Thomas Shea is a San Antonio based writer hailing originally from the snowy lands of New England. He has a wife, two daughters, a day job with “Writer” in the title, and a number of Opinions.
The Irish Lion
by Thomas Shea
The boy’s steps whispered through the fallen needles of the woods; the crash of the sea on the island’s rocks was softened to a murmur by distance. And the forest. The forest choked all sounds not its own.
He tilted his head and listened to the forest’s voice. Darkness left his eyes useful only for avoiding what was already under his feet, but his ears still caught the wind’s hiss, the owl’s hunting calls, and the soft scuttling of rats or squirrels. He turned slowly, shifting his grip on the smooth yew of his spear’s haft. His hands had held a spear for nearly as long as his feet had walked, and his ears had known the voice of the forest at least as long.
But he did not hear the song he sought. Not yet.
He turned away from the sea’s murmurs and pushed along a pig-path through the scrub. He would find the dark, growling song of his prey. He must.
Days (or a lifetime) before, he had listened to other voices. Outside his father’s hall, he had listened.
“The boy must have his Hunt.”
Father’s voice carried like the grumble of a rainstorm through the low, cozy hall. His wife’s braids made a soft hiss against her furs as she nodded. The boy could picture her face, the hard lines of worry and want — both familiar visitors in this hall — cutting deep furrows beside her eyes and mouth.
Father rumbled once more, “He must, or the other men will never see him as a man.” The timbers of the floor creaked as the towering clansman stepped toward her. The boy imagined him brushing a stray hair from her eye with a calloused three-fingered hand. “What woman would have an untested boy? Even our son?”
At length, she answered, in tones somber as a winter sunset. “The beasts are harder to find each year.”
Father’s reply carried a bleak weariness. “But each year, they are found.”
The memory quickened the boy’s step and hardened his face. He knew the stories the elders told of their Hunts, of the fearsome cait fhiáine who lurked soundless and deadly in forest and field. Father’s father had never told the tale of his Hunt without relish, but then, his had never been equalled.
Most sought the first cait whose tracks they crossed; any cait was challenge enough. But Grandfather had set out with spear in hand to find one beast, one foe. A massive animal that had killed countless chickens and sheep, and savaged farmers returning late from their fields. A terror that had taken so many from the tribe that it had earned a name: Bás Leanaí. The Death of Children. The creature had dragged away Grandfather’s own sister when he was still a child himself.
Grandfather had spent three days and nights tracing the terrible beast, and driven off four lesser cait in search of his quarry. When at last he had found its tracks (fully the span of his hand, to hear him tell it), uneasiness had settled into him even as he followed the spoor.
Through the quiet of the forest’s voice, he had known.
Through the scent of rotting prey in the still air, he had known.
Bás Leanaí had found him as well.
In some tellings, he scarcely had time to react before claws slashed into him. In others, he laid a clever trap that wasn’t enough to protect him from the beast’s ferocity. The scars that laced his chest told the truth of it; had the hunter not been slightly harder to kill than the cait, there would have been none to share the story.
Bás Leanaí’s hide still hung in the hall. His story was retold before each Hunt.
But the boy had only seen cait as they were carried in by men returned from their Hunt. His eldest brother had been four days on his Hunt, before he returned with a mottled beast the size of a starved sheep. His middle brother had not returned at all.
A cousin he skipped stones with had crawled back, defeated and begging for someone to bind a leg covered in boar wounds. He had died days later, from a fire in his leg that no herb could quell. Still a child.
The boy did not know which fate to think worst, so he hunted on.
Hours passed. He followed a tinkling song to a tiny stream, then gratefully dropped to his knees, filled his hands with stream’s offering, and drank. He began settling into a cold camp, drawing what remained of his dried mutton from a pouch. His mother and father spoke once more in his memory, concern filling their voices as he stood unseen just outside the hides that sealed the hall.
“Husband, consider the harvest.”
Father scoffed, “What has it to do with the boy?”
Silence fell like a heavy snow. Father sighed his understanding; this year’s yield had been plagued by vermin.
Mother’s words sparked like struck flint, “They take more every year. Soon we’ll be hunting them to survive the winter.”
“And what would you do?” Father’s reply held the menace of a coming storm, “Deny him manhood?”
Braids swished vigorously as Mother shook her head. “There must be another path. There must.”
“This is our path.” Father’s voice had taken on the keen edge of a well-knapped blade. “This is our way.”
An eerie, agonized caterwaul split the night and yanked the boy from the edge of sleep as it hung in the air for long moments. The forest had taught him cait songs; what this one sang of he could not guess, but he sprang up and set off toward it all the same, all thoughts not of the Hunt flushed like birds from a bush.
He strained to hear another cait-song, but the forest’s voice was bird and breeze.
He inhaled deeply, but the wind was at his back, and his prey somewhere ahead.
His eyes scanned the ground in the murk. And he saw tracks.
No wider than half his hand, but distinct in the mud of yesterday’s rain.
A hunter’s grim smile crept across the boy’s face as his heart began to pound. Quiet and quick, where the tracks lead, he followed.
He slowed to a soft-footed walk as the voice of the forest faded around him.
He slowed to a prowl as the smell of old meat and skins slunk into his nose through the still air.
He raised his spear, weariness forgotten, as the gloom lightened with the birth of a new day.
He edged along a thick patch of brush, stilling at a rustling within. Close enough that he could have reached out and touched it. Close enough for claws and teeth to rend furs and flesh.
He nudged aside an errant branch as if it boasted talons. The breaking dawn revealed his quarry, a beast the size of a wolf, laying sidelong in a dry den of grass and leaves.
Four squirming young, still birth-wet, suckled peacefully on her.
The boy froze.
His mother’s soft, somber words echoed in the moment: “And when they are all gone, husband? What will our path be then? What will our way be?”
Father’s pacing footfalls, soft for a man of his size, drew creaks from the floor. “If our son does not take the cait, another will. Denying him his Hunt will change nothing for the beast, but for him…”
The boy’s spear had tasted blood before. He had slain fish and fowl, rabbits and deer, even broken a flint spearhead off in the thick hide of a boar. He was a hunter, and this was his Hunt.
He drew back to strike, and some shift of sound or scent alerted the mother cait that it was not alone. First her pointed ears, then her head pivoted toward him, fangs bared as she started to shake her young off. Her throat worked around a growl that seemed to roil up through her from the earth itself.
She shifted to find her feet, and her kits began to protest, undeterred by the mother’s warning snarl. The boy saw a clean shot, but did not move. A poor story, taking a mother as she nurses. Better by far to kill her as she ran.
He stayed ready, his grip firm but loose, and watched as the cait rose, her tawny eyes locked onto his, and her white, white teeth, long enough to tear open a throat, flashed in the wan morning light.
She gained her feet, but did not turn, nor back away. Her kittens pressed themselves mewling to her legs and staggered blindly to the edges of the nest. The mother cait crouched over them, quivering with fury or fear. The young hunter held his spear between them bobbing slightly with every heartbeat. The cait let out a roar like tearing leather and slashed at the spearhead with a pawful of blurringly swift claws. Flint thunked against wood as the impact drove the tip of the blade against a nearby oak-trunk. The mother beast closed in a streak of living rage.
The boy had just long enough to realize he could have simply told a better story without having to live it before the desperate mother’s leap brought claws to his shoulder and chest.
He staggered and dropped his spear, desperate to fend off the animal now latched to him. Fangs surged toward his throat, but found his left arm instead. Jaws strong as a rockslide closed on his forearm, and teeth met in the flesh between the large and small bones. Stumbling and screaming under the thrashing weight of the beast, he grabbed for the knife in his belt with his free hand.
The boy cleared the blade as he had a thousand-thousand times, in darkness or light, in rain or in sun, and drove the point up with every hope he had. He felt flesh slow the tip and the cait let out a horrific snarl that resonated through him from the bones it still held in its jaws. He yanked the sharp flint free and stabbed again, harder, feeling skin tear and blood flow.
Boy and cait writhed and ripped at one another, the mad rage of survival silencing all other sounds like the ocean swallowing the rain. Their hot blood mingled on flesh and fur and dirt, and the hunter collapsed beneath the predator even as his blade at last found its heart. It let out a final, defiant caterwaul, muffled by the bloody arm still clutched in its jaws, and he felt its life flow out onto the wounds torn on his belly.
He lay, tattered, aching, and weary. His eyes were heavy, but Grandfather’s words reached him: to sleep with unbound wounds is death. With a determination he had never known he possessed, he tore strips from tunic and leggings, and began binding them about his many hurts. The arm he did first, instinct and agony driving him to seal the swelling flesh away. But as he swung most of his tunic’s remains around his middle to bandage the gashes there, the forest brought him a new song; tiny mewls, tinged with distress.
He picked up his spear as reflexively as a cait taking his claws, and strode toward the den. He pushed back the branches, with little care for sound, and beheld a black rat the size of a man’s head, gleefully dragging the smallest of the kittens away.
His spearhead pierced the vermin and only stopped when it hit an oak root two inches under the earth.
The boy leaned against a tree trunk thicker around than his father, bent double, and retched. There was little but brookwater to heave up, so the tears that streamed down his face would have been the same color were they not mingled with blood. The tears continued long after the retching stopped. His pain was staggering, and an alien sorrow held the place he had hoped would be filled with his victory. His cait was the last cait, his hunt the last Hunt.
The boy continued to weep as he bound his wounds, and wept as he cleaned the kill. Tears dried as he tied the beast’s legs about his shoulders and hefted it. It was a long walk to his village, but he would return a man. At last he stepped back toward the thorny bushes to reclaim his spear. He would not to look into the den. The fate of the kittens was not his concern.
But again he heard that piteous mewling. His eyes were drawn down as if by the pull of the earth. One had been killed by the rat. Another was curled up and did not stir even to breathe. The third was simply gone.
The fourth, a mottled gray thing with emerald eyes, blinked up at him and let out a soft, plaintive sound.
The tears he had willed away returned with his mother’s words. “When the last of them is gone, what will our path be?”
The young man bent, and rose holding the tiny kitten to his bandaged chest. It purred and nuzzled the rags of his bandages. Perhaps they could find a new path. Perhaps they could tell a new story.
Copyright 2019 by Thomas Shea