The Hunt: Baltis and Kharúthmir

(Originally by Ljósbrenna, moved to BTB by Alcyone)

His muscles ached; his arm felt as though it would break. However, the fair-haired young man remained stretched along a satháli branch, with an arrow nocked and ready to fly.

Something moved within the underbrush; a large animal, not a bird or the two-legged, harelike chakka common to this part of the Ashenleaf Salt Marsh. The hunter's blue eyes narrowed; the fatigue he felt vanished on the instant, burned away by adrenaline.

Slowly, a pale form emerged—and it was the stuff of nightmares. The pelt was shaggy, its guard hairs over a foot in length. Eight arachnoid legs arched up higher than the beasts bloated, hideous body, and over its back there curved a segmented tail like that of a scorpion. With the tail stretched out, the beast would be over twenty feet in length. Its body was larger than that of a bear. Resembling a fifth pair of legs, the monster had pedipalps that ended in serrated pincers. However, its head and face were the worst horror. The head was egg-shaped, settled upon the body without the virtue of a neck. The slack-jawed face was disturbingly humanlike, its lips trickling a continual runner of thick, ropy saliva. Its facial expression was twisted, as though it were experiencing rage, anguish or both.

The hunter knew that it was more than dangerous to hunt such a creature alone. More than dangerous; to do such a thing was insane, foolhardy—very nearly suicidal. However, he also knew he was the only archer of any real competence that stood between this monster and the hamlet of Bitter Ridge.

Bitter Ridge was a backwater, of less than low importance. There was an aphorism in play in the nearby kingdom of Tamiras: 'All the trash washes down the Ashpine River and into the Ashenleaf Salt Marsh. The lucky ones make it out into the Bay of Ærilas and drown.'. The meaning was plain: to fetch up at the riverbend and eke out an existence in Bitter Ridge was thought to be wose than death. However, Baltis had been born and raised in Bitter Ridge, the son of the innkeeper at the Inn of the Sable Bear. The inn was the only building of any worth in the poor and hardscrabble town. Both the inn and the people of the town were all Baltis had ever known.

And now the town was being threatened by the beast upon which his arrow was trained. The animal was an ice-wight. For such a monstrosity to be so far below the treeline in late summer was all but unheard of. Baltis had three brothers, all lost to drink for many years; his father had a hunched back and a lame foot. He was the town's last defense against the ice-wight. Left to itself, Baltis knew it would cross the sand bars and enter Bitter Ridge. The people there were rough, brutish and stupid, but he knew every one of them. Baltis was unwilling to allow even the worst of them to fall to this animal's predation. He drew a slow breath, gave a silent prayer to the Goddess he served, and loosed the ashwood arrow. His awkward position caused the bowstring to slap his arm, but the adrenaline that thundered through him made the pain a distant echo of sensation.

It missed the mark.

At once, the creature whipped around to face Baltis, giving a horrifying scream. It lashed out at him, the spikes at the tip of its scorpionlike tail powdering the bark just beneath the branch upon which Baltis rested. He knew he had lost the advantages of surprise and distance, but his mission remained the same: he could not allow the ice-wight to enter Bitter Ridge.

Baltis removed the quiver of arrows bound at his thigh and threw it as far as he could. The wight turned its head and lurched a few yards toward it as it hit the ground, giving Baltis the opportunity to drop his bow and draw a second weapon. Hanging from loops at his belt was a makeshift mace; it was nothing more than a hickory table-leg, banded about by wrought iron; the only blacksmith in Bitter Ridge had claimed the game from several hunts in trade for the work. Baltis could only pray it would be equal to the task. Mace in his left hand, he slithered down from the tree and powered forward.

The ice-wight spun around with another scream. It charged Baltis, snapping at him with the pincers that tipped its pedipalps. He brought his mace down upon one of them; the other grazed his shoulder as he jerked to the side. The wight, now with only one functional pincer, skittered back a few steps. It brought its tail over its back, attempting to slash at Baltis with the long barbs at its tip. Baltis gave a snarl of pain as one of the spikes gouged his right arm, the weaker one. A haze of red rage rose in the wake of the agony, and he redoubled his attack, slamming the mace onto the joint of one of the beast's legs. He was rewarded by a splintering sound as the hard betal shattered the chitin at the joint. The ice-wight was not crippled, but it would now be slower. His fury pounded within him as he circled toward the ice-wight's injured side.

The creature swung its tail again, but this time, Baltis was ready. As the spikes hissed past his head, he aimed an overhand strike at it, and was rewarded by a meaty thump as iron met flesh. The wight screamed once more, its tail now slow and erratic in response. Encouraged, Baltis began to circle again, trying to ignore the pain caused by the caustic spike that had gouged his arm. He could not afford to lose his focus now.

The beast spun about and tried to grab at him with its remaining pincer once more. Baltis stood his ground and allowed it to grasp the hard wood of the mace-handle; he grabbed the top claw and wrenched it to the outside, using the mace as a lever. There was a wet snap, and the ice-wight now only had its wounded tail and jaws with which to mount a defense. It lifted its tail and three of the spikes fired off; the wight's injuries caused them to miss the mark. Unable to gain ground against what it had seen as prey, it wheeled about and attempted to flee into the underbrush. Baltis had no intention of allowing it to escape. With a shout, he gave chase.

Ice-wights were creatures more adapted to cold weather, more able to function in heavy snow or on hard stone than on marshy, wet ground. Within a few minutes, the beast's great weight caused it to become mired to the first joint of its legs, unable to move faster than a sluggish crawl. Baltis came in behind it, ducking the uncoordinated swing of its wounded tail; he slammed the mace into it again, and the appendage sagged, limp and wet, completely useless. Never one to hesitate, the young man leaped onto the wight's back and a final savage mace-blow ended the creature for good.

His work, however, had just begun.

Baltis vaulted off the back of the wight, landing on a solid hummock beside it. He scooped up a handful of thick mud and used it to scrub at the wound left by the ice-wight's spike. Although the chemical burn it had left was not as serious as it could have been, he was taking no chances. The caustic nature of a wight's primary weapon could cause greater injury if not immediately countered.

Pacing around the beast, Baltis pondered how to best get at the parts of the animal that were useful. When tanned and bleached with urine, the fur was beautiful and valuable. That was a side concern, however, to the real bonanza the animal would bring. Much as the legs of large crustaceans were, the legs of an ice-wight were edible. The firm white flesh that was revealed when the chitin was cracked away was delicate and sweet in flavor. Noblemen in Tamiras would pay top dollar for both the meat and the hide. The meat, Baltis intended to sell. The hide, however, would be his own.

Baltis' father, Feskor, was a creature of greed. Baltis and his brothers had brought down other ice-wights, and always, Feskor would demand both the meat and hide to sell. The windfall represented by any such success would soon disappear, drank away by Feskor's endless thirst for rotgut. This time, Baltis intended a different outcome.

Each time a wight had fallen to their arrows, it had taken a group effort. It had been several years since such a hunt had been possiible; all three of Baltis' brothers seemed determined to follow their father in his dedication to intemperance. Baltis, disgusted by their behavior, rarely drank so much as a drop. As a result, he had grown in skill and strength, all the while watching the rest of his family become more and more infirm. His success in killing the ice-wight alone meant that he had exclusive claim on the hide and meat. He intended to insist upon keeping the hide and a small amount of the meat. Before now, he had only ever been allowed the smallest taste of wight meat, and he planned to celebrate his victory by indulging. However, to do any of this, he needed to get the wight out of the mud and process it.

As he examined the animal, he felt the hair lift on the back of his neck. Someone—or something—was watching him. Baltis put his back to the ice-wight and drew his mace from its loops, scanning the tangle of growth around him. A moment later, a tall young man slipped from behind a large cypress tree.

His thigh-length hair was smooth and fine as silk and was the glossy blue-black of a plover’s breast. His skin was as pale as new milk, and the youth’s eyes, deep-lashed and upslanting, were the same icy hue as fine moonstone, with a metallic undertone. Watching Baltis, he laughed, his voice rich and sonorous. As he did so, he revealed fangs to rival those of any carnivore, and he had the talons to match. His silver eyes possessed a black nictitating membrane that flashed across his eyes from the outer corner to the inner, making his gaze momentarily aphotic. Baltis realized he was looking at a being he had known of only from Feskor's legends. The new arrival was an Ashtóri.

Behind the Inn of the Sable Bear, the foothills of the Great Saváhe Mountains began, less than a day’s ride from the back doors of the stable. The mountains were steep; they formed the spine of the supercontinent of Pellithárias, from which the world took its name. One of its mightiest peaks was a volcano named Jherei-Dûm. Feskor’s tales often spoke of Ashtárias, a great city within the volcano.

“Oh, yes,” his father had said. “In the mountain, they live, among the fume and the heat and the ashes. And good it is that I’ve only sons. Had I a daughter, she’d’ve been took, so she would, unless she had a face like the ass of a sow just served by a boar. For them demonsons, they steal girls. Don’t have none of their own, so they take ‘em, breed ‘em to bits and eat ‘em when they can’t bear no more.”

But the laughter in the Ashtóri youth’s eyes did not square with either his father’s tales, or Baltis’ own fears. Surely someone capable of tearing a girl away from her family would not be red-cheeked with mischief and laughter. And whatever was the young man doing here, with his fine, strange clothes covered in moss, mud and grass-stains? Just as he was about to voice these questions, the Ashtóri spoke, mirth making music with the strangely-accented words.

“Råkháš-na Kharúthmir Júlóssos,” he said, touching his chest with one taloned hand. The membrane danced across his eyes, and he stepped closer, reaching out to touch Baltis’ own chest. He lifted a brow and there was a question in his smile.

“I don’t have the first idea about none of that, but you’re as pretty as a girl.”

“I am not a girl. You have big cheeks.”

“I’m Baltis Feskorsson. You have pointy teeth.” He covered his face, not sure whether he was hiding the plumpness of his face or the savage blush that heated it. “Tell me somethin’ shorter I can call you. I can’t say your whole name.”

"Kharúthmir,” he answered. “Råkháš is ‘Black Dire Wolf’. Júlóssos is ‘prince’.”

“My name don’t mean nothin’ fancy like that. But if you’re a prince, what are you doing down here?”

“I came to get... there is a leaf. It looks like a hand with seven fingers. If you put it in the pipe—”

“You’re the one raiding our patch of Ladyleaf?” Ladyleaf was one of the few cash crops the inn was able to grow. Thought to be a gift from the Great Goddess herself, the plant was used for everything from rope to pain relief. Often, it was the only medicine available.

“My cousin showed me where it is.” Kharúthmir moved closer with a light frown. He touched the oozing wound where the ice-wight had caught Baltis' arm. "You're wounded. Does it hurt?"

“Of course, it hurts, you goose! Stop poking it!”

“I can help.” And before Baltis could refuse, Kharúthmir drew a small blade that rested on the inside of his right wrist. It was made from fire obsidian, the refractive volcanic glass catching the light in bands of violet, indigo and green. As it came out of the sheath, it dragged across Kharúthmir’s palm. Dark blood welled forth, nearly as black as his hair. However, rather than pattering to the mud at his feet, it sprayed up and outward, taking the ghostly shape of an immense wolf. Baltis, first startled by the bloodletting and then frightened by this phantasm, threw himself back against the cypress tree. However, the ghost-wolf extended its muzzle and drew its tongue over the wound. In an instant, the pain vanished as though snuffed out like a candle flame.

“Didn’t that hurt?” Baltis asked, his voice a whisper.

“Of course, it hurt, you goose!” Kharúthmir laughed, throwing Baltis’ words back at him. “I’m used to it. I’ve done blood magic since I was old enough to walk. The ice-wight; I saw you fight. Only the strong can kill one alone."

"I'm stronger'n anyone in Bitter Ridge, even the blacksmith," Baltis said. "But that don't mean much if I can't get a purchase on this damned thing to get it out of the mud."

"If I help you move it, will you give me some of the meat?" Kharúthmir licked his lips. "We rarely get it in Ashtárias."

"I'll do better," Baltis said, impulse taking over. "I'll cook it for you. But we won't do it at the inn. I have a place nearby; my father would be nothing but trouble if I brought you in with me."

"Very well." Kharúthmir's eyes nictitated once more. "Move back. I'm going to put it on that sandbar. It looks solid enough."

When Baltis nodded his agreement, Kharúthmir drew his blade once more and cast. This time, there was not one wolf, but seven. Each of them fastened its teeth upon the ice-wight, and together they hauled it from the muck. The wolves then dissipated to mist, but the vapor then enwrapped the wight carcass like a net. The net, drawn upward by an unseen force, bore the ice-wight to the sandbar, carefully setting it down before vanishing. Baltis watched the process with fascination.

"Can you create light?" Baltis asked. "I don't want to be stuck out here, trying to do this in the damn dark. The smell will bring in other predators."

"Easily," Kharúthmir nodded.

"Once the suns go over the horizon, give me enough to be able to see what I'm doing. WSe're only going to move the hide and the legs. Can you manage your... whatever that was again? I'd be happier if my mace-arm was free, just in case."

"For wight meat? As many times as you like." Kharúthmir broke into a grin.

"In that case, pretty prince, you can heave it up again so I can crack the legs off and skin it easier."

Once the carcass was suspended, Baltis used his mace to break the legs away from the body, tossing each across to land beside Kharúthmir, He was pleased to see that, though one had been broken off and the other crippled, the capsule of each pincer was intact.

"We'll take these and one leg," he said. "The pincers have the best meat. And I'm sending a full leg back with you. Least I can do for all the help."

"Thank you!" Delight infused Kharúthmir's voice.

Baltis went back to work, as much to cover his blush as to finish before full darkness. Using his belt-knife, he cut around the wight's vent and tied it off with twine. Unlike a deer or boar, however, the internal organs of an ice-wight ran no risk of spoiling the meat if one removed the legs before skinning the animal—there was no edible meat elsewhere on the body. Baltis merely wished to keep the foul matter from leaking onto the hide.

With Kharúthmir suspending the carcass, removing the pelt was far easier than he had feared it would be. Allowing gravity to assist, he directed Kharúthmir in turning the creature as necessary for him to free the heavy fur. With pleasure, Baltis saw that he would easily be able to craft a cloak from the large hide.

"My nickname in the Ridge is 'White Dog'," he said, still working. "'Dog' for my loyalty, 'white' for my ethics. Just because everyone else in town is trash don't mean I need to be. So, a white cloak has been something I've wanted for a while. Roll it over toward me again."

"It suits you," Kharúthmir said. "The cloak will, too. My cousin is a clothier; if you want, I will ask him to make the cloak for you."

"I don't got that kind of money," Baltis said, wiping his ichor-stained hands on his filthy trousers.

"I do. And I've raided a lot of your Ladyleaf!" He smiled again, and Baltis felt his heart leap at the Ashtóri prince's beauty.

"Very well. I'll send the hide with you." He realized he trusted Kharúthmir, and wondered at the new shape his world had taken.

"Do better," Kharúthmir said. "Come with me! I'll introduce you to Sivesh."

"Uphill?" Baltis paused again. "To Ashtárias?"

"Where else, you goose?" Kharúthmir moved closer. "There's something you have to do first, though. It's called Šádóš-tal, or 'Seven Swallows'. Our blood contains magic—"

"You don't say. Are you telling me I have to drink it?"

"I am. But I swear on my fire that it won't be anywhere close to as bad as you think. Ashtárias is too hot for any human to survive there for long. So you need to be protected from the heat, and the only way to do that is to share our fire."

"Very well. I trust you." The words felt as strange as had the thought had done, only moments hence. "Let me get this thing free, and then we'll do it."

The last red limb of the second sun had disappeared below the horizon as the hide finally came free of the ice-wight carcass. Spotting the eyeshine of several crocodiles nearby, Baltis lifted a mud-caked boot and kicked the carcass into the water. The crocodiles beset it immediately; the hide and legs would be safe.

Kharúthmir drew his blade and cut his palm once more. This time, he held Baltis' gaze as he offered his hand, blood as dark as tar filling his cupped palm. Baltis lifted Kharúthmir's hand and took the first swallow. To his surprise, Kharúthmir had been right; the taste was not unlike the cinnamon candy that a kindly traveler had once given to him and his brother Kenzen, spicy, sharp and sweet. It took effort to draw away.

Baltis’ heart hammered against his ribs as an urge—impulsive, mad—rose within him. He reached out to draw the Ashtóri youth close and kissed him. He half expected Kharúthmir to push him away or even lash out with fang or talon, but instead, felt his lips yielding to his own, parting to allow Baltis’ tongue to entwine his. He recalled the time his father had forced him to swallow a shot of Orcish whiskey—it had risen to his head at once, flushing his face and making him dizzy. He had fallen more than once as he made his way to his bed. The flush and the giddiness felt the same, but his thoughts were keen and clear. Primary among them was one: Kharúthmir was his.