“Then why did you–” Jimeno began to ask.
“Don’t misunderstand me, boy. Any beast is dangerous, no matter how large it is or how far along in the transformation it is. Their claws and fangs are as sharp as knives. They’re stronger than most any man you will ever meet in your lives. But this one did not have the heart of a predator. Its transformation had just begun, a boy no older than yourselves becoming a monster. It was frightened and too inexperienced to know that it should have run away rather than attack.”
“No more questions. Bartolome, I want you in front. Keep your weapon ready. I’ll take up the rear. Jimeno, Santi, a sword on every side is not an excuse to let your mind wander. Cazadores who are careless do not survive long no matter what kind of creatures they face. Now, march. Pol and the others are waiting for us, and cazadores do not keep their brothers waiting.”
* * *
The lessons continued as the cazador and the novices marched through the forest. The air was still, the only noise the sound of their voices, of leaves and branches being trampled underfoot. The birds and the woodland mammals were oppressively silent, the buzzing and flitting insects that called the forest home long since dead or hibernating. The sky above was as dark as slate. Their breaths held in the air, spirits clinging on before passing to some other world. This was the way of the world, greying and withering and dying. The shortening days brought winter. Winter brought beasts. Beasts brought death.
Time. Time and blood.
“Paletes are useful, but they are not cazadores and they never will be. Instead, you must see them as another tool at your disposal. They can be a weapon or a shield, bait or a trap. A woodsman with an axe or a farmer with a pitchfork is easy prey for a beast, but a group of them might, if they are lucky, slay one. They will still suffer casualties.”
“Why are the paletes so… ineffectual, Iohan?” Jimeno asked. He was a smart boy, the smartest of the three. He always had questions, his mind always burning to comprehend the world around himself. It was hunger, a hunger of a different sort than Iohan was used to, but still hunger.
Iohan understood hunger. All cazadores did.
“Jimeno! Call the cazador by his proper title!” Bartolome shouted. “And don’t ask such stupid questions. Paletes are worthless because they are worthless. It’s in their blood. That’s why they’re paletes and we’re nobleza. We’re better than them. That’s why they don’t become cazadores; they can’t. That’s why they’re more likely to be stricken with beasthood; they’re already closer to beasts.”
Iohan listened silently as Bartolome gave his little speech. It was one he’d heard a dozen times before. The boy was given to boasts and exaggeration and arrogance, but there was no doubt in Iohan’s mind that the boy believed what he was saying. Many cazadores did. “It’s fine, Bartolome. The woods are no place for formalities. But Jimeno, don’t presume to call another cazador by their name and not their title. Not everyone is as forgiving as I am.”
They trudged through the woods in silent for a little while, Jimeno’s question momentarily ignored, but not forgotten. Iohan turned it over in his head, pondered how best to answer it even as he wondered what he himself truly believed. “Paletes,” he began slowly, letting the words linger in his mouth, weighing and tasting them. “Paletes are not called to greatness the way that nobleza are. The world does not ask nor expect of it them, and so most paletes are happy never to offer it. And virtues like bravery, loyalty, shrewdness, these things are like muscles. They must be exercised if they are to grow strong and dependable.”
“So you are saying that we’re stronger than they are,” Bartolome interjected. “Our bravery and our strength is naturally greater.”
“But even a weak man may become strong if he trains himself,” Jimeno said, the words coming from him with a certain nervous quickness. He did not often interrupt Bartolome, Iohan guessed. “So paletes could become brave and shrewd and strong if they tried.”
“But the world does not ask them to,” Iohan said, taking the reins of the conversation once more. “It does not expect them to. And perhaps it does not even give them the opportunities to. It does not place a sword in their hands and tell them, ‘Go into the woods and slay the creatures that would hunt your family.’ Instead it tells them, ‘Hide within your cottages and pray for someone else to save you.’”
“You can’t trust a paleta with a sword!” Bartolome roared. “Give a farmer a real man’s weapon, and he’s like a child with it!”
“But perhaps if you gave it to him when he was a child and taught him to use it from a young age, it would become as natural to him as it does to you or me,” Jimeno said, a hint of anger beginning to creep into his voice. If he were angry with Bartolome or if he were angry on behalf of some imaginary paleta, Iohan could not say.
Instead, Iohan called out to Santi. Bringing the third boy into the conversation would keep him focused, and another voice would break up the tension between Jimeno and Bartolome. “And what do you think, eh, Santi?”
The boy stopped walking. Jimeno stumbled into him and cursed, drawing Bartolome’s attention and Iohan’s as well. “I think… I think I smell blood.”