Kai could not sleep the night after the bear hunt. She looked at the white bear skin across the camp and her heart still pounded as if she was still in battle. My Fighting Uruk-hai Princess BearKiller. She had earned her name. Her mind raced and her blood was still hot from the kill.
She had managed to bring the old boar bear down before it got to open water – just as Bandit had instructed her. The kapvik – the wolverine companions and Bandit's personal guard – had flushed the bear from its den. Kai and Bandit had fought the bear and then allowed it to run.
“Kai! Kai! Let it exhaust itself! Steady your pace!” Bandit had called to her but Kai knew she could bring it down. And she did. Bandit held back her kapvik and the bear was truly Kai's own kill. Her name, BearKiller, she had earned it. Proudly. Kai couldn't wait to present the bear skin to her father. It was a lavish gift and proof of her status. No one would doubt her now or call her a pampered palace princess.
Kai looked over at Bandit. The older one slept fitfully and coughed in her sleep. Kai had worried about Bandit this last few weeks. She had developed that cough and looked tired. Kai would not shame the older hunter by asking about the sickness. Pointing out a weakness was forbidden among the BearSlayers but Kai could not help but worry. On Bandit's bad days they would rest and Kai would tell her Col Ti's war stories and tales of his glorious victories. Kai knew the Bandit still thought of him.
Now they would begin their journey home to the Good Land. Kai longed to stay in the Lands of Ice and Snow. Just thinking about the oppressive heat and humidity of summer make Kai think that maybe she should stay in the wild open land of her Ancestors. But she could not. She had a duty to the Good Land – and she wanted to be with her father. How proud he would be of her!
And her mother. Kai wondered if OFG even thought about her. When they first left the Good Land Kai wondered if her mother would make a fuss over their farewell and maybe embarrass her in front of Bandit. But instead on the second day OFG simply halted the column in a large clearing, looked at her, and said, “Be well, My Fighting Uruk-Hai.... come back when you have earned your name.” Then her mother turned her mount, yelled for her officers to redress the lines, and the company moved out. Kai watched her go...OFG never even turned around.
It was not until Kai was very old that she realized that leaving her to her fate was the probably one of the hardest things her mother had ever done. At the time Kai thought maybe her mother didn't care that she was leaving but then she saw the incredible gift – the freedom to follow her own path unencumbered by guilt or obligation. Kai was free.
Bandit whimpered in her sleep. Kai would be glad when they were home. She would make sure the Healers took care of Bandit. They would administer their potions and then Bandit, her sworn sister, would be well. Kai would give Bandit the best quarters and everything she needed. The older hunter would be restored to full health and soon she and Kai would be sparring on the parade grounds, patrolling the Deep Woods, and hunting together. Kai would always stay by Bandit's side.
Kai looked at the kapvik sleeping around them in their camp. She had a flash of dread – what if Bandit in her weakened state could not control them? Kai could fight off one, maybe two of them... but not the whole company. The kapvik were deadly. Even after all of this time together Kai still did not know how Bandit captained them... other than their immense respect for her hunting skills and that Bandit's name was legendary. It was no matter – Bandit was well and she still controlled them.
Kai slipped off to sleep thinking of the look in that boar bear's eye when she delivered the killing blow. She was a BearKiller.
They journeyed south to the Good Lands. Slower than when they first arrived but they made good progress. Kai could feel the change in the air. There was a warmth on the wind even though they still crossed miles of ice and snow. From time to time Kai could hear the ice cracking at great depths below them. More frequently now they changed their path to avoid the shifts in the ice.
Bandit's hearing, even at her age, was so much better than Kai's. Kai laughed and thought about her friend Cowboy and his unlikely companion, Otto. If Cowboy were here he would make a game out of hearing the ice crack – he'd hear it before Bandit and would tease her for sure. Maybe when they got home and got Bandit settled Kai would ask for permission to visit the House of Ehren to see her friends.
They were crossing a frozen lake. Kai could tell they were getting close to the tundra and leaving the ice. The birds were different now then they were in the White Bear country. She could almost catch the scent of exposed ground and trees but that was many, many miles away. For now the frozen land stretched out and Kai could hear a river. The sound of running water was strange to her ear after all this time on the ice. She happily trotted along listening to the mix of bird calls, the wind, and the water. The sun shone bright on an impossibly clear sky. Kai couldn't be happier.
Later that day they approached a kind of flat area. To the south the wide river ran wild from under the ice they were crossing. It crashed against the bank on the far side, made a hard turn, and roared downstream. Kai could smell grass now, and trees, perhaps some elk. Tomorrow they could...
Bandit muttered something just under the breath. “What Bandit?” Said Kai as she turned her head to see some of the kapvik moving quickly back the way they came. Bandit stood looking at her. Sadness was in her eyes.
Kai was about to ask Bandit what was wrong...but then a huge explosion and the ice cracked under their feet. Kai jumped back and scrambled to catch her footing. One of the kapvik pulled her further to safety. Bandit stood looking at Kai as the ice fell away between them. Kai gasped. “Bandit! Bandit! Quick!”
But Bandit was giving orders to the kapvik in a language Kai couldn’t understand. Kai didn't know what she was saying but she knew that Bandit was threatening them.
“Bandit! Bandit! Quick! You can make the jump! Quick!” Kai urged. She could feel the ice sheet she and some of the kapvic were on start to become unsteady. She looked around and could see they were being pulled toward the river.
“Bandit! Hurry! You can jump just there and meet me on this side!” Kai was starting to panic. Why was Bandit just standing there? Her heart started to pound. Maybe she should jump to Bandit's side but the ice was moving too fast...
Bandit was shaking her head. “No Little Kai. This is the end of the journey for me. From now on you go alone.”
“What? Wait! No! Bandit! What are you saying! You can make it! BANDIT! ” Kai's mind raced not understanding what was happening. The river was louder now and they were moving further away. If Bandit didn't hurry the distance would be too great and they would be separated.
“I cannot go with you, Little Kai, and you cannot come with me. I am going to the Land of the Eternal Hunt...”
“NO!” Screamed Kai, aware that she was starting to shriek. She was crying and being held back by the kapvik. What was happening?
“... You know my time has come, Little Kai... I must leave you now. I cannot come back with you.”
The ice along the river was beginning to buckle. Further north they could hear it collapse.
“No. No, Bandit. I'm staying with you. I won't leave you! I'll come around to you...”
“Kai. What have I always taught you? Look ahead see that you are headed down the river. What do you see?”
“What?” Kai wiped her eyes and looked around wildly. She could see they would float on the ice sheet for quite a distance and then land on the other side. The ice up steam was falling now and joining with the river. There was no way back once the river pulled them away. Now that the ice was breaking up there would not be a way to return to the Lands of Snow and Ice until the next cold season.
“No.. Bandit... no... don't leave me. Please...” Kai was sobbing now and her voice was breaking. This couldn't be happening. Kai had it all planned out – they would always be together. They were sworn sisters. She had her place by Bandit's side. “Please.. don't...”
Bandit's eyes and her voice softened. “There is no way back for me, Little Kai. You cannot come. Would you deny me one last glorious hunt? Would you keep me from our ancestors? For what? To die in bed away from this Land of Snow and Ice? You cannot ask that of me.”
Kai had stopped struggling now and the kapvik had released her. The distance between them was too far and Kai could see there was no way back. In a crush of feeling Kai realized it was true. She could not get to Bandit...and she could not hold Bandit back from her path. Life was unkind and this was the way of things.
“There is one thing, Little Kai, that I would ask of you.”
Kai pulled her self to her feet. “Anything, Bandit, anything... what can I do?” The ice sheet had moved so far away that Bandit was now a small figure on the far side.
“Tell Col Ti... perhaps... if we were younger...” Bandit's voice trailed off.
“I will, Bandit! I will.” Kai was still choking back tears and cursing herself for acting like a child. But she was overwhelmed and could not control herself.
“Be well, My Fighting Uruk-Hai BearKiller, my Princess!”
And she was gone. Kai watched as the small figure of Bandit BearSlayer turned and trotted off until she disappeared from view. Kai collapsed in her tears and grief. Bandit was gone.
The next few weeks were a blur. Kai was deep in grief and before she realized it they had traveled a great distance. The kapvik were more and more surly and they refused to hunt with her... and most of the time regarded her with hate. She knew that they were honor bound to Bandit... but Kai was not sure if they would kill her or not. They resented her – that was obvious. None spoke to her and they kept their own camp. They stopped helping her carry the huge bear skin. Kai bore it alone. After a while, one by one, the kapvik disappeared. Kai assumed they went back to their homelands.
The smaller party continued roughly along the route they had come. Soon they were in a great forest where it seemed the rain never stopped. Kai was still in her grief. She was sullen and the root of despair grew within her. When she slept Kai dreamt of Bandit and with her every waking step Kai lamented their parting. Her heart was utterly broken. Bandit was gone. Her sworn sister, her hunting master, her friend... gone. There would be no more hunts, no more nights around the fire, no more instruction on the ways of the BearSlayers. Kai was alone.
One night Kai awoke with a start. She was sure she heard one long, low howl. She knew it was Bandit and that she had gone to the Eternal Hunt. “Why wouldn't you let me stay with you, Bandit?” Kai was flooded with great sadness knowing that Bandit had died.
They continued traveling.
Kai neglected her hunting. She had lost the joy she felt. Not long ago Kai had everything she ever dreamed of... “And now look at me.” She thought as she lay down that night. Here she was alone and miles from home. Bandit was gone. She pulled her tail up around her nose to keep warm, like Bandit had taught her, and tried to sleep.
When Kai awoke in the morning the kapvic were gone. Now she was really alone. She was thin from the long journey and her coat looked awful. She had also developed a limp. She was a far cry from the very picture of strength she had been on the ice. That seemed so very far away now.
Kai looked around her small camp. The huge, white bear hide was soaked and mud stained. The incessant rain would not let up on this long journey home. She looked at the hide despitefully. She would give up a thousand hides if she just could be back with Bandit. She had earned her name but at a terrible price. “This whole journey was probably just a waste of time.” Kai thought. She wondered if she should just leave the hide so she could travel more easily. She could...
Her head snapped to the side. Something was out here. She could barely hear footfalls. Her large ears pricked forward as she tried to detect any motion. Kai's nose quivered but she was on the wrong side of the wind. She readied herself as best she could for the attack. There could any number of terrors in these woods. Vandals, robbers, thieves...
Suddenly the bramble in front of her shook, split open, and a huge dark shape crashed into the clearing. She crouched to strike when...
“Hi Kai!” It was a familiar voice.
“Zander?” She was dumbstruck. How could her brother just appear out of the bramble? She was still many days, weeks more like it, from home. It really was him. Tall and handsome, Zander was grinning at her.
“What? How?” She stammered.
“Oh come on, I couldn't leave my favorite sister to wander around in these woods.” He said. “Oh hey, is that the bear hide? That's fantastic.” He pushed past her giving her a playful nip on the neck. “So I guess you really are a BearKiller now? I can't wait to hear the story.”
“But..” She was still utterly confused. This did not seem real.
Zander swung the huge hide over his shoulder with ease. “Come on, let's go home. My camp is not far it's...” He stopped chattering. “Kai, you look terrible!”
“Yes, I know I...” Kai's head was spinning. Her brother... her beloved brother had found her here in the deep woods. She blinked hard to make sure she wasn't seeing thing. But he was still there when she opened her eyes. He was smiling and looked dashing, as always. “Zander... I...”
He looked at her softly. “Tell me all of this later when you are rested. Guess what I have at my camp, Sister?” Zander said as he readjusted the bear hide bundle and started back the way he came. “Roast pork!”
“That's my favorite!” Said Kai following him. Her heart was lifting.
“I know. You should be able to smell it soon...” And the pair moved through the woods completely unaware they were being watched.
Well away from the clearing and hidden, the big man exhaled loudly. He closed his eyes and thanked the heavens that Zander had found Kai, his Princess daughter. He rose from where he had lain that night and turned toward to the north making his way through the underbrush.
“Finally!” Thought Gato Diablo also rising from his hiding place as he glared after Kai and Zander. Finally they could go home. That girl... that accursed Princess. They had been tracking her and her infernal party of wolverines for months. They had traveled to the accursed Lands of Snow and Ice.. and across the accursed tundra...and all over the accursed North. The cold made Gato Diablo's demons shriek louder and he was half wild by the time that other accursed BearSlayer sent the equally accursed Princess on her way down the river and back towards home. Gato Diablo hated all of them. Every single one of them.
They had been away hunting when the Princess left the Good Lands. When they returned the big man had angry words with that... that woman... his mate. Gato did not care that the woman allowed the Princess go to on some fool errand but still here he found himself... trekking across the snow and ice following Kai's every move. The big man was always watching the Princess from afar, protecting her, guarding her.
They had spent months concealed in the ice and snow always watching, always following her. She was a foolish, foolish girl. While the big man rejoiced at her hunting prowess Gato only wanted to go home and away from the snow demons screaming in his head.
Gato turned to follow the big man to where they had left the enormous, unnamed horse tied to a tree. He was glad to have the horse back. At least Gato could rest his weary feet. When they were first tracking the Princess they left the magnificent animal with a family in a small ruin of a town at the edge of the tundra. They promised a horrible death to everyone in the village if the horse died or was sold. The big man made his point quite clear. When they returned the horse was thin but well. The people barely concealed their anger beneath their fear. They were even more thin than the horse as they had given much of their meager rations to keep it alive.
The big man rewarded them well. He gave them directions to a cairn three days walking to the north. In it were riches beyond their wildest dreams. Meat, pelts, precious metals.... the meat alone, properly stored, would last them at least a year. The pelts from seals, otters, caribou....and the slain kapvic were worth their weight in gold.
Few could kill the wolverines... but the big man and his bow, Harbinger, had no problem with that task. Especially when the kapvic started to murmur among themselves about killing the Princess. Kai, lost in her exhaustion and grief, had never known the big man stood watch over her every night – from a distance, of course. When they made their move the kapvic never knew what hit them. The big man picked them off one by one and made sure it was done silently. He made sure his Princess was safe – just as he had always done. Silently watching, guarding, protecting her as he concealed himself in the shadows.
But now... now they were finally on their way home, thought Gato Diablo. Finally he could get some relief from the cold. He would visit Moose the White who would give him a mug of rich broth and administer tonics to silence the screaming demons inside his head. Yes, that was it. Moose the White would say the healing words and set him to rights. Gato Diablo caught up with the big man and in a smooth motion leapt up onto the enormous horse. Gato settled himself inside the big man's cloak. Yes... he thought.. Moose... Moose would set things to right. And he was asleep.
Editor's Note: As always our Adventure Tails are not entirely fiction. Bandit was well loved by my very dear friend. Bandit was an amazing dog and had ice-sky-blue eyes. She passed away last summer and went to the Eternal Hunt. While we praise God for all of Bandit's years of friendship...we are even more grateful for my friend "SavingDogs" who takes in our canine friends and finds them homes. And sometimes she keeps them for her own pack.