Special thanks to Cathy for her helpful suggestions.
Warning: This story contains some strong themes of violence. If such offends you, hit your back button now.
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by Karen Koehler
His father would have said the stag was getting well ahead of the arrow.
To avoid scornas it would no doubt come, especially from Aunt Carmila's lipsD turned his horse south and rode hard over the rocky terrain, taking a shortcut over the bridge he had often retreated to in his youth when his sword training on the grounds of his father's estate became too much or his thinking too complex to enjoy company. The horseit was only a horse, after allshied at the edge of the bridge, reared, but deftly avoided the water moccasins that had come up the piles to warm themselves in the warm noonday sun.
The sun itself was torrential, making him sweat under the wide brim of his hat, making his hands slick on the reins and making his riding habit cling to his chest like a second skin. Far behind came the excited shouts of the other huntsmen, all of them associates of his father's, all of them of dhampir blood as he was, as they found the stag effectively gone from sight. A wily thing, it had taken to the forest and to safety among the heavy firs.
D hesitated at the foot of the forest. But he could smell the prey. He could hear its heart beating in his ears, in his blood and loins and in every part of himself. He could feel its thoughts. It was like a fever. It was like lust or hunger, something so bone-deep and elemental it was like a wild beast living beneath his skin. He could no more deny the summons to the hunt than he could turn down the serving girls who came to him at dinner, waiting with closed mouths and stupid gazes as he used a knife to cut a vein or artery in their wrists and watched in splendid awe as the redness of steaming life filled his dinner goblet. He could no more deny the hunt than he could those same girls when he took them to his bed, or took them there at table in his father's presence, a feast for body and soul. It was art, not death. Death was violent and sudden and scarlet. Death was war. The sweet little bitches who served the great feast halls of his father's house existed as the palette and tools of the ultimate art-making, the esthetic undoing of life, the unraveling of the red thread of the Fates.
Just the thought made his mouth and throat ache with both remembrance and anticipation. Tonight, as on every night, the Nobility would sup and the festivities would begin. Since Carmila's arrival it seemed every night was a celebration. It was as if what had come from Castle Chaythe brought with it every indulgence. There was nothing his father would not give his Aunt Carmila, no servant too precious, no gift too grand. Like two old birds, they roosted together. Perhaps they had been lovers in their youth; perhaps they were only old hunt-mates. D did not know. Such things were his father's business. He only knew Carmila had brought with her a legion of servants and a veritable carnival of guilty pleasures. The once dreary grounds of the estate were muddied with the hunt. The walls and floors of his father's house were redolent with spilled life. The place stank like a slaughterhouse, though he would be lying if he said he disliked it or found it anything but exciting.
The stag was getting far ahead. D could hear its wary progress, its tortured breaths and paranoid footing across the needles of the forest floor. Afraid to be found. Afraid to be caught.
D kicked the horse ahead, his mouth set like a brutal gash across his white face, eyes narrowed beneath the brim of his hat and trained on every gesture of the forest, every minuscule movement. The stag was breathing too hard, in need of too much. The hunt had gone on all morning, after all.
The stag was mortal. It had limitations. It would need water, and soon.
There was a stream running down from the mountains not half a mile away. D reined the horse around the trees and away from the crunching, needle-strewn forest blanket and cut through the gardens of the estate to reach the stream well ahead of the stag. And then he waited to the lee side of the manmade waterfall, waited for the stag, waited for its approach. Above he heard the hunting call of a bird of prey. He turned up his head to catch its flight pattern, but the sun was too great in his eyes to allow for it. But he knew it was there like a strange companion, a watchman, even.
His father kept such birds in the aviary, great hunters kept in massive gilt cages. Little lords, his father called them. Lords of the sky, even as they, the Nobility, were lords of the earth.
His wait was not long.
D's eyes narrowed further, tracking the movements of the servant boy as he collapsed at the spring and drank from greedy handfuls of clear mountain water. The winter runoff, it must have tasted like heaven itself. He could have been clever and sly about the attack, but there was little sport in that. He liked a good chase and the adrenalin in the blood of the prey was sweeter than the best imported wine his father could afford. He smirked. His horse had been bred just for this purpose, not unlike the stag itself.
He reared his horse back, its iron-shod hooves splashing the servant boy's face with water as it shot forward like a black bullet out of the barrel of a gun. The boy shot upward in response, taken aback by the forward assault, but did not attempt to take to the forest again. Perhaps all the flight was gone from him. Pity.
D drew his hunting rifle and took aim as the horse closed the distance between them, but somehow or other the notion of putting the creature out of its misery did not appeal to him just yet. Instead he turned the horse, nicking the boy in passing and sending him flailing into the water of the stream. He reined the horse around and waited to see if the boy would try to flee, but the boy only remained face down in the cold stream, unmoving, as if dead already.
Well, this is odd, he thought and settled the horse, then dismounted. Perhaps the boy was "playing possum," as the commoners called it.
He approached the boy, somewhat cautiouslyhe knew what damage an overwrought commoner could causeand used the butt of the rifle to push the body over.
The body hung there a moment as if suspended, then sank as suddenly as a stone.
Very odd. Perhaps the boy had died of a heart attack, though he rather hoped not. One could not drink from the dead. Still, the body was worth something. It was better than facing Aunt Carmila this evening and having her fold her pretty long hands and smile that familiar sickly-sweet smile of hers and treat him like a child as so often she did. "Dahling D, what did you do with him?" she would say. "Did you enjoy him and let him go like a wounded little bird? My Lord Dracula, you really must teach your offspring not to play with their food."
The body bobbed back to the surface. D was surprised, but not because it had decided to become buoyant again. No, not at all. The reason he splashed backwards in the knee-high water was because the body that came to the top was not the same as the one that had sunk.
He gasped. .
The man was old, shriveled beyond his years, beyond death itself, it seemed, an old man in rags and a coolie hat like those worn by the toilers in his father's fields, a beggar who had somehow come to replace the young servant boy. But how?
And then the old man opened his eyes. "You ask the wrong questions," he said.
D aimed his rifle at the old man, but the man took no notice, rising like a water sprite from the stream so that he was standing eye to eye with D.
"Who are you?" D asked. "Where did the boy go? Are you hiding him?"
"Again," said the old man, "the wrong questions. All those tutors, young one, and still you know nothing."
D pulled himself to his proper height. How dare this lowly commoner speak to his lord in such a manner! It was unforgivable. For a human to even look the Nobility in the eyes was a crime worth flogging the offender for.
The old man chuckled as if D's thoughts were quite clear to him, quite amusing, in fact. "Young unlearned one, once this world was the domain of all that was human. The Nobility have forgotten history, and so they are doomed to repeat it, perhaps forever."
"I know what my father told me. I've read his books." D summoned his knowledge. He knew much. He had studied the 10,000 books his father owned, studied them individually and together. He knew them all by heart. He was a good student. "Once the humans ruled and preyed upon my kind. Once they were the hunters, torturing and maiming the creatures which would once day rightfully rule them."
It was the truth, though lately something had begun to happen. His father and many of the other Nobles were trying to ignore it, but the sickly young being bornbarelywere difficult to put from his mind. Still, this old man did not need to know that.
"And still there are things which would prey on you, even as you prey on this earth." the old man said this with a sublime smirk that drove the blood and rage into D's face and shaking hands. He fingered a set of white mala beads around his neck. "In the end," he whispered, "it is all a hunting ground."
To say such things. The insolence. D gave a shout, the rage threatening to snap him in two, and jerked the trigger on the rifle.
The gun went off, but instead of the old man falling back into his watery grave, he raised his hand and waved it as if shooing a fly. Time and the earth seemed to pause for him, impossibly. And then he pointed upward.
D raised his eyes. The bullet had gone skyward and struck a far-off shape floating on the updrafts coming off the mountaintops. And then quite suddenly the being, a mere speck at this distance, plummeted to the water at the far side of the stream. Shocked and shaken, yet feeling oddly drained, D went immediately to the creature floating on the water.
It was a falcon, a small perfect animal all in shades of deep burgundy and russet, its feathers soaking up the water it drifted in, its beauty now tarnished. He let the rifle drop into the stream and lifted the creature out of the water and took it to dry land. He wanted to set it down, but there seemed nowhere acceptable. He was afraid some predatory animal would come along and consume itthat or the myriad of beasts and mutants and monsters that skulked through his father's forest, guarding it from attack by the commoners. In the old days huntsmen tied prey animals to the flanks of horses. He remembered reading that in his father's vast library, but he could not believe it. That any human would be so heartless as to bind such a beautiful creature to the side of his horse like nothing more than another burden...
"Pity for a bird," said the old man. He sounded disappointed.
D spun around. "What you did was a waste!"
"Was it?" said the old man, coming ashore. Yet his feet did not quite touch the ground. "In my day I slew a hundred thousand men and twice that many falcons. We kept them as food to feed the armies."
"Then you are a cretin," D said. "Like all your kind."
"Yes," the man agreed. "And one day I slaughtered a bird and wept. We had taken the lives of four hundred men that day."
D retreated, suddenly afraid of this old man. What armies was he speaking of? What human war? There had not been a conflict between humans for thousands of years. He held the bird to him, unwilling to let it go, unwilling to put it down, unwilling to move for fear the old man would cause something more to happen. More waste and sorrow.
"A man saved me," said the old man. "His name was Sakyamuni. He forgave me. I then went out to my men and told them I had lost my horse and must seek it in the deep of the forest. And then I left them and sought all the wisdoms of the world that I could find. I learned. I changed."
The falcon turned to blood in D's hands. He could not believe it. Suddenly it was all steaming red life set free and flowing through his fingertips. He tried to hold it but it ran obstinately away. He looked down, at the stain that had been left on his habit, but he realized that no longer mattered, either. The ground had turned to soft earth and blood, like the ground after a fierce battle. And the water was red like blood. And the sky was like dusk with fingers of blackness stretched across it. D splashed away but lost his footing, falling back into the spring of blood. It was cold and seemed to hold him, a living grave made up of the life force of a hundred thousand slaughtered men. He was drowning in it, dying, being consumed by the armies of the dead. He went under, sinking like a stone, like the body of the young dead boy. Darkness surrounded him, caressing him. But the blood was not sweet. It was rancid, the spilled essence of men who had died and rotted a thousand years in their graves. He fought it, but it pulled him under, a living undertow. He gasped and it filled him, poisoning him, changing him like a vampire changing a victim, like a teacher changing a student. He was dying, but he did not want to die. He was afraid. He had never been afraid. If only there was some way, something he could do to fight it
And then it let him go, let him swim. He swam upward, gasping as he broke the surface of the shining white water, shivering, afraid, lonely, alone.
D reached the bank of the stream, but the man was gone. Only a handful of mala beads remainedthat and a large handsome buck standing at the water's edge, drinking. But when it saw D it bounded off into the forest.
D returned to the estate without his horse but with a single white bead warming in the palm of his hand. He said not a word to his father or the servants who attended him. At dinner that evening he kept his personal vow of silence, even when his father and Aunt Carmila ribbed him about the lack of a kill that day during the hunt.
D set his fork and knife down over his plate of untouched food.
"Don't play with your food, you silly child!" Carmila chided him.
D looked up.
There was clearly a look of concern on his father's face. "What is it?" his father asked as he sipped from his goblet.
"I lost my horse," D said, his first words since returning to the estate. "I must find him."
His father did not object, but D had not thought he would. Rising from his seat, he took his leave from his father's house.