“Quiet yourself, tanner-boy.”
Jensen froze at the harsh whisper. He craned his neck high, his eyes straining to see through the the fierce sun. sand and dust kicked up by the motions of the hunting party obscured his surroundings, burning his eyes, reducing the world above his head to a hazy burn of blurring images. Vague shapes clambered above him, heavy armoured shapes that moved across the shifting cliff face with feline ease. Jensen cursed under his breath, squeezing his eyes hard against the growing ache blossoming across his arms.
Something small and hard grasped his shoulder. Jensen turned, seeing the familiar smile of the hunter from the village. The woman grinned above the high leather rise of her armoured collar, the tattooed cheeks and chin jutting out at the boy before her with savage confidence. Jensen felt his stomach churn at the sight of her, her core twisting at the sight of the folk legend made manifest.
“Go slow” the huntress whispered beside him. She raised a fur wrapped hand to her temple, indicating the spiralling dance of feline and serpentine tattoos across the shaven skin. “Think like one of them. Move like one of them. This is a hunt. A basilisk lives in these hills, a killer, a savage thing. Remember that, boy.”
Jensen nodded, the motion accidentally showing him the precipitous heights of the cliff below them. He shut his eyes hard, feeling the twisted knots of tension in his guts. Images flashed before him of the old tanning warehouse, the vast barrels with their sweating grunting attendants.
What I wouldn't give to be back there, he thought angrily.
He opened his eyes at the sudden intrusion of a low giggle. Dust and sand kicked into his eyes, leaving former apprentice blinking savagely at the climbing form of the huntress above. Her low giggle stayed with him, seeming to gather around the bitterly small handholds around him.
“Let it go lad.”
Jensen staggered at the sudden intrusion of the deep voice. He rocked, feeling his body shift dangerously on the cliff face. Boots lost grip. Hands slipped from their holds.
He was about to scream when a hand reached out and clasped his own. The force was crushing, leaving him hissing in pain, suspended from the massive scared paw an arm span from his head.
The heavy hand seemed to chuckle, low but not without compassion. Jensen hissed as his hands scrabbled at the rock face, finding desperate purchase on the crumbling sandstone. His head shot around, alighting on a giant shape smiling at him through the dust fall.
“Apologies for your arm, tanner” the giant said, releasing the aching limp. Jensen tried to hide the discomfort as blood returned to the already bruising limb. His giant accomplice shifted closer, forcing the falling sands to reveal the broad plate of his face.
“How is your arm?” the giant whispered, and Jensen realised with sudden clarity who he spoke to.
“Y-your…” Jensen trailed off, his tongue losing all ability to speak. He swallowed hard, unable to meet the giant man’s pale gaze. “Yo-your Hansel. Hasel Brecht. THE Hansel Brecht.”
The giant man’s smile broadened within the broad fall of his mane.
“Aye lad, aye. Hansel the huntsman, as I think you Korvhanites call me.”
Jensen felt his face grow tight, then fall as the smile and humour left his features. He turned his face from the legend, feeling the cold emptiness spread within him. Hansel seemed to watch the fall of humour from the lads face. His smile dropped as he moved closer, massive scared hands handing apre like from the sandstone rock creases.
“I’m sorry” the old hunter whispered. Jensen could hear the sorrow in that voice then. The former apprentice sighed, heaving the dry air through exhausted lungs.
“Don’t be” Jensen muttered absently. He blinked, his face going hard as he looked up once more. Several tall shapes hunched several meters above, squatting atop the brief respite of a rock outcropping. Severe faces passed between surveying the searing heat of the day to glaring admonishment at the remains of the party still climbing the cliff face below them.
Jensen snarled, a growl of animal frustration from the young lad. He reached up, hand grasping the lip of another scar within the rock.
The former apprentice hissed, breathing through the burning ache of unconditioned muscles. He crawl-climbed feeling the savage grind of sandstone against his stained palms. Beside him the massive shape of Hansel climbed beside him, the massive hunter keeping pace with him in massive drives of his legs.
“Who did you lose?” the giant asked after a the heavy heat of silence had grown too great. He eyed the young tanner, pale gaze passing across the juvenile frame, the thin arms stained from years of work within the heavy heat of the tan houses.
Jensen snarled, keeping his eyes locked upon the rock ledge a dozen meters above. Here the handholds became infrequent, leaving him straining across the barren rock, his lanky frame twisting as he sought to ascend. Here and there he was forced to crane across the jutting cliff face, forcing his gaze down, dragging the harsh descent his failure would make him take should he lose his hand hold.
A dark shape moved beside him, leaping apre like upon the baking stone. Hansel smiled beneath the sheen of oily sweat
“Your a guild's apprentice” the giant whispered beside Jansen.
The former apprentice stopped suddenly, his focus frozen now on the weathered hunter's face.
“Of course” he whispered, squinting to keep the worst of the suns glare from his eye.
“You could have left off after Korvhan, lad” the giant hissed across the early mornings desperate heat. “Lad like you, skills, tuition, the good name of a proud master behind you I’ll bet too...why volunteer to come with us?”
The giant’s eyes bored into Jensen, then looked down far below. The former tanner followed his gaze, his eyes alighting on the stumbling struggling gang climbing below them. In all there were a dozen of them, from page boys to old men, each gasping in their own personal dehydrated struggle with the cliff.
Jensen felt his gaze fall upon the oldest of their number, a seemingly ancient man with the lean build and board hands of a master black smiter. As he watched the old man stumbled, nearly pitching himself from his tentative perch.
“You” the giant growled in his low bass voice “along with every other vengeful little volunteer accompanying this unit will not make it out of this mountain range alive.” The giant heaved a deep sigh and Jensen wondered whether the scared hunter was more exhausted from the long climb than he appeared. “Every man and woman on that ledge above you has hunted basilisk for their entire adult life. Worse, they’ve watched their colleagues, their friends - fellow hunters all - die in the pursuit.” Hansel heaved a heavy sigh, his dark eyes boring into Jensen with a savage intensity. “Why did you come, tanner boy?”
Jensen did not respond straight away. Visions and images danced at the corners of his sight; the dreadful hissing in the night, the crashing roar of a massive scaled thing loose in the warehouse, the strangled scream heard from under the table cloth as the beast shattered the trap door under which the other tanners had been hiding.
More than anything it was the remains of them that haunted him. The memory lingered in his minds eye, seemingly fixed their by the twisting pain in his chest. Jensen reached with one aching arm to massage the pain there, knowing full well he would never succeed.
He lifted his eyes, meeting the giant hunters pale orbs. The former volunteer felt his legs weaken, his fortitude collapsing under the older man’s scrutiny. He ached to give in, to ask the giant to leave him here, perched upon the bone dry cliff, a husk for vultures and buzzards.
Jensen bit hard on his lip, allowing the blossoming pain to cast his mind from such thoughts. More than any other the memory of the old man’s face, that so kindly visage twisted into a rictus mask of terror, forced its way onto his consciousness. Jensen stared long at that image, seeing how the laugh lines had been twisted in the elder’s find moments. The former tanners apprentice growled, meeting the giant’s harsh gaze with eyes of flint.
“Only volunteers can hunt basilisk, Mr Brecht. Only vollenteers might live long enough to learn the skill.” Jensen breathed deep, feeling the swell of his lungs under aching muscles. “There is no way back, not after Korvhan. No tanning house, no elder’s. The beast robbed many people of their life.
“It has given me my anger.”