The storm nearly slammed the hunter against the lonely house, but he welcomed it. Sureshot had been out hunting on this new world for three days, and now suddenly this sleet storm blew out of the sky and the winter-bare forest could not shelter him. He’d staggered between the trees, even his high-tech sensors blinded by blowing snow, and almost collided with the big white shape which loomed up in front of him.
He pressed cautious fingers to it to make sure it was real: a building made of vertical logs so natural-looking it might have been part of the forest.
“A house, a lodge,” he breathed. “What good Chance for me!” He’d wandered so far from the freehold’s trade center that he had two days to wait and many kri-veh to walk before he could meet up with the tradeship again. And while he had a sled-load of fresh meat to dine on and fill the trader’s bins, he had no sanctuary from the storm.
Until this appeared.
It looked lived-in, too. He groped round to the front and saw two windows golden with warmth and an entry door of polished carven wood.
“This is hunting luck, on-stat,” he told himself. Now he could claim wayfarer’s privilege and the good folk within would surely offer him sanctuary. They wouldn’t even have to feed him from their own stores. He’d killed plenty of game and could offer them some, in fact. His name was Sureshot for good reason.
And the Hunting People all over this tautsche’s galaxy took care of their own, freehold or clan.
Relieved and happy, he tied his platform sled to the porch railing, then climbed up and found the scratchpad on the lintel. He drew his arched finger-talons down it once, twice, to announce his presence, then waited, but nothing stirred. The windows still gleamed golden and the house exhaled heat, but no-one came to the door.
The storm howled and beat at his back, throwing freezing lines along the creases of his clothing. He shivered. Maybe the wind was too loud for anyone inside to hear him, though the Hunters have superb senses. Still…
He took a step back, arched his neck and roared: “Arooah the house! Is anyone here?”
Now that a deaf Hunter could hear; and he waited expectantly.
But nobody came.
For the first time, Sureshot hesitated. Someone should have heard that. And if they didn’t answer, that must mean they didn’t want to be disturbed. He sighed and eased back another step. The wind lashed him with renewed fury: his facemask instantly fogged over. Technology took care of that almost at once, but the sleet would keep blurring his vision and numbing his limbs, and the thought of spending the night freezing in a tree….
There must be another way. He leaned forward and gently put his talon-tips to the door, trying to think of what else he could do…
…when the door moved under his hand. He jerked back, startled.
But the door stopped moving at a hairline crack of light. No-one stood behind it.
Open…the threshold open as if in welcome, Unlocked, as the tautschen would leave it for the wayward traveler if they were not home. Had they left the lights on as well?
All his inborn caution returned, and he slid in alongside the door, weapon in hand, a hunter again. Did an invading beast lurk here? With his other hand, he thrust the door wide.
Nothing charged out at him except a waft of warm air. The threshold filled with a golden glow, which he now saw came from a fire.
A hearth fire inside.
Sureshot paused long enough to make sure nothing was going to leap out at him; then he whipped inside, put his back to the door, and snap-scanned the area.
He stood in a short vestibule. To his left, he could see the opening to the great room or hearth room, with the fire still flickering above cindered logs. To the right lay another open threshold into what looked like a cookroom. No sign of people anywhere.
Sureshot relaxed a bit. Nothing harmful here. Perhaps the family was just in the back somewhere, bathing or getting ready to sleep. Ahead of him lay a long hall with other rooms opening off it.
On-target, then; he would seek out whoever lived here, making certain he didn’t surprise them. He would ask for shelter from the storm. He closed the door behind him, eased his pack from his shoulders, and added his facemask to it. He re-sheathed his weapon. No use for a weapon in a tautschen household. He no longer thought some animal lurked here, but just on chance—and he was a great believer in Chance—he still had his own fangs and claws…
He began to move silently down the hall.
Two rooms opened off this central hall, and he chose the nearer one, on the right, to look into first.
Tiny starlites flickered on at his entrance and he saw a marbled and muralled chamber with a round sunken tub nearer the doorway and a glass-walled chamber farther in. The bathing chamber.
The sight made him draw in his breath with an “Aaah…” How good a hot whirlwater bath would feel to soak in right now! He suddenly felt clammy and cold; even his thermo-suit had been soaked and half-frozen from the vicious wind, and he longed to cast it off and jump into a steamy, sudsy bath.
But first—“make yourself known, hunter,” he chided, “or they’ll think you a lawless beast.” So, reluctantly, he turned aside from the bathing chamber and went on down the hall, looking for the tautschen who lived here.
As he drew up next to the second room, a cold draft met him through the half-open door.
Was it a cold-storage room? he wondered. If so, someone had left the door open. Or maybe they’re in there. He reached up to scratch on the door panel—when something bit down on the base of his brain….
…a feeling of danger and wrong.
Sureshot’s breath caught. He’d had these feelings before, in the field, when some beast lay in wait for him, when taking another step would have proved his last. And he’d always respected the warning.
Now it came to him in what should have been the safest place of all, a room in a Hunter’s home.
Don’t call out, his senses warned. Instead, he flattened himself to the half-open door and tried to peer into the room.
He saw the corner of a thick mattress on a bed hung by heavy chains from the ceiling, so it could sway the inhabitant gently to sleep. But the sense of wrongness prevailed and Sureshot eased closer to see beyond the threshold.
A spillway of blankets and furs met his eye, the bed coverings in disarray, half of them on the floor. Shock numbed his reflexes. No tautschen lived like this, unless…unless they were in trouble.
Suddenly bold, he pushed farther into the room, beheld more disruption: the bed coverings sprawled on the floor, cabinets pulled over and their contents strewn, a bewildering rough spot in the life of this otherwise peaceful home.
And then he smelt blood, and he lunged all the way in.
Cold blasted him from a large broken window opposite. Strewn furs and blankets lay in a long scallop descending from the bed; and something was entwined with it. Something which gave off heat—and blood.
Sureshot gasped. He took one long stride into the room and fell to his knees. Suddenly, impossibly, he knew what he would find, even though every experience in his life, every fraction of his training in honor and Hunt Law rebelled against it. It could not be, and yet, and yet…
He reached out gingerly, nipped a fold of blanket between his talon-tips and began to pull it up. Something tumbled out, fell soft and heavy to the floor.
An arm and leg, still attached to the body that bore them.
Sureshot had seen death before. Many, many deaths, mostly of animals he’d slain. And once, of a packmate who died on a hunt, so suddenly that healing could not save him. Nothing like this…a young tautsche woman who had been killed in her own home, her own room.
A little cry escaped him. He reached for her, thinking that despite the blood, she might still be alive. Her face was composed, but her mane all askew and her arms and hands thrust out as if to defend herself. But she had no pulse and her body heat lifted off her like smoke, dissipating.
“Milady, milady, how did this happen?” he whispered. “What did this to you?”
The broken window. Something had hit it with enough force to shatter it—some beast going out, for almost no glass sparkled on the floor inside. The creature must have entered the house in some other way…
Grieving, horror-struck, the hunter barely knew what he was doing as he half-raised the woman in his arms. His dazed thoughts raced: he had to get her to help; he had to call someone—
Then her head fell back and he saw the terrible throat wound, and his brain blanked out…
“Here, this way, brothers; I’ll get R’sylda. She’s probably in back.”
Voices? Here in the house? Time blinked in again and Sureshot raised his head.
He had just levered himself to his knees, still cradling the body, when a light flicked on and someone’s silhouette blocked the threshold.
Another hunter—who stared straight and uncomprehending at what he saw. Disbelief, then shock, then—
“R’sylda!” the man screamed and lunged into the room. He pulled her away, then whipped around to Sureshot. “Don’t touch her! Who are you? What have you done?”
And he went for Sureshot with death in his eyes.
They crashed to the floor with Sureshot trying to keep the other hunter from sinking in fang or claw, trying to stay alive long enough to explain. They rolled over and over, a high-pitched keening sound coming from the other’s throat. Sureshot tried to fend off talons and teeth, his hands a blur, when they smashed into the wall and he ended on the bottom.
The other hunter throttled him and swung his arm back to strike….
“Keras! No, stop!” someone shouted and hit the attacker side-on, dislodging him.
Sureshot twisted free and started to get to his feet.
Only to be knocked down again as two more hunters hit him.
They yanked him up and pinioned him, and all he could hear was the Hunter Keras screaming, “My wife! My wife! He killed her!”
That stilled everybody. One of the hunters pinning Sureshot muttered, “Great Spirit,” while Sureshot tried to croak, “T-t’chak—I didn’t.”
“Look, look,” Keras screeched, mad with grief. He reached for the body, “R’sylda…R’syl—“ then crumpled in his captor’s grip, his hands over his face, and howled.
The death-howl. It tore from the hunter’s heart, from his broken soul.
“Keras, brother—ah, what a dire sight…” mourned the hunter who had been holding him. “Are we sure?” turning to the pair who held Sureshot. “Alantor, check on his mate.”
She went, releasing Sureshot, but just confirmed what they already knew: “She’s dead, Chief Hunter.”
The confirmation stunned them. As uncertainly hardened into reality, they looked at each other, then at Sureshot, their eyes afire with hate.
“Who are—“ the Chief Hunter began, but was interrupted.
The husband Keras lurched up from the floor and almost made it to Sureshot before his Chief Hunter tackled him again. Keras kept fighting, snarling and demanding “Let me have him! It’s the Law. His life is mine!”
Sureshot backed up as his accuser nearly went airborne. The Chief Hunter, a big, strongly-muscled tautsche, managed to keep him anchored, but Sureshot could feel his own captor’s hands on him going pain-tight, talons denting his flesh. He realized with a shock how very bad his situation was here. He was a stranger, a trophy hunter, and he’d been found holding the dead woman in his arms. Who else could have killed her?
“On my Oath, I didn’t do it,” he began.
“Liar!” screamed the bereft hunter, surging again. “Oathbreaker!”
The Chief Hunter once more dragged him back, scruffing him and commanding, “Hunter, attend! Obey the Code.” He hauled him off his feet, shook him to emphasize; “I know what this looks like, Keras, but you cannot act yet. We have to call in the huntpack to judge him. And then you may take vengeance; or let the freehold do it for you.”
What was this? Sureshot made a small sound in his throat. Was the Chief Hunter already declaring him guilty, just on appearances? Weren’t they going to bring in a tracker or an evidence hunter? A chill shivered down his back. That meant the hideshare was already stacked against him.
The Chief Hunter let Keras down, so he could go to his wife. He crawled to her, lifted her upper body in his arms and wailed piteously. The Huntress Alantor moved over to comfort him.
Sureshot felt his remaining captor take a better grip on him and heard the man utter a low growl.
Quick judgment there, too. T’d’faal, who else had they found on the scene? Why even listen to theories of another killer? The beast had fled.
Meanwhile, the huntress murmured something to Keras. He looked up, his eyes blank. Then he seemed to “connect,” and what color he had left drained from his face.
“The little one—our chk-kiy,” he whispered. “I…don’t…know.” He turned a horrified glance at the huntress, then heaved to his feet.
“Where, vr’hunter?” Alantor asked.
Keras made a head motion toward the doorway. “If not here…then…in the play-yard? The next room.”
Suddenly they all began to move, Keras, the huntress, and the Chief Hunter, making for the door. Sureshot’s captor shifted his grip and half-turned away…
Sureshot abruptly went limp and slid from his grasp. He dropped down to balance on his hands and double-kicked his captor off his feet. He somersaulted to a stand, took three long running strides, and hurtled out the broken window headfirst.
He landed rolling in the snow, snapped to his feet, and ran for his life.
His life. Which these excited freeholders would take from him because they could not see past their pain. He had only one throw at Chance: get away from here long enough to find the perpetrator himself.
In a sleet-storm, with the tracks covered and cold. Get a clawhold, hunter, his mind taunted him. Running away will only make them certain you did it.
But he had no other choice. So he ran.
And he’d seen something the others had missed. Whatever had crashed through that window after killing the young woman had not escaped unscathed. He’d seen blood-trace on some of the jagged edges, and he thought he would find more out here.
The icy wind nearly blasted him off-stride, but he kept his balance and used plain old keen tautschen eyesight to scan the ground before him.
He’d landed in a large flat spot where something else had landed first. And it hadn’t been subtle—it had bulled its way through the tree-cover, smashing everything aside, leaving a hole big enough for a maddened spearhorn…
…and stripes of hot blood, which the sleet hadn’t quite covered yet.
Sureshot went through that same breach after it, oblivious to the shouts of pursuit stirring behind him.
The beast left a trail a blind Hunter could follow, crashing along through brush and scrub, cracking saplings and digging up divots of earth in its flight. It seemed to be running on two legs; and Sureshot filed through his knowledge of this world’s creatures to see what it might be. But nothing came to memory, and its prints were too blurry to read.
Sometimes the pre-settlement searchers didn’t find all the species: they could hardly account for every animal on a planet, no matter how many hunters went down. And satellites and probes weren’t good enough to catch every living thing, either.
Even so, they rarely missed anything as large and strong and dangerous as this seemed to be.
The trail was so fresh he must have just missed the beast in the house. Perhaps his shout had startled it and sent it running through the nearest exit—the quartz window.
Except…if it had killed a full-grown huntress, why would it be afraid of him?
He slowed to a jog, thinking, and wiping the ice from his eyelashes. Another thing puzzled him: if the creature had killed the young woman, why hadn’t it taken its prey when it left? Its earlier actions did not seem to be those of a fearful beast…
Suddenly he remembered the stricken hunter’s last words before he’d escaped: “The little one—our chk-kiy…” and he knew.
The beast had taken its prey with it.
Sureshot surged into a full-out run, crashing through brush and timber as recklessly as the beast he chased. Find it—the child might still be alive!
The trees began thinning out as he ran. His adversary’s path was no longer clear in patterns of broken branch and brush. He concentrated on ground-trace instead—on footprints, for the sleet melted at their centers, so fresh were they…
And warm blood was pooling in them, getting warmer…hot…
A warning keened in the hunter’s mind and he ducked and swerved to miss a heavy branch overhead—
–just as something big swung down and struck him hard on the side of the head. Knocked sidewise, he grunted, and heard the whicker of claws slashing at his face.
He twisted, fell on arms and knees, immediately bobbed and rolled—and came up feeling the hot streaks of blood across his cheek—clawmarks that could have sliced his throat just as easily if he hadn’t acted on his feeling.
He paused at a crouch, weapon primed—and at the last moment pulled his shot, so it fractured the tree limb rather than the body lying along it.
The child—if it still held the child—
The beast roared to shake the forest, slid away from the falling limb and jumped off, putting the tree trunk between it and his sights.
But not before he saw it, and knew what it was he faced.
Shock stilled him just long enough to let the prey escape; then he lunged to his feet and ran after it, his heart fluttering like a bird’s wing—for what he hunted now, he had never faced before, and his nerves throbbed with horror at what it was, and what it had done.
The trees cleared away and he found himself on the verge of a long curving rise, frosted with ice, which bridged a deep ravine and led to tumbled rocks on the other side. Long scuffed foot-marks gouged the snow leading up to the ridge and halfway across—where they stopped.
Sureshot raced out into the open, where he stopped, too. Had his quarry run out on the ridge, and jumped? Or worse, fallen? Or was it hiding somewhere nearby, camouflaged and ready to attack? The hunter spun in a half circle, wary and afraid.
It was the only way he saw the attack coming from behind him.
He turned his shoulder to the attacker, his hands forcing away the other’s; but Keras’ momentum slammed them both to the ground.
“Killer! Liar!” the other snarled. “Take your death like a man!”
Sureshot wrestled him over to one side, gasping, “Not me! Not me—look!”
“AROOAGH!” The blood-chilling roar froze them both. It came from the ridgeline, and as they glanced over, a huge figure arose, shaking off the covering snow. A Hunter, a tautsche, one of their own. It glared down at them from a distance halfway across the ridge, too far to run, too far to leap—then it raised one arm and held the small writhing infant over the ravine below.
“Keras!” it thundered. “Do you remember me? How you and your friends exiled me to death?”
Sureshot felt the Hunter beside him go boneless. “Murgoth…” he heard the man whisper.
“H’vack?” Sureshot asked.
“A…criminal…a Codebreaker. We sentenced him to exile half a continent away, and now he’s come back and he has…he has…”
“Your chk-kiy, hunter!” The outlaw bellowed, shaking his arm to make the baby wail. “You took everything from me, all of you—and now I take from you. First, your wife…and then”—He swung the infant over the abyss, grinning. Then swung it back again. Then forth…then back. “Let us see who”—
That’s when Sureshot blasted him with the laser. Not in the chest, but across the elbow, which sheared the forearm off at the joint. It and the baby fell to the snowy ridge with a soft thump. Murgoth stood there dumbfounded. He didn’t yet feel pain. The laser seals as it burns.
“Eiiaaah!” Keras screamed and bolted from the snow, running full-tilt, in the blinding charge of the panther for its prey.
Blanking Sureshot’s target from sight.
“Hunter, hold!” the marksman began. But he didn’t shoot. He could hardly draw down on a guilty tautsche, let alone this innocent one.
Still standing, the outlaw saw his chance. With a feral grin, he leaned over to reach for the child with his other hand.
And a rocket shot from the sky, streaked into his chest and knocked him off the ridge and into the ravine. The explosion ensured the kill.
A brace of rakken, the Hunters’ swift airbikes, slid into view above the clearing. The Chief Hunter watched as Keras swept up his child below, then glanced into the ravine with a look of satisfaction. He met Sureshot’s eyes and said:
“There. That is one twisted soul that will not trouble us again, at least in this world.” And—“That was a fine shot, vr’hunter. I could not have done it, myself. What did you say your name was?”
This time he told them.
They’d made a mistake in accusing him, and they tried to make it up to him. But by the time the tradeship returned, Sureshot felt glad to go.
He’d learned that the Codebreaker Murgoth had been generally a bully and a troublemaker, but it was not until he began attacking others and stealing their kills that they exiled him.
“Not a murderer, then?” Sureshot asked.
“T’chak,” said the Chief Hunter, “but he hated well. It took him more than a year, but he found us again. And Keras was one of the witnesses against him.” He shook out his mane slowly, in regret. “R’sylda fought for her child and he killed her.”
“Churr…” Keras agreed, his eyes downcast, his arms tight around his little girl-child, who now purred in contentment. “We—I –owe you a life-debt, vr’hunter. First I wrongly accused you, and then…”
“Krr…it is no debt. I’m still here, and the past is a dry bone, and dust, as some would say.”
“Still,” the Chief Hunter intervened, “we hope we have learned from this: not to jump at the first prey in sight, because the greater may be lurking in the brush. Here is your hideshare, then, vr’hunter,” giving him his sled’s tow- rope. “We have added something to it. At least accept that, and our deepest apologies for the wrong.”
Sureshot gave a curt chinlift but said nothing. He took up the towrope and pulled the sled up-ramp toward the tradeship. He could hardly wait to get this run over with and go back to his home world.
But Keras called after him, “And my thanks, Esteemed One, for whatever it means to you. My heart-deep thanks for the life of my little one.”
That he did acknowledge: he turned at the top of the ramp and inclined his head once. Then he pivoted and strode inside, and the ramp closed after him.
Constance Rossman – I’ve been writing about the civilized carnivores the tautschen and their spacefaring adventures since the early 1990’s. My first book, “Renegade the Hunter” told the story of one young man growing up and learning to become a man through his society’s very dangerous Master Hunt.
I followed up with two more novels and about 20 short stories in 2003-on, most of them about this race that follows its code of honor and tries to incorporate ancient wisdowm with modern technology.
What, I wonder, would mankind have been like if we had done the same?
I was for many years a reporter and columnist on various Michigan newspapers. Now I am writing fiction about my favoirte characters, the fierce yet disciplined Hunters; and have been published in a number of print and online magazines like “Golden Visions,” “Strange, Weird & Wonderful,” “Crossed Genres,” “Aoife’s Kiss” and “Afterburn SF.”