The Wild Hunt, Part III

part two here.

Resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Jaima shifted slightly against her chair, feeling the whisper of fur across her neck. The heavy pelt she had draped over her shoulders warded off both the evening’s chill and the worst of Macabe’s melodramatic performance. Looking around, she could see that most of the people sharing her fire were considerably more entranced with the old man’s well-paced storytelling. She had to admit, he knew how to hold a captive audience; she also had to admit that she was more than a little interested, too.

Macabe hadn’t ever told the tale of the Wild Hunt before, not in her lifetime anyway. She had heard things, though. Things that made it sound like the Wild Hunt might be less a story of fancy and more a legend from dim history. A lot of knowledge was lost after the End, all the profs said so. They were always digging it up and putting it back together, but much of it was information found and not learned; facts assembled, but not fully understood. She wondered what people must have done with the world at their fingertips every day.

Macabe’s voice drifted over the crowd, and Jaima’s mind continued to wander. Putting aside the thoughts of vague antiquity, she wished Macabe would just get to what she wanted to hear- it felt like she had been waiting forever. She lowered her eyes and yawned, keeping her mouth mostly closed. She noticed a handful of the others around the fire yawning shortly after she did; it had always seemed to her that yawning was contagious, and she wondered briefly if maybe she had caught it from someone else without noticing. She pondered that particular phenomenon until the cadence of Macabe’s speech changed dramatically, and her attention was snapped back to the hooded elder as he began the story proper.

“The legend of the Wild Hunt has stayed with us since the End; perhaps it’s even older than that. The tale won’t always be told, and sometimes it seems that it’ll fade completely. But at some point, it always comes back, surrounding unexplained events and wild rumours. It’s been said that the Hunt is simply part of the night, a facet of our brave new world that we have to live with; yet none of us here have seen one, myself included. Just the stories. Stories that couldn’t be true, but many have told them quite apart from one another, separate by time and distance both. For now, the legend has faded into myth—but who knows what tomorrow will bring?” He winked slyly at a little girl sitting on her mother’s lap in front of the campfire he was currently adjacent to. Her slight gasp and wide green eyes as she cowered slightly against her parent was a strange counterpoint to the chuckles of adults surrounding her. Macabe—chuckling slightly himself—continued.

“Sometimes when the night is bitter and the wind screams through the trees, the Hunt comes. Nights when you can feel the heartbeat of our world around you, feel her power and her fury; a night that has a personality is a beckoning call to the Hunt- or perhaps the other way around. Nights like that, anything can happen.” Macabe had a habit of gravitating towards one particular campfire or another as he travelled throughout the crowd. Jaima watched him advance on the barrel standing in the back of the audience. Circled about the jumping flames, the hunters stood together. Macabe came closer to them before swinging back around to the crowd.

“It is always very dark when the Hunt comes. Looking up, there is no moon. Even the stars cannot be seen. A shroud covers the sky from us, leaving only the dimmest of glimmers from our torches and our lights. As the ocean hurls itself against the shore in the unnatural storm, the rushing sound of the waves begins to change. Another sound begins to overtake the rhythm of the sea’s noise- a chugging, perhaps. Some have called it hoof-beats on the soil, others the stout bellow of engines. No one knows for sure, but all have agreed it carries a petrifying terror with it. It echoes across the water, through the trees, even up and down our streets. As the roar grows, cutting through the crash of the sea and the howl of the wind, everything else just stops. The wind abruptly quits her wail and the deep’s push against the shore is silenced. All that’s left is the call of the Hunt.” Another pause leaves Macabe producing a small silver flask from his coat, taking a small nip and rolling it about his mouth thoughtfully. He placed in back into his pocket, seeming to search for words to describe something so otherworldly.

“The call of the Hunt is a mystery all its own. Whether it’s someone’s name being shouted into their very mind, the cries of loved ones in pain and fear, or even the foreign cackle of an alien tongue, the sound of the Hunt is permeated by the song of its riders. It’s been said that the Hunt is louder the farther away they are; as they run down their prey, the thuds, growls and shrieks fade until, in utter silence, their prey is taken.

“We must say taken, because as far as we know, the Hunt does not just kill. The occasional splash of blood is found in their passing, but they miss nothing else. People simply vanish, run down by shadowy figures that roll out of the deep or by ghostly lights in the forest, even seemingly by nothing at all. Some who are hunted will fall to the riders only to rise up and join them, walking or even floating away into the night. There are two ways to escape the Wild Hunt when they come for you; hide from them, or join them.”
“Could we fight them?” The small voice rose above the crowd, who collectively craned their necks to see a young boy who was unsteadily standing up from his seat. His tousled brown hair hung partway down his forehead, and he had a look of sleepy defiance on his face. “Why can’t we fight back?” Macabe laughed.
“My boy, your courage is inspiring.” He inclined his head to the tired young one. “The Wild Hunt, though, is not a bear to be shot or a raider to be driven off. It is a force, a phantom legion that is barely seen and cannot be fought. It comes without warning before slipping back into the darkness, followed by its shroud. How can one fight what they do not understand? To this day, no one has seen a rider and lived to speak of it. When you see them, it is already too late.

“Of the force that drives the Hunt forward, even less is known. To cover the sky, to command the Wild Hunt, this speaks of great power. In the flashes of crackling light that accompany the Hunt, sometimes the vague impression of a taskmaster, a mighty form with a whip that lashes the phantom hunters forward, can be seen. This is the Lord of the Hunt. He blows his horn, a deep blaring note that can turn your heart to ice in your chest. As he descends upon you with his riders, he directs them who to take, and who to kill. This is a mystery known only to him, if he even knows it at all- perhaps the Lord of the Hunt was just the first to be taken by a larger power than he.”

Macabe stopped. His aspect had changed; he had lost the conspiratorial air of the storyteller, replaced by a haunted look that ghosted across his eyes and quenched the twinkle Jaima had seen there during his tale. He almost seemed to sink into himself, his shoulders slumped under the weight of his story. She shivered again, and not from the cold.

Rik took a half-step to go to the elder, wanting to support him. He stopped himself mid-gesture, his eyes darting to see if anyone had noticed. His eyes passed over her, but Jaima kept her gaze on the elder; not wanting to show her brother that she had spotted his reflexive movement, she focused on Macabe. He quickly shook himself out of his malaise, an easy smile coming to his lips. He spoke then with an air of uncertainty, as if he didn’t quite know how to end his oratory. His reticence seemed to pass quickly, but a note of warning remained behind his words.

“We live in difficult times. The age since the End has been hard on humanity. We struggle to survive in this new world, and there are many dangers both familiar and strange. The Wild Hunt lies somewhere in-between. Legends of the Hunt have persisted so long, I wonder if they have always been with us. I will say no more of it but this: legends exist for a reason. We ignore them at our peril, but if we live our lives in fear then we aren’t really living at all. Keep your loved ones with you, and watch the stars. As long as they still gleam above, we know they’re looking down on us.” Another pause- as if there was more to say, but after a moment he merely smiled sadly and lowered his chin. “Goodnight.”

Without waiting for the cheers and applause that usually followed his speeches, Macabe strode purposefully to the roof exit and disappeared within. The clapping that trailed behind him was half-hearted; it seemed that others had been just as disturbed by his words as she had been. Perhaps they were mystified by his unwillingness to stay, too. Rik tracked the elder with his eyes. Once he had vanished into the darkness of the stairwell, Rik nudged Vim. She padded lithely behind, following the old man, a look of concern plastered across her exotic features.

Jaima had seen Macabe tell many stories. That night was the first time she would ever see him excuse himself before applause. A certainty descended on her as she watched her brother and Chuckles speaking closely above their fire- for reasons she didn’t understand, she knew that it was also the last time she would ever hear that account from the old one. She was wondering what had caused that feeling of finality, of ending, as she laid her head back to gaze up at the familiar pinpoints of light in the sky. Her brow furrowed in confusion for a moment before her eyes widened in fright. Her heart fluttered. She stared upwards, feeling the weight of fear pinning her on her back as certainly as gravity. Her breath caught in her throat as she sought to whisper her brother’s name, panic clutching at her words.

She couldn’t see the stars.
(end of part III)

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