The Wild Hunt
by Brett Caron
Three knocks at the door announced that the hunters had returned. Jaima’s heart began to beat faster. They had been gone too long; the sun had almost set. She had to make sure. Her back to the dingy apartment, she could hear the rest of her group in the other room. Green walls had turned a grey brown in the late afternoon light and faint moisture stains traced pathways down from the ceiling, black veins descending from dark wood. The bare hardwood floors hardly spoke under her passage as she silently padded across the room on soft soles and put her ear to the cold metal surface.
The conversation in the adjoining room had ceased, family and friends hesitant to speak, fearful of what might happen next without the rest of the cipher. She almost wished they hadn’t noticed; the sudden silence was oppressive, her own breathing thunderous in her ears. She counted a handful of her rapid heartbeats until the last two knocks, her tension easing somewhat at the completed code. “Just wait,” she called to beyond the door. “I’m opening up.”
She threw open the heavy locks that held the entryway closed before finally heaving aside the heavy crossbar that sat in a groove along the center. Then she quickly knocked once, backed up a few paces, and held her gun ready. Jaima ducked behind an old, weathered table as she put the stock to her shoulder. The wood and steel of the hunting rifle was reassuring along her cheek, and she squinted along the sights as she knelt in the corner of the room, the barrel of the weapon pointed squarely at the center of the entrance. The old hinges creaked; her finger tightened on the trigger. She held her breath. The door swung aside, and Jaima heaved a sigh of relief.
Rik stared into Jaima’s green eyes from the doorway, one hand held up to the rest of his hunters. Despite the dimness of the room and the fact that the light was behind her, she knew her brother could see her plain as day; Rik had always had good night eyes. He quickly appraised her up and down. She became conscious of the fact that she was, despite her gun, totally unprepared for a fight. A heavy grey wool sweater was draped almost as a dress over her long black shirt and utilitarian trousers. Her long blond hair was fanned across her back, filtering the last of daylight against the back of her smooth, pale neck. She dropped her rifle from her shoulder, standing it in the corner as she crossed the room again, this time completely unafraid. Rik leaned back, letting the others inside. As if it had never stopped at all, an animated discussion resumed in the hallway between the other two who entered, each carrying a flank of venison and furs along with their weapons. Despite the friendliness of their interaction, Jaima could sense that this was forced, gallows humour; something was wrong. Something had happened today.
Chuckles was, of course, laughing at the tension; dissipating it with that effortless way he had about him, all infectious smiles and knowing winks. His huge frame was fairly covered in assorted scraps of body armour and furs, which made his huge red beard seem to blend into the patchwork of browns and oranges below his neck. A black vest covered his chest, adorned with pockets and pouches, tears and cuts evident across it revealing layers of a denser, harder material underneath. Arms as big around as one of Jaima’s legs hoisted the deer meat and coat with little effort. He dropped a massive axe on the table next to her with a dull clatter, reaching with his free hand to encircle both of Jaima’s slight shoulders with room to spare. Her nose filled with sweat and earth, a forest smell at odds with the slightly dusty yet clean scent of the apartment. He craned his almost non-existent neck to glance into the next room, planting a hairy, tickling kiss on the top of her head as he did. She smiled despite herself. His booming voice carried easily, annihilating the wary silence in a way that made Jaima nervous on days like today.
“You know Rik, one of these days she’s going to shoot you dead. Little Jaymee is too scared all the time.” Jaima bristled, but the other hunter entering behind Chuckles reached up under his toque and pinched his earlobe hard, earning a surprisingly high-pitched yelp from the bearded giant.
“She doesn’t like it when you call her that, Chuck.” Vim smiled at Jaima, winking in a conspiratorial fashion. She let go of her friend’s ear with a tinkling giggle of her own, the girlish sound coming in stark contrast to the effortless deadliness she presented. Her slim form was housed in tight leather clothing she had made herself, not as bulky as the plated leathers worn by the others but far more flexible and—most importantly—silent. Her fine black hair was pulled back into a knot on the back of her head. Whereas Chuckles appeared to lurch his bulk about like a shambling bear, confident that nothing could halt him, Vim moved with a quiet grace. Jaima had always thought of her as a cat, especially with her slanted eyes in that peculiar shade of gold. She had once heard one of the traders down below call Vim “Chinese,” but none of them had known what it meant and the trader hadn’t stayed in the city long enough for them to ask him again.
“What’s the problem?” Chuck’s lower lip quivered theatrically as he rubbed his sore ear. “I thought she liked it when I call her that.” He beamed again, lips disappearing into the mass of copper hair below his nose, false hurt immediately forgotten. His eyes twinkled. “Sorry, Jaymee.”
“Will you two stop it?” Rik was, as always, taciturn. His dark eyes hardly seemed to blink. “We need to get some of this cooked before the sun sets completely. I don’t want a big fire tonight. Vim, Jaima – you two grill up the first flank and set all the furs in the other room. Chuck, take the other flank down to the salting room and call everybody to the hall. We have to talk.” Both hunters left without another word, the weight in their leader’s voice plain. Jaima stayed for a moment, watching Rik as he crossed to the opposite wall.
Rik’s short-cropped brown hair was shot through here and there with iron streaks of grey. In the faint orange light, his tanned skin looked almost brown. Dark, hardened leather covered his tall lean body and reflected only the barest light off its matte surface. With the curtains over the windows smothering most of the illumination, his dark aspect made Jaima think of him as a shade instead of her brother.
He shrugged off his rifle, standing it next to hers in the corner. Opening another, flimsier door, he let in some of the last rays of sunlight along with a gust of brisk autumn air. Jaima stood in the doorway behind him as he leaned both gloved palms on the railing of their balcony, staring out over the horizon. She came around beside him, shouldering her way underneath his armpit and putting her cheek against his chest. She looked down at his hands, and even through his gloves she could tell the white-knuckled grip he had on the green-painted metal of the rail. The fur cloak he wore around his shoulders smelled good, earthy like Chuckles but with Rik’s distinctly familial scent, which she had always found reassuring.
He didn’t push her away, instead taking his tense hands from the balcony and holding her to him briefly. Surprised at this show of tenderness, Jaima looked up into her brother’s eyes. She didn’t like what she saw there. Jaima wished, as she did so often these days, that she could see something in them besides worry and anger—like she used to. She turned her face from him, both of them looking again out over the balcony’s edge.
“What’s wrong?” She felt rather than saw him shrug in response, the edge of his furs tickling the side of her face.
“Nothing. You go help Vim, like I asked. We’ll all talk tonight after we eat.” His voice growled out in a rough rasp, the ugly scar across his neck tugging and pulling at his words as he spoke. He didn’t look at her as she dislodged herself from him, walking back into the unit. She turned at the threshold, trying to see what Rik was looking for.
From their eleventh-floor apartment, they had a commanding view of the coast. Announcing the coming evening, the sky was turning purple and a black bank of clouds was moving across from the north to obscure the stars even as they appeared. The pale shapes of buildings were rendered ginger temporarily, the tall grey or white blocks standing amidst the scattered vegetation of the forest below. She couldn’t see much through the canopy, even in autumn; despite the falling orange, brown and yellow leaves of oak and maple, too many pines and other evergreens still obscured her sight to the stone and metal of the ruined cityscape underneath. The water, brilliantly reflecting the last of the day, rocked against the harbour and coast. Here and there, a half-demolished building leaned against one of its siblings, like she had with Rik just a moment ago. Even as the forest gave way to swamp as the water had overrun the old boundaries of the urban sprawl, the denser shadows within the marshy shroud hid most of the details from view. Farther out into the water, only the highest points of the tallest buildings reached above the lapping waves, the tips of some drowning giant’s fingers. The scene looked typical of Gone Town—typical as it was after the End, anyway.
Still leaning against the doorframe, still searching for what he might be staring at or watching, she gazed out at where the city ran into the coast. For what must have been the thousandth time, Jaima wondered again what the city had looked like before the cataclysm. She let her mind wander, as she often did, to the rare pictures she had seen of the intact skylines. She thought of the millions of people who had lived and died here before she was ever born; she questioned their names, their stories, into the wind. With the final sun warming her face, she stood at the precipice of past to present, pondering where they might meet. Without looking at her, Rik made a noise in his throat; she had lingered too long. Jaima started out of her reverie, embarrassed that Rik had caught her distracted yet again. She turned her back on the crumbling metropolis and her morose brother, his brow still furrowed into the dying sun with a foreboding she could feel from where she stood. Maybe it was all the thinking she did of the past, all the death that surrounded that past, but it seemed neither of them could shake a particular sense of dread. As she shut the door behind her, a rogue finger of wind pushed the hair away from the nape of her neck. Not really knowing why, Jaima shivered.
(end of part one)