The forest is quiet but for the wind and the huntress, on a knee, takes two fingers and dips them into the small puddle of blood. There’s blackness to it, a deep and reflecting blackness. Mud, unlikely, but the wound is deep. It’s carrier most likely dead.
She hears an unfamiliar voice in the back of her mind, the cold breath of late Autumn and the memories that it stirs.
They talk of the old ways.
All I see is the snow.
It comes to her then that the voice is her own.
I hear the rats in the damp cellar. See my breath turn to phantoms.
She looks up to see tall wavering trees that creak, rustle, but are otherwise impassive to her pursuit. Three days out in the overgrowth near the river. What are you looking for?
The leather of her gloves, the tail of her long gambeson, have specks of wet earth from the rain that passed on the second day and threatened the trail.
My name is Marjolaine Hausieren, they call me Little Hawk.
Long ago in Hemwick on the bank of the Rhenir in a small and gentle chapel by a lake, a wicked man raised me.
They haven’t a real name for this forest in the nearest village where the hunt was first posted; where the first child went missing. They call it y’lle, in the old tongue it means the place. Things go there to vanish, the lord-sheriff said. They never come back.
A little hawk in a cage. The smile. The screams. He’d drag them in at night, kicking and crying, then put his boot on the back of their necks as he sharpened his axe. He kept little marks on the bottom of the chopping block. He buried the bodies in the snow.
I watched. Those golden eyes stared out from beneath the altar sheet. I watched and held my breath, clasping a hand over my mouth. The little hawk, alone. Blood through the cracks in the floor and the rats would dance.
Yes, they would dance. Feast and roll in the puddles of blood. The flies around them in chorus.
Where the tracks end ahead she sees the slant of a dingy shack. It’s dark inside and smoke comes out of the chimney. Something alive shifts around in there; her prey. Golden eyes catch the faint impression of red prints on the door frame. Desperate drag lines. Someone pulled inside. Someone young and small.
She lowers the hood of her cloak and moves to adjacent trees where with thin string and long, sharp iron nails, she sets a primitive trap. The shadow is male, by the width of the shoulders and matches the height of the footsteps. The blood, however, is much younger. Cleaner. Another victim. She is, of course, too late to be a savior, only an avenger.
He wore the mask because it made him feel powerful. It had a word across the forehead, written in blood, the word from the old ways. Wōtan. The all-father. God. He hefted up his axe and dropped it, again and again, and each time I sat beneath the altar and watched. Far to scared to flee.
With no way to know if her prey will run or not, she has to set the trap. Losing him in the woods once more would insure another few days in y’lle. She hadn’t the supplies for an extended hunt and if she did not return to the village, her reputation in the guild…
The huntress moves to the back of the shack, her soft steps near floating on the fallen leaves, and draws one of her longswords; the one resting on her hip. She comes closer, close enough to reach out and prod the wall of the shack with the blade.
They talk of the old ways. Wōtan. Sacrifice and blood.
This is the spot, she concludes.
Flint and tinder spark the debris she piles in a small hole behind the shack, dug out with a stone. In moments there’s already flames and smoke and it slowly climbs the wall, a thousand burning tongues. She can hear a voice inside, only one, and lifts the sword she had set on the ground.
All I see is snow. He buried them in shallow graves. No smells. Wolves would dig them up. Then, at the funerals, he would administer the final rite and see their souls to the other-side. Consoling the families.
I hear the rats dancing in the cellar.
My breath turns to phantoms in the cold. Faces of the dead.
Later, by a campfire, she roasts rabbit and stares into the eyes of the severed head resting on the stump. His face is twisted in a grimace, skin covered in smoke and soot from the flames. He never saw it coming, the lithe figure through the haze, the sudden swift stroke of the blade. He looks nothing like him but she sees the same beast in his eyes. The same scared, angry animal.
I hardly remember when the hunters came, a corpse-witch among them. She was a wretched, rattan thing who spoke in unknown sounds and held the head of a victim up and when it’s eyes began to bleed she said, “Tis him. The priest is the killer.”
They strung him up. I watched, shivering in the wind, and he looked at me. He begged me to be afraid, he begged me to see the tremble in my golden eyes.
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t afraid anymore.
The little hawk was free.
At the pale sunrise she walks back toward the village, through the misty trees, a bloody head-shaped bag over her shoulder. Not a word on her lips.
They talk about the old ways. But all I see is snow.
The priest use to tell me about his father.
‘His arms were thick as the tree trunks he chopped. The lice in his beard as big as grubs.’
‘Use to take me out to the woods. Near the wooden altars of our gods. He use to beat me. Never quite sure why, there wasn’t always a reason. Never when he was cross with me. He’d wait. Get this look in his eyes. Then the next time he took me out there…’
‘Once he laid into me well after I was finished. My legs were numb. I could feel the snow and blood and dirt, tears smothered over my face. Paralyzed and broken. I lied there looking up at the face of the carved wooden statue at the altar. Ugly looking, grim. Like my father. I thought I would die there. Two great ravens came and sat on the statue’s head, defecated upon it, the white shit running down the middle of the face. They watched me with their black eyes as I choked.’
‘I couldn’t scream, my throat was so hoarse. They sat on my chest and, eagerly, plucked out one of my eyes.’
He use to tell this story when I was in the cage, he held his mask, stroking the inked words written over the forehead. Wōtan. As though they meant something more than cruel vanity. His foggy glass eye sat in a cup by the side of his bed, looking someplace else. Looking for ravens, maybe.
‘Pain and sacrifice, Little Hawk, bring great knowledge. Violence is sacrosanct.’
That’s what the damned ravens taught him.
The air and smoke in the air were the only things she could feel. They surrounded the woodland hovel. Arrows wedged through the planks let light in after they approached and pulled them out.
She killed one of them this way, waiting till he came close then stuck the longsword through the crack. Caught him in the inner-thigh. After a few minutes he bled out. She heard them dragging him away across the broken twigs and leaves..
Her leg was injured and she couldn’t outrun them. The threat of being torn apart by musket fire made a direct confrontation unfavorable.
“We warned ye, blood daughter, we dun want ye here. Should a got ye gone,” one of them shouted.
Another voice followed, “Prithee, Uriah, we ought not be here when the night comes.”
“Damned ye cowardice, Jethroe. She must pay for killing Samuel. She must!”
Her breathing was rapid and loud to her ears. She nestled in the corner of the small, four wall hut. Once used by the locals for hunting, a place to rest and wait for a doe or buck. Gold eyes glint as the sun set through the cracks and blades of burning light caught her gaze. This place would not hold for long. It was not made to withstand the siege of such irrational men.
“What does it see?” The Hackman and the falcon on his wrist were stout, similar in scars, and their eyes were hooded. Shrouded by leather veils with small rusted bolts on either side. Waiting for a response from the initiates he took deep breaths through his nose. It was the humidity that bothered him. Made him slow.
I thought; I could kill him. Not that I would, I only wanted to think about it. He heard these thoughts, somehow. He looked right at me and the falcon did too.
“What does it see, Eyass?”
“It sees what we cannot see.”
“What does it want?”
“It wants to hunt.”
“It wants to hunt…” My voice trails off.
“The sun abandons us. Leave her for it. Leave her and spare us,” the voice which she identified as Jethroe pleaded with the ringleader, brother to Samuel, named Uriah. They were an insular religious community near the edge of the woodlands. They called it Mottenbos. She didn’t know what their beliefs held, only that they loathed outsiders to the point of violence. But she came here to work–to hunt. She sought a dangerous man-eater that fled into y’lle a month prior.
After her last hunt, word reached the Lodge of farmers and their families found half devoured all along the border of the forest. They thought it wolves. They could not tell the bites of a man from the bites of a beast. Marjolaine knew, that was the purpose of the hunters. She tracked the killings to the Mottenbos community but they had little to offer. Only shelter for the night and stories of unusual animal sounds coming from the forests. No animal they recognized, of course. She resolved to move on.
That was until she met Samuel, the town drunk and belligerent. She broke his arm when he raised a hand to her and as he fell, he split open his head against the corner of a table. Died after a moment of twitches. Wasn’t aware enough to even know that he was dead. Until he couldn’t move anymore. Uriah gathered a handful of men but Marjolaine out paced them, tipped off by one of the local women.
By their footsteps she counted five different men. There were two in the back with rifles, resting on their knees with the barrels aimed and charges primed. Three others surrounded the hovel, armed with billhooks, hatchets, a woodcutter’s maul. The sixth man they brought was dead, his corpse propped up by a tree. She watched them through the cracks, occasionally gathering new information. None of it provided a clear opening. She had to wait. That was the only option left.
Will you die here. Before you find him?
Her mind conjured the strangest things. She thought of her quarry, hiding out in y’lle. She had only a vague and theoretical idea. But she had seen his evil deeds. They were connected. The huntress and her prey. She knew she couldn’t die until she found him. Until she killed him. This driving force had been what turned her toward y’lle instead of fleeing in the opposite direction.
Twenty stones. He’s tall. Aberrant. His teeth are crooked but hard. The locals call him the mantyger.
In Brague he came into a farmhouse when the mist was still thick in the early morning. He killed them, they thought the infant son was missing. I knew. He had eaten it. The whole thing. A splash of blood in the crib.
The Hackman’s lessons drown out my thoughts, “Remember this, Eyass. They are always men. Flesh and bone. The monster lives here,” he would place a finger to his temple. “We all learn this truth; eyas and eyass alike. The Lodge is the home of the finest man-hunters in the world. For that, what is our creed?”
Venatio Supra Omnia.
Above All, the Hunt.
“We will not leave till she is bled. That is my oath,” Uriah cursed.
“Then prithee we be on with it. Thy sworn vengeance condemns us all.”
Marjolaine heard a sound. One of the musketeers, grown sore from his kneeling, slacked and when he did there was a cracking boom which punctured a wide hole in the door to the hovel. His finger brushed the hair-trigger of the gun. They cursed, deafened, and she came so quickly toward them that the second musket fired off-center and hit the roof. The air lay polluted in the harsh smoke.
Uriah’s blood red face spat loathsome gibberish, swinging a billhook in a wild arc. She held one of her swords and drew the other from her back.
One sword caught his tool on the guard, the other punctured his lungs through the side. He struggled until his rusty blade chipped. His eyes were enormous bulging sacks and his beard caught the blood that dripped from his frothing mouth.
With a thunderous shout, his friend with the maul came downward and nearly chopped off her arm. She stepped back, losing the sword through Uriah. She brought the other longsword back into both hands and raised her elbow, pointing the tip downward.
The blunt maul flailed around again, clumsy and dangerous in the uncertain hands of the farmer. His anger came wholly from fear and it smelled rank. Great pools of sweat gathered in the pits of his arms.
When he swung side-long, she tilted back and then forward, lightning fast, to stab the point right through the middle of his throat. His Adam’s apple caught the metal and he choked. She had to put her boot on his chest and pry the weapon free with a grunt.
However, Jethroe hollered and cracked her in the back of the leg with the musket, dropped by one of their musketeers as he ran screaming into the woods. The other remained for lack of good sense and shakily tried to reload his barrel. Gunpowder pouring over his hands.
The huntress cried, her sprain flaring up, down on the ground. He raised it up, confusion and hate in his eyes, about to strike her again with the stock–but she had one good leg still. With a kick, she hooked the back of his ankle and knocked him off balance. Then she sprang like a wild cat onto his chest. Her thumbs digging into his eyes as he screamed.
Screamed, screamed, and screamed.
Guts and white pus spewed out from the dark sockets that were once his eyes. Startled, she looked up, hearing the hiss of the newly reloaded musket. Her hands gripped Jethroe’s shoulders and hoisted him in her way, the blast ripping open his shoulder in a spray of blood.
She knocked him aside and stood up.
Marjolaine limped over to one of the corpses and, placing a foot on his head, drew the long and gruesome blade from the wound. She walked toward the last man. She pointed the sword at him. What he saw in those golden eyes, or the lack of what he saw, caused him to let out a shriek, to throw himself before her on his knees in prostration. He prayed, his hands tightly held together.
“Our Maker who forsakes us for hardship. Be with me now–”
She lifted the weapon and drove its point down the back of his head. He made a sound like he suffocated and all the blood from his face splashed onto the ground.
“It wants to hunt.” Thin, pink lips sternly spoke as she drew the sword out.
“No, Eyass. It wants to kill.” She repeated the Hackman’s words.
Out in y’lle her mantyger waited. His trail cold until he found more flesh to eat.
He would hunt then and she would hunt him.
That is what she was made to do, Marjolaine resolved.
Both swords were sheathed. She picked up one of the muskets and the powder horn and a pouch of the iron balls, slinging it over her shoulder as she limped into the deeper woods.
Away from Mottenbos and further into the uncharted areas of y’lle no gods were witness to the lone huntress among the great silver firs, hidden beneath the growling shade and the coming of the dark.
The words of the priest echoed in her mind as she went,
‘Pain and sacrifice, Little Hawk, bring great knowledge. Violence is sacrosanct.’
That’s what the damned ravens taught him.
And that’s what he taught me.
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.
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.