The man stood in the damp underground, fumbling a small knife between both hands. He braced himself against a growing draught. Outside it was night already; he’d been standing there for hours. But his eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the suffocating darkness, and now and then his senses tricked him, showing things that weren’t there.
“Striker?” he whispered. He was sure he could hear descending footsteps far up ahead. Or was it the sound of water droplets on stone?
He continued to run his fingers over the carved hilt of the knife in his hands, tracing the etchings and pricking his fingertips on its sharp edges. He knew from having seen the knife earlier under the open sky that the lines and points formed a bear with bared fangs, sculpted into the wood with playful precision. In the darkness, it felt like anything. But it focused his mind elsewhere other than the pitch-black air around him.
“Do you have it?” all of a sudden a voice spoke above him. He would have screamed, but the loudness of the question was so sudden his throat tied into a knot. He knew the towering figure that the voice belonged to. In the dark he envisioned two ruthless eyes staring at him from within the hood of a dark blue cloak.
“Striker.” He squeaked, and handed the knife to an extended hand, illuminated lightly by a ring of pure moonstone.
“Well?” said Striker.
He could only mumble a reply, all too aware of his now empty hands. So he brought them up to his robes, creasing and folding the linen between his fingers.
“Mearon!” Striker’s patience was growing thin, and his voice dripped with venomous clarity, “Is it — or is it not — what we believe?”
“Yes, yes…” Mearon groaned. Hearing his name was like a painful summons to reality. “The knife. This knife has been used by one struck by the moon. Imbued with the slightest drop of its power. Who’s is it?” he gulped, “Is it?-”
Striker made a sound Mearon could only interpret as silencing, and neither of them said anything else. All that followed was the receding pitter-patter of feet on shallow water.
“I want eyes on the girl at all times. When the moment is right, we cannot let her slip away.” Though his words were for someone else, Striker’s voice carried back with such precision that Mearon’s heart sank to the grime and soot cobblestones under his feet. He almost dared to ask who this girl was, but caught himself. That would mean crossing a line. The knowledge was no longer meant for him, he’d lost that privilege long ago. But even so, an ice-cold guilt raked at his heart. They'd waited for this chance since the dawn of this age, but that it would collapse upon an innocent.
“Yes, sir.” Said another and a sudden shift and stomp of a heavy boot snapped through the dark like thunder. It was the last thing Mearon heard. He was left once again to shiver alone in the silent darkness.
It was so quiet you could almost hear the sun falling behind the brown-leaved trees. Something was about to happen, and everything from the birds to the dribbles of dew upon the shrubs held their breath.
All except for Raika, she knew well what was about to happen. After all, she was the one who had set it up.
She sat coolly, crouched behind an old fallen tree, a crawling den of maggots within. The bark was cracked and splintered from the humid air and damp forest ground, rotten and leaking, its lifeblood drawn out in thin lines down its rugged side. She tried not to focus on it and revised the positions of the traps she had set instead as they lay dotted around the opening she’d chosen. Because raked through the mud beside where she crouched was the paw-print of the bear she’d been hunting for days.
It reassured her that she’d chosen well, as well as the timing. The print was still warm when she arrived and pointed upwind. There’d be no trace of her scent for the bear to know of her presence when it doubled back and returned to the fallen log.
Though it was unusual for a bear to retrace its steps, she knew that this one would. Most bears prefer to wander indefinitely, covering as much space as possible and stopping for food and sleep alone. There was only one reason for a bear to turn around and head back to where it came from. And that was if something led it there.
With a flutter of wings, the silence of the forest broke. A flock of thrushes flew across the skyline, their shadows shimmering over the fallen leaves.
A rustle in the undergrowth was what had alarmed them and sent them squawking, and the disturbance still continued, moving closer. Hearing the sound and making sure of its direction, Raika took out her axe and loosened the knife within its scabbard — without it, she’d have no chance.
The sound of beating wings had hardly died down when a wolf came streaming through the brush. Its grey fur bristled, revealing hints of russet down every strand. Its movements were supple as morning mist. It didn’t make a sound. But the rustle continued on behind it, growing louder and crackling through the forest, yet there was no reason to say that the wolf was at all fazed by whatever was chasing it. Instead, it answered Raika’s half-obscured glance knowingly, its blue eyes meeting hers for a second before it turned back to face the direction from which it came.
The sound of crushed leaves morphed into pounding paws as the beast drew closer. Raika heard claws cracking rocks and wood strewn upon the forest floor, but what she wanted to hear was the grating steel of a trap snapping shut. The beast had been lucky with its footing so far. It laid waste to everything in its way as it thundered on, intent on catching the canine that had offended its solitary journey.
With a leap, the wolf dodged to the side. The bear crashed through the trees. Large as a boulder and solid as an aged oak, its undiluted fury engulfed everything. It thrashed left and right with mighty paws as big as the wolf’s head. With a mere tap, it would crush its skull, its finger-like claws as deadly as sabres. Yet the wolf seemed entirely undisturbed by the possibility, and effortlessly avoided the bear with confident agility.
It never stopped moving, its legs working in unison to avoid both its adversary and the glints of metal traps under the sun. Its body kept perfect balance as it slipped in and out of the bear's reach, never fully in danger but constantly a nuisance.
The game of bear and wolf eventually reached a point. As the bear let out a roar so frightening as it set down a paw, and turned its head towards it that for a moment it looked as if it was about to chew at its own leg.
The wolf stopped its dance, and even the trees seemed to quiver in shock.
The bear regained itself fast and lurched forward to grab the canine, but its front left paw stayed stuck in place by the serrated jaws of a steel trap. So it swiped with the right. But the wolf was already at a safe distance, its muzzle seeming to grin in amusement, and its panting was almost like laughter.
Seeing that the bear had got caught in a trap Raika stepped out from behind the rotten log and rushed forward with her axe held high.
She struck down with all her might at the bear’s head, its only vulnerable point, hoping to at least daze the wild animal thrashing wildly. There was no point in striking anywhere else. Not even the serrated spikes lining the jaws of the trap could do much damage. They barely pierced the bear’s skin.
Raika raised her arms for another swing but instead dodged to the side to avoid the bear’s free paw. She could see the dirt and blood caked under the bear’s long nails as they narrowly missed her face. It wasn’t graceful, but she recovered in an instant from the change of momentum and let her arm swing in motion at the bear’s muzzle like a club. The bear tried to avoid the axe by lurching to the side with all its weight, but the weapon met its mark with a satisfying crunch of fracturing bone. But not before the bear had torn its trapped paw free and Raika couldn’t avoid the hit as it struck her with full force, knocking her off her feet and hurtling through the air.
Splinters of tree bark flew as Raika crashed into a tree trunk. Slumping half-dazed on the ground she was still aware of the bear rushing forward to deal the final blow. She fought desperately to get back up on her feet, but it was no use. She was saved a few seconds more as the wolf leapt at once to her defence. It snapped and held firm onto the bear’s hind leg, and though it barely caused any pain it was enough to make the beast turn round. With a yelp the wolf let go, the bear’s jaws entirely closed around its scruff, and it was flung aside like an insolent pup at Raika’s feet.
Bearhunting could never be easy, nor could it ever be safe. You could spend weeks preparing for the hunt and plan every advantage, but a single mistake could — and would — end your life in an instant. Or leave you alive just enough to watch as you’re ripped to shreds. It was more of the latter’s chances that spurred Raika to get up, and the wolf struggled too to get back on its feet as the bear stomped closer. Its head swayed from human to wolf with hungry eyes, undecided on which of them to finish off first.
It chose the wolf.
Fur slowly painted crimson, the canine stood its ground with a snarl and crouched in anticipation as the bear charged closer. The bear was almost right above it now, rising up to its full height and roaring in triumph.
The wolf may be agile enough to make other beasts look the fool, but ultimately the bear was King of the forest. Spittle sprayed from the bear’s muzzle and it gathered its weight to come down upon the canine with one brutal blow.
But instead of crashing down, the bear slumped down to its side with a dreadful gurgle. Its dark, raging eyes dimmed, the hilt of Raika’s throwing knife visible from between its jaws.
The hunt was over. Raika leaned back upon the tree, listening to her heart recede to its normal pace, cherishing the fact that she was alive and unscathed enough to live. Her ankle was sprained, and her back and side were bruised, but these were injuries that healed with time.
After a moment of rest Raika painstakingly dragged herself back onto her feet. She wasn’t quite in a celebratory mood, but the wolf sure was. It had come through with a limp and an open wound upon its scruff, but that would be treatable enough with a poultice. It wagged its tail and jumped to and fro as Raika walked past. She supposed she understood its excitement; the wolf didn’t have to do the heavy lifting.
She approached the bear’s lifeless body as it lay slumped like a fresh grave upon the forest floor. Death seemed to shrink the bear in size, but add to its weight, and it was going to be a challenge to get it back to the village. She tore out her knife buried deep within its jaws. It was a difficult trick, killing a bear with a single flick of a wrist. She didn’t know of any other hunter who could pull it off.
The wolf barked out a short cub-like yap behind her.
She prepared to butcher the bear.