Fate of the Hunters
I was beginning to get used to the cold, thought K’Nan.
As he looked down from the jagged cliffs, the warm winter winds seemed to swirl in every direction. Below him, hundreds of Win-Daji, or hunters, were clustered together at the town exit gates, horses and camels burdened to their limits with food, weapons, and valuables.
In tow were their families, generally just as burdened as their beasts with any household items too valuable to be left behind during the temperate winter season.
The families may all have been the same, so identical were the members of most of them. The wife, the stout, no-nonsense matriarch with the perpetually grim expression, followed by the Halanbi (firstborn son), who was expected to carry a weapon, as well as the Win-Daji, generally tall and thin from wilderness trapping or training thereof, wearing an imperious look and far too eager to begin the journey.
In direct contrast to this look would be that of the Halandi, (other son, literally ‘one who would not inherit’), and his expression of resignation to that of being a servant for the foreseeable future.
In general, the Halandi had quite a few responsibilities, but most of them were related to administration of the family and properties, considered secondary and even shameful to the Win- Daji, so when in the presence of the Halanbi and their fathers and father’s attendmen, there was very little that the Halandi could not feel inferior about.
Any of the other remaining were daughters of the Win-Daji and their servants. As it was through their marriages and breeding that the Hunting Groups created alliances and ultimately advanced through the ranks, the daughters were of great importance. Nonetheless, they kept a discreet distance from these hunters, and the rest of the men as protocol required. It was not unusual to see a daughter of the Win-Daji or the wife of one of the Halandi beaten while being accused of flirting with men from some of the other groups.
At the gates stood several of the town’s bravest and most dependable border guards, checking credentials and questioning families to help them decide whether or not they should join this year’s Equinox Hunt.
The Equinox Hunt was the once-every-ten-moon foray into the chakkha, or jungle, made by only the most celebrated hunters of the Nabii tribe of Numeria. Its primary purpose was to keep the beast population to manageable levels and stop them from foraging into the grasslands but had long ago become a reliable way to create fortunes for some Nabii tribesmen (called merely ‘the Win- Daji’), and their families.
Although wealth and riches beyond all imagination could be found beyond the gates of the chief Nabii citadel, Abir City, if the Win-Daji knew where to look, for most families it was more likely that they would return to the gates destitute, starving, and missing several family members.
K’Nan knew this as well as anyone. He knew he was looking at mostly dead men. Damn men are such fools, he thought. Most of these hunters were already successful enough to provide for their families, own property, perhaps even bribe for themselves a minor position on the council. Success is never satisfying, and in fact, it spurs on the hunger drive for more success.
This time, he thought, things just may turn out differently for them. Why he had decided to lead the Hunt this year was a puzzle even to himself.
He knew better than to rely on the nonsensical rumors that had been trickling out of the wilderness for the last year and a half. Tales of mythical beasts and fearsome fighters attacking the Numerian migrants seemed just that, more myth than reality, except...
Except he’d also dreamt of them for the last several moons of his life. He could probably count the number of peaceful nights he’d slept in that time quite easily if he stopped to think about it. There damned sure hadn’t been many.
How could he sleep? The unimaginable horror of some of the things he’d seen during those dreams wasn’t easy to forget—man-eating beasts, bloodthirsty warriors, and infants dying in the wilderness.
It was this last dream, the one about three infant children that spurred him toward the innermost reaches of the chakkha—the destination of these Equinox Hunters, the Win-Daji.
“Why does it bother you so much?” he said to himself. “It’s just a dream like any other, and those other three are long lost now.”
And yet here he was. All because of a dream.
He shook his head at himself. “When will you finally give up hope?”
The winds started blowing even more briskly now, bringing a mini-sandstorm to the town gates. Instinctively, everyone covered their eyes and faces, through conditioning more than fear.
It was apparent that they were in no danger from sand this far from the wilderness, but hiding from it was a habit both born and bred in them from childbirth. Heat can indeed kill you, but in the desert, you learn to fear the sand much more than the heat.
Luckily for the Win-Daji, the summer had not begun. In the summer, sandstorms morphed from deadly to catastrophic—it was widely known that the one approaching would last for many months and be one of the hottest ever recorded.
The hunter talking with the sentries now was unique enough to catch K’Nan’s interest. This man was tall and pale-skinned (a rarity this far south) with a scar leading from the corner of his left eye to his left ear, a love-kiss from a Deluthian rhino most likely, K’Nan’s imoya, or spirit, told him.
He wore his hair in the traditional Nabii tribesman style, shaved on the sides with a thin strip of hair about two inches high down the middle. On his hip, he carried a crescent sword, very worn and very menacing, and two bows slung carelessly across his back.
Tied around his left thigh was a two-cubic-long dagger with a polished bone handle covered with notches. This man has done some killing, thought K’Nan, and without a doubt not confined it to beasts.
Whatever he was arguing with the sentries about must’ve been important. Gradually all of the other Win-Daji and Halanbi moved closer to them to listen in. Some were nodding and raising their weapons. Every now and then there’d be a little shout of encouragement from the group. Meanwhile, the guards were shaking their heads all the more emphatically.
K’Nan ended his reverie and motioned his two companions, Semri and Semarion, to follow him down the rocky path toward the gates. The steadfast twin brothers hastily complied.
They had fought and hunted with him the better part of the last five moons and were two of the only people he felt he could truly rely on, despite the fact that they were not full-blooded Numerians. So, he’d asked them to accompany him, without telling them the true reason.
What are you so worried about? He asked himself. Aren’t you K’Nan the Savage Slayer, a legend in all three territories of the savannah, defender of the Numerians, the scourge of all Panthia? How many countless men have died under your two-bladed spear, deservedly all?
How many beasts have you saved these wretched villagers from? You’ve dined with tribal chieftains between both seas, shared their spoils, and bedded their daughters. How could a life as full as yours end so quickly? Have you forgotten what the prophetess told you?
And what of your life before that? What about your other identity? Will you ever be able to reclaim that?
Inside he knew none of that mattered. If he could not lead these Win-Daji back safely, he was as good as dead. In this region, all a man has is his reputation, and when that’s gone, they may as well find a comfortably soft place to lie down and die.
As they reached the gates, the shouting began to get even louder. The families were obviously agitated about something, but the more they shouted, the more the guards looked even more resolute.
“It is much too dangerous this season,” said one of the sentries in a dialect called Tandish, which was nothing more than an informal mix of the free warrior tongue of the Nabii and another more formal language known as the Common Tongue, or simply Numerian. “I don’t care how often your people have prepared for the hunt; they don’t go out without a guide.”
The uproar got even more furious, and it seemed inevitable that an altercation would follow. Walking up to the sentries briskly and stepping between them and the angry Win-Daji, K’Nan briefly touched his forehead with his first two fingers, a gesture of salute. It was immediately returned.
“I am their guide for this hunt,” he said loud enough so that all could hear.
Instantly, fifty pairs of eyes turned to him and his entourage.
Scanning the group, he saw five additional men, dressed efficiently in light-toned sabaar (cactus) armor and addax skins, the native dress of those from the outer reaches of the wilderness. All five had a sinewy build, a level of conditioning that could only come from both extreme strength and discipline.
K’Nan noticed it was the man in front of the other four who had the most magnetic presence. He sat rigid and extremely up- right on his ha’mal, a strange feat in itself. A beast native to the driest reaches of the wilderness, a ha’mal is the genetic equivalent of a horse, desert steer, and camel. Very muscular beasts, it was almost impossible to saddle them, meaning the rider generally must lean forward to keep from falling off.
This man’s weapons were all white, made from the densest bone, and polished to a high sheen.
K’Nan was mostly conscious of the man’s eyes. They set deeper inside his skull than normal and were dark and unreadable. But there was unmistakable energy coming from them, making a person feel compelled to look away. With his black coarsely braided hair speckled with gray lending him a distinguished and severe look, he appeared more weathered than old.
There was an air of arrogance about him, his weapons, and even his ha’mal, which made him all the more interesting. The Win-Daji appreciated seeing confidence and pride in a man’s demeanor above all else. There was a famous Numerian proverb, Konto hakanti kunye themba, which translated meant, “Below average spear combined with above average confidence can be invincible.” This hunter seemed to embody that saying.
After a few seconds, that very same hunter stepped forward. “We are all honored that you would offer your services, warrior,” he said a bit hesitantly, “but we have never met before, and you’ve never been employed by our group in the past. Is that correct?”
“This is correct,” said K’Nan. “No Win-Daji have ever employed myself or my two associates, and we have never guided the Nabii through the Equinox Hunt before.” Upon hearing this, a low murmur quickly spread throughout the group, and the lead hunter shook his head over and over.
“This will not do, brave sir. Although it may seem to outsiders that the Nabii would accept almost any hero from the outer territories to act as our guide, we cannot risk your life or the lives of our families. Considering your lack of experience leading these expeditions, it’s most likely that you’d wind up getting us lost or even killed.”
K’Nan bristled at this covertly disrespectful rejection. When I was trampling the enemies of Lord Toloron under my spear, you were probably stuck in a sand shelter somewhere, beating your women and binging on wine, so who the hell are you to question me?
He responded stiffly, “As the saying goes, ‘will the place you live one day become a landmark or a ruin?’ It seems the world-famous Win-Daji of the Nabii want to gain wealth and glory, yet do so without taking any risks at all, or am I mistaken?”
The hunter also seemed to sense he’d gone too far. He paused, then continued thoughtfully, “No disrespect meant, Numerian. Although we must decline your offer, we would never be so inconsiderate as to not compensate you for meeting us at the rally point. Gisad!”
He shouted toward some younger men about fifty en-yawo away. An en-yawo was a Numerian unit of distance measurement roughly the equivalent of a foot. One of them, obviously Halandi of the lead hunter, came forward with a purse and offered it to K’Nan.
Annoyed at the suggestion that he would take money for a job not completed, K’Nan quickly waved the boy away. The Halandi boy, now completely confused, looked back at him, then at the lead hunter, unsure of what to do.
The lead hunter cleared his throat.
“A true hero with principles, indeed. May we have the honor of knowing the brave hero’s name, so future generations of the Win-Daji will know to whom they are indebted?” He said this with mock gravitas, and it seemed obvious to K’Nan that he and the other Nabii tribal leaders thought he was insane. For one, he refused payment—and hunt guides were not known for being particularly wealthy, even the busiest ones.
Secondly, he acted to them as if guiding the most dangerous hunt in the last few hundred moons was no more difficult than deciding what to have for your morning meal.
“I am K’Nan Urmandu. Perhaps you have heard my humble name once or twice during your journeys. Although it’s true that I’ve never participated in a hunt, I’ve lived a large part of my life in the chakka, and there’s nothing new I can be shown there.” He hoped that was true. “I wish to lead your Hunt this year, but if there is someone who wants to formally oppose me, please let him make his presence known.”
At the mention of his name, every man, woman, and child gasped. Everyone in the savannah had heard of the exploits and heroism of the fabled warrior from Urmandu—K’Nan the Savage Slayer.
In the chakkha, he killed an adult alnamaa (Black Panther) with only a spear and addaxx shield.
That was at age seven.
He was well known to be adept with a spear, flawless with his bow, and damn near unbeatable in a bare-handed fight. He’d famously trapped and killed many legendary beasts, including the wilderness chim’ra and a couple of fifty-rod gilasand dragons.
All of these things he did more for the safety of the tribesmen and settlers in the wilderness than for fame or glory. As always after he’d completed some monumental feat, he would disappear, and his name would fade into obscurity, at least for a while.
Adding to his already mythical legend, it was rumored that K’Nan could take the shape of any animal found in the chakkha, desert, or grasslands. Sometimes he could become a leopard, sometimes a large rhino—and these were all thought to be just a tiny part of his legendary abilities.
The entire hunt was amazed that he was now facing them, living and breathing. Looks of disbelief were all around him until one of the children spoke up. It was obvious he wanted to believe he was really K’Nan the Savage Slayer. “But...but K’Nan bai-hei (honorable brother) is three rods tall!!! Plus, he always travels with a sand serpent...he...”
K’Nan was amazed. All of these Win-Daji here, and the only one with the guts to question him was one of their slave boys. His initial annoyance quickly subsided to sympathy as his eyes took in the boy’s dirty hair, ragged clothing, and bare feet, at the same time noticing his sturdy and tall build. What a waste, he thought.
“Son,” said K’Nan patiently “have you ever actually seen a Numerian sand serpent?” The boy blinked, a bit embarrassed and afraid to look him in the eye, something K’Nan despised, realizing it was a habit born from his status as a captive.
“No,” the boy admitted.
“Fearsome beasts they are, as ferocious as all the legends say. Faster than the wind, and their breath burns white and hotter than the hottest fire you’ve ever seen or felt. But not the biggest beasts in the world, that’s for certain. No man three rods tall would be able to sit on even the strongest of them, and neither would you.” He chuckled inwardly as he told the kid this. It always amused him to see how exponentially these useless legends always grew.
The boy looked around him for help, but none was forthcoming.
K’Nan...would not...” His voice trailed away. He was out of reasons to doubt, yet still persisted. K’Nan sighed. Had it been so long since he’d been around others that no one was able to recognize him by bearing or look?
“Take a look at this, boy.” Reaching back over his shoulder, he slid his magnificent ivory sword out of his scabbard and pointed the handle toward the lad.
Everything stopped. Only the wind bouncing off of the grayish-red cliffs could now be heard. As they all looked at his weapon, they instantly recognized it; a silver handle engraved flawlessly in the shape of an angry pachyderm. The savage white elephant perched and waiting to strike, its eyes made from green emeralds.
Amnesia. Named such by the High King Toloron himself, the blade was given to K’Nan after the second battle of the Dunes, a battle in which they had been on opposing sides.
The entrance to the village was deathly quiet.
Eyes as wide as the plateau itself, the boy reached forward to touch the blade with his left hand. K’Nan seemed to freeze for a moment, then quickly grabbed the boy’s wrist and turned it to him, staring intently for what seemed like minutes before switching his gaze to the boy’s eyes, mindless of the others around him.
“So?” K’Nan said briskly, dropping the boy’s wrist and unceremoniously shoving the sword back into the scabbard. “Shall we be off then? Win-Daji and Halanbi to the right, left, and rear, scouts to the front with me, families and servants in the midst. We’ll follow the Taranzi trail due northwest before reaching the wilderness.”
He hoped that no one who listened carefully to his orders might have detected a slight quiver in his tone, a sense of urgency in his words.
Turning to Semri and Semarion, he gave them several urgent instructions in one of the native dry region dialects, which none of the hunters understood. Initially appearing puzzled, they soon raced on their brown spotted stallions to form the vanguard out of view.
The Win-Daji and their families hurried to form up, all of them had wanted to talk more to the Slayer and find out more about him, to hear his stories, ask about his weapons and his beast, but he’d given them no chance.
The hunting party was briefly held up by the ridiculously slow crossing of an elderly man, looking at least about ninety moons of age. His hair was unkempt and filthy, his clothes soiled with excrement, and his feet bare.
Quite deliberately, he made his way toward the other side of the street. As he came into view, everyone noticed with amazement that the bag over his right shoulder had gold sequins sewn into the fabric, as well as precious gems embedded around the handle. It appeared to be expensive beyond measure.
What on Earth was this old, decrepit elder doing with such a bag?
It took about three hours for the bulk of the Win-Daji to steer their motley caravan through the massive iron gates, which were still manned by another thirty sentries, toward the jagged cliffs.
Altogether their party covered an area of about two hundred square en-yawo, not so large as to make it cumbersome to move, though the small children and animals slowed down their progress quite a bit.
It wasn’t till midday that they made their way past all of the jagged cliffs to the only reliable avenue of travel to the outskirts of the wilderness.
As everyone stopped in the plateau to drink water and remove sand from their faces and clothes, K’Nan approached the lead party on foot. “Boy,” he asked the young lad of about twelve moons, the one who’d questioned him earlier, “how would you like to ride on my left for the first part of the journey?”
Instantly, the boy jumped to his feet, his excitement lending him an impressive burst of energy. He made to run toward K’Nan but suddenly stopped and glanced back at the hunter and Halanbi of his party. They glanced at him briefly, then spoke to the boy sharply in Tandish.
Eyes downcast, he began to walk back to the party. “Is something wrong?” K’Nan asked the hunter in Tandish. “Is this boy not free to travel as he chooses, even at his age?”
The hunter glared at him. “This boy is my personal property from combat spoils since before he was five moons old. By law, I don’t have to release him into anyone’s custody.” The hunter was respectful but firm.
“Are you afraid the child will run? Have you not been a good master, sir?” he asked the hunter, who bristled.
“A good master is still, after all, a master,” was the man’s only reply.
Hearing this, K’Nan’s eyes blazed murderously, causing the hunter to shift his weight back almost imperceptibly.
K’Nan spoke to him again, a bit more gently this time. “Sir, I take complete responsibility for this boy as your property. I will not let him leave this party as long as you’re under my charge— that I swear to you.”
Eyes slightly wide, the hunter nodded once to K’Nan and once to the boy and stumbled back to his own mount. K’Nan watched, emotionless, as the boy ran over to his horse and led it to K’Nan’s tha’mal.
Once the caravan began moving, the boy looked back nervous- ly as if to see whether or not his hunter or Halanbi had changed their minds, only to see that they remained in their normal position at the head of the Hunt.
Excitedly, he turned to K’Nan. Though it didn’t mean much in the plateau, once in the wilderness, any distance of greater than a hundred en-yawo would be like being on the other side of the ocean.
“Tell me, sir! What...”
“Silence,” K’Nan said harshly, turning his eyes directly ahead. Stunned, the boy wondered what he could have possibly done to anger the Slayer. Of all the dreams he’d had the most growing up in the drylands, next to his master being killed, and his master granting him his freedom, by far the next most frequent dream was him meeting the famous K’Nan and becoming a great warrior.
Now he’d finally met his idol, the man he’d heard stories about and wanted to emulate since he could remember.
Of course, the other kids in the Win-Daji families, the ones who were not slaves, had quickly dispelled any such notions that he would ever amount to anything. “Slaves need to know their place!”
They would yell disgusting insults at him, then begin beating him with cacti ropes, supposedly made to play with but also the preferred weapon of torture for kids of the dry lands.
In fact, from age seven to age nine, he could scarcely remember a day when he hadn’t been beaten or otherwise humiliated in some way by the children of the hunt. His legs and arms were a labyrinth of scars from the cacti knots.
The boy knew they had been correct in their thinking, though. After all, only the children of the hunters were even allowed to learn weapons—how to use a bow, a spear, a knife.
Swords were never used in the wilderness and were thought to be generally inept, even in battle, until not so long ago, during the wars with the Pale Tribes, who had come over from the great blue seas with their swords, their crossbows, their fire arrows, and their steeds. Although they had been brutally beaten and sent scurrying back across the seas, thanks in no small part to the Slay- er and the High King’s armies, there was much that the people from the southern lands had learned from them. The foremost idea being that the effectiveness of modern shields had rendered the spear useless in combat, and it was now necessary to get much closer to your adversary in order to deal a killing blow. Swords were a great weapon for that, and so had become the weapon of choice for the Southern Armies of the High King, if not so for the hunters.
In addition to no training in the arts of war, the boy had had no instruction in even the most basic survival techniques. Concepts of trapping, foraging, evasion, and escape from wild beasts were things he’d never been taught, although he’d taught himself some hunting.
So inside he’d always known that only through his dreams would he ever be able to experience the thrill of conquest in battle or in the hunt. He’d known this and accepted it.
Today he’d unbelievably managed to meet K’Nan the Savage Slayer, even be favored by him—enough that he’d been asked for his accompaniment as left counselor—and just as quickly to have angered him. So went his last hope. He sighed inwardly. Destiny, boy. You were destined to be what you are.
The boy sighed, muttering under his breath. “I only wanted to ask you if the sword really had no memories.”
Although a little perturbed that the boy had disregarded his command to be silent, the boy’s question brought many deeply buried memories to the forefront of his mind. Indeed, the tale of how he had been gifted the sword was legendary.
“Would you like to hear how it got the name?” He asked the boy, eyeing his ragged clothes.
A hopeful gleam appeared in the young slave’s eyes. He nodded vigorously.
Taking time throughout to answer the child’s questions patiently, he told the boy the story of how Amnesia got its name.
“It was all made possible by one of the most idiotic men to ever proclaim himself lord of Numeria, Victo Ngeppu....” he began.
Sometime later, as he finished the story, the details of which were known to very few people still alive, he paused for a second and looked down at his hunting skins, his simple shoes, and his calloused hands. He had fallen far in look and appearance from when he had been the most feared general on the continent.
For his part, the boy’s eyes were agape with wonder. “So...it wasn’t actually YOU who came up with the name, it was King Toloron himself,” he breathed.
“This is so.”
“Wow,” said the boy. “I’ve heard many stories about you before, but never that one. I don’t think any of the other kids knew it, either.” The boy paused as if there was something else on his mind.
“Pala K’Nan...why did you choose to tell me this story right now?”
K’Nan looked up at the sky, then back down toward the boy’s wrists, before saying, “I have my reasons.”
After an hour, the party reached the black rocky sands that marked the entry into the savannah. As the caravan began narrowing its flanks for the final passage out of the plateau, the dark red sun’s final rays blanketed the area surrounding the cliffs. Flying overhead, several swift yirna birds squawked quizzically at the group. K’Nan and his small companion rode through the thirty en-yawo exit leading into the savannah, the Win-Daji several paces behind.
Arrows whistled over the cliffs with incredulous speed, as if they were being hurled down by the clouds themselves. The first volley took the lead hunter in the throat, and several more decimated the entire lead party within seconds.
Chaos followed. The plateau echoed with the sounds of screaming women and children, killed by both arrows and horses as Win-Daji tried desperately to steer their mounts toward the cliff walls, trampling those on foot. It was only once they reached the walls that the boulders began to tumble down from the top of the cliffs.
From a height of two hundred en-yawo, their impact sounded like thunder hitting the earth, and those who were not crushed immediately were forever trapped beneath the boulders.
Some of the more clever ones tried to gallop to the plateau’s exit but found the entrance too far away to evade the attack. They perished miserably. The last to die were the steeds and the children, the horses running wildly to and from trying to dodge the boulders, most of them breaking their legs or collapsing from fatigue.
The children, who’d been shielded in desperation by their unfortunate mothers, crying, pulled themselves up from under their human shields and were cut down.
The boy watched the scene unfolding in horror; K’Nan himself was emotionless. In the time it takes to eat a small meal, it was finished. There were only a few low moaning sounds and the sounds of the yirna birds, who gleefully rushed down to scavenge, particularly having an affinity for the entrails of the dying.
All at once, a blanket of billowing dust covered the plateau. It served to form a grim burial shroud over the remains of the last-ever Equinox Hunt.