Ever since Ludmila heard about her deceased father, she became curious about how he was in life. By her mother, Tygda was seen as a man with strong morals, favoring unity above all else. Though he was not the strongest nor the most courageous, Kudecha could count on him to carefully consider every option before deciding upon one.
Because he often deliberated exhaustively before answering, he was slow at times to respond to a situation. And that drawback had caused him to be late in judging what to do with the trespassers. He had always counted on Urkan to cover for him when they were young, and that one fatal moment of hesitation plagued Urkan ever since.
He regretted that he hadn’t moved sooner, trusting his instincts the one time they were needed. As a result, that guilt likely drove him to take the leadership position in Tygda’s stead, caring for his family as penitence. Ludmilla vowed that she would be swift unlike her father, so that Urkan would not have to cover for such a mistake again.
Ludmila found Urkan one day by the stream, absentmindedly sharpening his tools for a hunt. Due to his sharp senses, he noticed her approaching even before her steps were audible. The whetting stone in his hand halted.
“What troubles you, my dear Ludmila? One look at your face tells me you have something to ask.”
“Master… Can you tell me? …What did you think of my father? Of Tygda?”
Urkan’s body stiffened, and the stone in his hand trembled as he gripped it tightly. These subtle actions were not lost on Ludmila, who had been learning how to read her opponents, though mainly animals, from the slightest of movements.
“…Your father… was a good man. He looked after his ‘family’ to the best of his abilities. Something that I cannot say the same of myself.”
Urkan looked away, hiding his expression. While he was the best hunter in the village and everyone trusted him, even that was not enough to prevent the tragedies that occasionally happened.
Human poachers grew bolder in their attempts over time, requiring Urkan to lead his strongest family members to repel them. And there were times when someone fell. After so many exchanges, it was inevitable that would happen.
But Urkan didn’t see it that way. To him, the peace was disrupted by the wails of family members close to the fallen. His heart was heavy every time he had to chant a prayer for brethren whose bodies were stolen, never to be recovered. Even the best Master and his skills amounted to nothing if the looming threat of danger continued to hang over his family.
However, Ludmila never once blamed him. She placed her hand on top of his, offering her full trust.
“A Master can only do so much. You are one person. And we make up your family, serving as your arms and feet, your eyes and ears, and your place of comfort. You are the beating heart that provides for us.”
Urkan brightened up and smiled at her.
“That’s right, isn’t it? You bunch will follow me to the end now, won’t you? Still, even something like that can be quite regrettable. Just think of how much pressure that puts on me, the lone guy that you all see as Master.”
“I want to be like my father was. To be your strength. To be the ‘Tygda’ that supports you in these times,” Ludmila blurted out.
Urkan looked rather surprised by her outburst. He glanced away and covered his face with his hand, avoiding Ludmila’s intense gaze of admiration. “That… that would be a problem…”
“Ehh? Why so??” Ludmila’s eyes widened at the apparent rejection.
Urkan looked back, his hand moving away to reveal a stony expression. “Because… that would make it more difficult to part with you eventually.”
“I will not leave your side! There is no way! I will stand by my Master against any foe. Trust me when I say this!” Ludmila shook her head furiously, adamant on carving her place.
“Is that so? …What a child you are, haha.” Urkan’s soft chuckle and light jab at her seriousness annoyed Ludmila a little bit, but she could forgive him. Such a little thing did not take away the respect she possessed.
She wanted to be someone that could stand by his side. The swiftness to complement his strength.
A few months passed. With her desire firmly in mind, Ludmila awoke to her talents. Her feet flew across the ground as she could outrun even the adult hunters. Her nimbleness in approaching her prey awed those around her, making her an effective hunter of her own.
Ludmila and several boys raced through the forest, tracking the remnants of a path some large animal had taken. Snapped branches and large paw prints indicated that a brown bear had passed through.
Having trained themselves to take on wolves and leopards already, this young group of children was the best of those aspiring to become proper hunters. They believed that bringing back a bear would certainly make them the pride of the village. Ludmila willingly joined in, as her swift and silent approach allowed her to stab deers and boars before they managed to move from their feeding spot.
Several boys close to her age – Zeya, Khilok, Oymur, Zima, and Orlik – weren’t bad themselves, wielding long bladed weapons and bows. They often showed off how well they could cleave through a charging beast or snipe an animal from its roost, a game that they made up to challenge each other. Khilok flaunted his raw strength that could bisect a boar in a single blow. In contrast, Orlik could cut the jugular of a beast in mid-leap, deadly accurate even against a flighty opponent.
These two were particularly eager to impress the eleven-year-old Ludmila, a year or so younger than them. Before long, one of these boys would undoubtedly approach her to form a stronger bond, that of an official couple. She understood well their intentions for inviting her along. After all, she could read them better than any animal hiding in the forest.
As they continued following the bear’s tracks, a strange noise echoed through the forest suddenly. Their keen hearing especially took note of it because no sound like it existed in nature. Rather, the muffled voices of people coupled with the clanking of heavy objects made them all look at each other in surprise.
Hunters in the forest rarely talked to each other, especially during a hunt. They made hand signals to keep as quiet as possible, to prevent possible prey from detecting them. For people to be carelessly talking, they did not belong to the village.
The group crept silently toward the voices, keeping an eye out for any others. Within minutes, they formed a half-circle disguised in the foliage to see who was out there.
They saw two adult men wearing strange clothing who carried long, rod-like weapons, idly chatting in place. They were holding these blunt shafts with a pose similar to that of a person primed with a bow, indicating that they were the ‘guns’ that Master Urkan had warned them about.
Khilok motioned for Zeya and Zima, the two archers of the group, to draw their weapons. Silently, the boys mutually agreed that the poachers were even better prey than a bear ever was.
Ludmila watched intently as the arrows aimed right for the necks of the poachers, certain to take them out in one shot if hit. Knowing them, they wouldn’t miss their mark. It was far easier than sniping birds from their nest. However, her eyes darted back and forth, scanning the surroundings. Something felt off to her. Even if these two were poor hunters, would they really act so carefree? Even animals knew better.
But her thoughts stalled as two light plucks of a string echoed in the air. Both arrows zoomed through the air and punched straight through the throats of the poachers. They barely had time to reach a hand up to their necks before they fell over.
Drilled into their minds not to cheer even after a successful kill, Zeya and Zima silently moved out of the tall brush to check their catch. At that point, a chill went down Ludmila’s spine, telling her that they shouldn’t remain here. It was like an animal’s instinct that warned her of danger.
She reached out to grab Khilok’s arm, but before her fingers reached, a chorus of loud bangs tore through the forest.
With wide eyes, Zeya and Zima crashed to the ground, a shower of attacks having rained upon the spot where they stood up. Ludmila and the other three stared in horror at their lifeless eyes and the pool of blood building around their bodies.
Just then, a crew of several poachers, numbering at least ten, pushed aside the foliage and stood up, their guns still aimed forward.
“Shit! They really did come out swinging! Looks like all of you had itchy triggers as well!”
“What a slip up. Let’s hope we didn’t damage any of the important parts. That’s why I told you guys to aim low!”
“I did aim low! But look, they are freaking kids! You expect me to adjust for some damn midgets?”
Just as they had taken the first two out in an instant, their two brothers were lost in the same moment afterward. But now, they were outnumbered and lost the element of surprise. Khilok clenched his teeth in anger, wanting to cleave the lot of them in half with his blade. He nodded to Orlik, signaling him to circle the other way. They would cut the poachers down before they could be found.
Oymur was the only one that hung back, realizing that this was not a fight that they should have been a part of. He pushed the stunned Ludmila toward the direction of the village, his hand quivering. With a quick signal after he got her attention, he told her wordlessly to alert the adults before giving her a shove that put her feet into motion.
Ludmila was the fastest and most silent of them. Only she could reach the village in time. The others were sacrificing themselves for her sake and the rest of their family.
But still, she hated this feeling. She didn’t want to run alone. She wanted to fight also, just like how Master Urkan did after her father was killed. She wanted to be brave also. To use the speed that she gained to topple her foes, not to flee by herself.
But the bangs of several guns firing froze her blood. Just like the fangs of an invincible predator, those sounds snarled behind her in the distance. Curiosity forced her to slow down and turn her head.
The sight of Khilok’s body shredded with gunfire burned into her eyes. The flash of Orlik’s blade stopping just short of someone’s neck before he fell over sent a tremor to the soles of her feet. And Oymur, the only one left, was still in hiding while motioning for her to keep going.
‘I have to find Urkan. I have to run. I have to-‘
A bullet nicked the side of her leg, the pain waking her from her fear. In desperation, Oymur charged at the person who caught sight of her.
Before she could see the result, she turned around and bolted through the forest. Several more bangs echoed behind her, making it obvious what had happened.
She couldn’t save them. She couldn’t. But Master could save the others. Together, their family would prevail. They weren’t hunters for nothing. But she had to reach them first. To tell them what had happened and prepare everyone to fight back.
Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through her right leg. There was no need to look down to know that she had been struck by one of their weapons. Their yells taunted her in the distance.
But she had to focus on running. Her family needed to know. Otherwise, the other boys would have sacrificed themselves in vain. Even with the sharp pain in her leg and blood running down it, her foot fought with the ground to continue pushing off. She weaved between the trees to keep out of direct sight.
The whiz of bullets through the air sounded more deadly than arrows. The cracking of trees struck by stray shots was like an axe lodging deeply into its wood. Ludmila looked furiously around for the next spot of cover, mentally counting how far she would have to go to reach home.
But with so many poachers trailing after her, firing off shots at every opportunity, a single shot managed to reach her.
A sharp pain erupted from her left shin as the bone made a sick crunch. A bullet had struck it squarely and shattered it. Before she could react from the injury, her foot had already taken a step, the transferred body weight causing the bone to buckle. Her torso swung wildly to the left, jerking her head straight into the trunk of a tree. With no way of dodging it, Ludmila was met with a sudden rush of pain that shook her senses. That and the blood loss slowly lead her to black out.
All she could think was…
‘If only I had been faster… if only I hadn’t hesitated… then I could have saved them…’