The hunting party moved swiftly through the undergrowth. Their spears were held low as they raced after the dogs that tracked their quarry. Growling and barking, the canines were excited.
They were close.
Their breath wafted in the cold air as they kicked and crunched through the small patches of frost and snow that collected overnight. Winter had been long and the warmer season approached slowly.
The men paused as the hounds split into two groups. Four raced to the left while three veered to the right.
Peter signalled to his friend to go right. Alan nodded and turned to the other men. He pointed randomly to two of them and chased the three dogs that ran up a slight embankment. The other three men went after the four hounds that sped into a gully.
The vegetation was thick here. Moving at significant speed, the three men ducked under low branches and vines, leapt over fallen logs and clambered over large rocks as they pursued the sound of the barking dogs ahead of them. Attempts to dodge thistles and thorns proved vain as more than one found bare flesh, leaving a number of small stinging scratches on their hands and faces.
Peter soon realised, from the noise that the dogs made, that their gully wound around the embankment the other group had ascended and made its way towards their companions. The two groups were about to meet up.
This could mean only one of two things.
The dogs had either trapped their prey or the game had got away.
Peter and his men burst through the thick undergrowth into an open clearing. Tall trees and thick bushes surrounded the field like an audience. The dogs had reunited and surrounded the beast in the middle of the grassy arena. There was no means of escape.
Alan entered the open ground from the right and came to a halt. He raised his spear and readied himself for the attack. The dogs instinctively moved to block the creature’s getaway.
It squawked menacingly at the little creatures that snapped and barked around its feet. Stomping its two giant black, scaly legs, it attempted to attack the dogs but was quickly moved back into place.
It opened its curved beak wide and squawked defiantly as it brought a sharp claw down upon one of the canines, crushing it into the ground.
The dog gave a small yelp as its rib cage collapsed and bones crunched from the weight of the monster.
Flapping its tiny wings, the beast snapped its head around on its long neck, looking for a way out. It ruffled its dark plumage and lifted its head high, exposing a red stripe that extended from the base of its beak to the tip of its breast.
The men moved in closer, tightening the circle with the dogs.
Alan lined up his aim and hurled his spear.
The long rod flew through the air, straight and true. Its iron tip pierced the creature’s eye and buried itself deep into the head.
The creature fell to the ground, lifeless.
One of the dogs raced in for a belated attack and gripped a mouthful of feathers at the tip of the wing.
“Argh!” Alan rebuked the dog as he approached the fallen beast. “Get out of it, you bitch!”
“Give her the wing,” Peter laughed. “We can feed all of the dogs in the village tonight on just that piece alone.”
“We need to carve it up first,” Alan replied. “I don’t want dog slobber all over this thing before we get a chance to take the best pieces.”
“Might I suggest we get the horses?” called one of the men in Peter’s group. “We could drag the bird out of here and carve it up back at the village.”
“Then why don’t you go all the way back and get the horses, Michael?” Peter smiled.
“Fine,” Michael said. He gave a short, sharp whistle as he turned. One of the dogs ran to his master’s side.
“Wait, Michael,” Peter called. “I’ll come with you.” He too gave a short whistle and another dog left the kill.
“Damned thing killed my dog,” said another man who had been gawking silently at the scene before him. He was a tall man with a red beard that draped down to his chest. “How will I explain this to my children?”
“Lawrence,” Alan began, “you will simply tell them the truth. You will say that… What was the dog’s name?”
“Sugar,” Lawrence replied.
The remaining men laughed wildly.
“My daughter named him,” the man spat.
“Sure she did,” one of the other men chuckled.
“Eat sheep dung,” Lawrence snapped.
“All right.” Alan stifled his laughter. “All right. Tell your daughter that poor Sugar died a hero today. I’m sure that will suffice.”
“When she’s ready,” one of the other men said sympathetically, “come and see me. She can have one of the pups from my bitch.”
“Thank you, Hugh.”
“We should make a stretcher,” the last man suggested.
“For the dog?” Lawrence queried.
“For the fowl.”
“That’s going to be a rather big stretcher,” said Alan. “But it would mean less damage to the bird when we try to drag it home. It’s a good idea, Richard. That’s why we bring you along on these hunts. You’re the thinker in this group.”
Richard smiled to himself.
“We need to find vines and long pieces of timber,” Alan called out.
The men dispersed into the tree line.
After several hours of trudging through thick forest, directing six horses tethered to a wooden stretcher carrying the slain beast, the hunting party finally made it to the open fields that overlooked their home.
The men paused for breath as they soaked in the view before them. Nestled neatly in the fold where three hills met, sat the large village of Woodmyst. A gentle river ran through its middle from east to west. Three stone bridges, wide enough to allow horses and carriages to pass one another, linked the two sides of the community.
Tiny boats dotted the waterway as men fished for their supper. Storekeepers and peddlers lined the main road that stretched from the south and ran through the centre from south to north, crossing the centre bridge and continuing to the steps of a large wooden building known as the Great Hall.
A wooden wall surrounded the village. Three great towers were stationed along each edge, the larger at each corner with a raised walkway linking them along the top of the wall.
Further out from the town and dotting the hillsides all around were small farms where ground had been ploughed, ready for the coming season. In places, flocks of sheep gathered where the grass was tall.
Beyond the hills to the east and north were rugged snow-capped mountains. To the west were the forests and the direction of the river’s run. The river eventually opened into a lake. Good folk lived there. Civilised people who dealt in trade and property. Frugal people who discussed commerce and wealth. Things that the inhabitants of Woodmyst didn’t have need of.
In Woodmyst, cares were few and material goods were shared. Food and clothing, health and wellbeing were the responsibility of the neighbour. If the neighbour could not fulfil the responsibility, the next neighbour would step up to offer assistance.
It was a simple life with simple principles and it worked.
Peter looked to the sky. The sun was still high, but it was moving towards its resting place.
“We have about four hours of day left,” he announced. “We should get moving.”
The grand fireplace in the centre of the room blazed with light and heat as portions of the bird continued cooking above the flames. The meat was skewered onto long metal rods that rested upon iron stands as high as a man’s shoulder. The metal rods had handles attached at one end to allow the Serves to turn the meat occasionally.
The smell of roasting fowl wafted through the Great Hall, out through the large oak doors and into the streets beyond. Many village folk were gathering for the feast, which would celebrate the beginning of the new harvest season.
The Great Hall stood taller than any other building in Woodmyst. Decorated with adornments of wooden dragons that twisted around giant beams, it acted as the meeting place for the village, and offered protection during extreme weather or in the case of threat from invaders. It was also the home of the village Chief whose living quarters were in the upper level.
The lower level consisted of one room; the auditorium, a huge expanse that stretched from the doors to an elevated platform at the rear where a long table was placed. At the centre of the table was a large throne upon which the Chief sat during village meetings and festivities. On either side of the throne were smaller chairs for the Chief’s wife, council members and their spouses.
Behind the platform stairs led to the upper level. They were wide at the base and narrowed fractionally as they climbed to a levelled area against the wall. A large tapestry hung above the staircase; a splendid display of different shades of green with silver dragons dancing across its expanse and gold edges. Two sets of stairs then ascended the rest of the way to the living quarters, one on the left and another on the right. The staircases disappeared into the ceiling, out of the view of anyone inhabiting the Great Hall.
The hall itself was decorated with banners echoing resembled the design of the great tapestry above. Many long tables and benches lined the room from front to back. The area between the fireplace and the platform was filled with a large green rug with golden flowers woven throughout.
Two sets of oak columns, nine on each side, stood sentry between the fireplace and walls. Adorned in carved scales that twisted from floor to ceiling where they formed into the heads of snarling dragons that overlooked the tables below them.
Torches were lit upon four sides of each of the columns and along the walls of the Great Hall. Adornments of crystal, dangling from long chains attached to the ceiling beams halfway between the dragon’s heads and the walls, captured the light from the fire and the torches and reflected it throughout the room.
Alan Warde sat in his seat at the Chief’s table. He was admiring the craftsmanship of the columns and did not see the serve approach.
“Ale, sire?” the serve asked. He was around thirteen, and held a mug in one hand and a pitcher in the other.
“Thank you,” Alan replied, “but not at the moment.”
The boy nodded and moved on to Alan’s wife. “For the lady?”
“I will,” she answered.
The serve poured a mug and placed it before her and moved on.
“What’s the matter, Warde?” called a burly man sitting in the throne at the middle of the table. “Not drinking?”
“I plan to enjoy the feast first,” Alan smiled. “Besides, the first ale of the night causes me to fart.”
The man burst out laughing as he raised his mug. His large belly jiggled about and his drink splashed onto his beard. “I have the same problem,” he admitted.
“We know, old friend. Believe me, we know,” Alan replied.
He burst out laughing again and rose to his feet.
“Good folk of Woodmyst,” he bellowed, stifling his laughter as he addressed the crowd sitting at the tables before him. “The new harvest season is upon us. Sowing the fields begins tomorrow. Lambing will follow as is the way every year. Let us hope for a season of new life, plentiful crops and long warmth. May the gods look well upon Woodmyst.”
“May the gods look well upon Woodmyst,” the villagers chorused.
“For Woodmyst,” he called.
“For Woodmyst,” they repeated.
“Now, bring on the feast before I’m too drunk to eat.”
The hall erupted in cheering and laughter as the serves carved meat from the roasting bird and delivered plates of meat and bread to each table.
Twelve minstrels gathered to one side of the elevated platform and started to play a soft rhythm upon stringed instruments, flutes and small drums. As they played, the fire roared and the men and women of Woodmyst feasted and drank, laughed and told stories into the night.
As the night developed, the burly man on the throne moved his gaze along his table, reflecting upon his most trusted men who shared the place of honour. Those he considered his council.
Beside him on his left sat his wife, Sybil; a vision of beauty. Her golden hair was draped down to her shoulder blades where it rested upon a red shawl. Beneath this, she wore an orange dress as bright as the sun.
Their two daughters sat at a table to the side of the room where many of the children sat together. They both took after their mother in the way of appearance. He was thankful to the gods for that.
Isabel, at nine was the elder of the two. She displayed her childishness still as she prepared a fork full of meat to fling at her sister sitting across from her. In the last moment, she caught her father’s eye and lowered the fork with a sheepish smile.
The sudden change in temperament caused her younger sister to turn in his direction. Alanna, who was seven, smiled a wide tooth-filled grin and waved to her father. He smiled and waved back.
There were no sons to carry on his name. Once, he had thought it was a curse. Perhaps something he had done to anger the gods. But then, as his daughters grew, he realised how blessed he had been. He would give them the world if he could.
“What’s wrong, Barnard?” his wife asked, leaning in close to him.
“Nothing, my love,” he answered. “Nothing at all.”
He looked past his wife to his friend Alan Warde. In the Chief’s mind, there was none more upstanding in Woodmyst than Alan. This was a man who always put others above himself, especially his wife and children. Catherine Warde placed her hand on Alan’s as he rested it on the table. He leant into her and kissed her gently on the cheek.
Alan moved his gaze across the room to his Chief. He smiled and raised his mug. Barnard returned the gesture, “Finally drinking, my friend?”
“I’ve finished my meat,” Alan returned. “Now I’m thirsty.”
“Me too,” called Peter from beside Catherine. “But I think my Martha has downed more mugs than I can ever drink. And you know what that does to her. It may be a long night for me.”
“Peter Fysher,” she snapped back, smacking him on the arm as she started to blush.
“See,” Peter called along the table. “She’s already started. She likes it rough.”
“Stop it you dirty cretin,” she chuckled, hitting him in the same place again and again.
“Yes! Yes!” he cried, closing his eyes and rolling his head back in mock ecstasy.
They all laughed loudly.
Lawrence Verney sat beside them at the far end of the table with his wife Elara. She stroked his long red beard as they both watched the children dotingly.
The Chief turned to the other end of the table where three men sat. These men were younger than the other three. Some of the dwellers in Woodmyst could not understand why the Chief had included them on the council. He didn’t need to explain himself to the villagers, but he had told them the three were loyal to him.
It was a part truth.
They were, in fact, loyal to Alan Warde.
Alan had stuck his neck out for many folk in Woodmyst and had never sought recognition for anything he had done. These three men, however, pledged their friendship after he assisted them through a tough time. Simple gestures like some food when their stores were low in winter or a place to stay when the snow had caused the roof to collapse in their dwelling, or spending six nights in the sleet and rain to track down a missing sheep or two had worked their magic. All Alan asked was that they should follow his example, and help all others before helping themselves.
They were honourable to their word. Their vow had seen them fulfil many deeds with Alan for the benefit of the community. The Chief offered them positions on the council and they accepted.
Richard Dering was often referred to as the wise man of the group. It was true that he came up with many ideas others had not considered immediately, but his wisdom did not venture far beyond this area. Richard was not much of a thinker. He was more of a take action person.
The Chief chuckled when he thought back to a time when Richard proved his wisdom. A storm had hit hard during one summer and Richard, being the a soft-hearted individual, decided to bring his small flock of twenty or so sheep into his dwelling to keep them safe. He was still cleaning sheep shit out for two weeks afterwards and the smell of piss still faintly lingered in the corners of his bedroom.
Beside him sat Michael Forde, a lean man with dark, short-cropped hair. He was making eyes at a number of the female serves who were returning smiles and looks of their own. Sybil often said that Michael was a man that would not have trouble finding a wife. The problem was, Barnard told her, Michael was having too much fun not being married. Tonight, by the looks of it, would be no exception.
The last man sitting at the table was Hugh Clarke. He was the Dogman of Woodmyst and possessed the knowledge of how to communicate with animals without words or whistles. A flick of the eyes or a tilt of the head, a movement with the hand or a placement of the body instructed his hounds what to do and how to do it.
A good band of men, the Chief thought. He loved them as brothers. He was glad to have them as his close friends.
He leant back in his throne and sculled his mug dry.
The minstrels had started playing faster, merrier music. Some children and drunken folk had taken to the rug on the floor to dance. Others remained seated at their tables to laugh at the display.
The festivities picked up. Jollity and happiness filled the room as others stood to stomp their feet and clap their hands.
Some of the infants grabbed hands and spun around and around until they fell down. A few of the drunken dancers spun around and around until they threw up.
Ale was poured and spilt.
Music was played.
The fire blazed.
“My lords! My lords!”
The music stopped as someone shouted from the door. The people froze.
“What is the meaning of this disturbance?” asked the Chief.
“Pardon my intrusion, Chief Shelley,” a young guard called. He wore armour complete with a sheathed sword at his side. He was breathing heavily from his haste. “We have company on the north-eastern border.”
Chief Barnard Shelley rode alongside his trusted councilmen. They crossed the open fields between the eastern wall of the village and the ridgeline of the hills, passing small farms on the way.
Ahead of them, perched on top of the hills, a lone figure stood. In the light of the moon and stars, they saw the dark hooded cloak wafting back and forth as the cold, tender breeze swept down from the mountains and across the valley floor.
Something seemed unnatural about this figure. It didn’t move, apart from the effect of the wind. It didn’t retreat or attack. It simply stood its place.
The Chief unsheathed his sword as they drew closer to the stranger.
His councilmen mirrored his action, revealing their own blades to the night.
The horses’ nostril flared as deep breathing was made with each stride. The thunderous hoof-falls echoed across the surrounding hills as they ascended the mild slope towards the lone figure.
Still, it didn’t move. Its identity remained hidden by the dark hood as it stood its ground.
One of the horses gave a guttural cry of excitement as they flanked the figure on all sides.
It kept its composure. It continued to face the village as if oblivious to the men that had it trapped.
“Speak your purpose,” the Chief ordered.
The figure remained silent. The cloak flapped softly as a sudden gust blew through the gathering.
“Speak, bastard!” the Chief barked.
Alan stared at the figure intently, scrutinizing the movement of the cloak in proportion to the positioning of the body.
“Are you mute?”
“Wait, Barnard.” Alan slid from his horse.
“Be careful, Alan,” cautioned Lawrence.
Alan gave him a quick sideways glance and a smile as he approached the cloaked figure. He paused when he was within arm’s reach and cocked his head to the left, then slowly to the right.
In one swift motion and without warning, he sheathed his sword and grabbed the cloak with his hand, ripping it off the figure and revealing what was beneath.
Tied to a wooden stake was the body of a slain man.
At least, Alan assumed it was a man.
The skin had been peeled away and his arms had been taken along with most of the flesh from his torso.
It appeared the body was recently killed. The blood and tissue were fresh.
Moist portions glistened in the moonlight.
The corpse’s eyes turned upwards, staring blankly into the sky.
Its jaw had been torn from its hinge and left to dangle wide open in a silent scream.