The Wilds' Protector
She was a whisper among the leaves as she ghosted to the edge of the clearing.
Leiyn's heart drummed on her ribs. Her muscles burned as they worked to keep her movements silent, her figure small and unseen. Her natural senses were awake and keen, taking in the nuances of the forest noises. Aspen branches rustling. Distant birds singing. The stench of slain prey. The stiff breeze that carried the smell to her and obscured her own from the creature ahead.
Leiyn stared at the beast in the clearing as it feasted on a deer. A thorned lion, Tadeo had called it, and Leiyn judged it an apt name. Black spines bristled around its neck, sharp as any porcupine's, but large enough to gore a man. They marked it as male, for the females only had thorns along their back.
The rest of the creature was no less impressive. His body stretched longer than a human's and was built with powerful muscles evident beneath a short, orange coat. When he looked up after ripping free a fresh bite of flesh, his amber eyes seemed to possess a sharp intelligence. Each of the lion's massive paws were tipped with sharp claws. Even his flicking tail was a weapon, smaller spines fanning out from the end of it.
Here was a sight few in the world could claim to see, even among her fellow rangers. Won't Isla be jealous. Leiyn smirked as she anticipated her friend's expression.
Her hand itched to capture in meticulous lines the impressive beast standing not twenty strides before her. But she'd left her charcoal pen and hidebound journal back with her horse. Now was not the time for idle hobbies.
Still, she committed every detail to memory while she waited for Tadeo's signal.
Their plan was simple. As thorned lions were a danger to any who happened across them, it was necessary to drive the beast back into the mountains. Fortunately, Tadeo, lodgemaster to the rangers, had done this duty once before, and had learned from the previous lodgemaster that thorned lions were particularly averse to the scent of fennel. A couple of torches smoking with fennel might drive a predator such as this safely away from the civilized lands of the Tricolonies and back into its native territory.
Presently, Leiyn's torch was slung over her shoulder. Before they could enact their plan, they had to wait for the lion to eat his fill. Move too soon, and he would defend his kill to the death. So, she held her longbow instead, an arrow nocked and ready in case something went wrong and the lion sensed them.
For the moment, however, all was proceeding to plan.
She glanced into the brush to her left. Somewhere among the leaves, Tadeo waited as she did. Even without seeing him, she would know when it was time by his lit torch.
Patience is a hunter's greatest gift, the lodgemaster would often say. Unfortunately, in Leiyn, patience ran in short supply.
She restrained herself as the lion took a bite, chewed, laid down, then rose and took another bite. Light was bleeding from the sky as afternoon waned into evening. Hunger gnawed at her belly. Still, Leiyn didn't make any unnecessary movement. Long had she grown used to the privations of her profession, and she knew better than to risk exposing herself for a little relief.
Then her nose caught a whiff of something that stiffened her spine.
Leiyn tilted her head back and breathed in, slowly and fully. The odor was unmistakable, reeking of cadavers long since spoiled. It was how a slain deer would smell in a week or two, but fresh as it was, there could only be one other source.
She clenched her jaw as she slowly looked around the woods behind her. Tusked jackals were one of the many dangers in the Titan Wilds. Aggressive and violent, they hunted in packs that could take down any beast or human they set their minds to and would ravage the homesteads in the Titan Wilds as well as the Lodge until they were put down. In her five years as a ranger, she'd contended with them twice and always came away with a new scar.
There was no driving jackals away with herb and torch. Arrows and knives were the only deterrence they understood.
The thorned lion seemed to notice the jackals, for he, too, came alert. His jowls drew back, revealing bloody fangs. As if they knew they'd been detected, the jackals sounded their eerie howls. The din came from the north beyond the lion, though nearer with each passing moment.
She didn't have to wait long. They bounded over the hill's crest, yapping and snarling, their eyes wide with bloodlust. Their tusks curled from their mouths like a boar's. Ears, ragged and torn from dozens of battles, twitched atop their heads. Bits of the carrion, in which they liked to roll for their characteristic stench, clung to their black and gray coats. There were dozens of them, a score at least, and by their scrawny torsos, they were starved for their next meal.
Her skin prickled into gooseflesh. Though every creature had a right to eat, these were a scourge upon the land. They couldn't be allowed to roam free.
A branch snapped.
Leiyn froze. The sound had come from her left. Tadeo. She wanted to spit curses, but silence was more important than ever, for she wasn't alone in noticing the noise. The tusked jackals had stopped to stare at the patch of forest where the lodgemaster hid. She and her mentor had disguised themselves well, but all it would take was the interest of one to alert the others.
She waited a breath, then two, daring to hope they would be preoccupied by the predator before them. One jabbered, then two more.
The three began to pad cautiously down the hill, heading in Tadeo's direction.
She moved by instinct, setting down the torch and reaching slowly for her quiver so as to not draw any eyes. There was no conscious decision.
Death was the least she would risk for Tadeo.
The arrow hummed as Leiyn drew it from the quiver at her hip. Nocking it, she set it to her anchoring hand against the nicked ash of her longbow. The three jackals were halfway down the hill, while the others still ringed the lion, waiting for the violence to begin.
Leiyn bared her teeth as she rose to her feet. In one smooth motion, she drew back the bowstring.
Then she loosed.