Cathaoir drew an arrow from his quiver as he listened to the two men argue.

They faced each other by a tall pine, standing over a felled buck about fifty feet away and fifteen more below the oaken bough he coiled up in. At first, he couldn’t hear their conversation clearly, but their voices rose with their tempers.

“… clearly an arrow wound. I am insulted that you would…”

“Yeh insult yerself! Look at th’ tear on the belly, ragged and…”

“And clean. Uneaten. Stop playing the fool; you shot…”


The accuser, dark-haired and clean shaven, wore the sigil of the Crimson Oak on the brooch of his cloak and a sword at his side. Cathaoir had met the man before, a ranger by the name of Stafford, who had presumably heard the deer fall. He was a fairly clever man, but too honest by half. His sharp widow’s peak was pointing directly at a similarly-tall man who kept his auburn hair short and his beard ragged. This one, too, wore a cloak, and his bow lay across the ground a few feet away. Cathaoir did not recognize him.

He continued to size the men up from his perch. Stafford was becoming more stern and the accused poacher more agitated, and they were beginning to shift on their feet. The argument could come to blows soon. Stafford was likely to have more training by far and the better arms for a duel. But this wasn’t likely to be a duel. Who would move first, and what would that move be? Would the hunter try to flee, or would he charge, closing into the bloody brawling distance that would negate the longsword’s advantage?

Cathaoir nocked the arrow.

But the rising tension was cut before its climax by a sound that could make a man’s heart stop. Cathaoir smiled.

Just eight long paces from the men, a bear towered over the scene and roared from its hind legs.

Stafford reached immediately for his sword while the hunter dove for his bow.

So that’s how this would be.

The bear, seeing neither of the men back away from the kill, dropped onto its forelegs. It pounded toward Stafford.

Catahaoir loosed.

The bear skidded over the dry leaves a few feet before it lay dead.

Cathaoir nocked another arrow, drew, and loosed.

Stafford yelled. The hunter behind him crashed to the ground. The ranger spun and pointed his longsword up toward the oak.


Just as Stafford prepared to take cover and begin his advance, Cathaoir tossed his quiver to the ground and showed his hands.

“I won’t shoot. Go. Look.”

Stafford stopped and watched, stunned. But Cathaoir gestured again, and Stafford turned to take in the scene.

The bear lay a few feet away from Stafford with a fresh arrow in the back of its neck. But three more wooden shafts sprouted out of its back, their fletchings stripped and torn. The wounds must have been days old. The bear would have been driven to its brazen charge by a desperate mixture of pain and hunger. Then, Stafford saw the hunter. Cathaoir’s arrow had struck the man clean in the chest, and he had fallen on his back, just a few paces behind where Stafford was. He would only have been alive for a few seconds after falling—not long enough to overcome the shock and move from where he lay. And his right arm was reaching behind his back, contorted from the sudden fall.

Stafford kicked the man over onto his side. Under the bloodied cloak, the hunter had been reaching for a shortsword.

The ranger shouldered the deer while the interloper carried the pelts. The men had agreed that the poached deer should at least be taken to Oakhart and made use of, and Cathaoir could take his trophies from the bear.

They marched wordlessly for a while. After some time of listening to the crunching of the leaves underfoot and the heavy breathing of a hard, heavy march on a cold evening, the ranger ventured the obvious remark.

“Those were all your arrows in the bear.”

“Yes, they were.”

“You had been hunting it?”

Cathaoir had, indeed, been hunting this bear for days. He hated bear meat, but the pelts were mightily useful and valuable. And while hunting them was still forbidden this time of year, it was usually easier to argue with a ranger over a dead bear than over a dead deer.

So Cathaoir decided to twist the truth a little.

“My party encountered it, and I was able to scare it off with that first arrow. Once I had, I decided it was better to leave my group and make the kill than to leave it wounded.”

“It might have recovered.”

“Or it might not, and it might’ve killed someone over a meal.”

“That is fair. I will not make an issue of it.”

“I appreciate that.”

“I must thank you, too, for your shooting. It was very good and very noble.”

“You should’ve known he would take the opportunity. And besides, it wasn’t very noble.”

“Was it not?”

It was safer to travel with company, and safer yet to travel with company that doesn’t think to stick a sword in you when you turn your back. Cathaoir had shot the man as a favor to himself, not to Stafford. And this was by no means the first man he had shot.

He was in these forests, roaming and hunting out of Oakheart, because he had been exiled from Taemorden. He had failed as a guide—the man he left Taemorden with did not return with him. The young man had fallen from an ill-advised climb and broken both of his legs, and night and the wolves were closing in. The young man would never make it back to Taemorden, and every prayer he sang and curse he moaned brought more attention from the wildlife and more mortal danger for his guide. So Catathoir had killed him to silence him, and he had buried him to disgsuise his smell before he climbed into a tree for the night.

When he returned to Taemorden, he admitted his crime. A search party would find the body and its arrow wound eventually, and it was better to be seen as a murderer than to be seen as a murderer and a liar. For that, he was exiled and not hanged. He still wears the brand on his left cheek, over which he wears a mask. The mask that he tells most people is simply for the warmth.

He decided to twist the truth again, smiling beneath the mask.

“No. I’m told it’s not very noble to shoot a man from the high ground.”