The air smelled of smoke as the entire country seemed ablaze. Even the rural village the old woman lived in was not immune this night to the fury of angry kings. Men had been called on from all over the land to fight the Naqtian soldiers, the old woman knew that most would not return. Many in her own village tucked their selves away in the home of the chief. The old woman scoffed, if soldiers were to come, they would be easy to kill all huddled in one place. A hunter’s dream is not to find one deer, but a valley of deer.
The woman preferred to observe the chaos from her own home. She sat on a sturdy wooden chair by the door watching the horizon as it continued to fill with heavy smoke. Who knew why the Naqtians were angry? Anger was similar to the greed of fire; a single spark can be enough to burn entire kingdoms.
It was while she sat on her old chair that the old woman spotted her in the distance. She rode hard on a horse in her direction. She was a horribly beautiful woman, with tan skin, and long dark hair that flawlessly flew behind her as she rode. The old lady frowned; this woman brought a different type of war to her door.
When the young woman rode up, she nearly collapsed as the old lady grudgingly helped her off the horse. The woman hadn’t ridden alone, there was a young boy of 6 or 7 years deep in slumber on the horse. The old woman’s stomach turned. Wherever she had come from, the ride had been long and hard, but she was not the only one running tonight. War and blood drenched the land this evening.
The old women didn’t give the girl much time for recovery, “What do you want stupid girl?”
The Girl’s shoulders slumped, but the determination in her wide brown eyes didn’t diminish, “Muti Please, I come begging for help.”
The old Lady cringed at her reference to Muti, “I’m not your mother child,” she waved her hand away and started to turn, it was cold, and the old woman ached for the warm hearth in her house.
“Jozef is dead.”
The old woman stopped and turned, her anger was slowly beginning to boil over, “how do you know?”
The young woman’s eyes seemed to cloud over with pain, “I watched him die. He died for a good cause, and he led a noble life.”
The old woman voice raised a few levels as she looked the young girl directly in the eyes, “Do not come to me, Odele, speaking of your so called “noble causes” because of you my son is dead!” The old woman fought back the sudden urge to cry. “Get out, and do not ever come back, or I will use the last of my strength to kill you myself.”
The young woman, Odele, defiantly matched the old women’s stare, “fortunately you won’t have to wait long for your wish.”
The old woman glowered, the blazing fires reflected in her eyes, “you better not bring your trouble here, this land has seen enough death for one night.”
Odele shook her head, “you have yet to ask about the boy?”
The old woman had never cared much for children, but she took a closer look at the young sleeping child.
Odele’s expression glazed over in pain, “He is your grandson.”
The Old woman’s heart unexpectedly melted. Her son had left something worthwhile behind, a healthy beautiful grandson. Even though he was wrapped in a thick cloak his cheeks were red with cold. “bring him inside before he freezes to death.”
As if the boy knew they were speaking of him he lazily blinked his heavy lids open, his voice was small and unassuming, “Muti?” there was a moment of panic when he realized his mother was no longer on the horse. Odele instinctively helped the small boy off the saddle. His small body slumped his eyes half closed in exhaustion. They soundlessly walking into the old women’s home where the boy climbed into the large bed and quickly fell back asleep.
She walked back into the common room where the old woman sat impatiently tapping her foot.
“Muti, I need you to take him, and raise him.”
The old woman scoffed at Odele, “Why should it surprise me that you would just abandon your own son. After you already had my son go and abandon his family and his village.”
Odele Cringed at the accusation, but she didn’t deny it. “I am going to die; the men that killed Jozef are not far behind me. If they find me with the boy, they will kill him too. I’m not asking you to forgive me, an impossibility I know. I am asking you to love the one thing your son has left behind.”
How could the old woman refuse the offer? Looking now at Odele she could see why Jozeph was so easily taken by her, she was stunning; not only in beauty but in the way she carried herself as if she always knew exactly what she was doing. She could have had any boy in the land, but she chose Jozef and stole him away. Now she can steal this woman’s son away from her, she will know what the pain feels like.
The old woman’s eyes narrowed on a pendant hanging around Odele’s neck, she had found out a long time ago what that pendant meant, “I don’t want any trouble brought to this village.”
The young woman subconsciously brought her free hand to touch the silver pendant, “There won’t be, the men are after me, they don’t care about the boy.”
The old woman grunted, “Fine, there are other boys his age, he will not be alone.”
Odele gave an absent nod, “that will be good.”
The old woman crossed her arms “say your goodbyes, the longer you’re here the more dangerous it is for all of us.”
Odele silently walked back into the room where the boy was. The old woman stood in the doorway while she watched Odele sing one last lullaby and then kiss the boys head. She untied the sash around her waist and gently placed in the boy’s hand. He stirred only a little but didn’t open his eyes.
The old woman didn’t miss the few stray tears that streaked Odele’s cheeks. She looked at the old woman, “thank you Muti,”
The old woman glared and offered no response.
For a single moment, Odele looked small and afraid. The old woman refused to let her mind wander to the end that Odele was walking into. For the first time, the old woman actually felt some pity for the young girl. She gave the only words of comfort she could muster, “do not worry; the child will be well cared for.”
Odele gave a short nod, “I know. That’s why I came to you.”
The young woman turned and began walking out into the dark night, the old woman stopped her at the door, “what is the name of the child?”
Odele stopped for a moment and turned, her eyes were already red and wet with tears, “anyone can see that his father is alive in him. I felt it was only fair that he should have the same name. Perhaps one day he will live up to it” then she mounted her horse and left forever.
The old woman couldn’t help but wish that she was wrong; she hoped that the small boy would not become his father.
Frost already layered the early morning ground my breath escaping as puffs of white. Fall just began but the ominous wind threatened snow, while the balding trees cast dancing shadows along the forest floor, creating a variety of everchanging shapes intertwined with crispy leaves. It all made for terrible hunting. This has been the longest hunting trip of the year, and regrettably, it was close to an end.
The last weeks spent in these woods has given me time to watch the changing season. The looming trees have transformed through an array of brilliant greens, to dull shades of red, yellow, and brown. All of it created a grounding experience, like watching the funeral procession of a beloved friend, offering me a final goodbye to summer.
Long hunting trips have become a needed respite from the loathsome company of the village, but winter always forces me back. This winter seemed to be arriving early, which is always the worse kind of winter. Already our crops have brought in less, and game is moving farther away. Returning to my village with a large haul is a comfort, but not this desolate trip.
It had been a surprise when my village allowed me to become a hunter. As one of the most respected positions in the village, it could easily have been assumed not possible for me, but they were desperate. There are only five of us now. One died at the beginning of spring from yellow fever. Braun had been the oldest hunter, but still too young to die. He was a good hunter, arguably the best in the village. Rarely do I shed tears, though, privately a few were shed for him. It was sad to see the man who trained me leave this world, but maybe he had the right idea to leave before all the game did.
Braun took it upon himself to train me while I was a young boy. He did it despite my blackened history and the villages contempt. Of course, Braun had little concern for village gossip. He spent too much time in the forests. The only gossip he cared for came from the whispering of the wind and rustling of the leaves. As a laughable man, rarely did he say anything serious, and seldom did anyone considers what he said seriously. It had been a good mentorship.
A memory came tumbling into my mind of when I asked Braun what to do in this situation, and his advice had been half par at best. He told me, “When you have applied all your hunting abilities and still can’t find even a mouse, then the best thing to do is take a long swig of liker and flip a silver coin. If it lands heads you go north, tales you go south.”
Well, my hunting trip couldn’t get much worse. Grabbing the small flask out of my bag I unscrewed the top and took a large swallow. The liquid burned as it rolled down the back of my throat, as my hand slipped into my worn-out pack and pulled out a silver stamped coin. “You better be right you old brute.” The coin flew high and landed securely in my gloved hand, the shining stamped metal glinted in the sun, landing on heads, “north it is.” Throwing the flask and coin back in my pack I began trekking north.
Time strolled by, in a way that only happens when alone in a forest. Sometimes it passed quickly, while other times it moved painfully slow. Eventually, my eyes caught the tracks of a rabbit. In a matter of a few breaths, the animal hung from my hand, killed by a clean shot leaving the fur perfect. Not exactly what I wished for, but it was better than nothing. The sun moved to the center of the sky and four more rabbits’ lives ended in a similar manner.
My stomach grumbled something telling me I needed food. Fortunately, there was a large tree a few paces away still holding on to a few stubborn leaves that could be used for shade. My body slid down the trunk of the tree, while I pulled out an old bruised apple. My fingers deftly began cutting away the rotten parts before taking a bite.
My first hunting trip came at 15. The short apprenticeship left me wondering if it was too short. I began hunting alone only a couple of years after my first hunt. Four years have passed, and my skills have made little improvement, hunting trips like this one only solidified the opinion. Loneliness filled this trip, reopening wounds of a lost friend. My mentors’ company was needed, specifically his advice.
“well,” I’ve found the best company was often myself, “Braun, it looks like you’ve given me excess of rabbits.” The juices from the apple dribbled down my chin with another bite, complemented by a burning sip of liker, “I’m not complaining, but if I could make a request, next time I call upon the great ‘coin gods’, maybe you could send me a plethora of deer, or even just one stag, or maybe a boar.”
My final sip from the flask helped me finish the apple. My hands brushed the dirt from my trousers as I stood. The thought of flipping the coin crossed my mind again, but lack of confidence kept me moving north. Hardly taking a step, my eye caught something along the unmarked path. It was some way off and to the right, but it looked like tracks. These were not the minuscule tracks a rabbit might leave; these were hoof marks. My mind raced at the idea, they could be the tracks of a deer or an elk.
Every sense was alert as my hunting instincts found their way to the surface, my eyes were sharp, and my steps were silent. Stalking to where the tracks imprinted the forest floor, I readied an arrow. All my hopes dropped when the tracks came into focus, they were horse tracks.
A frown pulled at the edges of my mouth at the thought of a horse being out here. Horses were not uncommon; it’s a practical way to travel. However, this was not a very practical place to travel. As an unsettled forest, there were no marked paths. This forest was no more than a grey smudge on a map, a gaping hole of mystery few dared to wander into. The only people who wandered as aimlessly as these tracks indicated, were hunters, or worse.
A lump formed in my throat at the thought. Robbers and thieves were not unheard of in these woods. The trees were dense, and the land was mostly unknown. It was a great place to hide. There were also scattered villages all around, it could be easy for a band of robbers to stumble upon one and decide to take advantage.
The worst of the ideas bubbled to the front of my mind, which were quickly pushed aside. It could also just be a rouge horse or a wild horse. Unfortunately, both scenarios were unlikely, horses were expensive, seldom did someone just lose a horse, and wild horses rarely traveled this far north. There was a very small hamlet a few miles to the east. If it was a rogue horse the hamlet would be the most obvious place it came from. If it was a robber of sorts, then the appropriate thing to do would be to scope them out and warn the nearby settlement.
My expression subconsciously filled with annoyance at the probable delay this would cause to my hunting trip. Throwing my bow over my shoulder my stride began following the tracks northeast. Deductions came gradually while following the tracks. One of the tracks left a heavy shallow depression in the ground as if the horse couldn’t properly walk. If the horse was injured, then it was doubtful someone could ride it, and there were no indications of any other tracks. The horse was most likely alone and hurt. My shoulders slumped at what this could mean, the knowledge of possibly needing to put down an injured horse wasn’t pleasant.
Quickly weaving through the trees required some attentiveness in avoiding bunches of fallen leaves to remain silent. My eyes spotted a slight ridge, and once at the top, I found the creature casually grazing between two undergrown saplings. The beast was facing away from me, and the breeze blew in my direction keeping my scent masked. It was a beautiful mare, well-built and pure white, she looked out of place with the backdrop of dying trees. Silently creeping forward my hands knowingly pulled out a thin cord from my bag. Subconsciously they tied a rope into a lariat as I readied myself to secure the horse.
My steady feet carefully edged closer, when my hands dropped as my fears were confirmed. Protruding from the beast’s hind leg was an arrow shot clean threw. It sat grotesquely caked with blood. My heart pounded at the sight, there were very few reasons why someone would shoot an arrow at a horse, and most involved shooting at the rider and missing. If there was a dead rider somewhere it most likely meant trouble.
With closer examination, I could see the wound was old. If it had been fresh, then following the drops of blood would have been easy. However, the blood had long dried around both ends of the arrow leaving the poor mare with an irreparable injury. Fortunately, this meant if there was a rider, they were most likely gone. She was also saddleless, maybe the beast had become injured in a fight, and her rider was too cowardly to kill her. This animal isn’t going to survive the winter, she will either starve from the bareness of the season, or a lucky predator will find her as easy prey. It would be merciful for me to put the mount down with a clean shot to the heart.
An arrow lay cocked and ready, for the disappointing kill. Just before releasing the bowstring, the winds changed. My scent easily drifted to where the mare stood, the beast's nostrils flared as her head quickly snapped towards me.
A loud gasp escaped my lips as the bow and arrow clumsily dropped from my grasp. My body scrambled backward, as my mind filled with unbelief.
This was impossible.
My eyes blinked a few times, assuming the image to disappear. It couldn’t be true. The shadows of the forest were playing tricks on me. My head slowly spun around looking to see if there was anyone else, perhaps Huey, or Erik would jump out of a bush yelling, “See Sef, we told you we would get you back for the time you filled our flasks full of worms!”
A few heartbeats passed as the forest held its breath, not a sound was heard, the bird’s songs were silent, and the wind oddly rested. The mare didn’t move, but it wasn’t a mare, this was the Yedynoroha. This was a creature of myth and legend known for their elusiveness, strength, beauty, and grace.
It was also known for not being real. I thought about the flask in my bag, maybe the liker was finally getting to my head, but surely a few swigs were hardly enough for hallucinations.
My hands were shaking as my mind fully processed exactly what I was seeing. The Yedynoroha was real. My eyes glided over the beast’s body only to linger at the dagger of a horn in the center of her forehead. This changed everything. Despite the stunning beauty and strength of the Yedynoroha, they were also known for the powerful medicinal qualities they hold. There were many stories and legends of the Yedynoroha. Some say the beast can purify poison, while others claim it can grant your hearts greatest desire. Despite the variety in myths, one thing has remained the same, anyone who drank from the horn of the Yedynoroha, would be healed of anything and offered a life of immortality.
Considering the outcome, someone would surely be willing to pay their weight in gold for something like that. My village would have enough to comfortably live through ten winters. A beast like this could finally earn me my place.
The idea brought myself to quickly stand and grab my bow and arrow, but the sudden movement also caused the Yedynoroha to move. She began limping her way through the dense woods. Keeping up proved difficult, even with the mare limping I was still too slow. The Yedynoroha was known for having great speed, if she hadn’t been hurt, she would have been lost entirely. Fortunately, her injured leg left heavy tracks, following her was easy. It seems even the Yedynoroha has limitations.
Following the hoofmarks led well into the evening, the heavy tracks only worsened as the sun began to set. My instincts as a hunter told me she was tired, as the tracks showed her eventually resigning to only letting the injured leg drag. A deep gouge in the dirt and mud became a solid line obscuring the other hoof marks.
The trees became more scattered as a clearing came into view, opening into a beautiful glen. The ground was a comforting russet color of dead foliage, and a slight ravine dipped into a shallow gurgling stream. The impossible beast lay in an awkward angle at the edge of the ravine. Looking as if she fell, the animals’ sides heaved in exhaustion.
As soon as the Mare saw me, she tried to stand, but the beast’s legs were too shaky as she fell again. She didn’t have much time; the injury had already taken its toll. Moving closer the damage became clearer, she bore a festering wound, and it was badly infected. The great Yedynoroha was dying.
The horse didn’t struggle with my approaching, as a normal horse would. The lack of fear only added to her grandeur. she continued to breathe hard, and almost whimpered as my body knelt next to hers. Resting a tired hand on her neck, I couldn’t help but admire the way her coat felt like silk on my palm.
Calming the royal creature seemed important, as a subtle lie slipped through my lips “Shhh, everything will be alright.” There was a feeling of guilt with the words, which was quickly shaken off, she was clearly dying. Killing her was the most merciful thing to be done, and it would possibly save my village from several winters of starvation.
Pulling out my long hunters’ knife my hands readied the blade in the assumed area to be the placing of the beast’s heart. The mare stayed perfectly still, majestically accepting her fate with the utmost grace. I hesitated.
A feeling of sentiment unexpectedly overcame me, as a strange desire filled my mind. Shouldn’t some type of tribute be given? This is one of the greatest beasts of legend, she was probably thousands of years old. This beast has probably walked across the entire land of Idest, and some legends suggest she can even walk across the sea. One legend stated the Yedynoroha has danced with the great master of the earth; another said any who rode the horse into battle would always end the champion. This is a creature of purity and divinity.
It felt wrong to simply kill her. Something needed to be done to make this death meaningful, and more sacrificial. Perhaps a powerful speech, or a special Yedynoroha prayer. My lips formed a lacking frown, this was stupid, there are no real traditions involving the killing of a mythical animal. As hunters, we were taught to respect all animals and to kill out of need. This killing is no different, but still, my heart longed for something more.
My mind raced back into my forgotten past. When life was simpler in many ways, yet more complicated in others. A lullaby filled my head, one my Muti would sing to me. It was a somber song, and almost eerie how well the words seemed to fit for this single moment. The quiet chant left my mouth in an off-tune sound,
The burden held by the Yedynoroha,
Is too heavy indeed.
We must cut out the heart,
Of the beautiful steed
Then the terrible burden,
Is finally relieved.
She’ll whisper goodnight to her kingdom so vast,
As she takes in a breath that will soon be her last.
We must sew up her heart with the thread of a stone,
To keep the great burden safe in its home.
The last words of the song felt heavy on my lips, my mind wondering if I was the one to cut out her heart, who would be the one to sew it back up. The thought left a feeling dread.
Hesitation was unacceptable as a hunter; hesitation meant another night of hunger. Hesitation could mean the difference between a winter of survival or a winter of death. Still, my hands longed to wait, while my eyes lingered on the living legend.
Only through the determination of my mind did the knife move towards the mares’ heart, but just before killing the animal, my body unexpectedly froze. Pulsating across the surface of the Yedynoroha was an otherworldly light which began to grow, quickly engulfing the beast completely. Then, without warning, the light expanded ferociously throwing me back, my body hitting the trunk of a large tree. My mind fought to stay conscious as my legs shakily stood, my head spinning from the hit. Then screaming filled my ears.