The King’s Huntsman
The bitch was one of my favorites. Big-boned, brindle, with a bay that could bring the moon down and the sense to use it only when necessary—the finest of her kind. I’d worked her since she was a pup, trained her and tracked her and brought her in to sleep on my bed nights when the cold ran to ice along the window panes.
She’d survive the wound. It was clean, easy to sew, the edges as straight as if I used my dagger on her. She panted on the ground, foam on her lip, eyes vague with pain. “You’re a good lass,” I said as I touched her head.
Jonas knelt beside me. “Take her in,” I told him. There was something, puzzlement, disappointment, in his face, but the King’s horn had blown twice now, and the baying of the hounds ran through me like fire through dry grassland. The hunt belonged to me. I’d not come this far to be stayed by a downed dog. I left it to Jonas to earn his keep.
Still, it wore at me as I swung into the saddle. This morning, she’d waited by my side as I inspected the hounds, lifted her nose to push at the hood over my face when I bent near. Now she’d hunt no more. The King believed bitches as fragile as the ladies of his house, spun glass vessels to admire and to fill. He’d say it cruel to risk her again.
I knew this hound though. To keep her home would be far crueler than to send her to die in the field, but he’d never see it as such. “Nay,” he’d say, the authority in his voice raised over my foolish request. “Kennel her. Once she’s whelped she’ll forget the rest.”
As if a creature who lived with her nose to the air and her feet worn from running would ever find joy behind the walls of the nursery kennels, in the milk teeth and whimpers of pups and the pointless quarrels of their dams. I could have told him that.
“Tend her well,” I called back to Jonas, and he half-turned, nodded over his shoulder, her body gathered in his arms.
By the time I reached them, the dogs were milling about the banks of the river. “What say you, Gen?” called the King. Were I to speak my mind, I would have said the dogs were lazy from winter. I would have said the men were the same, pale and paunched from months of melancholy drinking and trysts with serving girls whose willingness would turn to regret as soon as their bellies began to blossom along with the summer flowers. I’d have wagered that most gathered here would be happiest were the dogs not to come into scent again.
Not the King. His hunger for the chase matched my own. The others, they came because their place at his table required it. No, that was not fair. Some enjoyed the venture, simply not the way he did. The way I did.
He met my eye over the others, the color risen in his cheek in a way I found…. I looked downriver. “The dogs are no use once a quilth has taken to water, my Lord. We’ll be traveling blind. We enter the water, we risk the horses.”
A half-year past we’d caught the first. No more than a yearling, full of fury when we finally brought it down in the deep winter snow. It had lacked weight, lacked size, its shadow-patterned coat containing but handful of the scales that would have covered an adult—though it had shaken the life from two hounds before the King’s spear had taken it down. The tracks of this one pressed deep into the softening snow, the claws of one toe still stained with the blood of the hound. Bigger. Big enough to feed on lifestock, but not yet turned to the taste of the farmer as well.
It was in my heart to deny the King this thrill. The bitch had been lucky to escape with no more than she had received. Too easy to imagine him laid open in the slush, steam rising as his blood darkened the ground under him. The quilth was his by right; none save the King could kill one save in defense of a woman or child. To violate the law meant death at the hands of the King’s executioner.
But the King’s safety did not come from his royal rights. It rested on my shoulders alone.
The restless dogs, snouts up, looked to me for guidance. Simple enough to send them upstream to track until they found other scent to follow. The speckled hound the King favored had a child’s nose, easy to distract and full of impatience. With them gone, I could return alone, track the creature to a place clear of water, somewhere that favored the King and a speedy kill.
It was not law that brought me to heel. In the King’s face shone unguarded delight. I could not take it from him. His countenance had been my study for many years. I knew the shades of it more thoroughly than I knew any man’s, his joy becoming my own.
My face he knew not at all. Never once had I lifted my hood before him, shared with him the feel of a brisk wind across our skin. A boundary as complete as the ocean he believed I’d crossed to come into his service. The mark of a pious man, so devoted to my alien faith that I would wear black broadcloth in the heat of a summer’s day, would risk heatstroke to preserve my modesty.
Better that than the truth. Faith was a worthy cradle for a man’s honor. But for a woman? Her honor was bound to her flesh alone.
“What say you, Genner?” The King’s brother stood at my side, his black mare laying back her ears and shaking her head.
“I say your mare’s a sour wench.” My own edged sideways, as eager for action as the hounds. The only quiet animal here belonged to the spear carrier; her eyes drooping low as she waited, her master’s long legs wrapped round her bony barrel.
“Do we continue?” Tiburon bore keen resemblance to his brother, though he was taller, slighter, his beard lacking gray. He’d missed the throne by eighteen minutes. He’d told me those eighteen minutes were the finest gift his mother ever gave him.
“My Lord,” I began, but went no further. It was the way the dogs’ heads moved like daisies in a breeze, the sound of water rippling where no ripple existed before. I was off my horse, spear withdrawn before the spear bearer could come to his senses and choose for me. The horses whirled as one as the water sprayed upward and took on form and mass. I dropped to my knee, braced as the beast hit the spear tip. For a moment, as its body slid forward to meet the guard and its blood ran dark along the haft, I knew I would not be able to hold. Death, I thought. Give me complete death or complete life. Do not me leave wounded and exposed.
Then the King’s body pressed close behind mine, his weight paired with mine as the beast snarled and twisted in anger. The others closed in around us, hands on the spear to steady it, freeing the King to draw his sword. The beast hissed and spit, unable to do anything more as the King neared. He drove his blade deep into the thick neck and twisted it until the blood ran free. The quilth shuddered and mewed, the water-blue orb of its eye rolling, one paw scrabbling in the air before dropping to the ground.
The King wiped the blood from his hand and called for a drink. I refused the flask passed among the men, content to contemplate the quilth. Beautiful and still so young—the skull not yet grown to greatness, the teeth white and unbroken, the coarse dappled hair overlaying a sprinkling of glittering scales, the webbed toes tipped by slender claws. Catlike some called them, but their wildness surpassed any cat I’d ever seen.
My heart still beat triple time, the blood a tempest in my veins. The King gripped my shoulder as he spoke past me, the heat of his hand an echo of the heat of his body behind mine minutes ago. I smiled, alone within my hood. As the men patted one another, made jovial by drink and pride, my palm burned, the flesh scored by a splinter from the haft of the spear.
“You are a fool, Genivieve.”
Tiburon picked at my hand with a darning needle. He’d yet to have a drink; I had had far too many.
“Do not call me Genevieve.”
“I call you it only because it riles you so.” The needle moved deep and my palm stung. I caught hold of his hair and pulled his head back, the needle still within my flesh.
“I could kill you.” My dagger rested on the table.
“You could, but I am your only friend. Even you could not stand being totally alone.” He looked in my eyes with knowing certainty, and I released him. When he returned to the splinter I leaned forward and rested my face on his shoulder. He smelled of pine, of leather. Nothing like his brother.
“You could have finer company than me tonight. You could have the daughter of the grateful farmer to warm your bed. That beast had taken four calves in as many weeks,” Tiburon said. The focus of the needle narrowed and his fingers squeezed.
“God save me from grateful farmers and their willing daughters.” I took another drink, wiped my lips on the sleeve of my nightshirt. Even unbound, my breasts barely lifted the fabric that covered them. My hips were narrow as well; it was not the shape of my body that would betray me, Tiburon had once said, but the fineness of my skin, my lack of beard, the things acceptable in a boy but not in a weathered man of thirty-two.
“God save the daughters from your perversions,” he said.
I snorted. Something—curiosity, desperation born of a need for human touch—had once driven me to kiss a blushing maid lacking the experience to question the softness of my lips. The sweetness of her curves had aroused nothing in me though, other than frustration at being offered all I wanted of a thing I did not desire.
My chastity puzzled the King. On more than one occasion he’d questioned me. “Surely,” he’d say, his brow knit with brotherly concern. “Your god must understand how it is with men. Women exist for our pleasure. There is no evil in lying with them.”
I fended him off with lines of prayer I invented during my lonelier hours. “I am a vessel of Kansat,” I said, solemnly. “I shall be known by the manner of my dress. Temptation shall come to me in many forms and every time I shall turn it away, and my faith shall grow with my strength.”
And he’d shake his head, and we’d talk instead of the merits of stainwood over ashertree for spears, or of hunts we’d shared. His interest in the world ended at the seaport of Dormian, the ocean’s expanses and beyond nothing to him. A more cultured man might have probed for details I could not provide. Not my King. My skill bought me his indulgence in all matters, and his indulgence protected me from all curiosity.
All curiosity save Tiburon’s.
“Yes, God save the farmer’s daughters from us both.” This time his needle moved in a way meant to cause pain, and I dug my chin into his firm muscle. “It’s not my fault you are as you are, Tib.”
Much could be forgiven a man, a King’s brother. A royal sibling could spawn bastards by the dozen, could take unwilling girls with impunity, could even, if he so desired, practice such acts with the local livestock.
Provided, of course, the animals were female.
I’d been young, naïve, when we met, my thoughts on when I’d be found out, not why the King’s brother chose my company. In those early days I did not drink, not even in my cottage with the door barred and the shutters drawn. Instead, I’d sit alone, fletching arrows, honing blades, nerves and excitement and solitude grown to a tapeworm inside of me till I could scarcely sleep. The night Tiburon came to my cottage with mead in one hand, friendship in the other, my resolve trembled and broke.
He’d coaxed me with questions: would we find a stag for the midsummer hunt, did I think the King’s new horse an improvement over the old? I refused his drink at first, until his conversation made my objections feel childish. The alcohol warmed me, made laughter come more easily and affection seem only natural. Until he approached me as I stood by the table.
Eighteen years old, so young, and I’d never had a man approach me so. “Genner,” he’d said softly as he placed a hand on my wrist. “Gen, I’ve seen how you watch my brother.”
I’d understood and not. I believed he’d seen through the disguise, had recognized the woman in me. I froze. He took my stillness as invitation and pulled me closer.
“He and I are not so different,” he said. “I can give you what he won’t. I promise to tell no one.”
His fingers rose to the ties of my hood. I shook my head, panic beginning to cut through the fuzziness there.
“Tiburon, I am not what you think.”
He did not desist, his hand still moving. I could feel the strength of him as he leaned close. “My brother believes whatever is most convenient to him. I think I’ll find you to be a local boy beneath these clothes, but it troubles me not. It is not your past I desire.”
“No, you don’t understand.” No easy answer presented itself to me. The touch of him thrilled me, for I could see his brother in him. No, that is not truthful. It was because skin craves skin sometimes, because I was eighteen and lonely, because I’d committed to a life of falsehood without a thought about what it would mean.
But what Tiburon wanted I could not provide, and my awkward rejections did nothing to cool his interest. I did the most expedient thing I could think of, loosed the drawstring at my waist and dropped my pants.
His gaze flickered from my hood to my nakedness and back again until at last he laughed. “Well,” he said. “That does rather change things. Might I see your face as well?”
So we became the keepers of each other’s secrets. Tib’s would cost him as dearly as mine, were it to be known. Such a wicked thing, for one man to love another, for him to watch another and desire him while the others passed women between them like chattel. Like I would be, were my truth known.
One final stab and he sighed, the splinter teased free at last. “It is set,” he said, filling his glass. “He’ll marry the girl from the North by midsummer. Her charms are much bolstered by the lands she brings.”
I said nothing, just took a long swig from my cup. The bottom came sooner than I expected, and I filled it again from the green bottle.
“My offer still stands, Gen.”
“Which one.” The firelight flickered. If I squinted just right I could almost imagine Tiburon was his brother.
“Any. All. Let’s say for the moment that every offer I’ve ever made is completely available.” He drank as well, the needle left out on the rough-hewn table between us. “Marry me. You’ll pretend I’m him, I’ll pretend you’re the huntsman I dreamed of, and we’ll manage to do so until you provide me an heir. After that, you’ll be free to do whatever you desire, including be available in woman’s form when my brother’s eye begins to rove.”
“You speak as if it is certainty.”
He stared steadily at me, silent.
“You’re an idiot to believe I’d agree.”
“You’re an idiot to believe you’ll never be found out. Come with me to the Promising Feast. I’ll introduce you as a novice from the Daughters of the Moon.”
“A bastard, you mean.”
“It means you cannot be expected to provide your father’s name, or his lands. It saves you a great many questions.”
“My mother is guilty of many things, but abandoning us has never been one of them.”
Anger colored his face. “You stay here, Gen, eventually you’re thrown from a horse, or the next quilth is faster, and the men rush to your aid only to find you’re a woman beneath your wraps. Do not think they will be kind. Do not think my brother will forgive you for besting him.”
“Better to live short with my nose to the wind then to waste away bearing your pups,” I said. The drink tasted weak as water as I considered the futures before me. Were I stronger, I could have left when I was young. I could have found my way upon a ship, sailed forth from Dormian and searched for a home in which to be both hunter and woman. I’d heard such places existed, for those with the coin to travel the seas.
But the doors we ignore when young serve no purpose other than to haunt us later. I stood, testing my feet. My hand ached and my head spun and my traitorous body longed for the feel of another against it.
“It’s late and you must find your way home before someone wonders at the company you keep,” I said.
“No one would dare question your manhood.” His tone belied the crooked smile on his face.
“No, but I am a devout man, not one given to the pleasures of drink and late nights.”
He grimaced before rising, held my hand in his. “He’s not worthy of your love, Genevieve. I know him far better than you.” He kissed my cheek goodbye with all the heat of a brother.
After he left I took one more drink. Just a sip, just enough to pull me over the cliff and into a chasm of sleep so deep that even dreams dared not gaze down.
Jonas was a man given to silence, a quality I much appreciated as I squinted out from my hood at his homely face. He knelt by the mat he kept for injured dogs. On it rested the bitch. She wagged her tail at his approach, one, two, three steady pats before he lifted the wrap from her side and showed me his handiwork.
“You sew pretty as a girl.” It was true, his hand far more careful than mine. His good one, that was. Jonas’s fate had been decided at birth, when he emerged with one hand as twisted as a talon. No following his father as Huntsman, doomed to never pull a bow nor manage any task requiring the strength of two hands rather than one. Another man might have turned to bitterness, but he’d never shown sign of it.
He nodded, nothing more than agreement. My head pulsed in time with the beat of the hound’s tail and I rued last night, the night before, the long string of nights I’d followed to this point.
“She’s right fine.” He fondled her head, rumpled the velvet of her ear.
There was a blue-glazed jar on the table. Beside it lay a dainty silver spoon, a viscous stain darkening the wood beneath. I knew the bottle; I coveted its contents. A drop or two and my head would hurt no more. I’d be left quiet and simple, content to lie on a mat as Jonas cut the meat free of the quilth carcass and measured it into buckets for the kenneled dogs waiting outside.
A man such as Master Genner would never succumb to such pleasure though. A man such as he would pray for relief, would pray for forgiveness for having sinned in the first place. Such a noble world, the one I created for others.
The bitch relaxed, her tail gone limp against the blankets puddled around her. Weariness came to me as well, less of body than of mind. “She’ll hate it, you know. It’s not what she’s made for.”
Jonas eyed me. He was plain, his face pockmarked, his ears overlarge. His eyes, though, they were the color of the grass that grew in the streams winding through the marsh. The sort of eyes that gave one pause, like gems left amidst a cup of dry seed.
At first I’d thought him simple. I kept my silences well enough, but Jonas held his words close and careful as gold. Truth be told, I allowed his hand to distract me, as if the outward damage marked some inward as well. Then, there was his easy temper. Surely, had I been born as he, I would have been given to harshness.
But Jonas was no fool. The years had taught us as much understanding as possible between a liar and a silent man. He loved the dogs. I could see it in his face, I could hear it in the timbre of his voice when he told me stories from the kennels. He did not love the hunt though, for it meant death, and he cared not for that piece.
I looked up from the hound to find him watching me with his moss-green eyes. He nodded. “No, it’s not in her to stay quiet.”
“The King believes otherwise.” I could almost taste the syrup from his spoon on my tongue, the bitter and sweet bound together, the way my lips would numb with the touch. I shook my head and rued the gesture. “He’ll not allow her back in the pack. Better she’d been killed by the beast.”
“Never.” He hesitated. “Every problem has its fix.”
I bit back a laugh. Perhaps I had been wrong. Perhaps the man was simple after all.
Or perhaps he would keep her drugged. He took the bottle in his hand and measured out three drops onto the spoon. These he mashed with crumbs he pulled from a breakfast crust, and the clotted juice collected from the cubed quilth flesh. He knelt by the bitch again, worked the substance into a soft ball and rubbed it against her lips until she took it in her jaws. She swallowed, her tail thudding in sleepy gratitude, and lowered her head once more.
When he stood, I had the urge to draw his fingers into my mouth, to take what still remained there. What would he think, I wondered, were I to raise my hood to him?
The fancy passed quickly enough. I reached instead for the door, leaving them both behind.
The winter had left my mare fat and full of mischief. She pulled at the bit and jumped sideways without provocation, her muscles aching for a run. “You’ll not have me off,” I said, legs tight round her. “I’ve stayed on better than you.”
I urged her forward along the trail away from the kennels. The hounds and their keepers had always lived outside the castle proper, their noise and smell kept separate from the King’s household. The kennels were well suited to those protecting secrets; none could move through the space unnoticed thanks to the hounds. My cottage was hidden from the castle by meadows and forest, and from the cottage Jonas lived in with his sister by the barn and runs.
When I rode, it was always through the woods and along the great fields that bordered the castle, my eyes drawn to its stony grey flanks. In some matters I had the foolish nature of a girl. For this day, I bid myself to think naught of them and enjoy the ride instead. The branches overhead, barren just a week ago, cast lacy shadows upon us, their leaves still soft and pale. The mare danced as we neared the edge of the wood. My heart did as well, the open space calling us to run.
She leapt sideways as we passed into the field, distracted. Toward us came the King, dressed in royal blue and riding his bold steed. With him rode a lady, her arms draped in golden veil, her dainty mare blanketed in gold as well. Behind both, on a plump gray pony, rode an older woman, the dark gray of her heavy skirts matching her mount’s dapples.
Would that I could have turned and been deep in the forest before the King saw me, but his hand was raised, his voice calling my name. My mare, suddenly the coquette, minced her way toward them, collected prettily. “You have no honor,” I whispered to her.
“How goes it, Gen?” The King’s smile, generous, unaffected, welcomed me. His companion glanced at me from beneath downcast lashes. I studied her hard, eager to find her faults. Pretty in the formless way of young women—her cheeks flushed from the spring air and sun, her eyes blue as summer sky—she was everything I’d expected. The drape of her skirts hid her legs from view, her gloves covered her hands. Soft, pliant, butter to my steel. I despised her.
“Better since the last of the snow is gone, my Lord.” My mare dipped her head and blew. I pulled her up more sharply than was fair.
“Genner, this is the Lady Adelaide. My Lady, this is Genner, my Huntsman.”
“I’ve heard others speak of your heathen dress.” She looked directly upon me now, all shyness gone from her gaze. I was Huntsman, she would be Queen. It afforded her the right to stare.
“Come now, Gen’s a man of faith,” the King said. His grin pulled me close, left her outside. “The two of you share a need to preserve modesty, my dear, even if his beliefs are contrary to ours.”
Her laughter sounded like soap bubbles, all pop pop pop. “An honorable man then.”
“Aye, Gen’s nothing if not honorable. I doubt even your nanny could find fault with his manners.”
She giggled again, her eyes lowered. A mere bauble, a token passed between the hands of men to finalize their transactions. Her value rested in her father’s lands and her future husband’s rule and her fair hair and ability to carry a child. I envied her nothing. Almost nothing.
“You’ll be at the Promising Feast, of course?” He waited. He held his reins in his left hand. On the right a red ridge of scar coursed along the top. I’d staunched the blood when that wound had been opened. I’d bandaged his hand, raised a bottle of drink to his lips to ease the pain. I’d skinned the beast that had injured him and tanned the hide for him.
My mare shook her head impatiently. I drew a deep breath of clean spring air, my freedom suddenly a meager good indeed, the kind easily traded away. “No, my Lord. ‘Tis the time of the Spring Renewal. I must spend it in solitude and penance.”
“Good God, penance for what? Next thing I know you’ll be living in a cave and beating yourself with rushes.” He looked upon me with kindness. “I cannot fault you for your beliefs, Gen. You’ve served me well for many years. And better to be gone now than for the wedding.”
“Aye, my Lord.” I bowed my head quickly to them both before turning homeward.
Tiburon came in the evening to drink and play cards. I drank before he arrived, drank more once he was in the door. He brought with him typhum, and I smoked that as well, the burn of the heat from the pipe and from sharp amber spirits making my voice rasp like a file drawn along an unshod hoof.
“You’ve met her, then,” he said. He dealt the cards with a practiced hand. I glanced at my hand, scowled, and chose two cards to turn up. I lay them before me—the spotted bull, one foot raised, and the sightless maiden, with her murky eyes and reaching hands.
“I’ve met her. She reminds me of that little hound, the one we lost last year, with the hopeless nose and not enough sense to stay from under the horses’ feet.”
He raised one eyebrow, rested his head on his hand. “Let it never be said that you lack for opinions.”
He turned face up two cards—the lost prophet and the bitter fruit—shaking his head ever so slightly. He did remind me of his brother at times, inconvenient times, when my head spun with smoke and drink and my imagination wove tapestries of temptation.
“Your dealing leaves much to be desired,” I said. The world had reduced itself nicely to table, chairs, the black hairs along the back of his hands, the curl of smoke from the discarded ashes. I forced my thoughts elsewhere. “The quilth cubs, they were not alone.”
“What are you talking about? Do us both a favor and learn the art of conversation some day.” He tossed two more cards my way.
“I could have believed it of one, not two.” His eyebrow cocked in a way designed to irritate. “They weren’t small for their age. They were young. Too young to be traveling alone. It means their dam must be near.” A seven of stones and a two of stars. My luck had not changed.
“Gen, tell it to my brother. If there is, she’s his quarry to chase. I’m sure he’ll be delighted. After you’ve found her for him to kill, he can share tales with you of the wonders of his new bride.”
I stared at him as he considered his two new cards. He did not look up.
“Do you seek to hurt me, or have your wits gone soft?”
He sighed, laid his cards face down on the table. “I am your friend, Genevieve. You are mine. My wish is that you cease to beat your wings against the glass round my brother’s heart, for your own good. If a little pain speeds that along, I’m not above using it.”
It sounded true. His dark eyes said it was so. The back of my throat filled, with want, with drink, with all the things I denied myself, one after the other. “I’ll do it.” He looked at me, uncomprehending. “The feast. I’ll go as your woman.”
“What are you saying?” Tiburon’s hands stilled, a single card balanced on edge, one finger poised to spin it.
“I’m saying I’ll do it. I’ll be your wife. One heir, in exchange for your promise of my freedom in all things.”
He spun the card. It dropped face up, the quilth. “Gen,” he began, only to stop and study me long and hard, with eyes so very like those of his brother’s.
I ran my hand through my cropped hair and imagined what it might feel like to have it run long down my neck as it had when I was a girl. “For midnight’s sake, Tib, give me something more than that.”
He considered everything: the wood stove, the curtains over the windows, the ummade bed, his own broad hands. After a moment he held one out to me. “I look forward to having you as my wife,” he said.
I took his hand in mine and we shook, gravely, like children at a funeral.
A gown. One needed a gown if one was to be a woman, especially a woman accompanying the brother of a king. I’d been a child when last I’d worn such a thing, and never once had I possessed the sort that might grace a lady of the court. No, mine had been patched, made of threadbare linen, worn loose and well above my ankle. Long before I’d made my way to the kennels, I’d taken to wearing my skirts split and mended into trousers of a sort.
From within my hood I watched the ladies, studied their fashion as I would the spoor of my prey. They wore fabrics that covered their skin and yet exposed their bodies with subtle drape, their long hair held back by ornate nettings adorned with beads and gems. Their floral scents, bought in the markets of Dormian, were potent enough to reach even my sequestered nose.
There existed only one woman I trusted to craft a gown for me. To reach her required a two day ride, along roads as familiar to me as the sinews of my own hand. I loathed to travel them. At every farm I passed, children came out to follow me along the borders of their fences, while their fathers would raise their hands in grudging salutes. I knew what they thought of the King’s foreigner here; I knew what they thought of women too. The further I drew from the castle, the more grateful I was for the damp confine of my hood.
At night I stopped in the midst of a spindrift forest, the ground bare beneath the great limbs, the spiral leaves whirling in circles round their stems. I wrapped myself in a patchwork blanket of racule skins, soft and warm as down, and fell asleep watching the dance of branches against the starlit sky. A different kind of sleep happened out beneath the trees and sky, the murmur of running water and the whisper of the breeze conjuring dreams of magic. I woke clear, reluctant to continue on, questioning my promise to Tiburon, but I mounted and went forward.
The old dog was barking long before I rounded the last turn and the cottage came into view. Nothing much there—a pen with a sow and six piglets in front; the old hound, rawboned and grizzled with age, straining at the end of his rope; the remainders of a wood pile decimated by winter; two hobbled mares lipping the few green shoots making it up from the muddy earth. At the door leaned a boy grown halfway to manhood. Halfway to nowhere. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Figures,” he said.
I dismounted, untied my package from the saddle, tied my mare to the top rail of the pig’s fence. His anger spun in brittle circles between us.
“What makes you think she even’ll let you in?” he said.
“Because she’s my mother.” The package weighted my hands like chain mail.
“Maybe I won’t let you in.”
“Little brother, we bastards must stick together.” I was close enough to see pain spread over his face like mud in clear water. Kindness had always come too dear for me; regret far too easy. “How goes it with you?”
He looked at me from beneath a forelock of midnight hair, his eyes bright with shame. “Does it matter?”
I could not give him what he craved, he could not help but hate me for it. At arm’s reach the truths between us were harsh. But he was my blood, this angry lad, and his suffering mine to see.
I brushed past him through the door. “Is she here?”
Before he could respond her rasping voice reached me. “If it isn’t the King’s whore, come home to lord over us.”
Hard not to say what came so quickly, that had I been I a whore it would have been thanks to her tutelage. “I’ve need for a gown.”
“A gown?” She came forward from the shadows. Even now her face held remnants of loveliness. Such a dangerous thing, beauty on a woman. Her hair, fair as it was, hid the gray admirably. Her eyes were dark, burnished as chestnut shells, her fingers long and nimble. Her shape had gone from womanly to gaunt though, and her cheeks shone fever-bright with color.
“I hear you right? A gown? What use have you for a gown?” Hope, it was hope that glistened like syrup in her eyes.
“Don’t excite yourself. There’s no future at the castle waiting for you, mother dear.” Unlike with my brother, to punish her gave me no pain. “I’ve brought the fabric, more than enough. Make me a gown like the women at court wear and I’ll leave the rest for you.”
Within the package the fabric slipped and sloshed like water in a skin. Tiburon had bought it on a trip to Dormian: spider-spun silk the color of primroses, carried from over the ocean. “The clerk swore it was the very hue to delight any maiden,” he said as he tossed it onto my table. “I figured you were close enough.” He’d paused, flashed me a look, half-startled, half-curious. “You’re not, are you? Promise me we’ve not that to deal with as well.”
I’d been saved then by the sudden barking of the hounds that warned me to cover my face. His look had stayed with me though. Take away my hood, my black garb, and suddenly I must be virgin or whore, mother or nothing, subject to everyone’s scrutiny.
My mother’s hands were on the package, fingers stumbling in their haste to loosen the bindings. “Oooh, lovely,” she said as she lifted the folds to the light. “This cost considerable coin, Genevieve. You’ve an admirer.”
She searched my face. I knew what she hoped to find. Kinship. She wanted to see I’d learned what could be bought with an unlined cheek and a soft thigh.
For that I could forgive her. But she also looked for the dream-addled vagueness I’d seen in her every time my father had ridden up to the gate, and remained when an hour or two later he would ride off, leaving in her enough seed to get another child who’d never carry a father’s name.
“I bought it myself. You forget I earn my own money.”
“You father would’ve—”
“My father would do nothing for me. Don’t fool yourself, old woman.”
Unshed tears hardened to glittering stone. “He’s found work for your brothers. He’s taken good care of us.”
“He found work for them with men who asked him for cheap labor. He’s done naught for me. He’s done naught for Alain, other than leave him waiting on the doorstep for someone to ride by. He’s left us all children of the Moon.”
“You’ve done nothing for your poor brother. You could bring him along, find him work for the King.”
“I cannot.” I fought to keep my voice steady, to bring it down into the register necessary for a huntsman. “I cannot bring Alain to court. There can be no connection between us.”
“Because you are selfish. Only one daughter I’ve had, and she carries a cold and selfish heart.”
“Only one mother I’ve had, and she was too busy raising her skirts for a minor Duke to tend any of the children he gave her.”
The bright stain of color swept over her cheek. She pulled herself up, and for a moment I believed she would cast me from the house. For a moment, I believed she’d demand my respect. But then she ran her fingers over the cloth again, looked down at the uneven stone of the floor.
“Let me get my pins and tape. It’ll take time to finish, you understand. You’ll have to send for it.”
Seven sons she’d had, seven bastard sons for the Duke, whose wife had born him but one child, a frail knock-kneed boy who spooked at his own shadow. Seven robust boys grown into seven strapping men, all with the Duke’s dark curls and his broad shoulders, none with an honorable name. And one daughter, cursed with her mother’s fair hair and dark eyes and her father’s strong hands and bold heart, and no love for either of them.
I could not wait to be measured and gone.
Alain was standing by my mare when I went to leave. She rested her muzzle on his shoulder, blew her sweet breath on his neck as he patted her.
“She’s grand,” he said, and I could see the painful lonely youth of him.
“Aye, she’s fine. A bit fresh after the winter, but she’ll come round.”
He untied her, smoothed an unruly strand of her mane.
“I cannot take you along.”
He didn’t look up, just tugged her browband into a straight line.
“Alain, I am not Genevieve there. I’m not even from this land when I am there.”
“I could be like you. I could dress the same, live the same. Do you not trust me?”
“It’s not even trust, it’s…” How to explain? How to say that what I had given up freely wore at me every day, that I’d never allow the same for an untried youth. “I grew up hunting. You wouldn’t know, you were born after I’d left. But I was the eldest and I learned to hunt for our food.”
Not just when we were hungry. Ten years old, watching the Duke ride up to the cottage. He spared me no words, no pat on the head as he passed, just hurried up. My mother at the door, her cheeks rosy, leaning into his embrace. Me, taking up the bow I’d strung myself, the arrows I’d taught myself to fletch properly through trial and error, leaving along the paths through the wood known only to me and the delicate alopes with their limpid eyes and legs as fragile as grass stems. Returning home carrying an alope stag, my thigh scraped raw from the rub of his antlers against my skin as I struggled to bear him past my little brothers sitting on the steps. Into the cottage, the musk of bodies heavy in the air, my mother, her bodice barely laced, the first words from her lips, “Your father, the duke…”
“The hunt is all I know, Alain. I’ve sold my life for it. What you want is proper work. You want to be able to drink ale with the others late one evening and not wonder what secrets you might let slip. You’ll want a lover, Alain, or the chance for one.”
He looked up, his dark eyes half-closed against the words I flung at him. Ah, little brother, pain was all I had to give.
“Does he come any more?” The mare stomped her foot at me, annoyed at my intrusion.
Alain shook his head. “I’ve heard he has a woman in town.”
He blushed, fire-red. Not a woman then. Someone young enough to have caught my brother’s eye as well. “The innkeeper’s daughter.”
I didn’t know her. I didn’t need to. She would be young, and lovely, and she would fancy the Duke as more than he was, and he would fancy her on her back. Neither of them would think of my mother waiting by her door, or of his wife. Or of Alain, turning from boy to man without father, without name, without hope.
“The King’s brother.” I tightened the mare’s girth, swung myself into the saddle. “His groom is aged and without a son. If you find yourself with the means to reach his estate, you might inquire at the stables there. See if he might be willing to take an apprentice.”
The mare shook her head as I collected my reins. “Whatever you do, do not tell him the Huntsman sent you. It will send a message you do not wish to give.”
I turned her homeward but he called me back. “There’s a farm not far from here…there was trouble.” He ended it like a question, as if unsure there had indeed been trouble.
“Of what sort?”
“Cattle. They were killed. Eaten.”
The mare shifted beneath me as my legs drew taut. “How many?”
“First, a few calves. Then a bull, a prizewinner.”
Only one thing could take down a bull. The world round me came clear, sharp. “How recently?”
“Just three nights ago for the bull.”
The dam, larger, stronger than her cubs, her cleverness grown long and cruel as her claws. I’d heard many definitions for magic, stories whispered when campfires had burned to ashes and men had lost their reason to dark and drink. There existed only one understanding of the word for me—simple, complete, capable of making my skin shiver on a hot day. Magic was the moment when predator and prey first knew one another, and I’d devoted my life to its service.
“Thank you,” I said.
I looked back as I rode away. Alain lingered by the fence, a slim, handsome boy, his first whiskers dotting his chin. I saw not myself there, nor my mother, nor even the Duke. Instead, I saw merely the man he’d yet to become, and wished him well I as might any stranger I passed along the way.
I did not tell the King upon my return. At first I promised myself that I merely wanted more evidence of the quilth—tracks, kills, knowledge of her routes. It seemed plausible enough. When you feed yourself on lies, they eventually lose all power of surprise.
But as the moon waxed and waned without sign of her, as no further news found its way to my ears, my reluctance to speak discomfited me. I’d no reason, nay, no right to withhold such information from the King. The quilth belonged to him. My loyalty belonged to him. My…but I could hear Tiburon scoff in my head. My heart was my own or it served me no purpose at all.
I would tell him. Just not quite yet.
One final hunt before the Promising Feast, a diversion for his guests. I’d promised him as much, said I’d not leave for my time of penance until I’d led them out and back. A gentleman’s hunt, hounds and horses trailing a hapless racule. Blessed with long legs and crafty hearts, racules held no danger in them, save for the occasional hen they pulled from under a farmyard gate. No, the only danger to be found on such ventures was in the inept riding of the King’s ministers, grown fat on cream and honey and likely to jostle their mounts into misery. More often than not I’d pull up my mare halfway through and watch the graceless slip in their saddles and flap their elbows.
Were my goal to actually capture a racule, I’d travel on foot, carrying only a bow. I’d wait along the meadow edge as evening laid her claim, and watch until they came out to hunt, their black-ringed tails held high. No spectacle, no currying favor, nothing but the quickness of the arrow, the suddenness of death.
I shook my head, tired before the hunt had even begun. Jonas waited in the yard, his short whistles calling the hounds in close. I paid them no mind. I knew they’d be fresh and I knew they’d stay true, and if any could not keep pace, Jonas would be there to collect them.
But as they raised their voices to the morning sun, I dragged my mare around and studied them with care. Among them, her coat the gray of kitchen ash and not yet full enough to cover the line of scar along her ribs, stood a fine-boned bitch, her voice raised like a hymn.
And then the horn sounded and we were off, and I fed on the speed and the hounds and the blue sky thrown over us all like joy.
“You ran her against King’s orders.”
Jonas said nothing. The bitch lay at his feet, contented. She smelled of smoke, thanks to the oily paste of ash and water he’d worked through her fur.
“She belongs to him, not us.” By right I should have docked him pay, should have made him admit his fault to the King himself. But she had run like a dream, her bay ringing through the air deep and strong. She did not belong in the nursery. I could not bring myself to anger with him.
“If I kennel her, she’ll die.” He spoke flat and dry. “It’s nothing more than that. Some must live outside the rules, Master Huntsman.”
She knocked her tail against the floor, and I touched my hand to her head. “It was a fine run,” I said.
“Aye.” He looked up, his eyes crinkled tight with smile. “There’s none like her.”
“There’s none,” I agreed.
I’d been to the castle often. Just not like this, my hand on Tiberon’s arm, my bare face lit by the rosy light of lanterns, dressed in my mother’s flawless handiwork. Every tiny stitch, every angle, every seam of my dress designed to the mirror the flow of my form. It suited me like rainwater suited stone, the fabric betraying the body beneath. I shivered, and Tib patted my hand.
Blue and gold banners hung the stone walls of the great hall, honoring king and sun. The guests milled about, the table not yet fully set. Tiburon stepped from me to collect a drink, leaving me adrift amid men I’d known for years, men who’d bared themselves before me without a thought, who’d asked, with words or sheepish glances, that I keep secret their falls and inept arrows and indiscretions. In the woods they honored my judgment like children. Here, I existed to them as a posy pinned to Tiburon, sweet to look upon, but nothing more.
Perhaps that was not fully true. Bayne came forward early. He was a careless rider, unbalanced as a poorly-made stool and quick to whip his horses for his own failings. A man who mistreated his horse or hound was a man I did not trust, and yet I had no cause to either cut him down with my tongue nor back from him when he took my hand between his and smiled.
“I’d not heard Tiburon had found himself a woman at last. Now I can see he was wise to wait.” His words dripped from his mouth like pig fat to the fire below. “Tell me your name, my dear.”
“Genevieve,” I said. A weak place, this world of women, requiring weapons I did not have.
He eyed the break of my collarbones above the neck of my gown. His breath smelled of mead as he leaned in to speak more softly. “Your father’s name, my dear. What is that?”
“I am a child of the Moon, sir.”
A flicker of tongue at his lips, a more lingering glance below my face, the bitterness of my words a tonic to him. The beat of blood within my veins rose; my fingers curled round an absent dagger.
“And from where did Tiburon pluck you? Might I find another such rose were I to return there?”
My arm caught at my side, Tiburon’s hand fast round my wrist. “Genevieve comes from a convent of Daughters of the Moon. It is an upbringing that has left her naïve of the world, I’m afraid, but she is true and that is enough for me.”
Bayne mumbled some words of congratulations and took his leave. I pulled my arm free of Tib. He bent his head close to mine. “Gen, your honor is mine here. You must leave it to me to defend it. All that remains for you is to be lovely.”
Lovely. It was not a word I’d ever applied to myself. Until that afternoon, I’d not seen my own face in years, save for moments of reflection in rippling water, fearing someone might catch me without my hood. Tiburon had provided me a girl from his kitchen as a maid. Stout and stern, her blunt efficiency had soothed me as she hooked the delicate bone clasps of my dress, tucked the ragged ends of my hair into a cover of fine netting carefully seeded with minute pearls.
“It’s a shame what they do to your pretty hair,” she said. “Just a shame. Doesn’t make you any less a believer to keep your hair, least that’s what I think.”
She’d led me to a looking glass after placing a silver circlet on my head. I did not know the face that looked at me. A woman, not the girl I’d been when I came to the King’s service, not the man I was every day. She stared back, her dark eyes so like my mother’s, a question on her lips.
Dinner placed me between Tiburon and his brother. The King was dressed for ceremony, not work, his sleeves stiff with fine gold thread, his beard trimmed and the tip waxed to a fine point. He smelled the same though, a blend of wood smoke and wealth and earthy maleness, and when he turned to speak to me, his eyes shone just as blue.
“So my brother has found himself a woman of faith,” he said. He raised his glass to his lips, watching me over the brim. His bride-to-be sat to his other side, her attention given to the earnest conversation of Lady Bayne.
“Sometimes faith is mere expediency, my lord. I was landless, left with no one to raise me. Daughters of the Moon provided me more than I might have achieved alone.”
He swallowed his mead, touched a napkin to his lips. “Ah, a pragmatist. That sounds more to Tiburon’s taste. Still, had I known they’d taken to keeping such beauties, I might have looked there first for my own bride.”
His gaze stayed on me, waiting, searching for something. For a moment I wondered if he could see the truth, if what held him there was the memory of the time I’d bound his hand for him, our heads bent close together, his thigh against my knee, my chest full of desire.
“Where is your Huntsman, my Lord?” Bayne’s voice carried across the table like a cockerel’s cry.
The King turned slowly from me. “Genner is away at the moment,” he said, returning his napkin to his lap.
“Away? Where could he possibly have to go?”
“I’ve no idea. Howling at the moon, I expect. I do not delve into his pagan ways.” The King cut his meat with the same care that he’d choose an arrow from the quiver.
“No man can be as pious as he pretends. He’s more likely out whoring.” Bayne, on the other hand, could scarcely control his knife, dripping juice from the tip across the white tablecloth.
“There are ladies present,” said the King. The hair on the back of my neck stiffened at his tone. “And Genner is a damn fine huntsman. He provides all I ask of him. I’ve no reason to demand more. Frankly, if it’s women he seeks, there are plenty who’d welcome his attention.”
“Yes, yes,” Bayne continued unabated. “But a man should serve his master just as a woman serve her man. Were he mine, I’d have him whipped for disrespect.”
“Would you, Lord Bayne?” I could feel the gazes shift to me, the hush traveling the length of the table like a wave. “I would imagine a huntsman such as the King describes would treat not even his hounds that way. I would think a man who resorted to such might be a man unable to inspire devotion without fear.”
Bayne’s face turned the color of the dripping roast before him. His lady moved not at all, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her eyes vacant. Were I to strip the silks from her skin, what scars might I find beneath them?
“Genevieve fancies herself knowledgeable about a great many things.” Tiburon’s voice carried the joke, encouraged the men to shake their heads in camaraderie. “I find it most enjoyable to merely watch her face, not listen closely to her screeds.” He patted my hand. I withdrew mine from him, took my water glass and drank deeply as the talk rose and swirled about me.
But as I waited there, longing for the darkness of my hood, one more touch reached me. Beneath the table, his face never turning my way, the King placed his hand warm and heavy on my thigh.
After dinner, the men and women retreated to separate rooms. I knew well what would take place once the men gathered behind closed doors. In no time there would be the acrid scent of typhum in the air, smoked in short stone pipes, and rude laughter as the tales turned to conquest of beast and maid.
The women enjoyed no such thing. They collected around small tables in groups of four as servants hurried silently through with bottles of clear herbed spirits and tiny crystal cups. Each table held a wooden box filled with dried and polished bones, none longer than a finger. The women unpacked them and dealt them out, twittering gossip as they went. I’d no use for playing houses, so I watched for a bit as they took turns building fragile structures, shrieking when a careless placement brought the bones clattering onto the table.
I’d not watched long when a servant tapped my elbow. “This way, please,” he said. I followed him into the hall.
It was not Tiburon waiting for me. The King, his breath tinged with smoke, took my arm and led me along the corridor.
I knew well the room to which he took me. Against one wall sat a long low settee, dotted with plump cushions and draped with a coverlet made of the furs of a great many alope. On the far wall hung a painting of the King as he was when we first met, beardless, ungrayed, his hand on a brindle hound’s head. Beneath the painting, draped across a low bookcase, lay the hide of the quilth cub we’d killed in the fall. I turned toward it, thinking of the skill of the tanner who’d worked on it.
“I enjoyed our conversation, brief as it was,” he said. He came closer. I knew it not through his footfalls, but through the tide that pulled in me whenever he neared. He knew. He had to. How could he not, how could we be as close as we were without him recognizing who I was, veil or no.
“Genevieve, I understand,” he said. The touch of his hand on my shoulder turned me to him. So close, as close as when we’d knelt beside the dead quilth together and marveled at its razor-edged claws. His hand rose to my cheek, his knuckles brushing along the smooth skin there.
“I know my brother better than you. I think you are not worldly enough to understand him. He’ll not be able to give you what you desire. He’ll not enjoy you the way you should be enjoyed.”
This place, I’d been here before. I tried to think of my cottage, of Tiburon’s hands on me, but it was not Tib before me, it was not his lips on mine. The taste of typhum was as strong as if I’d smoked it myself. I moved, felt his hand on my lower back, pressing me to him like a reed surrendering to the wind. His scarred hand on my hip, my waist, slipping up to my breast.
“We are twins, Genevieve.” It took me a moment, longer, to understand he did not speak of the two of us. “Tiburon’s heir or mine, it will make no difference to either of us. It is the nature of brothers to share. He’ll not care and no one else shall know.”
A flash, my mother’s nimble fingers at work on honey-gold homespun, her fine stitches lost in the coarse material. A farmer’s wife watching her, asking why she did not leave for the coast, someplace where her skill might be used for more than funeral shrouds and bridal quilts. My mother, laughing, saying, “Oh, you know how love makes other things seem unimportant.” Her eyes, though, they filled with vinegary regret.
One of the King’s hands rested inside the bodice of my dress, the other held a handful of silk above my knee. The look in his face was not recognition. I’d been a fool to ever think it so.
I stepped back. “My lord, this is not seemly.”
“It is not a question of seemly or no.” He spoke to the skin of my throat.
“No, my lord, there are some things about my education I am not willing to forget.” I pulled my skirt and the material fell free of his hand.
“You’ll find little satisfaction with my brother,” he said, gone cold.
“No, I see that now. I think perhaps I was more meant for my former life than this one.”
He raised his hand, but merely twirled the tip of his beard to a sharper point as he stared at me. “Petty morality will waste you,” he said. I said nothing, simply stood there until he left.
I stayed on, for minutes, hours, I do not know, my hand buried in the fur of the quilth’s cold hide.
Tiburon took my refusal with anger. I expected no more, but had hoped nonetheless. “You’ve not many years left you,” he stormed. “I would have given you a life of comfort, more than that, you could have had my brother. It’s more than you’ll have any other way.”
“It would cost me the hunt.” It was all I could say, and I did not expect him to understand. Denial was his nature. How could he understand anything else?
After, I returned to my cottage. The unopened bottles of mead on the shelf tempted me. But mead was naught but a shallow well. What I sought required unknowable depths.
I went to the kennels when I knew Jonas would not be there. The blue-glazed bottle sat on the shelf, surrounded by tinctures for worms and salves for open sores. I poured some into a cup; not much, a dram or a little more. Then I retired to my cottage, barred the door, and took my cure.
For the first taste I used a spoon. I swirled it in the cup until the liquid, resin-thick, coated the tip. I lapped it from the metal, eagerly, like a babe at breast. It left streaks of strangeness along my tongue, threatened to turn my stomach until it hit the bread I’d swallowed first. My muscles went limp, my limbs jellied, and my mind soared free.
For three days I swam deep amid dreams of beasts and men, of the King’s body against mine as we withstood the quilth, as we faced one another with only the water of silk and legging between us. When I surfaced I would drip the sweetness onto my tongue and sink down again.
I woke finally to an empty cup and a terrible thirst in the dark of the night. The floor was cold beneath my feet, my empty stomach twisting until I coughed up foam and spat it into a wash basin. The cool air smelled clean when I opened the door, and I went out into it free of my hood.
The water ran cold from the spring. It tasted of nothing, of night, I suppose, of iron, and my own dirty hands. My innards resisted it at first, but I drank it anyway, drank my fill and then some. I sat back on the ground, lay back and stared up into the sky. I’d slept my way through the banishment of the moon and she was on the rise, a fine silver crescent high in the sky. Stars dappled the night around her. Still unclear of mind, I believed they fell around me, burning streaks of light as the world spun forward through them.
It was not the stars that spoke to me in the dark though. Far past the realm of thought and voice, something else waited for me. A jolt, the fear prey feels when the predator nears, the thrill that runs through the predator’s bones like lightening returning from ground to sky. In a forest overrun with a thousand beating hearts, just one sounded in time with mine.
I drew a deep breath, as if I might catch the scent of her on the breeze. Only the scent of moon lilies there, sweet and toothless.
A royal right, its violation punishable by the executioner’s axe. But must one live by the rules of the sun if one is a creature of the moon? Or what if one belongs to neither, living instead among those animals who shun both night and day for the slivers of time between the two? Whose right rules those creatures, I ask you?
I packed light the next morning. The land was generous this time of year, and my own needs few. I would bring the slip behind the mare to carry the great spear, and that would be trouble enough. A single spear, for I’d have only one chance to place it right.
Before saddling my mare, I went looking for Jonas. He was not in the kennels, nor was he working in the garden outside of his cottage. His cottage was larger than mine, the one his family had lived in since his great-grandfather’s time, its walls covered in vines given to dangling blue bells which swayed with the movement of the bees inside. I went to the door, knocked, listened to the scuff of chair legs drawn across a stone floor.
It was not Jonas who opened the door. The woman before me shared his sea-foam eyes, but wore her russet hair in a plait running long down her back. There was a blue smudge on her nose, her fingertips stained blue as well.
“You’ve caught me a mess,” she said. I’d never seen his sister’s face anything but solemn, save in the moments I’d witnessed from a distance, as she worked among her herb beds with her children and shared their laughter there. “You’ll be looking for Jonas. I’m afraid he’s away.”
She brushed a few loose hairs back from her face with the back of her wrist, wrinkled her nose as she looked up at the sky. “He’s gone to collect a gift of hounds given the King in honor of his coming wedding.”
I could smell the virilium on her—sweet, fruity, a woman’s herb. A woman’s smell. It freshened the stale sweat of my hood. “Will you tell him I’ll be away. No more than a few days, I expect. I’ll be taking the ashen bitch, tell him.”
“Aye.” She raised her arm again, this time held it against her forehead. “Are you not well, Master Huntsman?”
My mother had used virilium when I was a child. She’d kept a plant of it by the back door, and had broken off twigs to chew when her monthly pains plagued her. I could remember the way it had tinted her teeth blue, her gums gone pale as a drowned man’s. No tincture for her, no fine stoppered bottle.
“I am fine, Mistress Healer. It’s a small matter I must attend to, nothing more.”
“Be well,” she said.
“You as well.”
She didn’t move as I left, for I didn’t hear the door close until I had passed the corner of the kennels. There was something in the way she’d stood, in the arch of her eyebrows, that suggested she’d something more to say.
Or perhaps it was I who longed to speak. My mare snorted at me as I combed her forelock smooth, but once I had finished she rested her head against mine. “Deep down,” I whispered to her. “Deep down, beneath all the testing and the stubbornness and the foolishness…beneath it all you have no love for me, do you?”
She nipped idly at my neck, her nostrils flared, and I pushed her away. Twice she shied as I hitched the slip, once catching my fingers between the wooden spar and the leather. I cursed her and held the bloody nail in my mouth. When I finally mounted though, she was quiet and steady, and I loosed the reins as we rode out through the meadow, my thoughts blessedly free of anything but the motion of her stride and the sun on my back and the freedom of pleasing no one but myself.
I rode for three days to reach the farm my brother had mentioned. The first night I camped in a field, falling dead asleep the moment I lay down. The second night I spent beneath the canopy of a vast spindrift tree, her leaves whirling in the soft breeze. I hobbled the mare and kept the spear close at hand. With the hound by my side and no water in sight, I did not believe the quilth likely to surprise me, but I could not fully relax.
I did not make a fire that night. I fed the hound pieces of dried meat I’d taken from the satchel Jonas kept for extended trips. Myself, I ate only the root of a banebranch bush that I dug from along the edge of the wood. I peeled the gnarled outside away with my skinning blade, the pale flesh beneath dotted with purple sap. I could not take much of it, my innards still too roiled and shrunken to accept hardy sustenance. There, my back to the tree, watching the mare flick her tail lazily, the hound lying against my knee, the crisp, tart flavor of the root tasted sweet as honey.
The sweetness did not last though. By the time the dark had drawn thick and full around us, my mouth tasted of a thousand nights of drink and a bitter drought of regrets.
The following day, I reached the outskirts of the farm. I didn’t stop in to talk to the farmer, merely left the hound and mare in a field outside of his careful stone walls and followed the boundaries toward where a line of trees marked the river.
Pride and comfort suggested I travel light, but only a fool would have left the spear behind. It was not a weapon designed to be carried for long. Balanced to sit between arm and hip, made of weighty asherwood, it exceeded my length by an unpleasant distance. The well-turned guard, sole protection against a beast running the length of the spear and reaching the bearer, made a painful arc against my body.
For a long time I searched the ground in vain. There were many cattle paths down to the banks of the river, the ground churned and dried hard as brick in places. The jangle of bells drifted out from the farm, the sound of the herd as they gazed and switched their tails at the flies. Inside my hood, the sweat trickled down my neck, the clean scent of banebranch root strong with every breath.
In the muddy end of the furthest trail, I finally found what I sought. A single print, twice the span of my hand, a single scale large as the nail of my thumb pressed into the edge. A chill tickled the back of my neck as I watched the light speckling the stones beneath the water of the river’s edge. For a moment I could feel the weight of the yearling quilth as he struggled on the spear, the solid bulk of the King’s body curved behind mine.
“This is days old,” I said to no one, touching my hand to the track. “Days old and no attacks in a half moon’s time. She’s moved on.”
I slept that night beneath a waking moon, her body tipped to fill with the dreams she would spill once she’d grown birthing swollen. The rustle of the grass was joined with the yips of a litter of racule somewhere nearby, and the booming calls of a nightmare bird high overhead. Despite it all, I slept deep and quiet.
We traveled downstream together, the mare, the hound and I. Watching for further trace of the great beast made for slow going; I stayed on foot for much of the distance, so as not to miss a sign. The river twisted in great undulations, such that to stay along her banks meant journeying four times the distance I might have were I to walk a straight line. Unlike the wooded stretches by the castle proper, here the land stretched clean and open, no break from the sun anywhere. The sweat ripened my hood into foulness; I would have shed it gladly, were it not for the trappings of huntsman that identified me.
Toward the end of the day, I found further evidence of her. The head of a great stag in the mud at the water’s edge, torn clean from the neck and deserted. Drag marks remained where she’d brought the body into the water, along with the lines where her claws had rent the soil.
The head was old, fresher than the prints at the farm, but the eyes were gone and maggots thick in the scant meat of the rest. At the next curve in the river I found the remains of the body, the ribs protruding up from the grasp of a deadfall, an emerald waterlizard gnawing on one bone. Little remained of the flesh, and half the ribs were stove in. I spread my hand reflexively, thinking of the print at the farm.
She’d left no other signs behind for me to find. I counted out two hundred careful paces from the water’s edge and threw my blanket down. My trust was in the hound, in her nose and her courageous voice.
Twice during the night she roused. Both times I leapt up, spear battened to my side. The first time I glimpsed a band of alope, their heads barely above the tips of the grass, bounding away. The second time I saw and heard nothing. A damp heavy mist had moved across the field, and the hound pressed close to me, her muzzle beneath my bent elbow. A tremor shook her sides, though for chill or fear I could not tell.
I drew slow careful breaths, my ears strained against the hush, until the scream of a nightmare bird jarred my heart into wildness. Even then I held tight to the spear, waiting, waiting. Footsteps, the slow thud of feet in the soft grass, and the breath of my mare as she lowered her head to us.
“It’s a sad day when you’re the steadiest head of the lot of us,” I said to her. She nickered in response, pulling at my hair with her blunt teeth.
Sleep did not return after. I lay back down, the hound stretched out beside me, and traced the pucker of scar along her side. “You smell of dog,” I said, and she wagged her tail in return. Her smell was only of dog to me, but I must have smelled of so many things to her. The potent sweat startled from me; sleep; woman, for there was not a hound in the kennels who did not know the truth that ran from my pores and bled from me monthly; lies, surely my lies must carry their own scent, surely she understood and forgave me them.
I scratched at her lean belly, my fingers tripping over the tight small nubs of her unused teats. She sighed, pulling one foreleg up to give me better access. “You don’t care, do you? You’d run for me all day, run and risk damage and be happy to simply lay beside me at night. It is a fine life you lead.”
One more pat of the tail and her breathing settled slow and regular. The mist thickened and moon vanished and I lay there listening and waiting. It was not sleep I found, but the dreams of flesh, of the weight of the quilth on the spear, the weight of the King on my back, my body crushed between the two.
The morning rose dark the next day, the clouds packed in sullen and gray. A low hot wind laid the grasses down, and the mare tugged restless at the end of her tether. Even the hound was uncertain, her ears and tail carried low. Had I fur, it would have bristled with the spark of my ill temper, my teeth bared for good measure. The spear chafed at my side as I carried it, and my hood felt as though it had grown too small, too tight, too impossible to bear another minute.
By midday we reached the edge of the King’s wood. I’d seen no further sign of the quilth, but as the river passed into the wood, it grew straighter and swifter, and the ground harder along its banks. The chance of finding trace of her grew slimmer; the danger of her finding us greater. I loosed the hound from her tether and gave her command to track, offering her the scale I’d collected from the mud.
The mare…I’d not decided what to do with her. In the back of my mind lurked thought of the easiest way to catch a quilth. A bound animal, cattle or horse, hunters lying in wait. Simpler, less dangerous, especially with a beast as large as the one I followed. I need not be honest. I could tell myself that I would stay close enough to halt the beast before she took the mare.
But that lie became me no more than the hood round my head. I brushed the mane back from the mare’s dappled neck, drew a deep breath of her comforting smell, and undid the girth from her belly, the bridle from her head.
“Go home, pretty girl,” I said. “Go home and wait for me. I’ll be along soon enough.”
She shook her head, her forelock falling across her eyes. I raised one hand, swinging the bridle, and she turned and trotted away, in no rush to be anywhere. Her tack I covered with a skin and left leaned up against a tree.
The hound traveled in a zigzag trail back and forth along the water’s edge. The bed of the river had changed to stone and sand, the pattern of light and shadow reflecting on it much the same as it did the scale in my hand. Here and there the river cut a deeper path through the earth, and my shoulders tightened as I followed along the drop of the edges. My thoughts cut a deeper channel as well, full of the limitations of wood and the spears made of it, of the strength of a quilth’s body and the power of its attack.
The hound stiffened, her nose to the sky. Nothing, the ripple of the water, the stillness of the air, a faint smell of musk and laurentian flower. She held steady for a moment longer, then relaxed, continued on, back and forth, the weaving trail of a drunk.
It happened again after we’d gone long enough for me to question my judgment twice more. The questioning did not hold long, for in my blood stirred a potent flame. I tore the hood from my head and breathed in scent as if I were the hound, my ears tuned to every rustle. When she paused I did as well, raising my own head, though I could smell nothing but the green of the wood and the metallic bite of coming rain.
And nothing again, except the wind beginning to pick up among the tops of the trees. I watched the water on the stones, the flashes of the fish swimming in the currents there, no longer conscious of the weight of the spear or the heat of my clothes.
The sound of the river grew louder. We were coming to where a stream joined in on the far side. The bank changed to ledge there, the rock carved by the water into a damp plateau. The trees were swaying now, the first of the rain beginning to fall. The patter of it distracted me, for a moment, maybe two, my concentration turned to the touch if it on my skin. A moment of distraction gone as the hound raised herself into a great bay, as if sounding for all the hounds that had ever chased prey.
I was calling her back as I dropped to my knee, the head of the beast rising over the bank with the speed of water breaching a dam. I yelled again, no words this time, as the beast met the spear, the tip finding purchase through the heavy scales of her chest. She drove forward until she hit the guard; I flew back, weightless, until I twisted and lodged the end of the spear against a tree.
We faced one another, me with my back to the rough bark, she close and malevolent. Her mouth was open, the long curved teeth to either side of her jaw yellow with age, one broken halfway down. Her eyes were silver, the pupils narrowed to flat slits of rage. She spat at me, her breath foul, and put one massive foot forward. Five claws dug into the ground as she pushed against the guard. The spear bowed beneath my arm.
A prayer escaped my lips, to the rain or the tree, or perhaps the quilth herself. The dark blood running along her teeth named her wound as mortal. The give of the spear beneath my arm warned me I’d likely join her. I’d always believed the choice a simple one, but now, death pressing toward me, I craved life with a hunger beyond all reason.
I pulled my feet close, away from her, and watched as she dragged her other foot forward. The claws flexed as they dug into the ground, and she hissed as she leaned forward. The wood arced further under my arm. Blood ran down her chin and over her shimmering scales.
Another push, her chest straining against the guard. The rain broke from the sky, the water filling the air, running down my face, turning her body shadowy as a ghost. The shaft of the spear slipped against the trunk, then lodged again. She pressed forward.
The hound was gone. I told myself she’d escaped, that she’d been clear and away of the bank. The quilth dug her claws in again, her breath labored, and a sharp pain tore into the underside of my arm as the spear began to splinter.
I let go with one hand, scrabbled at my belt for my dagger. The blood was a river down her chest, but her tail twitched like that of a cat preparing to pounce. Another hiss, my face covered in fine red spray, and she jumped.
The wood gave with a great crack, the broken ends driving up into my arm as I raised my dagger. It entered her neck as her teeth closed round my shoulder. I let go of the dagger and she shook me, my legs striking the tree with every motion. A moment of such pain, our bodies wrapped round one another, our blood one and the same. Then she dropped to her knees, one last feeble shake, and down she went with me beneath her.
There is a bird I love. It’s a plain creature, small enough to sit in the palm of my hand and drab as the brown clay that lay thick round my mother’s home. Its song though…it is the sound of the water rippling through shallows, of the scent of virilium in bloom. Its song was the first thing I heard outside the window on the morning I opened my eyes and knew I would live.
Two young boys watched me gravely, their hair in ringlets round their heads. “Best tell mama,” one said to the other, and they ran from the bedside together. I lay still. The bed was unfamiliar, as were the walls and the windows, the smell of the sheets. I tried to push myself upright with my hands, but one arm would not work, and both gave great pain.
“I’d not try. Not yet. Let me help you up.” Jonas’s sister came to me. With one hand behind my back, she shifted me and plumped the pillows to hold me up. I lifted my working arm, wincing at the pain, and touched the bandages over my shoulder.
“It will recover.” She sat on the side of the bed and touched her wrist to my forehead. “You’ve had no infection, praise the moon.”
Praise the moon. The woman’s goddess, patron of fatherless children, of birth and blood. “Does everyone know then?”
She said nothing at first, just drew breath and watched the shadow of a cloud darken the light from the window. “The Huntsman is dead,” she said at last. “He died protecting a woman from a great quilth. It was honorable, for such is important to men.”
“So I am woman now.”
“As you always have been, Master Huntsman.” She smiled, sweet as virillium blooms.
“You knew,” I said.
She laughed, gently, as if the sound might break me. “One only need the ability to read hounds, Master Huntsman. And I know of no man’s religion which honors the moon quite as strictly as yours does. Men travel in linear paths, not the circular ones you take.”
“Jonas as well then?”
“Jonas as well. The others did not see because it served them not to. Few men choose to believe a woman could best them.”
She undid the tie of my shift, lifted the bandage from my shoulder. I could see little of it, but what I could was sewn by a hand pretty as a girl’s.
She sighed. “I do not know what strength will remain. It may be that quilth hunting will no longer be in your future.” Covering it again, she pulled the sheet up as well. “I believe it’s come time for you to make a choice as to who you are.”
I nodded, my eyelids heavy, and sank back into sleep.
Nothing else can be mistaken for the smell of the ocean. It smells of tears, of goodbyes, of freedom. Jonas accompanied me to the seaport Dormian. I wore his sister’s clothes, taken in and let out in half a dozen places.
“It is a small place you’re going, and it will take a long voyage,” she’d said, two pins held in her mouth. “I’ve not been since I was just past being a girl. Their ways are much different. They worship not the moon and sun, but the goddess of the hunt and her consort, the god of the plow. Your skill will not be at odds with your womanhood.”
“Why did you come back?” I asked.
She paused, her fingers collecting a pleat at my waist. “I can be myself anywhere. Men who found comfort in a breast as a babe find little threat in a woman when they are ill.” She placed a pin, smoothed the fabric. “I could have stayed. But it is hard to raise one’s children far from the places you ran as a child.”
“Children do not interest me,” I said.
“I see that.” She smiled. “You have hidden yourself enough, Master Huntsman. It is time to be who you are, all of it.”
Tiburon bought me my freedom. I’d considered going to my father and pleading my case, threatening if necessary, but Tiburon brought me a bag of gold and bottle of mead and bade me safe journey. I took the coin and left the mead behind. Pain I’d not expected came when I kissed him goodbye. “You’ll not come?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “I’ll take my chances with the next huntsman,” he said, and I cursed him and laughed as he rode away.
My mare I promised to Jonas’s sister, after she’d carried me to Dormian. She’d make a fine mount for the children. The hound was harder to part with, and in the end I could not. She’d carried my life on her swift legs, bolting for home as the quilth bore down on me, and leading Jonas back to the river. The night before we left I washed the ash from her coat, and gold shone forth from the brindle when we rode out together.
It took six days to reach the coast. I had more than enough to afford us nights in inns along the way, but I could not bear the thought of rooms and doors when the night sky lay overhead. Jonas understood, or gave good counterfeit, and at night we lay beneath a full dreaming moon and talked of many things. It was as if we were two springs, finally broken free to run, burbling out the secrets we’d learned far beneath the earth.
On the last night we neither ate nor made a fire, simply sat and watched the moon as she swelled up from the horizon and rose high above. “We could have been friends all these years,” I said.
I could smell the ocean on the wind now. It pulled at me. It pulled at Jonas too, I could see it in his face, but the pull was not the same. For him the world would remain the kennels and the cottage with the bluebells nodding at the windows.
“I’ve one last thing to ask of you,” I said. I could feel myself blush like a nervous girl, a blush my hood would have hidden.
He said nothing, just watched my face. I leaned close to him. His skin gave off warmth, and his cheek prickled with the stubble that grew there. There was surprise in the breath that rushed from him, and at first his lips did not respond, as if afraid, as if testing. Then, with a sigh, he moved closer too. He lifted his hand to my ragged hair and I wrapped mine round his immobile one, and we lay in the sea of grass together.
I’d never seen the ocean. I’d never even imagined it, just as I’d never imagined trading the fields and forests I knew for a chance to live in my own skin. A bitter trade, at least it tasted so that morning, as I looked at the great rigging of the ship before me, the bustle of the sailors tending her deck.
But there was sweetness in the way my heart beat keen and eager to go even as the pull of memory slowed my feet. I could not stay, not anymore.
I took the tether of the hound from Jonas when it was time to board the ship. I leaned in close and kissed him once, and he stroked the hair back from my forehead. Then I brought the hound to heel and we traveled up the walkway and onto the shifting deck. I continued forward, all the way to the prow of the boat, and stood there as the men below pulled at the oars to move us away from the shore. For a time I could see my face in the ripples below, the glitter of the water like scales on my skin. But before long the sails were opened with a snap of canvas and the wind filled them and the rush of waves erased my face, leaving only the depth of the ocean below.
Copyright 2012 Jennifer Mason-Black
About the Author
Jennifer Mason-Black lives in the woods of Massachusetts, surrounded by her human family and a menagerie of elderly animals. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and The Sun, among others. Additional information about her work can be found at cosmicdriftwood.wordpress.com.