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[Fiction] Carver - Hunter's Vale (AU)


Jager

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Jael stood in along the edge of the clearing working on another carving. She felt the grain of the wood, sought out its life pattern, and brought it into a form the human I could see and understand. Sometimes, like now, it was a face. This time that of a fey maiden, waiting fearfully for a lover who might never return. Others were those of woodland animals, or trees, or even aspects of legends only half-remembered. The trees were like that, remembering only fragments of the history that flowed around them.

She was so caught up in the maiden’s eyes … and the sadness they held, that she didn’t notice the large stag until he was very close. He had crossed into the sunlight of the glade, breaking the natural symmetry of this place, and that had done it. Jael stopped working and looked over to him. He was tall and regal. He was a deer more the size of an elk in his prime and rare to see this far down in the valley. It was his eyes though, that drew her. Were they should have been steady and searching, they were questioning instead. Jael always noticed the eyes. He was very odd for an elk indeed.

“You had best be gone from this place,” she told him, trying to put as much confidence in her voice as she could. Such a brave stag was somewhat frightening to her.

“If you don’t leave, HE will come and find you. You wouldn’t want that,” she added.

The elk turned and eyed her seriously.

“I am looking for Him, actually,” the Elk replied. Jael nearly fell over. Elks didn’t talk. That could only mean he was one of the Firstborne … and a shifter at that. Now she really was in danger. She gulped and tried to retain her composure.

“I … I wasn’t kidding. HE comes here often … and he will be very angry to find you here.”

The stag looked around.

“Well, that’s why I’m here. I need to talk to The Hunter and I heard in the town over there,” he motioned with his magnificent rack toward Jael’s home, “and they mentioned a Sacred Glade … that no one goes to … they say he killed someone here a long time ago.”

“Aren’t you afraid,” she continued bravely. At the same time, she gingerly took up her tool sack and placed the strap on her shoulder. She would have left the tools, but had no real way to replace them. She could only hope he didn’t notice … or at least mind.

The Stag looked around before answering.

“I’m not afraid of The Hunter. Should I be?” The Stag looked over at Jael at the last question.

“I just want to talk with him … but, I can’t find him.”

The Firstborne’s confusion took the edge of Jael’s fear. This one didn’t seem to have his act together. Still, for a human to get involved in the affairs of the Firstborne was a good way to end up dead, so Jael continued to back away.

“Well, good luck with your … ah … search.”

“Uh … okay … thanks … what’s your name, anyway?”

“Jael”, she responded for reasons that escaped her. “Jael the Carver.”

“Well, thank you, Jael the Carver,” the Stag responded.

Jael nodded, turned and walked quickly home. She listened, but heard no sounds of pursuit.

At home, the Jael ate her dinner in silence. It was bad enough she went to the Sacred Glade, but to have actually talked to one … her parents wouldn’t have understood. For Jael, it was equally confusing. Her family was from Ihelian. Before the Spirit War had come to Ihelian, she had gone to the Academy there and had been a promising Guild Artisan. The Firstborne had altered that forever. While she and her family had been lucky enough to survive, Ihelian hadn’t. It had been leveled and her family had been forced to flee … to here. Her father, Robert was a Builder, and true Builders were always in demand. He had managed to recreate some of the life they had once had in Ihelian here in the Hunter’s Vale, but it wasn’t really like home. The town was small … a village really. Instead of working within a large, well-established guild, he worked with Ruth’s fiancé, Jim, and whatever volunteers the locals could scrounge up. It was work, but hard work and he was no longer a young man. Her mother, Donna, ran the Inn attached to their home. Ruth helped her, as did Jael sometimes when needed. Jim, Jael’s ex-fiancé stayed with the family. The rest of his family had died in Ihelian and he had nowhere else to go even though his relationship with Jael had soured even before the flight.

It was Doug that made Jael keep her silence, though. Doug was a Cult of the Slayer fanatic, and made little secret of it. Most humans thought the Cult members were fools. The Cult believed that humans had once all but wiped out the Firstborne … and could do so again. From what little Jael had seen of the Spirit War and the damage that the Firstborne could do to one another, she doubted it. The Firstborne seemed invincible and terribly, terribly destructive. She doubted humans could have ever been a real threat to them. Still, that wouldn’t stop Doug from doing something stupid like trying to get some of the other like-minded refugees in the Vale to go after the Stag and that could only lead to destruction being wrought on her house once again.

So, she kept quiet about the strange Firstborne that night and for the next few days and nights. On the fourth day, she returned to the Glade and he was gone. In a way, she was glad. She had half-expected to find some of his shattered remains. It was widely believed that The Hunter was one of the Primal Firstborne; one of the First amongst the First. Jael didn’t know about that, but she did no that no other Firstborne ever came to the Valley. This was this land and he killed all Firstborne interlopers who came this way. As a side effect, this made the Valley safe for humans fleeing the Spirit Wars. No one saw the Hunter, but no one doubted he was here … still.

Jael returned to the Fey Maiden and fell into her comfortable pattern. It was only as the shadows lengthened and she prepared to leave did she see him standing there. This time, he looked human, but by his eyes, she knew him to be the Stag. Jael nearly jumped out of her skin. The chisel tumbled from her ands and she put her back to the tree she had been working on.

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t mean to startle you.”

She stared at him.

“Hi again. By the way, my name is Harold, son of Anders, of Atheleaon. I didn’t introduce myself properly last time we met.”

“That’s … that’s okay,” she managed to stammer out. Jael searched for something to say.

“Any luck with your search?”

He looked very disheartened.

“No,” he sighed. “I can’t even find him. I know he’s here … somewhere, but he wont’ show himself and I can’t figure out how to find him.”

Two things suddenly occurred to Jael. One, the horrible one, was that there was a sure-fire way to bring The Hunter out of hiding. All this Harold had to do was attack the humans. It suddenly made crystal clear sense to her. That is what had brought him out before … and that is why the other humans remember him being here. When other Firstborne attacked the human settlements, The Hunter came for them. Harold’s existence here … twice … made that suddenly so obvious to her.

The second thing she realized that this Harold, the Stag, was very young. He looked to be about Jael’s age, but he had led a sheltered life. Jael, by comparison, had lived a whole generation worth of living since the flight from Ihelian and her arrival in the Vale. This Firstborne was totally out of his element.

In a way, that made her angry. She had been afraid of this adolescent.

“Well,” she shot back, “what did you expect to happen? He would come out of his long isolation to say ‘Hi’?”

Harold looked a tad shamefaced and nodded.

“Actually, that was pretty much it.”

That look … that sad, desperate look of a boy not quite a man looking so forlorn gave Jael pause.

“Why are you even doing this … Harold? Why are you looking for The Hunter?”

At that, Harold looked up and his featured darkened with his own fear and pain.

“Atheleaon is in trouble, Jael the Carver. We are under attack by ever increasing numbers of Feral and Twisted Firstborne. We are holding our own for now, but that won’t last. Eventually, some of them will get through and Atheleaon will burn. I’m trying to get other Firstborne to come and help us.”

Jael had heard tales about Atheleaon. It was a near-mythical city were humans and Firstborne lived together in harmony. It was far away, to the north, or so legend said. Jael had never given such tales much credence before now.

“So, Atheleaon is real?”

Harold’s face lit up.

“Oh yes, it’s real. Why …” and he began telling Jael about his life. Half magical, half very real to Jael’s own Academy experiences. He talked about sciences and arts blended together, about life among the Firstborne in their tiny enclave, and about his various friends amongst the humans of Atheleaon. People he had grown up with, both human and Firstborne became real through his storytelling ability. Jael was so enraptured that she failed to notice the sun setting until darkness was fully upon them both.

Seeing her look around in dismay, Harold spoke up.

“I can take you home now, if you like. It’s no problem. I can see in the dark with ease.”

Jael nodded. “I guess so, but … it wouldn’t be good if anyone saw you.”

Harold’s expression was invisible to her in the darkness, but he responded in the affirmative.

For the next several days, Jael snuck back to the Glade … and Harold, as often as possible. He told her more of his life, of his quest to find other Firstborne that might stand by his home. He had already tried to get two other well-known Firstborne warriors to help, but they had refused him. The Hunter was third on his list and there were only nine more after him. Harold was beginning to grasp the impossibility of his quest and just how difficult life was for those who didn’t dwell in his paradise. In turn, Jael told him about her life. She told tales of vanished Ihelian, the flight into the unknown that so many refugees had made, as well as the reality that many had not made it. She told him about coming to the Vale and what it had meant … this backwards refuge against a world caught up in the Spirit Wars of the Firstborne.

One question she posed to him as they parted brought him up short.

“Why should anyone help Atheleaon when they haven’t bothered to help anyone else?”

Jael already knew the answer, though it took a while before Harold could put it together. The price of Atheleaon’s paradise was its inward-looking nature. Now, as the world became darker and the Ferals and Twisted became stronger and bolder, Atheleaon could no longer ignore the world because the world was no longer ignoring it. That realization hit Harold like a ton of bricks.

“Were was Atheleaon when Ihelian burned?” she whispered to him.

“I’m sorry,” was all he could say. “We … I never knew about the outside world. Few of us did and that’s our fault. We should have been looking … and now it may be too late.”

Tears began flowing down Harold’s cheek and Jael felt drawn to him. She kissed him softly on his cheeks to kiss away his tears. He suddenly seemed so lost and vulnerable.

“Harold,” she whispered, “that is the question you are going to have to find an answer for.”

Harold suddenly kissed her back, first on the forehead and then on the lips. Jael returned the kiss.

Darkness had long since overcome the Glade when Jael stirred. She had always been a light sleeper and something in her predatory nature kept her alert to her surroundings … when she wasn’t carving anyway. Harold slept exhausted next to her. She sat up and pulled her cloak tight in front of her to cover her nakedness. She looked around, but could see nothing. Still …

When she reached for her pack, she touched a foot that hadn’t been there a second before. She yanked back her hand with a start and her gasp of surprise almost woke up her lover. Before her stood someone who could only be The Hunter. Eyes like pale moonlight looked down on her, but for whatever reasons, she was not afraid.

“You have done nice work in my glade,” he whispered in a voice like a breeze whispering through the trees. “I’ve often come here and admired it.”

“Thank you, sir,” she murmured. “The trees tell me things and I help them bring it out. I am glad it pleases you.”

Too white teeth gleamed out from a shadowed face.

“Flatter isn’t necessary, Jael the Carver,” The Hunter whispered in that unearthly voice once again.

Jael looked over to Harold and back to the Hunter.

“He is looking for you,” she told him. “I think he needs your help … Atheleaon is in trouble and needs your help.”

The Hunter didn’t respond, but examined her instead. Jael blushed.

“Why should I help them, Jael? That would leave my home unguarded. Your home and your family would be at risk.

“But …” she thought for a good reason to give him, but couldn’t think of one … until, once again, reality came crashing into her and things suddenly made sense.

“But, you must help them, Hunter. This place … your Valley, it is the past. Even if it survives another hundred years, it will never be more than it is now. Atheleaon is the future, or at least a future we should work for. Surely you can see that?”

She was gifted with another enigmatic smile. It made her a little angry.

“It is worth the risk, damn it,” she responded with some heat. Oh, great, she thought. Here I go pissing off another Firstborne.

The Hunter only blinked once in response. No sign of anger escaped him.

“Well,” she bulled forward, “if you wont’ help him, I will. We need to do something before all that is good and hopeful vanishes from the world.”

“I know that,” The Hunter responded, “but I wasn’t sure any of you humans did.”

Now it was her turn to blink. As she did so, The Hunter dropped two bundles on the ground next to Jael.

“If you feel that way, you had best be going. Atheleaon has a year … two at the most, before it falls. This Harold will need your help if he is going to have a chance … and you already know that.”

The whole rush of her new reality came rushing in on Jael. Suddenly she knew that she could no longer remain here in the safety of the Vale, knowing what she knew … and feeling about Harold the way she was beginning to. Sure, she was only human, but that is what Harold needed. Someone experienced, and grounded, and who knew about the harsh realities of life.

Jael stood up, no longer concerned with her nakedness, and began to get dressed.

“Will you help us?” she asked The Hunter.

“No,” he began, “not unless you find others to join up first. Then I will come and fight … if I think we can win. If not, better to stay here and wait.”

Jael gave The Hunter a calculated glare. In a way, she understood his reasoning. Several human lifetimes were probably nothing to this Firstborne. Better to wait for a day when light could truly flourish and prosper rather than to rush foolishly into a lost cause. It hurt that this lost cause might very well be hers, and Harold’s. Perhaps The Hunter could use a little bit of her urgency as well, but that was something for another time. She didn’t have a ‘Yes’, but The Hunter hadn’t given her a definite ‘No’, either.

Before she could turn to wake Harold, The Hunter handed her one more item. It was a bow, made from several layers of wood lacquered together and bound by leather.

“I don’t know how to use a bow,” she said, but she still took it.

“You had better learn,” he responded. “You would really rather fight the Firstborne at a distance most of the time. Trust me.”

“Okay. I’ll learn then.”

He nodded. Having finished dressing, Jael turned to wake up Harold. She was sure he would want to talk to The Hunter too.

Harold woke up sleepily and with a trusting smile on his face.

“The Hunter is here,” she whispered urgently to him. Harold’s eyes opened wide and he looked around.

“Were?” he asked. Indeed, The Hunter had vanished.

Jael sighed. Harold stood up and looked around.

“Well, what did he say? Will he help us?” Harold was very excited.

“Yes and no, Harold. He will help us if we can convince a few others to help as well. He will help if he thinks we have a chance.”

“He will … we? You mean … you want to help me? But what about your life? I mean, you are safe here and what’s out there … well, you know how bad it is beyond the Valley.”

Jael reached up and stroked his cheek.

“I know, Harold, but you and your stories reminded me that there are things worth fighting for. You’ve convinced me to help Atheleaon … that Atheleaon is worth fighting for. I may not be The Hunter, but it’s a start, right?”

Harold hugged her.

“I’ll be grateful for the company.”

She decided to not tell him about how he had rekindled her belief in a better future for not only her people, but his. Hope was a special thing … as was love. Better to bring Harold along slowly, for now.

The sun began to slowly rise and creep back into the Valley.

“We should be going,” she told him.

“Don’t you want to say good-bye to your family?”

Jael looked down at the bundles at her feet. The included all of her worldly possessions.

“I think that has been taken care of, Harold. We have a long way to go and time is not on our side.”

“Huh?”

Jael shook her head … another topic of conversation and she knew if they discussed in now, Harold would want to waste time trying to track the Hunter down … futilely and have him explain the comment about ‘one year … two at the most’, and they didn’t have the time. Instead, she changed the subject.

“So, who’s next on the list?”

As Harold began listing their options, as well as the descriptions of the Firstborne they sought, the two began heading out of Hunter’s Vale and into the wider, more dangerous world.

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