JEM THE BEAST HUNTER
A Short Story By
GILES J.M. BLACKLEY
Jem placed one boot onto the rock jutting out between the snow and pushed herself up, adjusting the bow across her shoulder. Snowflakes fell onto her scabbard, clouding minute parts of the metal before melting away. Every now and then she caressed the grip of her sword. The cold flakes on her face reminded her of the previous winter and the bounty from the hunt in the fir forest. After this one she would have enough to pay her father’s debts.
Taking off her gloves, she unravelled the bloodstained scroll. The crude map showed the cave not far over the next bluff. She thought of what she might find there. Despite Jem’s questions, the crone had not given much detail. “With this map, find the beast’s lair! Bring what it guards to me. Then you shall receive the reward.” Jem found herself repeating the words over and over in her head.
She returned the scroll to a pocket and shoved her gloves back on. She pressed forward, stumbling at times through deeper snow below the peak. She had taken a whetstone from her father’s forge and sharpened her sword blade incessantly each night she was on the hunt. With any luck, today was the day. She disliked tracking the ones that ran.
As she crossed the top of the ridge, the sun re-emerged. Its light struck the falling snowflakes to make a small rainbow glare that flashed before her eyes. Squinting, she scanned the mountainside ahead. Nothing was moving.
She was scarcely a minute down the other side of the mountain when she saw it. A slit of black in the endless white. The snowflakes stopped. When she reached it, a wind blew from inside the narrow opening. Jem set her backpack down and took a wooden torch from her quiver. She remembered the day she had prepared. Her mother’s birthday. She had tied strips of old clothing with some wire to one end of the torch. She had then doused the torch head in oil from her neighbour’s workshop. Jem hoped it would burn for long enough.
She crouched and took a flint and firesteel from her backpack. She struck the flint on the metal a few times before a spark lit the torch. Setting the burning light against a large rock, she slid her bow off her shoulder and picked an arrow from the quiver. She dipped its point in a flask of oil from her pack. Jem then stood up, and balancing the arrow across the bow, pushed its end into the torch flame. Drawing the bowstring back slowly, she aimed into the darkness of the cave and let fly. The flaming arrow struck against a wall thirty strides or so inside the cave. It continued to burn where it dropped. The wind caused the flame to sputter, making shadows dance on the rock.
Jem lifted the backpack onto her back. She threw the bow across her shoulder and picked up the torch. She drew her sword. The glint of the sun on the blade thrilled her. Her heart pounded as she stepped slowly into the tall crack in the rock. She concentrated on the distant flame of the arrow within the cave. Master it, she said to herself. She had done it countless times before.
Every four steps, Jem glanced quickly over her shoulder. Holding the torch ahead in her outstretched arm, she moved carefully across the floor of the cave until she reached the flaming arrow and the rock that formed the back wall. Facing it, she turned to look left. Her torch revealed nothing but another wall of the cave a few steps into the gloom. She swung round to look right and froze. Slumped against the wall, a couple of paces from her, were bodies clothed in furs and chain mail. She pushed the torch towards them. The first body was missing a head. The second an arm. It looked like it had been ripped out of its socket. The third body lacked both legs. The rest of the line of corpses had a variety of missing limbs. The last had neither head nor any limb.
Beyond them she could make out another tunnel that led away into the darkness. Trying to keep from vomiting up her guts, she began to pass the bodies. Near the end of the line she spotted something in the wall. In a great nest of blood-red twigs in a cavity in the rock lay an enormous pale yellow egg. It was the length of two of her hands, and almost one in width. One of the dead still had an arm stretched across the back wall, grasping for it, frozen in death. This was what the crone had hired her to bring back. She sheathed her sword and picked the egg up carefully with both hands. It felt strangely warm. Placing it in her backpack, and setting the pack back on her shoulders, she looked down the tunnel leading further into the darkness of the mountain. Jem did not wish to linger in a place like this.
With sword unsheathed once more, and torch held before her, she began to walk towards the light of the entrance. A cry, no, scream, shrilled through the darkness. Jem pivoted in a circular motion, torch searching, sword raised. Breathing quickly, she felt fear fill her heart. She was not going to let it get the better of her. Then, she heard steps, of someone, or something, running down the tunnel. She braced to strike.
Something in the black dropped down onto her from the roof of the cave. It gripped her tightly and before she could put up much of a struggle, she lay dying on the cavern floor. It ripped open her backpack, and in the guttering light of the fallen torch, wrinkled hands returned the egg to the nest in the rock. The crone’s hands.