In the cold crack of winter, the lions came down from the mountains. Nightstalkers, the farmers called them: sleek, black prowlers that hunted at night. They carried off sheep, chickens, and, very occasionally, children. Before the War they had been a rare nuisance, a useful source of tales to frighten youngsters into good behavior. But the King’s brother Synedd, in his ceaseless grasping for the throne, had seen their potential in warfare and taught them to hunt for sport. He used them to supplement his army of traitors, making up in beasts what he lacked in soldiers. In the years following the War, the ones that hadn’t been killed in battle returned to their lone ways. The Rangers who patrolled the border studied their habits and became experts at tracking them down, even to their own lairs.
Faldur Relaszen, Captain of the Ranger pack assigned to the Silverbark Valley, was particularly renowned for his prowess. So when the message came that a nightstalker was plaguing the farms around Glenhym Castle, it was his duty to go and find it. This was not a duty he cherished, however, especially on Midwinter’s Eve. It was a hard thing to pass up the all-night celebration and go out in the snow in search of a wretched creature that would just as soon eat him as whatever livestock it was after. He only hoped it didn’t take all night.
Faldur took Harth with him out to the farm where the nightstalker had last been seen, along with two other Rangers who volunteered, in the hopes of ending up at Glenhym afterwards. Harth was a tall, quiet Lieutenant - capable, strong, cool-headed - with the typical red-blond coloring and blue eyes of the Hanorja. Faldur himself was leaner, darker and more compact. His men called him “the Cat” because of his green eyes and irritating self control. He didn’t mind the nickname. It was true that he had learned long ago not to waste energy on idle talk or movement, especially on the hunt. He supposed, too, that after a while one took on the characteristics of one’s prey, learning to listen and watch the shadows as if one’s life depended on it. Often, it did.
They found the farm easily enough, perched on a ridge of the foothills about three miles from the castle. The neat little house sat near the big stone barn, its garden tucked under a thick blanket of snow. There had been only a light dusting of the white stuff today, so the tracks were still faintly visible in the lantern-light as the farmer showed them to the two Rangers.
“Came up here,” said the farmer, who was just a little older than Faldur himself, with a mass of curly hair, broad shoulders, and a dense smattering of freckles across his cold-chapped cheeks. “Couldn’t get in the barn. I had it shut up tight. But the dories were screaming and kicking the stalls. Smart little devils. They may have frightened it away. But it will be back for the sheep, I’m sure of it. Good thing I’d brought them into the barn. Don’t usually, but it was that cold last night.”
Faldur nodded. Dories were sturdy, sensitive creatures – part pony, part mountain goat – the preferred mounts of the Hanorja. He could imagine them beating a thunderous tattoo to scare the predator away. His own dory, Strider, had once kicked a nightstalker right between the eyes when cornered, stunning the beast long enough for Faldur to kill it. That had been a young female, though, and this was most definitely a male. A large one.
The tracks circled the barn, and then struck up the ridge into the woods. Faldur said, “You’d best go inside, and keep your doors and shutters bolted. Are you going out tonight?”
“We were planning to go to my wife’s brother’s house, but weren’t sure if it was safe.”
“I wouldn’t advise it, not until we kill it.”
The farmer nodded, a worried look on his face. “This isn’t the first this winter. I’ve heard they are coming down around Crikhaven, too. Do you think they are breeding? They don’t usually come down until the new year.”
“It’s possible. But we had an early start to winter.” Faldur clapped the other haman* on the shoulder, and smiled one of his rare smiles. “We’ll get it in time for us all to go to our parties tonight. It’s too cold to linger out here in the dark!”
“Well, there’s food and drink inside for you when you’re through. I’m much obliged.” With that, the farmer turned and trudged away, the light of the lantern bobbing ahead of him.
Faldur said, “Harth, you and Brilward take the southern side. We’ll go north. Stay in sight, follow the tracks, signal if you need help. Keep an arrow strung.”
The Rangers split up, following on either side of the nightstalker’s tracks, keeping a stone’s throw between the two pairs of partners. Harth and Faldur’s partner, Romer, both had their bows ready. Faldur could shoot game, but he preferred a sword for this kind of work. His was a gift from the Prince: light, strong, and perfectly balanced, an extension not just of his body, but of his will.
The tracks wound up along the ridge, then suddenly plunged down into the neck of a shallow, thickly overgrown ravine. Faldur motioned for Harth and Brilward to circle around to the other side and see where the tracks came out, while he and Romer guarded the spot where the lion had gone in. They did so, their gray-green cloaks fading into the gloom. Faldur stared down into the dark bushes, trying to discern the darker outline of a nightstalker, or the reflective gleam of feline eyes.
A soft hooting sound caused him to look up. It was Harth, indicating that they had found the tracks. Faldur and Romer were moving around the ravine to join them, when Faldur saw a black shape leaping up behind the other two.
He yelled, signaling them to jump left. They just barely dived out of its way, and Harth loosed an arrow which lodged in the beast’s shoulder as it overshot them. It turned to attack again, spitting now with pain and fury. Faldur surged forward through the deep snow as the lion pounced on Harth, who was reaching for his next arrow. Before he could get there, however, Romer landed a shot in the nightstalker’s temple and it fell dead. Harth’s legs were trapped under the body, and Brilward moved to assist him.
Then Faldur heard a rustling noise from the ravine. He could just see out of the corner of his eye that a second nightstalker was emerging from the bushes. He heard Brilward shout, “There are two of them!” as he turned to face the lion, thinking that this was too close, that unless he timed it just right and was able to use the lion’s own weight to impale it on his blade, he was dead. Then, just as the nightstalker pounced, he heard the snick of a bowstring, and an arrow whizzed past his cheek, landing in the animal’s chest. Harth had shot it from the ground while his legs were still pinned.
Faldur felt the spray of hot blood on his face, then the sharp cold of snow as he went down with the lion on top of him. He fell backwards into a foot of powder. As he strained for breath only two thoughts came to mind: how grateful he was to be alive, and how much he hated going down.
Romer didn’t assist him right away, which was as it should be. Faldur knew that he had strung another arrow and was waiting for any other nightstalkers to appear. Only when he was sure it was safe did he haul the carcass off of the Captain and help him to his feet.
“They were hunting together!” Romer said.
“Two males,” Faldur gasped as Harth and Brilward joined them. They all knew what that meant. The nightstalkers were hunting in teams again. Their numbers had increased, and they were hungry.
Synedd’s legacy lived on.
*Footnote: Male Hanorja are called hamen, and the women, hawen.