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Old 11-14-2006, 01:20 PM   #22
Fordim Hedgethistle
Gibbering Gibbet
 
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Join Date: Feb 2004
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When Hunta finally arrived back at the settlement he was exhausted. Laylah’s steps came slowly and her tail and ears were drooped to the earth, even the sights and smells of their temporary home failing to rouse her. The chase had been long and hard, for the buck had sought to hide himself in the densest parts of the forest. They had spent hours in difficult and trackless terrain following the thread of blood left by their prey. At long last they had found him lying on the ground and heaving out the remnants of his life. Death, when it came at last, had been swift and painless – the least that Hunta could do. Late as it was he had performed all the propitiatory rites owed to the beast, ensuring that its spirit would not remain the forest, angrily driving away future game to spite Hunta. But as soon as the fire had fully consumed the liver and gall, Hunta threw the carcass over his shoulder and staggered back to the settlement.

He had used what paths he could find, but the going was still hard, particularly with the great brown mass of the beast on his shoulders. He had been forced to stop frequently to breathe and rest, but at least he had not gone hungry. The buck’s tongue had been his supper, still warm and soft so soon after life, and Laylah had enjoyed a fetlock.

As they made their way past the guards Hunta barely acknowledged or even noticed the sharp whispers and quick glances of those he passed in the street. His skill as a hunter had made him an unpopular figure among these people, who fancied themselves quite capable in the hunt, but his proficiency was such that he always returned with the greatest prize, and that made many people jealous. Indeed, as he walked along he heard some malicious folk taunting the man Grimr, asking him if he had ever seen a buck of the size and majesty brought in by barrakar. Hunta winced at the name but did not react. He had been dubbed the barrakar – the man-animal – almost upon arrival. It was an insult so cunningly made that he could not challenge those who made it. A wily animal who evaded capture was often accorded the honour of being compared to those who hunted it by being described as barrak. So on the face of it, the application of the word to Hunta was a compliment in praise of his woodcraft and cunning; but when it was uttered to his face and, even more so, behind his back, it was uttered with such a twist in the mouth that the result seemed to imply that Hunta himself was part animal, and that his cunning was merely that of a beast. Part of him longed for the day when one of the Ulfings would overstep the bounds and use the insult too openly…he smiled grimly.

For all that Hunta longed to retire to his own tent, he stopped first at the home of the old woman Gausen to give her the gift-meat. Pausing at her door, he quickly cut three long strips of flesh from the richest part of the buck’s haunch, each one enough to fill her pot twice over. She smiled and thanked him, but what did that veiled look in her eye mean? Hunta no longer had the energy to decipher the attitudes of the Ulfings, and every day he longed to hear from Khandr that he had given up the hopeless plan of marriage and that they were returning to their own lands. Hunta had come on this journey for adventure and escape, but the land of the Ulfings had proven instead to be a prison of mistrust and deception.

Leaving the old woman, Hunta returned to the house that Khandr had been given and went into the yard where he gutted and slaughtered the buck. When the skin and antlers were hanging on the curing rack and the village dogs were fighting over the offal – Laylah, as usual, had sought her sleeping place beneath the tall tree – Hunta wiped his knife and carried the meat into Embla, hoping to find her in a good mood this day…or, at least, not in so terrible a mood as she was usually.
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