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Song Suggestion: Deep In The Woods by Nox Arcana
In the village of Downing Dale, where the humble cottages are washed white with high, peaked roofs that look like hats, there was little worth remark. At least, at first glance. There were kind people, even if they were ignorant of the ways of the rest of the Silverlands. They worked hard to see that everyone was fed and clothed, for this was a community that felt like family. The shepherds kept everyone’s sheep, not just their own, and the cattle crowded together in a singular herd, for none laid claim to them as a single person. The huntsmen brought home the beasts of the forest in the name of all who lived in the village and were paid by all for their work.
Perhaps it was as some in Sildess, the city to the North, thought and the village had begun as an overlarge family, but, more likely, it was because the village dated back to the time of Angboria, the old kingdom. Those ancient lands had stretched from the Sea of Stars to the far, southern edge of the Elder Forest, which stopped where the desert lands of Siranam began and it was a time of great heroes and legends, ruled by three kings who believed common good outweighed personal wealth.
The village had carried more than this communal behavior past Angboria’s fall. In particular, the festival of the Grim Moon lingered on and the events which surrounded this fortnight, which bridged the end of winter and the fresh promise of spring, were as much part of the rhythm of living here as the planting of crops or the milking of cows.
For one boy, only twelve at the time of this telling, it meant that he knew the risk he was taking by spending the final night of the Grim Moon out in the open. He had taken a challenge he should have refused and he was inviting many evil possibilities upon himself and his friend, Nicolas, who had joined him on the grassy square at the center of town. Still, who can tell young boys, so desperate to be thought brave and heroic men, that pride should never drive action?
The boys sat wrapped in blankets, talking only in hushed tones, startled to silence by every sound. There was a wide ring of iron horseshoes about them and Nico kept touching the iron bell at his side. Had they been facing ghouls or just the Fair Folk, they’d have been safe as if they were in their own houses. But there was also the Hunt to consider. Those who rode with the Grim Hunt were rumored to be immune to iron. It was only speculation; none that had ever gotten close enough to the Hunt to know for certain had ever been heard of again. But, certainly, the horsemen and their baying hounds seemed to cross into the village – and anywhere else they chose – easy enough and none was willing to say that they knew anything, for the Hunt was the sort of thing which might just set out to prove a person wrong just because it could.
The boys strained to hear if hoof beats were approaching, listening for the distant moan of the hunting horn or the baying of the hounds. For thirteen nights they had lain awake, safe behind shuttered windows and bolted doors, a delicious thrill of terror racing through them as the horn called from the depths of the Wicked Wood. Now, sitting out under the stars, without the guard of walls and doors, the terror twisting through them had sharp teeth with which to bite and razor claws with which to tear. Their only real hope of safety was that the Grim Hunt stayed within the forest, but it wasn’t likely; the Hunt could sense living flesh like a good hound could scent a cave wolf before it reached the sheep.
“Maybe they won’t ride tonight,” Nico said. “The Moon is already well up.”
Indeed, the fat, pale face of the moon had risen to peek over the tangled black web of the forest and its silvery light gilded everything to look both wondrous and strange, as though they sat in the land of the fae, which was the between. Tomas didn’t answer his friend. He knew the Hunt would ride and that it would come because that was simply how it was. The Hunt did not ride out to find foxes or rabbits or even to chase the giant, white stag the huntsmen sometimes saw in the forest. They came out hunting souls and any foolish enough to stand beneath this moon were fair game. Even if they were only children.
A large, shifting shadow in an alley caught Tomas’ eye. He started to turn. He thought he heard hoofbeats, though it was strange; he didn’t hear the hoofbeats themselves, but something that felt like an echo of them. He was still trying to work that out when it came. The long blast of the horn, two rising notes that hung on the chill night air, trembling, almost beautiful, if you did not know what they were calling for.
Tomas stood without thinking about it. He suddenly felt sorry for every animal ever hunted; he was trembling so that his teeth were rattling against each other audibly. He wanted to run, but was frozen because no direction seemed any safer than another. His eyes strained to see details along the edges of the forest, unsure if he saw men sitting upon a host of dark horses or only the trees standing in a long line along the flanks of the distant fields.
The horn sounded again. Hail! Hail! We’ve found our quarry! Its silvery voice seemed to sing. Nico stood as well. In one hand, he clasped the iron sheep’s bell he’d brought with him. The other was deep in the heavy canvas of the bag that had held the horseshoes. When the bag dropped, Tomas saw Nico was holding a stuffed bear. It was a ratty thing, the rabbit fur worn bare in places, one button eye gone. Nico glanced at him and Tomas could tell he was flushing, but there was a challenging glint in his eye as well, daring him to make a jest about the tattered thing.
Tomas said nothing about his friend’s toy. He’d only recently given up his own and only because his father had made him. He’d worried that Harold would become so drunk one night that he would forget Tomas’ mother had made the bear before he was born and throw it in the fire. So he had set it in a box beneath his bed with other, small things that had been his mother’s such a s silk ribbon torn from the moth eaten bodice of a silk gown and a dried lock of braided hair as black as is own. The bear, though, was most precious and not just because his mother had made it.
There was more comfort to be found in the stuffed bears the children of Downing Dale were given at birth than any other toy ever made, be it the delicate dolls of Sildess craftsmen or dwarven made music boxes that could put even the fussiest babe to sleep in minutes. Downing Dale children were said to have a guardian, a spirit bear which wandered in the night, keeping changelings and ghouls from their windows and doors. No-one Tomas knew had ever seen the spirit – unless you believed Alyria Downs when she insisted she sometimes saw a great, black bear or a headless man riding through the streets of the village late at night and not even Marisola, her best friend, thought she was telling the truth about that.
The horn blast came again, longer this time. The shadows he’d been watching shifted and began to slide away from the wood, like tattered bits of cloth or smoke drifting on a wind. A cloud swallowed the moon and the landscape was plunged into darkness, unable to see much, even close by. But they could hear the thunder of horses galloping, feel them racing toward the village. Tomas thought he heard the rough cries of the riders and the clatter of spear, sword, and bow. In his heart, he knew they must run, that the iron circle would not save them, but he could not move a single muscle. Hounds bayed, their voices rising in a hellish howl. The Grim Hunt was coming.