The deer paused in the shallow waters at the lake's edge, sniffing the misty air with flared nostrils. Uprooted saw-weed stalks hung like whiskers from his mouth. The morning sun burned through the lifting fog, shining dully on his dark fur, winking off his long, straight horns.
All was silent. Soon the buck lowered his head and returned to his task, pulling vegetation from the cold water and chewing it in a sideways grind.
Behind the deer, a hillside rose at a sharp angle, its trees all but leafless this late in the year. Before him was water. Charcoal streaked the bleary sky. The only sounds were the lonely cries of birds invisible in the lifting mists or the scrambling acrobatics of the arboreal grez.
From out of the lake's mists, an arrow rushed; and at the end of its trajectory, it took the deer behind the shoulder. A whacking thump resounded, and the beast convulsed, then sprung away, splashed out of the water, tumbled to the stony beach, stood, fell again, and lie on the rocks, nodding its heavy head, sides heaving. It's sharp heels clattered loudly off the rocks, but it did not stand. One foreleg stiffened, its head wagged more purposefully, and a rush of air rumbled from its tortured lungs, followed by the pale pink tongue. The beast lay still. One leaf fluttered past unnoticed; another settled on its fur.
A canoe prow ground to a halt on the rocky shore, and two men disembarked, their eyes warily searching the seemingly indifferent tree line. The older of the pair was a boulder of a man, short and heavily muscled, with a broad back cloaked in furs. Jutting like Tulana limbs from his garb were burly arms, their swells and valleys fairly writhing with the swirl and flair of tribal tattoos. Covered in woven dess cloth, the trunks of his legs disappeared into woodsman's boots, knee high and soft-soled, their fur and rawhide sewn and lashed to a perfect fit. Around his waist he wore the only item of obvious import: a wide leather belt upon which was fixed a broad scabbard bearing a short sergeant's blade.
His massive head turned first one way, then the other, wary eyes peering out from beneath a shaggy silver mane. A thick gray beard hung halfway down his powerful chest, its ends twisted and tied in scores of tiny braids. It was this final detail, more so than the man's physique, complexion, or even tattoos, which revealed him as one of the Birult Essadi, a hearty clan that had for centuries dwelled in primordial symbiosis with the forests hemming the southern shores of Lake Ginuhl.
The youth beside him moved with the intensity and grace of a mountain cat. Unlike his elder, he was quite tall, and, though he shared the man's broadness, lithely muscled. His thick hair, wrapped in a tail, was black as deepest night, as were his brows and the fringe shadowing his square jaw, while his skin shone a dull bronze, token both to natural complexion and weathering. Whereas the older man's eyes darted nervously up and down the shore, the stare of the youth netted only the kill, the fresh meat, spread like a sacrifice across the mossy bed of stones. In that stare burned a flame more akin to ageless savagery than any youthful elasticity.
The older man was Odun, a former wanderer and mercenary, long ago returned to his native wilderness to claim the chieftanship he still held firmly. He spoke. "Come, nephew. Hurry."
For these were not the southern shores. This scar of stone and leafless tree gave way, a quarter mile inward, to tangled thicket and impenetrable marsh, populated with a staggering density of vicious beasts. These were the shores north west of the Birult stakes, savage acreage that had never been claimed by an Essadi tribe. The immediate shoreline had always presented the temptation of unparalleled hunting opportunities, yet this expedition marked the first harvest in many seasons; the risks were simply too great.
For this was the territory of the sky clan.
Odun said, "Gut the beast, then we'll butcher."
The pair worked swiftly, crouching beside the sprawled buck, Grull disemboweling the beast, raking its steaming entrails onto the dark stones, Odun making four quick slices just below the knees, then using a short bone saw to remove the shanks up to these cuts. Just above one of the back leg's knees, Odun slit the thick black fur and peeled it away in order to make a small incision between the two leg bones. Through this bloody aperture he threaded a length of sturdy rope, knotting a tight purchase on the fresh meat and leaving a generous length of slack beside. This accomplished, they removed the heart and liver lobes, though the former was badly damaged by the younger man's projectile, and wrapped these delicacies in fur, tucking them away for the night's dinner.
"Keep a keen watch," Odun said, his own eyes flashing incessantly in all directions.
Using a ceramic vessel from their canoe, the pair rinsed the yawning barrel of the beast's opened torso, washing away coagulated blood, fur, and bits of tissue and sliced organ. Once they had finished, Odun tossed the rope's end over a thick, low-hanging branch, and the pair hoisted the carcass aloft, knotting the rawhide end around and adjacent trunk. From here they moved in practiced harmony, slicing, peeling away, slicing, peeling away, until a heavy roll of fat-backed fur sat at their feet. Employing the saw once more, Odun quartered the beast, Grull holding the swaying meat as steady as possible as his uncle's blade hacked its way alongside the backbone. Only moments later, they rinsed the quarters in the shallows and loaded them, one by one, into the canoe, which was wide and deep bellied, built to withstand such heavy loads.
Grull grunted, bent over one haunch, working with knifepoint to dislodge something shiny from the meat.
"Cursed meat," the youth said, offering Odun the metal disk he'd freed.
Odun waved it away. He didn't want to touch it. "Dump that quarter," he said.
Odun paused. Cursed meat. The disk meant that the deer belonged to the sky clan. But hadn't he and his nephew already killed the beast? If the wrath of the sky clan was to come, wouldn't it come already, based on the actions of the hunters? At last he shook his head. "Only leave the tainted quarter."
Grull grunted again and slid the cursed meat into the water. The rest of it he loaded.
"Let us hurry," Odun said, watching the tree line. Part of him screamed to dump the rest of the meat, push it overboard and hurry back to the southern shores; but game was badly depleted in the southern woods this season, and his family was hungry. They needed the meat.
As he boarded the canoe, Odun stared into the dark smudge of forest. Along this shore of Lake Ginuhl trees barely straggled from their boggy footing, the tallest of them ranging no higher than two heights of a man. They were bent and narrow and widely spaced, like fleshless ribs.
Deeper inland, grez screeched and hooted. A spray of brilliantly plumed swamp birds wheeled, cawing, sprayed across the horizon, and disappeared. The men did not speak but poled into the deeper waters, then moved quickly away, their paddles cutting the water swiftly yet silently as they raced southward through the mists.
Then they heard it. Low and rumbling, like the cough-threat of a bull moose, coming in over the trees.
"Dump the meat!" Odun cried.
But it was too late.
The sky clan had arrived. Over the treetops they flew, silver wedges shining like polished steel in firelight. Each of the vessels -- and there were several -- was large as a Birult lodge house, yet they moved lightly, like hornets. One would flick ahead of the others, then pause to hover over a section of stones as the rest of the ships flashed ahead.
"Overturn the boat," Odun said. "Perhaps in the water we will be safe."
They pitched into the icy lake. For a moment, Odun lost sight of his nephew. Then the youth's head appeared on the other side of the overturned canoe, eyes narrowed at the shoreline, where the ships of the sky clan hovered.
So foolish, Odun told himself, such an old fool. The southern shores still yielded plentiful mollusks, the waters a bounty of fish and eels. Why had he traveled north for meat? Why had he misled the only son of his sister? If they didn't get away...
But Odun couldn't allow himself to think of that. He still remembered, seasons past, standing at the edge of the Birult stake, gripping the spear tightly as Vust, the last hunter to voyage north, screamed from the woods. What a long horrible night it had been, praying that Vust wouldn't part the quillers before Odun's watch, wouldn't emerge, begging for mercy, begging that Odun and the others please give him one more chance.
"Uncle! They come!"
So they did. One second the sky clan ships were scouring the shore, the next they were overhead. Odun hollered to his nephew, but it was too late.
A cone of red light exited the base of one wedge ship. The cone stretched ship to lake surface, encircling Grull, who seemed to faint. The limp body of the young Essadi lifted from the water as if giant invisible ropes hoisted him into the air.
Odun screamed, but could do nothing to save his nephew. Grull rose higher into the air, higher, higher, and disappeared into the base of the sky clan ship.
Odun dipped under the surface, trying to hide beneath the canoe, but there, even now, another red cone had lit the surface of the water. It swept steadily toward him...
And all consciousness left his body.
They awoke on the shore. Neither spoke. They had not been harmed. In fact, a wound the youth had recently sustained in the tribal games had miraculously healed.
Odun considered the metal band that now encircled his wrist. A tight fit. Seamless. Unbreakable, just as that of Vust had been. Just as the band of Grull would prove to be.
Odun handed his nephew the heavy leather belt and sergeant's sword he had worn during his days abroad. He did his best to describe to the boy the straightest path northward toward the Leagues. "You take the canoe," he said. "And here, the heart and liver of the deer, too." He repeated to Grull over an over the names of guildsmen to contact. "Remember," he told him. "Banished, requesting guild entrance, on merit of former sergeant Odun of Birult."
The youth nodded grimly.
Standing numb amidst the crooked and stunted trees of the shoreline, Odun watched the youth paddle into the fog. Then the exiled chieftain crouched upon the stones and tried very hard not to think, fiddling absentmindedly with the new metal band encircling his wrist.
Bio:John Dixon teaches English in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, Christina, and their multitudinous pets. His fiction has appeared in roughly two-dozen publications, including SPECULON, IDEOMANCER UNBOUND, and the Stoker-nominated SONGS FROM DEAD SINGERS. John also edits THE SQUID (www.the-squid.com), an online magazine for young writers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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