Strangeways – Winter Solstice (4)
Last time I try to write a serial story as its being published, I swear.
Happy New Year everyone! Gosh, new years. Why does this stick in my mind? It’s on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t name it…
Screaming not in pain or agony or fear, but in something like release, the Stag dropped to his knees from a dead run. It fell like an avalanche, a torrent in midsummer. The ground itself shook as the stag’s chest heaved and rattled. Collins blade was dug deep into the beast’s neck, but the thought of releasing it was anathema. Better that he fall with the Stag and make sure that the deed was done than to miss even an instant of it, or worse, to think that the Stag could somehow escape.
Collins fell atop it, radiant and golden for an instant before he slid to the ground and rolled. Grass rock and earth crushed him, burying and leaden.
But he would not yield the blade.
The Stag’s death-cry resounded through everything, cutting through the tumult of the fall and crash. Collins’ right hand felt warm and wet as opposed to the chill cloy of his left. But the warmth was fleeting now. He could feel it receding as he struggled to his feet.
“Finish it! Quickly!” the huntress ordered.
Collins was dimly aware of the hounds snapping and snarling at the Stag’s haunches, greedily taking bites of the golden hide.
“Quickly or they’ll get too much of it!”
Collins acted, stiffening his arm and pressing it deeper into the Stag’s neck. Blood and heat gushed from the wound. Flecks of gold and green mixed into the blood like liquid gems or gold or pressed petals. Now rivers of color issued from the dark and dying meat. It slopped warmly onto his boots, as hot as the chill Georgia mud he remembered was cold. And what was that smell? Was it honeysuckle or magnolia? Roses on the Sunday table in April.
The snarling of the hounds and their ravenous smacking snapped him back to the moment. They were devouring the Stag, teeming like locusts. Galvanized, he sliced deeper. The Stag shuddered, convulsed, like a storm wave slapping a rocky shore. There was something deeper, under the color of spring and the scent of memory, something under the momentary distractions. A flash of light like a fish turning in a shallow brook, water and sunlight rippling. Whatever it was, it tugged at the body of the Stag, trying to break free, but unable.
His muscles stiffened and he grabbed the sabre with his wounded left hand still dripping blood. It ran down the pommel and over the curved guard. In the moment, Collins could feel each drop, each little bit of strength fleeing his body and running down the blade now, into the lurching body before him. Though pain and stiffness raked across his body and shoulders, surely as claws digging into his skin, Collins wouldn’t yield. The blade bit, tearing flesh and bone as the Stag’s voice
faded and diminished. Whatever was inside flickered and rolled, ripping itself free, but still caught, still tied to the old and dying body.
With a howl of exertion, Collins spoke the old language, the forgotten language, giving a word to a feeling that was neither sadness nor pity nor glee but all three at once. His sword spoke as well, slicing cleanly through the spine and muscle that remained. The Stag’s head fell cleanly from its body and whatever remained of it, the thing that spun and turned, shedding gold and heat, tore itself free and fled with a speed that ensured its safety and its rebirth.
The hounds continued their greedy chewing until their mistress called them off.
Collins’ senses returned to him and he felt the cold of the night, and pain across his back and face, but at least his hand had stopped bleeding. The last of the Stag’s breath escaped its nostrils as steam, steam lost in the heat-mist that poured from the gap above its shoulders. Its eyes were already glazed in the fog of unlife, unblinking.
“Good. Good,” was all the Huntress said. She smiled, eyes gemmed with brimming tears. “I was afraid that you might yield at the last, but I should merely have trusted in the Hunt.”
The Huntsman stood dismounted, moonlight falling behind him, riming him in ice or so it seemed. And he said nothing.
“What just happened?” Collins asked her. “How could I…?” He looked at the blade, freed from the stag’s body and black with its blood. “That was impossible.”
“And so is the Sun giving birth to itself,” she answered as if explaining something to a child. “But even he cannot do it alone. And we… We can only act as midwives. We are not allowed to consummate that rebirth. It takes an innocent.
“Though looking into you, I can see that you are not entirely so.”
Collins nodded. “There isn’t a man or woman who is now, is there?”
“There’s certainly one less.” Her feathered mask was black and glossy in the moonlight, and her eyes were all iris. Then she turned and looked him in the face, welcoming. “Come and eat with us. You have earned your place at the table.”
Collins ached and admitted to himself that a hot meal wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. He drew a kerchief and wiped the gore from the blade before re-sheathing it. It clattered cold and scraping.
The Huntsman, still silent, drew a curved silver blade and began to deliberately cut from the body. The instant he stepped forth, the hounds backed away, though whether it was because their hunger was sated or their master was feared was unclear. They sat, watching Collins with eyes that were green, but not glowing.
In silence, they rode to a majestic and spreading oak that would have been a king, had there been such a thing for trees. A single noose swayed gently in the night wind and Collins couldn’t take his eyes away from it, not until they passed. In the ground directly beneath that, a spear set at a slight angle (pointing north, Collins somehow knew without knowing why.)
Not far from that was a table set in richly embroidered tapestry. Collins was sure that there were words in it, though he was damned if he knew what they were. The symbols danced teasingly before him in the candlelight. Bird’s nests and mistletoe and wreaths formed of twigs and bones and winter flowers decorated the table, alongside pitchers of steaming liquid (that tasted of apples and spice and honey and something else that he wouldn’t let himself dwell on.) And at the head of the table was an old man, bearded white. His clothes were dark, traced with gold thread in patterns that might’ve been spiderwebs, might’ve been words and might’ve been neither.
Collins ate and drank, warmth chasing away the chill and ache, before he fell asleep in spite of himself, asleep to the words of the others, words that he couldn’t entirely understand.
In the sunrise there was only frost, but the frost itself glowed gold. Collins awoke alone, but for Nameless and a nagging ache in his left hand, which was wrapped in a neat square of cloth the color the sun. It was bloodless.