The rain came lightly and drove Marjolaine beneath the exposed roots of a tree. All around her y’lle took on the dark pallor of the storm. She hugged her knees, both swords beside her on the dirt. Those hawkish eyes peer out toward the crackling branches and the silence. The vast silence. Leaves with their droplets splashed onto the slightly exposed pommels. Momentous in sound compared to the eerie atmosphere. They were as cannonballs striking the stone edifice of some forgotten fortress.
In her accompanying satchel she had supplies to last the hunt and should she need, the Hunters of the Guild were trained survivalists. Their quarry often went to ground in dense woods, swamps, and the caverns of the world; places where men could not follow. Places home to the dark. Superstition.
Will you not look at me? He said as I stood in the office adjacent to his cage. They had me bundled in a blanket. They asked my name. Where I had come from.
My name is Marjolaine Hausieren, they call me Little Hawk.
He came closer and I could only see him in a blurry shape, between the bars. His fingers grasping them, squeezing them, as he begged me to look. One of the guards struck his hands, he yelped. So weak. One-eyed coward. His grim-god absconded from his heart.
Never forget the pain, Little Hawk. He would say, rapping my knuckles when we were alone. For fun. For pleasure. For my attention.
In all pain, there is a lesson.
He wanted to believe that suffering had meaning, that through suffering we could find wisdom. His old gods taught him such, but through all the blood and all the innocents I don’t think he found anything. Until the end, there on the scaffolds of the gallows. He saw his Wōtan.
She eased up the heavy cloth hood of her cloak and, with her swords, ventured back out into the wild godlessness of y’lle. The rain did not impede her tracking, but it did rob her of certain clues. She found the scent of death, beneath the mist, and it led to a dead rabbit. It’s side ripped apart, mauled, it’s neck snapped. Her mantyger had eaten only its heart. The rest of the organs intact.
Teeth are crooked, match the previous victims. One blackened fang was embedded in the ribs. She pulled it loose and studied it before slipping it into a pouch on her belt.
If she lost him in y’lle it was finished.
Taking up the trail, the huntress moved sure-footed. These paths were laid by the deer, by the hooved beasts which dwelled here. Roots, twigs and the winding dancers of pricker thrush obstructed the way and yet on a cat’s-paw she traveled. The thickly knotted trucks provided cover when she knelt to examine scat. Those bounding boughs, caught in the rain, mingled with her earthy tones and made her difficult to register from a distance.
No sound came from her lips.
The silence was meditative.
The passing downpour kept her like the Sylvan of the old stories who were here before men, who stole children in the night and made strange hand signs to the cairns. She could not remember much about her life before the priest, but she recalled the stony face of her mother and worrisome glances to the woods. The terror hiding in the unwritten stories of the elders.
“It is not real. But it is real. It is in-between. When ye stand in the trees, ye stand in the dreams of the forest. Ye stand in its mind. Like its brains. What do ye think it dreams about?”
I stare at mama. My very long, brown hair flies around in the wind as we sit on the green hills. I do not yet know how to speak but I know how to listen; even at that age. My ears were open.
“They dream of a world without men.”
She did not care for herself and her bare feet were mud-covered. The frayed stitches of her dress patched with burlap and other worn fabrics. In her hand she clutched either a clay jug, filled with rotgut, or brandished a knife. A dull, rusted sticker that she said killed my papa.
Enough of our blood has spilled into the earth. It knows our flavor. Developed a hunger for whatever obscenity dances in our soul. ‘It has a big mouth,’ mama said, ‘For gobbling ye up.’ And she would tickle me with her yellowed nails. I would laugh until I would cry.
Y’lle has fathomless regions unconquered by the old kings, by the voivodes, the dukes, barons, and the diar of the great clans. False titles they seat to themselves wearing crowns of hand-pounded iron. Knowing nothing of what had come before. Y’lle, the place. She recalls the lord-sheriff’s warning. An uncannily insightful man.
Things go there to vanish, they never come back.
They become subsumed, she wagers. Lost in the idea. Nothing more.
She holds on to a young green branch and slides down a narrow slope. Dirt scuffing the sides of her boots. The descent is awkward and slow, stabilized by what she can grasp in those fleeting moments. The ground wants to devour her, burdened by the soaking rain, and it drips off the rim of her hood onto her nose and down onto her neck where it slithers coldly. At the base of the slope, she sees out into the vastness of y’lle. Impenetrable. The trees become narrow and multitudinous at the bottom, before another incline.
I think of something mama said that I heard only once, in a fit of her drunken rambling. She would stare into the hearth and then look out toward the forests at night.
She would say, ‘Look. There in the dark. The old man is watching. The eld of the wood.’ But I never saw any old man standing among the trees. Not in the dark.
I think now that my mama was cursed with the many things she knew; death must have been a relief unless she also knew of its coming. Unless she anticipated what it would entail.
There are so many trees that they look like reflections in mirrors, creating optical illusions. Far ahead there is a shape beside a tree. Its distance and obscurity are devoid of definition. But she considers for a moment that it sees her ahead.
Though it’s far too short to be the mantyger.
No. It isn’t the mantyger she sees.
It’s shape is black and small at the top then spills out wider and uniformly straight with protrusions from the sides that were either arms, antlers or perhaps thin-wings. The one on it’s right-side seems to be grasping something, a dark line that burrows to the ground; like a cane. It’s there for a while. It’s there, coming more into view. The huntress wants to move and finds that it’s too late.
Her body isn’t moving. She can’t. All her muscles and her bones are frozen solid. The trees begin to move, however, bending away from one another; creating a kind of tunnel-path from the dark shape to Marjolaine. Something old is coming toward her, shambling with dream-steps. She sees the small part at the top open up, open up like a great yawning darkness. Wider. Wider. And-
Her golden-eyes dilate and tremble and she finds that her throat is choking on a scream.
She cannot blink. She cannot close her eyes until it all goes away. She can only watch, vaguely aware of her doom, as it approaches. That human sense of self, awareness of its own agony and sorrow, washes over her with a tremendous deluge. The rain has bowed away as well, cast to the side with the strangely curved trees, that nothing might touch this path but for what approaches and what it approaches. A sickening and primitive fear threatens to seize control of her heart. Her fair skin grows pale and clammy.
As it drew closer on that hobbled gait, she noted the small thing at the top appear clear enough to see; uncanny eyes and, indeed, the wide mouth hung below the jaw. That uniform shape took on the appearance of ragged, flimsy robes. Those protrusions; rail-thin arms, terminating into hands with long digits. One of these hands grasped a crooked cane which it used to stumble toward the huntress.
It was far too easy to call it a monster.
Far too simple for a term.
The old man on the path. The eld of the wood. Lurid and profane in its mimicry, like certain birds. Yes. Mama used to say that in ancient places, where mortals are not welcome, things had learned to hunt us.
From beneath the tattered garments, large moths crawled forth, some vanishing into the portal of that tremendous and grotesque maw; all-consuming. She could not peel away her gaze.
It was sublime.
Marjolaine is so transfixed she does not feel the huge hands which grab her by the shoulders and hoist her overhead. The sudden gasp is like emerging from drowning waters.
Reality hits her and her eyes slam shut then open, feeling the kiss of the air as she sails through the forest. Smacking into the trunk of a tree and landing in the dirt with a desperate cry of pain. Her ribs took the shock of the blow, two of them splintered beneath the mild protection of the gambeson.
The huntress staggers, shakily, to her feet. But she’s grabbed again, this time thrown down the next slope by a pair of large brutish hands. She hears a feral growl then begins to roll, cracking against briers and twigs, and unsure if some of those cracks are not her bones. The world is without definition. Rapid blurs and hard cracks; pulsating pain. There’s too much of it to feel all at once.
When she nears the end, she sees a stone, and then everything fades to an intense and sudden blackness.
In all pain, there is a lesson, Little Hawk.
She could hear his grave-smile through the memory of words.