The darkness doesn’t go away.
It stays even when she opens her eyes. Cheek flush against the damp, cold ground.
The rain has passed and she sits up on her knees, hand touching the tender swelling above her left eye. Ankle sprained. Finger broken. Ribs split in four places. She grasps the bent digit tightly and yanks it back into place with a short-breathed gasp.
The hunt must go on.
Night birds sing in the trees and through them, the moonlight came down and spread the back-lit hum of a glow throughout y’lle. There were stars. The filament of streams beyond the stars. Silver clouds in regions of the unknown gazed upon by more than just herself, though the huntress could scarcely fathom that out there a fellow-traveler with less or many-more eyes looked upon those same stars.
She heard the raggedness of her breathing, limped between a few trees, and tried to get her balance. A vapid silence met her painful extremity. None to sympathize with her plight. If only in that suffering she could connect. But then, when had that ever been the case? It left a brackish taste in her mouth, dried up her tongue, thinking of her time with him.
He fed me scraps of his meals, threw it between the bars of the cage, and let me out to use the bucket in the corner as a toilet–when it was convenient to him. My legs grew bedsores and when they finally freed me, it took several days to work up the strength to walk for any length of time. I still sleep curled into a ball. Old habits.
Mama is dead. The priest is dead. None of the villagers want me because they see in my eyes the deaths of their loved ones, stolen by the wolf among them. They give me coin and a cloak. They send me on my way, which is fine. Hemwick on the bank of the Rhenir, that was never my home–it was my prison.
For three days I walked. On the fourth I slept. Then on the fifth I found a man sleeping in a tent in a clearing. He had blood on him so these days I tell myself that he had done some crime. But he could have been a hunter, it could have come from his dinner. I slit his throat. Took his blankets, his coin, all his things that didn’t have blood on them, and I left.
All I see is snow. It’s cold, always.
The priest showed me violence and it ingrained itself into my hands.
When I sleep, I hear rats under the floorboards, even to this day.
I walk on until I find the trail of the Hunters who caught him. They bring me into the Lodge out of pity, maybe. There’s usefulness in someone like me. Someone unafraid to hurt others.
For miles she limps between trees. There’s darkness ahead. The things she had brought were ruined or lost in the fall down the slope. Including the musket. Her satchel torn open. The canteen had a crack in the bottom, causing most of the water to drip out. That’s what leads her on ahead; the sound of a stream. If nothing else, she could rest and wash some of the dirt from a few light cuts.
In the Lodge they taught them how to endure. She needed few lessons on the subject.
In the forest, lost, the sword on her back and on her hip were no comfort. These were means of execution, defense, but not to aid in the elements. When it came to survival, she was as good empty-handed as armed. It was about pacing, attention to detail, and not falling into the traps of the desperate. Eating whatever you could find. Drinking whatever flowed beneath your feet. Foolish choices.
But even these knowledges carried limitations.
Her spine tingled for a moment and she felt her muscles tense with a sense of being watched.
“You mock our ways, Eyass.” the Hackman said standing over me. I laid on my back. “Tell me again the signs of madness. And mind your tongue.”
“Sorrow. Restlessness. Anger. Nightmares. Wild speech. Illusions of sickness,” he raises his hand to stop me and motions that I stand. When I do, he strikes my chest and I fall back down. The dust comes up around me in the training yard. I hear them talking. What they call me:
They know where I come from, I come from the things they hunt. That incurs suspicion.
I feel nothing, there on the ground.
The Hackman lifts his hand and whistles. Soon enough, his falcon comes and lands upon his gloved forearm. The hood laid over its head.
“In the mountains of the Varar nomads, falcons are sacred animals. They hunt despite the harsh climate. Sail through the clouds. They are predator-kings. Imbued with noble spirits. Among these beliefs is that when a Varar huntsman dies, his soul is carried by a falcon to its nest and placed into an egg.” He looks to the bird and his bare hand strokes the feathers on its back. “This falcon is someone’s ancestor.”
I watch him. I know what is to come.
He grabs the falcon by the head and, with a snap, breaks its neck like nothing. It falls to the ground beside me, twitching a bit before it dies. “What is sacred to you, Eyass? I hope it is more resilient than the brittle neck of a bird.” When he turns, I catch something in his eye; I think it’s regret.
Memories come despite her efforts. She finds the stream through the trees, it’s down below near some rock deposits. They stack over each other like little islands. Slates of water-smooth stones. It’s hard going, the ground is bent in a curve that leads to the babbling current. Dirt becoming wet sand which clings to her boots. She slips a bit, accidentally trying to catch her weight on the sprained ankle, causing her to fall with a thud against the ground. The sharp pain spreads through her whole body. She buries a scream against the sand.
She noticed it then through her keen ears. A rustle behind her in the brush of the trees on the hill. Large enough that it’s no secret. The mantyger. How long had it stalked her undetected? Long enough to move boldly from its hiding place as she scrambled down the ledge, fell, and showed her vulnerability. But why did he wait. What did he want? Perhaps to be absolutely sure that she could not kill him. Perhaps he still feared the cold-steel of her swords. Perhaps these were his human traits; playing with his food.
The huntress follows his movements until he stops at a new vantage point. The stars dance like silver ribbons over the stream. Her golden eyes adapt but still find limits to their sight. She relies on her ears, her sense of smell. He reeks of rotten meat and unwashed filth. The blood is dry but hints of the metallic odor still linger off his presence. He breathes too loud. The passage ways of his nose likely broken from a savage lifestyle, forcing him to take air in through his mouth. Easily winded, she notes.
When the Hackman sets you loose, you are a Hunter of the Lodge.
There is no ceremony no fanfare. They give you weapons of your choice, forged by blacksmiths on the commission and then you are assigned a hunt. Iterate-murderers and rapists, breeds of sin that town guardsman and local garrisons are ill equipped to handle. Menschenjäger, or heliwrdynol, they call us in the old tongues.
They talk of the old ways. The nobility of the handwerk.
All I see are falcons in cages. Let loose to catch game. All I see are predator-kings with broken necks. Twitching on the dirt. Venatio Supra Omnia.
But what else is there to do?
The Hackman would say, ‘What does it want?’
It wants to kill.
Even though she heard his heavy breath and the broken twigs as he sprinted toward her; she could not react fast enough to draw a sword. The one from her hip went flying from her hand, landing among the stones of the stream. It’s steel blade vibrating until it fell inert.
Splashing into the shallow water the huntress rolled onto her back. He stood on the shore, huge in the moonlight. Stark naked. His arms and legs as thick as the trunks of the trees that made up y’lle. Blood crusted upon the thickness of his coarse hair and hung over black eyes. His beard touched down to his chest and small bones, some human, were tangled within.
He grabbed her by the throat with giant hands. Horrid nails dug into her skin. She struggled against him as she began to bleed and choke. Far stronger than the huntress, he had no trouble keeping her down. Through the water his face looked malformed; even more-so. Abandoned as a child. Lived off scraps. Mothers leaving babes in the woods. They become as wolves. They never asked for life. They never asked for it, but they endure.
In all pain, there is a lesson, Little Hawk.
What’s the lesson here?
Her fingers finally grasp something. A stone eroded to a sliver with wavy jagged sides. She brings it up and stabs it into his forearm, dragging it upward. Every tendon of muscle she can cut is roughly split. His grip on her neck does not immediately loosen. The black blood that pours out comes from his deepest veins. It sprays against the huntress as she fights. Yanking the stone-knife free and stabbing him in the chest until at last it breaks off embedded in his torso.
Claw-marks line her throat; but she is free.
His choking, dried voice lets out an awful whimpering sound. Dull-witted and pathetic. The huntress reaches back and draws her longsword. With a desperate swipe she stops his other hand from reaching her, splitting the fingers off at the knuckles.
What does it want?
The mantyger barks and his salivating mouth comes down to bite her face. Marjolaine slips the sword between her hands; holding the hilt and the tip of the blade. She uses it to push at his chest. Braced against the severity of his weight. Her leather gloves give in a bit, she can feel them bleeding from the pressure. Above her, that hungry mouth chomps. Mashing and drooling and bleeding from unclean gums.
In the moonlight his eyes reflect like a beast.
She is screaming. Screaming.
It wants to kill.
“U-ahhh! U-ahh N-ay!” The mantyger snarls, his voice sinking. Her arms are giving out. He’s too heavy. Any longer and she’d share in his fate. Marjolaine grits her teeth. Eyes straining. Water and blood splash against her face. But, at last, he goes limp.
She barely slips away as his monstrous corpse lands face-first into the stream. She lies beside him.
Above her the interminable stars seem no less startling. Though a few clouds have drifted to coat the moon, transparent as they are against the pale glow. The silence pours back into y’lle disturbed like ripples in a pond by the brief spell of violence. When she has the strength, she sits up on her elbows, looking over at the dead man.
It takes a good deal to stand upright but she manages, hopping over toward the discarded sword.
Through y’lle, she limps. Clutched in her hand is a severed head the coarse hair knotted into a grip. On her belt, the long-nailed hand of the mantyger dances.
Miles behind her, miles ahead.
Every hunt ended with the self-same struggle.
I can think of nothing else to do but return. Unfamiliar forests; I follow moss and the stars until the pre-dawn light comes over the horizon. I can think of nothing else but the hunt. In these quiet moments, I focus on surviving. Memories dripping from my mind.
Once I believed that I was free. Where is this freedom? Show me.
The candle wax drips into the burnished saucer. Quill needle scratching on the margins of an immense and ancient ledger. The verderer studies the rotten head, near a skull at this point, and the matching hand which lay before him; drenched in leathering alkaline. Both eyes have sunken in, shriveled to nothing, and became as great black pits. He hm’s and ha’s for a moment, then places the hand upon a scaling device.
“Very high,” he mutters. “The head as well, from the same?”
“Yes, sir.” Marjolaine replies. She has a bandage around her throat. Her leg is in a splint. The bruising around her forehead, above the left eye, has subsided but remains purpled.
“Shame the whole body could not be retrieved. The locals, they referred to him as the…”
“Mantyger. His appearance resembled a beast of folklore. I believe he was a feral child, grown up in the region, and developed a taste for human flesh,” her golden eyes fixated on the window behind him. The spires of the city which housed the Hunter’s Lodge, a dwindling sun like a great eye burned in the distance. It all seems unreal. Transitory. The movements of one thought to another.
“Fascinating. And his migratory patterns?”
“I cannot say, it was almost as if he was compelled to return to y’lle.”
“Hm,” the verderer replies and scratches something into his notations. He sets the quill into the inkwell and, as he speaks, reaches down for something in the desk drawer. “Excellent work, Huntress Hausieren. Here is your commission. Recover your injuries and another assignment will be waiting for you.”
The large, patched sack of coins lays on the surface. He counts out the twenty pieces of silver into her palm and she secrets them away into a pouch on her belt as a final act of the transaction.
But what else is there to do?
Afterward, in a four-walled room, she sits. The hay-stuffed mattress beneath her is more comfortable than the dirt, than the old floor of the chapel. But she rubs her thighs anxiously. Then she stares. There are no windows. Her swords hang on bent nails inserted into the wall.
Her breath laps onto me in waves of stinging booze. But she pets my hair, maybe to hard, and I have nowhere else to go. “Every eve I watch myself die. Ye will feel it for yerself when it comes closely like an evil wind. But I hope ye do not witness mine.”
Time is marching forward and in her nightmares fresh visions collect; the trees of y’lle, the old man on the path, those moments by the stream. Blood and sacrifice.
I hide under the altar in the chapel. She kicks and she screams but he’s stuffed fabric into her mouth and her wrists are tied up. Outside of the cage, I use the cloth to conceal myself. He knows that I’m watching. In his hands he hefts a woodcutter’s axe. The mask lays over his face. Poorly stitched together. A mere leather sack but I could not deny the transfiguration. The black ink dried across the forehead. Wōtan. The woman’s muffled screams cease when her neck is pressed to the butcher’s block.
She wants to tell herself something. Anything. That comfort we yearn to find within ourselves in moments of solitude. But all she can do is stare ahead to the rough-sawn boards of the wall.
When they pull the lever I see the sack-cloth over his head suck into his mouth. His neck breaks but he does not die right away, legs jerking wildly for several moments. Most cannot watch when a hanging goes wrong. He wished for me to look at him, so I look at him, and I see the urine pool at the crotch of his trousers.
She opens her hand. In her palm rests a scratched-up, old glass-eye. She thinks that it looks afraid. The polish has all worn away, leaving a dull and vapid coating. Her fingers slowly curl around it tightly, until her knuckles turn white.
“Venatio Supra Omnia.” The Little Hawk whispers.