The sun slumbered behind the horizon when the two hunters set out into the vast woods at the edge of the plains on horseback. The chill of the fall morning kissed their bare faces, those of a young woman and a young man. The two cut their way along the game-trails leading deep into the heart of the woods in search of a quarry.
Early morning fog wove through the old oaken forest. Morning dew clung to each leaf and light reflected in a prism of colors from the morning light. Only the faint sound of leaves dropping from the depleting canopy could be heard. Beams of sunlight shone through the trees, shining along the trails the deer used to travel.
The male hunter, hooded by an olive cloak, followed the trails, reins in hand. The branches ahead creaked and rustled, drawing the attention of his honey eyes for a moment while searching for possible signs of prey. The gentle trickle of the stream ahead brought a soothing ambiance to the forest. He chose this spot to rest, to prepare for the hunt to come. He dismounted the chestnut horse, patting its nose as it gave a friendly snort.
”Easy… Easy girl, ” the hunter muttered under his breath. He turned and began to raid the saddlebag for wheat bread and a russet apple. After sinking his teeth into the crusty flesh of the bread, savoring the taste of the hard work done to prepare it, he pulled his quiver over his shoulder and adjusted the bow on his back. He tied his horse to a low hanging limb of a nearby tree while devouring the rest of the bread, then continued to the stream. He knelt by the waters edge, thrusting his hands beneath the cool surface of the water. ”Ice cold, the pleasure of the fall time, ” he thought, as he took a drink of the refreshing liquid. With a long sigh, he pulled back his hood, revealing his dark brown hair, tied back with a piece of cloth.
Not too far away, the sound of rustling leaves brought him to his feet once again. He turned to meet the eyes of his fellow hunter. She emerged from the dark wood, reins in hand. He greeted her with a warm smile.
”How goes the tracking? ” she greeted him back with a matter of playful business. Equipped with her hunters bow and quiver over her shoulders, a beautiful smile embellished her face, framed by her brown hair, braided to one side.
The male glanced down the stream. ”Well, I find this to be a good place to start, ” he answered.
The girl laughed, ”All right, master hunter, lead the way. ”
Together, they maneuvered through the trees, setting a few snares along the way. Meat was a necessity, for the harvest fest was upon them. Travelers from miles around would bring stories to tell and goods to trade. They needed a large sum of money for necessary merchandise and a few rabbits or a deer would fit the bill. The girl pulled ahead in eager ambition, testing the ground for any signs of wild animals. The male followed behind, scanning the area with intensity. The leaves, in shades of oranges and reds, illuminated the forest making it seem as if it were on fire. The beauty of it was mesmerizing.
”Right here, ” the girl exclaimed in a whisper.
Her partner drew to a stop, kneeling down next to her to examine the tracks. ”Its headed north toward the lake, ” the young man stated. He turned to her, hoping to meet her eye but turned away and continued to push them forward. His boots and her moccasins indented the dirt beneath their feet. The challenge came when sneaking through the fallen leaves occupying the ground. Not crunching them seemed almost impossible. Half the trees were bare and stripped of their colorful leaves that covered the last patches of grass the animals had to eat before the first snow. Judging by the chilled air of the growing morning, the first snow was not too far off.
”Its a little late to be hunting, ” the male commented, rubbing his poorly shaven chin.
”Theres always something to hunt, ” the girl sprang back with hope and exchanged smiles before perusing.
The two cut through the area, following the stream. The width of the creek increased as they neared their destination. Upon reaching the lake, the gentle sound of the waves rolling onto the gravel lakeside resonated through the clearing. With the first sign of movement, however, they slipped behind tall bushes that had not yet lost their leaves. The boy peered over the bush while pulling his bow from his shoulder and readying it, his companion following suit.
”There, ” he exclaimed in a whisper, pointing a gloved finger towards a buck sipping water on the other side of the lake. With a smug grin, he rose to his feet, attempting to aim at the creature with his bow. A slender hand grabbed the edge of his cloak and tugged him back into his hiding spot.
He looked over to her with playful anger. ”Ray, What are you doing? ” he hissed.
”Sit down Jex, youll miss, ” Ray insisted.
Jex sighed and lowered to the ground. ”So we do this like last time? ” he asked.
”Like last time, ” she said with a smile.
Jex put his bow back over his shoulder and crouched, sneaking around the perimeter of the lake like a predator trailing its prey. It was a technique he and Ray used to lure the deer into a spot of impending doom. Jex himself, never good with a bow, would scare half their catch away. Ray, patient as she was, often told him his ambition worked for both of them.
Jex made his way into place as Ray readied her bow, stroking its custom frame. Her bow was attached to her at all times, archery being something she lived and breathed. With an arrow in her grasp, she knocked it in anticipation. She watched Jex, his beast-like movements towards the deer. He paused a moment then cracked a twig drawing the bucks attention. The gentle wind carried Jexs scent trailed through the air and the deer bounded in Rays direction.
Ray vaulted to her feet, drawing back her bowstring. With a quick aim, she released. The world seemed to slow, the arrow split through the air, hawk feathers slicing through the atmosphere. The arrow pierced the chest of the buck, its fallen body flailing in the dirt near the mouth of the stream. She lowered her bow, a perfect shot. Jex came scrambling over rocks with his knife to carry out his favorite task. He approached the animal and gave it a look of pity as its frame hustled about in pain. He held it down with a firm hold. In a massive swing the knife sliced its hide putting the creature out of its misery. Jex stood removing the arrow from the creatures chest handing it off to Ray as she neared.
”Nice shot, ” he said.
Ray smiled, ”Thank you, couldn have done it without you. ”
After eviscerating the poor creature and washing their hands in the lake, the two tied the buck up. Jex had spent five minutes marveling at the points on the antlers. ”Five on each one, ” he exclaimed for the millionth time as they attached their catch to his chestnut steed with hemp rope.
Ray laughed at his youthful wonder and the quirky smile as he went on about the tales of the bucks they had reeled in over the years. The gods had blessed the land in an abundance of fauna, many were sure of that. Together they walked into the forest, collecting their small catches from the snares and strung them on a leather cord. Over the time of their efforts, the sun climbed across the sky. They made their way to the main road that led into the heart of town where their catch would be worth their labor.
As they broke out of the forest, they traveled eastward towards the main part of Aldoak, their hometown. Masses of rolling plains containing wheat danced in the breeze. Busy workers hoed the ground releasing scents of upturned earth into the air. The wheat would be milled into flour and made into dough then baked into rolls to be eaten in the winter to come. Farm homes stood near each plain, steam billowing from their chimneys and welcoming the hard working farmers in during the evenings to a warm place of comfort. A vast mountain range stood to the west where the heart of the kingdom laid on the other side. From their location it would take weeks to get there, not a journey many would take.
Jex watched the mountains from afar wondering about what lay beyond them. It was something better than apple orchards and rolling plains. He turned his gaze away and watched the different farmers work, chopping their fields with pewter hoes then turned to Ray. ”Your family has started their harvest, haven they? Helping my family has taken time. I haven been over in a few days. ”
Ray laughed, the sun illuminating her rose kissed cheeks. ”My family understands you can make it every day and understand you aren an ox. But to assure you the least, I have been helping my grandfather a lot. Work is getting done. ”
”Well thats good to hear, ” Jex commented, peering toward the heart of the town. It was as busy as the small town got during mid afternoon, except for the extra bustle of people preparing for the autumn festivities. ”My fathers been busy. The butchers store has never looked so empty. With new people in the village each year, meat becomes in high demand around here… and hard working oxen, ” he added with a cocky grin.
Ray rolled her eyes with a smile, ”At least one day all that hard work won be for nothing. ”
The town gave them an instant feeling of welcoming. The easy going demeanor was contagious for the town gathering and small fests put on each year. Just on the outskirts of the Delvar kingdom, the town was at peace away from the busy cities. But the townspeople were not shy of stories and rumors told by travelers. In fact they made things that much more exciting. Jex and Ray walked the streets towing their buck along behind them. The dusty streets, lined with a mid-sized collection of blacksmith, herb, and clothing shops were enough to satisfy the towns people and travelers and their needs.
They walked close to a peddlers stand, one Jex favored. The man sold several odds and ends from around the kingdom and beyond. Jex pulled Ray to a stop as an object catching the light drew him near. Ray pulled to a stop and waited for him. Jex eyed each artifact, for it was a treasure he had to have.
The man behind the stand turned to him and presented Jex with a toothy grin, minus one tooth. It seemed an unattractive, dead weasel occupied his upper lip in the shape of a mustache. His green eyes, kind and welcoming, had just the mannerism to draw buyers in from a few feet away. His name was Speals, Richard Speals. He was full of wondrous stories for he had traveled many regions in his lifetime. A hearty chuckle rumbled from his throat as he spoke, ”Ah, back again I see, ” he began, his toothy smile visible behind the dead rodent on his face. He eyed their catch, ”My, thats a big one. ”
Jex gave a quick glance to Ray before boasting, ”It was an easy hunt too. Took it down with a good wrestle and game of tackle. ”
”And my arrow, ” Ray added, crossing her arms.
Speals laughed, his round gut jiggling, ”A fine team ye are. Im sure it will sell well. ”
”Oh it better,
” Jex added,
”Its a beauty,
” he said, putting an arm around Ray and drawing her near.
e going to catch the whole forest and sell it one day. ”
”We? ” Ray asked, trying not to laugh, but nothing brought the smile to her face more than his. They matched, something Speals could see.
”I don doubt it for a second, ” Speals said. ”Ay, one thinks you could concur a lot more with team work like that. ”
”You think so? ” Jex perked up.
”Oh come on Jex. Your fathers waiting, ” Ray urged, tugging at his arm, towards the flow of rustling people in the streets.
Jex smiled to Speals. ”Ill be back for that. Keep it for me will you? ” he asked nodding towards the object that had drawn his attention earlier.
”Ah, no promises, ” Speals winked. He chuckled at Jexs look of disappointment.
Jex and Ray weaved their way towards the butchers shop. Jex spent a lot of his time there besides Rays farm, helping her grandfather with things. Jexs family owned the butchers shop. It had been only Jex and his father since his mothers passing when he was an infant. The bloody smell of raw meat blasted in their faces upon entering, though the shop was clean. Rays nose wrinkled. No matter how much time she enjoyed accompanying Jex, this was her least favorite place to do so.
A man, tall and built with a vicious persona threatening his down turned brow, held a concentrated demeanor in his dark eyes, standing on the other side of the counter while cleaving a sow slaughtered earlier that morning. Diligent in his work, he made the clean cuts. He did not glance up from his work as the two entered the shop but knew their presence. ”Well? Whatd ya catch this time? ” he asked with a gruff voice.
Jex frowned, displeased, but he put on a cocky grin, just for his father. ”A five pointer, ” Jex answered, trying to challenge his old man.
His father returned a dull stare.
”Ive seen eight. At least you
e halfway there, ” he said, sticking the blade of his knife in the counter.
”Well catch a bigger one next time, ” Jex challenged his father. ”Me and Ray, unstoppable, ” He grinned wide and looked at Ray, ”Right? ”
A laugh leaked through her teeth but she stood up straight, ”Well bring back a dozen! ”
Jexs father rubbed his hands on the front of his blood stained apron and walked around the counter to examine the deer. After a thorough investigation he stood. ”Well if you clean it and wrap it, Ill buy the runt from you. Itll buy you some things. It looks healthy… ” he trailed off for a moment making his way behind the counter and cut the sow, ”Well you better cut it up quick as you can. The traders and merchants will only be in town a few days. Get to work, boy, ” he urged his son. ”The Harvest Fest begins tonight. Working all day will leave you unhappy… unless you want that, ” he said, raising a brow.
”Id rather enjoy myself, ” Jex said then turned to Ray, ”Im going to cut up our deer. Ill meet you tonight by the market. ”
Ray threw her arms around him then fled from the shop with an excited glow in her blue eyes as she left Jex to do the hard work. Joy enveloped her as she stepped back out onto the street, shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun.
”The Harvest Fest! ” she cried to herself and bit her lower lip as excitement bubbled through her. It was every year around the harvest this fest came about. Storytellers, travelers, merchants, and peddlers all came together, families and friends too from miles around. Activities and feasts in abundance were held. Mounted statues of the harvest gods stood in honor of the season, a season to become one.
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