I awoke the following morning to find my father’s sleeping bag empty. I left the tent and joined him at the fire, which had been relit and was now heating stones for boiling water.
“Did the star come back?” I asked.
My father nodded. “Three times, before I went to sleep,” he said.
“What was it?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “Darro might know when we get back home. Or he might make a better guess than I can, anyway.” Darro was the village priest: a role that granted him a title alongside my father as one of the three triarchs of the village.
When the stones were heated and the water boiled, we all ate our porridge. There was nothing to sweeten it with, but I was hungry enough not to mind much. Being sufficiently fed, we got ready for the day’s hunting. The horses were now well-rested, so we would be on horseback for most of the day. The fear and doubt the star had brought began to lift from my mind, and perhaps that was true of the men as well, because idle conversation and laughter were gradually starting to return to the camp.
We set off at a light trot. The breeze on the plain was pleasantly cool, and being on horseback made it possible to see much further than before. It seemed like only a short time before one of the men spotted something.
It was a small herd of buffalo, fewer than twenty strong. But we only meant to take a few.
“Spread out,” said my father. “Gamma, Lerro, Jonal, drive them. We’ll go up ahead.” He turned to me with a broad grin. “Ready?” I nodded eagerly, struck dumb by the sudden adrenaline.
I rode with my father, headed to the right side of the buffalo. The other men went left or came with us. We kept our steady pace so as not to alarm the creatures, right up until we heard the shout from the three men who were to drive the herd towards us. We broke into a gallop as the buffalo lumbered towards us. The wind was rushing through my hair. I tried to nock an arrow, but the motion of the horse made it too difficult and I took the reins again with one hand. Ahead of me, my father did precisely that in a practised motion and loosed it at a the nearest beast. The arrow found its mark in the buffalo’s front leg, making the animal bellow in pain, but it kept running. Jonal came up swiftly from behind the herd on his white horse and hit another buffalo in its hind leg.
By now, the animals were entirely surrounded. They bumped into each other in confusion and fear. I slowed my horse to a standstill and this time was able to shoot an arrow perfectly. My father cheered with me as it found its mark.
By now the buffalo were beginning to separate. Those that had avoided being shot were outpacing those less fortunate. We let them keep running. The remainder, the men killed one by one with their spears.
We rode back into camp in the early afternoon, dragging the slaughtered beasts. We set to work butchering them, and my father showed me how to skin one of them with a long knife.
One of the men suddenly told everyone to be quiet. Not far off was the unmistakable sound of galloping hooves, thudding on the dirt track nearby. Every man rushed to get their bow and spear. My father grabbed me and told me to get inside the tent.
A horn sounded loudly, blown by the rider. Two short blasts followed by a long one, followed by another short blast. The summons of our village’s lord. Whenever the Lord wanted to speak to the entire village, he would blow such a horn. Now here it was, half a day’s ride from the manor. The men all paused in their frantic preparation to meet whatever foe it might have been, then relaxed.
“Jorj,” said my father. “No need to go inside. It’s safe.” But his expression was still apprehensive. He strode to the lip of the hollow where he could see the road and waved. A rider trotted up and dismounted. It was Vazh; a man from the village who lived under Darro the Priest’s care.
“We nearly shot you, Vazh!” said one of the men. “What are you doing out here?”
“I’m really sorry to be the bearer of bad news, everyone,” said Vazh. “But the levy has been called. A rider from the King came this morning and I was sent out to find you immediately. Lord Torru has three days to muster his men at the capital.”
“Is it the star?” asked someone else.
“You saw it too? I don’t know, but most people think so,” replied Vazh.
“Might not be,” interjected my father. “We saw a few Berrumin on the plain yesterday evening. Might be something else is already happening and the star is just a coincidence.”
“Or a sign,” murmured someone.
“Or a sign,” agreed my father, nodding. There was a silent pause, then: “Right, come on then. Finish butchering and pack everything up. We’re going home.” The camp was alive with activity once more. My father came over to me and hugged me.
“I’m sorry that we can’t stay out here longer,” he said. “But we did well, didn’t we? I promise you we’ll go hunting again after I’m back.”
“If you come back,” I said bitterly. My father held me at arms length and looked me sternly in the eye.
“You mustn’t say that,” he said. “It’ll be alright.”
With the horses readied and the tent packed up, we set off. Vazh chose not to ride his horse for a way, judging it to be tired from the hard ride earlier. The forest road had once been paved with cobbles, drawing a straight line from our village to another beyond the hunting grounds. But the forest itself was much younger back then, and much of the road was now covered in dirt or twisted by the roots of trees. Still, we found our way by the few cobbles that remained above ground and the occasional milestone by the wayside.
It was all vaguely surreal to me. I had been told that war was upon us: something I had always imagined to be noisy and loud, with overcast skies and smoke rising high into the sky. And yet there we were, riding sedately back home while the birds sang about us and the sun beamed through the trees as it set.