2.2

Having slain her first live animal, and having Sola and Luna’s initiations on her mind, Edzie took a sudden interest in hunting and trapping, and so it became Stray’s interest by proxy, and then Boyle’s, as well. From Mistra Septa’s books, she learned the tracks and habits of the animals that wandered these regions of the Pastures, and after some weeks of incessant nagging, she induced Elkansa to give her a short but productive demonstration of the setting of snare, pit, and deadfall traps. By the time the dry winter frost thawed and the warm air promised storms, she was getting antsy to take to the field. Thus, that spring, Stray found himself being roused from sleep by Edzie, just as dawn was breaking over the Pastures. The mere fact that Edzie was the first awake made this a rare and special occasion.

First, Edzie’s voice echoed in Stray’s dreams, which were a foggy soup of images and anxieties from the previous day. Presently, her words became clearer, and his lingering emotions began to fade, until he was just hearing his name, repeated insistently at sparse intervals. He peeled his eyes open and found her face hovering above him, a featureless silhouette in the cool light of dawn.

“Hey, are you ready?” she asked, keeping quiet. “We won’t catch anything if we wait til the middle of the day.”

He groaned and pushed his covers aside. “Hold on. Okay. Wait.” He couldn’t find an answer at the ready, so he mustered some irritated noises and tried to sit upright.

“Okay, hurry up,” she said. “I’ll go find Boyle.”

Edzie picked up her katsun – still a virginal weapon of naked wood – and stole across the path to Boyle’s dromo. Alynn and Dredda were in their gathering room, preparing something, when Edzie stuck her head in the front door and asked about Boyle. Dredda nodded toward his son’s room. “He’s usually up by now, so don’t worry about waking him.”

Edzie approached Boyle’s room, and found the light of a small thresh lamp illuminating a corner near the window. Boyle was indeed awake, and intensely involved in his work. He had taken the smooth wooden palette, wrapped it in a linen sheet, and propped it up against the wall. As Edzie watched, he stared at it for several seconds… five full breaths, by Edzie’s count… and then wiped something off the linen with his forearm and scrawled something new in its place.

Edzie waited patiently for the cycle to repeat, and just as Boyle put the pencil to the linen, she said, “HEY Boyle!”

Boyle jerked with a start and the pencil shattered, leaving a black streak across the linen. He turned around to face Edzie, his face a display of violent irritation. “Ugh, hi, Edzie. You messed me up. Is it time to go already?”

“I think I’m a little early,” Edzie said, without a hint of remorse, and then, taking Boyle’s silence as an invitation, she walked into his room and approached the linen. Under the black streak, there was a fairly intricate pattern of faceless animal and human figures, interspersed with more abstract shapes that might have been letters in some exotic alphabet.

“I like this,” she said, slightly regretting her interference in his hobby. “These letters look a little like the Badlander writing Mistra Septa showed us.” Boyle looked confused, so Edzie clarified. “In that book she passed around last month.”

“Oh, yeah. Funny, I forgot about that.”

“So you weren’t trying to make it look like that?” Edzie could scarcely believe the coincidence.

“No!” Boyle said, inexplicably defensive at the implication. “I just make things I feel like making. Aside from the animals, it’s not supposed to look like anything.”

Boyle cleaned up the shards of his drawing implement, and then retrieved his makeshift hunting weapon from under his cot. It was a wooden rod, probably scavenged from some debris around the settlement, with a notch whittled out of the end, and a sharpened bone fit into it and tied with a length of cord. It wasn’t exactly master craftsmanship, but Edzie figured it would do. She tried to hurry him along, but he demanded she wait another moment so he could dig a warmer brivsa out of his modest wardrobe.

Returning to Edzie and Stray’s dromo, they found Stray outside, tying up his footwraps and still blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He had donned a warm woolen brivsa, pulled the hood up over his ears, and drawn the scarf tightly around his nose and mouth. His weapon was a straight limb from some tree along the Splitmouth, smoothed out, with the end whittled to a point. Edzie privately wondered why he didn’t put some sort of hard tip on it, but it looked strong enough to work as a spear.

“Did you get the bread and fleurberries?” Edzie motioned toward the dromo. “They’re in the canvas bundle on the table.” Stray hustled back inside, his weapon bouncing along in his grip, and came back out with their provisions. Edzie folded them into her waist-wrap and pulled it tight.

The three of them set out north, crossing the Splitmouth at the central ford, and Edzie directed them left at the main road. This brought them around to Handworkers’ Row, where Gransa the materials-trader was setting up her stall. Edzie borrowed a length of cord, a score of meters long, promising that she would bring it back, and if she broke it, she would pay for it in labor. Gransa made a show of reluctance, but she accepted, trusting in Elkansa’s honor, and in Edzie’s by proxy.

Now fully equipped with spears, katsun, food, and a line for making snare traps, Edzie, Stray, and Boyle headed north, out of the settlement, and up an embankment that served as its informal border. From this rise, Edzie could see over several kilometers of Pasture land, a patchwork of deep wet green and jaundiced yellow, flecked with wooded ridges and striped with fissures where the granite bedrock peeked out of the landscape. A light rain had fallen during the night, drifting down from the warmer pastures to the north, and this front had brushed against the thawing earth around the Prospect, resulting in ribbons of fog obscuring parts of the landscape. Thus, under the overcast sky, a gray cloak of mist veiled the green and yellow grasses, whose seeds patiently awaited the imminent warmth of spring.

By the time the sun was high, they were beyond the furthest trafficked roads, crossing a scrubland that was stripped of trees and overgrown with weeds. Stray and Boyle kept seeing tracks and hearing noises in the brush, but Edzie continually urged them to be patient… game would be more plentiful further from the settlement, absent its noise and foot-traffic.

The difference was not dramatic, but her case held. Eventually, the settlement passed out of visual range, and the trees grew taller and more plentiful, mottling the landscape with Orebark groves and tangles of vegetation. Here, the noises became unmistakable: rustles of activity would greet them as they passed, and they recognized frequent hoof-tracks and deposits of excrement.

Eventually the hunters’ attention fell to a trace of boundeer hoofprints, leading off along the path and then diverting into the tall grasses. They turned and attempted to follow, assuming the animal was close by, so that for the first twenty minutes, they stalked along after it, pausing and listening and half-hiding every few steps. After they had covered a fair distance, it occurred to them that the tracks weren’t as fresh as they thought, and they fell into a steady pace, and then a brisk one, still stepping quietly and scanning for a sign of their prey.

The tracks continued, and as the hunters walked, their looking merged with their listening, both highly sensitized in the silence of the pastures. The absent body of the boundeer, all prancing legs and nervous eyes, became a voice, distinct in the sprawling murmur of the fields and brush, and the hoofprints, which the hunters continued to follow, became a transcription of that voice across the landscape, sometimes sparse and breathless, sometimes ruminating around some sapling whose leaves had been tentatively nibbled.

The tracks seemed to go on forever, an epic poem that never quite resolved, and the hunters ended up covering perhaps ten kilometers in their pursuit of the elusive boundeer. They scrambled up and down gentle slopes, the hills dry and dusty, the troughs spongy with mud. They narrowly circumvented lines of amberwood trees, generally clustered around granite ridges and stone protrusions breaking up the soft contours of the landscape. It was along one of these rocky patches that the hunters lost the boundeer’s trail… it might have picked up nearby, in some saturated dip in the soil, but Edzie was not an experienced tracker, and the boys were getting impatient anyway. At last, they gave up on the boundeer and looked for another trail to follow, trying to keep a westward bearing.

It was another hour before the trio stopped to reorient, which they did by making Boyle climb a young witherleaf tree. From its lowest branches, he could see a stunning panorama, a navigable landscape stretching off in all directions. To the southeast, he could barely see the settlement’s western watchtower and a few plumes of smoke; to the west, the rolling hills dipped gradually, eventually reaching the Riverpath Road and the Tenebre River, massaging the shale on its riverbed. He promptly decided that it was further than he was willing to go.

To the south, a small herd of semi-domesticated huskin grazed, which – as Edzie soon explained – made that the worst possible hunting-ground. Just a bit north, there was a patchwork of rocky ridges and tree-lines, which was exciting in theory, but seemed a bit on the dangerous side. They eventually decided to continue westward, trying to get as close as possible to the Tenebre, despite knowing it was out of their reach. If they could reach the road, at least their walk back to the settlement would be easier.

Following a path through the tall grass – less a path than a slight thinning of the vegetation, a vanishing ribbon of navigable earth – the three hunters made their way west, down through mud and up across dry patches. Eventually, they stumbled through a tree-line and into a wide open field, bordered by woods on three sides. Another twenty paces onward, they were startled by a rabbit crossing their path, and the three of them all froze and followed the rustle of the leaves across the open ground. It seemed to scamper up a nearby rise, setting the whole field swaying in the breeze, and terminate in a tangle of underbrush at the foot of two lonely amberwood trees.

Stray was riveted. “Did you see it?”

“It was a shade hare,” Edzie answered cautiously. “I think it went into those trees.”

“Probably its warren,” Boyle observed.

Reduced to the softest of whispers, the three planned a strategic approach. Stray would go first, taking a long route along the back of the grove, and Boyle would approach from the right side. Stray would flush it out, and Boyle would box it in if it came his way, herding it toward Edzie. Edzie hoped that she could get close enough to skewer it as it crossed her path. She borrowed Boyle’s spear, which seemed more appropriate for this task, and gave him her katsun as collateral. She and Stray decided on a sign, so she could notify him when she was ready.

The maneuver was executed with care and precision – Stray stalked around the rear of the trees, seeming to take forever as far as Edzie and Boyle were concerned – and by the time he was approaching from the opposite side, Edzie was poised to throw. Boyle and Stray both hesitated, standing perfectly still in their positions, watching for Edzie to make her sign.

Finally, she gave it, and Stray let out a war cry and charged at the amberwood trees. They were right about the shade hare hiding within, and it burst forth in a panic, but it saw Edzie before it got anywhere near her. Fully a dozen paces from her position, it veered hard into the gap between Stray and Edzie, making for the clear field in the distance. Edzie barely had a second, but she cast the spear in the hare’s direction anyway. The three hunters watched it sail through the air, disappear into the weeds, and – they could only assume – flop ineffectually to the ground.

The three hunters reconvened, and after a couple minutes of searching, they found the spear. There was no rabbit, but miraculously, the spear had a tuft of hair stuck along one edge, and there might have been a spatter of blood in the ground (though Boyle thought it was just some darker dirt).

Edzie and Boyle were disappointed, but not defeated, and Stray was actually marginally encouraged, having suspected that their hunting excursion might be completely futile. They decided, for the moment, they would head for the river without taking any more detours, but Edzie insisted they set a snare trap first, on the off-chance that the rabbit might come back to the grove after they left. She found what looked like a small nest – no young, but a carefully-crafted little bed of chewed-up grass and twigs – and she set the trap around it, doing her best to keep her fingers off the nest itself. She used two amberwood twigs as stakes and constructed a delicate trigger between them; looping Gransa’s cord into a noose, she fastened the other end to one of the low-hanging amberwood branches and pulled it taut. She gathered a few small berries from the shade of the amberwood trees, and added these to the nest, hoping to sweeten the lure.

This process, which was supposed to be quick, took her more than an hour, and by the time the hunters left for the river, they were all privately preoccupied with their growing hunger.

The next tree-line concealed a short, severe rock face, whose shale had been worn away by running water, creating a shelf in the shade of the orebark trees. Under this rise, which only extended about fifteen feet above them, the hunters cleared a space to eat their blusterwheat bread and fleurberries. The victuals were simple, barely the skeleton of a Denorian breakfast, but it was welcome after their long trek across the settlement’s peripheral fields. They had gone perhaps twelve kilometers, and the dawn had turned to late morning, and then early afternoon.

There was a short dispute over who got which piece of bread, but once they loosened their brivsas to eat, both Stray and Boyle went quiet, and Edzie felt compelled to fill the silence. In searching for a suitable topic of mealtime conversation, her mind returned to that morning in Boyle’s house, when she had cheekily interrupted his private pursuit. Between bites of bread, she floated this as a possible topic.

“So that thing you do… the canvas-marking…”

“Drawing,” Boyle said. “That’s what my dad calls it. He learned about it while he was away from the tribe, before I was born.”

Stray remained silent, taking note of the conversation, even as he kept his eyes trained on his fistful of food: a bread-crust, folded over several fleurberries, leaving red stains on his fingers. He had talked to Boyle about this before, and he was wondering how much Edzie would get out of him on the topic.

“So your father taught you?” Edzie inquired, circumspect but clearly curious. “I don’t know any Denorians who do that.”

“Yeah, dad says our tribe has no aptitude for it. But I used to scratch markings into the floor of our hut and the wood of our furniture til my fingernails bled, so dad told me I should try drawing instead. Mom didn’t like it at first, but she’s learned it helps me think better.” He paused to take a bite of his bread, then continued, spewing crumbs as he talked. “Dad says he’s bad at it, but he showed me how to hold the pencil and set up the canvas. Mistra Gita showed me some books with a lot of pictures: ones that look just like real life, and others that look more like… feelings, I guess. I like drawing the second type better.”

“And is that how the pictures get in our books, too?” Stray asked, leaving the question open for either Boyle or Edzie to answer.

Boyle shrugged. “I think so, except there are monks down in the Citadel who are specially trained to copy pictures exactly, and they’re the ones that make the books.”

Edzie elaborated, drawing from her reservoir of knowledge she had culled from the Mistras’ libraries. “Yeah, it’s actually a totally different practice. Before the copyists can make their copies of all these books, someone has to make the first book – the manuscript – by thinking up all the text and creating the pictures.” She glanced up at Stray and Boyle in turn. “That’s more like what Boyle does, because he draws new things, instead of drawing things from other peoples’ pictures. In the River Kingdoms, the word is ‘artist.’”

“But there are no artists in our tribe?” Stray asked, vaguely troubled by this thought.

“No, except the monks who decorate their robes.” Edzie looked over at Boyle. “But I’m glad you can do it, Boyle. Your markings look really good.”

Boyle smiled in return, unaccustomed to positive feedback. There was a lull, then, and after a few minutes of eating and discarding their scraps, the three companions launched into a vigorous debate over whether or not they should keep going. Edzie wanted to follow the ridge, and didn’t seem concerned with getting home at any particular time; Boyle knew he would have to check in with his parents, but he wasn’t comfortable advocating for himself. Stray took up the position that they should turn back, partly on Boyle’s behalf, and finally, after some barking and eye-rolling, they chose this as their consensus. They all agreed to circle back to the settlement via the watchtower, after stopping off at their snare trap and collecting Gransa’s cord.

Edzie approached the grove a few steps behind Stray and Boyle, and even before she could see the snare, she could tell something was wrong. Her body cried out a warning, something triggered by the shifts in the foliage, the creased and divided grasses, the scent of dust in the air. Still, she wasn’t trained to respond to these kinds of instincts, so she just hurried to join her companions, who were just entering the grove. She was only a few steps back when she heard Stray.

“Something happened to the snare. It’s tripped, but there’s nothing in it. Everything’s all torn up back here.”

Edzie joined Stray and Boyle and surveyed the empty warren. Stray was entirely correct… the snare had certainly been tripped, but its loop hung empty, with traces of blood and fur on the cord and on the ground below. The underbrush was trampled, much more roughly than a shade hare could have managed. She started untying the cord with nimble fingers, her eyes darting over the tall grasses nearby.

Before she had finished, Boyle found the bootprints, leading off conspicuously to the north. They weren’t Denorian, nor tracable to any of the Concordance tribes, who stepped lightly, with bare feet, footwraps, and bound leather soles. These were the heavy imprints of boots, leather or wood, with a tread carved into the flat soles. Edzie thought of the caravans she saw along the Cragstep Road, heading toward the mountains to trade or pay tribute at the Temple Envoclajiz.

Boyle gained some nervous confidence, practically insisting that they hurry back to the settlement to let their parents know about the strange tracks. Edzie, whose dangerous curiosity was in perfect counterpoint with Boyle’s trepidation, demanded that they follow the tracks into the brush. Whoever was around had ruined their trap, after all, and they had come a long way to return empty-handed. Stray became the deciding vote, and though his honorable and conservative instincts shivered in the face of this reckless diversion, his love and loyalty for Edzie finally won out (helped along, of course, by the heat of his own hunger for adventure). They set off, following the tracks deep into the fields, toward the rougher, woodsier ground to the north.