edited by Phyllis Irene Radford
$4.99 (Anthology) ISBN 978-0-98284-402-1
“Kind Hunter” by Pati Nagle
The hunter paused near the end of the tunnel, gathering himself against emerging. He had not been to this place before, but he knew he would not like it. Already the unnatural smells and the roaring, constant cacophony were hammering at his mind. Had his quarry not been here, he would never have come.
A brush of soft warmth against his calf. “Stay close, Shade,” he said softly. Golden eyes glanced up at his, flash of green in their depths. Shade didn’t like it here either.
Bad place. Torril go home? queried the cat.
Torril shifted the case that carried his bow and pulled his hood forward, covering his ears. This was a city of mortals; he must not be recognized. His kind rarely walked among humans now, and to be noticed would have undesirable results. A deep breath, and he started toward the light.
A musician sat at the tunnel’s end strumming a guitar, soft chords hanging in the air, lonely, aching. For a moment Torril wished for his flute, but he’d left it behind when he’d taken the kind hunter’s oath. He dropped the change from his train fare into the open case and walked on, not bothering to query the man’s mind; humans were too busy with their own tumbling thoughts to heed gentle questions. There would be birds, maybe mice, dogs and cats he could ask. Some would have seen his quarry.
Grey skies outside, but brighter light. Torril shaded his eyes. This was the older part of the city, built of brick and stone rather than glass and steel, still too stark for his comfort. Pavement separated his feet from the living earth, isolating him. A carved stone cross towered over the walk, a symbol abhorred by the creature he hunted. A good omen? Perhaps.
Pigeons sat atop the cross. Torril greeted them silently.
Do you know of a nightwalker hereabouts?
Nightwalker, no. Night we sleep. Food? Food?
No, I’m sorry.
Feathers whipped at the air. Torril walked on.
Cold. The grey buildings seemed to suck the life out of him. No green anywhere near them; they were traders’ halls full of dusty books and such. Torril pulled the lacings of his hooded coat tighter to hoard his warmth.
The coat looked enough like the current fashions of mortals for him to escape notice, though no mortal had formed it. His surviving sisters had woven the cloth and wrought it into coat, tunic, leggings. He remembered their hands in the dance of its making, dappled by green-gold sunlight, while he sat apart carving the arrows that now lay in the case with his bow. The essence of his sisters’ gentle touch remained in the caress of the fabric against him. He smiled softly, sadly. Perhaps he would see them again, if all went well. Perhaps.
Humans hurried along the sidewalks, and Torril fell in among them, leaning forward to keep his face hidden and to lessen his appearance of height. Shade ghosted at his feet, stopping now and again to sniff at interesting crannies and doorways. A shopkeeper shouted unwelcome and batted the cat with a broom. Grey hackles rose. A hiss, and he darted between Torril’s feet to explore some friendlier spot further on.
The sun was too deeply veiled to be seen, but Torril knew he had less than a quarter-day before dark, when the hunt would begin in earnest. He would do well to find shelter before then. He glanced up at the greyness, troubled by the thought of a storm, and hurried on.
In a lace-curtained window a small, flat-faced dog sat on a cushion. Its eyes watered. It was staring at Shade.
Where are trees? Torril asked.
Downhill, the dog answered. Cat there—careful.
Cat’s a friend. Many thanks.
The dog opened its short muzzle to bark as they passed. The window-glass muted the sound. A circle of mist appeared before the dog’s face, then faded.
The next cross-street sloped downward and Torril turned that way, scenting grass on the cold breeze. His steps quickened. He had not seen a free growing thing since leaving home that morning, and after the rattling train ride and the noise of this man-city he craved peace. Shade scampered ahead toward a small park—a haven—at the foot of the hill, and Torril had to force himself not to run after.
Trees, their green leaves singed with yellow, whispered welcome. Autumn was coming, and summer things would soon slumber. Torril stepped onto the grass and sighed as its aliveness tingled at him through his boots. He walked straight to an old oak and laid his hands on the rough bark, felt its sleepy strength flowing into him, closed his eyes.
The tree’s glow washed through him slowly. He drifted as if under a sea of golden warmth, drinking in renewal, peace, life. Then through the depths a sound came to him, distorted; a cry. Reluctantly he took his hands from the trunk, stepped back, blinked his eyes open. The cry became clearer. A human child, sitting on the ground near a bench where two women chatted. Young enough to hear; Torril touched its mind gently.
Torril glimpsed bright colored triangles in the infant’s mind. The child stopped wailing and looked straight at him, empty-handed, hopeful.
Here. Bushes. I smell mice.
Find this, Torril asked, sending the toy’s image to the cat.
With gentle urging, Shade abandoned his hunt and went to a holly bush near the human child. Rustles followed; a many-colored ball rolled out toward the child, who grabbed it tight.
One of the women looked up. Torril faded close to the tree trunk, cloaking himself in rustle-green breeze.
“Ba!” cried the child, pointing at him and beating the toy with its other hand. The woman looked toward Torril and tree, saw only tree, and picked up the child.
Torril smiled to himself, turning away. So far from his own people, it was good to have helped a small one. His race bred slowly, their numbers diminishing as the mortals’ increased. With every forest cleared to make way for farms or towns it grew harder for his kind to survive. His own sister—Tana, the youngest—had recently died in childbirth.
Tana. Lightning and terror; a pale face streaked with rain and tears. The memory swept all pleasure from him, cold anger filling its stead. He became aware of the man-city’s towers fringing the park. With a shiver he moved on, away from the women and the child, deeper into the park toward a small cluster of trees that might shelter him until dark.
A pathway led past the little grove; willows and ash, grouped to form a pretty backdrop for a small pond. They had gone untrimmed a while, the willows dangling long trails of leaves into the water. Small shrubs at their feet offered a few last blossoms to grace the harvest season. Torril left the path and entered the tiny forest, inhaling deeply of the green smells.
Shield me? he asked.
A swell of well-being answered him. The green, growing things of the world had no words, nor clear-shaped thoughts. Feelings were their language. He had not realized how sharply he would miss them until he’d left his forest home. His hand went to the band of white cloth at his brow; the kind hunter’s badge. Not until he had completed the task he’d sworn to would he remove it or return home. A kind hunter’s oath set him apart from his people. Killing was not their way, yet killing was sometimes necessary, and he had chosen to seek this kill on behalf of his kin.
Shade burst from beneath dark, glossy leaves, a tiny mouse in his jaws. Fierce eyes glowed then vanished, grey tail twitched welcome. Torril sat on the first thin layer of fallen leaves beneath an ash, and took bread and fruit from the pouch at his waist. His sister Alia had made the bread that morning, and handed it to him in silence. No one spoke to a kind hunter; he stood outside the circle of his people, apart from his kin, until his task was finished.
The bread tasted good. The apples were still tree-crisp; he cut them into slices with the small knife he wore at his waist. A fierce little tooth, that knife. He had traded a quiverful of his best arrows to have Yoren dip it in molten silver. Its edge was not quite so keen since, but would deliver a more bitter sting to his prey.
He finished his meal, cleaned the knife, and leaned back against the ash. Around him the grove’s strength glowed softly, calming him. He opened his case. Bow and quiver were ready in a few moments. He laid them across his lap, leaned his head back, and inhaled sleep with the musty dry scent of the leaves.
Darkness clung in sharp corners formed by the buildings of the street. Tall man-houses, squared-off blocks built of smaller blocks, marched in straight lines as far as Torril could see. Here and there a small tree or bush, imprisoned in a man-made pot, formed a beacon of life in the bleakness. Shade roamed near, questing for game in the shadows. Torril listened to his thoughts, ready to interpose questions before the cat made his kill.
Torril’s quarry was here, that was certain. Shreds of rumor led to this dark section of the town, always the thoughts tinged with fear. Though Torril had never sighted his prey, there was no question about the creature’s nature. Terror and blood by night were the trademarks of his kind, and these things echoed in the minds of the small creatures of the city, rippling outward from this district. Torril listened to their wisps of thought, some nearer, some stronger and more distant, a murmuring stream.
He chanced upon a hollow in the flow—a curious calm—and stopped to listen. No such eddy would ever occur in the life-filled forest. That was the trouble with forests. Too many layers on layers of living things. In a man-city it was easier for a hunter to isolate his prey, to control it, to. . . .
Realization, revulsion, a moment’s touch of hunger and hate. Torril wrenched his mind free and shut away all thoughts, reaching out a hand to steady himself, finding cold stone. The creature had sensed him, perhaps knew now he was hunted. Torril felt the ghost-touch of a powerful mind questing, seeking him. He sat at the foot of a building, willing the thoughts to flow past.
A bump against his shin. Reach out a hand to stroke warm fur. Shade mewed a query, and Torril opened his mind enough to hear the cat.
Go now? Go home?
Bad thing near.
Eyes open, the world retreated into grey and brown blocks once more. Torril got to his feet, shook off dark feelings and started on, deeper into the heart of the man-city. Shade did not roam far ahead now, but clung to Torril’s ankles. Their way took them down narrower streets, not as well-kept, not well-lit. Keen eyes in the dark caught tiny movements in the shadows; Torril queried briefly, sensed a rat’s fear of Shade.
A skitter and the rat was gone. Shade made no move to follow but stayed close, eyes wide, fur fluffed and angry. Torril slid an arrow from his quiver and set it noiselessly against the bowstring, calling the shadows to cloak him. Shadows of stone and brick were less accommodating than forest shadows; it took an effort to bend them to his will.
Tana, he thought, seeing her weary, rain-soaked form stumbling toward him through the woods, weeping with joy and sorrow. For her sake he would do this, kill one of the creatures who’d caught her, enthralled her, defiled her. A life for a life; that was the kind hunter’s oath.
Breathing too fast. Torril focused on clearing his mind, on silence, on hearing and seeing. The pavement was damp now; a moist night. Tang of blood on the heavy air, fighting the city smells. Shade growled soft and low, and fell back behind Torril’s feet.
The hunters turned down a street lit by strange colors—red and orange and the brilliant pinks of summer flowers—glowing unnaturally in windows and over doorways. For all their weird illumination the street was still dim. Though the night was more than half gone, mortals strolled the walks or stood in clumps at corners here, restless and sullen-looking, the lost or becoming-lost. Torril held his bow as close as he could and wrestled the shadows to conceal him, knowing he could not continue so for long. The effort was costing him some of his alertness, and it was Shade’s hiss that brought his attention to two figures disappearing around a corner a short way ahead; a male—tall and dark, somewhat slender—preceding a ginger-haired female in high boots and a short skirt. They seemed clouded by shadows; a skill Torril’s folk shared with the nightwalkers.
His scalp tingled. This was his quarry. How much better it would be to meet him in a forest glen instead of this dead city. But of course, the creature knew that; it was part of the reason nightwalkers tended to live in the cities of men.
Torril saw cat-shelter behind a discarded box. He flashed the image to Shade and told him to wait there, then crossed the street alone, following the nightwalker and his victim. Down an alley, dim and still, each step that brought him closer to his quarry weighing on him.
To kill a being of high intelligence was wrong. That was the rule he’d been taught, and, in part, it was the kind hunter’s justification, for the nightwalkers had no such philosophy and caused great destruction among the world’s thinking races. Yet this did not ease the trouble in Torril’s mind. Was he not now, in his quest to slay this creature, sunk to his own level?
Tana. She would be avenged. A life for a life, or his kind would be overrun. The blood-seekers preyed on mortals as food, and on the elven kindred—There.
In a dark doorway; the beast was toying with his prey. The ginger-haired female stood over the lean form reclined on a clutter of rubbish. A nightwalker’s eyes could mesmerize his prey into performing any unnatural act. Avoid the eyes, Tana had whispered to him, her cold hands gripping his shoulders, rain dripping from his hair onto her cheek.
He let go his cloak of shadows and silently nocked his arrow; pure oak, sharpened and hardened in the fire of his hatred. Move aside, woman, he thought, though only to himself. The nightwalker must not hear him.
She did not move aside but leaned closer instead, straddling her companion, bending her head to his. Torril surpressed his frustration and stepped out, seeking a clear shot. The dark-haired man moaned, a sound which lit acid flames in Torril’s heart.
A plish—soft boot at the edge of an unnoticed puddle—betrayed by his own inattention. Furious with himself, Torril raised his bow for one desperate shot as the woman looked up at him.
Blood on her lips! On her lips! Eyes of ice stabbed even as he flung himself away. The arrow clattered on the pavement behind him.
Yes, he must stop—all would be well if he stopped—the feeling filled his whole being, yet he ran on. Away from the command, from the desire to submit, from terror; back toward the garish lights and the mortals.
Hurt? Torril hurt?
He did not pause to look for Shade. The cat was in no danger, or not near so much as Torril. As he distanced himself from the nightwalker his senses returned. Mortals stared, some called out words unclear, unimportant. The quiver bounced crazily at his hip, arrows rattling as he ran through the streets, not bothering to hide, always seeking the brighter lights that he knew his enemy would shun. The huntress would not wish to spook her herd; he would be safe among them for now.
With fire in his throat he stopped at last, leaning against comfortless stone, gasping and shaking. A clay pot at the foot of stone steps held a young tree captive; he grasped the slender trunk and drank its small life in a heartbeat, then grieved. He had never before consumed a tree’s life. Bad fortune.
When he returned home he would plant a sapling in its stead. When he returned home. Easy to say, but not so simple to achieve. He must first kill the nightwalker, and the nightwalker was a female, and that changed everything.
Tana. Lend me your strength, sister.
This was not the creature who had captured Tana, tormented her, caused her death. No matter; a life for a life was the oath, and it was hard enough to hunt a nightwalker without inquiring its identity. He would kill this female because she was at hand, and because he must or be doomed himself.
“Hey! What are you doing there?”
Torril came out of his thoughts with a start, and found himself leaning against the steps with one hand around the dead tree’s trunk and the other gripping his bow stone-hard. A human male in dark clothing, with badges and weapons of office adorning his person, was speaking at him angrily. Torril let go the tree and backed away, hiding his bow in shadow. The mortal took a step toward him, then Shade ran between them, purring and stropping against Torril’s legs. He reached down to scratch the cat, watching the mortal from the corner of his eye. The man seemed to relax. While Shade flirted with the mortal, coaxing him to bend and pet, Torril slipped into shadow and away.
Down an alley, over a fence, back in darkness. Deep breath of freedom. He needed to replenish his energy before he could finish this hunt. He needed green, but he dared not open his mind to inquire where to find a mass of trees, for he was both hunter and hunted now.
He found his way into a neighborhood of tall houses with small gardens, separated from the street by a low wall of bricks. Torril stepped over it into a patch of sanctuary; vines just starting to flame with autumn, clumps of tame flowers, and evergreen bushes shorn to peculiar shapes. He sank to the ground, leaned against the vine-covered wall—eyes nearly closed but watchful lest the mortals behind their stone blocks should wake—and caressed leaves with either hand, drinking deeply of the garden’s strength, yet not too deeply. Control; that was the difference between the nightwalkers and his people. Control and compassion. He would kill no plant, waste no life. He took only what each could spare, reaching through the soil beneath him to the roots of the neighboring gardens.
A shudder passed through him as he slowly let go the tension that gripped at his shoulders. Shade joined him with a rustle and thump, flicked his tail in greeting, and padded to a bush to explore its smells.
The nightwalker was searching for him, Torril knew. Fear prickled up his arms as he thought of facing her again. Avoid the eyes. Yes, but what if she chose not to mesmerize him, merely to kill? Immortals still bled; she could strike from behind, and consume his life in moments.
Pray that she does, if she catches you.
Tana had not been so lucky. Nearly a year had gone by from the time she was taken until her escape. She had been given up for lost by her kindred, and then one morning, early, in the midst of a howling rainstorm—
Torril pushed himself to his feet. No rest, not until she was avenged. His kin had spent a year in hell. He would waste no more darkness.
Street emptied into silent street. The gardens left behind, there was no more life around him, only the dark, dead eyes of the mortals’ dwellings. Shade followed in silent resignation. Ahead at a crossing, a single tree, gnarled and scant of leaves. A bird sat upon a twisted branch, and Torril dared a query.
His answer was a raw squawk as the bird took wing. It cried again, circling, then dropped toward him. Shade’s hiss came as one with his realization—too late, both—she transformed as she fell toward him, naked and horrible.
Eyes! Torril rolled aside, scraping a knee against the hard street, flinging up his bow arm to ward her off. He heard the wood splinter as his arm was struck painfully to the ground, the nightwalker’s weight atop it. Free hand to his waist for the knife; a slash, a hiss, and the weight was gone. He staggered up, keeping his gaze away from her face, and wound up staring at pale breasts instead. Ice-tipped, yet they stirred something in him. Her body was firm, her waist slender, hips a welcoming bowl. She raised a bleeding hand to lick the cut he’d given her, and his eyes flicked to her face before he could check them, glimpsing a smile. He tore his attention away and looked at the knife in his hand; cold silver, harsh under the dim chemical lights of the mortals’ city.
She’s not attacking.
The thought didn’t comfort him. The blade in his hand began trembling. She smelled good.
The broken bow dropped to the ground. She stepped over it, bare white feet on rough pavement. He could hear her breath, she was that near.
You’re a pretty one.
Her thoughts were too strong to be blocked. Torril aimed a blow with the knife and watched in horror as his hand gently yielded up the blade to his enemy instead. She turned it this way and that in the light, sending glints off the blade, then dropped it on the ground.
Look at me.
With all his being, Torril resisted. He kept his eyes on the ground, saw her place a dainty foot between his boots. Lustful imaginings flowed through his unwilling mind and aroused an urgent response from his body. He strove to move his feet, her soft hissing laughter mocking him, her hunger washing through his thoughts, tainting them. How wonderful it would feel to take her, here, now, under the black night while the stupid mortals slept in their dead houses. How delightful to become hers, to hunt no more and care no more, to live only for their mutual pleasure, days, weeks, years of it. She was beautiful, she was strong, she would bear strong children.
Not by me!
In desperation he wrenched a foot away from the pavement. He stumbled backward, nearly falling, a hand thumping into his quiver and his back coming up against something hard.
The tree. With a wordless cry he sucked its strength—all of it, years of growth, season on season of strength—and in one vicious thrust repulsed the nightwalker’s mind.
His hand drew an arrow and he flung himself forward, stabbing up beneath her ribs with the slender oak shaft, feeling it crack as her shriek filled his senses, wild elation sweeping through him. Deeper, deeper he pushed the broken arrow through the blood that slickened his hand. She clung to him, howling, weakening, falling.
He let go the arrow. No more than two handspans protruded from her body, heaving as she gasped her last breaths. He looked in her eyes then. Beautiful, dark eyes; they had no more power to control him. They accused him instead, and he knew he would remember them always. That was the price of his oath.
The life faded from her face. She no longer saw him, no longer was something to fear. Death drew a dull film over her eyes.
Torril’s senses returned all at once; he felt the coldness of the predawn air in his lungs as he breathed sharp and fast, heard the dry rustle of dead leaves overhead, smelled blood. He picked up the knife, reached down and gathered the nightwalker’s ginger hair in one hand, and severed it from her head with one stroke. He faced the hoary tree whose life had saved him—the tree the nightwalker had perched in to hunt him—and saw its leaves had turned paper-white. He draped the tresses over its branches; at dawn they would crumble into ash and blow away along with the nightwalker’s body, leaving no trace of her existence.
He looked down at her again; a pale, broken girl, slim like an elf-maid, reminding him uncannily of Tana in her funeral-boat. He’d stood in the rain and watched the river take his sister and her child—the child Tana had killed with her own hand—the infant got on her by her nightwalker captor. Slaying it had been her last act before death claimed her, that stormy dawn.
No hint of rain now. He kicked gently at the nightwalker’s body with a booted toe. He had not wanted to hunt—and had dreaded killing—one of his own kind, however distantly related. They were more alike than he’d realized, perhaps. In the end, he had enjoyed it.
Shade came out of the shadows, padded silently to within an arm’s length of the nightwalker’s body and sniffed the air, then hissed softly.
Bad thing. Go home now?
Torril pulled the white band from his brow and dropped it beside the pale body.
“Kind Hunter” Copyright ©1997, 2008 by Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
edited by Phyllis Irene Radford
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-0-98284-402-1