A local hunter’s tale
I encountered a Copper Claw once. She came to my fire, and never have I ever saw a woman whose beauty could compare to hers. She ate the food I offered her, but then her careful illusion slipped and I caught a glimpse of her claws—just for a moment, but instantly I knew who she was. And I knew that if I angered her, she’d rip me into pieces. I knew I had to be as careful as a calf treading on early spring ice.
The legends have a funny trait—they never stay the same. As people carry them from one land to the other, from one town to another, they change. With each person telling the story, it changes—it gains new details and then loses some along the way. And in the end, the truth has nothing to do with what people believe in. I don’t know what my grandfather killed. I don’t know if it was an actual wolf, a huge snarling beast. Maybe he saw it like that because our eyes betray us more often than we can imagine – or maybe he told us of the beast because he couldn’t cope with what he really did.
Anya is telling us stories as we move along the beaten path, further into the Steppe. The sun meets no obstacles and there is not the tiniest spot of shade in sight, but it isn’t hot. The wind that is blowing across the flatland is laced with thin chilly threads. You can almost smell winter approaching, even though the summer is still putting up its futile miserable fight, blooming with the last flowers, trying its best to give us one more – just one more day of warm and light and beauty.
“We call them Fey,” Anya says, guiding the docile donkey. “They are not beasts and they are not all bad. Some are. Some aren’t. But all are dangerous, of that you can be certain. The famous ones are Copper Claws, Sorels, Belters and Ubbe. There are others, weaker ones. Those operate with illusions and cunning wit, not with strength. They are dangerous, too, but if you’re able to see through their lies, you have a chance to get away from them. With Copper Claws it’s different.”
“You said a Copper Claw was a girl?”
“So I’ve heard. Some legends say she is the Lady of the Wild Beasts herself. She controls birds and protects them. That’s why my uncle is so afraid of her. Birds are sacred to her and she doesn’t favor those who kill them. It is said that the Copper Claw became evil when she saw the atrocities committed by people and she became so angry with them, she started to kill them and she feels like she is doing the right thing.”
“Every villain thinks he’s doing the right thing, right?”
“I suppose so.”
“You said there are many Copper Claws.”
“The legends are vague in this regard. I think it is her daughters and granddaughters and great-granddaughters. They spread. And all of them are Copper Claws.”
“I see. Are there any male Copper Claws?”
“No, just women for some reason.”
“A nice family.”
“You’ve no idea.”
“So how do you recognize a Copper Claw?”
“By looking at her hands, supposedly. She has claws instead of nails—just like that one you wear on your neck, but people say she always hides her hands in her long sleeves or behind her back. So you can’t tell. And she is very beautiful, not like an ordinary girl. She is the most beautiful girl and men fall in love with her at first sight and forget to be careful. And that is when she… STRIKES!”
Anya shouts the last word and lunges at Jaro, and he topples, falling on his back and she laughs.
“You idiot!” he exclaims, regaining his balance. But he is glad. The black cloud has passed over their heads and is gone, his stupidity is forgiven, and her anger is dissolved.
“I’ll make sure to be extra careful around beautiful girls then,” he says, getting up.
He meant it as a joke, but Anya’s face goes blank. She knows she isn’t one of those girls and never will be. Her face is an ugly mask she is stuck with for life. She flexes her fingers as if straining to keep them away from clawing at her face.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” mutters Jaro, but she cuts him off.
“I like you, Jar, I do. You’re a good guy. I would hate to see you fall victim to the Steppe. So you be careful, you hear me?’
He nods gravely, but I am pretty sure the only thing he heard was the “I like you” part. Men!
We stop for a short rest on a small hill. Steel goes ahead, to scout, and the women grab buckets and carry them to the river. We watch them drawing water. They talk—well, Jade talks, to be precise, and Anya listens to her like every word is a golden coin and she snatches at them greedily. They are a mere stone-throw distance from us, but I can’t hear them—the wind is carrying their voices away—and I don’t care enough to listen closely.
There is something that worries me more.
“Why aren’t there more people?” I ask Jaro. “Don’t you think it’s suspicious?”
“Yes, I do, thank you, Kara,” he mutters, a little too loudly, and Vas hears him.
“Did you say something?” he asks.
“I was… I was just wondering why there are only five of us. Don’t people want to earn some money? I’m sure there are plenty of people who can handle a gun in these lands.”
“Oh, yes, there are. But they’re just a bunch of chickens, ‘tis all.”
“Why? What are they afraid of?”
“It’s…” he falls silent. “You know, never mind, kid.”
Don’t you just love it when people start to say something, and then they are like, “Oh, never mind”?
But they aren’t getting away from Jaro. This kid has a talent for getting his answers.
“Tell me,” he leans closer, dropping his voice. “I should know this, shouldn’t I? I’m not running away now, it’s too late for that anyway.”
It is. We are already too far away from anything even remotely resembling civilization. We would never find our way back if we lost our group. Well, maybe I could if I turn into a bird and fly higher, but my sense of direction isn’t the best, and I might just get lost myself if I get too far from Jaro. I’m too scared to try that and I just hope it won’t be necessary.
“You’re right I suppose,” Vas nods. “It’s that these sorts of expeditions are dangerous, and the folk around here is a superstitious lot. They are all kinds of scumbags—brave enough to harass merchants and travelers, plunder smaller settlements, but hunting—no, no! Too afraid to enrage the Lady.”
“You mean the Copper Claw?”
“I mean what I say. The Lady of the Wild Beasts looks after birds and small animals—those who need protection from the cruelty of men. She doesn’t look kindly on those who kill them.”
“Yeah, on us. But you don’t believe that superstitious nonsense do you? Anyway, it’s all just temporary. They’ll start joining in again. Our company used to be twenty–even thirty men and women. But something happened recently and it’s just a little too fresh in their memories.”
“A hunting expedition got missing. A large one. Thirty-six people, no less. We organized a search and looked everywhere and when we found them… well, that wasn’t a very pleasant sight to behold, not pleasant at all.”
“They were all killed?”
“Massacred,” Vas nods gravely. “Butchered—guts spilling out, dried blood gathered into sticky pools, heads and headless corpses… well, you get the picture.”
Yeah, we got the picture alright…
I shiver. I think of My Little Wanderer. I can only imagine what Nora saw that day when she discovered the town covered in our blood. I don’t want to think about it, but I can’t help myself. It’s probably a darn good thing that I don’t remember anything about that night.
“Who—or what—did this?” asks Jaro. I bet he’s thinking the same thing that I am.
“Who knows? My best guess? Wild animals. Or…” he makes an effective pause, “maybe it was the Clan.”
“Nobody’s heard of the Clan for an eternity now,” argues North. “No way. It wasn’t them.”
“Maybe not. But when we came back and told people what we found and then brought the corpses home for proper burial—that’s when all the hell broke loose. People started talking and making theories, remembering the bedtime stories their grannies used to tell them.”
“And now they think that the Lady killed them? Because they were hunting animals?”
“Yeah. A superstitious lot, what can I say? So that was only a couple of months ago. But that’s not the only reason business has been slow for Steel. He’s too afraid of the Lady, and people sense it.”
“Why did you two join him then?”
“For the old times’ sake. You know, us and Steel, we go back a long time. Don’t we, Jade?”
He yells the last words at Jade, who is returning—with Anya close on her heels—carrying two bucketsful of water.
“You bet we do,” she replies in the same grim manner of hers, and I sense something then, some hidden meaning in their words, but I don’t give it much thought.
We spend the night near a lone rock that looks completely out of place on this flat terrain. People huddle close to the fire and I sit on the cold stone guarding their sleep. They take turns with night watch, but their senses are dull. They won’t be able to see the danger in time.
A howling sounds in the distance, but it’s too far and I know it’s not a threat. If something happens I can wake Jaro up, warn him. I admit that most of the time, I am a quite useless companion, but I too can be of help out sometimes.
We reach our destination the next day when the sun is already about to set. It’s a place the locals call Grove, which suits it, since… well, since it’s an actual grove. I like it when a name suits a place. Too often names have nothing to do with the real thing. We had a valley near our town and it was called Green, but actually it was just brown and grey and… well, yeah, just those two colors, really. No green, that’s for sure.
But Grove is an actual grove. It appears suddenly. It is hidden in a deep wide valley. The river that runs through the center of it has probably been broad and rapid some time ago, but now it’s hardly more than a spring. Trees grow at its banks. They are short and bent to one side, their branches almost entirely bare already. A restless wind is traveling through the valley, ripping the remains of the trees’ scant foliage and throwing it around and playing with it like a kitten with balls of colored yarn. It looks like a nice, peaceful place, bathing in molten gold of the setting sun.
However, as the night draws nearer, Grove loses some of its charm. Shadows start to fill the hollows. They crawl from under the trees. They grow and swell and deepen until the whole valley seems to be bathing in dark ink. The silhouettes of the trees moving slightly by the wind remind me of some wild beasts, locked up in a pen.
“Are we going down there?” asks North. He is nervous, touching a leather amulet on his neck.
Steel shakes his head.
“No, let’s wait here till it’s completely dark.”
“How are we going to see in the darkness?” Jaro frowns.
“Leave that to me.”
So we wait. Everything is still, everything is quiet. The only noises, the only movements down in the valley are caused by the frantic wind, that doesn’t seem to need any rest at all. It gets stronger, then weaker, then stronger. The trees move with it, and I imagine that they are dancing for some tune that we can neither hear, nor understand.
I keep my eyes open, but I don’t know what we’re waiting for. I don’t know… until suddenly I do.
Something stirs, and within seconds Grove is filled with voices. For a moment I assume that I’m just hearing things—that maybe it’s the wind again, got trapped between some rocks. But a moment later I realize that it’s not a mere sound. It’s a song. A complex multi-voiced song that is both chaotic and harmonious.
Birds… Those are birds! There is no doubt about it—birds are singing, invisible in the darkness of the valley, and it’s unlike anything I’ve heard before.
We freeze as if charmed by some magic, listening, soaking it in. I don’t think that anyone in our small company as much as draws a breath. They don’t talk, they don’t move. I wonder if the song fills them up as it fills me up. If they feel the same thing that I feel.
But then Steel’s voice breaks our stupor.
“Get ready,” he whispers.
Get ready for what? I have forgotten where we are, what we are supposed to do. I’ve forgotten our mission and our troubles. The enchanted song erased everything from existence.
But the others haven’t forgotten. Quietly, smoothly Jade loads her gun. Her eyes burn—I see their feverish shine even in the darkness. I hear her pulse beating with some excitement that is completely alien to me.
Jaro swallows uneasily. He has never hunted. Shooting at the targets is one thing, but shooting at something alive is quite another.
“Let’s go,” Steel whispers when all the guns are loaded.
They start to move into the grove, slowly descending the slope, careful not to stumble or slip in the dark. I hover over their heads, spreading my bird-wings once again.
The closer we are, the louder the song. Louder and louder and louder it gets until it’s almost impossible to stand it any longer.
The birds are invisible in the darkness. They don’t seem to notice us, too preoccupied with their nocturnal tunes, and we manage to get very close. The song is everywhere now. It’s like I’m drowning in it. And I gasp for air and beat my wings desperately. It’s a similar feeling to the one that I got when Jaro and I had a fight and my anger sent me to the different part of the town. Except now it’s not my feelings that are flooding me. It’s theirs.
And then, without any warning, the grove lights up. It’s like someone brought a burning match close to a batch of dry moss. Except the fire is brighter than any other fire I’ve seen in my life. Boldly, it chases away the night itself. The shadows rush back, scared, scattering, burying themselves deep into the hollows between the tree roots. Bright fireflies of sparks dash into the sky.
Birds launch into the air, their song turned into frightful screams. I still cannot see them properly—now they are but swift shapes amongst the branches. I catch a glimpse of bright feathers—red, brown, yellow—like a colored hurricane that envelops us.
I still don’t know what this light is and where it came from, but then I look at Steel. He is holding something--a tiny vial in one hand, and a wooden bowl in another. He’s mixing some powders and the reaction creates this light, that spills down, on the soil like a waterfall of lava.
When the vial and the bowl are empty, he drops them and grabs at his gun instead.
“Now!” he cries. “What are you waiting for, you fools? It’s not for long!”
He is talking about the light. And it’s true. It’s fading already. It won’t hold off the shadows for much longer.
Vas and Jade are the first ones to come to their senses. They start shooting. I don’t understand how they even hit their targets—those birds are large but fast as whips of striking lightning. They dart, trying to hide and fly away, floundering helplessly as the twigs and branches catch them, stopping, hindering their flight. Some fight back though. They come shrieking at their attackers, all scratching claws and tearing beaks. Vas yanks a sword out of his sheath and slashes at them with violence I haven’t expected from someone as good-natured as him.
Jade doesn’t fall behind—she dropped her gun and now is slicing and cutting and stabbing with her two neat slim knives. She looks like a spirit of war, wild and bloody and—oh so incredibly fast! My eyes can barely follow her movements!
Feathery bodies fall everywhere. Jaro shakes off his initial shock and joins the madness. The air is acrid and grey with thick smoke.
Anya is a good shot—I see several birds falling to the ground at her feet. Jaro isn’t that good, but he does well enough, too. Steel shoots like an automaton—efficient, fast, cold. He doesn’t seem to be swept by the excitement of the battle that has affected everyone else. He doesn’t seem to pity the crying birds, but he doesn’t seem to enjoy killing them either. And I am not sure what is scaring me more – the slaughter that is happening around me or this disturbing lack of any feeling on Steel’s part. The same one I saw that night when he was beating the soul out of his niece.
A huge bird—it would easily surpass a golden eagle in size— attempts to grab at Anya. It starts hitting her with its wings, screeching like crazy and aiming at the girl's face. Anya discards her gun and seizes the knife, tucked under her belt. It isn’t a fighting knife, like those Jade wields. It has a rather short sleek handle—the sort of thing that can be found on every kitchen, really, but in Anya’s hands, it’s a weapon. She lunges at the bird and by some miracle she hits it. And when the bird falls, she starts hitting it, over and over and over until the bird no longer moves and Anya’s hands are covered in its blood. I look at the girl's face and see that her scratched cheeks are wet with tears.
I suddenly remember my father going on a hunt when I was still alive and a little girl. I remember wildfowl lying on the kitchen table, dead bird eyes staring at us, as we crept in to look. Pheasants, mostly. Their beautiful green and blue and golden feathers falling all over the place—we kept those and put them into our hair.
Eventually, it ends—the screams, the slaughter. The light fades. The birds are either killed or have flown away.
“Go, get the cart,” Steel commands. “Let’s get these in.”
Vas hurries off to do the bidding, and when the cart is here, they quickly load it with dead birds and then we leave the Grove behind. And I no longer like how the name sounds. Suddenly it has some inexplicable grimness to it. Now it sounds sinister. Now it sounds wrong.