The Beast and the Huntsman

The air was serene. Soft yet still. Marion could feel each light droplet of water that pattered onto the hood of her cloak, dripping down from the overladen branches that hung high in the forest’s canopy. High above, the sun hid itself behind the sea of low hanging clouds, leaving the forest’s floor pocketed with bursts of shadow and light, mosses stretched out across the rocks left with a dull green compared to their usual vibrant colour in the golden sunlight.

All of this Marion gave little heed however, her attention instead fixated on the young male that stood silently in a clearing no more than fifty feet away. Delicately she began to draw an arrow from the quiver that rested against her side, placing it upon the well-worn string of her bow. The frayed tufts that flared out told Marion the cord would see little more life before it snapped, but she just needed it to hold out just a little longer, just a few more shots to see her through. Perhaps she could even afford a new string by that point, something that would keep her going even longer. But she had other priorities for the moment, and so she drew the string back taught.

Her breath held steady as she raised the arrow, aiming with the natural instinct that had guided her on many hunts since she had first been able to draw a bow. She paused, watching as the male glanced up, still chewing as he gazed obliviously at the sprawling forest around him. There was always a majesty in watching these creatures Marion had thought, with their sleek hair and large glazed eyes that seemed to stare deeply at one at all times. And the antlers, the tall spires that rose out in a delicate wave like a beautiful dance of horn, one that would fetch a good price at any market. Marion pushed the thoughts from her head, her right arm strained against the tension of the bow’s cord.

Unexpectedly the buck’s head snapped to the side, its ears pricking up and body tensing as it stiffened, listening. Marion froze too, and before long could hear it too. The thundering rumble of hooves pounding across earth, and hidden somewhere within it the clink of metal hitting metal. Marion let the bow’s string slacken, lowering the arrow point to the floor as she sunk deeper into a crouch, watching hidden by the shrubs as the rumbling grew louder.

Bursting out of the trees a muscled destrier reared up, its flanks laden with a flow of fabric glistening silver with a red lion, and riding atop was a large brute of a man who held a spear raised menacingly overheard. With a roaring cry the man let the spear loose at the stunned buck, the missile harmlessly crashing into the soft mud metres before it. The buck stared for but a moment longer before bounding away in panic, crashing through the forest underbrush.

The man let out a frustrated cry as he lent back in his saddle, resting a hand on a stomach that threatened to burst from beneath his tunic. His clothes were clearly much too small for the large man, but whether through pride or denial, he had decided to not get any larger made. No doubt it was not because he had not the coin, for the clothes were laced with intricate patterns of gold, their weaving tendrils winding along the fabric that seemed to shimmer, even with so little sunlight. Yet despite the clothing’s beauty, the man’s face was anything but. Squat, crude and with a nose that looked as though it had been squashed sideways across his head, the man’s appearance was anything short of ghastly. Marion suspected a man so foul could only have ever acquired such wealth from one way.

‘M’lord!’ A page boy called as her emerged from the trees at a run, quickly holding aloft a water skin that the ugly man snatched away and gulped from greedily, ‘Did you manage to catch the beast m’lord?’ The lord tossed the water skin back at the boy, fumbling as he caught it.

‘The bastard’s quick, just won’t stand still for me!’ The lord bellowed, loud enough for all the accompanying party to hear as they emerged from the woodland. Marion watched as a pair of well-dressed men rode out on horseback, swords resting at their sides, and behind them a group of no less than six servants came following behind on foot, little more than ragged tunics to cover their greying skin.

‘No doubt a devilish beast my lord for one of your skill to not have snared it by now,’ one of the well-dressed men spoke, coming to a halt abruptly. Behind, one of the servants failed to notice the sudden stop and bumped into the horse’s rear, stumbling back in shock as he quickly attempted to re-join the ranks of servants, but the nobleman was quicker.

‘Watch your step you insolent moron!’ He sharply spat through his bared teeth at the cowering servant who kept his head lowered, ‘be careful or we may find some new game to hunt.’

Marion saw the nobleman’s hand stray toward his sword and felt a wave of resentment wash over her, feeling her grip tighten around the bow in her hand. Damned nobility, strong believers that because they were the hand at the hilt of the blade that made them the ones in command of every situation. Yet not every situation could be solved through a sword, and that’s what they often failed to see. In fact, that’s what had led to whispering’s of revolt beginning to spread in certain circles. Talk of rebellion, of a revolution, of taking a stand against the nobility and seizing the means of controlling oneself. Marion often scoffed at these ideas, because that was a situation where a blade would win, and they had very few with which to fight themselves. Yet perhaps one could always dare imagine.

The nobleman turned back in his saddle, averting his attention back to the lord who had now busied himself in an attempt to dismount from his horse, an effort Marion found rather amusing to watch as he struggled to shift his massive weigh to one side, the leather groaning under the pressure as he moved. Managing to get one leg over, he found himself hanging halfway from the saddle, his left foot still wedged firmly in a stirrup, the nobleman having to stifle a snigger as they watched.

‘Are any of you going to help me or must I rely upon myself for everything? Help me down already!’ the lord barked with a face swelling red with anger. A group of servants hurriedly rushed to him not wishing to suffer his wrath any further. Struggling under his weight, the servants managed to lower him to the ground, the fat lord smoothing out his tunic over his bulging gut. Marion watched as he strolled around the clearing, an air of arrogance in his step as he sauntered around, his head turning in almost an act of thoughtfulness, an attempt to display his own genius.

‘I’m certain the beast couldn’t have gotten too far. But hounds would be needed to pick up its trail,’ he spoke, puffing out his chest as he relished in his own planning.

A short servant idled forward, his head lowered. ‘The hounds are still at the castle m’lord.’

‘Then have them fetched! You have two legs!’ The lord glared at the man who dared interrupt his intellectual display, the servant scurrying backward realising his error, collecting a group of servants with him and hurrying into the woods. The two noblemen still atop their horses exchanged a wry grin between one another. It was clear to Marion they harboured little love for their lord. Few ever did. She found it ironic that they believed themselves above the ‘lowly peasantry’, yet they also believed better than any of their own ‘superiors’. An endless cycle of arrogance and self-perceived betterment, more often than not leading to conflict as feuds sparked. But still it were the peasants who suffered, the ones who had to fight their wars.

‘Perhaps we may retire from this hunt my lord, the feast this eve would surely be starting soon.’ One of the nobleman said, the lord glancing up in surprise at such a request. He gave thought for a moment before waving his hand.

‘Sure, retire for today. I’ll stay out a little longer, I’m certain I’ll catch this damned beast yet.’

Giving a bow of his head, the nobleman urged his horse around and into the woods, the second nobleman following close behind.

Now all that remained in the clearing was the lord along with a couple of servants, who both huddled to the side attempting to remain out of the dishevelled man’s gaze. Giving a grunt the lord thumped down onto a fallen log, breathing deeply as though he’d just been running. He raised a hand beckoning the servants, one rushing forward and passing the water skin. Taking a sip, the lord scrunched up his nose and hurled it back at the servant.

‘The wine you idiot!’ He barked impatiently, already beckoning the servant before he had the chance to pull out the second skin. The servant held it out shakily and the lord snatched it away, turning it upward and drinking deeply, his face relaxing at the taste of the sweet liquor. Marion remained in a crouch, not having noticed the tight grip she now clutched her bow with, her eyes beginning to burn as she watched the drinking lord, his gulps loud and obnoxious enough for even her to hear.  She had barely even registered how her hand had strayed toward her quiver, the tips of her fingers grazing against the goose feathers fastened to their ends.

She could imagine what a brute like this would do if he ever discovered that she had been poaching in his woods. His rage would no doubt see her flogged within clear view of the village square, or ever strung up by rope along the battlements if his mood turned foul enough. The temperament of lords were as fragile as the glass they laced their grand halls with, prone to shattering with but the lightest of touches. Yet she had little choice but to hunt within the lord’s woodland. Food had grown scarce within the surrounding villages, with failed harvests and livestock rarely surviving even the first few months of autumn, being felled like the red leaves that accompanied the cooling days. And in such days the lords closed there halls. No food flowed from their keeps, no aid, no compassion. Yet their feasts continued, their tables heaving beneath the weight of roasts, fruits and gallons of ales, and the fires to their sides blazed with a rage like that within Marion’s chest.

The arrow quivered upon the bow’s string, Marion scarcely having noticed herself draw the thin shaft from her quiver and aim its rusted point to where the large lord sat, his ripples of skin beneath his chin wet with wine. To let the arrow loose, to see it plunge beneath the folds of his tunic and his face contort with pain. To let one single arrow fly.

There would be those who cheered her name, shower her with praise and gifts. The one who had sparked the uprising. But still she could not help to think of those who would feel the wrath the followed. Vengeance of nobility was always swift and harsh, and would fall upon whatever hands they could clasp first, never mind who the culprit truly was.

The arrow shook, the cord drawn taught against her straining arm, her shoulder muscles beginning to protest and tremble. One arrow. One flight. It took nothing but the release of her fingers.

‘Come now,’ the lord groaned staggering to his feet, ‘Help me back up, that beast will still be at my table yet!’ Marion watched as the two servants leapt to action, straining and lifting their large master onto the destrier which snorted in discomfort.

The bow’s cord went slack, the arrow grating against the stave as Marion let it lower, the arrow remaining motionless upon the string. Her eyes followed the lord as he kicked his horse back into the woodland, the servants grudgingly following shortly behind, and once more the forest fell into silence.

Marion sat in a crouch for a few minutes after, making sure that she would truly be alone before risking an escape. At last she stood and crept away, the thicket of trees keeping her concealed as she returned toward the village. She would let her quarry enjoy another day of its life, she was a patient hunter.

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