The Grim Hunt – Two

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Song Suggestion: Fable by Nox Arcana

XXX

Two

It was a fair morning when Alyria Downs had challenged Tomas Blacksmithe to sleep in the town square, chilled by a breeze blowing down from the north, but that was not what gave Tomas goose flesh every time he thought of what he’d agreed to. It was no dare to be sneered at; it was the final night of the Grim Moon, a time when being outside after the sun had set was sure to bring evil things, even if you were just a boy who had never done anyone any real harm. On this night, among other, unknowable things, the Grim Hunt would stalk the darkness, looking for any that were foolish enough to be out, instead of home, safely behind bolted doors and shuttered windows. His youth would not save him; the Fair Folk and those who served them did not cater to anyone unless it was their idea first and they pitied none. The Hunt was said to be the wandering spirits of wicked men, but they answered to the Pale Lady, she who was the queen of the Fair Folk.

The Grim Moon was usually one of Tomas’ favorite times of year – there were cakes and candies to be had, the air smelled of sugar and honey, which meant spring and summer were on the way, and Sira’s Companion stalked the streets with her Grim Hound and Scythe, sending the children laughing and screaming before her. There was a delicious sense of standing near to the dark and unknowable, which had always fascinated Tomas. Now, though, he found his excitement dampened; he found himself regretting the challenge he’d accepted and it was difficult to enjoy the day knowing what the night would bring.

The winter air was warming and those that were able went out to sow the fields. Everyone else gathered at the inn to tell tales of Sira, goddess of death, and the Wicked Wood. Those who had somehow managed to catch sight of the Grim Hunt and lived told their tales again and again, though Tomas thought it unlikely that half of what they said was true; to see the hunt up close and longer than a second usually meant you would not come back. Still, he thrilled to hear Gregory Derry, one of Nico’s brothers, talk of the time he got caught out, while searching for a lost sheep, and had to outrun the hunt by jumping into a river and letting it sweep him off, faster than their horses could run. Everyone knew Gregory was a liar, but no-one called him out; it was far too good a tale to ruin with truth. Other young men took their turns, each one swearing upon all that was holy that it was true while their eyes said clearly they were, at best, telling half truth.

Then, Silas Bucknil, the miller, took his turn when he was talked upon, and there were none who questioned him, even in their own head; his tale was known for being true and, whenever he spoke of the night he’d seen the hunt, he would shake so that the barman would bring him a free pint of ale to calm his nerves.

It was Silas who struck Tomas hardest that day. Always before it had only been an adventure, nothing more, something that an old man remembered about a night when he should not have been out at all. But now it took on the weight of truth and made him a terrible promise for the coming night.

Silas had, many, many years before, been the town drunk and it had often gotten him in trouble; he’d drink himself into a stupor for days only to wake and realize he had not ground the corn a farmer had brought him and that it was molding in the bins, for the mill house was always damp from the river resting close against the eastern wall, which turned the wheel that ground the grain. Silas was tolerated, barely, in those days, but there were many that would have their corn hauled to the next village, twenty miles away, to avoid him; when he was drunk, he had a vicious temper.

One day, forgetting that the last new moon of winter was set to rise, Silas drank himself black drunk, a name Tomas had given that sort of drinking; his father had become what Silas once had been. Drinking too much always put Harold Blacksmithe in a stormy, violent mood that would become a black hole in his memory once he was sober. That day, Silas had met with a farmer who was furious to find the last of the corn from the previous harvest, delivered to Silas for milling a week before, had been sitting and was in danger of spoiling from the damp. They had fought, Silas had hit the man, and the farmer had left after promising to speak with the lord in town about Silas. 

The miller had gone into a rampage, tipping so much grain into the hopper that it was beginning to spill out on the floor. The wheel could barely turn, for the river had not yet seen the snowmelt from up north. He’d sat down, exhausted and realizing that he was done for; the lord had already warned him three times against wasting grain, for the village was a communal and what one man lost, they all lost. Lord Downs – Alyria’s grandfather – had always been fair enough, giving everyone more than their fair share of chances, but when he did come down on someone, he had no mercy. Silas, still then a very young man, took the bleak prospect of being run out of town the same way he dealt with all bad news – and good – since he had lost his wife and infant daughter to fever. He began to drink again. Thus he passed out and did not wake until well after dark.

At first, he had not known what it was that had woken him; ordinarily, he’d have remained passed out until long after sunrise. Then he heard the baying of the hounds. He did not, for one minute, think that they were ordinary hounds; even if their howls had not set his hair to standing on end, there were none that would have their beasts out hunting in the dark, for even the best wolfhound could not track a pack of cave wolves safely in the night. He remembered, too late, that he had seen Sira’s Companion, a lovely, fresh faced girl, chosen the day before. It was the spectral hounds of the Grim Hunt he heard. And they were headed for the millhouse.

None know why an ordinary door will stop the Hunt; they are no longer of this world, so are not bound by its rules. It is only known that, if you are in your home with the door latched and the windows closed up with shutters, you are safe. But barns, sheds, or millhouses are not proper houses. They have no shutters and there is no bolt upon the door. Silas’ house was across a span of wide barnyard and the miller was certain that he could not run fast enough to get there; he could hear the horses, now, their hooves rolling like thunder and, beneath that, the clatter of armor and weaponry. Rising high and clear, the call of a hunting horn came.

The millhouse had a high loft, which had held the hopper before Silas’ father had built the more accessible scaffolding and steps below. It was reachable only by a ladder that was falling to pieces. It had been a long time since Silas had climbed up there, though it had been his favorite place as a lad. Now, scared sober by the approach of the hunt, the horn still singing out, he clambered up that ladder so swiftly that, even as rungs came loose beneath him, he was already on the next one, as near to climbing thin air as a man can get.

When Silas reached the dusty height of the loft, three times that of a tall man, he yanked the ladder up after him and that pretty much did the final job of destroying it entirely, but better to be trapped in the loft than face The Grim Hunt on the ground, thought he. The miller was not a moment too soon; he heard the hounds clawing at the door to the millhouse and it was flung open hard enough that it shook the whole building. In came the Huntsmen, clad in dark, stinking fur cloaks and heavy, black armor that ground and clanged as they moved. They carried spears and bows and swords. The tallest among them wore what looked like a spiked crown, as if he had once been a king.

Silas would not speak of what their faces looked like. Perhaps he did not know. But Tomas would watch his eyes as he told the tale and he thought the old miller had seen something, sure enough; he was so haunted by it that it had left a shadow on his face that remained there still. Of all those who spoke of The Grim Hunt, Silas alone used plain words and did not try to make poetry out of what he had seen. Tomas thought Silas told his tale because that was the only way to remind himself that he had survived and did not ride with the Hunt eternally of seeking peace, for, while he spoke, he seemed calmer and less likely to jump, screaming, at the first loud sound.

The Grim Hunt might have had strange powers, Silas did not know or wish to guess, but they apparently could not climb up to him without the ladder. But they could talk. In their hissing, dry voices, which did not speak any tongue Silas had ever known, they spoke to him. And whatever it was they said, it seemed to pluck nightmares from the very air to fill Silas’ mind with their horrors. All that had gone wrong in his life came to him that night, as if he were living it again. All the wrongs he had ever done to others – for his violent nature when drinking had caused much harm – he saw again. Silas thought he would go mad with it. Certainly, he did not get away unharmed, for now he slept but a few hours a night and, during the Grim Moon, he did not sleep at all.

When morning finally came, the Hunt had gone, but Silas was forever changed. Lord Downs had found him perched in the loft later that day and brought a ladder to get him down. The mill had ground the grain during his long night and the meal was still good enough to use, so the lord did not turn Silas out, only gave him another warning and a promise that there would be no pardon next time. Many thought that, in seeing the man, Lord Downs realized that he had been changed by what he had seen.

Only Lord Downs ever heard all that Silas had suffered that night. For a long time, he was the only one who knew what had happened at all, for he was not a man for telling tales that belonged to others. Silas stopped drinking at once and he would often tell the crowd of loyal listeners at the end of his tale that not drinking might have been hard for another, but that the thought of the Hunt always came with the taste of ale, that memory of them standing on the ground while the mill wheels turned, sounding for all the world as if they were grinding bones, would so swallow him, that the taste became bitter and ignited his terror once more. Now he drank only the one pint, once a year, for it was during that time that he could think of nothing else but the Grim Hunt.

In the first days after he was brought down from the loft, Silas had stayed locked in his house. Every night, the Grim Hunt had come and called to him from outside his bolted door, but they could not get to him. When it was over, Silas had installed a bolt upon the millhouse door, shutters on its few windows, and had the priest come to bless it as he would a house. Never again, no matter what, Silas would not be caught out.

“Have you ever seen the hunt again?” Tomas asked the miller when he finished his tale and downed his ale. He knew he should not have listened; now he was so frightened that his knees felt weak.

Silas gave him a long, level stare. “No; I do not look outside at night, Grim Moon or no; there are some things a man can not bear to see. Things that don’t leave you. But I hear them. They come to my house every year, lad. They meant to have me that night and they are not easily turned aside. If they caught me out again, they would chase me down like a rabbit before hounds. The Grim Hunt.” He shook his head and downed the last of his ale, leaning forward toward Tomas, his eyes glittering with some terrible knowledge. “Haint, they called it when I was your age. You could twist it a little and say Grim Hate and be speaking the purest truth of what it is. Those men are damned and they hate anyone who isn’t. But it’s more than that. They don’t just feel hate. They are the embodiment of hatred and fury and bitter resentments. They hold a grudge against all that lives without the pain of what they are doomed to suffer. That was what I felt that night, sitting in the loft. That is what I feel every time the Grim Moon rises and they come to my door. They’d take us all if they could get us, man, woman, and child, no matter if we were guilty of some crime or innocent as a newborn. Once they set their will to having you, they will never let you be.”

Tomas stared at Silas with wide eyes, watching him stand and walk out the door; it was already afternoon and Silas Bucknil would shut the mill up tight long before the sun came near the western horizon. Tomas knew he should seek out Alyria at once and just withdraw from the whole thing. She’d call him a coward and laugh at him, as would all the rest of the children, but better a live coward than a dead hero. Didn’t he know that already? They had more heroes pass through than a village the size of Downing Dale ought, all on their way into the forest, seeking a sword that no-one was even sure existed. None of them ever returned and no-one ever remembered their names. A dead hero was a forgotten hero, he’d learned that when he was still small enough to ride on his father’s shoulder. But, while Tomas had many faults, he did not want backing out of challenges to be one of them. So his pride did get the better of him and, even then, sitting in the inn with the sun still pouring in through the windows, he suspected he was being a fool.

XXX

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