Island of the Kahts~ Part Twelve

Fiction By Kay J Fields // 4/18/2013

The first Kaht hunt took place the next morning. There were roughly forty-six of us altogether—King Greythan’s original promise of fifty was somewhat exaggerated, not that any of us were surprised. Thirty-two of us set out, leaving a skeleton outfit behind to watch the orchard camp.

I was still not at ease with Bart or his men and the Kurrm’anairis captain was strangely silent. He made no effort to chat with us or stop to admire the flora and fauna as he had on the hike he had taken my companions and me on. (Though we had all dined on a rather wonderful breakfast of turtle, according to his promise.) Instead, he marched at the lead with Savadra and Craigin, saving his breath for instructions and answers to necessary questions.

Volny did not walk with me, either. Instead he walked with the man he had peered at during our march into the jungle—who happened to be his elder brother. His other companion was, much to my consternation, Han.

My thoughts were like a terrible itch. The sort you can’t reach, maybe just between your shoulders, or the bottom of your foot, or the tip of your nose when your arms are full. That sort which just keep getting worse and worse… Until you’re certain there are hundreds of tiny insects crawling all over your skin and you wish you could see them and you want nothing more than to get rid of them but you…still…can’t…quite…reach them—

“Tory.” Gern said at my shoulder. “You’re making the most horrible faces.” He demonstrated with a grimace like an old granny tasting sour milk.

“Sorry.” I mumbled and pushed on.

I think it would have been nice to have returned to camp without spying the Kahts that first attempt. If that had happened, we all might have felt more at ease the next hunt and maybe I would have had time to figure out what was going on and to work over matters with Bart and his crew. Perhaps we might have avoided the circumstances which led to such a big mess as the one that was headed straight for us.

Instead, we walked smack dab into the middle of the Kahts’ most recent hunting ground.

How did we know it was the Kahts’ hunting ground? Well, because of the fresh deer bones laid out before us like a present. The men patted each other on the back, congratulating themselves, while I peered closer at the remains of the monsters’ meal. It was in a very sad state.

The bones had been torn from each other so that it was more a pile of them than an actual skeleton. The dainty skull had been smashed almost beyond recognition. The whole mass was blood-stained and gritty, and tufts of fur were scattered all over the site. I remember then something about leopards and other predators ‘skinning’ their dinner before devouring it by pulling their lips back and picking at the skin with their teeth. Evidently, the Kahts employed a similar method.

Around the kill the ground was scuffed and the turf torn by the clawed efforts of massive bodies tangling together over the meal. Large, rounded paw prints marked the soil. Sometimes these were accompanied by claw marks, but most often not. So the poison talons could be retracted, like a combination between a regular cat’s paw and the fangs of a viper. Although not much of a surprise, it was interesting to note.

“They moved off in the dawn hours yesterday.” Bart announced, having conferred with the group’s tracker. “There wasn’t enough here to keep them lounging around. It isn’t much of a break for us; they won’t have filled up much on a scant meal like this. They gorge like any other wild cat and can hang around a kill for days until it’s finished.” He prodded the bones with a stick. “Obviously, this was finished in a quick fashion.”

He followed the tracker to where the man had picked up a trail. “Move on.”
The path was faint, but now that the tracker had found a fresh track he was able to follow with relative ease. The party was, if possible, even more somber after that and stone-dead quiet. No one knew just how close the monsters might be. Hadn’t lions in the past led a trail away and then circled back upon the unsuspecting hunter? Or was that just myth? In my business, it was sometimes a better rule to follow myth than proven truth. I glanced over my shoulder more than once.

Weapons were firm in hand as we stalked the beasts. The tracker claimed the trail was pretty cold, but that there was still a chance we could catch the Kahts that day.

We closed the gap considerably that day, winding our way through the jungle, always under the shadow of the mountain at the center of the island. I wasn’t certain how large the island truly was, but I was beginning to feel that one could run the beaches for days before coming back to the place where he started.

The tracker pointed out a place where the Kahts had napped and we came across the place where they had spent the night—evidenced by bloody bird feathers from the night’s hunt. The gap between us and the beasts, the tracker surmised, had been closed by about half. This was good for the hunt and no one wanted to return to the orchard and lose the ground we had gained. And, if the Kahts kept to their pattern of hunting in one place at night, they would not outdistance us in the dark. So we pitched the tents we had brought along. Night fell fast.

Bart and Savadra agreed that there were too many chances for the Kahts to become suspicious of our presence if we lit any fire, so the camp was cold and dark. As was the food. Do you know how disconcerting it is to eat something you can’t see? Gah. It’s like eating a colorless paste come from who-knows-where filled with who-knows-what. But I digress.

Even in the dark, Bart was not idle. I wondered if he had slept since we made landfall. If he was wearied, the only sign of it was in the creases of his forehead as he frowned over some thought or other.

He took out his own weapon of choice and it was the first time I had seen him truly armed. The bow he held was compacted and angular and made of a thick and dark metal. It was a crossbow, I realized. A weapon I was mostly unfamiliar with. I observed him as he rubbed a specially oiled cloth over the workings of the bow, checking its actions to be sure it was undamaged and in perfect working order. Soon, he set it aside and moved on to the arrows—which I found out where actually called ‘bolts’. He rubbed the tips with a stone to hone their sharpness, then he sighted each of them to be sure of its straight and fluid lines.

He had told me he had other bows, and surely they would be more practical. I had heard a crossbow takes some time to load and I witnessed it now. I figured he had at least one of the other bows stashed somewhere. Likely it was the smaller recurve bow, which would be easier to pack.

Bart must have noticed my watching, for he paused and looked across at me. I didn’t move, didn’t acknowledge that I had seen him, until he gave a small gesture of his head for me to come closer. I was somewhat relieved when he set the metal invention aside and then felt foolish for thinking such things. Bart was our friend. Our ally. Funny, but weren’t those the same phrases Bart had said to Han about me the other night?

“You look troubled.” he said, rehashing a conversation we had already played out. And I hadn’t cared much for how that one ended. I decided to change tactics.

“Not so much as you do.” I sat beside him and kept my tone level.

Once again, Bart would not meet my gaze. “Sometimes I tire of this.” He said in so soft a voice I wondered if he meant to speak aloud at all. “Do you tire of adventuring, Tory?”

“No. At least, I haven’t yet. I’ve not been at it all that long.”

“But your adventures are a sort of freedom, are they not? You accept what missions you like and ignore the ones you don’t care for. You don’t seem to have an allegiance to anyone.”

“Savadra is our leader. And Craigin after her.” I said quickly. “That’s my allegiance.”

“Yet I do not believe either one would think ill of you if you decided to be done with the business. Am I right?”

“Savadra might throw a fit, but I suppose that’s right. Are you suggesting I should stop adventuring?” I asked.

“Not unless that is what you want.” he replied with a vague motion of his hands. “Myself, I work for a king and a general and an army and a country. One or all of them would have something to say if I decided to be done before they considered it my time.”

I was confused by this line of conversation. This was what troubled him? He wanted to retire and felt unable? Sure, he was a bit young, but what was the big deal? Or was it something a little less casual, like desertion? I did wonder.

Savadra came out from her tent, having heard our quiet conversation. Bart invited her to sit with us as with all the gallantry of a gentleman reserving a seat for his lady in a great theater hall. Craigin and the twins soon joined us and we sat and watched the stars, pointing out our favorite constellations. For an hour or so that night I felt like I was a kid again. My favorite constellation was the Eastern Hoop, a great ring of eighteen stars that rolled after the moon across the sky like a silver ball. Bart told us his favorite was the Codex, a grouping of stars which looked like the first letter of an ancient, forgotten language. He admitted the reason he liked this one so much was because it was among the easiest to find.

When the screams of the hunted beasts came to our ears that night, they were much louder. Much closer.

Bart leaped up from where he lay in the grasses to string his bow and the rest of us leapt with him.

The screams were too close.

Those in the camp who were asleep were quickly roused and fitted for the hunt and the battle which promised to follow. Bart said it was just possible the Kahts had chosen their hunting grounds nearby, but he also said they might have doubled back on us without anyone being the wiser. My fears were being realized.

Hands close about the handle of my axe, I tried to reassure myself with memories of our first adventure. We had survived that, hadn’t we? Through giant spiders and crazy monkeys and dreadful pirates and all that? Still, I was anxious. Frightened. And ecstatic. This was what adventures were made of. When terror and mystery collide into bravery and steel. When adrenaline mixes into the bloodstream and carries us along in a wild new life few ever experience. This is why I said yes to Cain’s proposition in the beginning.

We moved out of the camp, keeping together, going toward the screams. That might sound stupid and maybe it was, but it was also what the monsters would least expect. If we were indeed their prey, they might be startled when they discovered we were stalking them too.

The party headed towards an opening in the bushes and fronds, hoping to grab a more defensible position.

Thirty yards from the camp, the first Kaht burst from the jungle darkness.

It was a huge creature with muscles rippling like streams of water and cords of steel beneath a coat of ebony. Curiously, it bore a great white slash on its chest and its four paws were delicately dressed in the same color of fur. Its eyes were emerald green, bright points glaring from the shadows of its body and the trees beyond.

Yes, I know what you are thinking. Why is the Kaht wearing a tuxedo? To be fair, I don’t think the creature was intent upon making a fashion statement. And, indeed, tuxes had been out of style for a good twenty years.

“Keep close.” Bart whispered to us as every eye fastened on the Kaht. The beast was well out of our range for the moment, and we all waited to see what was to happen next.

The beast flicked its tail, opened a snarling maw, and yowled that same haunting banshee-call we had heard before. And that, of course, is when I remembered what Bart had said: 'They only scream when they are sure of their prey or when they have already caught it.'

So what did that make us?

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