Aiden’s War – Chapter Two, The Hunt

You can find Chapters 1-4 in the tab up top, Aiden’s War – http://jm-harrison.com/aidens-war

 

Chapter Two – The hunt

“Don’t.”

Krysta laughed at him instead, taking one last look after Jaelith, her green eyes narrowing with curiosity, or maybe it was awareness of something. Aiden didn’t know, except to be angry that she was there, ruining his plans.

He stomped off back down the track before he cut across land to reach the hills where they would hunt. Krysta had her bow too. Not that she was all that good with it. Sometimes, he used her bad aim to flush out the quarry he was after. By the time they were clear of the woods, up and over and down into the long field that skirted their property line, his anger bled off. He slowed so Krysta could catch up to him without having to run to keep pace.

“Well that explains a few things,” she said as she fell into step beside him.

He decided he might as well admit it, so he nodded. He couldn’t stop the smile either and his sister laughed. “A few, yes. Don’t tell.”

“Too tempting.”

“Please? They’ll never let me see her again, or worse, demand I bring her home for dinner and that is not going to happen any time soon. Come on, Krysta. Don’t tell them.”

She shrugged, dashing ahead to get on the path through the field ahead of him. “What do I get in return?”

“I won’t beat you senseless.”

“Besides that? As if you could.”

“I’ll let you come with me next time I go.”

She turned in a circle to flash him a look, her hair flying all around. She kept it pinned most days with a sharpened dowel stuck through a piece of leather off the horse harness. They couldn’t afford a real hair clip, or didn’t buy such things. She’d cut a leaf design into the leather to make it nice. She wore her quiver of arrows lower than normal, skewed to reach them from the side, to avoid a big tangle.

“She’s pretty,” she said without telling him if he offered enough of a bargain to keep her mouth shut. “Isn’t she a bit…out of your league?”

“Out of my league? What’s that supposed to mean? And yes, she’s very pretty. She also happens to like me.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jaelith.”

“Jaelith what? Who’s her family?”

Aiden shook his head, frowning at the implication he didn’t know her well enough. “We never asked that. Not like it matters. She’s just a normal girl.”

Krysta shook her head at that. “She’s half Fae or I’m a dworkle.”

“Suit yourself, dworkle. I’ll be sure to treat you like one next time we need to pull the cart into town. There’s no such thing as Fae, just like there are no Elves. They’re legends, nothing more. And it’s insulting, so you better stop.”

“What’s insulting about it?”

“The Fae were monsters, Krysta, or so history say. They murder innocent children, or steal them from their cribs, for who knows what purpose. They started a war with the Elves that eradicated the race. They use magic for evil purpose and they fly.”

“Where do you get all this stuff from?”

Aiden shook his head and changed direction again, leading them toward another field where they would have a decent chance of catching dinner, and maybe breakfast and lunch for the next few days. They had dried meat stored, but their mother preferred to save those supplies for the winter months ahead. Summers were very short, they learned, in Avenden.

“I listen to the bards when I go into town and I can read,” he said, smirking at her since he knew she couldn’t. Before he was thrust into current circumstances, his mother had sent him to the bards to begin his education. This was back when they lived in Tinstil. They’d paid a few silver pieces for it too. Luckily, he took to it, finding the letters and sounds easy to figure. He could write as well as read. They thought to make him into a scribe maybe, get him off the farm to reduce the burden such a large number of people brought. His brothers would have married one day and started families of their own.

Krysta came to an abrupt halt, eyes blazing, and he realized he’d gone too far. She struggled with what came to him so easily. There wasn’t much use for a girl to learn her letters, not before she was married anyway, and Krysta was acutely aware her time at home was growing short. She’d begged him to teach her and he tried, but it was hard for her and he wasn’t the best instructor, lacking the kind of patience required to be a teacher.

“I’m sorry,” he said quickly, not wanting to fight with her. It used to be a favorite sport of his, prodding her into a fury. “It’s not your fault. I’ve said it before. I’d make a terrible bard.”

Krysta let it go, but pushed past him into the field. She would have kept going, but Aiden took her by the arm quickly. If she went much further, she’d disturb the game they were after. She jerked out of his grasp, but then she saw him reaching for his bow. He nodded to the field and she understood, pulling in a breath to quiet her anger with him. He smiled at her temper, wondering what poor man would end up having to deal with her. Krysta didn’t think it was funny.

He nodded her across the field, nocking an arrow as he eased along the line of the field that was marked by a row of berry bushes. Krysta followed suit, aiming already in hopes of spotting the first one to pop up. They were hunting warmagiles, a kind of rabbit. They were larger than regular rabbits. Just two would feed the whole family, and their soft pelts made excellent boot liners for the colder Avenden winters. They were burrowing animals and fast. They lived in holes they dug in the ground that had numerous entries. Smoking them out didn’t work, since they only popped out of one hole and into another. There was only one chance to hit them, and that was when they first stood up on their hind legs to see what danger approached.

That was why he sent Krysta into the field. The sound of her movements traveled through the ground. He waited, still as a rock, watching the field while she slowly made her way ahead. She always tried to hit the first one, but almost always missed it. He waited for the second, third and fourth. Sometimes, he could get the fifth, but not usually before they all disappeared.

The first popped up and sure enough Krysta took the shot and missed. The second appeared, along with a third almost simultaneously. Aiden didn’t miss, loosing the arrow with unfailing precision and killing speed. Another arrow followed, aiming for the last warmagile to show itself. Krysta aimed for the same one, but moments after he’d already taken the shot. Both arrows struck the animal, ensuring its death for certain.

“That one is mine,” she said and he laughed at her.

“All right.”

“I really hate you some days, Aiden Quell,” she said, tossing the mane of hair. “I really do.”

He rolled his eyes, took two arrows and shot them into the brush on the far side of the field. From the shrubs a flock of quail erupted into the air, along with a surprise pheasant. He was tempted to take the shot at the large bird himself, but Krysta had only to glare at him. They had dinner, so it didn’t matter so much. She didn’t miss this time, easily taking the pheasant, and so he picked off a few quail, and she managed to hit one before they were gone.

Dinner and then some.

They gathered the catch as quickly as they could. The pheasant gave them some difficulty, since it wasn’t a kill shot that hit it and it kept flying until the loss of blood dropped it to the forest floor. They tracked the noise it made. Krysta nodded him on to make the final kill, turning back into a girl and squeamish over the method. Aiden twisted its head until its neck snapped. He shook his head at her as he bound its legs and wings, and added it to the haul.

He noticed she hid her bow in the tool shed inside the barn when they arrived an hour later, back at home as the sun aimed for the western hills behind the property. He paused as the realization set in. “You didn’t tell them you were hunting with me, did you?”

“They told me I couldn’t anymore,” she said, and turned from him.

He knew it was probably more a case of the Broker, a woman who was paid to find a suitable mate, suggesting Krysta try to be more like a girl. She’d never fit that mold. It was horrifying to her to think of what life she would end up with, stuck with a stranger for a husband, forced to have children, locked into a role she wasn’t suited for. Aiden didn’t understand the necessity of it, since he was able to provide ample food. She wasn’t a burden as far he was concerned as often as she helped in the hunt.

“Why don’t you tell them how many times you’ve brought home food?” he asked.

“They don’t care. It’s not my place to do that sort of thing, and besides, it’s not like you need the help.”

“Calen, Forb and I always helped each other. Father knows it’s more easily managed when there are two. Just tell him…unless there’s something more you aren’t telling me.”

Her lips pursed together before she bit the lower one and he knew before she said it. “There’s a man coming for dinner tomorrow night. If he approves, I’m to leave with him the following morning. The Broker sent him.”

Aiden stared in shocked silence for a moment. He knew they’d contracted the Broker to make the arrangements, but he never thought it would happen this fast. It had only been a few weeks. He saw that Krysta was sickened by the prospect. He didn’t know what to say that would help.

“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” he stammered. “I mean, maybe he won’t be horrible.”

“He’s thirty. He already has five children. His first wife died when the last was born a few months ago. He wants me for bedding, frequent bedding, and to tend the babies, is what the Broker told Mother, I overheard them.”

He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe his parents would throw their daughter to a stranger like this. He couldn’t fathom a reason for it, unless there was something behind it they hadn’t shared with the family. He supposed that was possible, but he still couldn’t believe it.

“Krysta, what…” He shook his head to clear his thoughts, afraid he knew the answer to what he was about to ask. “What are you going to do?”

The words were on her lips when their father interrupted, stumping into the barn in the usual heavy work boots he wore. He was sweating from the day’s labor in the fields and dragged a cart with the plow slung onto it. One of the tines was broken. He was a large, weathered man. Krysta came by her red hair naturally, from both parents. Bruin Quell wore his unnaturally short, down to stubble that glinted more gray than anything else. His eyes matched his daughter’s. His temperament did too. Aiden spent most of his twenty years half afraid of him. His older brothers had stood in the way of some of that anger, caused by whatever trouble they all managed to get into, and now Aiden did the same. Still, Bruin never beat them, using the sharpness of his tongue, rather than brute force to keep them all in line. The verbal lashings were sometimes more effective.

To keep that she’d hunted with him unknown, Aiden started handing over the rest of the kill, acting as if she’d just met up with him. “I’ll be over to help with that in a minute,” he said, giving her a playful push toward the door. “You pluck, I skin.”

That made her groan as she went off. His father came up beside him, watching after her. “That’s a good haul.”

“Lucky,” Aiden said and turned for the cart with the broken plough. “What happened?”

“A pile of hard stone in the new field,” he said and joined him, looking down at the broken tine.

“Can you fix it?”

“Not that it’ll hold. Probably time for a new one anyway. Maybe Smithy can mend it or trade it for another.”

“I’ll take it in tomorrow morning,” Aiden said and started feeding the animals. The barn held a number of them. Pigs, the milk cows, and a couple of horses, one for riding, one for the carriage and two others for pulling. They were enormous chargers that ate an equally large amount of food. The smaller horses, Dancer and Flash, got a single sheaf of hay each compared to a bale between the two giants. “I might be able to barter. I can figure his books, maybe.”

“Did she tell you?” Bruin asked and stopped Aiden’s quest to save a few coins.

He wasn’t sure what to say, but he nodded. His father grimaced. He rubbed his face and heaved a sigh, stumping to a stall to check its contents with the pitch tine in hand.

“These are hard times, Aiden.”

“They aren’t that hard,” he said before he could stop himself, but Bruin only paused at that. “She does more around here than you think.”

“Did she hit anything today?” his father asked, moving to the next stall, and again Aiden hesitated, unsure of his response to her disobeying him. His father wasn’t reacting the way he normally did.

“The pheasant and a quail,” he admitted. “And she helped snare the rabbits. Having her with me makes it easier, and she’s getting better at it.”

“At something that’ll be of no use to her.”

“How do you know that? It might mean the difference between having food or not. How can that not matter? She’s never been normal, or the way other girls are.”

“The way that girl you run off to see every day is?” Bruin asked, casting him a knowing look.

Aiden froze, wondering how he found out.

“It’s on toward your time too,” his father said.

“I’ll make my own way there,” Aiden told him, trying to sound forceful. He got another look for his tone.

“Sooner rather than later would be better for everyone, including your sister. Your mother made the arrangements for her out of concern for you.”

“For me? Why?”

“To lessen the burden. There will come a time when the three little ones have only you to rely on. It’s a lot for one to manage without the added burden of the older sister. Time won’t stop for her any more than it’ll stop for you or any of us.”

“She’s not a burden.”

“Now, no. She helps you hunt, fine. But what then, years from now, when no one will have her for her age?”

“Then she’ll stay here, but really, do you think that’s going to happen? She’s pretty enough, I guess. She looks like mother. There are years yet to have this worry.”

“Your mother made the arrangements,” he said and there was something about the way he repeated those words that made Aiden pause and consider them again. It came to him then that maybe his father wasn’t so enthusiastic about the idea after all. “The man will be here tomorrow evening. I expect you’ll behave the way you should.”

He wasn’t sure the message was passed, or what his father really thought. But Aiden knew he couldn’t let his sister end up carried off by someone so much older and for no other reason than to be a house servant. He had to wonder what his mother was thinking, but recognized the seeds of fear in the whole plan. Maybe her fear of the future was justified, but he didn’t think so. It was a symptom of other things out of their control. He started wondering what he could do to keep that future from walking through the door.

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