The Long Hunt
There is no friendliness in Famine, and there is no room for fear in the heart of a hunter. Callum learned these lessons well. Perhaps too well.
Callum shivered as he trekked along the Old Trade Road towards the forest, his pa’s rifle tucked away. Even now he wondered if his fingers would have the nimbleness needed to load and fire the damn thing with the chill. The wind showed no sign of letting up and even with the thick coat and gloves he had wrapped around himself, it seemed to cut right through like a knife.
He was a long way from the farm now. Leastways longer away than he’d ever been on his own before. Now, his pa didn’t like that much. Callum couldn’t blame him. His pa had lasted many years since he was cautious and careful (and a worrywart, though Cal would never call him that to his face.) But it wasn’t exactly like they had a choice in the matter. Food stuffs were low around the farm, the winter had been awfully long, and the nearest hunting grounds were all but bare, ‘cept for a few rabbits that were more fur and bone than meat. And his pa, for all his skills and stories about the early days when he could fight and hunt and track, was hardly in the shape he used to be. Hell, these days he couldn’t be expected to travel much farther beyond the old trade road than a half a mile.
“I’m tellin’ you, boy,” Pa had muttered, his voice thick and rasping with tobacco smoke, “don’t go no further than you have to, y’hear? Bad enough living north of the Shardfall, but ever since them Alamians came round with their beasties tryna take it over--”
“Shit ain’t been right,” Callum had finished the sentiment. He’d heard pa say it enough after all.
“Watch yer damn mouth,” he’d grunted. “Now I know you got less sense than Rascal here--” and the old man had scratched the old wolfdog behind his greying ears “--but I’m tellin’ you, don’t go further than you got to. You stay away from the woods just shy o’ the goblin hunting grounds, summa their shit was bound to get loose and set up shop there. And don’t you go hunting in the goblin territories, them savages’ll strip the skin from your bones and roast you on a spit. And then who’s gonna care for your momma and sister when I die of being an decrepit old fuck?”
Callum fought to keep from rolling his eyes at the memory, and would’ve if they weren’t as like as not to freeze that way in their sockets.
His momma had come in then and given pa a right scolding for using that kinda language around the children. Not like his sister woulda heard. Rosemary was sleeping soundly in her bed, and Callum used that kinda language all the time, assuming his momma wasn’t present.
His momma sure as hell wasn’t present now. And the loudly grunted “Shit!” as he tumbled on a patch of ice and landed hard on his knee, was met with no more scolding than a concerned whine and lick on his face. He picked himself up again, and pressed on.
Pa had sent Rascal along for the trip. “He’s a good hunting dog,” he’d said, “keep you safe as he can, help you track if you find somethin’ good. And now you come back with somethin’ good; the instant you get somethin’ good, you come home. Don’t get cocky.”
Callum didn’t think he was exactly a cocky sort. But now, as he got closer and closer to the dark rich woods that bordered the goblins hunting grounds, he started wondering if maybe his pa had a point. Course, it wasn’t pride that drove him on right now, but hunger gnawing at his belly and reminding him of his family back home, now two days behind him. The Old Trade Road traveled on further eastward but there wasn’t nothing to be found in the way of animal tracks, just the ruts of dirt and snow where the wagons pushing on to Jineu and Pickenvein and the like had driven paths. There wasn’t much else to do but start heading towards the woods and hoping like hell he wasn’t about to get himself made into a meal of some sort himself.
It was right then that Rascal started to growl, a deep low throaty sound, as he crouched, the hair on his hackles raised high.
“What is it, boy?” Callum asked quietly, already starting to fumble with the rifle. He scanned the horizon, trying to see the source of Rascal’s fear. He spotted it then, off in the distance, what looked like a pair of antlers silhouetted against the bright white of the snowfall. Looked too big to be a deer, an elk maybe? Either way, Callum found his heart surging with new life and vigor as he started creeping closer to the creature, hoping that he’d get a good shot.
There wasn’t much to hide behind around these fields. So much of the area around the Old Road was flatland, and in the few months it wasn’t frozen around here, housed little more than prairie grass. So he didn’t have much choice but to step lightly, and pray that there weren't any stray twigs or sticks that might crack and scare the damn thing off.
But with each step those antlers seemed to be getting bigger. Far bigger than they ought to be. And pretty soon, Callum stood stock still on the little path he’d tread through the snow, staring dumbfounded up at what was decidedly not a deer or an elk at all, realizing he was about as likely to scare this thing off as a field mouse would scare a cat.
The creature, if it even was that, stood on two thick haunches, hunched over the carcass of something freshly killed. If it hadn’t been bent in half to eat, the thing must’ve been nearly twenty, maybe thirty feet tall. At its feet, the dark red blood of its hunt stained the ground, snow trampled down til it was barely half an inch high and pressed tight with the beast’s weight. Even now, Callum wasn’t exactly sure what kind of creature the beast was eating, as the most he could see of it was a ripped open mess, pulverized muscles and broken bones. The thing had two sets of front legs, the middlemost currently stabilized it as the long talon-claws of its front legs tore the corpse apart, then dragged its meal, almost raccoon-like, towards its macabre and eyeless face. Callum couldn’t tell at this distance whether that deer skull that covered its head was a mask, its own exposed bone, or something else entirely, but he was hardly keen on getting closer to find out. At the same time, he wasn’t exactly keen on moving at all; his feet were frozen to the spot as he stared at this thing and slowly lowered the rifle. Not like it was gonna do a lick of good. Beside him, Rascal’s growls had turned to whimpers, and Callum finally regained the presence of mind enough to speak as he whispered,
“Easy boy. Easy.” He tried to be as reassuring as he could be under the circumstances… but it wasn’t exactly the easiest thing to do as he stared down this giant… Thing, whatever it was. He wanted to move. He wanted to run. To get away. Even looking at this beast made him feel sick to his stomach. But he found his feet as rooted to the spot as the trees off in the distance as he stood there, frozen, but not at all from the cold.
Even as the beast’s eyes turned to look at him, he couldn’t move. Steam huffed from the thing’s bloodstained mouth and nose cavities. And as it turned from its meal to look at him, lowering its head, staring at him with empty eye sockets, the fear of the gods flooded through the boy’s heart. He expected it to charge. To draw closer. He waited for the rending and tearing of his body, the bite of sharp teeth and the ripping of flesh.
What he didn't expect was a voice that hissed like the cold wind off the Shardfall and wrapped around him like a noose.
"Running would serve you better, little hunter.”
Callum couldn’t tell if the voice was coming from inside his head, or echoing out of this thing’s… mouth. Even now, the deer skull mask didn’t move, no movement of a jaw or a mouth apart from the deliberate slow chewing.
“It’s rare someone would stand this long before me. Do you think that rifle will save you?”
Unintentionally, he gripped the weapon more tightly, as if remembering all of a sudden that it was there. The voice laughed, sending a chill down Callum’s spine. Rascal dipped again, starting to growl, only to whimper and cower back behind the boy.
“Can’t say as I do,” Callum called back, his voice shaking. “But can’t say as I’d want to put it down, neither.”
Silence fell between the two for a few agonizing moments, the only sounds around coming from the whining wolfdog, and the wet cracking of the carcass as the beast tore into it.
“You gonna kill me?” Callum’s voice cracked slightly as he broke the silence.
“For now, why would I?” the beast replied. “You are no threat to me. I now fill my belly with the rich and the raw, you’d barely be more than splinters in my teeth, only skin and bones. Dust will claim you sooner than I.”
“So… you a friend then?”
“I am hunger, little hunter, there’s no friendliness in Famine.”
“You… one of them Alamian things then? From the island with the giants?”
The beast chuckled, a low rumbling sound that didn’t seem at all funny to Callum. “I predate your empires, your islands. I’ve made this world my hunting ground since long before the Great Wolf’s stories wandered here from his otherplane.” Another burst of steam huffed up from the thing’s nostrils. Callum, still terrified, couldn’t help but jump at the sound. “So to answer you, no. I am not.”
“These’re... your hunting grounds then?”
“These. The wilds. The waters. Plains and valleys, mountains and wetlands alike, I have no preference.”
“But… These woods?”
The beast shifted forward, one step, then another in his direction. The carcass lay half-finished, staining the snow crimson around it. Callum, who’d almost let his guard down, quickly raised the rifle to his shoulder once again as it shook its head in laughter. “You’re either braver than most… or the stupidest I have met, little hunter.”
Even now, Callum couldn’t run. Or wouldn’t? He wasn’t sure anymore if it was fear or just plain boneheaded stubbornness that kept his feet rooted to the spot, but he wasn’t moving. “Said yourself, sir. No friendliness in famine. Got a family needs feedin'." His finger rested on the trigger; if the thing… this hunter tried to charge him, at least he wouldn't go down without a fight. His heart was in his throat even as he stared the beast down. "But if these woods're your hunting grounds, well, my pa taught me better than to go trespassin'. So I'm askin'. Can I hunt here? Won't take more'n my share, promise."
"There are many who starve, little hunter, and I have been their witness. Why should your family be an exception?"
Callum frowned, his eyes narrowing. “S’pose you got a point. All sortsa things prolly die around your hunting grounds.” He thought for a moment, changing tack slightly. “You ever seen someone who should’ve been?”
Another long huff, the steam almost bright against the sky, came in reply. “Should have been what? You’re keeping me from my meal, little hunter.” Another step forward. Vaguely, Callum noticed that despite the beast’s massive size, that he left no footprints, no traces of his existence at all in the fresh powder.
Callum gulped, the weight of the rifle now heavy against his shoulder, but he didn’t dare set it down for even a moment. The stench now of half-eaten corpses behind this Famine now hit his nostrils, and he swallowed back the bile that rose in his throat. Much of the stench, he realized quickly, was not coming from the most recently killed beast, the dark red blood sharp and contrasted against the white snow. No, it came from this thing, hulking, fur matted with the blood of dozens of other meals. It stank like death itself.
“No. Hunger comes for all. Rich, poor, man, beast, all those that starve find me waiting at their end. Those who gorge themselves on all they consider their right are merely fattening themselves up for me.”
The thing crept closer with a grace that didn’t fit its size at all, and quiet as he could, Callum pulled the hammer back, cocking the rifle. Wouldn’t be much of a fight, he knew but he wouldn’t be made into toothpicks without a little struggle on his part.
“You? You reek of it. How long have you been rationing each bite you’ve taken?”
There was a deep growl. It didn’t match the voice at all, and it wasn’t Rascal’s at all either. Callum saw out of the corner of his eye as Rascal backed up, his tail between his legs. The growl was this thing, this Famine’s stomach, the rumbling sound almost echoing in the open air.
“I ration too, little hunter. That meal behind me is half-eaten only to give me something with which to wash your dusty frames down.”
The Famine lurched forward, quick as lightning, clawed hands extended towards the dog as Rascal tried to bolt. A deafening bang filled the air. Bone splintered and fell to the snow below as dust, Callum’s voice escaping in a strangled scream of “No!”
The beast reeled back, Rascal untouched, but now running back the way he’d come, back home as fast as his four legs could carry him. Callum shook, hands trembling as he fought to reload the rifle quickly. Black smoke curled and wisped around the skull-like face, spilling like blood from the center of the bone forehead. His voice cracked as he shoved the next cartridge into the barrel, leveling the rifle once again at the Famine’s head. The sound of the gun cocking was the only sound in the quiet open air.
“You ain’t killin’ my dog.” It wasn’t eloquent but it would have to do.
Silence fell between the two of them for seconds that stretched into eternity. There was no sound except the pounding of Callum’s heart in his ears and the heavy breathing of the beast before him. And then, slowly, the silence broke. First a huff, then another. Then the low rumble once again.
Famine was laughing.
The sound caught Callum off guard, and he readjusted his grip on the weapon once more. He watched, horrified, as the shattered bone and the gaping hole in the beast’s head began to knit and mend together once again. Still Famine laughed. This was it, he realized. He was going to die here.
Then the beast’s voice crackled to life once again. “You’re braver than most, little hunter. Stupid, perhaps. Hasty. But braver than most.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, but I ain’t. Nearly pissed myself, if it wouldn’ta frozen.” He chuckled nervously himself, his voice still shaky, finger trembling on the trigger.
“You’ll take no more than your share. Go find your dog.”
Callum blinked. The gun half fell from his shoulder. “You’re lettin’ me hunt?”
“I make no exceptions, little hunter.” The voice was still cold as the wind that tried to stab through Callum’s coat, but there was something almost akin to fondness along its edge. “Our paths will cross again, and I will see you once more. In the meantime… fatten yourself. And your family.”
The hulking form shifted, turned, and wandered back towards the carcass. Famine ate, devoured, paying no more attention now to Callum than a lazy cat would to a mouse. The crunching and cracking of flesh and bone filled the air once again. Callum nearly fell to his knees in relief, but let the gun fall to his side.
“Thank you,” he called to the beast, but there was no reply.
Life slowly crept back into his legs and feet. Callum pried them up from the ground, taking one, then another step away, before all the urge to run he’d felt earlier finally hit his legs. He bolted after Rascal, calling for the dog, running until every ounce of adrenaline had finally fled from him. He followed the tracks until he found Rascal, still barking and panting in the cold air. Callum, without hesitation, dropped to a knee, scratching the old wolfdog behind the ears, offering a few quiet words of comfort. “Easy boy, easy. It’s alright.”
The boy turned his head, glancing behind him, back the way he’d come running from, and saw only open air and sky. No sign of the Famine aside from the ache in his legs and the wave of emptiness that filled him as the last of his adrenaline left him. Slowly, he pushed himself to his feet, shouldered the rifle, and looked around the beast’s hunting grounds.
No friendliness was to be found in Famine. But an accord had been made. And the hunt had just begun.
Thank you all very much for reading this particular little brainworm that decided to stick with me. As is the case with many of my short fictions, this one was once again a challenge issued to me by my fellow friends and worldbuilders, one that took me a little longer to complete than expected, but one that I ultimately very much enjoyed the process of. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you did, feel free to leave your likes, comments, insights, etc, and also check out some of the other stories on my profile! It really does mean a lot. Thank you all again.