They stood in the glade; a young nervous boy, his grandmother and an overly large leopard. The last was crouched, somehow managing to lessen its presence in the tall grass. As for the old woman and her grandson they had no such innate gifts. She held his hand and pulled him even deeper into the wilderness.
“The hunt is a sacred thing. It is not just about finding some beast to kill. It is an enactment of one of the most basic of life’s mysteries. It is the original work that is done to nourish the self. It is the thing that reminds us that we are still beasts needing to feed off the land and that what we take is life. Hunters are not just killers. They are harvesters, coming not just for meat but also scouring the land for herbs and other precious resources that their family or clan may need.
“It is an act of unimaginable significance. One you may not understand until you have attained a certain comprehension of the mysteries of heaven and earth. Just know that you must respect the world that provides for you and remember your place in it. You sustain yourself with the lives of other creatures which is not something to take lightly.
“In fact, there is an ancient litany that we plains folk keep. In recent times fewer people remember or observe it. But people like me, true hunters, people of the kind I want you to be, do not forget. It goes as follows;
We are hunters of the plains, children of heaven and earth.
We respect their ways, we keep our oaths, we observe our duties,
We respect, obey and guard the numen,
We respect and perpetuate the cycle of life and death,
We are hunters, gatherers, harvesters of nature’s bounty,
We take only that which we and ours need,
We remember that we are beasts and that we too are meat,
We accept that as we hunt, we too are hunted,
When it turns out well we return, having gotten prey,
Besides the hunt, we kill only those who seek to kill us,
We do not hunt our guardian’s kin,
We do not hunt with plague or spreading poison,
We do not hunt those in the three acts of life,
We do not hunt the sacred beasts,
We do not take all, we leave enough to foster new growth,
We do not cull a kind,
We are hunters, not carrion seekers,
We hunt those with perverse thirst for our kind,
We hunt those who would take our grounds,
We may hunt but not eat our kind…
Valerian listened as his grandmother spoke softly. Her tone was solemn and on her face was a look of pride. He made sure to commit what was said to memory and was glad for that because right afterwards she asked him.
“Can you repeat it?” She inquired. Valerian nodded. But to make sure, she had him do so right away. Besides a few words which she corrected, he was able to recite it correctly from memory. She smiled in pride.
“In the past, you would have been given this litany on some parchment or taught it directly. You would never have qualified for your hunt without first memorising it. I knew that was unnecessary in your case. However, as you well know, memorization is different from understanding. I will do my best to communicate to you the meaning behind that chant”, she said whilst pulling a fallen leaf from his long dark hair.
That said, Valerian’s grandmother begun to lead him through the forest more earnestly. Taking the time, she pointed out whatever crossed her mind, such as animal tracks, plant species and the things he should do and be able to do with them. She spent a full hour leading him through the brush trying to get him acquainted with wilderness.
How to move without leaving needless traces, how to decipher traces of animals in the underbrush and tell which animal the tracks were from. It was a teaching and learning experience for both of them. For nearly five hours, the two went about in this fashion. Gulsalma had long since wandered off leaving them to roam the mountainside aimlessly led only by their fancies.
It was the most interesting lesson Valerian had ever had. With his grandfather, all he did was sit and listen, making note of anything he wanted to ask about later. If he was lucky there would be some assigned reading for him to continue with once lessons ended.
With Jonas, he spent his time in almost the same way. He sat cross-legged on the floor and was drilled on arcane lore, but he supposed that was because they had not begun practical lessons yet. That should change now.
As for training with Richard, it was the only active one among them. Every day began with extensive exercises and combat drills. These would leave him battered, tired out and yet strangely satisfied by the end.
This was totally different from what he expected. For one thing, he hadn’t expected a lesson. Then, there was the fact that everything was so relaxed. They just walked around with her pointing out things that caught her interest and him asking questions on the same.
It was fun and educative. He wasn’t listening to a lecture or answering questions, nor was he following explicit directions. They were under the sun, walking freely, taking in the landscape and the things in it, having a pleasant discussion. It was a weird freedom but Valerian liked it. The feeling of not being restrained was somewhat intoxicating for a manor brat like himself.
Regrettably, at one point his grandmother looked up at the sky and told him that their leisure was over.
“The sun is pretty high in the sky”, she revealed. “It will be noon in an hour or two, its best we get on with what we came here for”.
For all his comportment, Valerian was unable to keep his disappointment from showing on his face. He didn’t want this to end nor did he appreciate being reminded of what was expected of him today. His grandmother looked at him and laughed, drawing him closer.
“Don’t worry so much. Besides, this will not be our only hunt. It is merely the first lesson. I can’t teach you everything in one day, can I?” she told him.
Hope shone on his face but all she did was smile, revealing her dazzling and somewhat pointy teeth.
Everything was ready. The antelope were upwind of them grazing peacefully on the tall grass. Each of them had sandy, short coats and horns. The females were smaller and possessed short, small, tightly spiralled horns. The males, however, were quite large; a full metre and a half at the withers and their horns were large spiralled weapons more than half a metre long with wicked ends. There was even one, an old male, with a much darker coat that had metre long horns.
Valerian knew that the horns were largely decorative and were there mostly as a show of dominance, but he also knew that the males fought with them. Thinking about those sharp ends filled him with worry especially when he realised the old male was a daemon.
Luckily, he was not the one hunting but rather his grandmother as part of an example. He just stayed at her side in the shield spell, eyes peeled to make sure nothing escaped him. Gulsalma was in the grass waiting for his grandmother’s signal.
Had you told Valerian before today that the giant leopard was so skilled at hiding, he would likely not have believed you. Sure, it was a leopard, so it was likely a stealthy animal. But its size and indomitable presence did not imply stealth. Seeing it in action was different. He knew its general location thanks to his grandmother’s directions, but he could not see the beast with his own eyes. It was frightening.
For his benefit, his grandmother raised a hand and dropped it as the signal, and then, the hunt began. Gulsalma burst out of hiding right beside the herd. The alert beasts panicked immediately and took off like they had been shot from a cannon. Led by the old buck they ran off but they were unable to lose the leopard on their tail. Valerian had never seen anything like it.
Each of the beasts had to be running at speeds exceeding a hundred kilometres per hour. They moved through the grassland like they were not actually touching it. The antelopes with huge leaping bounds carrying them both forward and up. They barely touched the ground for a quarter of a second before they were off again, throwing themselves dozens of metres forward and four high. It was like an acrobatic dance. A very deadly dance where any who missed a step was sure to die.
It only took a few seconds for them to move four hundred meters from their previous positions. The herd began to split up. They were taking so many bends and turns that those who couldn’t keep up were being left behind. They had no choice but to keep going in the hopes of either catching up with the herd or losing their pursuer. Then, the unthinkable happened.
Gulsalma just disappeared from her place behind the animals and appeared right next to them again, this time from the right. The antelopes were stunned and completely confused. The previously harmonic dance of leaping beasts was thrown into disarray. They scattered but Gulsalma continued running now chasing a rather good sized young male in their direction.
The change in the direction their predator was coming from had so rattled the beasts they fell into the hunters’ trap. The young male and a few others were now headed in their direction. Quickly noticing that the large leopard seemed to be after their friend, the others did the smart thing and abandoned him.
Breathing out visibly in relief when their pursuer remained focused on their colleague, they joined the animals around in watching how the chase would end. To Valerian, the outcome was already clear. The handsome young buck was being led into their trap.
However, the young buck seemed to notice as well. Antelopes were naturally very alert, observant beasts. That was how they survived when they were on the menus of just about every large predator. Also, this one carried the blood of a daemon. Daemons were special beasts which were just as smart as humans.
It had probably dawned on this one that he was been corralled somehow. This made him try to deviate from the course being laid out for him. Still, Valerian did not think that he had figured out what they were up to. He probably thought there was another leopard lying in wait ahead, or realised that his movements would be restricted where he was headed.
He wasn’t completely mistaken, but no matter what he did, he was led towards the small strand of trees. Desperate, he did something that Valerian was not expecting. Just as he was to pass between the two trees where their spell was anchored he gathered his strength and made to leap to the side, out of the copse of trees.
Valerian’s heart leapt into his throat. Was all their work going to be for nothing?
Thankfully, Gulsalma was still on the buck’s heels. All it took was a momentary burst of speed and a swipe to his back legs and the antelope tripped. He fell with great force and momentum causing him to roll between the trees, activating the anchored spell.
Cyan coloured streams of light sprang into existence around the tumbling beast, ensnaring him in a trap he would never escape from. He hung there, a third of a metre from the ground helpless, unable to even kick in protest. From the very beginning, this was the goal that had been set.
Valerian’s grandmother had anchored the wind spell [Wind Ties] in that space and set to activate if anything crossed the assigned perimeter. Gulsalma was more than capable of snatching up any of the antelope without trouble. However, she chased one into the trap for the demonstration. Valerian took several deep breaths only now realising that he had been holding his breath.
The whole thing had barely taken half a minute! Just watching was exciting and exhilarating. He was now relying on his deep breaths to calm down his racing heart. He turned to ask his grandmother a question, only to find out that she was no longer at his side. Spinning around he saw her standing in front of the bound antelope, a dagger in one hand, a horn in another.
She gestured for him get closer and he did. Once he did, Valerian could more clearly make out their captive. He was a tawny brown male. He was an excellent specimen weighing at least three hundred and twenty kilograms with massive V-shaped spiralling horns about eighty centimetres long. However, Valerian could also make out its psychological condition in addition to its physical one.
The beast was scared. That much was clear to see. Its eyes were both frightened and wide open. The mouth was open, panting and bleating. Or at least it would have been if the spell did not restrict sound as well. Seeing its panic made him hesitant to come close. He looked at his grandmother and saw her bright eyes trained on him.
“This is one of the things you must observe on a hunt. Kill swiftly and cleanly. Do not leave your prey to suffer or cause unnecessary pain or wounds”, she said to him. “The best thing to do is to kill immediately, after capturing, if you do not plan to keep the beast alive. Just pull back the head…”
Valerian watched as his grandmother pulled the hand holding the horn to the side pulling the head back and exposing the neck in his direction. Then lifting her other hand she placed the knife clutched in it, a knife identical to the one she gave him, on the exposed flesh. His breath caught knowing what was coming next but staying silent and watchful.
“Cut deep and swiftly, making sure to sever both the oesophagus and all the blood vessels. Then, just hold on and let the blood drain away”.
Valerian watched as the buck’s neck was severed and it bled out right before him. There was no sound but he knew that the animal was not bleating anymore. It never would again. He watched impassively as it died, surprised that there wasn’t more to it than that. He had dreaded this moment but now it felt a bit anticlimactic.
As he watched the deer, his grandmother watched him. She nearly smiled, proud of the fact that he hadn’t looked away, vomited or cried. Many reacted adversely when they first encountered death. there were only a few, like herself and now her grandson, who could maintain a sense of presence, disconnecting themselves from the act.
No pride, no enjoyment, nothing but an act and an actor, performing one of nature’s plays. A harvester, not a killer.
It might seem callous and it was, but the mindset was invaluable in battle and other parts of life. That combined with a natural instinct for battle like Valerian had reportedly displayed in the courtyard both confirmed something to her and pleased her. He was definitely her grandson.
Valiant had been his father’s son through and through but she had always known that if she and Valan were to have another child he or she would take after her. Her grandson was a welcome surprise. He already displayed many of Valan’s features and mannerisms, but she could see what others could not.
There was a predatory aura that swirled around Valerian. It was an aura that matched her own. It slumbered within and rose to the surface when needed or called upon. She was pleased because it told her that he would always be the hunter and never the hunted.