A hooded figure moved up the torn ridge, two large hounds at heel. The dogs milled around their master’s legs, begging to be allowed to hunt. The Dark Hunter glanced down, and for a second a smile played on his lips, as he contemplated his beasts’ joy in their work. He clicked his bony fingers and commanded them to seek.
Away the large creatures went, bounding through the carnage of the battlefield. The deity then turned his hooded face again to the brow of the ridge. As he reached the cusp he stopped and listened; there were voices in the mist, but they were not the ones he was expecting to hear.
It was the time and the appointed place, but others had claimed it.
“You sure he’s dead?” the lad whispered, his hands hovering over the twisted shape.
“Course he’s bloody well dead, sliced like a feast day joint of beef he be,” the youth’s companion snarled, swinging a thick hand at the boy's head.
The youth winced and clamped his jaw hard against the bully’s blow. Tears smarted in his hollow eyes; he sniffed and forced himself closer to the fetid corpse. “Are you really sure?”
“Get on with it,” the dull-faced bully growled and turned the body beside him over. He ran his hands over a blood-soaked leather tunic and grasped at a locket underneath. The chain snapped, leaving behind a blood-encrusted imprint on the cadaver’s neck. He peered through the gathering dawn at his find, grunted and flung it down with the rest of his pickings
A weak sun skittered out from behind the mist, its faltering beams slicing the still air. The remains on the ridge for moment heaved, as if the sun’s rays could again forge life into the abandoned shells.
The youth quickly flattened his body to the ravaged ground. Patrols, under a flag of truce, had been out since the previous dusk. Corpse crows, like he, would be given short shift by either side if caught plying their trade.
The raw meat before him lay toppled over on its right side. An upthrust arm was shattered and bent back at the elbow. The legs brought up tight into the pit of the stomach. The lad moved along, feeling hesitantly in the folds of the man’s garments.
Suddenly, the corpse’s right hand flexed and grabbed the youth’s heel. Another limb shot out of nowhere, clasping tightly over the boy’s terrified face. Then a thin body lunged over his, pinning him to the ground, as a length of sharpened metal plunged into the eye of the not-so-dead corpse.
For a second the clawed fingers on the boy’s heel clenched tighter, then relaxed. In response the hand over his mouth slowly slipped off. The youth rolled to one side, curling up, each of his ragged gasps exhaling his fear and loathing.
“Thanks Moll...” he garbled.
The small, hump-backed woman sniffed in response, wiping the knife clean on the corpse's breeches. She sniffed again, as if sensing something that troubled her. “Move further on lad,” she grunted, pointing down off the blighted ridge. “I’ll finish off here.” The boy grinned in relief, gathered up the small hemp bag full of his pickings, and without a backwards glance scuttled away.
“Bloody soft cow,” the dullard muttered.
Moll turned her head, snarling. The bully backed off, cursing boys and old whores with sharp knives. Moll sat back on her narrow haunches and glanced down at the bleeding corpse. A grin split her crone’s face and she began to rummage through its torn clothes.
As the old corpse crow worked her way round the remains of a bay gelding, the snort of a live horse disturbed the sullen silence. Moll glanced round for her companions; but there was no sign of them. She began to panic. The horses’ swift approach gave her little time to make good an escape. So in desperation Moll crouched down low behind the bulk of the once fine animal, making herself indistinguishable from the corpses around her
The Huntsman chuckled deep within the folds of his hood at the woman antics. He was, it seemed, not going to be the only one that would be eavesdropping this autumn morning. He bowed slightly as the first of the riders passed him. Though the rider and his companions did not see or acknowledge him, or his hounds, as they returned to their master to await his further commands.
“By the Goddess, isn’t that your bay, Del Talbot?” the rider commented, as his horse fought to retain its footing on the battered ridge. He cursed, shortening the reins, as he brought the black mare’s head round. The beast whinnied and stamped, causing the bunch of knotted silk ribbon on the cheek strap to snap back; the white, gold, and black strands taking fire in the rising sun.
A raven, disturbed at its breakfast by the horses, took flight in a flurry of feathers, panicking the mare even more. “Damn you, madam. I haven’t the time or patience for your antics today,” the young rider muttered under his breath, as he with skill, again steadied the beast.
“I don’t blame her, your Highness. This place would chill the bones of a warm doxy, and yes it is my bay; how the hell did he get this far?” Lord Del Talbot grunted; easing himself in the saddle, as his eyes scanned the mist-shrouded valley before him.
“Her nerves are gone, Sire,” Stewart De Lancy commented; dismounted and shook his sword free from his cloak, as he walked to the side of his friend and King.
“Aren’t everyone’s?” the uncrowned monarch of Hafan sighed, nodding to his companion, as the red-haired man took hold of the reins.
The King’s aide, De Lancy, held the mare’s head and talked soft nonsense to her, as Stephen, swung out and down from the high-backed saddle. De Lancy’s lips were almost against the horse’s velvet nose. She flicked her ears, listened to his words long enough to settle, and allow one of the waiting squires to lead her off.
“Kiss her and get it over with,” Del Talbot barked, joining the others on the ground, delighting in the ripple of laughter that ran round the men. But Stephen found he could not smile at Del Talbot’s well meant jests today. His hands slipped round his forearms, and he hugged them to his woe-heavy chest. This so-called victory was set to crush the breath out of him.
“Well, we held them, your Highness,” Del Talbot continued, moving towards the remains of his previous mount. He still, for some reason, wore a mail shirt and chausses under his thick cloak. Stephen wondered if the man thought he would be called upon to fight again so soon for his King and Country.
“At a high cost my friend and they still command the river...” Stephen answered, turning away from his companions. His mind was locked on more than the battle and its aftermath. For him this was just the beginning of the path he had chosen. Bitter as it was; as hard as it was; he knew he had no other choice.
“Aye, that they do sire, may the Goddess rot their bowels! You believe they may use those cursed Mor-liedr’s vessels to ride the winter bore up to beyond Volesford? Be big enough fools to make a move further up river this late in the year?” Del Talbot voiced what he thought were the fears plaguing Stephen’s mind.
“Yes, if they were even to attempt to seize the land around the city before the winter sets in then?” Stephen said and shrugged; unable to voice the secret he held tightly inside any further in words. As he straightened his black kersey wool tunic, his fingers traced the white field lily embroidered on the right chest. It was the only outward sign he gave of his inner struggle. Stephen, for one, was glad to be out of armour and mail. Part of him wished never to don the metal again in his life. He wished to be able to wake up on a bright morning, and find that this war that racked his country was a nightmare; lost in the blanket-tossed dreams of the previous night.
With a conscious effort of will, Stephen dragged his attention from the far off vista, bringing it back to the bloodshed littering the ground before him. His eyes closed of their own volition for a few moments, as if he could no longer bear the painful sight.
“How did it get up here anyway?” De Lancy asked, as he inspected the large horse’s corpse.
Del Talbot had stripped off the bridle, rubbing at the silvered headband between a gloved finger and thumb. He seemed pleased that scavengers had not taken it. Del Talbot then spat onto the blood-encrusted silver, his fingers trying to remove the sticky layer, which clung to the tiered edges of the engraved trio of circles. The blood had made them appear blackened and ill kept, yet strangely the four crossed arrows on the design shone out proud. “The bugger bolted! I had dismounted; those lads in Del Fitzjohn’s corps were on the point of running. We needed them. The bastards were pushing hard on the left flank.” Del Talbot’s arms wove in the air before him, as he talked of the battle a day ago.
It had been a long and bloody struggle. As Stephen stood here regarding his companions, he again heard the bitter cries, which had echoed but a scant few hours ago across the ridge. “And you decided to lead them into the fray on foot?” Stephen said, forcing a smile and clapping the shoulder of his former teacher, protector, and now friend.
“Well, them lads knew I couldn’t run far in my armour. It showed I intended to stick it out with them”, Del Talbot barked out in his usual brisk manner.
“Not run far? You charged into the enemy advance as if you were chasing a farm wench,” De Lancy laughed, his mop of red hair glinting in a struggling sunbeam.
Stephen felt the soft touch of the breeze on his cheek increase; it was a strange uplifting embrace, as if the very air itself were offering him comfort and support. He rubbed his blade of a nose and sighed. He had come up here to gain a fresh perspective. To convince his heart that what had been thought of and planned, would work.
If the war continued, there soon would be nothing left of the land; even the mighty guild cities would rot behind their stone walls. If the rebels could not be reasoned with; persuaded to come to the conference table, then they had to be destroyed for the good of all. Stephen now believed he knew where, and how, to begin to bring them to heel.
“My Lord Del Talbot, I have a job for you?” Stephen softly announced, as he signalled the squires to bring forward their mounts.
“I thought I already had one, my liege,” the older man quipped, as he swung back up into the saddle of his dun.
Stephen forced a laugh, “Aye, as well as.”
“Oh, Sire?” Del Talbot queried.
“Oh?” Stephen repeated, as he mounted his mare and settled himself in the saddle. “I wish you to organise the defence of the Guild city of Volesford. Put your best man in charge. Make the citizens see that their only hope of survival will be total co-operation with the crown. Turn that city into a fortress, milord. I want it to be held at all costs. That is if the rebels are foolish to attempt to seize it...” Stephen continued; guiding the snorting mare away from the bay’s gutted remains.
“That will put a few guild masters’ noses out of joint. They think they’re safe behind those walls of theirs. They believe they don’t need a King. Well, save as a customer for their goods. They will start braying about royal charters and the like.” Stewart De Lancy’s laughing reply echoed round the remounted group, as they moved off behind their King, down the now sunlit ridge.
“I have granted no charter to any Guild city, and those my Uncle issued were void on his death.” Stephen’s voice now hardened, becoming almost steel tipped. “Besides, my friend, the Guild masters’ faces will be even more askew, when they learn that their mighty city is, from now on, going to be my front line.” There, Stephen thought, the words are out, spoken into the light of day.
“What? You intend to withdraw the army from the south?” Del Talbot gargled, pulling so hard on the dun’s reins that the beast farted in surprise.
“Yes, to the vale of Ysgafn, by the Mist River. Our men need to rest, re-supply and wait.” Stephen rubbed his tired eyes. It was at times like this, he felt eighty-one not eighteen.
“Wait, for what, Sire?” Del Talbot tried hard not to bellow at his King, but Stephen was well aware of the man’s feelings. He could see them written plainly on Del Talbot’s face.
“For a promise to be kept,” Stephen softly answered, and kicked the mare on into a loping canter. He was glad that the mare quickly put a sizeable distance between him and his companions. He did not want to explain yet, what had been planned.
Moll uncurled from her hiding place behind the bay’s haunches and slowly got up, beginning to laugh. She plainly thought the fact of royal army withdrawing from the south was a gods’ sent piece of information. The Dark Hunter could see it written on her face. She was obviously mulling over how much she could ask for it, and would the amount keep her warm all winter.
“So, do you think the young uncrowned King foolish?” the deity asked.
“Nay, not foolish, blind,” Moll said, as she wiped her lined eyes, her soiled fingers leaving behind red smears.
The breeze that had ruffled the Stephen’s cloak now began tearing at Moll’s tattered kirtle. The whispering voices carried within it chanting of a change in events. It was if the very elements themselves had decided to speak. That today a new course had been decided on, and they, the very essence of the world, would help any that choose to travel it.
“Blind; in what sense?”
Moll continued, laughing, believing she was speaking to one of her fellow corpse crows. “For believing he can end this. The Lords will tear him down like they did his uncle. That young man will never in a hundred years bring this to a halt. The bastards won’t let him. By the Goddess, those guildsmen in Volesford will fire yon want-to-be King over a forge; make a tender meal for pit demons so they will...”
“I think not. For others have suffered in this war, and they wish to see it brought to an end. The land bleeds as well as you humans in this war.” The Hunter’s tone changed, he had tired of the conversation; his voice become as hard as the silvered metal of Moll’s thin blade. “Your, yet-to-be-crowned King has formed an alliance. For good or ill, other forces are now at play in this conflict.”
Moll’s laughter died, a strange tightness gripped her chest and a pain shot down her thin left arm. Almost against her will Moll turned. The wind whipped her white hair round, draping it like fine linen over the face of a corpse.
The spark of life flashed, then faded in Moll’s eyes. Her body bent, toppling at the feet of the tall, slender Huntsman. The wrappings binding Moll’s soul had been cut and she had now begun another kind of journey.
The Hunter sighed; the hood of his silver-edged tunic shaking, deepening the darkness that eclipsed his features. At the man’s feet his two large black wolfhounds lolled, unconcerned by the woman’s death.
He turned his face in the direction the young King had taken, a soft sigh again escaping his lips. Whether it was one of regret, or relief at the turn of events, he, himself, was not sure. The die had been cast and it was time to move on. He clicked the ivory shafts of his fingers; the dogs came up and began to move out, seeking a new death.