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She stared at him for a moment, certain she’d misheard him.
“Good?” she asked.
“Yes, good! The animals should never have been killed for sport in the first place. Displaying their heads afterwards is highly distasteful and borders on the macabre.”
She stared at him, completely at a loss.
“But… but you are the Royal Hunter. How can you be against hunting?”
He laughed at the question, a deep and good natured laugh. Part of her prickled at his response, how dare a commoner laugh at her? Yet part of her wanted to join in. There was something infectious about it.
“I’m sorry, Duchess,” he said once he brought the laughter under control. “I was forgetting you are new here and may know little of the planet and its native life.”
“The native life does not concern me,” she replied. “The land of this Duchy extends for forty miles in every direction. Every living creature within it, every plant and tree, was transplanted here from other worlds. The only time the native life will concern me is when we are burning it back to enlarge the Duchy.
“I can assure you I know more than enough about the animals and plants within my realm, and the people too. They are all happy under the rule of my family and happy to provide the respect I deserve.”
“I’m sure they are. When your uncle was Duke it was more than their life was worth to be otherwise. With a word he could have them turfed out of their homes, their possessions confiscated, their family made little more than slaves. Or he could have them executed on trumped up charges.”
“Nonsense! How dare you! My uncle was a good ruler and the people respected that. Many of them have told me so.”
“And if I was right and he was a ruthless, vindictive man with a shrivelled up soul do you think they’d dare tell you that? You’re his niece. You’re the new Duchess. They expect you to pick up where he left off.”
“I refuse to believe it.”
“Really? You judged me harshly for my job, yet if you look around this room you see evidence your uncle loved the sport you say you despise. Did you know all of these animals were killed here, within the lands of the Duchy? None of them were part of the ecosystem transplanted to the planet. Your uncle had every one of those animals shipped in specifically so he could hunt them.”
“And you helped him hunt, I suppose?”
“No. I told you, I don’t hunt. Not like that.”
“Then what do you do?”
“I hunt Bagra lions.”
“Bagra lions? They are native to this planet, aren’t they? So you go outside of the Duchy and hunt these lions. I hardly see how that makes you different to my uncle.”
“I don’t hunt them outside the Duchy. I hunt them inside the Duchy.”
“What? How do they get in? We have electrified barriers keeping all native life out.”
He smiled slightly.
“Let me tell you a little about the Bagra lions. They are apex predators, the top of their food chain. They bear some similarity to lions. That’s where they got their name.
“Being an apex predator is not unusual, it happens in many ecosystems, but there are normally other creatures, predators and potential prey, which can give the apex predator a hard time. Not here. The Bagra lions have wiped out anything that could be a threat to them. All predators larger than a fox and all prey animals that had the defences to trouble them as a species. They rule the native areas which make up so much of this planet.
“That in itself makes them potentially dangerous. What makes them absolutely lethal is that they are intelligent. Very intelligent. To them the electrified barriers are like an unlocked door. They slip past them at ease, and then they start doing what they live for… they hunt.”
A sliver of ice settled into Rosalind’s heart. Could this be true? Could there be something so dangerous within the Duchy. She glanced over at her steward who had been keeping carefully quiet throughout the conversation.
“Is this true?” she snapped.
“Yes, Duchess,” he replied. “Bagra attacks are rare, thankfully, but they are merciless hunters when they do enter our lands. If one is spotted then we send for Lucius immediately.”
“Do I not have guards who can tackle this threat equally well?”
“I… no… that is yes, you have guards, but…”
Lucius took pity on the man.
“Duchess, the Bagra are intelligent. They are at least as intelligent as many humans. They are not a threat that approaches in plain sight. They are subtle, careful hunters. They scout out their prey, they learn the area, they work out when best to strike… and then they do, devastatingly fast.
“When the Duchy was first settled, nearly three hundred years ago, hundreds of guards and people were lost to Bagra attacks. Hunters flocked here, each desperate to be the first to bag the new beasts. All failed. Most died.
“Then my ancestor arrived. He was a hunter of the sort you dislike so much. He had rivers of blood in his past. He was careful, though, and very clever. He knew many of the hunters who had failed and died, knew they were at least as good as he, so he took his time and studied the Bagra attacks.
“The first thing he noticed was they had started to focus on the hunters. Everyone thought the high casualty rate was because the hunters were out looking for the Bagra and the decrease in civilian deaths was because the hunters were pushing the Bagra away from the most populated areas.
“Old Kurz realised that was rubbish. The number of attacks on guards was staying roughly the same and were generally in the same places as the attacks on civilians had been. The attacks on the hunters didn’t match, either, many of them were coming when the hunters were in locations that hadn’t seen any sign of a Bagra for days.
“Old Kurz spotted the patterns, but no one wanted to listen. He shrugged his shoulders and kept on learning. He also made sure he had his weapons with him at all times, and he was on alert no matter where he was. It worked. Almost every other hunter got attacked over the next few months, most of them were killed, but nothing happened to Old Kurz.
“He made another discovery during that time. Despite the large number of Bagra attacks there were only three or four animals involved. Even more surprising was that the biological evidence showed there was only ever one active at a time.
“It took him several more months to accept what it all meant. His notes skirted around the ideas many times but it was too big a leap to make. Finally he had to accept the evidence. Accepting that the Bagra were highly intelligent was difficult, but it was more than that. The Bagra were acting like human hunters. One would enter the Duchy, choose the most interesting and difficult targets and then pick them off — the guards and hunters in particular.
“For the first time in Old Kurz’s life he was the prey. He lived with the constant fear there was a predator watching him, even as he learnt more and more about that predator. He watched colleague after colleague die without being able to save any of them.
“The experience changed him. Over the next few weeks all joy went out of hunting. When he lined an animal up in his crosshairs he started imagining what they were thinking, how they would feel if he fired. He let more and more animals escape until he accepted the truth. He was no longer a hunter. That life was behind him. He would never hunt any animal again.
“With one exception. The Bagra lions. By this time he’d developed a strong affection for the creatures, but the idea of them hunting humans was too much for him. He took an oath to protect the Duchy from Bagra attack, and that’s what he did.
“Over the next month he had several near misses, times when he almost killed a Bagra or one almost killed him. Then, finally, all his research paid off. He worked out a way to fool the Bagra, and in doing so he set an ambush.
“The ambush worked but Old Kurz still nearly died. He hadn’t faced a Bagra before, and though he knew they were intelligent he couldn’t help thinking of them as animals. Once he opened fire the Bagra reacted with blinding speed, spotting a weakness in Old Kurz’s preparations that let it reach him.
“Only Old Kurz’s reflexes saved him, his reflexes and the fact he’d chosen a powerful pistol rather than a rifle. He leapt backwards, bringing up the pistol and firing at point blank range into the Bagra’s thick skull.
“The Bagra was barely slowed. It clamped its jaws on Old Kurz’s other arm, tearing it off at the elbow. Despite the pain Old Kurz kept on firing, sending shot after shot into the powerful Bagra’s head.
“It finally collapsed. Old Kurz had no idea how many shots he’d fired. When he checked it was seventeen. Seventeen high powered rounds! But he’d done it. He’d killed the first Bagra.
“He killed several more over the next few months, while other hunters had no luck. Enough that the king recognised Old Kurz’s achievements and gave him the post of Royal Hunter, along with the duty to protect the people from Bagra attacks.
“Things got quieter after that. The occasional Bagra tried its luck. Some killed a few people before Old Kurz got them, others he managed to pick off before they could hurt anyone.”
“So he became famous and taught the other hunters?” the Duchess asked.
“No. By that time he was fed up of being ridiculed by the other hunters, ridiculed even though he was succeeding where they were simply dying. Maybe that was why they felt the need to treat him so badly.
“No, he decided to try something else. He’d never married, never had children, but he adopted four promising teenagers who had been left orphans by the Bagra attacks. He taught them what he had learnt, how he hunted. Most importantly of all he taught them to respect the Bagras, to accept the creatures had to be kept out of the Duchy but to view that as a necessary evil.
“He taught them everything he could, but two were killed by Bagras over the next year. The other two, though, they picked up everything he could teach and added their own tricks. Old Kurz left them some years later, when he was sure they had no further need of him. He left the Duchy and headed into the indigenous forest without a single piece of equipment. Some say he was determined to face a Bagra on its terms. I think it was something different though. I think he felt guilt over those Bagra he’d killed. I think he went there seeking forgiveness, seeking absolution, maybe even offering himself as a sacrifice.
“The two hunters he’d trained took his surname as a sign of respect, and over time trained their own children as hunters. As their numbers increased some moved to the other Duchies, taking their knowledge with them and keeping the Bagra under control there. That continued down the years, finally leading to me.”
Rosalind stared around the room, studying the various animal heads. Finally she gave up.
“I give up. I can’t spot it. Which one is the Bagra Lion?”
“None of them. Your uncle never managed to kill one. One nearly killed him mind you. A dozen of his guards died protecting him and driving the Bagra off. I caught up with it several days later and killed it before the Duke could be attacked again.”
“But you have killed many. Why didn’t he just buy a corpse from you? It would be cheating, I guess, but I can’t imagine that worrying my uncle.”
“He wanted to, but I refused. I respect the Bagra far too much to allow it. It would be like hanging a human head on the wall.”
“And my uncle accepted you saying no?”
Kurz laughed again.
“Oh no! He didn’t take well to someone refusing to do what he wanted, but of all the people in the Duchy I was the only one who wasn’t subject to his will… or yours for that matter.”
“How can that be?”
“It’s all in my title. I am the royal hunter. I report only to the king or queen and I am specifically exempt from any interference by the rulers of the Duchies. That’s another present that Old Kurz left us, a condition of his controlling the Bagra threat.”
“And my uncle accepted that?”
“Ah… you see much, my Lady. You do understand something of your uncle’s nature, even though you deny it. No, he did not accept it. He couldn’t challenge it directly but he used other methods. In particular he forbade all his subjects from trading with me or providing aid of any kind. At the same time he banned anyone from allowing me to travel to another Duchy. In effect he trapped me here and ensured I would struggle without food or supplies.
“He put those rules in place… oh, maybe twelve years ago now.”
“Yet you seem healthy and well supplied.”
“What can I say… it seems the people of the Duchy are incredibly forgetful. They follow their Duke’s command on this firmly, yet they keep managing to leave food, clothing and other supplies behind when they go on walks or picnics.”
“They disobeyed the order! They should be brought to trial for that!”
“Duchess, stop and think about this from their point of view. The Duke’s instructions would have left me dead or so weak I couldn’t hunt. The people knew what that would mean — no one standing against the Bagra attacks. The Duke put them in an impossible situation where any choice was wrong. They took what they thought was the best of a bad bunch.
“And it wasn’t just the people. The old Duke sent his troops to track down who was helping me but they never managed to find a trace; partly because the people helping me were careful, but mostly because none of the guards wanted me gone.
“If I wasn’t hunting the Bagra, if I wasn’t there, then the guards would both be sent after the Bagra and become prime targets for the Bagra.”
Rosalind forced her anger down. The people had a duty to obey their ruler, the guards in particular, but from what she’d seen so far they were all very obedient. If everyone was disobeying an order then just maybe it was a bad order.
“So I can’t order you around,” she said finally.
Kurz smiled slightly.
“No, my Lady, but you can ask me for assistance.”
Rosalind nodded. She was used to moving in a much larger court, one where many people owed their obedience and loyalty elsewhere. Seeking help and counsel from such people had been a part of her life. Kurz slotted neatly into the same box. All the same, there was much she needed to think on.
“I thank you for your time,” she said. “And for the information you have given me. I will ponder it and, if it is convenient for you, speak with you again tomorrow.”
“No, my Lady, I cannot go yet.”
His voice was firm. All hint of a smile was gone from his face. Rosalind fought to hold back a shiver. Her guards were in the room with her, but she suddenly felt vulnerable.
Her tone was icy, not giving away any hint of the worry she felt.
“Because I’ve been tracking a Bagra for the past three days, one that is trickier than any I’ve seen before. A master hunter amongst master hunters. I’ve come close but I haven’t seen him yet. I’m sure of one thing though — he’s coming here, and he’s coming for you.”
Rosalind’s stomach dropped. She glanced at her guards for reassurance. She didn’t get it. They’d gone pale. She took a deep breath and drove the fear to one side, putting on a calm mask.
“Steward, I want the guard detail tripled. Warn them what they may be facing.”
She turned back to Kurz.
“Why would it be coming after me?” she asked.
“I told you, the Bagra are intelligent and they go after anything that could be a threat to them.”
“How can I be a threat? I’m no hunter!”
“No, but you are the Duchess. You rule over everyone within the Duchy.” He paused, then gave a lopsided smile. “Well, almost everyone. You are the leader. You are at the apex. You are the biggest danger to them, but you also represent a fine trophy.”
“That… that actually makes some sense.”
“It’s nothing personal. The same creature was around before your uncle died. It spent at least a month hunting him before it managed to kill him.”
“Wait! No! My uncle died in a flitter crash.”
“I know. How do you think it crashed? For that matter, where do you think he was going in such a fired up hurry? He’d received a tipoff that the Bagra was in the area and he was heading towards it when his flitter suffered a severe mechanical failure.”
“A tipoff… but who would know… you! You tipped him off! You were using him as bait, weren’t you?”
“Very clever. Yes, I tipped him off. I was hoping to pull the Bagra out into the open when your uncle landed. The Bagra outsmarted me. It found a way to kill your uncle before he landed.”
“You don’t seem very upset about his death.”
“Maybe I would if his personal guard hadn’t put three bullets into my arm a few months ago. He got tired of waiting for me to meet with an accident or starve to death and sent his men to get rid of me. They failed, but they got too damn close.”
Rosalind shook her head. It was too much to take in at once. She needed a minute to think, to understand what was happening. She didn’t get that time. Alarms blared into life, followed by a loud explosion from somewhere close by.
The guards moved closer to the door, covering it with their weapons. The steward drew a small handgun and joined them. Rosalind was acutely aware of the fact the additional guards hadn’t arrived yet. She was starting to doubt if they ever would.
“Is that it? Is it here?”
She was proud the trembles she felt didn’t reach her voice, even now.
“Most probably. If not then it won’t be long before it arrives. After all, I’ve given it an irresistible target.”
“What do you mean?”
“The two biggest trophies it could hope for, both in one place. You, the ruler of the Duchy, and me, the hunter that kills Bagra.”
“You used me as bait! How dare you?”
“No, I used us as bait. It would have come for you at some point anyway, at least now you have me to keep you safe.”
He moved closer, lowering his voice as he came. She suddenly became aware of the weapons he carried under his cloak. Why hadn’t her guards removed them? Was it something to do with his status as Royal Hunter?
“Or maybe things aren’t as they seem,” he said, too softly for the others in the room to hear. “Maybe the hunter is already dead. Maybe what you see is not what is really there? Maybe I am that which you fear so much now.”
Rosalind couldn’t move. Fear had paralysed her. If Kurz had moved quickly she would have reacted, but he was steadily padding closer, eyes locked on hers. The way he moved put her in mind of a big cat stalking its prey. Of a lion.
Kurz slowly pulled a gun as he approached, a massive thing that barely fit in his hand. He’d kept on talking but she hadn’t heard the words. She forced her attention back as he reached the top step, only arms reach away.
“…so easy. It really should have been a challenge. Here I am, standing right before you ready to…”
He leapt at her. She screamed. He slammed into her, shoving the heavy chair she sat on over and taking her with it.
The scream died, trapped in her throat, as something dropped from the rafters of the room right on top of where she’d just been sitting. It could only be one thing — a Bagra.
Time seemed to slow to a halt. The creature was massive, twice her length at least. Its fur was so dark it was almost black, but in a way that absorbed light. If it stood still in a dark corner she doubted she’d be able to see it at all.
She could see its massive paws and the vicious claws extended ready to strike. She could see the barbed teeth in its mouth. Far more chilling were its eyes. Staring into them she had no doubt the Bagra was intelligent. Intelligent and very angry at being thwarted, even if only for a moment.
Time returned to normal. She hit the steps with Kurz on top of her. His weight drove all the breath from her lungs. Then they were rolling and she was on top of Kurz. She couldn’t see the Bagra anymore, but she could sense it right behind her and preparing to pounce. What was Kurz doing? Was he using her as a shield? Was he using her as he’d used her uncle, to get a shot at the Bagra?
Something exploded just behind her. The sound was like thunder trapped within a tiny room. The flash seared into her eyes. She lay there blinded, deafened and unable to shout or scream for what seemed like an eternity. The whole time she was waiting to feel claws raking her back or jaws closing on her head.
Finally she managed to drag down a breath. Energy returned to her body. She shoved herself to the side, getting ready to jump away… but there was no need. The body of the Bagra was slumped across the dais, most of its head missing. She turned back to Kurz who was looking as dazed as she felt and things kicked into place. Kurz still had the massive gun in his hand. That was what the explosion had been — Kurz firing.
The next moment her guards arrived, surrounding her and pointing their guns at both the dead Bagra and Kurz. That was too much for Rosalind. She burst out laughing.
“Oh for the stars’ sake, what are you doing? He just saved my life while you lot were busy staring at the door.”
She forced herself up, then reached down, took Kurz’s hand and helped him to his feet. A terrible breach of protocol, but at that moment she didn’t care a jot.
“I’m getting old,” he muttered. “Was a time I’d have bounced straight back off the floor.”
“Not that old. Without you I’d be dead by now, wouldn’t I?”
“Just doing my job, Duchess.”
“Still, you saved me. There must be something I can do to say thank you?
“Well, you could issue an edict telling your subjects they can trade with me again…”
“Consider it done.” She smiled, but then a frown replaced it.
“That won’t be the last one, will it? They’ll keep coming for me.”
“I’m afraid so, but don’t worry too much.”
“Because you’ll be protecting me?”
“Well, partly, but mostly because if it’s going to happen there’s nothing you can do anyway.”
He smiled then turned, heading towards the door. Rosalind stared after him, her mind whirling with everything that had happened and the words he’d spoken. It wasn’t the most comforting thing he could have said, yet somehow she did feel better. Running the Duchy involved many different worries… maybe she really could push this one to the back of her mind.
She glanced at the corpse of the Bagra Lion once more and shivered. Or maybe not.
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