The Hunters Price
There weren’t always dragons in the Valley. My granddaddy said that the cold is supposed to slow em down. Reptiles don’t do so well in the cold, except for the white ones that live up north with us. They’re ambush predators and given all the missing people over the years they seem to be doing just fine. They only gotta move fast for a few seconds anyways, that’s how they get ya. I guess I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s start at the beginning.
Granddaddy, was a hunter. Old guard, maybe one of the last ones of his era. He didn’t really like to talk about his hunting days though, he grew up before “The Long Winter”. Back before the cold put all the bad things to sleep. Well… most things. Granddaddy was a professional, back in the day, bears, moose, even a gryphon head was mounted on that dark wooden cabin wall. Who knows what else he saw in those long dark days back then.
Those weren’t what got em though. Ma and Pa. I was too young to even remember, and I guess they never caught what did it. Something bad though, real bad. They say it snuck in the house and killed em in their sleep, it wasn’t gentle either, it was almost personal. Didn’t seem to pay me any mind though, maybe it didn’t even notice I was there. I lived with Granddaddy and Grandmama after that, but grandma lived only for another few years. Granddaddy buried her underneath the old dead oak tree out back right next to Ma and Pa. Almost every night Granddaddy drinks and sits in front of the fireplace. I remember trying to tell him things and he would always look at me and tell me the same thing through his tilted sad smile.
“Sorry boy, granddaddy ain't granddaddy right now.” I’d wait a little while, till I heard snoring amongst the crackling of the warm den, then I’d sneak in and put a blanket over him. I was about 6 at the time and I remember after tucking him in I’d cuddle with him. Even if he was passed out. I didn’t have much, but I had him.
I remember on my 8th birthday Granddaddy told me that it was time, I was old enough to learn how to hunt. He gave me his old bow and took me out into the cold woods and up the mountains. I remember how cold my hands were. Even through the gloves it was hard to make a fist. It felt like my hands were turning into dead-wood, my fingers slowly turned into gnarled branches cracking underneath. We hid behind a fallen tree, still, and we watched one deer forage for anything it could find under that permafrost. That deer was skinny. Just like us, probably hasn’t eaten in a little while. Granddaddy helped me get that bow just right. I remember looking down the shaft of that arrow, and hearing that calm but deep voice of his from behind me, it felt as if time slowed down “Aim for the lung’s boy…don’t hold your breath it makes you shake… let it go... and just as your lungs are empty, loose the arrow into his.”
I did as he told me step by step… all except for loose the arrow. “Loose boy. Loose the fucking arrow.” He grew angry. I couldn’t though... as the deer perked up and looked right into my eyes. I saw that I was just as scared as him. I remember Granddaddy grabbed the bow from my hands “Give me the fucking thing.” The deer tries to run away. In a swift motion, he looses an arrow at the running deer. Right into the back of the spine. “Gods damnit.” He grabbed me by the front of my coat and pulls me up. “You better toughen up buttercup, you’re a killer…” He pauses and in that moment I saw in his eyes the horror of his lifetime. All of his pain and strife, the things he saw, for that brief second he looked into me, I saw too. “Maybe you’re not a killer… you don’t get it yet.” He grabs me by the scruff of my neck. “You live a predator, or you die as prey boy.” Looking back, I can’t even remember his face but I remember him saying this through that large scruffy gray beard.
We walk towards the deer, bleeding and panicking on the ground. Mewling and desperately trying to crawl away, its back legs limp, its spine shattered. He rolls the deer on its side and he grabs me and makes me look at it. “Look at it boy, that’s your choice… Whether you like it or not, that’s your choice.” He pulls out a large knife, and hands it to me. The first time I ever felt that cold steel before. As cold as it was, I felt it burn right through my gloves. My hand remembers the knife. “You decide kid… what’ll it be?” I took that long look at the knife, in part of the reflection, I saw myself, and then I looked at the deer, right in that young bucks eye, and he looked back at me. Both of us terrified, but I made the choice. I stabbed the deer in the neck, its red lifeblood spilled onto the white snow, the heat of it created steam that rose into that overcast sky. I watched its panic, its legs kicking, the fear in its eyes, so desperate…fade away. I felt my heart sink and disappear, as if the cold itself crystallized it in a standstill. I couldn’t even shed a tear. I remember granddaddy grabbed me in a side hug , and in that silent snow all I remember is his voice. “I’m sorry boy, now you understand, that this, our choice, this, is The Hunters Price.”