The Reluctant Predator

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This chapter was written by SebJenkins

The heavy thudding footsteps of the horses synced up perfectly with his thundering heart. That ought to be somewhat beautiful, but it wasn't. All Marcus could think about as he bobbed up and down over the fields was how he would rather be anywhere else. Anywhere but here.

The continuous up-and-down motion mimicked that feeling of a boat trudging through the ocean, which was apt, as he had never felt more at sea in his entire 16 years.

Exactly 16 years in fact, just over 5,840 days- the kind of maths you do when you are dreading an event as much as Marcus was. As much as he had been for as long as he could remember.

His father has always seen the 16th birthday as a marker of manhood- his words. It was the day on which his sons earned their seat at the table, their voice to be heard, and their spot on the hunt. Marcus' two elder brothers had already reached the great landmark before him, leaving just Marcus, as the youngest child, to complete his transition.

It was sold as an honour, but it weighed heavy on his shoulders like a curse.

The ride across the picturesque, undulating fields ought to be a pleasure, and it usually was, but now all Marcus could see was grass and dirt, ready to be turned into graves.

His rifle trembled slightly in his sweaty palms, as the horses eat up the ground beneath them, powering towards a stranger's demise.

From a young age, Marcus had always been a good shot, a great shot even. Despite his brothers' extra years and vast experience, shooting had always been an area in which Marcus could shine brightly above them- much to their annoyance.

However, tin cans and clay plates were worlds away from human flesh and a beating heart, even if his father's seemed to be made of metal at times.

Right on cue, a bellowing "Eyes up!" echoed through Marcus' ears. His father was glaring over his shoulder at him with steely eyes, a thinly veiled determination to not be disappointed in his son.

Marcus nodded, gulping away his worries, and raising his rifle slightly until his father turned away again. He knew that he wasn't the kind of son his Father had wanted, he wasn't a carbon copy of his older brothers, he couldn't be.

The wind whistled through Marcus' ears like an air raid siren, warning of impending danger. Not danger for the horses, or the men atop them, but danger for the prey they were chasing, and perhaps fatal danger for Marcus' soul.

The dogs began to bark as the scent of the fleeing human grew stronger. The more you run, and the harder you fight, the more sweat exudes from every pore on your aching body. The game was fixed really. The vast majority of contestants were condemned from the second they signed their name on the dotted line. Condemned by their own name, Marcus could relate to that. The Addington surname had long lingered over him like a dark cloud.

And just like a dark cloud engulfing the sun, the brightness of the fields was quickly eclipsed as the horses hurtled into the forest. The thick expanse of trees slowed the great beasts' progress, but the dogs thrived in the tricky terrain.

The hunt rules stated that a contestant could only be halted by a bullet or a blade, but that didn't mean that the dogs couldn't track them down to final metres.

"Guns at the ready!" Marcus' father shouted as he led the march through the trees.

Marcus had always eaten meat, not because he agreed with the slaughtering of defenceless animals, but because he saw it as a natural part of life. Someone had to be at the top of the food chain after all. But hunting for sport had never sat well with him, there was no real goal achieved with the hunt. You didn't eat your prey, it didn't provide any resource or purpose apart from sick entertainment. Of course, any time Marcus had voiced these opinions, they were quashed within seconds.

He's just a kid.

He doesn't understand yet.

Give him a few more years.

Marcus had heard them all. But his opinions hadn't changed as he had grown older, if anything they had grown with him, and he wasn't the only person thinking them.

"There! Straight ahead! North East!" one of Marcus' brothers cried.

"Slow up, slow up," his father urged. "We want to put on a show don't we!"

The horses eased down to a gallop as the contestant came into clear view, desperately tumbling her way through the forest growth.

They had been shown a photograph of her before the hunt began, in order to help them recognise her, that's what they said anyway. Marcus had never believed this spiel, as if there was going to be anyone else fleeing through the woods, even if they could see her face. No, the pre-hunt photograph was more about power, about giving the hunters an opportunity to look down upon their prey, even mock them.

Marcus couldn't help but picture his mother's face on that photograph. He imagined her stumbling through the woods in the place of this other woman. He thought about the fear that would run through her veins, and the millions of eyes that would watch her, searing a target deep into the skin on her back.

It made him feel sick.

Bang!

His brother let fly with a shot from his rifle, the bullet cascading through the wooden maze before it tore into a trunk a few inches from the woman's head.

"Nearly Jack! Bloody good shot!" his father chortled.

Bang!

Another shot, closer still.

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The bullets thumped into the dirt around her feet. They were toying with her now. If it hadn't been before, it had become disgustingly cruel. This wasn't sport, it was torture.

"Come on, Marcus! Get involved dear boy!"

Marcus raised his rifle and lazily ploughed a bullet into a distant tree, metres away from their target.

"Marcus! Put some god damn effort in! This is your first bloody hunt!"

The bullets continued to flash around the terrified woman, hitting every inch of space apart from her body. She was never going to make it, the finish line was simply too far away, and the hunters could take her down whenever they felt like it.

That was the worst part of all, they were treating her life like a red wine, letting it breathe until the taste was just right, until they could get the upmost pleasure out of the experience.

Marcus reloaded his rifle expertly, before raising it once more.

Bang!

"Bloody hell, Marcus! What a shot! What a bloody shot!" his father screamed. "And on your first hunt no less! Your first kill on your first hunt!"

His Father slowed the horse to a halt before spinning around and pulling Marcus into a tight embrace.

"You did it, my boy!"

Sometimes you had to take a life in order to save it.

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