The Fourth Hunter
The sun blazed through the viridian jungle ceiling, but Khala trudged on.
Even with plump jungle leaves to give her shade, she was perspiring through her tunic, breeches, and at least one of her boots. Her eyes watered with irritation from sweat and the bug repellant she applied every half hour. A rub with the back of her dirty hand only made her eyesight blurrier and her hunting skills that much worse. But she only stopped when she could only open one eye, and with a groan yanked off the kerchief on her head. She had lost track of how many times she had to wring that out on the ground that morning.
Khala strode out of the jungle line back down to the banks of the White River. She dropped her spear, her empty backpack, and the line of five coel down on a boulder to kneel down to dunk her kerchief in the clear water. Once sopping, she gave it a brutal twist over her forehead to relieve the sting from her eyes.
Her vision cleared with a few seconds, but Khala did not return to her trek. With a long sigh, she sat back against the boulder to relish the refreshing chill of a cool brow. She looked at her fishing line and frowned at the catch. Five coel: better than anything she had caught in three days, but not enough to feed her tribe. Maybe the other hunters had better luck that morning. Maybe someone had trapped a phiomia or downed a pteranodon. In all likelihood, the other three had probably the same haul as yesterday: some eggs, the wild dodo that laid them, and a pack full of seeds that stood little chance of growing. It was a good effort that the other Swampwolves appreciated, but Khala, Matewa, and Tovin were tasked with hunting prey, not gathering berries, finding eggs, or fishing for coel.
A few feet from where she was, Khala could see a bush of bright yellow amarberries. She chuckled when she thought of Arama’s reaction when she saw them. Just yesterday, her sister declared her hatred of the tart berries and swore if she saw Khala or the other hunters come home with more the next day she would hurl the whole preserving bin out of the compound. Arama, like most of her tribemates, were sick of a berry-rich diet and the stomach troubles that came with it. “Bring anymore back,” Arama warned, “and I may hurl you out too!”
Khala got to her feet and climbed back into one strap of her pack. She left the fish on the boulder — maybe a pteranodon would smell them and she could down it before it flew off with the line — but took up her spear. With her pack open, she began plucking the amarberries off the bush. If Arama planned to throw anything — herself or a preserving bin — she would have to do so knowing at least one of those things were full.
Her pack had about two handfuls of amarberries before Khala noticed the sliver of a black eggshell on the dirt next to her.
Seeing any egg in the jungle was cause for celebration. Khala gasped for joy, knowing she may be close to a clutch or the animal that laid them. Eagerly she reached over to pick up the shell, but dropped it when she did not recognize its texture. Dodo eggs were tough and smooth. Stegasaur eggs were velvety soft and fuzzy. Both were dappled with bright colors. The shell she touched was leathery and fleshy, like the skin of a blister. And, it was black — black with jagged blood-red stripes. With a deep breath, Khala reached for the shell again, only to brush against another black-and-red remnant next to it.
Spear in hand, Khala began searching the area around the bush. She found three smaller pieces identical to the others leading away from the White River, leading up the hill to the treeline. She pawed through the thick nettles and gnarled twigs until she found a cleared path, with more scraps of those strange eggshells. Just as she rounded a thick gum tree, she felt the heel of her boot slide on a slick patch of ground.
Khala stepped back and raised her spear. If something was wounded and still alive, it was likely dangerous and aggressive and territorial. Dilos were spitting, shrieking messes when mortally injured. Giant carbos were as well, having slammed her face first into the ground in its death throes on one of her first hunts. Rarely did she encounter an animal that didn’t fight over its nest when near death. The only creatures that ran away were dodos and phiomia, but the former were slow and bumbling and the others did not lay eggs.
Behind the gum tree, out of sight of the river, Khala found a nest of six black-and-red eggs. All of them had been smashed or torn to pieces. Mercifully, none of those eggs looked like they had been near hatching even if their attacker — or attackers — had expected them to be. The grass around the nest was raised and pert, there were no fresh piles of dung, and no feathers or decaying bones scattered nearby. Khala placed her spear against the tree trunk and relaxed — the owners of this nest were not coming back.
Crouching, Khala pawed through the bloodied underbrush around the gum tree, searching the abandoned nest for any compys scavenging at the shells. Compys were calm, curious, and fearless little creatures on their own or with a full belly. Provoked or hungry, one would summon its own tribe to attack. They were insanely hard to catch, but where one or five lurked, Khala knew she could find leftovers. They could also surprise an unsuspecting person out looking for food; Khala instinctively curled her fingers in while she parted through the dense plants to brace herself for the needle-sharp sting of a compy bite.
Instead she found a whole egg, same leathery skin and jagged stripes as its broken counterparts, rolled two or three feet from the nest.
Heart pounding, Khala picked it up. The shell, warm to the touch, pulsated between her palms.
This is only a day or so from hatching! she thought. As she turned it on each axis, she wondered what type of creature could be inside it. Dilo eggs were half the size and bright red. Dodo eggs were ivory. She had seen remnants of carbo eggs after one stupidly stomped on its nest — perfectly heavy, spherical things with an olive shell. This was unlike any shell she had ever encountered before in the wild. What could it be?
A realization settled over Khala like a frigid breeze and she shuddered.
Gingerly, she let the egg slip to the ground and jumped back onto her feet. Raptors? Hadn’t her grandfather hunted them to extinction? Wasn’t there a celebration when he came back, carrying the carcass of the last remaining raptor? Her mother was just a little girl, hardly old enough to walk, but she recalled the week-long feast and bacchanal. “Every tribe in the Approach heard that the last raptor fell in battle! Its claw hung around my father’s neck until we buried him with it!”
Khala nudged the egg with her toe. No, this couldn’t be a raptor egg. They’re all dead!
She considered all the other eggs it could have been, eggs belonging to herbivores that had been hunted near extinction or whose kin had moved on. Parasaurs? Trikes? Brontos? All too big for this egg. This egg came from a mid-sized creature that could lay several eggs at a time, not just one or two like the bigger plant-eaters.
“Pachy,” Khala determined. “It’s a pachy egg.” Pachys didn’t like thick jungle biomes, preferring dry, open grasslands. It made no sense that not one but two would make it this far and lay a clutch, but it was a good enough story to stick to when her parents asked about it.
With a confident smile, Khala bent down and scooped the egg under her arm. Another strong herbivore would be enough to get her into the High Seat’s good graces — especially knowing she had failed at her assigned hunting task.
Khala removed her kerchief, now dry and crusted with sweat and bug repellant, and signaled Hohirem to put down his arrows. The silent guardsman lowered his bow and waved back, and a second later the thatch door opened.
The other hunters had returned from their expedition, given the bonfire in the middle of the compound. She saw High Seat Huatare standing among a throng of tribe mates, with her staff in one hand. Khala raised her line high to catch the High Seat’s attention, who glanced up, nodded, and waved her over.
The Swampwolves swarmed around the compound attending to their daily duties digging in tiny gardens, pounding away at smithys, or binding sharp stones to wood sticks to make sturdy weapons. As she trudged from the gate to the center of the compound, three of the five tribe dilos came trotting up to her to smell her and snap at her fishing line. Two were the toms, Pat and Turner, and one was the oldest queen and alpha, Lady. The males focused on getting at her fish while the female caught the smell of her pack and tried to climb up her back. Nervously, Khala kicked them away. To her, dilos were overly curious and moody creatures — affectionate one moment and hissing the next. Lady, by virtue of being the oldest, was the worst. Khala had lost count at how many times she had to shoo Lady out of the savoroot plots for attempting to pee in them. At night, Lady liked to prowl around the huts, yowling at the top of her lungs until someone — usually Khala — got out of bed and hurled a boot out the window at her. As Khala kicked Lady away from her one last time, the dilo raised her frills and spat, sending a blob of green mucous across her path. Khala jumped out of the way — dilo spit was venomous to smaller animals but to humans it was just a burning, disgusting mess. Eventually, the three dilos fell back and skulked away, looking for more mischief to get into.
The High Seat was deep in a quiet conversation with Matewa, the lead hunter, while Tovin the former fisherman-turned-hunter, stood by. Khala was the youngest by far — Matewa had three children, and Tovin was near the age of tribal retirement. Matewa’s oldest child, Ianga, was Khala’s best friend. As Khala approached, she caught only a few heated words (Not ready! Won’t work!) before Matewa saw her and fell silent.
“What do you have for us, Khala?”
She slipped the strap of her pack off her shoulder and held both it and her line out. “A few coel, some amarberries, and…” She licked her lips. “And that’s it, I’m afraid.”
“No red meat?” the High Seat frowned. Disappointment wrinkled her ancient face.
Khala shook her head.
Matewa and Tovin shifted, their heads low with shame. Confused, Khala looked to the bonfire but saw only charred wood and thatch lighting it. The cookpot sat overturned nearby. On the prep table sat a bushel of fish and a bowl of mixed berries — mostly azulberries and tintoberries, but a handful of mejoberries sat amongst them.
“Oh,” she said, understanding. “No meat at all?”
“Fish,” Tovin spat. “Plus your five equal thirteen.”
“Plenty of berries,” Matewa mentioned. “High Seat, send us out again — together this time, and for longer! I know we can find something!”
High Seat Huatare sighed. “We will discuss this tonight,” she said. “Now, clean your foragings and prepare them for dinner. I need space.”
Tovin raised his hand to stop her. “High Seat — ”
“I said, go,” she snapped before whirling around and storming off to her hut.
Red-faced, both Matewa and Tovin turned away.
“What was that about?” Khala whispered, but the elder hunters hardly glanced at her.
“It’s a long story,” Tovin said.
“You’ll find out at dinner,” Matewa replied.
Khala watched them gather their fish and berries from the prep table and wordlessly part ways back to their huts. She did not follow. Whatever had happened in conversation before she had shown up had been intense and unfriendly. Khala, though curious, did not want her colleagues angry with her, and thus began her own march back to her family’s hut.
The cozy thatch dwelling Khala shared with her mother, father, and sister had been in her family’s line for years. Her grandfather had built it and her parents added on to it when Arama was born. The high seat had allowed all tribesmen the freedom to add onto their hut if their family grew and if there was enough resources to go around. The last time there was a glut of thatch, Khala was learning to walk and her parents had been able to build her her own bedroom. But thatch, wood, fiber, and stone silos had been dwindling over the years, along with the tribe’s meat. The hut, like so many, had seen better days and needed repairs — their roof was leaking right above Arama’s room. As she approached, Khala saw her mother, Paora, atop of the house and banging away with a rock to repair the damaged slats.
Arama stood on the ground outside the hut, hands on her hips and observing her mother’s work. Paora saw Khala walking and stopped hammering, but her face looked grim.
“No meat?” she asked, squinting eyes searching her daughter’s arms.
Once again, Khala had to disappoint someone. “The High Seat wants this cleaned and prepared for dinner.”
Arama frowned. “Just the fish?”
“What else?” Her sister could be demanding if pressed.
“Some, uh, amarberries, but — ”
“I know you hate them, but — ”
“I have had amarberries for dinner for six straight months!” she cried. “You couldn’t find anything else?”
“Arama, please listen. I — ”
“I would rather die than eat another mouthful of those sour little balls!”
“Arama! Enough!” Paora snapped, attempting to balance on one knee. “If that was all Khala could find, then there is nothing we could do.” Paora looked at her youngest. “Your father’s inside, dearest. He’ll gut and scale the fish. Arama, help Khala wash the berries.”
Arama sucked in a breath to start whining again, but Khala stepped forward. “Mama, wait a second. There’s something I need to show you and Papa. And Arama.”
Paora raised her eyebrow and dropped her rock to the side. “You didn’t sneak any meat past the High Seat did you?” Hoarding red meat was breaking a tribal law and punishable by banishment. There hadn’t been a tribesman banished for that crime since her grandfather was an adolescent, but it was a good story to remind young children of at bedtime.
Khala shook her head. “Come inside. I don’t want to say out here.”
Paora put her hands on her hips. “Fine. I will be right down.”
Khala clutched her pack to her belly and entered the hut.
Her father, Gul, sat at the family table, separating seeds by the handful from a bucket. He beamed as Khala came in, noticing her fishing line. “Welcome back, lamb,” he greeting, rising to his feet. “Quite a catch you have there!”
“She got more amarberries, too,” muttered Arama, ducking into the hut behind her.
“My favorite!” Gul kissed Khala atop her head and patted the table. “Set the fish here, I’ll clean them.”
“Wait for Mama,” Khala insisted. “I’ve got something else.”
Her father raised an eyebrow. “Red meat?”
She shook her head. “Matewa and Tovin didn’t get anything, either. Just more fish and berries.”
“Did the High Seat say anything?”
“No, but they were arguing together when I came in. I don’t know what about, though — they didn’t tell me.”
“They probably don’t think of you as a hunter yet,” Arama sniffed, though not unkindly. She sat down at the table and folded her hands together. “Well, when the High Seat finally retires Tovin, Matewa will have to acknowledge you.”
Khala shrugged. “She still sees me as Ianga’s best friend,” she offered.
“When you come home with a phiomia hock, she won’t anymore!” Her father laughed and patted her hand.
Khala smiled but did not laugh. Matewa had never had a strong affection for her, even as a child. She had taught her daughter how to throw a spear and set rope traps at a very young age in hopes that Ianga would be selected as the next hunter. But Ianga showed no inclinations to hunt; in fact, she would cry at the thought of slaughtering animals for food. She felt more comfortable at home, tending to the creatures of the tribe. She loved the animals and they loved her back; indeed, the only tribesman not bothered by the dilos incessant annoyances was Ianga. By all respects, the animals loved Ianga, too. None of the dilos hissed or spit at her. The baby steg, Minna, ate out of her hand. And the dodos all flocked to her when she opened their pen to feed or pet them. It was Khala who wanted to follow Matewa out of the compound to hunt. When Ianga refused to learn how to set a trap or thread a bow, Khala watched and practiced from the sidelines, tagging wild dodos and coels when they were slow enough. The High Seat took notice, and when they were fourteen, named Ianga the animal keeper and Khala the newest hunter. “You are to train this girl,” the old woman instructed an angry Matewa, “like you did your own. But Ianga is a lover of animals, not a hunter.”
“I will have to see Ianga before dinner,” Khala told her father and sister. “Maybe she’ll know what Matewa said to the High Seat.”
The door opened and Paora walked into the hut. “There,” she said, dusting off her hands. “What is it that you wanted to show us?”
Khala flipped open her pack. “This.”
She let the egg roll out onto the tabletop to the tune of her family’s mixed reaction. Her mother frowned, while her father scratched his head. A few amarberries fell out, so Arama sat back and huffed.
“An egg?” Paora asked. “That is what you wanted to show us?”
Gul reached out and touched it, drawing his hand back when he felt the heat and the movement within. “It’s going to hatch!”
Khala nodded. “Maybe in one or two days is all!”
Arama stared at it. “What will it hatch into, though?”
“A pachy.” The red-and-black egg pulsed again on the table. “And I’m going to keep it.”
“No you will not!” her mother cried just as her father asked, “Have you told the High Seat?”
“Mama, please!” she begged. “And no, don’t tell the High Seat! I want to surprise her when it hatches, because I want to train it to help us hunt!”
Arama laughed. “A pachy? For hunting?”
“They have heavy heads good for bashing,” Khala insisted. “And they can sprint fast! I can train it to run down phiomia!”
“And just where do you think you’ll keep it?” Paora demanded. “In this hut?”
“Of course not!” Khala thought fast. “It’ll stay in Minna’s pen. Ianga can look after it when it isn’t hunting.”
“Minna,” Gul repeated, deep in thought. “She hatched just a few months ago. The High Seat won’t like another hungry mouth to feed with food being so thin.”
“Pachys don’t eat much. Just a few mouthfuls of berries every day. She can eat all of Arama’s amarberries.”
Arama sat back and nodded at this idea, but Paora continued shaking her head. “And what if we run out of berries? What if there’s a drought? Everything’s been so heavily hunted, so what if we die of thirst before we die of hunger?”
“There has never been a drought in the Approach,” Gul reminded her.
“I blame the Furyriders,” Arama snarled, referring to the legendary tribe of bloodthirsty berserkers to the east, who had spread so far from their desert territory that they had been rumored to have been seen as far west as the Approach. “They’ve taken all our prey.”
“No, they’re still too far away. I blame the High Seat.”
Both Arama and Gul protested.
“Oh hush, you both know it is true!” Paora threw up her hands. “If Huatare had followed my idea and moved the tribe just a day’s journey closer to the river, we would have plenty of food — fish, berries, and the animals that eat them.”
“The river is a dangerous place,” Gul countered. “The animals that eat them are large and fearsome. They would slaughter any number of us. The High Seat knows what is best for Swampwolves.”
“Otherwise she wouldn’t have been the High Seat for as long as she has,” Arama said.
Both her father and her sister had different reasons for defending the High Seat. Khala, having an opportunity, changed the subject. “Mama, please let me keep the egg!” she pleaded. “I promise I can train it! I’ll be able to cover more ground with a pachy and find more food — maybe even a better place to move the tribe!” She put her hands together. “Please, Mama? Please?”
Paora sighed and shrugged her shoulders. “Fine,” she said, but raised her hands when Khala squealed with joy. “But when it hatches, you go straight to the High Seat and tell her your plan. And tell her you did not tell your family about it either.” She looked at her spouse and her oldest daughter. “We know nothing, right?”
Arama nodded, and Gul shook his head. “Right.”
Khala put the egg back into her back and placed it under her cot for protection. Before helping her father and sister prepare the food for dinner, she gave it a gentle kiss on its leathery shell. “Sleep sweet, little one,” she told it. “I can’t wait to meet you.”
She found Ianga on the fence of the steg’s pen.
At six months old, Minna weighed about five hundred stones and stood almost as tall as she did. Her plates hadn’t come in yet, but her tail spines were tiny protrusions already. In a year she would weigh three times as much and be twice as tall with more to go, providing she had a healthy diet. But Minna sat in the middle of her pen, head down and listless, while Ianga watched from outside, her arms tucked in and expression concerned. Even the six dodos sharing the pen with her seemed inactive and uninterested.
“How is she?” Khala asked, though she knew the answer.
Ianga glanced over her shoulder, allowing a cascade of dark, curly hair to fall down her tunic. She gave her friend a halfhearted smile. “She’s not eating enough,” the girl said, turning back to the steg. “I’m worried about her growth.”
Khala got to Ianga’s side and climbed up on the fence. Minna sighed and trailed her wide feet in the dirt. Her feeding trough was half full of spoiling azulberries and tintoberries. A healthy steg would have devoured a full trough twice a day. The dodos were light eaters as it was, leaving ample food for Minna had she been hungry. Khala clicked her tongue. “We brought home some more berries,” she offered. “It’s mostly amarberries, though.”
Ianga shook her head. “Minna hates those. The dodos will like them, though.”
Khala suppressed a chuckle.
She felt feathers and flesh brush against the back of her ankle. At her feet was Sprinkles, Ianga’s favorite dilo, nuzzling Khala with her crests. Though she generally disliked dilos, Khala had a tiny bit of fondness for Sprinkles, who was still a kitten and one Ianga handfed when her mother, Birdy, rejected her. Unlike the other four dilos, Sprinkles was sedate and friendly. She didn’t hiss or spit and only flailed her frills when startled. Sprinkles rarely left Ianga’s side, and Ianga let her sleep with her at night. Mewling, Sprinkles scratched at Ianga’s calf to be picked up.
“Have you seen your mother since she got back?” Khala wondered as they stepped off the fence. “She hardly said a word to me.”
Ianga shook her head and opened her arms, allowing Sprinkles to leap up to her chest to be cradled. “She said hello to me and my brothers but then said she would be at Tharon’s hut for the rest of the afternoon.” Tharon was the tribe’s leechwoman. “She sounded upset.”
“She and Tovin were arguing with the High Seat,” Khala cleared her throat. “It sounded heated, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was about.”
Ianga stroked Sprinkles, who lay her head against her shoulder and purred. “I think so, yes.”
With a sad look in Minna’s direction, Ianga answered. “I think the High Seat wants to release Minna.”
The answer did not surprise Khala. The steg would be an incredible drain on their scant resources if she started eating again. In a prosperous time, she could have been used for gathering. Minna sighed and squirmed as if she knew they were talking about her. Without parents to protect her, she would surely die on her own without the tribe.
“Better than turning her into food,” Khala reasoned, and Ianga’s hand flipped out and smacked her on the shoulder. “Ow!”
“What a terrible thing to say!” she snapped. “The High Seat wouldn’t do that! At least outside the wall, Minna could find a new family to love her!”
It was an unlikely event, but one Ianga would create for herself, perhaps because the truth was far too cruel for her to consider. Khala rubbed her shoulder and nodded. “Yes, I suppose she would,” she confirmed. “And maybe…maybe we’ll get a few surprises soon, too.”
Ianga raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean by that?”
“Maybe the herds will turn and we’ll find more herbivores.” She decided against telling her friend about the egg just then. “It’ll be good for the tribe, too.”
Stroking Sprinkles, Ianga gave Khala another suspicious look but did not ask any more questions. Changing the subject, she asked, “Did you need to talk to my mother before dinner?”
“No, I’ll let her talk with the leechwoman and not bother her. I know she doesn’t like me.” Khala stepped off the fence and dusted off her hands. “I should go back to my hut and wash up before the bonfire. Arama’s expecting me to help carry food out.”
Ianga chuckled. “Is she even sitting with your family tonight?”
“She has to!” Khala laughed. “I don’t know if Huatare will let her sit at her table!”
At sundown, the Swampwolves put down their tools, emerged from their huts, and moved toward the bonfire in the center of the compound.
Khala sat with her family at a table in the back, picking at the seared coel flesh and stewed amarberries. Next to her, Arama sat in a huff, arms crossed and slouching, with her sad eyes longingly focused on Caven, the High Seat’s great-grandson at his family’s table. She had picked at her sister for her infatuation with the last unattached heir of the High Seat’s family, especially since Arama wasn’t the logical choice for him. That did not stop Arama from finding every excuse she could to talk to the boy — like sitting at his family’s table when she wasn’t supposed to. That evening, the High Seat shooed away all other young women and sent them back to their families’ tables. Among the dejected were Arama and Samem, the leechwoman’s granddaughter and first eligible for the High Seat’s heir. Caven seemed to prefer Samem over his other potential suitors, too — as Arama brooded, he tried to catch Samem’s attention as the girl dutifully finished her dinner with her family.
“It isn’t fair,” Arama said, pushing her half-eaten plate of food away from her. “We’re both the same age! Why can’t I marry Caven?”
“He doesn’t seem to be interested in marrying you,” Khala pointed out with a shrug. “He seems more curious about Samem.”
Groaning, Arama shook her head. “Just because she is the leechwoman’s granddaughter!” She turned to Paora. “Mama, you’re better at leechcraft than Tharon — why couldn’t you be the leechwoman?”
Gul gave his daughter a stern look. “That was rude, Arama.”
“Because,” Paora replied, chewing the last bit of her coel. “I did not want to be a leechwoman. I wanted to be a builder. And the High Seat saw that.”
“Just like she saw what a good hunter Khala was,” Gul added.
“But you had to teach the leechwoman how to bind a limb and make a salve poultice!”
“Of course. I taught her and now she knows. That’s how learning works.”
“But — ”
“Arama only had plans to be Caven’s wife,” she said, and Arama elbowed her in the ribs.
“Enough of this,” Gul snapped. “You two stop that — the High Seat is standing!”
A hush fell over the tribe as the old woman got to her feet with the help of her staff and one of her many children. She raised her free hand in a dismissive wave. “Please, finish up your meals,” she advised, then nodded toward Khala’s family. “Before I begin my announcement, I’d like to thank our hunters Matewa, Tovin, and Khala for the bounty supplied tonight. Thank you and well fed.”
“Well fed,” came the murmurous response. Khala blushed.
“We understand that the catch may not have yielded any red meat. Herds have moved on if they have not been killed off. Food is scarce in the Approach and I’ve taken a long time to consider the ramifications of this. Some say we should leave the compound, become nomadic, and find a more amicable landscape to build our new walls. Others still say we should stay and try harder or forgo red meat at all. I believe I can offer a compromise to this.
“For their next hunt, I’m asking the hunters to head east toward the coast to locate two things. The first is prey, as that mission is never changing. But the second is a living creature — a male steg to breed with Minna. With two large herbivores, we will have twice the power to carry forage and defend the compound. Eggs, of course, will follow. A steady source of food is what we need.
“But there is a time limit to this endeavor. I’m giving the hunters a year from tomorrow to find a male steg, or we will leave the Approach and head north.”
The Swampwolves murmured and shifted in their chairs. Khala looked at her parents, eyes questioning. They shrugged.
“North?” Tovin repeated, though he wasn’t called upon. “But, the taiga lies to the north. And tundra to the north of that!”
“And the animals are bigger!” Matewa added.
“Yes and yes,” Huatare went on. “And there are more of them, too. And they are slower. And their hides are warm and insulated.”
“But High Seat,” Ianga called, rising even as her mother tried to stop her. “Our animals are hot climate creatures. They are not prepared for those temperatures.”
A dark look cross the High Seat’s face. “We will not be bringing our animals, Ianga,” she said, her voice as grave as her expression. “They will have to be slaughtered and turned into food for our journey.”
Ianga gasped and slapped a hand over her mouth. “No!”
“I wish there was an easier solution, child, but I can find no other recourse.” Ianga collapsed, sobbing into her mother’s arms. “This isn’t an easy decision, but making difficult decisions for the good of our tribe is my job as High Seat.”
“We should have left when the herds began to thin!” Tovin shouted, his hands in fists at his sides. “We could have moved east!”
“East? Right into the Furyriders?” The High Seat frowned. “Tovin, don’t be mad!”
“We could have gone as far east as the Swamps!” He cried. “We would have had access to plenty of water and the animals therein!”
“And be attacked by boas, sarcos, and spinos?” Gul responded. “We can’t defend ourselves from those creatures!”
“Sarcos are only myths,” Tharon dismissed. “Just like the stories about rexes and carnos.”
“They are true!” Gul insisted. “I — ”
“Stop arguing!” the High Seat snapped, and the tribe fell silent again. She sighed. “Be they myth or not, we do not have the ability to defend ourselves against the ones we know about if we head east. And that includes Furyriders.” With a clear of her throat, Huatare raised her hand. “I want to see the hunters in my hut first thing tomorrow morning. Everyone else is dismissed. Well fed.”
The dismissal wasn’t well received once the High Seat began her lurch toward her family’s hut. The Swampwolves rose and began fighting all at once — some on the side of the High Seat, but most angry at the thought of killing their animals and fleeing toward the cold. Gul and Paora, on opposite sides, tried to extract themselves from the agitation but Tovin and Tharon caught them before they could get too far to argue their points, which led to shouting. Arama managed to sneak away from the commotion, probably to check on Caven before Samem could do so herself.
Khala sat still, in shock over the announcements and resulting events. Her head swam with the thought of leaving her tribal homeland. Generations had lived within these thatch walls, even more had lived on the grounds before the walls went up. How could they abandon it?
She caught herself staring at Ianga, who sat crying and holding Sprinkles at her family’s table. Her mother had her arm around the girl’s shoulders, trying to comfort her. Khala’s heart went out to her, thinking about how Ianga could lose her cherished dilo. Though she was no fan of the creatures, she couldn’t stand the thought of Ianga having to be restrained while someone slaughtered and ate Sprinkles right in front of her.
A terrible realization straightened Khala’s back: It’s on me, she thought, heart skipping. If we don’t find a steg, I could put the animals to death. We could lose the compound because of me.
As she sat trembling with that thought, Huatare’s private guard and grandson, Hohirem, slipped out from the High Seat’s hut and bashed a pestle against a small gong, startling the arguing tribe. Unable to speak, he raised a finger to his lips then made a pushing motion with his hand. The Swampwolves, chastened, fell into their own uncomfortable quiet and reluctantly everyone made their way back to their huts — Khala included.
Sleep did not come to Khala that night.
In her room, she tossed and turned on her cot, trying to shake the weight of her thoughts from her head and the feelings from her chest. When she closed her eyes, all she heard were the High Seat’s ultimatum, Ianga’s sobbing, and the rest of her tribe shouting at each other. They had a year to find a male steg — a single year! — in order to breed Minna. How could they accomplish this? A expedition west to the coast, or east toward the Writhing Swamps? Or would the High Seat send them out first thing tomorrow morning with the instruction not to come back without a male? Khala squirmed, worrying about her family and the state of the tribe if they did. How could three hunters — one an elderly man — trap and tame an angry male steg?
Her mind a vortex of anxiety and fear, she almost did not hear the scratching under her bed.
Khala bolted upright and held her breath to listen. She gasped when the scratching continued.
In a flash, she was on the floor, pulling the egg out from under her cot as the creature within lurched and thrashed against its leathery wall. She covered her mouth to stifle a moan as her earlier fears came flooding back. Not only would this be another animal to feed, but it could be dead in a year, anyway. Khala, sickened at that thought, shuddered as another thought crawled into her mind.
This doesn’t have to happen, she realized. I can end this right now.
Hands shaking, she scooped up the pulsating egg and rose to her feet. Better to end this now, quickly and painlessly, before the baby could be born. It would be over in an instant — she was a hunter, she knew how to end suffering. It was not always pleasant, but it would beat the alternative. In the morning, she would tell her family that the baby did not make it and she disposed of it as cleanly as possible. They would not be disappointed — they would most likely thank her. And within a week or two, they would all forget the egg ever happened. Maybe they would find more eggs on their journey to find another steg. Maybe —
The shell of the egg began to pitch and pucker where the baby tried to get out. In a panic, Khala ducked out of her room and tiptoed across the hut as fast as she could without waking up her family. She winced as she creaked the door open, and gulped when she latched it back into place on the other side.
The compound was dark and quiet, illuminated only by the standing torches down the main pathway. Egg still attempting to hatch, Khala ducked around and behind the hut to place it on the sand so she could locate a big enough piece of stone with free hands.
She spotted a heavy rock as big as her head near a neighboring family’s hut. Her back ached with the effort to lift it, but it was solid enough to get the job done. Hunching, she returned to the egg, just in time to see the shell break open and clear, amniotic fluid leak out.
Khala let the stone slip from her grasp and took a step back. “Oh no…” she murmured. “Please…no.”
The baby inside wasted no time coming into the world. As Khala gaped, a tiny snout with a milk tooth tore open a slit from the hole to allow a frail body to emerge. Its limbs slender, its face gangly, its eyes narrow, and its claws tiny — this was no pachy. When it was done hatching, it rose on two rear legs and looked up at her.
“No, no, no!” Khala begged no one in particular. “Please, no! Not a raptor!”
Her head swam as the chick struggled to maintain its balance. She had brought not just any carnivore, but the most dangerous one she could think of back to her tribe. Raptors were responsible for wiping out whole tribes according to folklore. Within just weeks, babies were deadly killers, hunting for sport and not food. Murderers, they were — violent, uncontrollable murderers.
With her hands on either side of her face attempting not to pass out, Khala saw the chick finally clench its front arms and swish its plump tail. She eyed the tiny talons that topped its feet — tiny talons that could puncture stone walls once fully grown. The raptor, not quite the size of a dodo, gazed back at her with eyes the color and shape of rubies.
It opened its jaws and shrieked.
Khala jumped. “No! Hush! Please! No!” she went to pick up the baby, to close its mouth in her hand — hopefully for good. But it sidestepped her, already faster than she was at only a few minutes old. She swiped again but the chick would not shut up. On the third grab, Khala missed again but gave the raptor room enough to hop up onto a nearby fence post.
“Stop it!” she cried, desperation overtaking her. “Come here!”
The raptor suddenly whipped its head around and stopped shrieking. Shocked, Khala looked over her shoulder to see what caught its attention, only to groan when she saw Birdy, the tribe’s mostly nocturnal dilo, rounding the corner. Birdy’s fat, orange frame came to a halt as soon as she laid eyes on the chick.
“Birdy,” Khala whispered. “Go away.”
The feathers on the back of her neck rising, Birdy bristled and growled low in her throat.
The raptor leaped from its perch and landing right into Khala’s chest. With an oof! she stumbled and fell back against the wall of her hut, causing a loud thud! and sending Birdy on an angry, manic spiral at her feet. She smacked at the raptor as it clinged to her tunic, as if it were a hot piece of food burning her flesh. But it dug into her clothing, refusing to budge, until it clawed up to her shoulder and sank all four feet into her. She shouted in pain, while the two animals screamed at each other, and while the Swampwolves stirred in their homes. Birdy jumped against her hip, snapping at the raptor; the raptor hissed and snapped back but refused to move.
After what seemed like a long time, Khala felt a softer touch on her other shoulder. When she straightened, she was eye-to-eye with her mother, her house shawl draped around her shoulders and a torch in her free hand.
She spied the raptor and jumped back.
“Khala,” Paora breathed, eyes wide at the sight before her. “What have you done?”
Dizzy, Khala turned to see Ianga, now holding Birdy, backing away from the raptor on the fence post. Matewa came up behind her daughter, gasped, and seeing the broken egg shell and baby raptor, put her arm protectively around Ianga’s shoulders.
Khala feared Matewa’s reaction much more than Paora’s. The woman’s eyes flashed in anger and disgust.
“Wake the High Seat, if she isn’t already,” she snarled to Ianga.
Sobbing, Khala sat before the High Seat, her story tumbling out of her. Surrounded by her parents, her sister, Ianga, and Matewa, she gave them everything — finding the egg, deciding to keep it, and wanting to hide it until it hatched. The only lie she told was her initial assumption that the egg was a raptor. “I swear I thought it was a pachy!” she cried, her face streaming with tears. “Raptors have been extinct from the Approach for almost two generations! How could I have known!”
Huatare looked unusual without her headdress and decorative breastpiece. Her hair long and loose and dressed in just her night tunica, the High Seat looked frailer and weaker than Khala had ever seen her. Still, as she sat on her throne, her face remained the blank, tranquil, and unreadable expression the Swampwolves knew her to have. Next to the High Seat, Hohirem stood glowering, his hands gripping his sharpened spear and eyes narrowed on Khala. With a shudder, Khala clasped her hands together and bowed. “Please, High Seat,” she begged. “Please don’t banish me!”
The High Seat thought for an agonizing moment before she spoke. “And what was your plan for this animal if it was an herbivore?” she asked. “Did you plan to have it till soil or dig seed trenches?”
“No, High Seat — I wanted to train it to hunt.” Khala heard chuckling behind her and recognized Matewa’s snide voice.
The High Seat frowned and Matewa fell silent again. “How would you train an herbivore to hunt?”
“They are fast moving animals, High Seat. I could cover more ground and catch up to faster-moving prey — phiomia are quick on their feet for being rotund creatures, as you know. And the skull of a pachy could break the shell of a carbo in no time.”
The High Seat nodded. “But this animal is no pachy,” she commented. “Do you realize, Khala, that creature is not just any baby animal, but one of the most deadly creatures to walk this land?” Khala hung her head. “That chick’s parents will come looking for it.”
Khala shook her head. “There were no parents, High Seat.”
“Oh? And you know this because you saw their bodies?” Khala hung her head. “I see. Khala, you have done a great danger to our tribe in your mistake. But you are earnest and contrite and I believe you when you say you thought it was an herbivore.” She raised an eyebrow and looked over Khala to her parents. “Where is the animal now?”
“Still on our roof, High Seat,” Paora said. When Hohirem seized Khala, the chick leapt from her shoulder and climbed to the top of her family’s hut, where it lashed at anyone attempting to catch it.
“Very well.” To Khala, she continued. “I will not banish you, child. You are an asset to this tribe and a skilled hunter. But you must be punished fairly.” She glanced at Hohirem and motioned for him to step forward. “You brought this creature into this compound, you can remove it. Dispose of the creature as you intended and go back to your hut.”
Matewa, taken aback by Khala’s light punishment, raised her hand in protest. “High Seat,” she objected. “This girl broke a tribal law! She is a hunter, used to killing animals — how is that a punishment?”
Khala looked over her shoulder. Gul and Paora glared at Matewa, who refused to acknowledge any of them. Even Ianga seemed shocked at her mother’s outburst.
“Have you any suggestions, Matewa?” the High Seat wondered. “Banish the girl for a mistake? Separate her from her family? Her tribe?”
Stammering, Matewa replied, “Shouldn’t she be jailed? Or silenced and demoted?”
Khala winced and stole a glance upward at Hohirem. The man did not flinch, but Khala remembered the day he went from a well-respected heir to the High Seat down to his grandmother’s bodyguard. She shuddered when she remembered the bitter brew he had to drink in front of the tribe.
But Huatare balked. “No egregious harm has been done, Matewa! You would have this girl’s voice taken from her because she mistook one animal’s egg from another? And have us be short one hunter?”
The woman scowled. “Tovin and I could handle the hunt.”
“Oh? Because you’ve been so good by yourselves?” Matewa fell silent finally. “That is what I thought.” To Khala, she continued. “Get up, child. Take my grandson’s pike and let’s be done with this tonight.”
Her hand sweaty and trembling, Khala took the pike from Hohirem and began her reluctant march back toward her family’s hut. Before stepping out of the High Seat’s hut, Khala caught her mother snarling at Matewa. “You would dare suggest my daughter be silenced and demoted?” she hissed, away from the High Seat’s ear. “All because you’re angry Ianga wasn’t made a hunter?”
“She violated tribal law!” Matewa insisted, just as Ianga pulled her and Gul pulled Paora away.
The trek back to the hut felt excruciating for the first time in Khala’s short life. Her fellow tribesmen had crept out of their huts to stare at her as she shuffled up the main pathway. Her parents, Ianga and Matewa, plus the High Seat and Hohirem followed close behind. As she walked, a strange feeling she could not identify clutched at her chest and slowed her footsteps.
The occupants of the neighboring hut as well as all five dilos had joined Arama outside to stare up at the raptor chick in awe and horror. It bounced across the pitch of the room, hopping on unsteady but sturdy legs, ignoring the gathering of human beings beneath it. Arama, pulling at her hair, heaved a sigh of relief when she saw the pike in Khala’s hand.
“At last!” she said. “Tell me you’re going to get rid of that — that thing now!”
Swallowing, Khala nodded and raised the pike.
The chick noticed Khala in the crowd. It stopped its unusual hopping, bent forward, and made a soft, clucking sound at her.
“What’s it doing?” Arama asked, backing away. “Is it going to attack you?”
The chick, still clucking, lowered its body until its belly lay flat against the thatch roof.
Khala hesitated, and a realization hit her — the reason for her apprehension. This isn’t hunting. She was not killing his animal to eat it or to prevent its suffering later on. This animal wasn’t attacking her — not now, at least. This was a baby animal, newly born, and the High Seat had tasked her with ending its life.
Khala lowered the pike to her side, just as the chick leapt from the roof.
Arama screamed and the gathering crowd dove for cover and the dilos jumped away to safety. But Khala didn’t flinch, even as the chick landed on her shoulder a bit too harshly. Hohirem withdrew his metal pickaxe to fight, but Ianga jumped in front of him.
“No!” the girl cried. “Don’t do it!”
“Ianga, get away! What are you doing!” Matewa stretched her arm out to pull her daughter to safety. But Ianga shook her head.
“Stop it! Everyone! Look!” She pointed at Khala and the chick. “The chick imprinted! It thinks Khala is its mother!”
Softly, Khala dropped the pike and sank to the ground, legs crossed, allowing the chick to step off her shoulder and into her lap. There, she could get a better look at its glowing red eyes, earthen-green down, and tiny, pin-prick claws on each forearm. The chick’s clucks became contented chirrups as Khala scratched its chin.
“No,” Khala murmured. “I won’t kill it.”
Matewa shouted. “You will do as the High Seat says!” she ordered.
Khala shook her head. “I will not,” she maintained. “High Seat, I realize what you were doing when you told me to dispose of the raptor. But this is an innocent creature, and murder is a crime more heinous than my own.” She stroked the chick’s powder-soft down; it cooed in return. “I can’t do that. I won’t do that.”
Ianga stepped forward. “If you ask Khala to kill this animal,” she pleaded, “it would be like asking a mother to kill its baby.” She looked at Matewa. “Like asking my mother to kill me. Or Paora to kill Khala or Arama.”
“Ianga, enough!” Matewa shouted. “High Seat, please! Do something about this!”
The old woman’s face was unreadable in the darkness. Her posture rigid, she folded her arms. “This animal imprints?” she asked Ianga. “Do you know that for sure?”
Nodding, Ianga gestured to Khala. “The same as dodos and dilos,” she said. “Just as Sprinkles imprinted on me.”
As if on cue, the five dilos emerged again but hung back amongst the human legs for protection. Only Lady, the alpha female, cautiously stepped forward and sniffed the air. When she stepped too close to Khala to get a whiff of the animal in her lap, the raptor whipped its head around and snapped at her, narrowly catching her snout in its jaws. Lady hissed, flared her frills, and reared her head back.
Khala jerked the chick away just as a glob of Lady’s venom smacked her in the arm.
The crowd, which had swelled to nearly the entirety of the tribe, shouted their outrage, but died down over Huatare’s laughter. “Settle down, settle down!” she instructed. “Ianga, pull Lady back before the chick attacks her! Khala, you will have to sharpen your maternal skills if you wish to keep that baby safe from dilo spit.”
Shocked, both Khala and Matewa stared up at the High Seat. “Are you serious?” the woman demanded. “You are letting her keep it? A carnivore?!”
“Hush, Matewa.” The High Seat put her hands on her hips. “Even I can change my mind about punishment when presented with evidence to the contrary. Look with your eyes — what do you see? That is a mother and child.”
“I can train her,” Khala said, placing the chick on the ground and rising once again. “She can help us, High Seat. She can hunt better than the three of us. We will feed this tribe again! This I swear!”
Arama scoffed. “She?” she repeated.
Ianga laughed. “Check under its tail — it is a female!”
As the High Seat looked, Khala nodded. “Ianga knows more about animals than I do. She can help me train her.”
“No, no, child,” the High Seat said. “If you are to keep the animal, it must be you who trains it. After all, if it is going to be a hunter, she must learn to hunt. Maybe she can train the three of you, too.”
Matewa glowered at that statement. “This is ludicrous. In a week, that thing will be strong enough to attack us all!”
“I understand — and that’s why Khala will be keeping it — her — outside the compound.” She pointed at the chick. “Beginning tomorrow, you will begin constructing a fence just outside our walls. Until you’ve taught it to hunt and obey your commands, it will not be allowed near us or the other animals. Is that understood?”
Khala nodded. “Yes, High Seat.”
“Good. Then, enjoy your last night with your child, Khala.” She saw the beet-red fury on Matewa’s face and touched the woman’s shoulder. “You should be happy, my dear. For you have found your fourth hunter.”
Once again, the High Seat instructed the Swampwolves to return to their huts and once again, the tribesmen dragged themselves back home. Ianga gathered the dilos in her amrs, even as they tried surrounding the angry raptor chick. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she whispered to Khala. “And if you don’t, you know who to ask. Even if the High Seat forbids it.” She winked and carried her armload of hissing, spitting creatures back to her hut. Her mother followed suit, but not before giving Khala’s family a withering look.
Paora, Arama, and Gul waited until Matewa left before turning to their daughter with their own doubts. “You realize this is unprecedented,” Gul reminded. “You are the first Swampwolf to successfully break tribal law with little to no punishment. Not even Huatare’s grandson could get away with that.”
“Hohirem’s crime wasn’t in the same category as Khala’s,” Paora retorted. “No one got hurt from Khala’s mistake.”
Arama, skeptical, swung her vision from the chick to her younger sister. “Did you really think it was a pachy at first?” she asked, her question more of an accusation. “And do you really think you can train it to obey you?”
The answer to both of those questions was a decided no, but Khala did not say that. “It is on me to save this tribe,” she answered, watching the chick hop around her feet. “One way or the other, I will.”
Sleep finally caught Khala as she rested in bed a second time that night, running her fingers through the chick’s down. The chick lay curled up on her chest, having dozed off within mere minutes.
The peace and tranquility the felt from watching the baby sleep broke when she thought about her task at hand. This is a killer too, she remembered. The chick, not bound by the tribal laws of man, could easily turn on all of them. Suddenly, the burden of training the chick eclipsed finding a male steg. She could fail at either or both of those duties much easier than succeeding, and the tribe would collapse thanks to her.
Khala slept, but not without troubled dreams.
This is a short story based on the world of Ark: Survival Evolved.