‘Daughters of Hralln’, C.L. Rossman

Illustrations © 2010 Rachel H. White

 [ Huntresses, © 2010 Rachel H. White ] The skaun-teveh jerked its head up as a deep cough echoed through the thicket around it. The hollow sound seemed to come from everywhere at once and the animal quivered, unsure of what to do.

Its upright ears and dark liquid eyes could detect nothing of danger, and it unfolded its velvet-like nose but failed to pick up a scent, for the air was still and thick and hot under this deep cover.

Suddenly the brush rustled behind it. Like a spring, the teveh shot forward. It no sooner burst through the greenwall then a line of white-fire burned to meet it. Without even a bleat, the teveh fell.

An elegant two-legged shape leaped from the brush. She pinned the body with a spear, to make sure, then flung her long-maned head back to give a victory roar.

Three more shapes materialized from the thicket around her. They shared the same species as the first, the civilized carnivores called tautschen or Hunters, all upright bipeds bearing fangs and claws. And these were all female.

The new arrivals didn’t share their leader’s attitude, however.

“Hsst, Asteris!” one hissed at her. “Do you want to bring them down on us?”

The killer slitted her eyes. “Vascht, Lisane, I will not. Everyone’s at the trade circle today, remember? Even the top ten-ranked. They won’t hear us.”

“Where we could have been too, today,” sniffed another young huntress, tossing her auburn mane. “If we didn’t have to come out here.”

Silence came down. Everyone just stared at her.

Finally, a fourth speaker, a lithe huntress named Kirian, ventured; “Don’t you want to be here, Danyl?”

The stocky Lisane snorted, almost a snarl, while their leader Asteris actually bared her teeth and growled, “If you’re not with us, Danyl, then you’re with them.”

“I am not!” Danyl snapped, covering her teeth with her forearm just in time. “I want to hunt, too. It’s just that—I don’t want to miss the trade fair either. It’s the first one we’ve had in years!”

That broke most of them into laughter, all except the leader, who said, “The ship will be here for days; but we don’t have that long. By tomorrow the huntpack will be out in force, getting enough meat for the farewell feast.”

“Truth, truth,” Lisane agreed, wiping her eyes. “We’re safe today because everyone’s at the trading circle—even the males.” She blinked and raised her head. “And today we have just proved we’re as good as they are. We too can bring down meat; we too can follow Hunt Law…”

“And we too have honor!” Asteris shouted. “The word tautsche is female, as everyone knows. But that—that bug-bitten excuse for a Chief Hunter and his forbidding—that’s against all Code and Law!” She yanked her spear out of the teveh, flourished it on high, crying, “Hunt-sisters, let us celebrate the kill. Aroh!” she roared, and the others joined her:

“Aroh! Aroh… Aro-agh!”

And the thicket shivered to the thunder of their victory roars.

Once they vented their anger and their triumph, they settled down to skinning and butchering. Asteris set Kirian and Danyl as sentinels while she and Lisane did the cutting.

With the others at a distance, the two young women talked about their situation here.

“How can the Chief Hunter flout Hunt Law like this?” Asteris fumed. “Refusing to teach us to hunt; refusing to give us a Master Hunt?”

“At least they taught us to fire weapons in practice,” Lisane said.

Asteris gave the teveh’s hide a vicious cut, “Ptah! Only to defend ourselves; and the elders had to argue Surin into that. If this wasn’t such an off-the-path world, things would be different. We are not meant to be cub-carrying machines.”

“Some part of us is,” Lisane remarked dryly. “But I agree, sister. I believe that on no other world, freehold or clan, are females barred from the Hunt.”

“If we could only escape,” the leader moaned. “Even one of us, and take this to the Inner Systems. They would straighten the trail.”

“I believe they might. And I think we will, if we get enough opportunities to build up our trade-goods. Think of this,” Lisane said, tapping her skinning knife against the bloody flesh, “as our first step toward a passage fee. As soon as we can get enough hideshare salted away, we can—”

She didn’t finish, because at that moment, Kirian came bounding through the thicket with trouble stretched over her face. “Sisters!”

“H’vack-hah?” Asteris asked, while Lisane crouched with knife in hand.

“Something—something’s happening,” was all Kirian could say before Danyl burst in from the other side, asking “What, what?” in a frantic way.

Kirian flushed. Now she felt foolish. “I—heard something,” she said.

“Like the huntpack coming?” Asteris guessed.

Before her packmate could answer, they all heard it: a low deep rumbling which seemed to come from the sky. They looked up.

And saw a spark of heat so intense they could see it through the overcast. It grew larger, brighter, hotter, seemed to be coming straight at them.

The meteorite burst through the clouds like a burning world.

“Look away!” Asteris screamed before it struck.

The impact sent a shockwave that flung them to the ground, and the world went to white.

They recovered one by one, surprised they were still alive. Temporarily deaf, but alive. Their ear openings and nictating eye membranes had closed by instinct; so they regained their sight and hearing within moments.

“That hit somewhere. It’ll ring in my head forever.” Danyl winced, tilting her head as if she would shake something out.

“Don’t do that,” Asteris said automatically.

“—or your brains will fall out,” jibed Lisane. That got a laugh and a scowl, respectively, as the speakers turned to watch a column of smoke rising from the west.

“It came close but it missed us,” Asteris said. “By about 20 kri-veh, as I sight on it.”

The same thought struck her and Lisane and they exchanged glances.

“The trading circle…” the stocky huntress said slowly.

“Everyone was there,” Danyl cried. “Everyone!”

They looked at each other, then as one, turned and began running toward the smoke.

Practical Lisane paused long enough to scoop up the fallen teveh, then went after them.

The farther they went, the more destruction they saw. At ten kri-veh, trees had been blown down, pointing away from the invisible center. They found one freeholder’s home, its wood-slat roof ripped off but the stone walls left standing. They investigated, dreading what might be there, but found no-one. They should have felt something, but only Asteris began muttering, “Not all of them? Not all…” and they forged on, their steps slowing.

When they came near the site of the trade-circle itself…

…a great gray crater yawned far and away.

They stopped at its edge, shaken.

“Ashes… nothing cinders and ash,” Asteris murmured.

“Not a lodge, not a trade ship, nothing,” Lisane said.

“We were lucky,” Danyl said.

Asteris rounded on her. “Lucky? Do you think it was luck that left us alive—and alone?”

The other huntress quailed, but Lisane interfered:

“T’chak, Asteris. It was Chance, maybe. No-one knows how it falls. Yet one thing’s sure.”

“What’s that?”

The stocky huntress nodded over the smoldering wasteland. “We wanted to prove to the huntpack we could be Masters who could survive on our own. Krr… now it seems we have to be.”

They decided to make a slow sweep around the perimeter, living off their slain teveh as they went. At first Lisane just wanted to be gone. “Our kin have already had their Leavetaking—killed and burned to ash at the same time. We should go, before the weather turns. Who knows what this will bring.”

To her surprise, Kirian, the quiet one, objected. “We can’t just leave. Somebody could still be alive here. We have to help; it’s Hunt Law.”

“Hoh, the mouse speaks,” Lisane snorted.

But the hunt leader backed Kirian up. “She’s right, Lisane. It is the Code, and if we claim to abide by it, then we obey it all the way. ‘When the People cry out, the warrior answers.’ We should search.”

Lisane was so surprised she didn’t say a word. And they started out in silence, rounding the Circle of Death.

Cautious forays into the crater showed them that the center was still too hot to walk on; so they concentrated on the circumference. After they made one complete round of that, finding nothing, Asteris suggested they look for survivors in outlying grounds.

Tautschen don’t live that close together; and I can’t believe everyone could have been at the trade circle at the same time.”

“They might,” Lisane said. “That was the only ship we’ve seen in years. Nobody comes this far out except the random trader.”

But Asteris divided up her pack anyway, and sent them along several different paths where the People were known to reside, four separate trails. And after that, just two or three more, because this was a newer settlement, less than a lifetime old, and had only a hundred or so tautschen in it.

Asteris couldn’t get over it: “All of them here—all;” she said when they ended their third day.

“Well and enough, sister,” Lisane grumbled, poking at their small fire. “After tonight, our meat will be as gone as this freehold, and we had better set our own trail.” She looked up. “And take ourselves out of here. We haven’t seen the sun in days. The dust from this collision could give us anything from rain… to snow.”

The leader looked at her. “Could give us bad weather, you mean?”

Chak, if these clouds continue to block the sun.”

Asteris didn’t need to hear more. “Then we’ll go tomorrow, at dawn.”

Even occluded, the daylight sun shone for more than 10 tare’ in this season. There was plenty of time after main-meat for a small foray, a walk, or a privacy withdrawal; and one huntress took advantage of it.

Kirian wandered disconsolately away from camp and toward the ash-floored crater. Not entirely out of curiosity, but because her parents’ house had been close to the trading circle, and she couldn’t believe they were gone. If only she could find some unburnt remnant of her childhood home! She felt half-afraid to do so, half-afraid not to.

Behind her hunting focus she could feel a massive grief pressing down, trying to burst through.

None of them had grieved. All of them except Lisane had family in the freehold; and none of them had mourned. Danyl seemed ready to break into fragments, but their leader, who had lived with her grandmother, remained barricaded behind her tough Hunter’s dispassion—Never show fear…

To the prey!” Kirian hissed the finishing quote.

And the good huntress is fierce in the field, but gentle at the hearth,” she whispered another. Except they had no hearths now, might never have again. Great Spirit, what was the matter with them? They had homes and families here—which they would never—

Her eyes blurred and she stumbled against something, nearly fell.

She pulled up short, looked down to see a tiled slab protruding from the ash. She was about to give it an angry kick, just to vent her feelings, when the pile shifted.

And groaned.

After a stunned pause, Kirian reacted the way any predator does to sudden movement—she pounced.

But not to kill. No; to push away the broken building pieces as she whispered encouragement. “Hold, hold; I’ve got you. I’m coming. Don’t give up!”

She uncovered a body gray with dust and shattered tiles—his waist, legs, face and even his long mane were coated with it. He gasped in a breath, then choked, his head turned to one side.

“Here; wait,” Kirian said, “breathe through this;” and she slipped her facemask and air filter from her backpack. She powered up the mask for more oxygen; then, after delicately brushing the hunter’s face clear (which made him wince) she put it on him.

He stopped coughing and relaxed a bit, lying there, content just to breathe. He was pale grey on the back, pale gold in front—pure Marsh Clan heritage, she thought.

The wall had fallen on him, yet: “You’re in a slight depression in the ground. That’s what saved you.”

He finally blinked up at her with grey-green eyes and whispered, “What… what happened?”

“A meteor struck. It destroyed the whole trading circle and everyone in it.”

“H’vack!” he gasped. “Ev-everyone?”

“Except you—and us. We were out hunting.” The truth slipped right out; she closed her teeth too late, and it hung there between them.

He didn’t react as expected. He gave a slight chinlift. “Krr; the four huntresses. I’ve seen you sometimes.” As if it were nothing. He struggled to sit up, managed to get to his elbows, and paused, panting. The rest of his body lay like a log before him.

Their eyes met. “Something’s—wrong,” he said. A note of desperation. Was his pelvis crushed?

“Wait, hold, let me clear this away and see,” Kirian said, and began brushing away the dust from his legs. With an effort he sat up, but grit his teeth.

“Where’s the pain?” she asked.

“…Leg. Ah-rrr—left, I think.”

She squinted, then cupped her hands around her eyes to shade them. She scanned up and down one leg, then the other.

“Churr, left leg. I can see it. A simple fracture, Lisane would call it. We should set it here so you can walk.” She stood up.

“Set it? T’chak, vre’huntress!” he exclaimed, pulling off the mask.

Already two strides gone, looking for a splint, she glanced back over her shoulder.

“Is it necessary? I mean right now? I don’t ... rr… I mean, I don’t even know you,” he said.

She almost laughed. A typical young male, clutching his dignity to him.

Pr-rt. My name is Kirian,” she teased. “And yours? I should know my patient’s name before I operate.”

He turned paler grey. “I’m called, ah, Dire Watch…” and his skin darkened again.

She paused. “Why, that’s a splendid name! Did you earn it on your Master Hunt?” He seemed to be about her age.

No,” he grunted, wouldn’t look at her. “Never got—my Master’s.” His next words pulled her back to his side. “That vrak—that Chief Hunter—wouldn’t give me one.”

“You too?” She dropped to her knees beside him. “He wouldn’t let us have one either. No females, he said.”

The Marsh lad finally looked at her. “I didn’t know that. But I wanted to try out for the pack, and needed a Master Hunt. When I went to Surin, he just laughed at me. ‘Huntpacks are for hybrids,’ he said. ‘No clan-breds allowed.’”

Indignation fired him up. “I have never lived in a clan, honored huntress. I come from a freehold on Arvien 4 in Nine Systems. My parents came to live out here to get a better territory on a new world, they said. They never thought I wouldn’t be able to—”

A thought struck him. “My… parents…”

Kirian touched his hand. “I know, good hunter. I lost my parents too. I mourn with you.”

They shared a moment of sorrow. Then Kirian roused herself and got up, saying, “You stay here, Dire Watch; I’ll get the rest of my pack and some medical supplies, and we’ll splint your leg and take you with us.”

Wait—I mean, if you would, Kirian.” He stretched out an arm, his eyes frantic, as if he feared abandonment. When she paused, he said, “I need—we both need food and water. There’s food around here, in this lodge. There’s some in my backpack, if you can find it.”

He glanced around. “There are a lot of things here, somewhere. You can use them.”

She found enough to leave him a supply of dried meat-sticks and to take some smoked shoulder roast back to her friends, as he insisted.

“I’ll tell my huntmates about you, and we’ll come get you in a little while,” she said. “Then we can all go on together.”

She left him one of her full waterskins and jogged off, pledging to return by morning at latest.

And heard him call out behind her, “Good hunting, Kirian!”—suddenly energetic and full of cheer.

She loped happily back to camp, thinking how excited everyone would be to know she’d found another survivor. She slowed on approaching the ruined walls which made up their base, looked all around for danger as every good tautsche does, then began walking between the walls.

Her huntmates’ raised voices stopped her. They sounded angry. She put one hand on a wall as Asteris’ voice rang out:

“This is a sign! A sign that Surin was wrong, that the huntpack was wrong, that the entire settlement was wrong in supporting them¬—”

Kirian heard a half-snort, half-scoff from someone else, probably Lisane. It drew Asteris’ wrath, for she said, “You think not? But it has freed us, Lisane—freed us from the males’ heavy talons. And from this day on, I say we own this world, and we must never permit another male to rule us! We must swear it not to Hernde” (she almost spat out the legendary hunter’s name) “but to Hralln, the great huntress of another age.”

To Hralln? But wasn’t she a myth, a legend just like Hernde? The One Spirit inspired all, didn’t Aen; so Asteris must be advocating some kind of primitive blasphemy. Horror crept down her spine, and Kirian drew an involuntary breath.

Asteris spun at once and spied her. “Ah, there you are, Kirian. Come in with us and swear.”

Kirian swallowed, her fingers touching her throat. She small-stepped forward. “Swear to what?”

“That’s it, come all the way in, sister, so we can do it together,” the leader crooned. “Swear on our Oath, our real tautschen Oath, that we will be true to the Code, and to one another, and never let a male lead us again. Aroh!”

And the others roared with her. They could sympathize with this, truthfully take Oath on it, as New Hunters are sworn before their Master Hunt. They had been treated poorly; they would redeem themselves, and live by honor’s law.

—Except what could Kirian do about the young hunter she’d just left back in the ruins? Would she have to abandon him to his death?

She entered the circle and swore, but all she could think of was his dust-covered body and his suffering gray-green eyes…

She drew second watch that night, when the others should be sleeping. And she had to be quick: he must be waiting, wondering what had happened to her. She made a dutiful round of the camp, telling herself nothing would disturb them. The meteor must have killed or driven off whatever animal life lived here; and as she went, she collected whatever she could find for the young hunter’s healing: one of the splints from their medi-kit, a long straight clean teveh-bone for a walking staff, an extra water bag she could fill at a clear river or well…

Then, moving as quietly as she could, Kirian slipped away from the camp and her sleeping sisters. At a safe distance, she began to run.

Later, a shriek split the night, wakening tautschen senses. But it seemed far away, and when their sentry didn’t raise an alarm, the huntresses went back to sleep again...

The next morning they started moving out, urged on by Lisane. But at Kirian’s suggestion, they also searched any lodge they came upon for stored food and water. They collected this and any helpful tools they could find.

“It’s not robbing the dead,” Kirian argued, “it’s taking wayfarer’s privilege—the owners will never need these things again.”

Their scavenging also made it easier for Kirian to gather a few extra supplies for Dire Watch. He would have to hobble along slowly after them, staying out of sight. He knew the danger now.

But this way she could provide for him a few days at a time, until he grew better.

They did not after all get out in time. The meteorite had made a bigger impression in the atmosphere than on the ground. Rain came from the heavy cloud-layer, then cold. Then snow. The huntresses crunched through the cold crust, worried that their feet might freeze. If they had known the term, they would have called this a “nuclear winter,” but only Lisane named it, and she called it “accursed impact cold,” among other things.

While they all worried about proper cold-proof clothing, Kirian felt terrified that Dire Watch would die from the cold. When the pack finally made camp at the roofless lodge, she had a number of useful things tucked away for him, and at her first chance, raced back to find him.

Haggard and shaking, he pressed against an upright wall at their last campsite. “Tracked you,” he said through rattling teeth. “Snow takes a clear print. Didn’t think you could get away from them—and I can’t walk fast, can barely move. Thought I was going to die here.”

“Prr-r-r,” she hushed him. “No you’re not. Look, I brought a fire disc and starter tabs. Let’s get warm, and you can have some of this hot broth and meat.”

“I should be hunting for myself,” he said, ashamed of his helplessness. “But… I’m glad to see you again, Kirian, and grateful for your help. Are you sure we couldn’t just tell them—your hunt-sisters, I mean? Maybe they would accept me.”

“The others might… but Asteris wouldn’t… she would drive you out to die, she hates males so much. I—she’d set a watch on me, too, so I couldn’t get back to you.”

His face softened. “That would be hard. I might scavenge for a while, but I—need your help, Kirian.” A difficult thing for a hunter to admit, and he flushed. “And I—would miss your company…”

She could read his heat-colors: he was being completely honest with her. “I would miss you, too,” she said. “But meanwhile, have something warm to eat and we’ll plan our next move.”

And they huddled before the tiny fire, their sides touching, as they stared into its smokeless flame.

The four huntresses tried to outwalk, then outrun the weather. But the chill seemed to race ahead of them everywhere—and sometimes they had to chivvy Kirian, who always seemed to hang back, even to hunt in their back-trail. The situation finally peaked when they staked out the last known dwelling in the freehold, the one farthest out and least-damaged of the lot.

The others wanted to go on, but Kirian held back.

“Go on, go on,” she told them. “I’ll stay here and fortify this place. I still think it’s the best spot to make our permanent camp. Somebody has to watch our backtrail.”—which led to impatience from Asteris and unkind comments from Lisane.

“We have to go forward!” the leader finally shouted at her. “There are prey animals starving and dying in this cold. We can take them before the predators do.” Then she relented. “When we find good ground, one of us will come back for you. Guard yourself well, Kirian.”

But no matter how far south they went—and they were limited by their speed and stamina—they found the cold ahead of them, and creatures in trouble. After a series of kills, they tried to build their own meat-storage hut, but they hadn’t the tools and could at best put some green saplings together, to try and protect the meat. It wasn’t enough. Scavengers got in anyway, and stole their food.

“It’s no good,” Lisane said, disgusted. “We need a solid foundation to keep them out.”

”And that means going back to the farthest freehold lodge,” Asteris said, “and using it for shelter and food storage. Where Kirian still is, probably.”

“With warm clothes and fire-bricks,” Danyl added; “And we wouldn’t have to leave anyone behind.”—a spurt of defiance from their least-defiant member.

“T’chak, we shouldn’t have left her,” Asteris agreed, “that was wrong.” She picked up her spear like a balancing stick and faced north. “Come on, let’s go back. But if any one of you says one word about being wrong…” and she led them out at a trot.

They returned to the brick and stone lodge, where only part of the roof had been torn away. They could cover the openings with needleleaf tree branches, store their meat in the stout smoke room, and haul in deadwood to make their fires. They also found Kirian there. In fact, she acted upset when they returned, and dodged away into one of the outbuildings.

Asteris laid that to rightful anger. Kirian seemed to be eating regularly: she hadn’t lost weight in the few days they’d been gone. But a schism split her from the group now, and Lisane thought they should just let her alone until she forgave them... So Kirian wandered to the west almost every day, returning only for main-meat, often bringing it with her; while her sisters worked on shoring up their new base.

At present meat was plentiful, what with the wild grazing herds dying and the predators and scavengers coming to feast; but later… later, everyone knew what they would face and they worked ferociously to prepare for the seasons of starvation ahead.

A year passed, 343 days on this world. They counted the days; and they knew to the last morsel when their food stores would be gone.

“We have to move,” Asteris told them that morning. “We have to get ready and go farther south, even if we don’t know what’s out there.”

“We’ll be leaving a lot behind,” Kirian pointed out. “These walls, our safe rooms, our—”

“We won’t be leaving any meat,” Lisane said. “That’s almost gone. And we’re not leaving anybody behind this time.” She glared at Kirian, who shrugged. Dire Watch’s leg had healed; he could follow them easily now.

“It’s on-stat with me. I can keep up. But what if the whole world is frozen by now? What if we never find a warmer land?”

Asteris had no answer. “We can’t stay here. All the prey and the stored food have been almost used up. Let’s pack and take the last meat. We can be gone by dawn tomorrow.”

Silently the huntresses spread out about the lodge and environs, bringing together whatever they could carry. Kirian took the westernmost outbuildings, as always. They each came back to the main camp, bearing what they could carry.

As she worked in the main lodge, Danyl heard something from a gap in the outer wall, a kind of high-pitched whistling in the distance. Snow mounds covered the horizon and the source of the sound lay just over that. She instinctively melted close to a shielding wall, watching the horizon. Then a dark silhouette emerged between the low hills. One look and Danyl fled inside, calling her sisters.

“What is it?” Asteris asked, seeing her frightened look. The rest stirred around her, apprehensive.

“Someone’s coming!” she gasped. “From the north. And it—looks like a male.”

Shock vibrated through them. Kirian immediately thought of Dire Watch. Coming here? Why? What does he want? Is he injured again?

“What does he want?” Asteris echoed Kirian’s thought.

“Are you sure?” snapped Lisane, ready to shake her.

“Chak!” Danyl spat. “You think I forgot what one looks like? And he’s heading straight toward our camp.”

Over Lisane’s muttered, “He must see the heat waves from the fire…” Asteris commanded,

“Quick! Bank that fire. And withdraw, weapons armed. If he comes in here, we’ll be ready for him…” More thoughtfully, “Somebody should stand watch by the outer wall, be a lure to bring him to us.”

“I will,” Kirian volunteered, thinking of Dire Watch. “I’ll lure him into one of the inner rooms. You wait inside.” And I’ll have time to warn him, before you can kill him.

She slipped over to the gap in the outer wall before anyone could get there ahead of her.

“Back to an inner room,” hissed Asteris. “We’ll lay a trap.” And they faded from sight.

Kirian listened, standing guard. When she thought them safely gone, she peered around the broken wall to see the Hunter—and got a shock.

He didn’t look anything like Dire Watch, even at this distance. He was much bigger, a full-grown male, and he wore high-tech devices like body armor and a cold-suit. She pulled back behind the wall.

Could one of the freehold’s huntpack have survived this long? And why hadn’t they found him? He didn’t look like any of the ranked hunters; but she couldn’t be sure. And he was coming straight for their broken dwelling, as if he had seen the warmth of their fire.

What was she thinking? Of course he’d seen the fire light or the smoke and was coming to investigate. Now they’d have to attempt a capture, find out who he was and where he came from. Four of them could easily manage one male.

She eased slowly backward until she stood nearer the inner wall than the outer. She’d have to wait till he saw her here, then run into the building and hope her sisters had set up their trap. Fear hammered against her ribs and her breathing quickened.

Then he appeared in the doorway, his silhouette blocking the winter light. They both froze for a heartbeat, staring at each other. No; this wasn’t Dire Watch—this was an adult male, wearing survival gear. Alert, confident—and well-fed. She caught her breath and fled to the inner rooms.

She heard him call, “Huntress, wait! I won’t—” Won’t what? Seize her? Harm her? She didn’t believe that and she turned one corner, another...

In a long hall, she heard a soft hiss ahead and to her right. There they were, her packmates, waiting for her to draw him in. She paused just long enough to let him enter the hall, then sprang through the far threshold, her foot knocking over a pile of broken bricks with an icy clink.

Kirian paused inside the room. Her huntmates were hiding behind the remnants of furniture in here, well-concealed.

And here came the hunter. He took one glance inside the room, then one stride, easing himself over the threshold. “Vre’huntress,” he began; “Why did you run? There is no harm in my heart.” And he took another step forward…

And four shadow-shapes sprang out from their hiding places and surrounded him, spears leveled.

The hunter didn’t seem to understand. He didn’t flinch, but he did stop, arms at his sides.

“What—what is this?” he asked.

“Be still! Or we’ll gut you!” Asteris snapped. She jerked her head at Kirian, who slid forward to join them, her own spear pointing the hunter’s heart.

They couldn’t see his body through the cold-suit, but he didn’t sound like anyone they knew. Still, they hadn’t known everyone…

“Take off the shield. Let us see your face.” Asteris commanded. “And slowly. If you make a move toward your weapons, you die.”

He did, bringing one hand up carefully until he touched the lower edge of his protective facemask. He raised the mask, canting it up above his eyes.

A stranger’s face looked back at them. He had a reddish-gold color with amber eyes and a suggestion of stripes. No one they knew.

Without lowering her guard, Asteris asked him, “Who are you? And why did you hunt us down?”

“Hunt…?” the stranger said. ”T’chak, vre’huntress, I am hunting no one. I came as a member of a Hunt ship search-pack, to see what was happening here. And my name is Tathalgar. I’m a Master Hunter from R’shba Three, Six Systems.”

“Why would you come here?” Asteris demanded.

Even her hunt-sister looked askance at this.

“Asteris, you know that every time they lose contact with a settlement¬—” Lisane began.

“Enough! Let him answer, if he can!” and their leader gave him a jab in the ribs.

He did wince this time. “Take care, huntress; I am no enemy. I’m here as part of a rescue pack, gathered when this planet dropped off the links a year ago. A far-ranging trade ship didn’t complete its run, either, after coming here; though we questioned other freeholds.”

“Hnh! If your leaders ever talked to our Hunt pack in the past, then you knew what they did here. What they kept us from doing. He probably talked to Surin himself,” she told her huntresses.

But the Hunter Tathalgar was moving his head in a slow negative gesture. “Talked to whom? I know nothing of this: all I know is that I volunteered to come on this mission because some of our people might be in trouble. And what do you mean, ‘what they kept us from doing’…?”

“Hunt-training,” Lisane added. “They kept us from Hunt training. And from earning our Master medallions.”

“You? They kept you—?”

“Huntresses! All females!” Asteris spat.

The hunter’s eyes widened. His surprise could not be feigned. “I haven’t heard of such a thing. Is this true?”

“True? Look at us; do we lie? Do these lie?” And Asteris re-aimed the spear, shaking with rage. “And you’ve probably just come to drag us back to that. Ready to outlaw us as hunters.

Their captive actually stood straighter. “No. we have not. No huntress is kept from the chase on my world—or on any that I know of… we follow Hunt Law. And I can prove it”.

That took them by ambush.

“What do you mean?” Asteris asked.

He met her gaze. “I mean I can show you that we follow Hunt Law and prove I come from a rescue ship if you will let me make one call on my headset.”

“To bring them down on us, you mean. T’chak, too like a trap, I think.”

Tathalgar made an unusual gesture. He inclined his head, once, then lifted his chin, exposing his throat. “I give you my Oath as a Master Hunter. I place my life under your spear as well. But I will need to lower my facemask and call; the comset is inside it.”

Asteris glared at him, but Lisane said, “Let him try, sister. If they sight down on us, we can always kill him first.”

“And if he’s speaking the truth…” Kirian added. “Think of it. We can leave this ice ball, find another world…”

“Have a hot bath. A warm bed…” Danyl murmured.

Asteris lashed her glance over them. Alone, she would not have trusted him. But with their entreaties, and from what they could see of the stranger, he was speaking the truth.

She shifted the point of her spear from his ribs to just under his chin. “On your Oath then, Hunter. And if I hear one word off-the-path, I’ll slay you where you stand.”

“I understand. Now, if you please, honored one, I have to lower the mask.” And he raised one hand to grasp the edge by forefinger and thumb-claw and pull it slowly down over his face.

They heard him call his Hunt Leader. And though they heard only one side of the conversation, Tathalgar seemed to be doing as he said.

“I found four survivors, all huntresses, but they have had some trouble here earlier; and they do not trust any male, it seems. I would ask you to fly to my coordinates and convince them we come as rescuers, not Codebreakers.”

They had a bit of argument, back and forth, but finally his words seemed to convince his leader, though what good that would do—just talking to a second tautsche, none of the huntpack knew. Still…

“Chak… and come alone, please. Have the Hunt ship shy back. They have a deep distrust here.”

He signed off and faced them. “Rokiel will be here in a few kt-tare’. Then I think you will believe. As we wait, I wonder if you could tell me about what happened here, after the meteorite struck. It must have been very hard, if there are only four of you left.”

“Wait, hold!” Kirian cried out, interrupting him. “There is one more! Don’t leave—”

And she broke away from the pack, breaking their Circle and their guard.

The male hunter could have attacked then, seeing them all dumbfounded, but he did not. “Only one more?” he said, watching the young woman race out of the building.

The others seemed dazed and didn’t answer. Only Asteris, stunned as she was, never wavered from her prey.

Tathalgar replaced the comlink and looked around. He and his huntmates had come here to rescue tautschen, but had brought fear and dissension instead. He cleared his throat and said, “You must have had a hard hunt of it, this past year. Will you tell me how you survived?”

Lisane and Danyl were telling him, and tension had ebbed when Kirian returned. She came stealthily, using the walls as cover, and a second set of footfalls followed hers. She entered first, walked a few strides into the room and stopped, facing her pack leader. She thrust one arm straight out to the side as if she were barring someone—or protecting him.

The slender gray-and-gold youth who followed her came around the wall and stopped too, facing them.

His appearance produced a shockwave among the huntresses, especially Asteris. Her eyes grew large and her entire body trembled. Her world began to crumble under her feet.

“Kirian!” she cried out, “What have you done?”

While Kirian mumbled “Nothing…” Asteris almost reeled from shock. Her face said she had been betrayed, and perhaps she had. To guard her pack against male retribution all this time, and then to find one of her own pack members had brought a male in...

Kirian argued, “He was hurt, Asteris. I found him under a fallen wall, and I had to… set his bones… and bring him food for a while.”

“You found him and treated him?” asked Lisane. “No wonder you kept insisting on hunting alone, and always to the west.”

“She fed me and kept me alive until I could hunt on my own.” The young hunter spoke up for the first time. “But she warned me not to show myself to any of you; and now I know why.”

Asteris rounded on him. “Know? What do you know, Hunter? Surin not only kept us from the field, he didn’t even want to train us.” She advanced a step; Dire Watch braced, and Tathalgar got ready to intervene.

But the young hunter held his ground. “I know, Hunt Leader, because he did the same to me. Hunting was only for hybrids, he said, not for clan-breds. He hated me without reason.”

When this rock dropped, everyone went silent.

Into this turgid atmosphere, a skycycle descended. Tathalgar’s own hunt leader had come.

They looked up. The airbike glided to within a hunter’s length of them, then lowered to the ground.

A leanly-muscled form dismounted. The figure wore body armor, a full facemask and goggles, and carried at least four kinds of weapons. All of that did not disguise the fact that the figure was

Female. And in charge.

“Aroh, honored ones!” she greeted them, then lifted her facemask and looked at her hunter. ”You said they were huntresses, Tathalgar; but I also see one hunter here.”

“Churr; he came a bit later, vre’leader.”

At the honorific given, the young females thrilled to attention. And their spears eased down at last.

“They do not look like a danger to us, Tathalgar.”

“Krr, perhaps not now, Rokiel, though they nearly skewered me when I first met them.” He glanced at the young ones, Asteris in particular. “But then, they have been down a hard trail,” he said more gently, “not only from the disaster, but from—conditions in their own freehold.”

His hunt leader looked puzzled, so Tathalgar filled her in. And even the young ones could see how that stunned her.

Before she could speak again, Asteris jutted out her chin and demanded, “Is what this hunter says true, vre’huntress? Are there female Masters out there besides you, and in positions of leadership?”

Danyl gave a little gasp at such impudence, but the adult huntress chose not to take it as a challenge.

“There are in truth,” she said, peeling off her studded gloves, “in every clan and freehold I have ever seen—and I have seen quite a few. Nor does background or bloodline matter, in freeholds. They follow Hunt Law.” She took Asteris’ measure, then asked them all, “And you have been surviving here alone, keeping yourselves fed and alive ever since the meteor struck?”

“Yes, vre’huntress,” Lisane said. “Everyone else was at the trade fair, except us. And this hunter, apparently. At least we don’t know of any other tautschen who lived.”

“What a tragedy, a tragedy,” the adult huntress murmured, shaking out her mane. “And yet you proved yourselves many times over, I would say.”

Proved ourselves?” Danyl asked.

Rokiel let it hang, looking into the distance. She had something in her claws. Something good.

She added “Yes, you have—against whatever this world could send against you. Yet I will say I think something necessary was neglected here, something important.”

Several of them hackled at that. Rokiel ignored them and went on, “A ceremony, I would say, which you have earned. You survived terrible conditions and triumphed over them. Even a simple Master Hunt lasts only a few days. But you five fought the beasts and the weather for more than a year. I would say you have earned it.”

Their expressions asked, What? What? And the Hunt Leader smiled

“Your Master Hunt Ceremony. You have faced far worse conditions than New Hunters do, and you have earned your medallions, every one.”

They lit up; and Tathalgar added, “In truth they have, vre’leader. Now, what would you have me do?”

“Call in our ship, vr’hunter, and our pack, at least for tonight. And tell the captain I want five new gold medallions cut out of stores and incised with each of their names. We shall hold their ceremony ourselves.”

She turned toward the youngsters again and made a little head incline. “I greet you and salute you, Esteemed Ones all.”

And just like that, she won their loyalty. And their willingness to come aboard.

A five-day later, the survivors gathered in the new research building the Hunters had set up south of the worst-stricken zone. Hearth-talk had it that Hunt Leader Rokiel was going to tell them what would happen next.

All the youngsters wore their new medallions, proclaiming them Masters of the Hunt; and they churned with excitement and relief. They’d heard that they would be taken to any space station or settled world where other tautschen lived, free of a fee, and would be received as heroes by their people. Four of the five chatted eagerly about their plans. Only Asteris hung back, her face neutral, her thoughts reserved.

The rescue ship’s hunter Tathalgar mingled with them, sharing their joys, intrigued by their past. Most of them spoke with him easily, but when he tried to talk to Asteris, she answered curtly and turned away.

Hunt Leader Rokiel had called them together today. She entered the room, tugging at her gloves and watching her “audience.” They quieted and returned the stare.

V’tautschen, if I might speak with you,” she began. “You know that a special starliner will make tie here in a few days. The Cloud Systems Hunt Council is sending one for the survivors. It will board the five of you and take you anywhere you want to go, without charge.”

Her listeners murmured, excited.

She paused, then: “To any world. Or any space station. We gave our word and we will keep it. Our Hunt ship will stay here longer, to investigate this world and the impact the meteorite had on all its creatures. We’ve set up for that.”

She smiled. “I wished to tell you so you would have time to get ready, pack your gear” (they all had new weapons and warm clothing, courtesy of the other hunters) “and out of necessity, I will need to know where you want to go.”

They crowded close, eager to tell—all except Asteris, who hung back.

“Nine Systems Station!” shouted Kirian and Dire Watch; “My relatives in Six!” from Danyl; and “Any Hunt Ship out of here!” came from Lisane.

By the time Rokiel parted the deluge of happy voices, she was laughing.

Then someone asked, “What about you, Asteris?” and their happiness fell away.

The huntress flung her words like a lance. “I’m staying.”


“You can’t—”

“It’ll kill you…”

She wheeled around and glared at them. “It hasn’t killed me yet, has it? Did you forget we proved ourselves here, all of us? We won this world, and one of us at least should keep it.”

Her voice lowered and her eyes lost focus as she went on, “By Hralln, do you think you’re going to better places out there? How do you know what’s really waiting for you? Will you be hailed as the heroes you are—or will each of you be just another New Huntress, one of millions, searching for a post? Have you even thought about it?”

They hadn’t. They held still, thinking. But they didn’t change their minds, any of them.

Tathalgar moved as if to speak, but his Hunt Leader stayed him.

Finally Lisane spoke up. “We won this world as a pack, though we had solitary battles, too… at least let me stay here with you, Asteris. As a huntmate and friend.”

“No! Your pardon, sister, but I want to do this myself. I want the time…” To think, to be a leader still, she didn’t say.

Rokiel broke the silence. She tugged her gloves and began softly, for her. “Vre’huntress, I will respect your decision, but I cannot with honor send you out into this world alone.”

Asteris’ posture edged into anger, but Rokiel surprised her:

“What I can do is offer you a post here, Asteris, a genuine one, which will keep you on Wandrei 5 and in a position to help us, if you would.”

Asteris frowned. “How?”

“We need to study the climate change. We need to know how far it will go and how long it will last. And we hope to save some of the native animals and put them in places where they can survive. We need hunters to do that.”

She paused to pull one glove off, then said, “It is honorable work, vre’huntress, and you will have your own hideshare to keep and star service pay, as well.”

“And I can work alone?”

“Alone, with others, however you wish. This research station will be your base, and you will have the best tools and vehicles to work with, for a year’s contract.”

Asteris considered that, and everyone held their breath, waiting.

Then she gave a sharp chin-jerk upward and snapped, “On-stat. I’ll do it.”

“Well… and good,” Rokiel said; and tension went out of everyone in a long sibilant hiss.

Asteris didn’t wait. She turned on her heel and marched out the door to the edge of the field, when she stood like an eagle, proud and alone. The wind flagged her mane out, flew long veils of snow about her.

One by one, her former packmates decided to dribble out after her to pay their respects, or perhaps just to say “good hunting” and farewell.

Tathalgar started forward, but his hunt leader thrust out an arm, blocking him. He stopped and looked at her.

“She is not ready for you, vr’hunter. And she will not welcome you.”

He stood for a moment, then said. “You’re on-target, Rokiel. She wouldn’t accept me there now.”

The senior huntress regarded him half-amused, half in sympathy. “She may never accept you, you know. She is stiff with pride and suspicion. They fought through some terrible odds, and she saved them, no help from her freehold. No male is a good male, to her.”

“I admire her spirit,” Tathalgar said; “And perhaps I can show her that some males are trustworthy.”

“Only some?” Rokiel widened her eyes in mock-surprise

“For the present, only one. I don’t care what she thinks of others.”

His hunt leader laughed heartily. When she let down, she swiped tears from her eye-corners and said, “I take it you’re going to be our next volunteer, then?”

“I am.”

 [ Angry huntress, © 2010 Rachel H. White ] “Very well, but you have a hard trail ahead of you. I’ll appoint you both to this station, and a Hunt ship will always be at your backs.”

He inclined his head. “Thank you, Hunt Leader. I am honored.”

He turned to look at the pack of huntmates outside, taking leave of each other for perhaps the last time. But he didn’t go to them.

“I have a year, Rokiel. And I am a patient man.” He stared out the window.

Even in the midst of her friends, Asteris could feel someone’s eyes upon her. She lifted her head and looked back at the research station.

That hunter. She met his eyes. And something leaped between them, like fire to fire. Then she deliberately turned away.

© 2010 C.L. Rossman

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