Morwen Navarre © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“Fuck, Conn, pay attention,” Gerry growled, low and irritated. He ran a hand through his hair, narrowing his eyes as he glared at his younger companion. “We’re not hunting runners today. Mother’s got us after sind, and you’re spotter, so spot, you little shit.”
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do,” Conn retorted, his shaggy brown hair flopping into one dark-blue eye. “You’re a dependent, same as me, so don’t pull the fucking alpha shit. Only Mother tells me what to do and he’s not here. And I am spotting, you stupid fucker.” There was berry juice on his lips, and his fingers were stained with it, belying his words.
The hunter frowned, watching the lithe young man turn away, poking the ground at random and with little enthusiasm. Gerry fought the urge to reach out to cuff Conn, to see the pout leave the little shit’s face. Still, if he was going to be an alpha one day himself, he needed to master his temper. The world was evidence enough of what could happen when those who led lost sight of what mattered most.
When everything had gone to shit, well back before anyone living could remember, there was nothing left of most families. The cities were burning or ravaged by looters. Anyone with any sense had fled for the open places. At first, it was tents or rough camps where strangers gathered and tried to make sense of what had happened. Those were hungry days marked by illnesses thought eradicated.
The godsmen called it a just punishment and burned the books that might have held answers. What had been a minor cult was now the only faith, and the godsmen took every opportunity to shape the new world emerging from the ruins. They made sure no one would make the mistakes of the past by eradicating all traces of it, other than the knowledge preserved by the witches who ignored the godsmen and their edicts.
The witches used bits and pieces of ancient relics, scavenging them from the ruins of the cities themselves or trading with the rangers who haunted the ruins and lived outside the godsmen’s laws. The witches could not heal everything, but fewer people died when a village had a witch, despite what the godsmen said. The godsmen compromised by declaring witches followed the Seeker and the witches pretended to agree.
Those few who survived the aftermath were determined to prevail. They built houses, rough at first, but increasingly sturdy as their skills were honed by failure. Random strangers began to form themselves into families. The people most comfortable leading became known as alphas. Alphas took on dependents, mostly children who were on their own or the elderly left with no one to care for them. They learned what could be eaten by tasting every root and found familiar fruits hanging from trees or growing on bushes and vines. The factories that produced most other foods were as lost as the cities, so they had to teach themselves to hunt and fish. Runners, graceful and long-legged herd beasts, were not afraid of men back then and their meat was curiously satisfying.
The motley collections of houses turned into villages, and once the rivers had settled into their new courses, there were fish and there was trade. People adapted. Crops were sowed, and hunger ceased to be the most pressing concern. That left room for the godsmen to speak up and remind the people they were all under the eyes of the Eight. Life went on.
Gerry had just turned nine that moon when Conn came. Mother had taken him in, not a year before, when his dam had died of the flux. Gerry’s sire had been long gone, and without an alpha, he would have been dead as well before a quarter moon had gone by. He had just gotten settled into life with Mother when Conn joined them. It had been fifteen years ago now, he realized and found himself surprised by the tally of time that had passed.
Gerry had thought it would be good to have another kid around, another dependent for Mother to train, someone to share the hunt and the guarding when they were both old enough to be more use. Conn was only a tiny thing at the time, four years old, or maybe five. It was hard to tell because Conn had been a runty bit, all big eyes and a mop of brown hair that had darkened over time to a deep umber. The boy was a pretty enough thing, and he was quick to twine himself around Mother to get his way.
At first, it had been good. Conn was quick to learn and grateful, happy to be free of his mead-addled sire and happier still to be done with the begging for scraps that had been his job. Mother was a skillful hunter who brought back enough meat to trade the surplus in the market for fruit and vegetables, flour, eggs, and sometimes even sweet honey candy for a treat. No one went hungry in Mother’s house.
For his part, Gerry had done his best to befriend Conn. It seemed to work until Conn was around thirteen or so, when the kid had gone moody. Everything Gerry said angered Conn from that point onwards. He could barely breathe near the kid without some tantrum erupting, and the cause always boiled down to the same thing. Conn was afraid Gerry was going to do something to come between Conn and Mother.
In truth, Gerry had no interest in Mother as a lover. The man just was not the type for Gerry. Gerry liked his lovers smaller than himself, slim and lithe, and Mother was tall and broad-chested. Conn might have been closer to Gerry’s tastes, except for the outright jealousy Conn harbored for Gerry. Conn did not want to take the chance of falling in love with a fellow dependent, even if Gerry might be likely to branch off to become an alpha himself one day. Conn was going to stick with Mother. Gerry was in Conn’s way, or so Conn had apparently decided, except for those nights this past year, when Conn had crawled into Gerry’s bed after Mother had turned him out.
“You’re not focused.” Mother’s voice was quiet and deep, a firm tone that could not be ignored. Gerry looked up, a stray beam of sunlight working its way through the canopy of the trees to make him squint. “A hunt isn’t a good time to think about anything but the hunt itself.”
Gerry hung his head a little. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”
“Where’s Conn?” Mother’s head lifted, his dark eyes narrowed as he scanned the trees. His thick dark hair, shot through with silver now, was plaited tightly and hanging to his waist, the end wrapped around with a thin strip of leather.
Gerry had once asked the man how he wound up with the name he bore. Mother had laughed and told Gerry one of his first dependents had called him so, the old word for a dam, still used sometimes by the oldest hags. Mother had tugged on the thick braid to illustrate the confusion while Gerry had nodded, tentatively, as if laughing at an alpha might get Gerry in trouble. Mother had not been angry, though. Mother had been much as he was right now, calm and quiet. That dependent was grown and long gone now, an alpha with dependents, Mother said, but the name had stuck.
Gerry lifted one shoulder, returning to the present. “He’s spotting, I hope. We’re getting closer to where they have their lair.”
The hunt today was for sind. Sind were omnivores and opportunists. They were also agile and fierce, with a nasty habit of digging holes to bring down the fleet runners with their long, delicate legs. If the runner did not spot the hole in time, those slender legs would snap like the kindling Mother used in the hearth fire. Sind meat was considered far superior in flavor to that of the more common runners. Gerry did not agree, finding it to be a bit strong, but the market clamored for it. Their pelts were as valuable a commodity as their meat, so sind traded well on the market, and Conn—Conn again—needed clothing. Mother could trade a few good pelts for the services of a weaver to buy a bolt of their best cloth and have them stitch fine tunics and breeches for Conn, who complained that leather chafed.
Gerry was happy enough with his leather tunic and breeches. He and Mother had tanned the runner hides themselves, scraping one side smooth and leaving the other soft and velvety. Mother had taught him the trick of stitching the hides together with neat, small stitches. The bootmaker in the village was always happy to take a runner haunch and enough tanned leather to make a fine pair of boots, the one thing Gerry could not fashion well enough on his own.
Conn, however, pricked his fingers, and swore, and broke the needle when he was set to stitching anything. Mother had sighed and taken away the sharp bone needles before Conn could break any more. It was much the same with most of the tasks Mother tried to teach Conn. The boy would whine and find a way to fail until Mother would sigh. Only Gerry would see the flash of triumph in Conn’s dark-blue eyes. Mother held firm to the belief an alpha did not abandon a dependent who could not care for their own self, and Conn played it for all he could.
Mother patted Gerry’s shoulder, his eyes averted. “Stay sharp. The whelps should be big enough now to be long gone, but if not, let them go.”
Gerry nodded. The pelts of the whelps were not as prized as those of mature sind. It was also better practice to let the whelps mature and breed, ensuring there would be sind to hunt in the future. He split away from Mother again, moving as quietly as he could, his bow ready as he drifted through the leaf fall.
The quiet was shattered when Conn screamed, a high-pitched sound filled with fear, and the low chuff of a sind filled the vacuum left when Conn’s voice faltered. Gerry did not even pause to think; he spun around to sprint through the trees in the direction of the scream, his heart pounding like a temple drum. He could hear the sound of Mother’s pursuit as well.
Without warning, Gerry was falling, his leg trapped. The wind was knocked out of him when he landed hard, his bow slipping from nerveless fingers. He watched it skitter away across the leaves.
Gerry’s vision blurred with pain. He sucked in a desperate breath, his bow too far ahead of him to reach. He heard Mother’s voice and Conn’s ragged whimper, blended into one note. He heard the chuff again, and this time it was so close he could feel the sind’s hot breath. His hand crept down his leg while he turned his head with infinite care, feeling for his knife, and he was never so glad to touch the leather strips that bound the grip as he slid it from the sheath. His lips moved in a silent prayer, calling on the Hunter to aid him, the Father to protect him.
The sharp twang of a bowstring interrupted his prayer, and the sind dropped, the heat of its body bleeding through Gerry’s leather breeches. Gerry let out a breath, his body flushed with adrenaline. It was only then he truly felt his leg, and he gagged as the pain ran up from his ankle to his groin.
“Oh, fuck,” Gerry moaned. “Dam-fucking, hole-digging little shits. I hate fucking sind and their busy fucking little paws.” Tears stole his vision as he swore to keep from screaming, Mother kneeling by his leg.
“Oh, shit,” Conn whispered, looking up at Mother, his pretty face pale. “It’s bad. It’s really fucking bad. Is Gerry going to lose the foot?”
Gerry sucked in a breath, but he did not have a chance to speak.
“Shut up, Conn.” Mother’s voice was just as quiet as ever, but Conn squeaked before falling silent. Even Conn could not pretend to ignore the fury in those words. “If you’d been spotting properly, you’d have uncovered that hole. Assist me, and if you even think about fainting, the Lady help you, I will leave you where you lie.”
Conn swallowed hard while Mother knelt to slide Gerry along the leaf fall. “Grab his foot and ease it out. Gently, boy! Lift the leg under the knee. Think for once, Conn.”
Gerry moaned, black spots obscuring his vision as his stomach twisted. He had never felt a pain even close to this. He fought to remain conscious, to try to help Mother as best he could.
“Easy, man. We have you.” Mother’s deep voice sounded so confident Gerry nodded without even thinking about it. “The Witch isn’t far. I can carry you on my back, and Conn can bring the sind. We’ll not get another now anyway. They’ll have scattered.”