They could see them in the distance. Up wind, there was no way the deer could spot them. It was deer country, but the two hunters were at home. They watched the herd grazing on some luscious grass for some time in silence. They had been following the herd for two days. Every deer was counted; the herd measured fourteen. They just sat and watched them. There was no need for talk right now. They both knew what they were doing. Soon, it would be time to get up again. Soon, it would be time to hunt.
Pala nestled her head against Sten. His antlers were still tender. The last year had been difficult for him. The other deer had kept away from him for most of his life. He was always a little awkward. It was as if they didn't want him as part of the herd. But that was ridiculous. Sten had helped them on many occasions to find food and water. He was a good member of the herd. Except in the last year, he started growing out of his fawnish nature and into his new antlers. They were tender, but already it was obvious they would be quite a spectacle when he was a little older. And because of that, he was pushed down by the other males. But his anger was always kept within.
Pala had been there to help him through it. They had grown up together, their mothers having birthed the same week. And now, after their childhood was on the verge of ending, Pala knew she loved him. She knew that when the time came, she wouldn't join another harem like all the other females were doing. She was going to join Sten by his side. They would go against tradition and maybe find some happiness in their own way. In the meantime, though, Sten needed a friend to get him through this awkward phase.
“Sten? Do you want to go look for some water?”
“No. I don't know. I don't want to do anything. I wish my antlers didn't hurt so much Pala. I have a really bad headache. And the other young males keep making me fight. I don't want to. I don't want to stay here.”
“Let's go find some water Sten. Maybe getting away from the herd will ease your mind.”
“Yeah, maybe you're right,” he said. He started walking downwind of the herd. Pala didn't move.
“Wait a second Sten, I have to tell my mother I'll be right back. She'll worry if I just leave like that.”
“You mean she'll worry if she sees you leave with me. Forget about it Pala, I don't want to go anyway.”
“No. Let's just go right now then. We'll only be gone for a little bit.” She looked back behind her. The herd was in a little clearing, surrounded by a cliff on one side. She hoped her mother wouldn't be angry with her.
The hunters lifted the lens caps of their scopes. Almost in unison. Breathe. Steady hands, they turn the safety off. The herd was in a perfect position. They were trapped between a small cliff and automatic rifles. Botox tranqs. Deep sleep. The first hunter lifted his hand up for the other one to see. He opened his palm and started counting down by curling his fingers in. Two. One.
In unison, two deer dropped quietly. No one noticed; there was no blood or exit wounds. Two more deer fell, their frightened eyes paralyzed as they realized they had no control over their bodies. The others had heard a whistling, two more males fell to the ground. Confusion set in. Two more dropped. Then two more. The bullets were coming from their escape route. Two more. Silence. Not even the sound of a breath. The botulinum had taken effect.
The hunters put the lens caps back on. It was time for a body count. They crept down into the little valley. Proudly, they counted the fallen deer. Two were missing. Two had escaped.
“There were fourteen, right? I asked you a…”
“Shut up. Get the thermal binocs. I want to scan the area real quick. They can't be that far off.”
He took the binoculars out of their case. They were expensive and heavy. He turned them on and surveyed the area. There was nothing. Nothing. He paused. “Take a look at this. I think this is them, but they're too far off to be sure.”
The other one took the binoculars. “I'm not sure either.” He scanned the rest of their periphery, and then went back to the target in question. “They're probably running away right now.”
“Let's move around the cliff.”
“What about all this meat?”
“What about it? Did you forget why we came down here?”
“Sten, do you want to go back now?”
They had been wandering around in silence for twenty minutes. Sten wasn't even looking for water. He was preoccupied with his antlers. He hadn't even noticed that she had cleaned her coat and hooves.
“Yeah, sure. I wasn't thirsty anyways. Might as well go back.”
They turned around. Silence.
Even before they got to the clearing, Sten was getting anxious. He could smell a little blood. He had smelled it before on the other males, after dueling. He didn't like the smell, but he definitely knew what it was. Pala hadn't noticed anything yet, to his relief. When they got closer still, he paused.
“Pala, I don't think you should come just yet. Let me go back, make sure that…your mother isn't mad and then I'll come back and get you when I'm sure she's okay.”
“Sten, it's no big deal. Sooner or later she's going to have to accept the fact that we are friends. Maybe more someday, but for now I can be your friend without having to worry about what she says.”
“No Pala, I think it's better if I go on by myself. Please.” He nudged her neck with his nose, blowing his hot breath on her fur.
“Okay, but don't take too long.”
He nudged her one more time, then turned back towards the clearing. The closer he got, the more he could smell something. He wanted to throw up. He wanted to throw up and collapse. When he got to the clearing he froze. Tears started to well in his eyes. Everyone was lying down, little darts sticking out of their necks and a trickle of blood forming a tiny pool on the ground. The smell overpowered him. He fell to the ground and vomited all over his coat. He blacked….out.
He came to. Pala was in hysterics. “What did you do? What did you do? Why did you kill everyone? I hate you Sten, I hate you. Goddamn you Sten.” She was crying and kicking him.
He got up and knocked her down, grimacing at the pain of his antlers. “Dammit Pala, I didn't do this. It must have been hunters. Stop crying, Pala, we need to leave. We need to get out of here before they come back. I'm sorry Pala, we need to go.”
She stayed on the ground, crying and rolling on her back. Sten watched her for a minute, then trotted off to search the perimeter for any signs of the hunters. When he came back, Pala was leaning against a tree next to her mother. Sten approached her gently.
“Pala, the hunters have gone around the cliff the other way we came back. I think they might be looking for us. We need to go. Pala? I need you Pala. Help me through this.”
“I can't leave Sten. This is where we belonged. I didn't even say goodbye to her. I can't leave her now.”
“Listen to me Pala, do you remember the stories? They are going to come back. They are probably looking for us right now. We need to go right now.”
“Dammit Sten, don't you understand who you are. You are this herd, and when the herd died, you did too. Let them come and take me, Sten, I'm going to be right here beside my fallen people.”
“You're wrong Pala. The herd dies when all within it have died. You and I are still alive. The herd…the herd is still alive. I'm not going to stay here and be a target. I'm…I'm…”
“You're what Sten? You're nothing, that's what. You barely have antlers and you want to strike out on your own. Sten, there is nothing left to do. We just sit here and wait for our turn to join the herd.”
“No Pala. No, we can't do that. If you want to rejoin the herd, then at least do so with honor. I'm going to go after the hunters Pala. I'm going to do something with these bloody stumps on my head before I die. Come with me Pala, let's at least die doing something for the herd.”
She didn't say anything for several minutes. Her mother looked so beautiful lying there. She had a luscious coat. Pala started to cry again, but this time it was slow and with deep sobs. Sten waited. She needed some catharsis, he was going to let her release. Just like him, she needed to prepare for this battle. In their own ways. So he let her rest by her dead mother's body. He looked up towards the setting sun, its warmth leaving his coat. He didn't need it anymore. Within his heart, a flame had been lit. Soon, it would consume his entire body. But for now, he stood by Pala and meditated on this insane world they were in.
The hunters set up camp. They had taken off rather quickly towards the thermal target they had spotted, but somehow the target had skirted them. Now, with the cliff behind them, they couldn't find the target anymore. Besides, with most of the herd gone, they wanted to light a fire and finally enjoy some warm food.
“What are we going to do tomorrow?”
“What do you think?”
“Yeah, but we can't find them. They disappeared.”
“Come sunrise, we'll spot them again. We need this entire valley rid of deer. In the morning, the last two will be spotted once more. For now, we can enjoy the fruits of our labor. A hard earned campfire and a warm night's rest.”
Sten decided they needed to locate the hunters before they started to make a plan. When Pala finally worked the courage to leave her fallen mother's side, they headed around the cliff. It was his intention to go down further into the valley, past the cliff, and pick up the scent of the hunters. He didn't know any other way of going about this. All he had was his body, his antlers. If there were going to be any redemption, it would have to be close range. Element of surprise. What was he going to do with Pala, though?
“Pala, I don't think you should come with me? I think it's going to be too dangerous.”
“Are you kidding? I have nothing left to live for Sten. How could you say that to me? My family is lying in their own blood and you want me to be afraid? What is there for me to be afraid of? The sooner I die, the sooner I will rejoin the herd. There is nothing for me here. I go with you, so deal with it. Besides, if we work together, we might have a chance.”
He knew this was true, but he wasn't satisfied. “Pala, I'm serious. I don't want you to follow me into some headstrong scheme and end up dead. I'm not going to let you do that.”
“Well you don't have much choice, now do you? I'm coming, end of discussion. If you told me what you're thinking so far, then we can work together.”
“Fine. The only chance we have is if we get close enough to use the only weapons we have, our hooves and my antlers. It's not much, but what other chance do we have? I figured we could go down in the valley and hope that their scent wafts down. Then we could locate them and work our way into a better position.”
“Yeah, but then we would be in the valley, they could trap us. They are probably looking for us right now, which means they followed before the sun set. Where were we when we turned around?”
“I think somewhere around the twist in the river. What do you think?”
“Let's go off that assumption, they are somewhere in the vicinity of the river bend. If we attack tonight then we can surprise them. How many do you think there are?”
“I only saw two pairs of footprints around the perimeter. So you think we should head back towards the river?”
“Let's go Sten. Let's not waste time. We need to beat the sunrise.”
The two deer rounded the cliff. Sten spotted the small campfire by the bend in the river, near where they had turned around last evening. His heart rate shot up at the prospect of the attack. His head was pounding with the growth of his antlers.
“Sten, are you alright?”
“My head hurts. It's okay, though.”
“We need to get down there quickly and quietly. I think the sun will rise in a couple of hours.”
“Yeah, you're right.”
sThey trotted down the valley, trying to stay under the pine trees, avoiding the crunching deciduous leaves. When they got within one thousand meters, they stopped. Pala was shivering; they needed to plan an attack.
“I think we should split up,” Sten suggested. “We can attack from two different directions, that way we could really surprise them. I'll head around their camp. When I get there, I'll knock my head against a thick trunk. When you hear that, wait fifteen minutes, then charge. What do you think?”
“That sounds good, but we should be closer than this. Let's go about half the distance we are right now. I'll just creep in while you skirt around them.”
“Fine. And when you charge, trample the one that is closest to yourself, makes sense?”
“I love you Pala, thanks for being my friend.”
“I know. I love you too. Let's not celebrate yet, though.”
“Okay. I'm off.”
Sten made his way stealthily. He was careful not to make too much noise. When he got into position, he realized how stupid their plan sounded. He was going to wake them up with his signal. This was ridiculous. There was no other option, though. The plan was in place, and so was he.
He took several steps back and charged towards a large, thick pine tree. His head smashed into it, cracking the air in the entire valley. He fell down in pain, tears flooding the fur around his eyes. His head throbbed with each heartbeat, worsening with each second. Flashes of light burst in the periphery of his vision. He lay there for some time, trying to gather the energy to stand up. When he finally managed to stand up, he heard Pala start her move.
“Oh shit,” he thought to himself. His head was still bursting at the seams, but he made a mad dash towards the camp. He heard Pala make her attack before he got there. He could hear bones crunch as she trampled the hunter.
The other one must have loaded his gun, because when he got to their camp site, he was just in time to see the hunter, with his back to him, fire a shot into Pala's neck. He was using real bullets, Sten could tell. The bullet entered Pala at the base of her neck, passing through her spinal column, and exiting at her shoulder. Her entire right shoulder blasted off. The hunter got off another round, embedding a bullet into her upper body cavity.
Sten charged full speed, he screamed as he got near the hunter. The hunter turned around, just in time for Sten to bury his antlers into the hunter's chest. Sten punctured his heart; blood gushed out, spurting all over Sten's coat. He pulled his antlers out and a final stream of blood shot out of the open chest wounds. Sten ran to Pala. She was paralyzed from the neck down, but she could still talk.
“Sten, what happened?”
“I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Those damn headaches. Pala, I'm so sorry. Please don't go.”
“Sten, I love you. I can't wait to see you again,” she gurgled. The blood loss sent her into shock.
Sten stood over her for a long time, trying to decide what to do. The valley was his, the hunters were dead now. But so was the entire rest of the herd. His head was hurting still, but he didn't care anymore. The sun was rising to the east, and the fire within him had been put out with the blood of Pala.
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