Shadows began to materialize from the flat gray of dawn as nine men sat around a small fire and drank an aromatic brew. Dew adhered to the leaves, humidity collected from the air, humidity that also chilled the skin of the hunters. The day would be comfortable later, but for now they welcomed the hot liquid.
Webber, the youngest person at the fire, drew in the steam from his cup. He tried to analyze the aroma of the tea, to identify the different ingredients from the smell. Occasionally he could smell the ingredients his mother used when she cooked dinner, but this concoction was difficult. His cup had cooled by the time he gave up.
He asked the person who had brewed the tea, "Dennis, what's in this tea?"
The young apprentice healer, just two years older than Webber, looked up from the pouch in his hand. "Different plants. It wakes you up in the morning. Gets you going. Warms you up if you drink it right away. Why?"
"Just curious," Webber answered quickly. He didn't want to give away his interest in women's work, or possibly the Healer's duty.
He asked, "Can you tell me how it's made?"
Stuart, the lead hunter for the village, threw the last of his tea into the woods and growled, "You two watch how much noise you make. And stay out of the way. Don't want to heal the healer, or the learner, or have them spook the prey."
He pointed at several of the hunters and grunted. They emptied their cups, placed them in their packs stacked near a tree, and silently melted into the woods. Stuart pointed and growled at two more. They also stored their gear and loped off between the trees.
Stuart glared around the camp, noted what was finished and ready, and what was not. The Chief Hunter growled at Dennis, "Coat those arrows. Now." He grabbed his pack and followed the last two hunters.
Dennis picked up his pouch and selected three small red bags. "They won't go for the animals yet," Dennis told Webber as he dug a red stained bowl out of his pack. "They have too many preparations yet."
Dennis poured a careful portion of the contents of each bag into the bowl, then said, "Pour hot water on this, will you? Just a little bit. It's the poison we coat the arrows with to slow the rumblers down. We have a while to wait before the scouts come back, so--."
"That's where everybody went?" Webber inquired. It was his first hunt for rumblers, and although he had learned to shoot and skin several of the smaller animals, he had yet to observe the killing of the largest land animal.
Dennis answered, "Some of them. The last two went to the gate to prepare.
You'll learn how it goes, especially with your father as the lead hunter." Dennis stirred the mixture with a stick, then explained, "One thing you do not want to do is to get this on your body. Nowhere on your body, you understand? It must be strong in order to slow down the rumblers, and it will kill you, or any human, very quickly and very painfully. Why don't you bring me one of the quivers of arrows? I will coat them, and you can return the quiver to the same place you got it from when I am done. We'll do that to all the arrows."
Webber stepped to the pile of equipment and brought the first quiver of arrows to the apprentice healer. Dennis then pulled all the arrows out of the quiver and lay them carefully on the ground. He picked each one up, inspected
the small slightly-barbed metal head to make sure it was secured properly to the shaft, then dipped the arrowhead into the dark liquid in the bowl. After it had soaked for a few minutes, he pulled it out and replaced it, head first, into the quiver.
"That's the first one. You have to give the poison time to soak into the wood.
When it's shot into the rumbler, the blood will draw the poison out and transport the poison to the brain. That will slow the rumbler down enough so that the arrow will do the rest. We hope." An hour later, all the arrows had been soaked and returned to their proper place.
"I know it's going to sound like I only know three questions," Webber said, "but how is it made?"
Dennis grinned. "You're wrong about that. You only know one question. How." He smiled at the other youth to take the sting out of his words.
"How it's made, the details. Well, it's really not for you to know, but as a hunter, and possibly a lead hunter in the future, it may help. Also, you have a reason for wanting to know; you're interested. OK, let me start by saying it is a mixture of parts of three common plants. In fact, if you look over there, you can see a plant with fuzzy leaves in the shape of an egg. It stands about a knee high, not much higher than what that one visitor called ground cover. When the flowers bloom during the summer, they're yellow. We use the roots of that plant to make the poison. We mix them with the berries of the bushes that grow in rows between the houses, the ones your mother always yelled at you for picking; they're very poisonous. The third berry we use grows in the woods. It has leaves that have a white fur underneath, white flowers, and it, too, has red berries. You've probably seen it. The two berries are mixed together, then the roots are added. Sometimes it gets diluted with water if it's not runny enough, like I did today. It can get to be really potent if you keep it thick enough, don't dilute it too much. This concoction will bring down an animal about the size of a leaf grazer in, say, five or ten minutes. A rumbler will take more like twenty minutes, and it still may need help dying."
A whistle echoed through the trees. Stuart stepped from among the trees, stared that direction, and then grumbled, "That's the signal. Already. I didn't think they'd find the family this quickly." He picked up his bow, all the quivers of coated arrows, and a large spear. "Let's go We don't have much time." Sturart loped off the way he had come.
Dennis started to gather the packs. "We get to carry all this stuff to the gate." Webber started to protest. "Don't complain. We don't have that far to go. Just carry what you can. I'll get the rest."
Webber began to pick up some of the packs. "While we're going, can you tell me the story of the original settlers? Not what you say at the harvest feast, but just the story."
Dennis lifted the last pack and suggested, "Why don't you wait until later? I'll be telling it to Estelle, probably, when she comes to help carry the meat back. If she comes. She should come. She's curious. It'll pass the time while we're on the trail going back to the village." As they wound their way along a faint path between the shrubs, he said, "You have to remember, that happened more than five hundred years ago.
Look. Let me tell you what's going to happen so you don't get surprised."
Dark green trees, taller than giants, with branches from ground level to the tops nearly three hundred feet above them, grew in a line on the right. They had started sparsely, just one every ten or so steps, but by the time Dennis had explained the process, they were an impenetrable wall. Dennis and Webber followed the line of trees for half a kilometer before they reached the end. Another line of the same trees approached at a ninety-degree angle. The two lines of trees almost met, but left an opening between them twenty paces across.
"The gate?" Webber asked.
Dennis smiled as he remembered his first time two years before, when he had helped Wakefield while he learned his duties. He had heard about the gate in the stories of the hunters, but to see it for the first time was impressive. Webber obviously felt the same way.
Dennis said, "That it is. As I told you, the chasers drive the rumblers this direction. Two hunters and the leader, your father, will wait along the pass and shoot the best one, or possibly two if there are enough in the herd. Then the hunters have to track the dying rumblers until they fall. That can be almost a kilometer from here, or just around the rocks where we wait."
Dennis steered Webber toward the right near the end of the pass and toward a large pile of rocks. "Do not ask," Dennis chuckled. "I will tell you. These rocks have always been here. The originals felt that this is an old fire-spout that crumbled for some reason. Like those on the other side of the mountain, and the great fields, and the desert, but much smaller. There is a hard column of rock in the middle of it like those. But that's not important. Right now we need to find a place where we can watch what happens, yet be safe."
They scrambled over the pile of rocks toward the higher nooks until Dennis said, "Up here somewhere should do. Here you go. Stay behind this boulder. You can look if you want, we should be out of their range, but a wounded rumbler can do anything."
"Can you give me a hand?" Webber asked as he tried to climb the jumbled rocks behind Dennis. Dennis reached behind and helped Webber over the larger obstacles. "You're right, you can see a lot from up here," Webber said as he placed his pack in the bottom of the crevasse between two boulders. A high-pitched scream, almost like an elephant's call on the home world, echoed among the trees.
"Is that them?" Webber asked, his eyes growing rounder.
"The hunters have begun the drive." Dennis explained. "It sounds like they are at a distance, but it will not be long before you see the biggest animal there is on land."
They watched while the sun climbed toward the zenith. Stuart sprinted through the gate, curved to the left and stopped just behind the barrier. The two hunters that he had sent to the gate came out to meet him. They talked for a minute, went to where Dennis had placed their bows and arrows in the rocks, and took up positions in the trees along the wall of the pass nearest the rocks.
Stuart climbed a tree on the other side. Webber gasped as he saw his father come out on a branch thirty meters above the ground and begin to watch the wood.
Dennis explained, "Your father told the other two what animal he had picked out. Those two are on our side of the pass, as high as he is, one near the entrance and one closer to us. When they see the animal Stuart picked, they will all shoot it at least once, possibly twice. The drivers will then have to follow that animal until it falls.
"Listen, you can hear them coming." In the distance trees crashed and the animal screams got louder. The echoes from the forest disappeared. In the silence they could hear that the birds had also quieted. Faint vibrations found their way through the rocks to the watcher's feet. The shooters held their arrows ready. A huge beast, about seven meters tall, with a neck the length of its body, and a tail as long as the rest of the animal, thundered into sight. The legs of the animals were almost the width of the tree trunks, and each time the massive legs drove a foot into the ground it sounded as if a large tree had fallen. An oval head that extended above the trees showed where another followed just behind. There was a ridge above its eyes, flared nostrils at the end of its slightly extended snout, and its broad mouth opened in a scream so the flat-topped teeth showed. Webber covered his ears at the scream and cowered out of sight, only to look over his protecting rock again, his curiosity far from satisfied.
The hunters loosed their dark tipped arrows, and then each reached back to his quiver. As the arrows in flight sank into their target, the three hunters nocked more arrows. Stuart, on the far side of the thundering monsters, had let fly first. His arrow had struck the animal out of sight somewhere near the head. The other two arrows sank into the body of the fleeing monster. Three more arrows flew through the air and struck a second animal. Dennis felt the rocks shake as the animals thundered past and out of sight.
Webber groaned, "Two animals. All that meat. What are we going to do with it? How will it get back to the village?"
"You will remember soon enough. We go now to meet the hunters."
As they climbed down from their lookout in the rocks, Dennis watched the four drivers run through the gate and follow the path of broken saplings and bushes the rumblers made. The two hunters that had been on their side of the rocks ran to join the group excitedly and pointed along the path the animals had taken away from the gate. One animal had fallen already and lay almost hidden. An arrow protruded from its head. The chasers yelled and pointed to where Stuart rounded the trees to join them. All six men ran over to Stuart and slapped the top of his head and his back while they talked and shouted excitedly. Dennis could not understand a word they said because of the distance, but he knew Stuart had done something special. Then he realized what he saw. Stuart's first shot had penetrated the brain, which had brought the animal down quickly.
"What a hit!" Dennis enthused as they approached the animal. "Can you see that, Webber? Do you see what your father did? Right in its ear. In its ear! I have never seen that before!" Stuart accepted their congratulations for a minute, and then laid a hand on one of the men. That hunter came to Dennis, who pointed to where they had hidden the packs. The hunter located his and ran off into the woods.
Dennis explained, "He is going back to the village to tell them that we have made a kill, and how many extra people will be needed. I am sure that word of what Stuart did will be passed around. If you think the celebration for the visitor's arrival was big, wait until we get back. Right through the ear. Amazing!"
"What's so great about that?" Webber asked, his eyes blurred. "Those, they, they were alive, running, and now, now, it's just wrong."
"It's how we eat. You've seen the meat cooking at the festivals, and at your fire, I'm sure. This is how we get the meat. It's how we live. And now that you can say you've been on a hunt, you'll have more time with girls. You know girls like hunters."
"I guess. It's just that I never made the connection before."
"Most people don't unless they think about it. A few never do. Now you've seen, and you'll be a better person."
"So what's so great about what my father did?"
"I'll show you when we reach the animal. Grab your pack. It's time to follow the trail." Dennis and Webber pulled the packs from their hiding place in the rocks, and shortly four hunters, one apprentice healer, and one young soon-to-be-hunter were following the trail of one wounded animal.
The trail was easy to follow, feet driven into the ground with tons of force left prints inches deep. Even where the ground cover hid the soil, the trail was obvious. One of the drivers shouted something and ran off toward the side. The rest followed the divergence at a slower pace and finally stopped.
Dennis told Webber, "He saw a diverging trail off to the side, which is good. It means the animal left the herd to die. We will wait here. Either he will whistle when he finds the creature, or he will return."
"But how will he know that it's the right animal?"
"When a rumbler is sick, it leaves its group and goes off alone. Usually they rejoin in a few days, but when they die, they cannot. If the hunter following the trail sees that the animal is sick and getting sicker, he knows he is following the right one. Otherwise, he will return. That can take ten or more minutes, but this time I believe we will know sooner." As predicted, a minute later a whistle sounded from the direction of the single trail. The group followed the trail, which began to meander when the rumbler began to lose its equilibrium.
No more than ten minutes later, they came to the place where the huge animal had fallen. Arrows had penetrated the body of the beast and snapped off when it fell.
Dennis began to pull Webber toward the head. "Come with me," he told him. I want to show you why an arrow in the ear is so amazing."
Dennis pulled Webber around the head to a position just under the jaw. He pointed up to a two-centimeter hole. "That hole is the only opening, other than the eye, that will reach the brain. That made the poison work quicker, and that rumbler fell near the rocks. If the arrow had hit anywhere else, it would have bounced off the bone of the skull.
Dennis rubbed the skin, a wrinkled, leathery, almost scaly covering that was cold even though the animal had just died. "These have cold blood like the leaf grazers, not warm like us. That's why they migrate. It gets too cold in the winter for them to stay north, and too hot down south in the summer. That's why we have them passing through twice each year."
While the others had returned to the other rumbler, Stuart, Paterson and Bailee began to butcher the second animal they had brought down. They sliced along the stomach, removed the intestines, and began to work the skin carefully away from the body. Paterson pulled while Bailee cut the strings of fat that held the skin in place. By the time they reached the legs, blood covered both butchers.
Dennis and Webber placed their packs off to the side. Dennis talked to the hunters for a minute, and then told Webber, "They are going to be busy for a while. We could search out some plants for me to carry back, and we have to find some trees to serve as poles."
They searched for trees that were straight and tall enough to serve. Webber brought several to Dennis, but the assistant healer rejected them quickly with instructions to find those with only a few branches. Hand axes, cut from the hull of the lander by the originals with small laser weapons and handed down from generation to generation, made the job of felling and trimming the trees easy. The edge on the blade had not dulled or nicked in over five hundred years.
Webber examined his ax. "How was this made?" he asked.
"That is a question you should ask our metal workers. The story is that this metal was part of the space ship that brought the originals here. They used their weapons to cut it into tools to work wood, and knives, and other useful things.
Whatever powered the weapons gave out long ago, so we do not have them any more."
"That's interesting," Webber commented, "and something I'd never heard before. I always knew the originals were fairly clever, but I didn't know they could make things like this."
"They couldn't, really. They brought the metal with them. It's just that they knew how to work it back then, and had the tools to make the sharp edges. We have nothing that will change the shape now, nor do we know what they used. At least I don't. I can't tell about the metalworkers. They may know the process used back then. We should have enough poles, so it's time to head back. We should be going home soon. The hunt will keep us in meat all winter, and this is Bailee's first kill if you remember, so he will get his first rumbler skin, a valuable prize. This was a good hunt.