By Andrea Teare
Content Warnings: Hunting.
Little leaned precariously to the right, remaining in her saddle only by sheer willpower and the strength of legs trained to hold tight no matter what. The ribalt let out a bellow, stumbling heavily as the ground changed beneath them, the dryness becoming marshy, filled with divots and crumbly hollows as the riverbank loomed.
The ribalt had been clever, Little thought, but not clever enough. If she’d been in its place, she’d have hidden within the endless tree-lined creek beds on the far side of the plain. Plenty of escape routes, and they all looked the same. She could evade the hunt for weeks in there. But that was why she was the warrior, and the ribalt was prey. The thrill of the hunt ran through her, and she urged her horse to go faster, neck outstretched, hooves thundering.
The air rippled, thickened, and Little let the finality of it all wash over her. The last time. She couldn’t really comprehend it; hunting ribalt was what they did. At least, since the rabbits had run out. The ribalt bellowed again, regaining her attention, and she stretched out, ready to topple the majestic beast, the last of its kind. The last of any kind. The whiff of fear, of defiance until the bitter end, charged her up, and she struck the last blow for the whole tribe.
All too soon, it was done. The beast lay dead, and the village prepared for the last feast. Little, seated at the gathering’s position of honour, wore a garland of hay blooms and enjoyed a cup of the zealously guarded mitra-flower wine. Her mother leaned towards her, and they touched foreheads in the traditional greeting.
The realisation that, from this day forth, they would feast only on what they harvested from the plains hit her with a solid blow to her chest. What would she do now the hunt was gone? Work in the plains? Turn her horse loose and hang up her bow forever?
Little’s pain at the loss overwhelmed her, and she opened her eyes. Her mother’s familiar face stared back, ashen, like the light had leached from her features and she had been replaced by a statue.
‘Why don’t you go and get cleaned up while we have the council gathering?’ her mother said.
‘Aw Mum, I’ve finally made my hunt. Isn’t it time I started sitting in on the council as well?’ She was Little, not only because her age was less, but she was also the smallest. She’d taken so long to prove herself. Surely, now, it was time.
Her mother shook her head, and in the distance near the council hut, she saw her father and the elders standing split-legged, arms crossed. Little changed her tack and stumbled away to rinse the hunt from her, to cleanse herself from her old life and prepare for her new.
After night fell, the great spitted animal was carried to the table, and the village fell to, slicing pieces from the beast, filling their plates and their bellies. Little hummed happily to herself, her flowers falling over one eye as she bent her head to finish her meal.
At the far end of the table, her father and the elders raised their glasses.
‘Little. My littlest warrior. I’m so glad you finally got to finish your hunt,’ her father said, his voice gravelly and far from his usual authoritative self. Little set down her glass, rose to her feet, and tried to ignore her mother’s choked sob.
‘Here’s to changing times and all moving on together.’ Little held her goblet high before drinking deeply. She set it down again, wondering why nobody at the table met her eye, why they weren’t running around in congratulatory glee.
Her father cleared his throat, tried to speak, failed and sat down again. Beside him, Myro, the council leader and the most proven warrior amongst them, stood, muscles bulging, shoulders thrown back and proud. His face never faltered as he alone made eye contact with her and began to speak.
‘As we are gathered, so let it be spoken. In the council following our last hunt, it was determined that we cannot stop. The hunt is in our blood, we can no sooner stop it than stop breathing or existing.’
Little’s heart began to beat a little faster. This was far from the usual speech. Her mother’s hand reached out, intertwined itself with hers, salty, damp and uncomfortable.
‘As of this night, the hunt must go on. We need a newer, greater challenge. A creature that has never before been successfully captured.’
Little’s heart began to pound. Blood roared in her ears. A new hunt! Only this afternoon, she had believed every creature that could run or hide or be hunted was extinct.
‘We do not take this decision lightly,’ Myro continued, ‘and we hope that in time we will find something else.’ He put down his own goblet and gestured sharply at two of the younger able-bodied warriors who had slipped quietly down to flank Little.
‘We need a prey that can outwit us and run for weeks, even months. Something that will challenge us, push us to the limit, and provide the hunt we need while we search for something new.’ Myro sat down heavily, slapped a final piece of the ribalt into his mouth and chewed noisily.
Hair stood up on the back of Little’s arms, and she pushed back from the table, directly into the arms of her captors.
‘So, we unanimously decided to allow the littlest of us, also one of the wilier, to have a head start, to find their way and leave us no sign as to where they were.’
Little’s father couldn’t meet her eyes as she was dragged from the table and given the reins to her horse and a package of supplies.
‘Good luck, little warrior,’ he said. ‘May we find the next hunt before we find you.’
Andrea Teare is a fiction writer from Australia who enjoys writing horror, and all things speculative. Her work has appeared in various anthologies, and online at Breach! magazine and Aptipodean Sci-Fi. Andrea's short story 'Seaweed' was shortlisted for an Aurealis award in 2019. More about Andrea can be found at her website andreateare.com.au. You can find Andrea on Twitter @andreateare1.