Kierann Brooke rose from his bed and opened the shutters at his window. He stretched, yawning, then smiled in satisfaction as he looked out into the bright, cold morning. Today would be the day. The animals had been ready for over two sennights, but each morning had brought mist and rain, along with ever-deepening disappointment. Today, however, the wintering sun had risen in a pale, cloudless sky and his disappointment, like the rain and mist, evaporated. Yes, he smiled again as he closed the shutters, today would definitely be the day.
As he dressed in his warmest clothes, sounds of movement from the bed behind him made him groan, and he turned to see his wife Elinor, sitting up and rubbing the sleep from her eyes. His euphoria lessened immediately. He had been hoping to leave before she awoke.
“I shall be out for most of the day,” he said casually, as she rose and wrapped herself in a thick, woollen robe. “So have something warm in the pot for when I return. I’ll need it.”
“Will you be bringing anything back?” Elinor asked, yawning and running her fingers through her short, dark curls. “I mean, should I light the fire in the smokehouse?”
“That won’t be necessary,” Kierann replied with a tight smile. “There is enough meat in the smokehouse to last us the whole winter.” He held his breath, hoping that Elinor would take the matter no further, although he guessed that he would have no such luck.
“You’re not taking those *things* with you?” Elinor’s grey eyes widened. “If you let them loose, there’s no knowing what havoc they might cause. What about Milek’s sheep and Sarn’s goats? You can’t risk it Kierann! You can’t!”
Kierann let out his breath on a groan and shook his head.
“They will not touch Milek’s sheep, or Sarn’s flea-bitten goats, my dear,” he said calmly, forcing himself to smile, although his eyes spoke his impatience. “I raised those animals myself, almost from birth, and they will hunt only as I have trained them. Besides, the prey I hunt is far more likely to harm the livestock.”
“They haven’t, so far,” Elinor argued. “They haven’t bothered the livestock at all, or Milek and Sarn would have hunted them down already. There are enough deer roaming free around that forest to keep them fed. You know that Kierann. You’re just using it as an excuse.”
“So?” Kierann demanded, stepping forward, his blue eyes narrowed in sudden anger. “I’m hunting because I want to. Because I enjoy it. All right?”
“No!” Elinor cried. “It’s not all right! It’s wrong Kierann! Who’s going to do all the work around here while you’re off chasing a whim? I can’t do it alone, and it’s not as though we can afford to pay someone.”
“I can afford a day to myself once in a while, surely?” he tried to reason. “The harvest’s in now, and I’m sure you’re quite capable of feeding the pigs and milking a couple of cows.”
“It’s still not right!” she countered, “A grown man running round the forest playing at hunting! And those things you keep in the shed are wild animals, not hunting dogs! It’s all wrong Kierann! It wouldn’t be so bad if we could make use of the beast you’re trying to catch, but we can’t. It’s just a waste!”
Kierann could tell by the light in her eyes that it would be useless to argue. No matter how much he tried to explain his fascination for hunting, she would never understand. Best just to go.
“I’ll see you later,” he said with forced calm. “Don’t forget to keep something warm in the pot for me.”
As he spoke Kierann moved towards the door, turning his back to signify that the argument was over as far as he was concerned. He had awoken feeling so good, the excitement of what was to come fizzing through his veins, and he was not going to let anything spoil that anticipation. Why shouldn’t he hunt? Who said that hunting had to be done for food, or to protect the livestock? What was wrong with hunting for the sheer thrill of it? For the pride of outwitting your intended prey? For the excitement of being in at the kill? Hunting deer and rabbits was all well and good, but nothing like the feeling of tracking a worthy opponent: another hunter whose wiles and cunning matched his own.
He left the house, whistling to himself as the excitement returned. Today was going to be the day, and Elinor’s pessimism wasn’t enough to spoil his mood. Of course his animals weren’t going to run amok on his neighbours’ land. He had prepared for this day for over two years now, and nothing had been left to chance. He had reared those cheetars by hand, taking them from their mother when their eyes were still closed, so that they would recognise him, and him only, as their leader. He had trained them so thoroughly — with more care and patience than any man would show his finest hunting dog — that they were a part of him, an extension of his being. They would hunt only at his command.
As he walked towards the building that housed his cheetars, he thought of his intended prey. He had been watching one particular creature for a couple of years, biding his time as he waited for the cheetars to reach their peak. He knew it was the same animal because he had watched it closely and knew every marking on its shaggy coat, and every movement, right down to the way it held its head when it sniffed the air. It was a crafty adversary and had almost caught him unawares once or twice, when he had been out hunting deer. He had loosed his crossbow at it on more than one occasion, but it had always been too fast for him, disappearing even as he took aim.
It had been after one of those misses that he had come up with the idea of using other animals to hunt the creature. His dogs would have been no match for its ingenuity and speed, and so — while visiting his brother near Valdasly — he had gone out one day to find something else, something that could outwit, outrun and outfight his chosen prey. He had more or less stumbled across the cheetar cubs whilst looking for shivarees, which had been his original choice. The large, weasel-like shivarees were fierce, and with enough of them he would probably have been guaranteed a kill, but finding the cheetars had put an end to that idea. The cubs had been left in the undergrowth by their mother, probably while she hunted. There had been two, each no bigger than a new-born puppy, their eyes still closed and he had swiftly thrust them into the sack he carried, hardly able to contain his excitement as he had hurried away before their mother returned.
He opened the door of the windowless building that was home to his cheetars, then squatted on his haunches. He wrinkled his nose at the acid smell coming from within as he waited for them to come forward, out of the darkness to greet him. Two shapes emerged, approaching cautiously at first, then with affectionate recognition. Two sleek black shapes, with eyes that glowed like amber fire, converged upon him, butting their heads against his body in greeting.
“Aah, my magnificent fellows,” he breathed, as he stroked each head before straightening up. “Today you will taste warm blood, and it shall be as though I taste it myself. Today you will make me proud.”
As he took two leather collars, each with its own length of leash, from the back of the outward-opening door, he congratulated himself once more on having the genius to choose cheetars for hunting animals. They were swift, agile and so fierce that no prey — except perhaps the luckiest — could escape their teeth and claws. He fastened a collar on each one, something they had become used to from the moment they opened their eyes, then led them out into the bright morning.
His wife, along with most of his neighbours, had thought him insane when he had told them his plans for the cubs he had brought back from his trip. They hadn’t believed that he would be able to train the creatures to obey him. He looked at them now, as they padded silently beside him, not even straining at their leashes, and gave a soft, self-satisfied chuckle. Fools, all of them! Today he would show them how wrong they had been. Today he would bring home the head of the prey that no one believed he could catch and then he would hang it over his door as a trophy for all to see.
Cara Shem Fenib lifted his head to sniff the crisp air, tasting it for the scent of prey. He could smell each of his brothers. They were close by. He could smell the mothers and the weak, in their hiding place where the trees grew thickest. He could smell Not-Prey close by, in a tree. He ignored it. Not-Prey would leave the Fenib alone. If the Fenib challenged Not-Prey they would fight and cause hurt, and his clan were few. There had been more Fenib, before the cold time began. Some had been old and weak and had gone with Black Fenib. Some had been given to Black Fenib by the flying stick. At least Cara Shem Fenib thought that was what had happened. He had seen the flying stick hit them, but he had not seen them again.
He could smell something else. Something faint and far away, but coming near. It was Spara Klani. They that walked on two legs and used the flying stick to kill. Spara Klani were the enemy of the Fenib. This Spara Klani had used his flying stick on Fenib, Cara Shem knew. If he and his brothers hunted this Spara Klani the clan would feed, and there would be one less flying stick. He sniffed again, rising up on his hind legs. There was one Spara Klani, and something else. The other scent was something he had known before. Something that could cause hurt. Something that could bring Black Fenib. It was other Not-Prey, but bigger than that in the tree and of another kind. It was Hunter. He barked to his brothers, his tone warning. What would Hunter be doing with Spara Klani? He couldn’t smell fear, and the Spara Klani would fear Hunter. Cara Shem Fenib felt puzzlement, curiosity. He would wait. He would watch and wait, from the safe, high place, where he could see all who came.
Once Kierann considered himself to be a good distance within the forest, he let his cheetars roam free. He could have done so as he crossed the fields of his neighbours, but he knew how they all felt about having wild animals crossing their land and it wouldn’t do to antagonise them. The cheetars wouldn’t bother their livestock; he had told them that on many occasions, but had never managed to convince them. His cheetars had been fed on nothing but rabbits, deer and occasionally wolf-meat. They would not think of his neighbours’ livestock as prey.
Obtaining wolf-meat had been more difficult than he had anticipated. He had managed to disable one or two with his bow, and drag them back home for his cheetars to kill, before using the hides to train them. The wolves had been of the same kind as the one he sought today: bigger and stronger than any wolves he had known before, with shorter snouts and larger skulls. Their ears were smaller too, and they were smarter — much smarter. Of course, the ones he had managed to kill with his bow had been old and lame, and they hadn’t provided much sport for his cheetars, but it had given them a taste for the meat and the hunt, and now they were going to taste the blood of a worthy opponent.
When they reached the bottom of a steep incline, the cheetars began to sniff the air and Kierann tensed, sensing that they had found something and hoping that it would be the one he sought. He shaded his eyes with his hand and looked around him, but could see nothing. Then, movement caught his eye at the top of the hill, and he squinted, trying to see amongst the trees. He caught a brief glimpse of the outline of a dark, grey-brown head before it was gone, and it was all he could do to keep himself from crying out in triumph as he recognised the white-tipped ears of the leader of the wolf pack.
He knelt between the cheetars and grasped each one by the loose skin on the back of their necks. Two pairs of amber eyes burned into his as they turned towards him, and Kierann stared back, unblinking, in a show of superiority. Then he took a deep breath and with a soft cry, he let them go. As one they leapt forward to climb the hill, with Kierann in close pursuit. He had thought about using a horse to follow the hunt, but his stallion, Athron, couldn’t bear to be near the cheetars. He would just have to keep up with them on foot.
As he followed the cheetars up the hill his heart began to pound and he smiled to himself, knowing that it was not merely due to exertion. The excitement he had known he would feel at being part of this hunt was beginning to have an effect. It was happening! It was finally happening! Then, as the cheetars cleared the top of the hill, he felt himself slip on some loose earth. He reached out, trying to grab hold of something — anything — to prevent the fall, but in vain. He called out to the cheetars as he slid, beginning a tumbling descent of the hill.
At the bottom, Kierann lay rubbing his bruises and trying to get back his breath. Again he called to the cheetars, demanding that they return to his side, but they either could not — or would not — hear him, because they remained out of sight. Tears of frustration stung his eyes as he thought of the missed opportunity. His cheetars would get their prey — of that he had no doubt — but he would no longer be part of it. He would no longer be in at the kill.
He heard the crack of a twig nearby and smiled, thinking for a moment that his cheetars might have returned. Then he shook his head with a soft groan as he realised that the stealthy hunters would have made no such give-away sound. He looked up and instead of the cheetars, he found himself staring at a woman. She was young and slender, with long black hair that hung loose to her waist. Her eyes were a light brown, almost amber colour, and her lips were dark red and curved in an amused smile. The most unusual thing about the woman however, and the thing that made Kierann’s stare so full of astonishment, was the fact that she was utterly naked. Her skin was pale — almost translucent — and covered by nothing but her luxuriant hair.
He watched her walk towards him, hips gently swaying, smile casually enticing, and her eyes sparkling promises that fired his loins. She stopped just in front of him, smiling enigmatically as he rose to his feet.
“Who are you?” he whispered hoarsely as she placed her hands on his shoulders, her touch sending messages of delight down his spine. He let his own hands clasp her waist, revelling at the cool silk of her skin beneath his fingers. She lifted her head to look him in the eye, her wide, amber gaze suddenly thoughtful.
“I have known many names,” she said, her voice breath-soft. “It matters not. Only that I am here.”
A thought of Elinor passed through Kierann’s mind as the woman reached up to caress his jaw. He could see his wife’s face, and the hurt that would darken her clear grey eyes at such a betrayal. But the woman’s fingers were stroking his face and her velvet-soft voice was in his ears, and he found it increasingly difficult to think of anything but the promise of ecstasy in her strange amber eyes. He leaned forward to kiss her, catching the musky scent of her hair, and her arms snaked around his neck, holding him fast. The kiss seemed to last an eternity and when she finally let him pull away he was left gasping for breath, although she seemed strangely unaffected. She turned then and began to walk away, her movements slow and mesmerising. Kierann followed, unable to do anything else. And so it went on, for what seemed like hours: him catching up with her and kissing her, each kiss lasting longer and arousing him further , until he felt that he would either explode or suffocate, then her breaking away and leading him ever deeper into the forest.
Eventually they came to a clearing and when he kissed her again, she laughed and broke away, only this time she took him by the hand and pulled him with her as she sank to her knees amongst the rotting leaves.
“Now my fine hunter,” she whispered, her mouth curved in a maddening smile. “Claim the reward you have earned.”
Kierann needed no further encouragement, and he grasped her roughly, kissing her deeply, hungrily. His vanity couldn’t resist the urge to open his eyes and see how the kiss was affecting her and when he did, he felt puzzlement. She was still smiling, but her amber eyes were misted with unshed tears. He started to speak, to ask her what was wrong, but she blinked back the tears and shook her head.
“There’s nothing you can do,” she said softly, caressing his cheek with silken fingers. “Nothing at all.”
Kierann was at a loss. He still wanted to ask her what was wrong. He wanted to know what had made her so sad, but her hands were moving like whispers over his body and there was nothing he could do but give in to the insistence of her lovemaking.
Cara Shem Fenib stood growling at the two black shapes that were stalking towards him through the trees. When he had seen the Spara Klani release them at the foot of the hill, he had barked an order to his brothers, to make them lead the mothers and the sick away from the danger. Then he had run, as fast as he could to lead the Hunters away from his clan. It had worked and now his clan were safe, but he was not. He was at the bottom of a high rock, with no place to climb up and the two Hunters were coming at him from either side. He could not run and although he would fight to the last, he knew it would not be long before Black Fenib came for him.
He turned his head from side to side, growling and watching them, his hackles raised. He would hurt them bad when they came close enough. They were coming nearer and he could smell the hunger on their breath. Then, as he thought his last fight would begin, they stopped and raised their ears. Cara Shem listened, and heard a strange sound. It was a calling. The Hunters kept on staring at him. Then the sound came again, louder and stronger. The Hunters looked at each other, then back at him, and all the time Cara Shem kept growling. When the call came for the third time, the hunters turned and ran through the forest away from him. The call was so strong now that Cara Shem almost followed. He stood for a moment, trying to remember what he should do. Then he turned and ran as fast as he could towards the place his clan would be waiting.
Kierann collapsed, panting, as his strange lover slid out from under him and rose lithely to her feet to survey him with an expression of profound melancholy. Bewildered, he tried to speak, but all he could manage was a dry, husky sound. His throat felt tight and sore, probably due to the damp forest air.
“Listen fine hunter,” she whispered sadly. “They come!”
Kierann wondered briefly why the rustling of the undergrowth brought a surge of fear that made him want to turn and run for his life. He tried to get to his feet, but when he tried to straighten his back a sharp pain made him lose his balance and he suspected that his earlier fall had left him with a pulled muscle. He tried to ask her to help him up, but again all that would come out of his mouth was an inarticulate sound. If he could just reach his flask and drink some water. Again he tried to stand, and again the pain made him fall. His legs felt strange too, but he couldn’t think what might be wrong. In fact, thinking was becoming more difficult with every passing moment, as the urge to flee grew stronger.
When the cheetars erupted from the undergrowth, he turned to run, irrational panic thudding through his veins. He tried to scramble out of the path of the black hunters, but they turned, coming straight at him, their blood-hungry eyes triumphant as they fixed upon their quarry. He felt cruel teeth fasten on his leg, and on his shoulder, pulling him back as two slavering, panting bodies converged on him. The pain as they began to tear hungrily at his fur-covered flesh, was like nothing he could ever have imagined and he raised his head to scream, knowing before the sound came that it would be an animal howl. He had long dreamed of being in at the kill, but not like this. Not like this!
Then, as his senses began to fade, he heard the woman’s voice issue a command in a language he did not understand and he saw his two beautiful cheetars following meekly as she led them out of the clearing. As his sight began to darken she stopped and turned towards him, resting her amber gaze upon his spoiled body as she shook her head sadly. Kierann knew at last the reason for her sadness and the regretful smile on her scarlet lips raked his heart, even as it faltered to a stop.