, fruits and tubers.
Sah Lee laid back with her belly full of meat and looked up at the sparkling rings that shone in the clear night sky.
She knew she wouldn’t have many more feast nights like this. She would soon make the long walk to the station and take the train to the city. In just two years she would leave her home and family to spend the next six years at the University in Aa Ellet, which meant Sun City, where she would learn about the technology that underpinned the economy of Aarn. She knew that more than half of those that went to the University chose to stay in the city and feared that she may make that same decision to abandon the traditional plains hunting life of the Aarnth, and part with her mother, sister and aunt forever.
Now fourteen, Sah Lee had reached the age to leave the village for university. She was the only one from her village going this year. Her three closest friends were all older than her and had left last year.
Ten days before she was due to start the long walk to the station, where she would board the train for the city, her mother, Sah Krin, took her for long walks, each day visiting one of her favorite places on the surrounding plains. She took her to the water holes she had splashed and played in when she was a child; where she had swum on the hot summer days when the sun beat down from the cobalt blue sky and when the air was still, the sound of chirring insects came from nowhere and everywhere. To the small stands of trees where she had climbed with her friends and made small shelters from the withered branches that had fallen on the ground. To the rocky plateaus where they had taken food and drink, with her aunt, Sah Lek, and sometimes with her friends, and where they often stayed in the warm evenings until it was almost dark. She took her to all the other places which held special memories for Sah Lee when she was growing up.
While they walked, they talked. Sah Lee asked her mother: “What is the university? You’ve always told me it’s where I’ll go when I am fourteen to learn things, but what is it? A village? A camp?”
Sah Krin smiled at her. “The University is in the city of Aa Ellet. It takes up a lot of the city and is many buildings made of stone. Each of the buildings has many rooms. The rooms are stacked one on top of the other, two or three high and connected by stairs. Look,” she said pointing to an old outcrop where the stone was weathered and broken, “see how those rocks are piled up so you can walk up them, a step at a time? The stairs in the buildings are like that.”
Sah Lee stopped to look at the pile of broken rocks and tried to imagine what it would look like. Rooms like their tent, but made of stone, all put together and piled up on top of each other, with broken slabs of rough rock that had to be climbed to reach the rooms piled up on the top. She shook her head, half wondering if her mother was teasing her, but she looked serious as she spoke. She decided not to question her mother any more on this, and instead asked, “What will I learn there? I know a lot about hunting already. I know how to find my way in the day by the position of the sun and the length of shadows, and at night by the Necklet and the position of the stars. I can find water by its scent and I know what plants are poisonous and which can be used to heal. I know I don’t know everything yet, but how can it take six years to learn everything else?”
“You have much to learn Sah Lee. For instance, do you know where we live?”
“Of course I do! We live in the village!”
Sah Krin laughed. “Yes, we do. But do you know where the village is? Do you know what lies beyond the plains? What happens if you keep walking north or south? Do you know of the sea and ships? Do you know of the other people of Aarn, who do not live on the plains? Do you know where the knives and plastics that we trade for skins come from?”
“No, but that’s not important, is it?”
Sah Krin laughed again. “All knowledge is important Sah Lee. It may not be useful today, but only the Makers know what will happen in the future. We live simple lives now. We didn’t always. Thousands of years ago, we chose the life we live now, to abandon all but the most basic technology, and to keep the males separate. We gave up all technology then and lived the life as our ancient ancestors did. We are changing again now. Only a little, and slowly, but we are rediscovering our technology, being careful to not let it change our lives, but just to make it a little better. Now we are on this path, we do not know where it may lead.”
“That sounds boring. I don’t care about that. But, where is the village? Isn’t it on the plains?”
“Of course it is, but the plains aren’t the entire world. Our world is called Aarn, daughter of Aa, the sun. You have heard the histories, told by the Elders when we sit around the village fire, in the evenings. The histories speak of The Four Makers, who made Aa, the sun, and gave her the gift of life. They made Maaren, the small innermost planet, and made it the home of the demons, who they imprisoned there. They placed it close to Aa, so she could guard it. Maaren is so hot that the rocks melt. Then they made beautiful Aarn, Daughter of The Sun. They were so pleased with the beauty of what they had made that they gave Aarn a shiny necklet, a ring of ice that circles the world to show they loved her. They then each made another, lesser planet, Tair, Fairn, Lar and Mehen, to keep Aarn company in the vastness of the void. Aa looked upon Aarn, and so loved her daughter that she blessed her with the gift of all the living things in our world. The Aarnth then, were primitive hunting animals, not much better than vulpen, but Aa saw the Aarnth and made us stand upright on two legs. She gave us the gift of speech and intelligence. We loved Aa for what she had given us, and we always will. The Makers saw that Aa had made us, then they each made a moon, to watch over us and protect us.
The Makers looked at what they had made, and it was perfect. They filled the void with lesser suns to worship Aa, to twinkle in the darkness and act as beacons to guide the Aarnth in the darkness of night, and having finished, The Makers left, never to return.”
“I hadn’t realized the histories were about us, I thought they were just stories.”
“It doesn’t finish with the histories, Sah Lee, there is so much more. Aarn is a huge globe, mostly sea, but with vast areas of land. We live on Por Dars Erntoran, the great central continent, which is the biggest of all the lands of Aarn. All the people who live on Por Dars Erntoran are of the Sek Farn, the One Tribe. This is where the Aarnth came from, where we were changed from being animals to being what we are now.”
“Are we the only people on Aarn?” Sah Lee asked.
“No, we live in the middle of the northern plains. If you were to walk east or west for two hundred days, you would reach the ocean, which is like a huge water hole and seems to go on forever, but you can travel across it on a ship, like the little boats you played with on the water holes, but much, much bigger. The ship would take you to other lands where other Aarnth live who aren’t of the Sek Farn, they belong to other tribes.”
“Are the other tribes our friends?” Sah Lee asked.
“Yes, of course.” Sah Krin smiled. “They are our sisters, we trade with them. The university is only two days travel from a port, which is where ships go to meet and to trade. You will visit there when you are at university, and you may get to travel in a ship.”
Sah Lee was intrigued by this. All she had ever known were the plains, and she loved them. She didn’t want to leave them. Yet, to travel on the sea, to be surrounded by so much water that she would never need to be thirsty…
“You said about traveling north or south. What happens if you keep walking north or south? Do you come to the sea again?”
“No, it is very different. As you travel north, if you go far enough, the air will grow cooler, the grasses become softer and grow thickly. If you keep walking, you will come to where huge trees grow in great forests, which stretch further than the eye can see. The forests are so big it takes tens of days to walk from one side to the other. Dangerous and mysterious animals live there. If you keep on going north through the forest, the air grows so cold that you can see your breath, and water becomes hard, like stone.”
“Are you teasing me, or is it really like that?”
“It really is like that Sah Lee. You will visit the forest when you are at university, but you won’t go to the cold lands. It is dangerous there, the cold kills people. Those lands aren’t meant for the Aarnth.”
“What happens if you travel south?”
“If you travel south a long way, many days walk, it becomes hotter and drier. Eventually it becomes so hot and dry that nothing grows there. The soil is dust, which sometimes blows around in great swirling clouds that blot out the sun and smother everything. But if you are properly prepared, and lucky, and keep on traveling south, you will come to the end of the dry lands and reach plains again. And if you keep going even further south, the air will grow cooler and you will reach soft grasslands and great forests, just as you would if you traveled north.”
“Does anyone live on the plains in the south?”
“There were a few who did when I was at university, but I don’t know if there still are. The university keeps an outpost on the southern plains, near the sea. If you stay near the sea as you travel through the dry lands, it is a bit cooler, not quite so dangerous.”
“Are they all the Sek Farn?”
Her mother smiled, “Everyone who lives on the continent of Por Dars Erntoran is of the Sek Farn, we are all one people.
“And does anyone live in the soft grasslands and the great forests?”
“Just a few. The Aarnth are plains people, we are hunters of the Imaya that roam in huge herds across the plains, the graceful farun that live solitary lives among the rocks and grasses, and the great dangerous massoons that lumber across the plains in small family groups from one waterhole to the next. We don’t scramble around the roots of grasses for the small mammals, lizards and snakes that live there, and we don’t climb trees looking for bird nests, nuts and fruit. The Aarnth don’t belong there, but there are some who want to live there. You will learn all this at university Sah Lee, in more detail than I can remember. You can ask your questions there. The tutors like students who ask questions. You are not just quick of foot and hand, you are quick of mind too. You will enjoy university, I hope not so much that you won’t want to return home.”
Sah Lee walked on in silence, deep in thought. All she had learnt during her childhood until now had been how to hunt and survive on the plains, how to read and write, to count and basic arithmetic, and some of the histories the Elders told when they gathered around the village fire in the evenings. She had thought that she knew almost all there was to know, all she needed to know for life on Aarn. Now, it seemed that she knew little of the world outside her village, outside life on the plains.
She knew that university made people different. Those that came back seemed to have had the joy sucked out of them. They were no longer playful and mischievous but serious and concerned. No longer wanting to run across the plain for the sheer joy of it, or to play in the water and mud in the swamps, or to climb trees and play hide and seek in the glades around the waterholes. They hunted, but seemed like they did it just to get food, not for the sheer joy of the hunt.
This troubled Sah Lee. She loved the carefree life in the village with her family and friends and the excitement of the hunt. She also knew that she did not have a choice. This was the way of the Sek Farn. Only the unfortunate ones remained at home beyond their fourteenth birthday, those that stayed like babies, however old they grew. And the males, of course, they never left their compound.
The day came to leave. Sah Krin told Sah Lee that like her elder sister, Sah Elt, she must take the first steps to adulthood and independence alone. She prepared to leave, wearing soft leather breeches that came just below her knees and a tunic of the same soft, fine farun skin, which her mother had lovingly sewn. Sah Lee felt the same empty, sick feeling in her stomach that she had felt when she made her first farun kill.
Half a year before, Tef Dor, the hunt leader, had taken her out in the late afternoon, to find and stalk the shy and elusive farun. After several hours prowling through the dry, rocky areas preferred by the farun, they spotted their prey. They quietly and patiently stalked it as it moved amongst the rocks, grazing on the tough grasses that grew there. She had been so intent on the hunt that all she had thought about was finding their prey and bringing her trophy home. She was an experienced Imaya hunter now and the thought of the kill hadn’t crossed her mind. But now, as she crouched ready to spring, she saw the fragile beauty of the slender farun. At the last moment, as she was about to leap, the farun sensed the hunters and turned to look at them. Sah Lee stared into the farun’s large, fear-filled, black eyes. She froze for a moment, unwilling to quench the spark of life in this graceful creature, but remembered that she was above all else, a hunter. A killer of prey, pitiless and remorseless. Swallowing her hesitation, she leapt onto the farun’s back, threw it down and tore out its throat with her long, sharp cat-like cuspid teeth. Blood spurted from the torn arteries and sprayed her face. Tef Dor ran over and pulled her up, grinning and congratulating her on her first farun kill, not noticing the tears that ran down Sah Lee’s face, mingling with the farun’s life blood.
Sah Lee knew that she had to do the same thing now as she had when she made the kill. She had to push down her feelings, hide her fear, her overwhelming desire to stay. To not show emotion, to do what had to be done, quietly and with dignity. She picked up the bag, made of the same leather as her clothing, that contained dried meat and water for her journey. It was all the luggage she needed. The University would provide everything else -.
She stepped out of their dwelling and squinted in the bright midday sun. The entire village had gathered to see her off. Her mother Sah Krin, her aunt Sah Lek and the hunt leader Tef Dor stood at the front of the small crowd. Sah Lee hugged her mother and her aunt, who both had tears in her eyes. It surprised her to see that Tef Dor’s eyes also glistened with unshed tears. She moved on to hug the four elders, knowing that they would probably all have died before she finished at University. She looked back to her mother and ran the few steps back to her to give her a brief silent hug and turned to stride out through the crowd which parted for her, head up and shoulders back with her jaw clenched to try to stop her lips from quivering and blinking furiously to keep back the tears.
As soon as she was clear of the village, she broke into the long loping run that the hunting pack used when tracking Imaya herds. She knew that she could keep this up for hours and that the concentration needed to avoid tripping or stepping into holes would stop her from thinking about the home she was leaving, possibly forever. When she finally stopped, exhausted in the gathering gloom of the evening, she found a sheltered spot among rocks where she could spend the night. She curled up to keep warm and with deep sobs racking her body, cried herself to sleep.
Sah Lee awoke in the pre-dawn twilight and looked around. All was still, even the insects and small mammals sheltered from the chill of the air that came as night ended. She was cold, hungry and thirsty and quickly ate the last of the dried meat and finished her water. She would keep the bag. It was new and might be useful in the future. There would be food and water and people to greet her at the station, and she would soon warm up if she ran for a while.
Even after eating, she still had an emptiness inside her. She doubted that she would see her family or village again and tears pricked her eyes. Sah Lee took a deep shuddering breath and decided not to think of them again. She may have the body of a child, but now she must have the mind of an adult. A hunter. Be self-contained. She no longer had a family, home or friends. She would to be a stranger in a strange land. She knew this; she knew what she must become. But knowing it was not the same as being it. The feeling of loss almost overwhelmed her, and a tear ran down her cheek. She started walking and as the light grew broke into a run. She soon fully focused her mind on keeping her feet in the rough terrain and her body was warmed before the sun crept over the horizon.
The train was due at the station at just after mid-day. Sah Lee arrived early, having run most of the way, with half the morning to wait. The ‘station’ was just a platform of raised soil with the stones removed. Weeds poked through and rainwater had cut shallow channels in it. A wooden shelter stood on one side of the platform, bleached pale gray by the hot plains sun. It needed repair but was mostly intact. It surprised Sah Lee that it hadn’t been taken for firewood, trees weren’t common on the plains. The station was deserted, which was disappointing to Sah Lee as she was thirsty and there was no water hole close by. She realized that the people meeting her must come in on the same train that she was getting on. There was nowhere for them to stay overnight here and no reason for them to expect her to arrive so early.
She wished she had brought a short leather wrap to wear so that she could hunt in it. The clothes she was wearing weren’t practical for hunting, and anyway, they would get dirty, bloody and probably torn too. She sat in the shelter and waited until the sun had moved another tenth of the way across the sky, by which time she was hungry as well as thirsty If she caught something she would have something to eat and could slake her thirst with its blood. She quickly stripped off her breeches and tunic, leaving them with her bag and ran naked into the grass near the station.
After only a few paces she picked up the scent of a ranual, a small mammal about half a pace long that lived in burrows in the sandy soil of the plains. Laying on her belly, she crept towards the scent and saw an adult ranual gnawing at the roots of a clump of plains grass. Silently she gathered herself up ready to spring and leapt onto her target. She swept the ranual up in her hands and bit through the back of its neck, severing its spine and killing it instantly.
She had no knife to butcher it with but her sharp claws sliced its pelt open and while it was still hot with life, its skin pulled off easily. Sah Lee bit through its neck and greedily sucked its blood to quench her thirst, then ran back to the shelter with it. She took a handful of grass with her and spread it on the ground next to her bag and dropped the skinned body of the ranual on to it to keep it out of the dirt. She ran back into the grassland and picked up a handful of the sandy soil to rub into her skin to clean the blood off, then wiped herself down with handfuls of grass to remove the sand that had stuck to her.
Back in the shelter, she pulled her breeches and tunic back on and sat leaning against the wall, enjoying the taste of the fresh meat. Having sated her appetite, she took the remains of the ranual a few paces into the grassland and buried it.
When she returned, Sah Lee leaned back and dozed in the warmth of the morning sun.
The distant sound of heavy panting from a great beast woke her. Startled by the noise, she leapt to her feet. She had never seen a massoon, but she knew they were big and dangerous, but then realized that this must be the sound of the train that her mother had described to her. She stood with her empty bag in her hand and looked westward down the line. In the distance she saw the sleek black shape of the train coming towards her, making a chuffing noise that she had mistaken for a massoon’s heavy breath. She watched it approach, slowing as it got closer to her, eventually drawing to a halt. Nobody got out of the train to greet her. Uncertain what to do, she stepped up to a door on the middle of the three carriages and entered. As soon as she closed the door behind her, the driver started the train again with a blast of steam from the engine.
She looked around the carriage and saw that the only other people in it were a group of what looked like traders. They stared at her as she got on, then turned away and ignored her. She had met traders at the village when they made their infrequent visits. The villagers and traders held each other in mutual contempt. The villagers were pleased when the traders arrived, so they could exchange cured skins for knives, pins, thread, metal cooking utensils and plastic food storage boxes, but were even more pleased when they left.
Metal, wood and plastics were scarce commodities in the plains. Plastics were so rare that they hardly saw them. The amount of all three which surrounded her amazed Sah Lee. The entire train was made of either wood, metal or plastic, but when she thought about it, what else could you make it from?
With no one to greet her and give her food or water, or to guide her, it worried Sah Lee that she would not know what to do or where to go. And she was even more thirsty now than she had been before. Drinking the ranual’s blood may not have been such a good idea after all.
After about two hours, she was beginning to notice the effects of dehydration. She was feeling nauseous and had a growing headache. She realized she had to ask the traders for a drink. She got up and walked over to the traders, and quietly asked if they could spare her a drink, not really expecting them to do anything but rebuff her, but she had to try.
“You’re a villager.” the oldest looking trader said.
“Yes, I’m on my way to University.” Sah Lee replied.
“Thought as much.” the trader said. “You don’t mind sharing our water?”
“No, not at all. I mean, I would be most grateful for a sip.”
“So, you’re on your way to be civilized. You’d better come and join us you little savage. You can share our food and drink and start to learn how civilized people behave. Sit down.”
Sah Lee sat as instructed. She looked at the traders, all older women. She was not fully grown but was a strong and a skilled hunter. She was in no doubt that if she needed to, she would easily be able to escape the clutches of the traders. She would be careful not to drink from a container that one of them hadn’t drunk from or to eat anything that they hadn’t already tried.
The older of the traders introduced herself as Traf Dek. She held Sah Lee’s gaze while pulling a leather water canteen out of her bag and taking a drink from it. She passed the canteen to Sah Lee, saying: “Drink your fill. We always carry plenty of water on the plains.”
Sah Lee took a cautious sip from the canteen. It tasted slightly stale and bitter from the tannin in the leather, like the water from the well in the village that they took with them on their hunts. Not like the muddy taste from the water holes that they refilled their canteens with when away from the village. Satisfied that it was safe to drink, she took a deep draft from it and passed it back to Traf Dek.
“Keep it. A gift from me. You may find it useful in the future. Tell me your name.”
“Thank you, my name is Sah Lee. What do you require as a trade for the canteen?”
“A gift is a gift. It does not need a trade, but tell me about yourself.”
This puzzled Sah Lee. Traders never gave anything away. They always drove a hard bargain when negotiating for the wares that they brought to the village.
“My mother is Sah Krin, my sister Sah Elt is at the University. She went two years ago, I hope I will see her when I get there. I am a hunter, one of the best in the village.” She looked down at her lap. “I don’t want to go to the University.”
“It is hard for a young plains dweller to leave everything behind and go to the University. Most of those we meet are unmannered, hard and arrogant. You must be a good judge of character to be a successful trader, and I can tell that you are different. If I am right, we can be friends, and I can help you make your way in Aa Ellet.”
“But you are a trader. You don’t like us villagers. Why would you want to be my friend?” Sah Lee said, suspicious of this offer of friendship and help from a stranger.
Traf Dek smiled. “We don’t dislike you plains people. Though we don’t really like you either. The truth is, we are jealous of you. The plains people don’t like us traders because they think that we are of the city, that we steal their children away from them for six years at least, and many of their children choose to stay in Aa Ellet and never see their families again. There are many of the Sek Farn who are born in Aa Ellet, but they never leave. We traders were all once plains people, villagers, like you. When we finished our six years at the University, we found that we couldn’t go back to our villages, either because our family had all died, or the village had been abandoned or sometimes because we were not welcome, our village thought we were tainted. Those villages never lasted long anyway, all the young people left at fourteen so those remaining got older and eventually all died or moved away. We couldn’t live by ourselves on the plains, so we came back to Aa Ellet and became traders so that we could at least get to see the plains again, even if we couldn’t live there.”
“That must be awful for you!” Sah Lee blurted out. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean be rude.”
“You weren’t being rude.” Traf Dek smiled at her. “I’m beginning to warm to you. We’ve got a long journey ahead of us before we reach Aa Ellet. Between us, we’ll tell you about the University and life in the city. If there’s no one to meet you when we get to the city, I’ll take you to the University.”
By the time they reached the city, Sah Lee had made good friends with the traders, particularly with Traf Dek, and had learnt many strange things about it from them. She learned that males sometimes mixed with the females and were treated as equals. There was no hunting, but fights among the city dwellers often broke out, leading to injury and sometimes death. That there were people whose job it was to maintain peace and stop the fighting. That people outside the University had to work and were paid in ‘money’, which they had to have to get food, water and accommodation. They even had to work when they didn’t want to! Living in Aa Ellet was very complicated. Sah Lee couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to live there.
When they arrived at the station in Aa Ellett, Sah Lee was overwhelmed by the number of people bustling about; many of them were looking around, bewildered. Five other lost looking young people got off from the other two carriages on the train. Sah Lee walked over and asked if they were students and knew where to go. One of the students stepped forward and said: “We talked about this on the train. I am Sor Tan, and I am the best hunter, so you will follow me. I will be able to track the University.”
“Why do you think that you are you the best hunter? And you can’t track the University, it isn’t an animal, it is a place.” Sah Lee replied.
“I don’t ‘think’ I am the best hunter, I am the best hunter. Ask these two.” she said, gesturing towards two of the other young Aarnth with her. “They come from my village.”
“It’s true.” one of the youngsters volunteered. “She is the best of the young hunters in our village.”
“But that just means you are the best in your village. I am just as good a hunter as you!” Sah Lee retorted.
“Oh yes? Have you ever been on a successful massoon hunt?” Sor Tan asked. “Because I have. We brought down a half grown massoon that provided so much meat that there was too much for the five villages that took part in the hunt and we took the spare meat to four other villages and gave it to them!”
“No, I haven’t.” confessed Sah Lee. There had been no massoon near her village for three years, and she was too young then to go on a hunt. “But that doesn’t mean that you are a better hunter than me!”
“I think it does,” Sor Tan said with a smirk. “so I’ll lead the way. Come on.”
“I’ll find my own way, thank you.” Sah Lee replied.
The two students from Sor Tan’s village moved behind her, ready to follow. The two other students looked at Sor Tan, then at Sah Lee, then at each other. Without a word they both walked over to Sah Lee.
“We’ll follow you.” the taller one said. “My name is Tir Mal, this is Kel Mai. We are from different villages, but we hunt together sometimes, and we know each other. How will you find the University?”
“I am Sah Lee. If you were on a hunt and needed water, how would you find the nearest water hole?”
“I would ask one of the older hunters who knew the area to take me there, but how does that help us find our way to the University?” Tir Mal asked.
Sah Lee turned to Traf Dek, who had been standing watching the exchange with a smile on her face. “Would you show us the way to the University please?” she asked.
“You show great wisdom for one so young.” Traf Dek answered. “Come, follow me.”
<<< === >>>
The University covered over a quarter of the city with a spread-out campus. Traf Dek took the trio to the reception building and wished them good luck; the building was heaving with bewildered looking young people and harassed older people.
Tir Mal grasped Sah Lee’s wrist and turned to Kel Mai, saying, “Stay close.” Sah Lee led them close to one of the doors the busy staff were rushing in and out of and soon managed to intercept one of them.
“Excuse me,” Sah Lee asked, “what should we be doing?”
“Fill in these forms.” the staff member said, pulling three forms from a sheaf and handing them to Sah Lee. “Take them to the registration building and they’ll tell you where to go.”
“Thank you, where is the registration building?” Sah Lee asked.
“Out that door,” she said, pointing to the far side of the room. “Straight across to the gray stone building.”
“Would it help if we took some of those forms and handed them out?” asked Sah Lee.
“Oh, thank you, that would be so helpful.” the harassed staff member said, thrusting the sheaf of forms into Sah Lee’s hands. “And you might need this.” she added, handing Sah Lee a pencil.
“Come on,” Sah Lee said to Tir Mal and Kel Mai, handing each of them some forms, “we’ll find the door and then hand them out to the people closest to it. That will reduce the amount of pushing through the crowd to get out.”
She led the way through the mass of students to the door that led to the registration building and the three of them handed out the forms. The forms were all numbered. The information required was simple; their name, the name of their village and their birth date. None of the students had anything to write with, so they loaned the pencil to them to fill in their forms.
A small group entered the reception building and pushed their way through the crowd towards Sah Lee and her companions. Sor Tan confronted Sah Lee.
“So, you managed to find your way here, eventually?” Sor Tan spat at Sah Lee.
“We’ve been here a while. I’m surprised that you managed to track it so quickly.” Sah Lee answered, trying to suppress a smirk.
“I’ll take those.” growled Sor Tan as she snatched the forms from Sah Lee’s hands.
Dropping into a half crouch, Sah Lee snarled and bared her teeth, but then slowly stood up and smiled. “Fine.” she said, as she turned around and walked to a group busy writing on their forms. Tir Mal and Kel Mai came over to join her.
“I thought that you were going to fight her.” Kel Mai said. “I saw what happened. Why didn’t you?”
“There’s more than one way to skin a ranual. Anyway, it’s probably frowned upon if you kill a fellow student. Especially on your first day.” Sah Lee smiled. She waited until the last of the group had finished writing on her form and held out her hand for the pencil. “Let’s see how well Sor Tan gets on when the people she’s giving forms out to realize they have nothing to write with.”
Sah Lee looked around and realized that most of the students they had given forms to were still there.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked.
The one nearest her said: “For you to take us over to the registration building.”
Sah Lee shrugged. “OK, follow me.” and with Tir Mal holding her wrist again and Kel Mai on her other side, led the way through the door and across to the gray stone building.
Sah Lee pushed through the wide wooden double doors into a large, almost empty room with four desks on the back wall. An adult sat behind each desk with short queues of students in front of her. Sah Lee and Tir Mal moved to join the nearest queue and Kel Mai fell in behind them.
The queue moved forward quickly and Sah Lee handed her form to the woman at the desk. She glanced at the form, wrote Sah Lee’s name and number in a ledger then put it face down in a tray full of forms on the desk.
She looked up at Sah Lee. “Accommodation block seven, floor three, room nine. That will be your home for the next six years. You’ll find a book in there that will tell you all you need to know for now. Next!”
“Where is accommodation block seven?” Sah Lee asked.
“There’s a map on the wall by the exit.” she said, pointing to the left. “Next!”
Sah Lee stood back, waiting for Tir Mal and Kel Mai. She heard them being told the same as she was, including the room number. As soon as all three were registered, they walked to the exit, checked the location of accommodation block seven and went in search of their new home – room nine, floor three.
She and her companions followed the map directions to block seven and climbed the stairs, which Sah Lee was relieved to see were not just broken slabs of stone loosely piled on top of each other. They reached floor three and found room nine near the end of a wide corridor.
Sah Lee bounded over to the window and flung the shutters wide open. the other two leaned out either side of her. All three turned as the door swung. Three students stood there.
“Is this room nine, floor three, accommodation block seven?” the one at the front asked.
“Yes,” Sah Lee replied, “is this your room too?”
“That’s what they told us, but if you’re already here…” her voice trailed off.
“There’s room for six, you three will fill it up.
Sah Lee introduced herself, Tir Mal and Kel Mai to the three newcomers.
“I’m Mah Dak, this is Ran Bor and Lat Raan.”
Mah Dak and Lat Raan looked like typical young Aarnth hunters, slim, athletic, with honey gold skin and auburn hair. Ran Bor was not quite as tall as the others, nor as slim and athletic as they were.
“Did you know each other before you got here?” asked Sah Lee.
“No,” Mah Dak smiled, “we met in the queue at the registration building. We were just behind you but took a bit longer than you to find the room.”
“We can all stick together now, I am sure we can find our way round between us.”
The three newcomers nodded eagerly, Mah Dak and Lat Raan with a smile, Ran Bor looking very serious.
“There should be a book in here which tells us all we need know about the University.” Mah Dak said.
“We haven’t had a chance to look at it yet, it’s over there.” Sah Lee said, gesturing towards it.
Ran Bor picked the book up, sat on a bunk and started reading it.
“It says here we have to be in Teaching Building Three, room two at first light. I don’t know how that’s going to work,” she said, “my mother always has to wake me up or I sleep until mid-morning.”
“That’s not a problem, I always wake before dawn. Before we do anything, my bladder is full, and I need to relieve myself. I didn’t notice a patch of trees when I came in, did any of you?”
“It says here,” Ran Bor continued, reading the book, “there is a room at the end of every corridor with toilets and water. There’s a map of the University campus here too, so we should be able to find everything easily.”
“Toilets? Anybody know what they are?” Sah Lee asked and looked around at the others.
Ran Bor answered, “My mother told me before we left. There are too many people in the city to use trees and bushes, so they have these things called toilets where you go to relieve yourself.”
“That makes sense. Let’s go and have a look at the room, then we’ll find the refectory.” Sah Lee said.
Having found the room, they experimented with the toilets, which were just holes in the floor, “I wonder where it goes?” Sah Lee said. Then they played with the water for a while. When they were thoroughly wet, the six of them explored the university campus. Tir Mal never leaving Sah Lee’s side. There were many buildings made of stone with pathways and alleys between them. All the buildings had names and numbers above the entrances, so although many of the words had no meaning yet to the students, they could easily remember the numbers. The route around the campus was labyrinthine, but with their experience of finding their way on the mainly featureless plain, none of them had a problem with quickly building an accurate mental map.
After two years of being confined to the University with only an occasional foray into the city, all Sah Lee’s class were looking forward to the trip to the Great Northern Forest. Although a train line ran from the city to the logging camp, Rin Tor, their group tutor, told them they would travel by foot. They would hunt for their own food, find water to refill their drinking bottles and sleep under the sky.
The logging camp was nine days travel away, so the journey would be like a massoon hunt. These often lasted for days before an opportunity came to take down one of the great beasts. Sah Lee had never been on a massoon hunt, but she had been on several hunting expeditions when she had to stay overnight with the pack on the plains, and she had spent a night by herself on the way to the station, so she knew what to expect.
Sah Lee was desperate to get back to the plains. She was by far the best hunter amongst the younger people of the village and as good as any of the adults – except for Tef Dor, the hunt leader. The elders had told her that when the time came, she would take over from Tef Dor as the hunt leader for the village. She ached to return home to continue her training, but this foray into the plains again would have to do for now. It would be a long time before she could return home.
Rin Tor had led many of these class field trips over the years. She made sure that all the students had sturdy breeches and tunics and issued each of them with a University backpack and water bottle on the previous day. The students were instructed to collect a day’s ration of dried meat from the refectory the night before and bring the water bottle with them. They would have that to fall back on, but the plan was that they would rely on what they could hunt and what water they could find. Rin Tor knew where all the water holes were as she had done this journey many times before, but she would let the students find them. She carried eight days of dried meat rations; she was no hunter and didn’t know if this group of students would be any good at hunting. She had also taken the precaution of sending a message on the train to the student reception office at the logging camp to tell them when they were due to arrive, so they could send out a rescue party if the class didn’t arrive on time.
Rin Tor assembled the class on the open area in front of Teaching Building Three just before first light. She had a leather bag and a pile of what looked like leather straps at her feet. Sah Lee and Tir Mal had become inseparable during their two years at university and they stood together, patiently waiting for the last of the group to arrive.
When the last of the students had arrived, some yawning and rubbing their eyes, Rin Tor addressed them: “Now class, I know some of you have your own hunting knives and some of you prefer not to use knives at all. As we are all going to depend on each other during the journey out and back, I am issuing you all with a University hunting knife. This will be the only one you will be given while you are here. If you lose or break it and need a replacement, you will have to earn it first by doing work for the University in your free time. These are valuable knives, so you will have to do a lot of work. What I am saying is, don’t lose or break it. If you prefer to use your own knife, that’s OK but you will still take one of these. They have metal reinforced sheaths and you may also take a shoulder, back or leg harness for it, or a belt if you prefer.
Sah Lee had practiced with a back harness at the fighting club and liked the way the knife stayed out of the way until you needed it. She took a knife and a back harness and examined the knife, the blade, nearly two hand spans long, swept up to a point at the end, the last fifth of the top of the blade came down in a sharpened concave curve to meet the point. The handle was made of bone, dyed black and riveted to the full width tang. Where the blade met the handle two guards stuck out from the top and bottom of the blade to stop the hand, which may be wet with blood, slipping down from the handle to the blade. The knife was similar, but superior, to the hunting knife that Tef Dor carried with her.
She pulled off her tunic and slipped the back harness on. One strap went around her at the bottom of her chest, another ran up from it, over her shoulder and back down to connect to the back of the chest strap. Tir Mal stepped behind her and reached round for Sah Lee’s knife. She attached the sheath to the strap with the loops provided and as Sah Lee held her hand over her back, adjusted the position so that she could easily reach and draw the knife. Sah Lee slipped her tunic back on and repaid Tir Mal by attaching and adjusting her knife to her back harness.
When the students had all finished attaching their new knives, Rin Tor called them to order. The first glimmer of daylight was beginning to show on the eastern horizon. “I’ll lead the way out of the city. We head due north from there. You can elect a leader or split into groups with leaders and navigate to the north. If we stay on the right bearing, we should be near a water hole by midday. We’ll stop there, and you can organize a hunt. We’ll have a light meal, refill our water bottles and continue until dusk. When we stop, you can all hunt and we’ll have as much to eat as we can, or as much as you can kill. Tomorrow morning, we will leave our overnight camp well before first light. Follow me.”
She led the way through the quiet streets of the city at a moderately paced run. The students fell in behind her, most of them eager to get out onto the plains and hunt again. Sah Lee, with Tir Mall at her side, stayed together with the rest of their roommates as a group. She noticed that Ran Bor, who was always quite serious, looked even less happy than usual. She moved close to her side and said quietly: “Ran Bor, you don’t seem as pleased as the rest of us to be going out of the city.”
“I’m not. I was never a good hunter. I’ll go hungry while we’re out here and everyone will think I am weak.”
Sah Lee put her hand on Ran Bor’s shoulder as they ran. “We’re family now, none of us would let you go hungry. Don’t worry about not making a kill. You come with me when we hunt, I guarantee we’ll get enough to eat and have plenty to give away. Rin Tor makes no secret of the fact that she can’t hunt, she won’t go hungry and no one thinks she is weak. You are very clever Ran Bor, you make the rest of us look foolish. No one is good at everything.” she said with a smile.
Ran Bor looked at her. “You are a good friend Sah Lee.”
Rin Tor stopped the class as they left the farms on the outskirts of the city behind them. “Everyone take a drink, then decide amongst you how you are going to proceed. I’m not going to tell you, this is part of your education. Whether you return to the plains, stay in the city or choose to travel to other lands when you leave university, you must be able to cooperate with others, to lead and to be led. So, choose a leader or split into groups, each with a leader. I’ll sit here, you tell me when you are all ready.”
Tir Mal took a step away from her group and called out in a loud voice: “Sah Lee is our leader. Who will join us?” She stepped back to stand behind Sah Lee with the rest of her roommates.
Some of the class moved over to join them while others in small groups spoke quietly amongst themselves. One by one, the groups moved to stand behind Sah Lee until the entire class had joined her.
“Good.” Rin Tor said quietly under her breath. Out loud she said “Sah Lee. Your objective is to take us due north and find a water hole by midday. You lead, I’ll stay at the back.”
Sah Lee quickly selected two teams of six to go either side of the main group to keep level with them about one hundred paces away. That way if they ran into a thorn patch or broken ground or a swamp, they would quickly be able to find a way around. They might also come across some small prey animals and be able to carry their midday meal with them. She set off, leading the pack at a steady hunting pace with Ran Bor on her right, helping to navigate and keep them on the right track, with Tir Mal on her left.
They found the waterhole just before midday. It hadn’t tested any of their hunting skills much to follow the trail that was obviously used infrequently but regularly by other classes. The two flanking teams had each managed to make kills during the morning. The right-hand team brought two ranuals, the left-hand team brought one ranual, a lizard and large, now headless snake. Sah Lee’s village had never eaten lizards or snakes, but the team who had killed them seemed quite excited at the prospect of eating them. There was enough for the most tired and least inclined to hunt and Sah Lee decided to let them recover and divided those more eager to hunt into three parties, one of which she led herself. Each party was big enough to tackle an Imaya, just one of which would be much more than they could eat.
The hunting parties didn’t stay out long, and each returned with a modest haul of small prey, none of them had come across any Imaya.
After they had all eaten and drunk their fill, Sah Lee told them to refill their water bottles, then led a clean-up party to take the uneaten remains of their meal to bury it well away from the water hole. When they returned Rin Tor called them into a group to address them, “Do you wish to continue with Sah Lee as leader or choose another, or form a group of your own? Step forward all of those who want to change or form another group.” No one moved. “Very well Sah Lee, it looks like you’re stuck with the job.” she smiled. “Your next objective is to take us a far north as you can without wearing out or losing any of your hunting pack – the class and me, stopping only to fill up water bottles. You will need to make camp in time to hunt for a feast and to gather wood for a fire before the light goes. You will also need to make sure that your pack is ready to break camp and continue at first light. If you get as far today as I expect, there will be no water hole nearby, so it essential you make sure everybody fills their water bottles before you call a halt.”
Sah Lee nodded, sent her flank teams out again and took off, instructing everyone to seek the scent of water.
She set a good hunting pace, running a little faster than they had during the morning, but not fast enough to wear anyone out, she hoped. She knew she was good at reading the landscape to find the best route through it but Ran Bor was better. Between them they made good progress and Sah Lee was comfortable with them stopping twice to refill water bottles before she decided it was time to make camp.
Those that were most tired, including Rin Tor, she told to prepare a fire pit, then sit and rest. She picked out five of the less able hunters and set them the task of finding wood for a fire. She wanted enough to keep a fire burning all night so that the less hardy of them would be able to get some warmth if they needed it in the chill of the hours after midnight. The rest she divided into three hunting parties, again with the task of hunting and gathering as much to eat as possible, meat, root vegetables, even edible leaves. If they ended up with enough meat, they would discard the vegetables and leaves, but she wanted to make sure they all had plenty to eat.
The hunting parties returned with a good supply of small prey animals, but not enough for them to all eat their fill. Sah Lee consulted with Lat Raan, whose village regularly cooked vegetables and picked out the root vegetables that tasted best when baked. Lat Raan gathered three others to prepare them, and when the vegetables were ready she put them round the edge of the fire to cook. Sah Lee supervised another small team to clean and prepare a large rock to act as a table where they could butcher the animals they had brought back ready to eat, then led another group to take the skins, entrails, heads and feet out into the plains and bury them.
At last all was ready. They divided the meat up equally and when that was eaten, those still hungry ate the baked vegetables. When they were relaxing after eating, Rin Tor came and sat next to Sah Lee and Tir Mal. “You are a born leader Sah Lee. It seems to come naturally to you.”
“It seems obvious what needs to be done.” she answered. “I just ask people to do what needs doing.”
Rin Tor smiled. “It is not obvious to everyone, and you seem to be doing more telling than asking, but everyone seemed happy with that. Probably because they realized the sense in what you were doing and saw that you didn’t shirk from your share of the work. I hope that you will continue to lead us to the logging camp. This is the best led trip that I have been on. You impressed me by leading the team that took the entrails out and buried them. That’s a horrible job, it’s not unusual on these field trips for a row to break out about who does it and they are often left in a pile in the middle of the camp.”
“I did it because I didn’t want those I asked to do it to feel like they were being picked on, or have the others look down on them for doing such a horrible job.”
“That is a mark of a true leader, to be able to do the worst job with dignity and without belittling those that do it.”
“I must remember that.”
“I don’t think you need to Sah Lee, you seem to know it instinctively. I’m going to sleep now, I’m tired after today’s running. I may have to move closer to the fire for warmth later tonight. Who are you going to get to wake us?”
“I always wake early, I’ll make sure everyone is ready to move at first light.”
“Call me first. Good night Sah Lee.”
Sah Lee sat by the dying embers of the fire, enjoying the last of its warmth. But it was now time to wake everyone. It was hard waking people at this time when they were sleeping under the sky. The temperature always dropped a little before it got light, just when the waking were starting to move and lose body heat. She woke Rin Tor first, who sat up startled, then relaxed and smiled when she saw it was Sah Lee. “I was having a bad dream.” she said.
“It’s over now, just a dream.” Sah Lee said. “It’s going to be a great day today, I can feel it!” she said enthusiastically.
“You’re right. We’ve got a pack leader I trust and it’s safe out here. I’m looking forward to it.” Rin Tor said with a smile as she got to her feet.
Sah Lee woke Tir Mal then went around the rest of the class, gently waking them all. While they woke up and got ready, Sah Lee kicked dirt over the fire to extinguish it, but left the fire pit intact so they could use it on their way back from the logging camp.
When everyone was awake and ready, Rin Tor called them together. The first trace of the new day was just beginning to show itself as the eastern horizon started to lighten. “It should take us a full eight days more to reach the logging camp. Sah Lee has had her turn as leader now. You may select another leader for the day or choose to stay with Sah Lee. Now is the time to volunteer for the task or to propose someone else. Step forward and speak.”
There was some quiet whispering in the group, but no one stepped forward. Rin Tor was about to speak again when Ran Bor stepped forward. She was the last person Sah Lee expected to volunteer, but she would support her as leader. She was smart and Sah Lee trusted her.
“I have a proposal.” Ran Bor said. The whispering stopped, and everyone gave her their full attention. “I propose that Sah Lee leads us to the logging camp. If anyone else wants to be leader, they can have their opportunity when we return.”
After a moments silence, the whispering started again, but quickly turned into chatter.
“Silence!” Rin Tor called out. “As this is the only proposal we have we will decide on this. All that support the proposal move to your right. Those that oppose it move to your left.”
Sah Lee stood her ground, the rest of the class all moved to the right.
“Sah Lee, you are the pack leader. You will consult with me during the journey, but until we reach the logging camp, you are in control.”
Sah Lee turned to her classmates, her temporary pack and smiled. “Thank you all for your confidence in me. Ran Bor, Tir Mal, you lead with me. Flanking parties, take your same positions as yesterday. Let’s go.”
Mindful that Rin Tor and a few of the less fit students had been fatigued by the pace she had set yesterday, Sah Lee kept the speed down. She would have a shorter lunch break and keep going longer in the afternoon. They would be two days out from the city by then, in an area that was rarely hunted, so prey animals should be more plentiful, and they would be able to catch what they needed quickly. Everyone knew their role now, so they could make camp and prepare the fire and the food in less time and would be ready to sleep by the same time as the previous night.
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Sah Lee roused them before dawn again, and they set off at a gentle run. Rin Tor was happier with the slower pace, and even had time, and the breath, to chat as they ran. The pack were all enjoying the fresh air and scents of the plains, and the warmth of the fresh morning sun which was now well above the horizon, when a booming noise, like rolling thunder came from behind them. They stopped and turned to see a distant cloud rising from the ground. Rin Tor ran to Sah Lee. “That’s coming from the city.”
“But we are more than a day’s travel away. If that’s coming from the city, it must be huge.” As they stood and watched, the cloud continued to grow, and the booming continued to roll.
“We need to go back. I’m calling an end to the field trip, Sah Lee, lead us back, as quickly as you can.”
Sah Lee called out to the flank parties to come back and join the main pack.
“Rin Tor has canceled the field trip. We’re heading back to the city. We won’t stop to eat, just to refill water bottles. This is going to be hard for some of you, we will have a brief rest when we get water, otherwise we’ll just keep going.”
Sah Lee identified the less fit and shared out the contents of their backpacks amongst the stronger students, leaving them with just their water bottles to carry. She had them fold the empty backpacks up, so they could also be put them into the stronger students backpacks for them to carry.
As soon as everyone was ready, Sah Lee led them off as a single group. She set a fast hunting pace, knowing she may have to stop for the less fit to recover, but was determined to keep the group together.
By mid afternoon it was clear that they would not reach the city before nightfall and several of the students were struggling to keep up the pace. Rin Tor was keeping up but looked like she was in pain.
Sah Lee could smell water and turned off to lead the way to the water hole. When they reached it, she gathered the group together. “We will stop here to rest awhile and fill our bottles. We’re not going to be able to reach the city in daylight and we don’t know what we’ll find there. We know something bad has happened. It would be reckless to go into the streets in the dark, tired and unprepared. When we have rested, we’ll carry on at a slower pace and stop early to make camp and eat well. You all know what to do when we make camp. I want to hunt and gather enough for us to eat before we continue in the morning. We need to be alert and prepared when we get to the city, so we are ready for whatever we find there.”
She spoke briefly to a few of the fitter, less tired students, they collected and filled the water bottles for those who were suffering most. Some students lay down and fell asleep while Sah Lee, Tir Mal and Kel Mai kept watch.
When the sun had moved a tenth of the way across the sky, the three of them gathered up those resting and woke the sleepers. She led them off at a slow hunting pace towards the city. The great dust cloud had moved away from the city now but was still visible downwind of it. The rate of progress was frustratingly slow, but all the students, and Rin Tor were able to keep up. Sah Lee decided to keep going until the sun had gone down and the light was going out of the sky.
There was just enough light in the last glimmer of dusk for the wood collectors to get enough fuel to keep a fire going all night. The Necklet and the stars gave enough light for the hunting groups to find and kill plenty of meat, but the monochrome of the faint light made it difficult to find edible plants unless they were almost on top of them.
The students ate well that night. A feast like this would normally be a happy occasion, with chatter and laughter, but the mood tonight was somber, with the meal eaten mostly in silence. They quickly buried the scraps, skins and entrails a few paces from the camp and wrapped the remaining meat in leaves to keep them cool and clean.
As soon as they had finished eating, the students settled down around the fire to sleep. There was no need for anyone to stand guard, their hunter’s instincts would wake them at the slightest sound of an intruder.
Sah Lee woke before first light and quickly checked that the packages of meat were still intact, then woke the rest of the students. As soon as everyone was awake, they divided the meat up and quickly ate. They refilled their water bottles and Sah Lee set off towards the city at the slow hunting run she knew they could all keep to all day if needed.
As they approached the city, they saw a great crater off to their right, where the earth had been torn open by an unimaginable force, with great rocks that had been flung out and crashed to the ground. As they got closer there were more of these gashes in the plains and they could see that the city had been devastated. They slowed to a walk as they entered the wreckage. No buildings were left standing. The streets had disappeared, torn up by the same forces that had destroyed the buildings. They walked deeper into the ruins, disoriented by the unfamiliar landscape, with no recognizable landmarks left. They reached what they knew must be the center of the city, although there was nothing to show what had been there before, when Sah Lee saw movement ahead of her. She ran over to a group of students huddled together amongst the rubble. She pulled up sharply when she recognized Sor Tan standing in the midst of them with a furious look on her face.
“Sah Lee!” Sor Tan shouted and strode towards her.
“May the Makers help me.” Thought Sah Lee. “As if we haven’t got enough problems.”
“Sor Tan…” Sah Lee began, but Sor Tan cut her off.
“In the name of the Makers, what happened?” Sor Tan demanded.
“I don’t know. I have heard of nothing like this in the histories. Our tutor Rin Tor doesn’t know either. Do you have any ideas?”
“No, but someone is going to pay for this!”
“Look Sor Tan, this isn’t the time for us to fight. The Makers only know what has happened, but there is no city, no University, nothing left here. Everyone is gone. You are the first people we have seen here. I think everyone else is, dead.” Tears stung Sah Lee’s eyes as she thought of her sister, Sah Elt. She hoped she was safe. She had been on a field trip to the southern mines but was due back the day the city was destroyed. Then she thought of Traf Dek and others who she had befriended in the city.
“I don’t want to fight, at least, not with you.” Sor Tan retorted angrily. “Now is the time to work together. We are the natural leaders, we need to gather everyone we can find and decide what to do next. How many do you have with you?”
“Our entire class and Rin Tor. We were on our way to the Great Northern Forest when we heard a noise like thunder, only it didn’t stop, then we saw the dust cloud and started running back here. We only arrived a short time ago. Who have you got with you?”
“We were on our way back from a field trip to the port when we saw the same as you. We carried on back here and met another class on their way out. They were frightened by what they had seen and decided to carry on to the port, where they thought it would be safer, and if it wasn’t, then they could get on a ship and sail to somewhere safe. Our tutor and some of our class went with them.” A sly look flitted briefly across Sor Tan’s face. “They told us that a pack of vulpen had been seen in the area. Whatever caused this may have drawn them here.”
“Vulpen! That’s all we need. We need to get organized.”
“We need a plan. Rin Tor is city born, she won’t be much help.” Sor Tan said. “Do you have any ideas?”
Sah Lee paused a moment to think before answering: “Get your best hunters together in groups of three. Send them to the outskirts of the city to find any survivors and scavenge anything that might be useful. If they even think they see or hear vulpen, they come straight back here. That goes for everyone. We’re all hunters, we can face a vulpen pack between us. If we meet back here at dusk, your teams should have had time to do a survey and bring back anyone they find and anything they can carry. If they find anything too heavy for them to carry, it is of no use to us. Your less able hunters can stay here and set up a camp site and a fire. It’s unlikely that a pack of vulpen will attack a sizeable group, but they’ll have to be ready to defend themselves. I’ll spilt my class, my team, to scout the university site and the train station to find out if there is anything left, though from what we have seen so far, I don’t expect to find much. I’ll get a hunting party to go beyond the city to try find prey and water. We’ll camp here tonight and move out before first light.”
“Where to?” Sor Tan asked.
“We’ll pick up the railway line and follow it into the plains. There is nothing for us here. We know we can find food and water on the plains and we can return to our villages as we come to them.”
“What do I do?”
“You said you’re a good hunter. You’re going to lead the hunting party with me. We need to work together Sor Tan. We’ve no time to fight amongst ourselves.”
Sor Tan gave a tight smile. “It looks like you’re the leader now Sah Lee. At least, until we find a village with elders. I’ll be right by your side. I’ll see to my team. Meet me back here with your hunting party.”
Sor Tan turned to jogged back to her group of survivors and started sorting them into groups.
Sah Lee ran back to her class mates who were looking around disconsolately. Rin Tor stood looking into the distance with a lost expression on her face.
“Listen everyone. I met Sor Tan over there.” She gestured behind her. “Her class was on the way to the port. She has most of them and some from another class that they met on their way back here. Their tutors have gone back to the port with a few of the students. Sor Tan is organizing scouting parties and preparing a camp site for tonight. She said there is a rumor of a vulpen pack near the city. Be vigilant and if you see, hear or smell anything that might be a vulpen, get straight back to the camp. I’m going to lead a hunting party outside the city to see if we can find some prey and water. It doesn’t look like we’ll find anything to eat or drink here. I want a party of students to check out the train station, if there’s anything left of it. Rin Tor, would you take six of the students and see if there is anything useful you can find at the University?”
“You’re not in charge!” Han Sek interrupted. “We’re not on the field trip now. Rin Tor is the tutor. She can tell us what to do.”
Rin Tor cleared her throat. “That’s all right, Han Sek. Sah Lee seems to know what she’s doing. I must confess, I am completely bewildered by all of this. The Makers put the four moons in place to protect us. Why did they let this happen?” Her face crumpled, and she abruptly sat on the ground and buried her face in her hands, quietly sobbing. Ran Bor quickly moved over and sat beside her, putting an arm around Rin Tor’s shoulders.
“Perhaps you could go with her, Ran Bor.” Sah Lee said. “Can you get five other students to go with you?”
“Of course, just give me a few minutes and we’ll get going.”
Mah Dak, Lat Raan and three more students walked over to gather round Rin Tor and Ran Bor.
“It looks like you’ve got your volunteers. Tir Mal and Kel Mai, I want you in my hunting team. They both came and stood by her.
“Would you come with me too please?” Sah Lee asked Han Sek.
“Why, so you can keep an eye on me?” She sneered.
“Because you are a skilled hunter, a good runner and I’ve seen you fighting at the fight club. And, so I can keep an eye on you.”
Han Sek gave a wry smile and walked over to stand with her.
Sah Lee quickly picked another four students and asked the rest to go as a group to check out the site of the train station, telling them it was about one thousand paces east of where they were now. She told everyone to be back at the camp site by dusk,
“Where do we go now?” Han Sek asked.
“We’re going to meet Sor Tan, she’s coming with us, then we’re heading out of the city. We’ve got about six hours daylight left so we’ll need to hurry.”
“You and Sor Tan on the same hunting party! Who’s going to be hunt leader?”
“That will be an interesting conversation when you try to explain that to Sor Tan. I look forward to seeing that.” Han Sek said with a smirk.
Sah Lee set a fast pace, and they quickly found Sor Tan. As soon as she saw them approach, Sor Tan and her team ran to join them. She fell in beside Sah Lee.
“What’s the plan?” She asked.
“We travel as quickly as we can for a tenth of a day. That will take us well beyond the area of destruction, then we’ll start hunting. That will give us half a tenth of a day to hunt before we must return. If we find clean water on the way out, we’ll stop briefly to drink and fill our bottles. We’ll note the spot and refill on the way back.”
“Half a tenth? That’s not long to stalk an imaya or farun.”
“If we stop soon enough to give us more time to hunt, there won’t be anything around to kill. We heard whatever it was that happened a day and a half’s travel away, you must have been closer. I’m pretty sure there won’t be any prey around for miles, but there may be some ranuals that took shelter in holes, so that’s what we’ll be looking for. We’ll also look for any edible roots, leaves and berries in case there aren’t even any ranuals.”
“You’re good at this. It’s just as well I made you hunt leader.” Sor Tan said with a grin.
Sah Lee grinned back at her, then stepped up the pace.
After two-and-a-half hours of hard running, Sah Lee called a stop, and the group gathered around her.
“We’ll get our breath back before we start hunting. Forget trying to find anything bigger, we’re after ranual, edible roots, berries and leaves. If you find clean water have a drink, fill your bottle, make a note of the spot and keep hunting. We haven’t got much time. We’ll meet back here in half a tenth and if we’ve found water we’ll all go to the nearest water hole, drink and fill our bottles, then we’ll make a fast run back. If anyone gets hurt, stop hunting immediately and come back here with your partner. We won’t have time to search for you, which is why we aren’t splitting up to go off by ourselves, even though we could cover more ground that way. Tir Mal, Han Sek and Kel Mai, you’re together, you two,” Sah Lee said gesturing at the two remaining students, “you’re together. Look after each other. Your safety is more important than prey. Look out for signs of vulpen. If you see any, call out and come straight back here. If you hear anyone calling, get back here. Don’t be late back. Sor Tan and I will be together. Good hunting.”
Each of the teams headed off in a different direction, half crouching, sniffing for scent and eyes sweeping back and forth looking for telltale traces of prey.
As soon as they were out of earshot of the others Sah Lee asked: “How good are you at scenting water?”
“Pretty good, but I thought we were looking for food?”
“We can all manage for several days without food, but we won’t last long without water. My group are nearly all out of water. How about your group?”
“The same. We didn’t stop to look for any on the way back here, we just wanted to get back and see what had happened.”
“We’ll concentrate on finding water and hope the others find something to eat.”
“OK, you’re really good at this.” Sor Tan grinned. “But I’m the one clever enough to put you in charge.”
The time was nearly up when Sor Tan caught the scent of water. She and Sah Lee filled their bottles and had a drink.
“Not too much.” Sah Lee said. “It will lay heavy in you during our run back.”
Sor Tan raised an eyebrow. “I know, I’m the clever one, remember?”
Sah Lee laughed and said: “Come on, let’s get back quickly and bring the others back here. We’re cutting it fine to get back while there’s still light.” In a more serious tone, she continued: “It’s not just the devastation, or vulpen, something’s not right. There is safety in numbers, Let’s get back to the others.”
Sah Lee broke into a run. Sor Tan paused a moment and bent down to pick up a fist sized rock. She ran to catch up with Sah Lee. As she drew abreast of her, she swung the rock at the side of her head. The rock connected with a solid thunk and Sah Lee collapsed mid stride, skidding for almost a pace length, face down in the dust. Blood poured from the deep wound on her head and started to form a small bloody puddle.
Sor Tan dropped the rock and continued to run with a mirthless smile on her face. “I said I was the clever one.” she said quietly to herself.
Sor Tan came running into the meeting point and yelling out “Vulpen! Run!”
The other hunting teams had returned, relaxing, sitting or lying on the ground. They jumped up, shocked by Sor Tan’s words. They had all heard of vulpen packs, but it was many years since any had been seen. If a pack were to come to the plains, large hunting parties made from several villages would go out to hunt and destroy them.
Sor Tan continued running back towards the city while the rest of the group grabbed their possessions and ran to catch up behind her. Sor Tan kept up such a fast pace that there was no time to talk.
After two hours of hard running, Sor Tan and her companions reached the campsite in the city. She skidded to a halt and bent over panting. The rest of the hunting group followed, her, equally breathless.
Rin Tor came over and stood by Sor Tan and laid her hand on her shoulder.
“What is it Sor Tan? What’s the matter? And where is Sah Lee?”
“Sah Lee?” asked Sor Tan, gasping for breath, “She’s not come back yet?”
“No,” replied Rin Tor, “why, what happened to her?”
“We were hunting in groups,” Sor Tan said between breaths, “Sah Lee and I were about to return to the rendezvous point when I saw a vulpen running right at us. I knew there would be more of them close by, they live and hunt in packs, so I thought if we both attacked it and killed it quickly the others may not notice us. I threw a rock at it expecting Sah Lee to join in but saw her running away. I got a lucky hit with the rock and stunned it, so I turned and ran back to the group as fast as I could. I don’t know what happened to Sah Lee. I hoped that she was making her way back here, but she may have run into the vulpen pack. May the Makers protect her.”
“She didn’t stop to fight it with you? That doesn’t sound like Sah Lee.” Rin Tor said.
“I can only tell you what I saw. Now, in case the vulpen got our scent, I suggest that we build the fire up and prepare for an attack. Half of will us stay ready to defend the camp while the other half rest. We will swap over at midnight. I don’t think we’ll get much sleep but at least we’ll be rested. I remember being told that the vulpen only hunt between dusk and dawn, so we’ll break camp at first light and travel onto the plains as fast as we can. I’m sorry Rin Tor, I seem to be taking over. You are the most senior person here, you take charge.”
“I don’t know what to do Sor Tan, I’m just an academic. We need an experienced hunter who knows the plains. You know what to do, so you take the lead. I do know about the vulpen though. I have read all the histories that tell of the times when they freely roamed the plains, preying on the Aarnth. They are big, powerful and lethal predators, difficult to kill. I fear for our small band if they should attack us, but you are right, they only hunt in the dark, and they are afraid of fire. If we survive the night and get far away in the morning, we should be safe.”
“Very well Rin Tor, I’ll assume leadership for the time being. You four,” Sor Tan addressed four of the students who had been in the hunting party, “gather all the prey we brought back from our hunt and anything else we have to eat. We’ll divide it into two halves – those resting now will eat, when we swap, the others will eat. My hunters, we’ll rest first and take over the guard at midnight. The rest of you, bring any weapons you have and gather round me.”
There was some muttering amongst the group. Not all of them were happy about Sor Tan being in command, and those that knew Sah Lee doubted that she would have run away in the face of danger. But none of them would stand against Sor Tan.
The group gathered in front of Sor Tan, some eager and attentive, some with downcast eyes and scuffing their feet.
“I don’t know if we can hold off a pack of vulpen, but if we’re lucky, they won’t find us here. If they do, from what little we know about them, we can only stop them if we work together. There are nineteen of you. I want you to form into three teams of four, with Por Fah, Sen Tak and Arl Ret making up the third group, You three are the biggest and strongest. Each group go to a corner of the camp and take cover in a position close to the camp perimeter where you have got good vision of anything approaching. Your job is not to attack but to warn us. We’re all hunters – apart from you, Rin Tor – we’ve all slept out on a hunt with our ears open, ready to wake up as soon as alerted in case of danger. This is no different. If the vulpen come, we all take our part in defense.”
Sor Tan turned away with a self-satisfied smirk on her face. She was the undisputed leader now. With Sah Lee dead there was no one to challenge her. The fear of the vulpen would bind them together. None of them would want to split the group up and go off by themselves with that threat
They may not get any rest, scared that a vulpen pack may attack, but she would sleep well, safe in the knowledge that the nearest vulpen were many days travel away, deep in the northern forests.
As Sor Tan walked away, Rin Tor thought, “Vulpen only attack in the dark, and they hunt in packs. What was a solitary vulpen doing attacking Sah Lee and Sor Tan in broad daylight?”
Sah Lee coughed and a blinding pain shot through her head. She blinked her eyes open and realized that she was laying on the ground. She coughed again and winced as the pain took hold of her head once more. She sat up and looked at the sky. The sun had long gone, the only light were the stars and the glimmer of the Necklet, high in the sky above. None of the four moons were visible, so she knew it must be nearly dawn. She gingerly touched the side of her head and felt a large gash above her ear with the surrounding skin swollen and tender. She held her hand in front of her and saw the blood on her fingers, black in the dim light.
Sah Lee had no memory of what happened. The last thing she remembered clearly was finding water with Sor Tan. They were due to meet the rest of the hunting team in time to get back before sundown. She glanced round. She was far from the water hole and there was no sign of Sor Tan. She felt a twinge of fear as she remembered Sor Tan had told her there may be a vulpen pack in the area. Had they dragged Sor Tan away? Trying to ignore the pain in her head, Sah Lee bent down and looked closely at the ground around her. There were no paw marks, but Sor Tan’s footprints were clear in the dust, even in the dim light.
She carefully stood up and checked herself over. She had grazes on her chin and cheek, and grazes on both knees where she had fallen. Looking down she saw that she had skidded along the ground for almost five hand-widths. That meant she had been running when she fell, which could mean a vulpen had leapt on her back as she ran, but there were no scratches or grazes on her hands, which she would have used to break her fall. That would probably mean she was unconscious before she fell. Reaching over to check her back and shoulders, she could feel no scratches and her tunic wasn’t torn. Also, she would have expected a vulpen to have bitten her neck or head as she went down. And they always hunted in packs, but there were no paw prints. It didn’t make sense.
She looked to the east and saw the first glimmer of dawn light on the horizon. She could see well enough to run at a jog in this light, but her head hurt so much that she didn’t want to jar it. She also wanted to go carefully and be on her guard for vulpen. She drew her hunting knife from the sheath strapped to her back. Holding it ready for use, she moved in a half crouch to examine the surrounding ground. Sor Tan’s tracks went past where she fell showing no sign of pausing and Sah Lee had fallen on top of the tracks. As she looked further back, she could see that Sor Tan’s footprints were on top of hers, which meant she had been in front of Sor Tan. The only explanation was that she had been running in the lead and had fallen as Sor Tan came abreast of her. But that didn’t make sense either.
She turned around and walked slowly, following Sor Tan’s footprints, casting around as she went, looking for paw prints or anything else out of the ordinary.
By the time that the sun peeked over the horizon, she reached the rendezvous point. The air had been still overnight, so apart from a set of ranual tracks that ran from one side to the other, the tracks were as fresh as they had been when the students who made them left.
It was clear that soon after Sor Tan had arrived, they all left in the direction of the ruined city, running fast. There were still no paw prints or any other sign of vulpen
Sah Lee sat on a rock and took a long drink of water. She had plenty of it; she filled all three of her water bottles when she and Sor Tan found the water hole. She felt better than when she first woke, but her head was still pounding. She could do with something to eat, but she wasn’t up to hunting yet, even for ranual.
Sitting there, resting, Sah Lee was starting to wonder if there were any vulpen, or even if Sor Tan had been telling the truth about having heard there was a pack in the area. There was a much simpler explanation for the wound on her head that appeared to have been inflicted as Sor Tan came abreast of her.
As she sat holding her water bottle, Sah Lee saw a large bird flying overhead, high in the sky. Only it wasn’t like any bird she had seen before. Squinting up at the bright morning sky, the bird looked black, a rectangular shape with no wings. It was moving quickly in a dead straight line.
Unsettled by this, Sah Lee stood and continued her slow jog, following the tracks of the students returning to the city.
Sah Lee found the remains of the camp late in the afternoon. The first thing she saw were the bodies.
Her first thought was that a vulpen pack had attacked, but when she examined the remains, the wounds were nothing like she had seen before. There were two types of injury, holes that went through the bodies with blood coming out of them; it was obvious where whatever made the hole went in, there was not much damage around the wound, but where it came out again there was a bigger wound with the flesh pushed out and away from the exit hole. The other type of wound was even stranger. Small clean holes that didn’t bleed and looked the same on both sides of the bodies. Some bodies had entry wounds in their backs and looked like they were running away from whatever attacked them.
All but one body was unarmed. Sah Lee found the body of her roommate Lat Raan. She had drawn the hunting knife that Rin Tor gave her before leaving for their field trip, and it had blood on it. Sah Lee sniffed the blood on the blade. It didn’t smell like the blood of any of the animals she had hunted. She knew what Aarnth blood smelt like, and it wasn’t like that either. The blood smelt strange, as if it didn’t belong here. She wondered if this was anything to do with the strange bird she had seen earlier. This was like nothing she had ever seen or heard of. Perhaps Rin Tor had been right, the four moons that the Makers had put round Aarn as protectors had abandoned them, just stood by while the demons from Maaren, the small, hot innermost planet, did their evil. But Rin Tor was dead now, along with most of the students.
Tears stung Sah Lee’s eyes and rolled down her cheeks. A fury grew inside her. If these were demons that did this, they could still bleed. She would smell more of their blood when she found them.
She checked the bodies to see if anyone was missing. Mah Dak, Kel Mai and Ran Bor were amongst the dead, but Tir Mal was missing, as was Sor Tan. Everyone else had perished.
This was no time to honor the dead by burying them. Sah Lee examined the ground to try to understand what had happened here. The tracks were churned up and confused, but clear enough to show that there were several types of track she had never seen before. Many of them had regular patterns on them that didn’t look like feet – or the paws, claws and hooves of any of the animals on Aarn. As she scouted the site of the camp, she found the direction the tracks had come from, and led back to. As she followed the trail, she could see that the tracks in the direction of the camp were deep at the toes, which indicated that they had been running. The top layer of tracks was light and closer together, with an even pressure on the whole foot, as if whatever made them made an unhurried return. A pair of grooves leading away from the camp looked like they had been left by the heels of a body being dragged back with them.
The tracks started and stopped suddenly at a straight line in the dust, as though they had stepped off something when they arrived and stepped back onto it when they left. Whatever it was, it was gone now. As she scouted the area, she found six large square depressions in the dust in two rows of three, as though something big and heavy had squatted on the ground. She returned to the camp site and scouted until she found a set of tracks running from the camp. It was difficult to be sure whose they were. Both Sor Tan and Tir Mal had been wearing thin leather moccasins, but she thought the angle of the feet and the spacing between the paces looked like they belonged to Tir Mal. Settling into a jog, her head still aching, Sah Lee followed Tir Mal’s tracks.
Sah Lee ran steadily until it was dark, pausing only for a drink occasionally to make sure she did not dehydrate. The tracks were easy to follow. There was more dust than usual that had settled on the ground from the destroyed city, and Tir Mal had made no effort to hide her tracks.
Sah Lee felt tired and sick and her head throbbed. She knew that after a head trauma she should have laid down and rested for a day, but this was no time to take a day’s rest. Nonetheless, she knew she had to stop and sleep now. In the glimmer of light from the Necklet she saw a rocky outcrop ahead. When she reached it, she climbed up and found a sheltered niche in the rocks. She took a deep drink of water from one of her water bottles and promptly vomited it up. Taking another mouthful of water, she rinsed her mouth and spat it out. She got up and found another sheltered spot and settled down with her head on her backpack, then fell into a deep sleep.
The faint sound of a moccasined foot on rock woke Sah Lee with a start in the pre-dawn light. She sprang up, instantly wide awake, drawing her knife from the sheath strapped to her back.
“Sah Lee, thank the Makers you are all right. It’s me, Tir Mal. What happened to you? Sor Tan said a vulpen had chased you.”
“Sor Tan said a lot of things.” Sah Lee replied, sheathing her knife again. “There are no vulpen. I can’t remember what happened to me, but I think Sor Tan ran up behind me and struck me on the head with a rock. I came round hours later with a pool of dried blood by my head. I think she left me for dead.”
“But I thought you two had made up? She seemed happy for you to take the lead in the city.”
“I don’t know what she was thinking, but it wasn’t the same as she was saying. I need to eat. Let’s go and hunt.”
“You stay there and rest. You look sick. I’ll get something.”
“Before you go, have you seen any of those strange black birds flying around?”
“I think I know what you mean, but they’re not birds, they are machines. One landed near our camp in the city and those creatures came running out of it and they were carrying stick-like things and some of them made a sound like a rock cracking in the sun and some of them didn’t but they both made holes in us and people screamed and died and there was blood and bodies and, and…”
Tir Mal’s voice broke into sobs that rocked her shoulders. Tears flowed down her face and she dropped into a crouch, burying her face in her arms, like a child.
Sah Lee was shocked at Tir Mal breaking down like this. She crouched next to her and put her arm round Tir Mal’s shoulders. Pulling her to her chest, she rubbed her back like Sah Krin, her mother, had done to her when she was upset as a child.
After a few minutes Tir Mal sat up, wiping her eyes with her arm. “I’m sorry Sah Lee, so many are dead, and I feel so, so…”
“You don’t need to say anything Tir Mal. These are strange times. Bad times. These creatures, were they demons from Maaren?”
Tir Mal sniffed and wiped her eyes again. “I don’t think so. The demons are just stories. These were real and anyway, demons wouldn’t need machines. The stick like things were weapons. Demons are supposed to have long curved swords. I don’t know what the creatures are or where they came from.”
“I found Lat Raan. She had her knife in her hand and it had blood on it. It didn’t smell like any blood I have smelt before. It didn’t belong here. Whatever they are, they bleed, and I think she might have killed one, it looked like a body had been dragged away by them.”
“They are not all the same. They all wore thick clothes and their heads were covered, but they are different shapes and sizes and made different sounds.”
“If one bleeds, they all bleed.” Sah Lee could feel the cold fury building inside her again. “I will end my life ending theirs.”
“I will stand with you Sah Lee, but you must rest now. Stay here, I’ll hunt for food for both of us.”
Sah Lee wanted to get out and hunt the creatures but knew that Tir Mal was right. Her head was aching, and she was in no condition to fight strange creatures with unnatural weapons. She took a small sip of water and lay down in the shade. Within moments, she was asleep again.
Sah Lee woke as a hand clamped over her mouth. Her eyes popped open as she reached for her knife and saw Tir Mal leaning over her.
“The creatures from the flying machine are here.” she whispered urgently.
“How many? Are they coming this way?” Sah Lee hissed.
“Two. They don’t know we are here. They were sitting on the rocks at the bottom of the outcrop. I caught their scent on the way back.”
“Is there a flying machine there?”
“I don’t think so. I couldn’t see or scent one. They may have run here, though they don’t look like they are built for running.”
“They can walk though. Can we get close to them?”
“Are you planning to kill them?” Tir Mal asked, surprised.
“Lat Raan killed one. I’ll either kill one or die trying.”
“You’ve not recovered yet, you should rest first. We can get away from them if we head east.”
“I’m well enough to kill one. How about you?”
“I’m ready to die trying too.” Tir Mal answered, with a mirthless grin. “You’re a better fighter than me, but I’m a better rock climber. We can kill them both between us.”
Tir Mal clambered up the rocks, moving towards and above the creatures while Sah Lee crept down and round to their right flank until she was only a few feet from them, and sheltered under a shallow overhang. When she was in position, she gave out a staccato series of short whistles. She waited patiently until she heard an answering call from Tir Mal.
A few pebbles and dust fell on to the creatures. They both turned to look up just in time to see a huge boulder plummeting down towards them. They leapt to their feet and threw themselves to the side. One of them jumped the wrong way, the boulder hit him with a dull thump and a wet crunching sound. The other staggered backwards as Sah Lee launched herself at it. She caught its head in her hands as she flew through the air just behind it and as she passed, twisted it round with the weight of her body. There was a loud crack and as she hit the ground with the creature’s body coming down beside her, she let it go. She rolled once and sprung to her feet, pulling her knife from its sheath. She didn’t need the knife. The creatures head lolled loosely, its legs twitched weakly then stopped. It was dead.
Sah Lee bent down to remove the cover from the creature’s head. While she was trying to get it off Tir Mal scrambled down to join her.
“Without their weapons to protect them, they are easy to kill.” Tir Mal said.
“I think the rock you dropped on them would have killed a massoon, but this one’s neck broke easily enough.”
“What are you doing?” Tir Mal asked,
“I want to see what a demon looks like.”
“They aren’t demons. I don’t know what these creatures are, but they don’t come from Maaren.”
“You call them what you want, I’ll call them demons.” Sah Lee answered as she wrestled with the creature’s helmet.
Sah Lee braced her foot against the creature’s shoulder and twisted and pulled the helmet. It suddenly released, and she fell on her back with the helmet in her hands. Throwing it down she sprang up to get a good look at the face of their enemy.
She didn’t know what she expected to see, but it wasn’t this. Its head was covered in short, soft, fine brown fur, turning paler around the eyes, nose and mouth. Small pointed furry ears lay flat against the side of its head. It had a hairless, black, flattened nose, long white eyelashes and thin, pink lips. The mouth hung open, showing small sharp teeth. Its large dark eyes were wide open and lifeless. For a moment Sah Lee was reminded of her first farun kill and felt a pang of regret for killing this harmless looking creature, but then remembered the carnage back in the city, the sight of her friends slaughtered by these things for no reason and she felt the cold fury inside her again.
Tir Mal picked up the weapon that the creature had dropped. The boulder had crushed the other weapon, along with its owner. Sah Lee looked on as Tir Mal carefully examined it.
“They held them like this.” She said, lifting the weapon to her shoulder.
“How did they make it go?” Sah Lee asked, thinking they could use their enemies’ weapons against them.
“I don’t know. This is the kind that make a noise like a rock cracking, but louder and very close together. They just held them and pointed them at us.” The color drained out of Tir Mal’s face as she recollected the attack. She thrust the weapon at Sah Lee and sat down with her face in her hands.
Sah Lee dropped to a crouch beside her. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Tir Mal lifted her head. Her face was ashen. “We stood there looking at them as they walked towards us. They lifted these stick things and pointed them at us. We just stared at them, wondering what the creatures were and what they wanted. Then there was a terrible noise and people were dropping all round me. Some of them suddenly had holes in them, some of them jerked and had red splashes on their fronts and a pink mist and red blobs coming out of their backs. I saw Sor Tan run and I did the same. I should have stayed and fought them – but we didn’t know, we didn’t know…” her voice trailed away. She looked down at the ground and her tears dropped into the dust.
“If you had stayed you would be dead now. You did the right thing. You have already started to get revenge for our friends.” Sah Lee stood up and held her hand out to Tir Mal. “Come on, let’s go. There will be a lot of dead demons before we’ve finished.”
Tir Mal grasped the outstretched hand and pulled herself up.
“We are hunters.” Sah Lee said. “Let’s go and hunt demons.”
Sah Lee led the way west. She had no destination in mind, but she had traveled east toward the city from her village and she knew there was nothing there for them. The train journey to the city had taken her over six hours. Traf Dek had told her that the train would travel as far in one hour as a fit hunter could travel in three days, so they were still eighteen days travel from her village – if they could find it. Sah Lee had never traveled more than three days away from her village on a hunt, and then only rarely. Tir Mal’s village was even further to the west than hers, so she wouldn’t recognize any of the terrain either.
As they ran steadily at the loping pace of a hunt, they saw flying machines crisscrossing high in the sky, traveling in dead straight lines. Sah Lee worried that they would spot her and Tir Mal and come down for them. She knew she could easily kill the demons if she ambushed them, but if there were many of them and they used their stick weapons, she and Tir Mal would be defenseless and quickly killed.
They ran for hour after hour, stopping only when they scented water for a brief rest and a drink. As the afternoon sun dropped towards the horizon, Sah Lee spotted a thin line of smoke in the distance, south of the direction they were traveling. It looked like the smoke of a village fire. She altered their course to run towards it.
They approached in a wide arc, so they came toward the village from downwind. As they got closer Sah Lee slowed down and the two of them approached as though they were stalking it. As they drew closer, they expected to hear the everyday noises of a village. Chatter and laughter and the sound of children playing, but there was a silence broken only by the faint rustle of the wind in the grasses, the chirring of insects and the distant call of a bird of prey. Then the breeze brought two distinct scents to Sah Lee. Blood and males. She stopped dead and signaled to Tir Mal to do the same.
“There’s something wrong at the village. Something bad. Draw your knife and we’ll split up. When we can see what has happened, we’ll signal each other.” She whispered to Tir Mal.
Sah Lee broke to the right and Tir Mal broke left as they silently crept toward the village. Tir Mal signaled first. Three low whistles, the all clear. Sah Lee slowly stood and saw Tir Mal standing close to the edge of the village, looking into it.
Trusting Tir Mal’s judgment, Sah Lee ran over to join her. She saw what Tir Mall was looking at. Aarnth bodies were laying on the ground. The compound for the males was close to the village and she could see from where she was that it had been broken into and the males slaughtered. The fire that the smoke was coming from was almost burnt out. She and Tir Mal walked into the village and checked some of the dead. They had the same wounds she had seen on her friends back in the city. The bodies still had the heat of life in them, though the arms and legs had cooled and were stiffening. Sah Lee estimated that they had been dead for an hour or so.
The village’s solar cells had been pulled down and smashed, and the batteries had holes in them from the creature’s weapons. They had pulled the fridge over and scattered its contents in the dust.
As Sah Lee looked around, she saw the same heavily patterned footprints she had seen in the city where her friends died. She followed the direction the footprints came from until they ended at a straight line in the dust where they had got back into their flying machine. She returned to the village center where Tir Mal was standing, looking at the surrounding carnage.
Tir Mal looked at Sah Lee as she walked toward her. “Why?” she asked.
“They don’t need a reason, they are demons.” Sah Lee answered. “Come on, this isn’t the time to pay our respects to the dead. We will join them soon and there will be nobody to lay us to rest.”
Tir Mal nodded and Sah Lee saw her jaw was clenched, making her facial muscles stand out. Her eyes were narrowed and Tir Mal’s face had a hard, angry look to it. She suspected that her own face looked the same. Heading west again Sah Lee broke into a run, but this time, instead of trailing behind her, Tir Mal caught up and they ran side by side. Sah Lee was comforted that her closest friend Tir Mal was right alongside her.
They continued running until the sun had sunk to just touch the horizon. Sah Lee called a halt. “We’ll have a drink and rest until the sun has gone down, then we’ll hunt for something to eat in the twilight. We should be able to find something. When we’ve eaten, we’ll sleep for a few hours and then set out before dawn.”
“I want to kill more of those creatures!” Tir Mal said. “Why don’t we just keep going until we find them?”
“If we fight them when we are tired and hungry we will be slow and weak, and then we’ll be dead. We need to rest and regain our strength before we attack the demons.”
Tir Mal dropped to the ground and Sah Lee sat beside her. Her head was still painful and had bled again while they ran, but the pounding had eased. She would look for a stand of kahn trees while they hunted. Chewing the bark had a pain killing effect and should reduce or even stop the pounding.
She took a drink and turned to Tir Mal. She lay asleep on the ground, her head on her backpack. Sah Lee wondered when Tir Mal had last slept. She put her leather water bottle in her backpack and left it by Tir Mal as she went to hunt for food and kahn tree bark.
Sah Lee returned, chewing khan bark and carrying a full grown ranual. Tir Mal was still asleep, so Sah Lee sat on a rock fifty meters away and carefully skinned and prepared the ranual, then buried the head, feet and guts. She carried the carcass wrapped in its skin back to Tir Mal and woke her gently. She sat up and rubbed her eyes.
“It’s dark.” Tir Mal said sleepily. “Let’s go and see if we can find something to eat.” Then she caught the scent of the fresh ranual meat. “You’ve been. Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You need to sleep as much as I do. It only takes one to hunt a ranual this far from a village. Come on, let’s eat.”
They shared the ranual’s small liver, then ate most of the rest of the meat. Sah Lee wrapped the remains in its skin and put it into her backpack. They rubbed the blood and juices from their hands with the loose dry soil, then tore off handfuls of the thin dry grass and rubbed the dirt off their hands. They settled down in the lee of a patch of scrubby bushes which gave scant protection against the cool night breeze and both fell into a deep sleep.
Tir Mal woke first in the pre-dawn silence as the nocturnal animals and insects were preparing to hide and sleep for the day and before the diurnal denizens of the plains had started to wake. It was still dark and looking up she could see stars twinkling, but the sky in the east was starting to lighten. She took a drink of water and then woke Sah Lee. They shared the remains of the ranual, buried the bones and skin, then set off eastwards in the twilight before the sun rose.
They ran side by side in the steady, mile eating, hunting lope which was almost hypnotic in its unvarying, regular pace. Late in the morning they caught the scent of something that didn’t belong on the plains and slowed to a stop.
“What is that scent?” asked Sah Lee.
“I have smelt that before. It is the scent of the flying machines.” Tir Mal answered. “We must be downwind of one.”
“We’ll see what’s there and decide what to do.” Said Sah Lee. She crouched down and led the way towards the scent.
The scent was strong, but their prey was further away than they thought. They caught sight of a flying machine and staying downwind, they moved across to higher ground to get a better view. Sah Lee was shocked to see nearly thirty of the machines arranged in a rough circle. The machine they had seen had been the nearest, the others hidden by the lay of the land. They could see a large number, between two and three hundred, of the creatures milling around in the space in the middle of the flying machines.
“There’s nothing we can do there.” Sah Lee said. “We could try to find any scouts they have sent out.”
“Let’s do it. If we can’t kill them all at once, we’ll do it one at a time.”
Sah Lee led the way cautiously round to the west. If they weren’t directly downwind of the enemy encampment, the heavy scent wouldn’t drown out the tell-tale odor of any scouts. Progress was slow as this wasn’t like their normal tracking, now they were not only looking for their prey but also knew that they may be hunted themselves.
Past the scent of the main camp, the faint scent of the enemy creatures came to their nostrils. They hunkered down while they worked out the location of its source. They were far enough away from the encampment to not be detected by the main body of the enemy force, but not far enough away that the sound of their weapons would not go unnoticed. Creeping closer through the low scrub, they caught sight of two of the enemy creatures. Sah Lee drew a breath through her teeth with a hiss when she saw them. They weren’t wearing head covers and she could clearly see that these weren’t the same as the one she had killed earlier. One had a long narrow scaly muzzle with gray scales covering its head. The other had a short-hooked beak in the middle of a pink skinned face with a ruff of short feathers sweeping back over its head. “These are demons!” she whispered.
“I think they are just different types of animal,” Tir Mal replied, “they die too easily to be demons.”
“Whatever they are, we need to get a lot closer and take them by surprise. If they use their weapons on us we won’t stand a chance.”
Slipping off her backpack and drawing her hunting knife, Sah Lee crept forward, moving slowly and silently, staying low, with Tir Mal just behind her. They came up behind the two scouts who were standing relaxed grunting and squawking at each other. Sah Lee and Tir Mal paused four paces away, nodded to each other and leapt on them. Their blades flashed as they buried them into the creature’s throats. Tir Mal was a fraction too slow and as the beaked creature died from her knife, its arms jerked up and fired a burst from its weapon harmlessly into the air. As she and Sah Lee pulled their knives free and stepped back, an answering burst of gunfire tore through Tir Mal and Sah Lee saw her jerking body drop to the ground in a welter of blood. Sah Lee’s arm came back as she spun towards the source of the gunfire and she saw a third creature swing its weapon toward her. Her arm snapped back, and her hunting knife flew straight into the eye of the third creature burying itself up to the hilt. The creature fell backwards, frantically scrabbling at its eye, dropping its weapon, which clattered onto the rocks at its feet. It struggled for a moment then became still.
Sah Lee knew the sound of the weapon would attract more of the demons to investigate. She ran the few steps to the body of the third creature and pulled her knife from its eye socket, wiping it with two quick strokes on the dead creature’s arm. She stepped back and crouched down by the torn and lifeless body of Tir Mal. She blinked, and her eyes stung, but no tears came. It was as though she knew that Tir Mal’s death was inevitable. For a moment, she was looking down into her own dead face. A ripple ran across it like a reflection in a still pool and a cold chill ran from her scalp down her back. She shook her head and Tir Mal’s empty eyes stared back up at her.
She bent down and kissed Tir Mal’s forehead and closing her eyes, whispered, “Rest well, my friend.” She sprang up and sprinted away, not even stopping to collect her backpack. She knew she needed to put as much distance between herself and the encampment as quickly as possible before the demons came for their revenge.
Sah Lee ran hard until the sun was halfway to the horizon. Catching the scent of water, she followed it to a shallow muddy pool, hidden by trees and long reeds. She pushed through the undergrowth and dropped to her knees in the mud. Still panting from her run, she scooped the murky water up with her hands and gulped it down. She regretted leaving her backpack with her water bottles now. It was impetuous and foolish. If she had stopped a moment and considered it, she could have spent the few minutes retrieving it. Sah Lee felt ashamed that her fear overcame her common sense. She had nothing to carry water in and knew if she drank too much now and continued running, she would probably vomit it up. She also thought it probable that the creatures would be hunting her, and in their flying machines, they could move much more quickly than she could. Her thirst barely slaked, she pushed through the reeds and broke into a run, heading west again.
The sun set, and the color bled away from the landscape but there was enough light for Sah Lee to continue running, albeit at a slower pace than before. In the distance she saw a spark of light, a camp-fire. Relieved to see the signs of life, Sah Lee changed direction toward the fire. Aware that the light might attract unwanted attention as she approached she moved more cautiously round to the south and west of the fire to get downwind of the camp to make sure she didn’t run into any of the enemy creatures. She was still some distance away when she caught the unnatural scent of the flying machines.
Even more carefully now, Sah Lee crept towards the source of the scent. Spotting higher ground to her left, she moved across to it to get a better view. When she was on top of the rise, she edged forward on her stomach amongst the low growing grass towards the highest part. Peering through the blades of grass, she was shocked to see another group of flying machines, just visible in the faint light of the Necklet. She could see them in a rough circle, with firelight flickering on a small group of demons in the middle.
Sah Lee shuffled backwards until she was out of site of the encampment. Even if most of the demons were asleep or resting in the flying machines, there may be patrols in the area. Tired and hungry as she was, Sah Lee was in no hurry to run into a group of them in the dark. And the death of Tir Mal still unsettled her. She had always been Sah Lee’s closest ally, they had been almost inseparable. Now she was truly alone. She felt the emptiness in her stomach she had felt when she left home, but also the sense of loss of her friends and the destruction of the University which she had become to think of as home. Not gone because she had followed her duty and left, it but because the invading demons had snatched it away and smashed everything into dust. No tears came to her this time. When she saw the city destroyed, then her friends all dead, she felt as though something inside was dying. When Tir Mal was killed its spark was finally quenched. The only thing she felt now was anger, a lust for revenge and a primal fear that she fought to keep down.
Once clear of the mound, Sah Lee glanced at the Necklet and stars to get her bearings and resumed her journey west. She had many days travel ahead of her to get to where she might find her village again.
As she ran she was startled to hear an Aarnth voice call out – even more so as it was a male. The voice called out again, “Who’s there.”
She stopped, focused and alert. Looking in the direction the voice came from, she saw a dark shape moving about fifty paces away. “What are you doing here? she hissed.
“Thank the Makers, I was afraid you were one of them.” the male voice replied. “I’ve managed to avoid them, but I’ve seen what they have done.” He moved towards her. “Do you have any meat? I have water.”
Desperately thirsty, she overcame her distrust of males. The ones in the city were, apparently, tame and safe, but she grew up fearing the village males who were kept securely penned up.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“I was just outside the city. I escaped onto the plains. It seemed safer. Do you have food?”
“No, can I have some of your water. I don’t have any.”
“Where are you from?” he asked.
“I was at the university. My class was on a field trip when – what happened, happened.”
“You mixed with males in the city?”
“No, I never saw what worth males had. I don’t know what we kept you for.”
He approached her, she saw he had no backpack or any other possessions, just a canteen hanging from the leather strap in his hand.
“You must be a city girl.” he said, handing her the canteen. “A hunter would never lose their water bottle.”
Sah Lee said nothing and took a mouthful of the sour, tannin tainted water which she rinsed round her mouth and spat out on the ground. Then she took a deep drink and handed it back.
As she turned her back on him he leapt and crashed down on her as she fell face down on the ground. Gripping her neck with his left hand he pressed her face into the dust while he pulled at her breeches with his right hand.
“Now I’ll show you what us males are for.” He snarled at her.
In his eagerness he misjudged Sah Lee’s strength, determination and fighting skills. She didn’t want to draw the hunting knife strapped to her back, all that would achieve would be to hand it to the male. She pulled her right arm up above her shoulders to reach up behind her and extended her claws. She twisted her upper body and grasped at his left forearm, digging her razor sharpened claws into his flesh, raking them down to his wrist, each claw laying open the skin and slicing deep into the underlying muscle.
He let out a cross between a scream and a roar. As his left hand lost its strength it lifted off Sah Lee’s neck. She twisted round underneath him and while he was off balance jerked her pelvis up and threw him off. As she rolled back to attack him he swung his right fist round and caught her in the side of the head with a terrific blow. She fell back dazed, while he staggered to his feet, clutching his ruined left arm to his chest, blood pouring from the wounds.
“I’ll kill you for that!” He bellowed, looking around for a suitable sized rock.
Sah Lee looked up, trying to focus her eyes, realizing that if she stayed on the ground, she would soon have her head caved in. He looked like he would do a better job of it than Sor Tan. She staggered to her feet, desperately trying to pull herself together. The recent wound on her head had reopened and was dripping blood down her cheek. As she stood up, he charged towards her with a rock in his right hand, held high ready to swing down on her skull. Remembering what she had learnt at the University fighting club, she twisted slightly to her left and leaned back as she brought her right foot up and hit him hard, squarely in the middle of his torso just below his breastbone. The impact temporarily paralyzed his diaphragm muscle, causing acute pain and stopping him from breathing. He stopped in his tracks. With his lungs unable to draw breath in or out, his roar cut off as though with a switch and he stood stock still, eyes bulging. Sah Lee took the opportunity and sprang forward sinking her teeth deep into his throat, snapping them closed and shook her head as she yanked it back. A large piece of the male’s throat came away, pouring blood down Sah Lee’s chin and over his chest.
Still unable to breath, with arteries in his neck severed and his windpipe half torn out, the male dropped to his knees, his right hand over his throat trying to cover the wound while his life blood pumped out between his fingers. As the blood quickly drained from his brain, he lost consciousness and collapsed on his side. A few moments later, he died.
Sah Lee spat out the bits of the male’s throat that remained in her mouth. It was the first time she had tasted Aarnth blood. It was very much like the blood from all the other animals she had killed.
As the sky started to lighten before dawn, Sah Lee woke from the shallow scrape she had made in the shelter of a morl berry bush. The thorny branches hadn’t offered any physical protection to her, but they hid her from view and the pungent smell of its leaves and crushed berries helped to cover her scent. She was now several hours run away from the body of the male. The memory of her encounter with him frightened and angered her. She had left him and his water bottle behind and once again she regretted letting her fear get the better of her, she really needed something to carry water in.
She had seen a tallak tree a few paces away before she created her bed. She walked over to the stunted, twisted tree and picked a few of the ripe black berries that hung on it in profusion. The juice filled berries tasted sharp, but she knew they would slake her thirst and keep her going until she could get fresh meat.
Moving into the light breeze coming from the north west, Sah Lee left her overnight shelter, knowing she would catch the scent of the flying machines or any demon scouts. Every time she glanced up at the sky, she saw flying machines crisscrossing high above her. They seemed to be flying in random directions; the sight reminded her of the flight of angry hornets when as a child she and her friends played, throwing rocks at their nests and then running away when the furious insects swarmed out.
As she ran with her eyes half on the horizon, half on the ground in front of her she saw one of the high up flying machines suddenly wink out of existence, leaving a small cloud of dust which rapidly fell groundward. She slowed down to see what was happening. Another disappeared, then two more. A puff of dust rose from the ground in the distance, followed a few seconds later by what sounded like a single, distant clap of thunder. The same sound, but louder this time, came from behind her, she spun round and saw another cloud of dust that looked like it came from the group of flying machines she had seen the previous evening.
Then there were puffs and clouds of dust rising from all around her and the sound like thunder merged into one continuous rolling rumble which grew in intensity and she could feel the ground beneath her feet trembling.
A cloud of dust silently exploded from the ground less than a quarter of an hour running distance away and Sah Lee turned around to look directly at it. Dust burst out into a roiling cloud and small dark specks flew out in all directions. As the specks heading towards her grew, she realized that what looked like small dots were huge rocks hurled up from the ground. Then the sound and pressure wave hit her like a hammer blow and flung her backwards. The wind tore the air from her lungs and tumbled her across the ground like a rag, ripping up shrubs and throwing loose soil, dust and small rocks outwards. As soon as the rush of wind and sound passed, Sah Lee pushed herself up and stood, bruised and bleeding, choking in the dust peering at the source of the devastation. The rocks thrown in the air started to fall out of the sky, crashing to the ground, bouncing, spinning and flattening everything in their path. There was no shelter, all she could do was to drop to the ground and roll herself into as small a ball as possible with her arms wrapped protectively over her head and hope that nothing big hit her. She had been frightened for so long that her fear seemed to be a permanent part of her now, almost normal. She felt the inevitability of her death, hoping that whatever killed her would be quick and painless.
As the sound of rocks hitting the ground fell away, relieved that she had suffered only a few more cuts and bruises, she stood again. Partially deafened by the intense sound wave that had hit her, Sah Lee could still hear more of the crashing rumbling sounds around her. Fearful that she might get caught up by another closer explosion she walked towards the source of the one that had injured her, reasoning that another wouldn’t happen in the same place, so it should be relatively safe.
She made slow progress across the broken landscape of uprooted trees and shrubs, shattered rocks and churned up soil, and every few minutes more small rocks and pebbles fell around her, but nothing big hit her. It seemed her guess that it was safer the closer she got to the source was correct. The rumbling continued around her and the air thickened with so much dust that it began to block out the sun and the mid-morning sunlight faded to twilight.
The ground became so broken with large, freshly smashed pieces of rock with sharp edges, and piles of uprooted trees and bushes that Sah Lee was making little progress scrambling across it. She was having problems breathing with all the dust in the air. It was like the fall dust storms they sometimes had, when the wind whipped across the plains picking up the dust from the great expanse of the dry soil and carrying it in a huge brown storm lasting for days, blotting out the sun and turning day into night. They couldn’t hunt in such conditions, so they all stayed inside their dwellings with woven cloth over the door which let some air in and most of the dust out.
Sah Lee took shelter in an overhang from a broken boulder She had no woven cloth to filter the dust out of the air, so she pulled up her soft leather tunic over her mouth and nose, which kept some dust out. She closed her eyes to protect them from the airborne dust and grit and after a while, fell into a shallow sleep.
Sah Lee woke with a start. It was pitch black, with no sun, moons, stars or even the glimmer of light from the ring of icy chunks that encircled the planet, the Necklet. She couldn’t tell if it was day or night. The strong breeze was cold against her skin. The dust was thick in the air, but she could smell rain, which was almost unknown in this season on the plains. Rain came to the plains in the winter, not at this time of the year, early summer. At least the thunder sounds had stopped now, the only sound was the wind.
There seemed no point staying where she was. Feeling her way, she moved carefully to the west. She remembered the orientation of the rock she had sheltered under, so she was confident of which way she was going, but after a few minutes, she had lost track of the direction she was moving. It might have made sense to sit it out and wait for it to get light, but Sah Lee was in no mood to sit patiently and wait for something to happen. It wasn’t in her character.
Soon after, she felt a smattering of big, cold raindrops, then the shower turned into a torrent. Within moments Sah Lee was drenched. The soft leather of her tunic and breeches soaked up the water until it was drenched and had turned cold and slimy-feeling against her skin.
Sah Lee gritted her teeth and kept moving. Her moccasins became slippery on the rocks beneath her feet, so she took them off and carried them, which made it more difficult to feel her way with just one hand across the uneven and broken landscape in the pitch dark. Hoping she was still moving west, Sah Lee trudged on, careful not to slip. Eventually, the sky began to lighten. There was just enough light to make out where she was going, but the sky was so thick with dark cloud and dust that the sun wasn’t visible. She still couldn’t get her bearings, but at least she could make better progress now.
She struggled onward, making slow headway and was so cold that her teeth were chattering. Her soaking tunic and breeches clung to her body, hampering her movements and drawing out the remaining heat from her limbs. There was little shelter on the plains, except under some of the rocky outcrops, where over millennia, the wind had eroded away soft rock from underneath a layer of hard rock. These had once been used as shelters by vulpen packs, but they had been wiped out by the Aarnth centuries ago. The only vulpen left now were deep in the great northern forest. Sah Lee couldn’t believe she swallowed Sor Tan’s story about a vulpen pack near the city, but she had no reason to doubt her then.
In the gloom, she saw a large dark irregular shape ahead and moved toward it. It was a massive piece of a shattered boulder that was part buried in the ground where it had landed with a terrific force. Sah Lee took shelter on the leeward side and huddled up as tightly as she could, shivering violently.
Still cold and wet, Sah Lee soon stopped shivering. Thinking that she needed to be ready to defend herself in case the demons came for her, she reached behind her for her hunting knife. As she drew the blade from its sheath she fumbled and dropped it. Turning around to pick it up she knocked her head against the rock. She was so tired, she just wanted to go to sleep, but forced herself to pick the knife up and keep her eyes open. She sat, waiting, though she didn’t know what she was waiting for. It was difficult to think clearly and her mind kept drifting back to her time hunting in the heat and sunshine of the plains.
A light appeared in the sky. As Sah Lee tried to focus on it, it appeared to be moving. As she peered at it, trying to keep her mind clear, she realized that it was coming towards her. She struggled up into a crouching position, but her legs had been curled underneath her for too long. They had become numb, and she felt weak and tired and couldn’t stay in a crouching position. She stood up and banged her head again on the outward sloping edge of the boulder. The pounding headache from the injury that Sor Tan had inflicted on her had come back and she was having trouble standing up straight. She had to hold herself steady against the rock with her left hand, holding her knife in her right, which was shaking. She felt sick and dizzy and realized that she was almost panting, breathing in short, shallow breaths. Her wet clothes were cold and sticking to her body.
She saw a flying machine coming straight towards her, slowing as it approached. She didn’t know what was wrong with her but knew it was time to die. Even if she was well, she couldn’t defend herself against the demon’s stick weapons. Like this, weak and shaking uncontrollably, she doubted she could defend herself even if they were unarmed. But she wasn’t going to end like a coward. She would die facing her enemy, knife in hand.
The flying machine had a bright light pointing down at the ground that lit up a level area nearby, which it landed on. As the light went out, Sah Lee could see that this flying machine was different to the others she had seen. Instead of being completely black, through the gloom she saw this was white with a thick dark stripe running from front to back.
A hole in the side of the flying machine appeared and a ramp silently slid to the ground. Sah Lee watched in horror as an abomination of a creature, like something out of a childhood nightmare, surely a demon, stepped onto the ramp and descended to the ground. It had a black, elongated, segmented body at least twice as long as Sah Lee was tall, and walked on eight legs, each of which ended in a pincer like claw. The front of its body tilted upwards and had a pair of arms with three-fingered hands. Topping off the body, a blocky head with two big black eyes on the sides. The bottom of the head held a pair of large serrated mandibles which looked big enough to clasp Sah Lee around her waist. The things abdomen ended in a long segmented tail which curved up over its body ending just above the creature’s head. Its tail ended in a sharp curved stinger.
As the nightmarish creature moved towards Sah Lee, she heard a strangely accented voice: “You are safe now. The Ants have destroyed the outcasts. I have come to rescue you, so we can attend to your needs.”
“Stay away demon. Go back to Maaren where you belong. Do not come any closer, I am armed, and I know your kind can die!” Sah Lee replied.
“I can see you are carrying a knife. Please put it away and come with me. You have nothing to fear from us, your enemies are all dead now.”
Sah Lee shuddered in disgust and fear as she looked at the demon. It was similar to the small creatures that lived under rocks near water holes that jumped out to pounce on unwary flies. She didn’t like them, and this monstrosity terrified her.
“Keep back demon, if you come any closer I will kill you or die trying.” Sah Lee knew that in her weakness and with her soaking clothes hampering her she wouldn’t stand a chance against the demon. But she would die like the proud hunter that she was.
The creature reached behind it and pulled out a stick like weapon which it pointed at Sah Lee. “I am sorry, but we don’t have time for a discussion.”
There was no sound from the weapon, but Sah Lee felt something hit her in the chest. Everything went black.
Copyright ©Andrew Maclure 2018
All rights reserved.