Jelro Thwaullaru didn’t think his decision was stupid when he, a thirteen-year-old, wrote his name under the list of students that would be future hunters in their thriving town.
He didn’t think he had made the wrong decision during the entire first year, or the second year.
When half of the class switched out before they turned fifteen and would no longer be allowed to switch, he didn’t even think twice about continuing his studies.
He excelled in every aspect of the class, and he could think of nothing that he’d rather be doing than gliding through the terrain with a bow and arrow in hand.
Water or land, it didn’t matter once he turned fifteen—Jelro was a halfling, as his mother was merfolk and his father was human. As long as he was submerged in the water, he had a tail and gills. If he left the water completely and came on land, he had legs and stronger lungs. His hands were always webbed between his fingers and his ears were always the fin-shaped kind that most Merrow had.
Thanks to his enchanted bow, arrows he fired could fly through the water with little to no hindrance from the currents or waves.
It was where he belonged.
It was his calling.
But that was before he met Oireug.
“Does everyone understand their task?” the hunting captain called out to the students—the hunters in training. “Nothing more, nothing less. Up to three of you are allowed to share a catch. Is that clear?”
The ten students solemnly nodded. Captain Awre was among the strictest of the captains, but for a good reason. She had to ensure the hunting was controlled, as to prevent the decline in animals living in the area.
Jelro admired Captain Awre greatly; she was a human that had lost her left arm long ago while trapped by wolves, and she had taught herself how to use a bow with her feet. It was incredible to see her willpower at work.
“Your time begins now!” she shouted, and the hunters rushed off, some getting in groups to share their catch with.
Jelro was friends with most of the other hunters, but he preferred to work alone. Too many hunters restricted where arrows could be aimed, and it was hard to be stealthy.
Two small animals or one of medium size—nothing larger than a small boar. Those were the instructions, and he planned on following them exactly. He would try to find something in the medium range, but if time started to run out before he found anything, he would go after two smaller creatures instead.
Smaller creatures were things like squirrels and birds, and even mice. Adult rabbits and foxes were medium-sized.
Large creatures like bears and moose were practically forbidden to the students; they didn’t have the skill to avoid injury.
Jelro crept through the trees for mere minutes before he picked up on fresh tracks, and by the look of it, the rabbit was injured. He knew he was lucky; most rabbits had learned to avoid the areas near The Academy, especially the hunting grounds.
As he stalked after his quarry, his mind swam with thoughts of rabbit stew. He’d missed the morning meal that day as a result of him oversleeping and barely making it to class on time. He’d stayed up late the previous night, brushing up on his reading for necessity classes such as lettering and calculations.
Jelro didn’t understand why he would ever need to be good at putting numbers together if he was a hunter, but he wasn’t half-bad at it and didn’t complain.
It didn’t take very long for him to find the rabbit; it was a young buck, and it was indeed injured, dragging itself as fast as it could out of the open spots between bushes. It had maybe ten steps before it reached the burrow that Jelro could see tucked under a stump.
The rabbit saw him, but it could hardly escape with a wounded leg.
Jelro raised his bow, ready to make a quick kill so the rabbit didn’t have to suffer any longer. He pulled back the string—
“MAMA, I’M SORRY!!!”
Jelro flinched, and his arrow buried itself in a tree nowhere near where he was aiming.
His ears were ringing with the terrified shriek that he swore had come from the rabbit. But that was ridiculous; rabbits couldn’t talk.
The rabbit was quivering from head to tail, but it quickly seemed to realize that it was still alive and immediately began scrabbling for its den.
And then Jelro saw the wolf.
The wolf saw him, too, but it was disinterested when there was an injured rabbit just within reach. Its pelt was riddled with tears and scrapes, and its backside was littered with broken arrows.
This wolf was a force to be reckoned with.
Jelro knew the best course of action would be to let the wolf have the rabbit. He, a mere sixteen-year-old, was obviously no match for the beast, and he could easily find a few squirrels to make up for the lost prey.
The wolf made a sound that to Jelro sounded like a sarcastic laugh.
“Baby broke a leg, did it?”
“I’m dead, I’m dead; I’ll never get to apologize to Mama for running away...!”
Something inside Jelro shattered, and he found himself raising his bow.
The next thing he knew, he was cradling the injured rabbit in his arms while fleeing from the wolf that he had just shot in the eye.
His luck was endless. The wolf couldn’t keep up for long, disappearing to deal with its gushing wound.
Jelro couldn’t remember the last time he’d made such a stupid move during a hunt. Now he had no choice but to finish what he started.
He snuck off of the hunting grounds and carefully brought the rabbit up to his friend’s treehouse, relieved to find it empty of anyone.
“I’m going to be eaten alive,” the rabbit moaned, twitching as Jelro examined his injured leg.
Jelro shook his head, wishing he knew what was going on. In all three and a half years he’d been training to be a hunter, not once had he encountered talking animals.
Then again, they were all shot dead by the time he got anywhere near them.
Feeling stupid, he took a deep breath, then asked, “Are you all right?”
The rabbit froze, staring at him with wide eyes.
“Are you talking to me?”
“I… think so,” Jelro slowly said, wondering if the whole thing was some weird dream and he was still sound asleep in his room, missing class completely.
“Does that mean you can understand me?” the rabbit skeptically asked.
“I guess it does.”
“Can all humans talk to rabbits?”
“I don’t know.” Jelro got back to business. “What did you do to your leg?”
“I was attacked by a shiny fox skeleton!”
Somehow, Jelro understood exactly. The rabbit had gotten his leg caught in a fox trap. The metal jaws probably did look like a skeleton of sorts, and since it was a fox trap, it probably reeked of the scent foxes carried.
As Jelro studied the rabbit’s leg, he realized it was broken. He had studied animal anatomy thoroughly and knew their bones like the back of his hand.
“It’s broken,” he told the rabbit. “I’m going to need to set the bones and wrap them with a splint. I’ll be as careful as I can, but I have a feeling it’s going to hurt. But it’s the only way it will heal.”
So Jelro used the tools in the treehouse to his advantage, getting the rabbit’s leg situated and then laying the rabbit in a crate that he cushioned with blankets and leaves.
“Thank you,” the rabbit said, sounding like he was close to tears. “I thought I was going to die.”
“You’ll be okay, now.” Jelro couldn’t admit that he had been planning on killing the rabbit.
“How long will it take to heal?” the rabbit wondered.
“I’m not sure,” Jelro apologetically said. “My guess is at least a month, but I don’t know for certain.”
“How will I get home? How will I find food?” The rabbit trembled. “Will I ever see my family again?”
Jelro’s heart ached for the rabbit. He couldn’t let him die.
“Yes. I’m going to take care of you until you heal, and then I’ll take you back to your family.” That he could do easily. He didn’t need to ask what rabbits ate. He knew their grazing habits, but he had previously only used that knowledge to find rabbits to hunt.
“Are you going to keep me here in this tree?”
Jelro chewed his lip. The treehouse belonged to his friend—an elf girl named Adif—so he didn’t want to just leave the rabbit there. Even though Adif was unlikely to hurt the rabbit, she was studying alchemy and Jelro was sure he’d heard her say something about using rabbit parts in certain concoctions.
But Jelro didn’t know what else to do with the rabbit. Taking him home was bound to raise an awful lot of questions, including the biggest question that Jelro still wanted time to ponder on his own.
There was also the problem of how he was going to explain his sudden disappearance from class. Judging by how the sun was beginning to descend from its peak, time was up for the task and class would be concluding for the day in mere moments.
He had never failed a task before, let alone left class early.
“I’ll figure something out,” he promised the rabbit. “I’m going to stay here with you for a little while. My friend owns this place, and I need to make sure it’s okay if you stay here.”
The rabbit said nothing, simply twitching his nose.
“What’s your name?” Jelro asked.
“That’s a nice name.” Jelro sat down, stretching out his hands and wrists. “I’m Jelro.”
For the next few hours, Jelro talked with Oireug, exchanging stories and explaining various things, such as life underwater. The rabbit asked question after question about the sea, making Jelro realize that he hadn’t gone swimming in at least a week.
He’d spent most of his life in the water, not knowing he could come on land until a little over a year ago, when he had turned fifteen. It felt like he was constantly trying to make up for the other half of his life that he had been without for all those years.
The sun started to set, and Jelro wondered if his parents knew about his disappearance from class, and whether or not they were searching for him. If Adif didn’t get there soon, he would have no choice but to go home with the rabbit in his arms.
But his luck hadn’t run out yet.
Jelro flinched, whipping his head around to look at the trap door to where a pair of brown eyes were staring at him in confusion and shock.
“Where have you been? What’s going on? I heard you left class! Are you okay? Did something happen? Why are you here? Have you been here the whole time?”
“I’ve been here, I’ll explain, I did, I’m fine, a lot has happened, I’ll explain that too, and yes. Come in, please. And close the door.”
Adif shakily pulled herself into the treehouse, shutting the trapdoor.
As most elves did, she had foliage on her head that resembled hair, falling around her face in long, flat leaves that were dark green in color. Her skin was as though someone had carved her face out of scaly wood and then smoothed it over with a thin layer of flesh. Her pointy ears stuck out at an angle away from her head.
“Adif,” Jelro slowly began, “you’d tell me if I’d gone completely bonkers, right?”
“Well, that depends; if you were completely losing it then of course, but if you were still functioning just fine and didn’t see anything wrong--”
“I found a talking rabbit.”
Adif’s jaw went slack and an incoherent slop of words fell out of her mouth as her rambling screeched to a halt.
“You what?” she spluttered.
Jelro moved over to show Adif the rabbit.
“This is Oireug. He broke his leg in a fox trap, and I brought him here to take care of him. Can he stay here until he heals? I’ll bring him food and keep his crate clean…”
“You’ve gone bonkers,” Adif whispered, staring at the injured rabbit. “Completely, absolutely bonkers.”
“Who are you?” Oireug asked Adif.
Jelro glanced at his friend, confused when she didn’t answer.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked Jelro.
“Aren’t you going to answer him?” he countered.
“Answer wh-- Jelro, did you hit your head on a tree branch or something?” Adif drew back, looking concerned. “Or--or I dunno, eat some of the potion ingredients in here and start hallucinating?”
“I haven’t eaten anything all day,” Jelro realized with dismay, becoming painfully aware of the ache in his empty stomach. “Do you have food up here?”
“Sure—you have that rabbit you caught.”
“I am not going to hurt him,” Jelro spat.
Adif reeled back.
“You’re kidding, right? This is a joke, right?”
“Do you really think I’d make something like this up?” Jelro glared at the elf girl. “I can understand him, okay? I don’t know how or why, but I can. Just… believe me, please.”
Adif still looked incredulous, but she gave a curt nod. Her foliage bounced against her head.
“I’ll give him some food, I guess,” she mumbled. “You had better get home before the guards start sweeping town for you.”
Jelro breathed a sigh of relief.
“Thank you, Adi. I’ll be back in the morning.” He turned to Oireug. “This is my friend, Adif. She owns this treehouse. I have to go for the night, but I’ll be back soon, okay?”
“Okay. Thank you, Jelro.”
Jelro turned back to Adif—and flinched upon seeing her bewildered stare.
“What?” he said.
“You--you really can talk to it,” she managed, shakily pointing at the rabbit.
“What?” he said again.
“You... talked to it,” Adif said. “Whatever you just said to it, I couldn’t understand you.”
“Wait, so-- Maybe I didn’t find a talking rabbit,” Jelro blankly said.
“But you still can understand it,” Adif whispered. “I-I’m sorry I didn’t believe you...!”
Jelro hastily assured his friend that it was okay, then he gave her a quick rundown on what Oireug needed to eat.
“I think I’m going to pretend to be sick for a few days,” he quietly told Adif. “I just… can’t go back to class yet.”
Jelro took a deep breath, then he said the words that he knew were true but still completely terrifying to say out loud.
“I don’t think I want to be a hunter anymore.”
~ ~ ~