by Edeyn Hannah Blackeney


She brushed a matted hank of wet hair away from her eyes, wishing she would have had the presence of mind to braid it back before the Hunt. Even through the rain, the trail was clear, as though the animal knew he was more than a match for her. She swung her right leg along as she pushed through the mud, the wooden guides the armorer had sewn into the protective leather over her leg were doing exactly what they were meant to do and prevented her poorly healed injury from keeping her from her duty to family and Duke Ashley. She let her mind wander a bit, as she moved between the trees and brush through the ever more soggy mud.

After her father had died defending the castle, the task of the Hunt should have gone to the eldest son. Every family on the Duke's lands must provide at least one hunter when the dire wolves migrate through each spring and autumn – whether they are his family or not. Evan was only five years old, however, so she buckled on her father's armor as well as she could, and joined the huntsmen of the season. Her mother did not understand honor as she did. Just because the Duke was her father's father did not – could not – exempt them from the Hunt. Her first Hunt could have gone better.

Ashlyn paused in both her thought and her tracking to briefly lean against a tree and rest her leg. As she caught her breath, she looked down at it, obviously twisted oddly even under the leathers. Could have gone better, yes.

As she stood against the tree, she noticed the falling rain was no longer absorbing into her leather, it was so completely soaked already. She glanced to her right and saw in the mud a perfect track, gathering water into an oddly shaped puddle. So huge. Grimacing at the pain in her leg, she began to move again, watching for more tracks and thinking about her family.

Her mother, always busy and always ready with a smile for Ashlyn or Evan. Evan, who was not old enough to grasp that their father would not be coming back. She was almost jealous of that, as she thought of the large man who used to play sword-fight with her using the long sticks from their yard. Just knowing that he was there for them had always made her feel protected and now that he was gone... Now that he was gone, she was afraid most of the time, but she hid that from everyone. She had to be strong for Evan and her mother. She had to protect them now.

She stumbled a bit, and angrily slapped at her nearly useless leg before swinging it out and forward, forging on through the muck as the water fell between the trees transforming the forest floor into a morass of dead leaves and mud so wet it could nearly suck the boots off any feet stepping in it. She had been so scared, when it happened.

The bites had ripped all the major muscles in her left leg to shreds. Apparently, her grandfather had been the one to find her and had carried her back to the house himself, while her mother got the wise woman to come see to her. She had to be moved to where the wise woman could watch over her or have someone watching over her constantly. When she first woke up, her mother had been there holding her hand and said something about giving a fright. She did not remember much, because she'd gone back to sleep. The wise woman had stitched her leg back together as best she could. She had been working hard all summer to build some sort of strength back up when the leathers with the bracing had arrived in time for the autumn Hunt. Her mother had, of course, begged her not to risk it, but she had to do it. It was like her father always had said – and she had not understood until now – that when one fell off of a horse, they had to get right back on it.

So, she found herself soaked to the bone with her leg hurting and still frightened of the large predators they hunted, but thrilled by the experience, nonetheless. She bent to retrieve a bit of something and peered at it. Definitely fur, so one of the beasts had passed this way for sure. She placed her hand against the trunk of the tree to her left and circled the base, looking for more signs of which way to proceed.

She reassured herself by patting the sword on her right hip. Some of the other hunters saw her as nothing but bad omens. She was a girl. She was left-handed. She was younger than even most of the squires the men had. She had already given the wolves a taste of her flesh. Their petition of imagined grievances went on and on. Of course, her grandfather, Duke Ashley, was not swayed by this. He was proud of her and told her that her father would have been proud, too. She tried not to show how pleased she'd been with such a compliment, for fear it would add yet another item to the list of her shortcomings.

When the time came for the hunters to form teams of two, there was an odd number and she found it amusing that the "odd man out" was a girl. So she hunted alone. Even so, she had easily so far left behind nearly double the number of carcasses that any of the others in the Hunt could claim.

Ashlyn looked up at the grand structure above, still finding it amusing that the entire wooded grove was in the shadow of her grandfather's very solid domain. The stones for it had been cut from three different quarries, and he had wanted them for strength, not for looks. Still, the three colors of the stone made an interesting patchwork that tended to make others underestimate how easily they could storm or even sneak into the place. He had overseen the construction himself, and her father had said that the Duke rushed completion in order to be finished before her birth. She knew her grandfather cared for her greatly, but there were times she wondered if he would have liked a grandson more.

She could not help but imagine herself as Duchess after him, though, if it could be allowed. It would be a difficult journey for anyone to fill his shoes. He was a fair and much respected leader, and there was even talk of his moving up in the scheme of things by the workers. Despite his right to delegate, and even the expectation that he would do so, he continued to not only oversee the everyday workers, but to do the same work most times. This was the secret, she thought, to being a great leader. In spite of being put in charge, letting everyone know that you not only are able to do the work of anyone under your station, but that you are willing to do so, as well.

Thoughts drifted unbidden back to her father as she followed the trail, and her mood shifted to match. Since his death, she had found herself alternately in anguish from being deprived of his ever so comforting presence, to anger at his audacity in leaving her family all alone. He had been so handsome. He was taller than most men. Those that knew her often said that her eyes were the twinkling eyes of her father, so dark brown they were nearly black. His shaggy and unkempt helmet of hair seemed to always be almost a statement of who he was at heart. He was not afraid, like most men, to tell his small family that he loved them. But he was gone. Not even taken be the wolves, not an enemy attack. No, his fate was to die from something as simple as what seemed to be a cold he just could not overcome.

Was that a wolf, asleep under a bush? She used the sound of the still falling rain to hide her approach and thrust her sword quickly and deeply into the heart of... a fallen branch. With a bit of a chuckle, she slid her sword back into the scabbard with a scrape. Can't be too careful. Better to kill a few innocent tree branches than to let a wolf slip by to spend a season feasting on the cattle and sheep of the town.

According to her mother, it was amazing that a town had grown up. The Duke had been hard pressed to find anyone willing to work for him when he was first granted the position, is what she said. She had been only a little girl, herself. Her father had been friends with the Duke and had helped him greatly. Then, of course, as the Duke's son and she herself had gotten older, they'd fallen in love and had the blessings of both their families to marry. That's how the family had come to be. In the meanwhile, all the men that had chosen to risk working for the Duke found that he paid well, asked only for what was fair, and they also realized that had he been just another worker, they would have liked him personally. So they brought in their own families. The town had grown, and now, it was the envy of this entire area of the country.

Of course, the people in the town took a lot of encouragement to accept her mother when her parents married. They called her mother a witch... it was years of her helping people constantly before they were comfortable with the concept of magic that was not, "the work of the devil," or evil by nature. But, the women of her family were always able to help in such ways. Herbs and potions, most called it, and usually... yes, that's all it was. But they were able to do more. Much closer to he actual concept of magic, but she was supposed to keep that for special occasions. This was part of the reason the townsfolk did not seem all that friendly to her, as well.

With her father gone, and she the eldest child of the Duke's only child... she was actually the heiress to the Duke's carved out duchy. Oh, there were other Dukes and some Earls in nearby areas that would have loved to take it over, but the King thought highly of Duke Ashley of Ashley. That is, there's no way anyone would get the chance to try and take it without arousing the wrath of the King.

In the low clearing, the four wolves circled constantly, keeping watch for any of the Hunters. They grunted, they growled, they barked, and even quietly howled at each other. None had seen the Hunters' Alpha yet. Had a Sorceress had cast a spell to understand the gigantic dire wolves' noises that they made at each other, she would have heard plans and doubts. Same as from the human base camp for the Hunters.

"We should be moving to the Winter hunt grounds," Black Paws, the smallest of the small group, complained with a growl. "The Hunters always catch some of the Great Pack."

The largest of the four, who was in fact in charge, answered, "Their alpha nearly killed ours last spring. Alpha is the largest, strongest, wisest wolf the Pack has ever produced," Blood Muzzle went on, "It would be a mistake to let a Hunter that could kill Alpha continue to hunt. Their alpha took more of us than ever before. All we know of this beast is that Alpha was able to mark one of the legs that it walks upon badly."

The other two wolves grunted their agreement. Short Tail and Twisted Ear never added much, but tended to follow the pack leadership without question.

Black Paws was still not satisfied. "But even Alpha decided not to challenge their Alpha again. The Hunters are strange creatures, but they defend their territory, as we would do," he reasoned, but it was obvious to Blood Muzzle that his objections were only to keep face now.

"And their alpha is a female. A small one, at that, and a youngling" responded Blood Muzzle, "I do not care how skilled a warrior she is, she will not stand before our combined might. Now, we scout for her and howl for the other three if there is sign or spoor."

And as one, the four wolves turned and raced back into the trees, sniffing and stalking. Their prey was the Hunter alpha, the girl that had been marked by Alpha last Spring, the Hunter that had taken half of Alpha's sight.

Short Tail stopped and sniffed at the air, thinking he had maybe smelled... no. It was only wishful thinking. He stepped around the tree and continued forward. Quietly moving between bushes and trees, the pattering of the rain running through the fur on his pelt felt good. Enjoying the feel of the rain, and focused on finding the Hunter alpha, he ignored the smell of the two lesser Hunters and turned away. Hunters only shared their areas with one other. The alpha he was in search of would not be near. He loped across a small clearing and behind him he heard shouts of the Hunters. He sprang across the last of the clearing and was suddenly hoisted far above the ground in a mesh of some kind that tangled his legs and even his tail. He tried to howl for help, but his bottom jaw was caught in the net. Two Hunters approached, spears held high

Black Paws picked his way beneath some bushes and thought to himself that Blood Muzzle was right. That was why he had stayed for this special hunt, after all. If the Hunters' alpha could nearly kill Alpha, then none of them were safe as long as she lived. A female, their alpha. These Hunters were strange, indeed. He tried to picture Alpha being female. It would not work. Females have heat and their judgment is not exactly renowned for being clear and wise during heat. An alpha must be able to defend himself from any wolf wanting leadership and be able to make decisions to protect the entire Great Pack. This Hunter alpha was a threat to any wolf, and somehow the Hunters made it work with her a female. In past years the Hunters were always in pairs and never intruded on another set's hunting area. Blood Muzzle told them of spotting the Hunter alpha, and she was hunting alone. Alone? The concept was completely alien to Black Paws. A wolf had pack mates to watch out for him. A wolf – a wolf – a wolf like him was quite hungry. He smelled at the scent on the air. Not far, long-ear, he thought, and it smelled wounded already. Blood Muzzle would not be angry at him for simply filling his belly quickly before continuing, would he? He rounded a large tree and saw the hare's bloody body lying on a black thing. This was going to be easier and quicker than he had thought, he lowered his head to snap up the long-ear and tugged at it. He never saw the steel trap close on his head.

As he picked his way through the woods, Twisted Ear thought of the mark Alpha had told of putting on the Hunter alpha's hind leg. Alpha was sure she would survive the mark, being such a great warrior, but Twisted Ear hoped it caused her great pain. Alpha was more than just greatly respected, Alpha was father to most of the Great Pack, Twisted Ear included. He was proud to have such a legendary wolf as his sire. He paused to eat a ring-tail that had died at the base of a tree, then continued his search. This female alpha of the Hunters would not escape them. One of the four would surely find her and it was not possible that she could defeat the four of them at one time. The other Hunters were of no real concern. That ring-tail had been killed by one, from the smell. Not only do they mistake such lesser creatures for their prey, they leave them uneaten. No, the only real problem was that alpha of theirs. A funny tickle in his throat caused him to cough. How odd, the uncomfortable sensation. In fact, his entire mind was buzzing slightly. His sight was fuzzy at the edges and the light seemed to dim. He stumbled, coughing, and fell. All he could do was stare at the boots approaching him as his sight failed. He was too weak even to call out to his pack mates. These two Hunters were lucky that he was ill.

Stepping lightly as possible, Blood Muzzle traced his path back toward where he had seen the Hunter alpha earlier. If he could defeat such a skilled opponent, one that even Alpha could not beat, then Alpha would have no choice but to accept his challenge for leadership of the pack. Accept the challenge or be shamed, and for a wolf that was no choice at all. He paused, and sniffed the wind. She was close, he could smell her. He remembered seeing the mark Alpha had put on her. While he watched her earlier, she had removed the covering she put over the mark. She had raised the thin and inadequate furs that these Hunters had out of the way, so she could stroke and rub at the mark. He had thought of attacking her then, but there was no honor in taking down an opponent that was unprepared for a fight. So he had met up with the other three in the clearing as they had agreed. He kept the knowledge of her whereabouts secret, though he told them she hunted alone this season. He did not tell them because this prey was to be his. He would make her pay for what she did to Alpha, and in doing so would secure his right to challenge Alpha for leadership of the Great Pack. Across this trickle of a brook. He could smell her clearly. The falling rain made it easy to approach her, even if it was from upwind. Not as if these pathetic Hunters could smell anything with their small noses, anyway. Upwind would have to do. He had the rain and the bushes as cover. She was in an area with few trees for her to hide behind. Now would have to do. This was it. He stepped from the cover of bushes, his hackles raised, baring his teeth and growling as he stared straight at her. A more clear challenge could not be had by anyone.

Ashlyn's thoughts of being a Duchess that the people would be as proud to have as they were now of their Duke carried on. She would not be the kind of Duchess that avoided duty because she was a woman. She could not imagine the boredom that she would suffer if she were. Maybe she would even wear pants when not at the Hunt. That would cause a stir, now, would it not?

As she kept her eyes seeking clues to the wolves' passage, she murmured a few of the small spells that her mother had taught her. The charm to keep the wool shears sharp she directed at the head of her short spear. The blessing to keep the fabric of a tunic from ripping so easily she infused through her leather armor. Even the gardener's rune carved into the tomato poles to keep them from snapping in the wind, she used a sharp rock to carve it into the short spear's shaft.

She heard a twig snap and whirled around, bringing her sword to bear on... a poor frightened raccoon. It scampered off as she sheathed her sword and drew the short spear from her back, just in case she did indeed find a wolf.

Without the sun shining, it was more difficult to mark the passage of time, but she figured it was time to check in at the checkpoint. She made her way through the woods and came across the path to the checkpoint, manned by the blacksmith's teenage son. She knew he was sweet on her, but she couldn't let him think she was interested in return. How would she ever control a household if her husband to be didn't think he had to win her heart?

"Ah, Lady Ashlyn, it looks like your lead has been dissolved. Three of the men have claimed kills equal in amount to yours now. You only have maybe an hour of light left to try to reclaim it. You know, I have a week's wages from my father's forge wagered on you coming back with the highest number of kills. A tie will not do at all," he cheerily informed her as she approached.

"Bennam," she replied, "you know that gambling on the Hunt is frowned upon. Can you afford to lose a week's wages?" she harrumphed at him as she notched her pole to show she'd made her final check-in at the waystation.

He grinned his annoyingly good-looking grin, and told her, "Well, I won't lose my pay, and I'll win enough to buy my own horse and covered cart if you just find and kill just one more measly simple dire wolf. Besides, if I'm to make you my wife someday – "

"Just halt that train of thought right there, metal shaper. I'm not going to be your wife," she tried to act indignant.

"– then I would rather have one that the other fellows are afraid to approach," he finished merrily ignoring her indignant protests. She would be his wife someday, he promised himself.

She snorted at him and tightened her brace before hobbling back toward the woods. It took her less time to reach the point where she had left off the trail before checking in. The light was fading, that much was true. Too bad the rain wouldn't leave off.

She continued her painstaking tracking job, attempting to find anything that the rain had not washed away. It was beginning to look like she would not be able to win the horse and cart for Bennam.

Just as she was about to give up and turn back, sure that they had at least driven the beasts on for the season, she spotted a perfect track in the mud. She moved forward, into the sparse trees where the print was set. She shifted her grip on the short spear and looked around.

She saw him as he charged out of the underbrush. A dark gray all over except his snout was a rather bright shade of red. It was a scene in slow motion as she examined the wolf running full force at her, jaws gaping wide and showing many extremely sharp teeth. He crossed the gap between bushy underbrush and the few trees incredibly quickly.

He leaped at her and immediately, her heart was in her throat. She fought down the panic and spun to her right, lashing out with her sword. It did not matter how many times the struggle began anew with another one of the giant canines, the initial panic reflex was always there. As the fire of engaging the dire wolf began to burn through her blood, she focused her thoughts away from her musing and into the best way to take the life from the beast. He tried to fight her off, the claws and fangs – even trying to whip her with his tail or knock her over with his frighteningly massive body. She had learned well, however, how to deal with the monster before her and the rest of his kind. She was careful and patient with her time and took small hits where she could get them, letting it tire itself out against her buckler and always focusing on the head. After nearly a quarter hour of fighting and a sizeable accumulation of small wounds, she saw the opening. It was tired and careless now, and the heart would be easy to strike. She stepped back and braced herself. Using her stiffened leg as a pivot point, she raised her sword to drive the point home. She reared and swung forward –

"Ashleigh Lynn! I've called you for lunch a dozen times! Turn that thing off, dry yourself, and get in here for lunch!" her mother shouted impatiently from the kitchen's sliding glass door as she draped a beach towel on the back of a patio chair nearby. Then she turned and went back inside mumbling something, but all that Ashleigh could hear was, "... thirteen years old... such a tomboy... good imagination..." With a sigh, Ashleigh hobbled over to the outside faucet and twisted it off. She turned and looked at the muddy mess she'd left under the tree house Grandpa Duke had built before she was born, and around the bases of the three trees supporting it. She grabbed her hair and wrung the water out of it and started across the yard toward the patio and the towel – and eventually, lunch. Not feeling like going around, she headed straight for her little brother Evan's sandbox between the tree house and the patio.

Her right foot made contact with the sand, but as her left leg swung around in the brace she'd worn since the dog attack, she was no longer in the backyard walking toward the kitchen door ten yards away. No, she was A'shlee, first wife of the Emir, astride the back of a slowly plodding and unhurried camel in the massive Arabian Desert. Drenched not in the runoff from the sprinkler, but instead, the last of the water from her canteen as a desperate hope to reach her destination without falling due to heat exhaustion. There was a fine meal awaiting her, as well as a well deserved rest on a couch fit for a sultan once she made it to the checkpoint she could just make out in the distance. She raised a hand to shade her brow from the blistering sun as she peered across the expanse, fervently hoping that her goal that she'd spotted was not a mere mirage...

nicely done

Steps along well as the hunt continues and suddenly a jolt of reality which after sitting up I had to smile at. Good story


A female "Walter Mitty"

I enjoyed Quarry greatly. Excellent treatise.

Ashlee or A'shlee produces the reality of both your and her imaginations. When recall many such adventures from the years when I was 'young' although usually it was the boys who were protecting me and I the fair maid in the castle. Very few times did I imagine a reality such as that depicted so successfully here. (Although now I wish I had)

Thank-you for a most enjoyable tale.

T D Aldoennetti

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