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I'd make haste to the fishing trees to retrieve my brother's blade. He died three winters ago, and it was all that I had to remember him by. On the morrow I'd be at the loch where he perished, and there, I'd drown the blade in his memory.

 

The morning sun was an hour from peeking over the eastern horizon. Darkness was a bad time to travel, unless you were avoiding capture or on the hunt. Predators and beasts roamed the woods. And the canopy of trees made the forest blacker than the night cats that feasted on small hooflings.


I made sure not to wake mother, father and my sister as I threw on my hide hunting robe, leathered boots, and leathered horn-helm that was now two sizes too small. I'd get my true horns at my manhood ceremony in a few days. I preferred my hunting robe over my leathers. I could move more agile with little noise. I still needed to grow into my leather vest and skirt. And when my flesh got sweaty, they squeaked like an old board.

From my wall, I yanked down my black bow, and a quiver of arrows. One arrow stood out; the arrow with the green-winged fletching that was pulled from a fairy. Father said he did it himself when last he traveled south, but I'm uncertain I believe him. He was the toughest man I know, but he couldn't stand bugs.

I pushed aside the deer hide drape that covered our doorway, then ascended into the night. Above, stars flickered while the moon was full of wonder, lighting my path to the edge of the forest.

From my village it took me an hour to reach the woodland edge. By that time the suns' beams guided me to the thicket, scaring the creatures and critters back into their burrows and holes. I walked under the threshold between the sky and green canopy, clutching my bow, and gripping an arrow, ready to let fly if I felt threatened.

It was still dark in the woods, and the critters, reptiles, and bugs living in it sang their morning songs, and hunt their last hunt, trying to get one more meal in before sleeping the light away.

Cracking branches on my left sent me whirling in that direction. Light penetrated the woods, but it was still impossible to see beyond ten feet in front of me. My mind played tricks on me as my ears did. I determined it was nothing and carried on deeper, following the sound of trickling water in the distance.

I buried my brother's knife out here to keep it safe and out of sight. Elior's death was too close a memory. The knife reminded me of him. It was to be a gift after he'd returned home from his manhood hunt. I'd beaten the stone to its jagged point myself. Even carved the antler hilt the blade rested in. It was my gift to him, but the ice and the loch took that away from me.

Another crack, this time behind me. My neck hairs raised. There was something tailing me. But what? Night cats were the least of my worries, I'd hunted plenty of them. Their pelts were worth a good trade in my village. The winters were harsh here, and furs were the only way to stay warm. Two more cracks and I brought my bow to the readied position. My father taught me never to engage unless I'd seen my target. He was a wise man. A confident man. The King of our village. Soon I'd have to follow in his footsteps. I prayed to the Horn Gods that wouldn't be for a long time. I was to become a man on the morrow. And I was preparing to become the King, though it was never my birthright.

Nothing, I thought, looking between trees.

I lowered my bow, found the direction of the stream, then headed off. I hadn't got thirty feet before I heard the beastly gruff that echoed all around. On top of me. Smothering my every breath. I'd heard nothing like it. Not in these woods. Could it be one of them ... The creatures from the Loch?

The elders called them Merfolk, but I never understood why. I just knew they hunted by the loch, taking unsuspected victims from the shoreline. That's why I feared going there on the morrow. But I had to. Every boy who wanted to become a man had to hunt in the loch. Father told us that Elior fell through the ice, but I always wondered if it were true, or if he was another victim of the Mer.

I found the courage to carry on. Not even a merfolk would stop me. I needed to reach the fishing tree. I needed to retrieve the blade. It needed to cast it in the loch, So Elior can move on ... so my family can move on ... so I can move on.

Fallen trees and overgrowth made my track through the woods slower than I would've liked. I leaped over logs, pushed aside branches, and tripped over more roots than I could count. The villagers used to use this trail more often, but it was a warm winter, and a damp, hot spring, making the vegetation grow wild.

I heard a rustle north, and I stiffened as the woods. Yellow beams slipped between limbs and through leaves. That's when I saw it. Twenty, no, thirty feet away. An enormous silhouette hunkered between two trees. Squinting, my eyes drew into focus. I was uncertain what it was, but I was certain I could make the shot.

It must die.

My movement was smooth, pulling the bowstring taut, guiding my arrowhead to penetrate flesh and crack bone. If I'd miss, I had my quiver full, and my best arrow, that could drive through even the thickest of hides. I steadied my breath, then ...

Black-bottomed feet whipped from above, swinging to take my head. I saw it just in time, ducked, then rolled. My hand slipped. Bowstring thrummed. Arrow went rogue, whistling off into the woods. I twisted and knelt to one knee in the same movement. Branches snapped as a blur dropped from trees. There was no time to identify what it was. I reached back, felt for the fairy-winged fletching, then retrieved my best arrow. In a blur, I drew the arrow nock to the string, pulled back my arm, and led the arrowhead to what appeared to be the weak point in the beast's armor; between shoulder blades.

A high, heckling sound caught my ears. The creature turned and faced me. I blinked once. Twice. Three times. Still, I did not trust my eyes, though I knew that they saw clearly. Before me was no hoofed beast of the forest. No horned beast of the mountains. And no finned beast of the loch. This was a beast made of muscle, bone, and flesh concealed in a cloak of scaled mud. I shook my head. This was no beast at all ...

I lowered my bow. "Lylef, are you insane? I could've killed you!" She giggled, lips rising. I shook my head, unable to locate a single patch of her golden-pale skin. "Look at you ... It's not even midday and you've gone the way of the boar."

"And?"

"And ..." I took her arm and tugged, finding a golden-green light in her eyes. "Mother would be aghast by your appearance."

Lylef was as dirty as a bore, yet had the haste of a cat, and the slipperiness of an eel; and with a single twirl, she slipped from my grip and leapt back far enough to keep from being snatched once again.

"I like the way the mud makes me feel." She giggled. "When applied and rinsed, I'm as smooth as stream stones."

"Doesn't help the smell."

Lylef brought her nose to her arm and took a long, drawn whiff. She smiled, unashamed. Nothing of the way a Girl Horn should act, who'd become a Lady Horn one day.

I peered over my shoulder, "Where's your robe? You shouldn't be here at this hour, prowling in the nude."

"I am not nude!" Lylef said, raising her tone, embarrassed. Though if she was blushing I could not find the pink in her cheeks behind the muddy mask. "I am concealed with the Earth. And if I could, I'd wash with mud."

"Then you'd truly be a bore."

Lylef giggled and snorted.

I swung my longbow over my shoulder, then plopped the arrow back in its quiver. I glanced to where the silhouette stood between the trees. There was nothing there. Maybe there was never anything there. Only shadows.

"What are you doing out here?"

"Following you."

I wanted to smack the honesty out of her. "You should be asleep ..."

"And so should you," she said, pulling her robe down from the tree. It was brown and beaded, and made of cervitaur hides. I kept her from putting it on. "But I'm cold."

"You should've thought about that before you bathed in mud ... When we get to the stream, you can wash up. Mother would have a fit if you dirtied it again. Come on." I pulled her arm and together we headed east.

Lylef was two years younger, only fourteen, but she already had the womanly shape of an eighteen-year-old. A blessing from my father's side. I hoped I would grow into his stature, thickly muscled and near tall as a giant, but I feared I had my mother's genes. Same slender frame, fine, brownish-blonde hair and sky-blue eyes. Unlike my sister, whose hair was a thick black, and eyes a golden-green only found in fall leaves.

We reached the stream and were met by the coo of a call bird and the snap of the fishing trees. Lylef hung her robe and began to wash, shivering with each splash of water. I should've felt sorry, but I didn't. Served her right for sneaking up on me.

"What is that stink?" I waved a hand by my nose. "Make sure you scrub."

Lylef stuck out her tongue.

Next to her, green and black vines hung submerged in the water. Tangled. Filled with a season's worth of large, silver fish. They drained the nutrients, giving the fishing tree its strength. I glanced at the bank riddled with the black trunks and limbs. They scared me as a young boy, worried one day they'd mistake me for a fish, snatch me up, and drain my insides. On the morrow I'd have my manhood hunt, and if I were to become a man, I could no longer have these boyish fears.

I knelt by the tree and made sure Lylef's eyes were anywhere but on me. I hid many things over the years at the fishing tree. It was the perfect place to keep things away from her, and I didn't want today to be the day she discovered its location. Distracted by a frog, I quickly shuffled leaves and clawed through dirt, exhuming a leather sheath, and the blade that hadn't seen the light in three years.

"I don't want you to go to loch," Lylef said, swiping at the frog. "I don't want the same fate that fell on Elior to fall on you."

"It won't."

Lylef's looked at me. I could see the worry. I could see the pain. And I could see the uncertainty. Her tone grew somber. "Hunt by the loch, die by the loch."

I dropped my head and shook. "You know those are only tales told by Hoof Akabar to scare little hooflings-"

My lungs collapsed, throat tightened. I looked upon the soil at a trail of sunken earth. Two huge indentations per step. Tracks made by a beast not of these woods. But one lost, migrating, or hunting. My skin crawled while my mind raced, trying to identify the beast's prints.

Lylef scrubbed her chest. "You don't have to hunt by the loch ... There are other beasts on land that should serve your purpose."

"Quiet."

I glanced around at the trees.

"Centaurs. Cervitaurs. Boartaurs. Stayrs ... They'd all be a worthy challenge."

"Quiet!"

I breathed quickly, nerves causing my hands to rattle.

Lylef stood and wrapped herself in her robe. "Or. If you truly want to impress the clan, you can hunt a Minotaur. I heard they were nearly impossible to kill."

"I said ... Quiet-"

I spotted the black, curved horns before I heard the gruff. Lylef pivoted in the beast's direction, north, cloaked behind the fishing trees vines. His eyes were black as obsidian, standing upright like a man, but on hooves, shrouded in coarse, black hair and muscle. His moldy, earthy reek burned my nostrils ... that was the stink.

Lylef's eyes widened, mouth fell open. Before she could scream, I yanked her hand, pulling her towards the hollow in the fishing tree. Behind us, the beast ripped through the vines, hoofs pounding, lunging in our direction. I didn't look back. We dove head first beneath the roots, into soil and muck.

I pulled Lylef behind me. A massive face, with a mane of coarse black hair and a long black snout, barreled towards the hollow. Our hollow. The one keeping us safe. Lylef let out a shrill, causing my eardrums to ache. There was no time to think; only react. I yanked my brother's blade from its sheath. Horns drove forward. My blade cut air. I struck, piercing the black obsidian orb. The beast roared. Shook the tree, then retreated into the thicket.

Once we caught our breath, I found Lylef's eyes, now black as the beasts. "What's a minotaur doing in our woods?"

I shook my head, gripping the knife, trembling. "I don't know ..."

Lylef swallowed, then looked down at her muddied robe. She grimaced. "We can survive the beast ... but I don't think we can survive mother's wrath too."

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