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Hail the Hunter

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I told you I was born in the Western mountains, but this is only part of the story. I was raised in a Moon temple, you see. I know you've heard of them. Yes, I grew up in a small temple, one of many in that part of the world, and spend my childhood looking forward to the day when I was declared grown, and ready to serve. Of the time before I was given to the temple, I remember very little.

It was considered a great honor, you see. None of us thought to question it. When it came time for me to visit the Grand Temple for my coming of age, I was as nervous and excited as any other acolyte. I took my first steps into the temple's vast inner hall, awe-struck. Fine marble and gold, and the high priestess in her ceremonial vestments, would be more than enough to turn a child's head. But they paled in comparison with the jewels that filled the temple's shallow basin.

The grandeur of the sight that met my eyes that night defies description. Had you been there, had you seen it with your own eyes, you might find it easier to understand my people and their ways of worship. Even now, the memory of it can send a shudder down my spine on the warmest of days. Under the light of a full moon the awe I felt for my masters was as much adoration as dread. Just as I was taught.

As I descended the steps of the temple on that day, the last day of my childhood, they seemed to me worthy of every bit of awe I could muster. And my eye was drawn immediately -- as though, I thought, by fate -- to one among their number. She was not larger or fiercer than the others, but her scaly coat gleamed, throwing back bits of light from the many torches lit around the hollow. I knew in my heart that she was special, and that she would be mine.

She had no name that I knew of. In truth, I called her 'she' out of some silly, childish habit. Dragons do not truly have male and female among them. But to me she was my dragon queen, and I would serve her faithfully for as long as she graced me with her favor. I could see my future laid out before me with perfect clarity, and it was bright and beautiful. At its center, the queen who sprawled in the marble basin below.

I introduced myself to her as such. Kneeling on one knee, I clutched my hands to my chest and spoke some old words of obeisance, long passed from one generation of acolytes to the next.

My queen, from her vantage, paused from lazily grooming her lustrous scales and snaked her long neck up to gaze down at me.

“You are my new servant,” she said, not asked.

“Yes, my lady,” I said, trying to keep my eyes respectfully fixed on the swirling patterns of the marble floor.

I could not help but try to peek at her through my eyelashes. For years, I could never get enough of just staring at her. I could sit, admiring her sleek serpentine grace and the opaline play of light on her violet scaling, for hours at a time. Until my legs went numb and my stomach loudly protested the denial of yet another meal. If you have never loved a dragon, you have never known true adoration in its purest form.

She, on her part, adjusted immediately to my presence at her beck and call. Child that I was, I never would have guessed that she was hardly older than I, by their reckoning, and had never had a maid like me at her service before. Coming of age rites, however solemn, do not actually make one an adult. To me, my queen seemed wise and venerable beyond measure, and she was only too ready to nurture my incipient devotion.

Dragons are not like men, and they are not like beasts. They may live wildly, hunting for their meals, as they do in some parts far to the north. Perhaps some of them prefer it so. In any case, they do not truly require the services of such small, soft beings as us to survive. I did not know that then. My mind existed in a delicate state of balance between two deep convictions: first, that my queen was mighty and unvanquishable, and second, that my service to her was of the utmost importance.

I did not examine these beliefs closely, and never questioned the seeming contradiction embedded in them. If my lady was so mighty, why did she need me at her command, ready to drop whatever I did at her bidding, attentive to her slightest change of temper? Yet I did exactly that. First, at the Grand Temple, where she remained with me for some weeks after my indenture. Later, when the masters had departed, I took my place at one of the more minor cloisters, deep in the wildest valleys of the mountains. There, I served alongside the monks and awaited my lady's command.

To serve is a life of waiting. I was a good servant to my mistress. It was unthinkable to me that she should ever seek my presence and be left wanting. I was to be available to her at all times, regardless of how long she'd been absent. After the first few weeks it became apparent to me that her absence would be a rule, rather than the exception. My queen would fly free.

I did not mind. I took up the service of an acolyte, just as I had done for years previous, and waited. Our first separation seemed cruelly long, but I knew it was only a test of my devotion. I worked and watched the skies, alert to any sign of her return, and my devotion was rewarded, after a fashion. The moment I spotted a winged form gleaming in the distance I dropped my tools and ran into the temple as fast as I could. When I saw her shadow dark upon the white marble floor, I knew that our reunion must be as ecstatic as our separation was intolerable.

Such it remained for a long while. Longer than I care to admit. My lady would appear and I would rush to kneel at her clawed feet, obey her commands and anticipate her whims. I entertained her, after a fashion. Her kind sometimes finds ours amusing in a perverse way. When she was absent I pined like a girl whose lover is away to war. At first any separation was too painful to describe. As the months wore on the pain took on a dull and tolerable character, but I still met her inevitable return with raptures of delight.

Her journeys away from the temple were not uniform in length. At first they increased steadily, till I could expect not to see her for six weeks or longer. I counted the days and charted them, desperate to make sense of her motions, to predict her path, to be always ready when and where she needed me. If she noticed these efforts she never said as much. My presence was, like that of any acolyte, a matter of course. Only absence would warrant remark, and I could not dream of being absent. Not when my lady might appear to me any day, any hour.

Not then, at any rate.

I was entering the third year of my service to her, and my queen had been absent for eight weeks. According to all my charts and figures, she was meant to appear any day. The village in the valley just below our temple was having their annual harvest fair. Most of the acolytes and a few of the monks had been permitted to attend. One of them, in a show of friendship perhaps, invited me along. Devoted maid that I was, I refused to leave my attendance. My lady could appear at any moment. They went without me and came back with a basket full of spice cakes that they shared among those who'd been left behind.

I'd had cakes much like those at the fairs in my home village, before I was given to the Moon temple. As I said before, I remembered almost nothing of that time. Yet the taste of those spice cakes, crushed and crumbling from their uncomfortable journey up the mountainside in a frayed straw basket, I found strangely familiar. 

A boy held the basket as I picked out one of the broken cakes, cradling it in both hands. He smiled at me and swung the basket in his hand, strolling up the path back to the temple, never knowing how his simple offering had affected me.

How could he? I didn't know it myself. In the days that followed I forgot all about the harvest and everything else, or at least, I convinced myself that I had done so. There was no room in my life for fate and spice cakes both. One or the other had to go. And in short order it no longer mattered, because my lady had returned from her wandering and I had no time to dwell on it. Which was just as I liked it.

She left only days after her arrival, suddenly, in the night. The racket of her departure woke me and I climbed out of bed, wrapping my blanket around my body as I rushed, barefoot, out of my room. The dewy grass was cold against my feet. I saw a shadow against the dark of the moonless sky, a black silhouette uncoiling and flying away.

I did not understand that she was growing restless, as dragons do, and I did not recognize my own growing restlessness in response. Whatever turmoil I might have otherwise felt, I knew I had no claim on. A servant waiting on her mistress has no right to feel neglected, abandoned, hurt. I began to spend my days in the cloister libraries where, between stacks of illuminated theological manuscripts and yellowing books of science and law, one could here and there find a pamphlet squirreled away by an unruly acolyte.

These were filled with common stories of scorned romance and macabre revenge fantasies. I found about half-a-dozen of them, so alike that their details blur in my mind. Invariably in all of them a young maiden would be betrayed by her lover and consequently die of a broken heart, and someone would get gruesomely murdered who very likely had earned it. My temple education had not prepared me for these. I did not even know that written words could be used to tell such tales.

I was reading one of these pamphlets with great concentration the next time my queen appeared in the sky. Only the crash-and-tumble sound of her landing started me from my blood-soaked reveries, and I leapt to me feet, rushing to her side. That night I was horrified that I had failed to watch the skies for the first sign of my lady, although she had mentioned nothing of my tardiness.

She left the next day at sunset and I returned to my fanciful little books. The next time the acolytes invited me along on one of their jaunts to the village, I accepted.

Over time, my visits to the village grew more frequent, while the dragon's visits became more erratic than ever. Mostly she was gone for a month or more at a time, but she might just as easily return after a week, or twice in the same week. I was cautious in my endeavors, although I had yet to admit to myself that I was transgressing though I knew full well that I was obliged to remain attendant in the cloisters at all times. I would only leave the temple in the days immediately following her departure, and only if I felt certain that she would be gone for a while.

I remember the day it all changed. Summer had only just begun and, while the days were growing warmer, the morning air still held a chill. I had borrowed a scarf from a friend. Awake before dawn, we planned to steal away before anyone else woke up and make the long walk down the mountainside, not to the village but to a larger town that lay some way beyond. It was farther than I had been since being cloistered years earlier and I was giddy with excitement. All I knew of the town and its market came from the whispered stories the acolytes exchanged late at night when no one was listening.

It was almost like an adventure, and I did not mind the long walk. 

My friend kept up a steady stream of chatter, describing all she'd ever heard about the town. Neither of us had ever been there before, and she was very eager to prove to the other acolytes that she was brave enough to walk the whole way there, permission or not. We were happy and light-hearted and could not be daunted. I was certain that nothing could stand in our way.

Emboldened by months of neglect, I had almost ceased to scan the skies for my mistress, whereas once I'd spent most of my hours gazing hopefully upwards. Now I was consumed by my new friends and the small adventures they took me on. I might have looked up as the dawn began to break to see the sky painted wonderful colors, long before the sun was visible over the flanks of the tall mountains. But I had had enough of staring at the sky, and so I did not spot the shadow above until it was almost upon us.

I felt the air beating on my bare face at the same time as I heard my companion's cry of terror. A heartbeat later, and I felt myself pinned by a crushing force.

“Selfish child,” said the queen. “Can you not appreciate the honor that has been bestowed upon you? Do you always shirk your duties so casually, when I am away?”

I could not speak through the blinding pain. My sight was a haze of red.

“No,” said the queen, and her voice was an earthquake that I felt shuddering from her flesh to mine. “Do not answer me, you impertinent thing. There is nothing that remains to be said. Get you back to the cloister, and do your duty. When next I arrive, I expect to see you attendant.”

And she left, a streak of violet darting across the lightening sky.

I felt the hard ground beneath me, dirt and rock going all the way down to the roots of the mountains. I grasped at it, not ready to let it go. But my friend, the acolyte who had been so excited to visit town with me, was tugging on my hand, her face streak with tears.

I had to get up off the ground, sometime.

The next week was painful. My face burned where her clawed foot had pierced my flesh, and you see the consequence of that injury before you. My body radiated with fever, and I was confined to bed until I healed – or died. Worse that the pain of my injury was the sting of disapproval. The monks who entered the room to treat my wounds did not have to communicate their disappointment with me in words. I could see it in their faces.

Of the other acolytes I saw nothing. When the fever broke and I was able to stand and walk about, I found that none of them would speak to me, or even look at me directly. They would glance at me sidelong, then avert their gaze and rush off in the opposite direction, shoulder hunched. I suppose I was to them nothing more than a reminder of their duties, and the consequences of disobeying. Proof of the lifetime of servitude that they had pledged, which they so often succeeded in forgetting about.

When the week was out, my lady returned.

I had been anticipating her, but not as before. I was eager to see what reaction she would have to my injured face, if any. If asked, I would not have been able to explain why I was so insistent upon witnessing her response, and why it was so important to me. Fortunately, no one thought to ask. The acolytes knew that I was alive, and disfigured. The monks knew I was attendant to my duties. That was all that mattered.

I attended.

I watched my lady descend gracefully from above, landing in the shallow marble bowl at the center of the temple. Her claws clicked against the cold stone. I had never noticed that before. I tried not to flinch, but I don't recall if I succeeded.

“I see,” she said, “that you have learned your lesson.”

I mumbled something in the approved liturgy.

“You will have to learn to speak up, girl,” said the dragon. “Look at me.”

I tipped up my head and scanned her long, reptilian face but I saw nothing in those gleaming yellow eyes, nothing that I could read or understand. Whether it is possible for a mere mortal woman like myself to understand a dragon, that is a question I have never managed to answer to my satisfaction. At that time, all I knew was what I didn't see.

The long, wedge-shaped head swiveled away from me, fixing on someone above us and to my right.

“Is the eye lost?”

What the monk answered, I could not hear. It didn't matter. I had guessed the answer days ago.

“Girl.”

I turned my face back up, willing my fists to unclench. Later I would find deep gouges in the soft heels of my palms.

“What I do, I do for your own sake,” she said. “If you cannot know your place as other mortals do, I will undertake to teach you. Learn to serve. Serve, and you will prosper. I do not want to think of what must happen if you are defiant.”

That night, I left.

I trust I do not have to explain, here of all places, why that was. How it happened is another matter. Despite everything that had transpired, and although I was burning with inarticulate rage, it was not an easy decision to make. I might have stayed longer, tried harder to make sense of my servitude. But I left that night, climbed down the wall of the cloister and fumbled my way in the dark through the wild uncut undergrowth of the mountainside. I dared not approach the road until I was out of sight of the temple and the village both.

Dawn broke shortly after I spotted the blot in the distance that was the town walls. When I reached them, they were open to admit the carts and wagons of farmers come to market. No one questioned me as I entered, just another village girl in an ill-fitting patchwork kirtle. I had had the foresight to leave behind the acolyte's habit I had worn for so long.

From there, my journey is a familiar one. I knew that I must get as far from my home as possible, as fast as possible. I stowed away on a wagon full of raw sheepskins to get to another town, farther away, nearer the foothills. I walked long hours, and often my feet were so sore that I thought I might never be able to walk again, and then woke the next day and did. I worked odd jobs, here and there, where people weren't put off by my bandaged face. When work wasn't forthcoming, I stole. I did a great many things in those days that I prefer not to think on, but that portion of my story is not materially different than any other vagabond.

When I reached the city of Sunriver, I felt at last as though I might someday be safe. That was where I met the Easterland hunters, and heard their tales. From them I could learn all that I needed to become a hunter of great and terrible beasts. And though it has never been done in living memory, it is with their help, under their guidance, that I intend to one day hunt a dragon.

Sunriver was also where I was when I finally realized what escaping the cloister meant for me. I had left behind every home I had ever had, everyone I cared for, and everything I knew. To escape meant to abandon all that I loved. The Western mountains were no longer my home, and I did not belong to them. My success meant that I would always be a stranger, wherever I went. Hunters are usually welcome wherever they go, but they are never home.

But that's the price you pay.