They headed into the densest part of the forest surrounding the village, away from the Great China Sea. Base camp was a three hour trek into the woods, giving them time to find their camp, engage in the hunt, kill, clean, cook and eat any quarry they could find.
Shui’s familiarity with the area kept them from getting hopelessly lost. The path was overgrown with a dense growth that resisted blades used to cut the path through the surrounding jungle. Infrequent breaks in the dense overgrowth revealed towering hardwood trees, the tops of which would have been difficult to see even if the branches and foliage were less dense.
They walked expertly through green overgrowth; Shui taking the lead; Liao following silently. They would stop periodically when Shui would point something out along the barely distinguishable trail.
“I’ve been coming to these woods since childhood,” the older man spoke almost reverently. “My father would take me hunting along this trail. My first kill wasn’t far from where we’ll establish our camp.”
They continued for another hour, the elder warrior still commenting, directing attention to a tree, rock, flower, or animal unique to the forest. “Here alone grow the herbs that are used in the the Warrior’s Blood, but don’t seek them, Liao – without the secret of how they are blended, knowing the individual plants is useless.”
After three hours, Shui finally called them to a halt. He motioned for Liao to wait while he stepped into what appeared to be an opening in the brush. A short time later, the old Warrior emerged, a look of satisfaction on his face. “Well, what’re you waiting for,” he challenged, “We’ve arrived!” He stepped back, holding back branches while Liao passed through, emerging into a battered, overgrown clearing that appeared to be the remains of an old hunters camp.
Shui began to establish the camp. “Liao, scout the surrounding area, but not too far. It’s easy to get lost in these woods. Gather kindling and firewood, and while you’re out there, look for signs of our prey.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes – I recall a source of fresh drinking water not far.”
Shui hadn’t been away long when Liao returned to the clearing, arms burdened by the heavy load of kindling and firewood he carried, but eyes full of fire and excitement.
“If the trails I discovered are any indication, these woods are indeed the perfect place to hunt tiger,” he called out, excitement barely hidden from his voice.
Liao set the firewood near the edge of the clearing, carrying to the fire pit only the kindling and enough branches to get the fire going. He produced a flint and steel and struck them together several times until the spark ignited the pile of small twigs and dry grasses. If the hunt were both timely and successful, there would be a good bed of coals waiting for them when they returned.
While he was tending the fire, Shui returned to the clearing, carrying several skins of fresh water. He hung the skins from pegs below the lower branches of one of the trees in the clearing, and beckoned Liao to him. They sat together for several moments, removed from warmth of the fire.
Shui began to speak. “Three generations of my family have hunted here. My clan dies with me, Liao, so I leave you to remember this place.” He reached into a pocket and withdrew folded parchment, handing it to the younger man.
“That map will help you find your way back here. It’s been five years since the last time I was here, and the clearing still looks undiscovered. It’ll be your secret as it was once mine.”
Liao withdrew a cask of Warrior’s Blood from his pack. He passed it to Shui, who took a long pull before offering it back. As they took their drink in turn, Shui continued.
“This location is secret, passed from father to firstborn son. My grandfather passed it to my father, who in turn passed it to me. This camp has seen many hunts, Liao. I have a feeling this will by my last.”
Shui looked off in the distant trees for a moment, took another long pull from the flask, and continued.
“Promise me you’ll show this place to your son. Promise me that it won’t be forgotten when I die. But, promise me nothing now, Liao. Come!”
Shui stood. “Have you found signs of our prey?”
“Good. Take only your blade.”
Shui stood by while Liao preceded him into the forest where Liao had found the tiger trail earlier. The details of the hunt were left to Liao. It was the younger man who would do the actual work. The task was neither easy, nor quickly resolved.
Liao quickly assumed the role Shui laid out. He spoke to Shui. “You will circle in the opposite direction from which I go. We’ll flank the beast, cutting off any escape. It’ll be your task to ensure the beast moves in my direction.”
Shui signaled his understanding of the instructions and followed slightly behind Liao. Liao proved to be an excellent tracker, picking up the trail within minutes of leaving camp.
Once tiger prints were discovered, Liao immediately dropped to his knees, searching and smelling for telltale signs of the passage of the animal. Tigers are by nature highly territorial, and like many other territorial animals, they marked their declared habitat by spraying.
Tiger spray was something once learned, no hunter ever forgot. The sweet, musky fragrance left by their passing was easily followed if left recent enough. Liao soon found fresh evidence of a passing group of tigers. Motioning Shui to his right, Liao proceeded along the trail crawling upon all fours, not wanting to spook his prey. Slowly he crept, barely breathing as he moved closer. Silently, the warrior advanced, increasingly aware as he moved, of the vivid world around him. The moment was soon at hand. So skillful were his advances that even Shui lost sight of the younger man as he closed in on his quarry.
The forest around them grew silent, almost as if in anticipation of what was about to unfold. Time slowed, as it so often does during life’s pivotal moments. A dance, as it were, began to unfold as Liao crept unseen into the clearing where an adult male tiger stood guard while presumably, the pack continued on to a stream where they took their water, almost as if to secure the clearing where they would rest during the heat of the day.
Liao silently motioned to Shui to close ranks while moving closer to his prey. The huge cat, which seemed unaware of the ballet of movement around him, suddenly took notice. It rose from it’s haunches, the hairs on it’s back standing, nostrils flaring, eyes darting about, sensing something, yet not understanding what was about to befall it.
Slowly the pair advanced. They slipped closer to the beast pacing anxiously in the center of the clearing. Suddenly, the beast reacted. Millennia of evolutionary development and raw, natural instinct narrowed into a focal point that drove the beast to a decision. In an instant of time shorter than the beat of a heart; at the very moment Liao had chosen to enter the clearing, the beast charged Shui.
He reacted as any seasoned, skilled hunter would – facing down the aggressor, spear raised in offensive posture; loudly proclaiming that he would not be intimidated. Shui moved quickly to thwart the charge of the beast, hoping to deflect the charge in Liao’s direction. Blade in hand, Liao moved swiftly across the clearing, each determined stride taking him closer to the animal. Shui moved closer, his net brandished and flailing wildly at the the beast. Liao leapt, seeming to take flight as he approached the huge bulk only now turning to recognize the threat to its flank.
The animal pivoted on its hind legs to face the charging warrior. Seeing the greater danger approaching, it quickly lowered its head and charged the blur of motion that was Liao.
The two met in a violent clash at the center of the clearing, the beast howling its obstinate cry of defiance; Liao’s battle cry adding to the din. Together they rolled over and over in the dirt and loose grass of the clearing, each carefully avoiding the other’s deadly determination; each struggling to overcome the advance of the other. Round and round went the dance of the determined. Over and over the two massive bulks rolled, neither yielding. Drizzles of blood from each aggressor showed as the dance for supremacy moved on through stanza after stanza. Finally, after countless tense moments of thunderous noise and agonizing expense of energy, one of the competitors in this finely orchestrated ballet saw an opening and made a move, deciding the outcome. In a epic feat of effort, Liao rolled both himself and the beast wildly until he was positioned on the animal’s back, legs wrapped tightly around its muscular torso, reached forward with one arm and grabbed the animal’s head. With the other, the Warrior stretched to his fullest, quickly and deeply drawing his blade across the animal’s throat. The huge animal flailed wildly, trying to derail the grasp of the mighty warrior clinging stubbornly.
For what seemed to Liao to be an eternity, the tiger continued to rage wildly within the clearing, Shui turning it back to the center whenever it tried to retreat into the undergrowth. Finally, after great loss of blood, the tiger slowed its rampage. Falling first to its front legs, then to it’s hind legs, the proud beast lay at last, panting weakly while life giving blood ebbed from the wound on its neck.
With the speed only a seasoned hunter could have developed after years of hunting, Liao rolled the beast onto its back, careful to avoid the still dangerous fangs. He raised his knife over his head, and with both hands, plunged the blade deeply into the beast’s head. He rose over it, placing his foot on the animals chest, retrieved his blade and shouted the victor’s cry while the beast beneath him finally gave up it’s valiant battle.
The proud warrior then fell to his knees and embraced the tiger. Taking its head in his hands, facing the beast, he closed his eyes and bowed his head slightly to the dead animal, as if to say, today you fought the good fight. You fought and died with honor.
The moment passed and Shui joined him in the clearing. Together, they field dressed and skinned the animal, mounting it on the spear. They hoisted each end onto their shoulders and with a silence almost as solemn and poignant as the moments before taking the beast, they walked back to camp. The fire had burnt down to coals perfect for cooking. The two men set the spitted beast on the rack at either side of the bed of coals and settled in for a well deserved rest while the animal slowly cooked.
When the meat was ready to be eaten, they each took their blades, cut off a respectable slice of meat and seated themselves near the fire. As they reaped the pleasure of the hunt, Shui spoke.
“A hunt well done, Liao. Today you bested the largest tiger I’ve ever seen, and in a fight well fought. I shall sing songs of this hunt around the fires of my old age and at the tables of great men.”
“I haven’t felt such exhilaration in a long time,” the younger man added. “I, too, shall sing songs, but my verses will be to the beast, and to the generosity of a wise man whose love of the hunt brought me to this place.”
Sitting in silence, they ate more meat and passed around Warrior’s Blood until they were content. The remainder of the tiger was wrapped to be carried back with them, to share with whomever should pass their table; the price of dinner being the retelling of the day’s tale.