All material contained in this post is copyrighted. Do not reproduce in any way without the written permission of the author.
Song Suggestion: Transylvanian Lullaby by Erutan
Haint that’s what they called it in the older days. That became Haunt and, now, people usually just call it the Grim Hunt because they didn’t want to remember what it really is. That those damned to it might never find rest, even at the ending of the world nor stop hunting others to join their company. People don’t like to remember what rides around in the Wicked Wood while they are sleeping in their beds. They don’t like to remember that they aren’t safe here… and never were.
Tomas Blacksmithe was not a very good child. He wasn’t wicked or cruel. He did not vandalize or steal. And if he lied, it was never about anything important – or so he often reasoned to himself. In fact, as Tomas sat, watching the perfect, silver disk of the Grim Moon rise above the Wicked Wood, he was thinking a whole lot about how he shouldn’t be out here and how he had let his pride get the better of him. The simple truth was that Tomas had made a childish decision and, since he was still a child, it wasn’t something he ought to pay for with his life. But he did not get up to go back home, for pride, as most adults know, will often lead us to our own destruction through the promise of earning disdain and hatred if we do not follow.
Had anyone outside of Downing Dale been asked about Tomas – and known him well enough to answer – they might have said that, really, he was a very charming boy. With his dark, curling hair and green eyes, inherited from his mother, he was quite handsome and, when he wasn’t scowling or skulking about in corners, he could catch the eye with his smile and the ear with his quick wit. If Tomas had a fault, though, it was in being too much like his father, a man so caught in resentment and bitter jealousy that most of the good folk of Downing Dale tried to avoid him, for even a good morning could begin a long litany of reasons why it was no such thing and that was always the fault of the other people.
First among Harold Blacksmithe’s furies was always the Downs family, living as neighbors to him. Their walls were too high, dogs too fond of barking, son too apt to loose a wild arrow, and daughter too spiteful and cruel by half. And, really, what everyone in Downing Dale translated this tiresome list of complaints to was that the Downs family was too wealthy, too respected, and far too loved among the town folk. They all knew that Harold was horribly, viciously jealous, for he had been Horrible Harold – as his father before him – since he began to walk. Insult to injury, Alyria Downs – quite a spirited child, if you were feeling charitable – often called his son Terrible Tomas, who had been named so that he could escape the legacy of his father and grandfather.
Just as their parents had laughed at Harold, their children found great amusement in Alyria’s name calling and excused her because she was so easy to forgive, being both beautiful and intelligent (if not a little cruel, just as Harold named her). So Tomas, like his father, bitterly hated the Downs family and his ongoing rivalry with Alyria grew more vicious by the day. Most of the adults in town, with the blissful forgetfulness granted when children stop being children, believed it was all just squabbles among the young ones, that they would outgrow it, and managed not to remember at all how lucky they had been to make it out of childhood alive thanks to challenges leveled at them by their enemies.
Tomas had begun it. He did not try to deny that. Though he would say that, really, he had just finally given in to the urge to try and show Alyria Downs that she was not half so clever as she liked to think. He had given her a simple enough dare, initiating this game of challenges, but only because Alyria had brought up his father. It was well known that Meredith Downs – the most beautiful girl in her day, had been courted by Harold Blacksmithe and Edward Downs. There was never much doubt in the minds of everyone that she would end up with Edward, but it was odd, for Meredith did seem to care for Harold, in spite of everyone else’s dislike of him, and this made Edward nervous.
As is the manner of young men that grow frightened of losing a woman to another, there was a set of challenges made. It was a game as old as the forest itself and everyone knew how it was played. Though children were more likely to set dares for each other, it was still a good way for a woman to be won when two suitors found themselves equal in her affections. In an attempt to impress Meredith and win her favor at last, Harold and Edward did enter into this game and, as they were no longer children, it quickly became dangerous. And malicious. Neither man could claim to have played clean; each one would have happily drowned the other if it meant finally having Meredith to himself. At last, Edward dared Harold to face the riven that made its den deep in the wicked wood. And this was far worse than just a dare since disturbing the riven could very quickly bring disaster to the village; a riven – a very low, unholy type of dragon that is made in mockery of the great, wise Guardians – is quick to anger and, once roused, will not stop until they are exhausted.
In the manner of a child who only listens to half of what she is told, even at the best of times, Alyria had heard bits of the tale, made up the rest, and told the other children that Harold Blacksmithe had only gotten close enough to hear the beast chewing bones in its den before turning to flee, tripping, in his haste, on a wet rock, and breaking his leg.
“And that is how Horrible Harold got his limp,” Alyria had said, laughing, to the group of children gathered tight around her and hanging on every word. They had all laughed with her, not bothering to hide their contempt from the man’s son.
To be fair, Tomas had a good reason, this time, for letting his temper get the better of him; that was not why his father limped. Harold was many things, but cowardly was not one of them. His limp was, indeed, the result of the final challenge, but those who had been there knew it was Edward, not Harold, that had been challenged to face the Riven. In the rules of the game, Edward could have denied the challenge without fear of losing his honor, but he feared he might well lose the girl. Harold had gone after him in the wood and that limp was the lasting result.
In fact, neither Tomas or Alyria knew the whole tale; only Harold and Edward knew it, and it left neither man standing in the best light. In the end, Meredith had chosen Edward not because he was better than Harold, but because she had a beloved second cousin in Sildess, the city to the north, who had grown quite fond of Harold during a recent visit. She could not choose either man based on her feelings, as she cared for both the same. So she had settled for Edward knowing the Harold would love her cousin, quite the most charming and beautiful young lady in the city. The animosity between Edward and Harold had cooled for a good while, though none would even have called them friends, until Tomas was born and Meredith’s cousin had died giving birth to him. Those who were wise enough to listen without judgement knew that it was not the Downs that Harold truly hated. It was fate he wished to curse, which had abandoned his lovely wife while, apparently, doting on Edward Downs.
With his father’s honor challenged, judged, and dismissed by the other children, Tomas began what was a continuation of their father’s feud and, though they be only children, there was no less poisoned animosity or malicious intent between them. Though Tomas did not know it, Alyria bore her own reasons to hate the Blacksmithe family as much as they hated hers. Or believed she did, which, for a young, hot-minded child, is enough.
At first, it really was no more than childish pranks. Steal a sheep from under one of the shepherd’s on guard, climb to the top of this tree, walk that roofline. Neither child gave ground. Every challenge was met. But, to Tomas’ fury, Alyria’s victories were more celebrated. Be it that she was a girl – and standing up to prove she was as good as any boy – or just that she was more likable, it didn’t much matter. In the eyes of most of the other village children, he was still losing, despite facing every dare with just as much courage and wit.
Only Nicolas, his best friend, cheered for him while the others looked on, arms folded and eyes narrowed. So, finally, driven to it by his frustration, Tomas dared Alyria to go and sleep in the shadow of the old tower, deep in the Wicked Wood. The moment he said it, Tomas knew he’d crossed a line. This was no dare, but a suicide mission; the ruins near the tower were haunted by ghouls. They did not often come near the village, save when the wails of a new infant broke the quiet of the wood, but they were not just fairy tales told at bedtime to quiet an overly wakeful child, either. Whenever a new baby was born, the Huntsmen would encircle the village with their long, heavy bows and cudgels, faces grim; the ghouls loved the flesh of a newborn best and could not stay away, though they were not stupid creatures and knew what it would cost them. There was no child that had not heard their wails in the night and seen the blood soaked cobbles after. Most had never actually seen a ghoul, for their bodies were always drug away to be be feasted on by those that survived the Huntsmen, but their reality was one of grim truth. To sleep near the tower meant being in their territory, far from those who might hear a scream for help. The ghouls haunted the tangled web of ancient catacombs beneath the ruins of the old capital and bred there. They were many in number, for their lives were long, and they were as keen as any hunting beast to find their favorite prey. No amount of wit or courage would keep a child that wandered there safe from harm, not even Alyria Downs.
Tomas wanted to take it back; he knew ghouls could smell children a mile off and that they would murder Alyria to feast upon her soft flesh. Naught she could do would stop them. The challenge was an evil one and he wanted to grab the words back and swallow them whole. But his fear of looking foolish stuck his tongue to the top of his mouth as if it had been glued there by a witch’s curse and he could not recall it.
Tomas knew Alyria wouldn’t turn the challenge away. She was charming, adventurous, and clever besides. But she was also rash and far too proud. She took his challenge with her head held high and not so much as a flicker of doubt in her dark blue eyes. “I’ll sleep there, alright,” she told him, tossing her hair, which was a strange, shifting color that was sometimes silver with the faint cast of lavender twilight in its depths and, other times, dark as midnight shadows. “I’ll even bring back a stone from the tower as a gift for you.” And she spun, striding away into the wood without even pausing to go home for food or blankets to sleep on.
Tomas had only hesitated a moment. Then he broke the most important rule of the game. He ran straight to her older brother, Drystan, then fifteen and training to leave for the city and become a Kingsman on his sixteenth birthday. He told Drystan where his sister had gone, though not that he had been the cause. Rys, of course, had flown after her, for he loved his sister and often played hero to her when she got in over her head (which was far too often). When he brought her back, he apparently decided that, since he was leaving the village in a month, she needed a leash. He told his parents where he had found her. Alyria, because she was honorable, did not tell anyone about their game, which only made Tomas feel more guilty when she was locked up in the Downs manor for the winter so that she might, in the words of her mother, learn at last to behave like a lady ought.
Alyria must have cursed him with every stitch of embroidery and every lesson in household accounts and he knew well that he deserved it – though he did not regret it. The other children ostracized Tomas; no-one likes a tell-tale. But they never much cared for him anyway and, since Nicolas did not desert him, nothing much changed. Nico, of course, did not even blink at Tomas’ betrayal of the game. He knew why Tomas had done it, that it had not been out of spite. Nicolas Derry’s was very tall and muscular, just as his brothers and fathers were, and it made others think he must be fairly dim. However, he was quite intelligent. “Better to be a tell-tale than a murderer. They will all forget it soon enough,” was all he would ever say about the matter and Tomas had learned to listen to his friend when he spoke. Of course, neither Tomas nor Nicolas understood the depth of Alyria’s dislike.
Alyria was, finally, able to convince her mother to let her loose once more – though she still had to attend deportment and etiquette lessons with her tutor every day. And it was obvious to any who saw her that day that her fury had been marinating far too long. The first thing she did was search out Tomas and throw a challenge at him and it was enough to make all the children who had followed her to him go very still.
“What?” Tomas asked her. It wasn’t that he hadn’t heard what she’d said, without any form of greeting or insult, when she appeared in front of him. It was just that he’d semi-hoped she would either have declared herself the winner by default – the other children would agree, certainly and he’d not argue – or that they could go back to the sorts of challenges that weren’t doomed to end in death. But this one had teeth and claws.
“I challenge you,” Alyria repeated calmly and patiently, as if talking to a very small, stupid child, “to sleep in the square. Tonight.”
Tomas thought she was very beautiful, right then, and had the sense to pity the man that married her and crossed her. It was likely she’d have his head off with his own sword and buried in the garden. She stood tall, hands fisted and planted on her hips. Her hair was shifting in the breeze in such a way that it was impossible to say if it was the color of moonlight or shadows. Elf-touched, his father called it. “Hair like that always heralds trouble,” Harold had said, once. “And well does it suite that little vixen.”
Now, under the glare of her dark eyes, made all the more intense by those of the other children crowded at her back, he saw just how much of that trouble he’d brought to his own doorstep, for she would have her revenge on him and pursue it without rest. To take the challenge was as deadly as sleeping in the shadow of the old castle; the fat, full face of the Grim Moon would rise tonight and The Grim Hunt would ride out, looking for the foolish and wicked.
Nico put his hand on Tomas’ shoulder. At twelve years old, Nicolas was already near as tall as his mother and his head, generally, was quite sensible and mature. The voice of reason, his mother often said, which was a relief to her since his six brothers often caused her head pains that left her pressing a cool, damp cloth over her eyes while Nico did everything that needed doing. “Don’t take it, Tomas,” he said in a low tone. “She just wants to shame you for not doing it and maybe it is just time to be the more sensible player. Let it go.” But Alyria did not want him to turn it down. He could see that. She would not weep if he died or feel the least bit of guilt. Turning it down was the only answer, though he’d made his enemy that much more bitter and determined to see him punished and a refusal would only feed that fire. Tomas meant to; he knew that the shame of refusing the challenge would be tempered by the knowledge that neither his last challenge nor this one were within the rules of the game; a dare had to be survivable. Refusing it was expected and would not linger as proof of cowardice.
“I told you he’d be too scared,” Alyria said, giving him a smug smile. The girl beside her, Marisola, was the blacksmith’s daughter. Usually, she’d be cheering Alyria on, but this time, her eyes were dark with worry. She put a hand on the smaller girl’s shoulder, but Alyria would not look at her and the challenge was not retracted.
The rest of the children were laughing right along with Alyria; they thought it still just a game and enjoyed watching him suffer. He wanted to be strong enough that it didn’t hurt anymore. But it did. He wanted to be the kind of man that did not care what they thought, but he was still just a boy, one that had always been an outcast, and, like Alyria he had no small amount of pride. So he did care. Far too much. He knew that, but it did not stop him. “Alright,” he said, straightening his spine and looking down at her with disdain. “I’ll do it.” And now everyone, with the exception of Alyria, was silent and staring at him, their mouths half open. He’d finally gotten a little of their respect. He had silenced their laughter and startled them into fear. But at what price, a small voice in his head asked bleakly. Tomas told it to be silent and did not take back his words.