Hunter Wilde was in trouble. He was young and strong, not ill favored, travelled far and wide, but he had hit a run of bad luck, it seemed, and Hunter feared his travelling might be at an end. First he lost his horse and then his mule. The solid little community he hoped to winter in was naught but burned beams and ashes.
There were dead as well, things too awful to think about, so he buried the dead the snow didn’t cover, most of his trade goods, and then Hunter started to run. This is my last chance, he thought. The snow was deep and fresh, which made running hard. The Winter was early and strong, he could feel the icy fingers of cold stealing the life from his limbs. There will be no one to bury me if I don’t find shelter for the Winter.
His hard run through deep fallen snow grew harder still as the low gray sky hung lower and lower until snow began to fall. When the wind picked up, it became academic whether the snow that blasted Hunter in the face was falling from the sky or simply torn off the peaks of the drifts he was forced to crash through, over and over.
Step after step, each one a fight for life, Hunter ran through the blinding blizzard. The wind seemed to howl like a ravenous beast sure of a kill. He couldn’t see for the snow and ice blowing into his face, it froze on his red mustache and thickly covered his clothes. Dash, became slog, became shamble. One more, and one more step. Keep stepping or die, Hunter Wilde.
Step and step. Is the wind less? Step, and another and another. Something barred his way, something vertical, something hard. A door? Hunter Wilde pounded at the portal. He would have called out if he could. Perhaps I did.
Yes! A door, A blast of heat, light, a fire. Heat, light, and the sound of merry-making smote him like a blow. Hunter Wilde stumbled across the threshold, thickly covered in a rime of snow and ice, and fell flat on his face. Salvation! he thought, and then, These border holds are strange. They might kill me out of hand, they might make me king, whatever, please, let it wait until I am warm.
Against all odds Hunter had found the fire of Murchadh, a minor lord in a confederation of such small lords. Minor he might be, but Murchadh was a man on the make who fully planned to be Righ of a Tuath and maybe Ard Righ. These tidbits Hunter learned shivering by the roaring fire. Warmed by fire and ale, young Hunter was brought before Murchadh.
The lord, Murchadh, sat a throne. With the furs taken off and the lord not sitting there it might just be an ordinary chair, but a throne it was that night. “Who is it that enters the feasting hall of Murchadh? Speak, if you be friend, then welcome.” Murchadh laughed glancing around his inner circle, “If you be enemy then we will have to figure out what to do with you.”
“I am Hunter,” Hunter drew a long slow breath and thought, there are many Wildes who roam the West, I have no idea what truck this lord may have had with my folk, and so he hesitated. What shall I say? The wrong word might bring swift death.
“Your name is Hunter or you are a hunter?” asked the lord, his eyes were keen and penetrating, but there was a smile just behind his watchfulness.
I think I might like this king, Hunter thought, I hope he doesn’t kill me. “Wilde is my name from my mother’s folk. I have never lived near another of that name.” He added quickly, but nobody seemed the least perturbed by his name, or his implied bastardy, so he added, “She named me Hunter at birth. I can hunt, I do as I travel, but I sing even better, and I play.” Hunter drew his lute out of its case. He was glad to see the lord’s eyes brighten.
A grumpy looking codger in worn motley spoke up, “We’ve no need of a minstrel.”
How could a man make the word sound so filthy? thought Wilde.
The fellow’s thin gray beard bounced with each syllable he hissed, “I am bard to lord Murchadh, and I have my own harper.”
“Yes, yes, of course Barnen,” Murchadh soothed the skald, “We don’t mean to replace someone so valuable as you. But this fellow may give you a bit of a well earned rest. . .”
“I need no such. . .”
“Surely not. It isn’t need of which I speak, I’m only talking about the rest that you have earned, that you deserve, dear Barnen.” Turning back to Hunter, Murchadh smiled broadly, “Did you say you travelled? Perhaps we could hear of your travels.” There was a stir among the king’s intimates and a buzz spread around the room.
Locked up for the long Winter there is no coin so precious as news of parts unknown, Thought Hunter. “Indeed I could. I would be happy to regale you with stories of distant lands and songs from a hundred halls in dozens of kingdoms. . .”
Murchadh glanced over at Barnen who was fuming, “uh, do you compose, say, satire? Barnen is most adept at satire,” said the lord of the hold.
Here is the root of Barnen’s power, and Murchadh’s delicacy. “No lord Murchadh, I sing mostly ballads and write that sort of thing.” So that is it, thought Hunter. The up and coming lord Murchadh has his every action praised in song and his enemies skewered in satire, but he fears the poison sword of Barnen’s tongue might turn against him. Barnen looked smug.
“Welcome to my hall. Rest for the moment, and then we will see what can be done to earn your keep, but later, if that is agreeable?”
“Yes, most agreeable.” This fellow is all politics, and shrewd as a snake, still I can’t hold that against him. It’s the job a king must do.
“Find a seat at my board then Hunter Wilde,” said the lord with a smile, then the would-be king, Murchadh, turned away and lavished his prickly bard with the glow of his personality, “and Barnen, let’s have a tune.”
Hunter found a way to a bowl, a cup, and a place near the fire to warm the last of the cold from his bones. This Barnen isn’t bad, though his voice has lost some power, its tone not perfectly pure, or its range much more than adequate. He hides the worst of his deficites with his harper. Thought Hunter as he listened to the older man sing, I’ll wager he hasn’t had as much bardic training as I, either, and I far from finished.
* * *
Hunter Wilde stayed as inconspicuous as could be and still get something to eat and drink. He thought it odd that several days went by and he gathered no attention at all from Murchadh or any of his inner circle. He’d done well to sit by the fire and recover. Better yet, the attention he did garner came from the serving girls. He became something of a favorite among them and found a better place to rest than the feast hall floor on a couple occasions.
And so it came as a bit of a surprise when the call came. Marta elbowed him as he was lost in his own world, gently playing his lute at the end of the bench farthest away from the head table. “That’s you they’re call’n for Handsome.” Marta ruffled the red hair of his head as she had run her fingers through it the other night.
It was late, and there weren’t many still awake enough to bend an elbow much less listen to him, but Murchadh still sat his throne, his inner circle passed out around him, and no sign of Barnen at all.
“Wake up Hunter Wilde!” Murchadh thundered, “I’ll have that song now, and news of the wide world.”
The hall, for the most part, slept on, but Hunter played and sang. His long fingers danced across his lute strings and several times he brought tears to Murchadh’s eyes and laughter to his heart. I know my worth, my talent is more than a match for Barnen. Servers and the temperate few were treated to several lovely songs of love and loss, of heroes and their deeds, and then, when even this audience was sent away happy, though eager for more, Murchadh got his news.
When songs and stories were all told Murchadh waved Hunter closer. “Well lad, you didn’t lie, you sing like an angel,” said Murchadh, “I would love to keep you here for the sing’n and to gather what news I could shake loose that you haven’t passed yet, but Barnen won’t have it. Truth to tell, I’ve more than enough mouths to feed. This Winter came soon and hard, so better than song is meat, not just for me, but for everyone. You weren’t lying about the hunting now, were you?”
“No, I’m well named,” said Hunter grudgingly, “I expected the ill news sooner than it came. I could tell that Barnen was, uh, not comfortable with me.”
“Don’t take offense Hunter, I think old Barnen would rather that nobody else sang in all the world. It’s just. . .”
“No no, I expected this when you mentioned satire.”
“You see my position?”
“Indeed,” Hunter sighed, resigned to what he expected would come.
* * *
Hunter Wilde huddled by his fire in the drafty hovel he shared with the meat he’d brought down. The lord of the hold, Murchadh, had enjoyed his singing and playing, been amused by his stories, but in the end he was a most practical man. More than mirth he needed meat. So, instead of a warm place by the communal fire, he got a cold bed alone in the wood.
At least he would not starve. He had been a fair hunter, finding meat on the way as he travelled, but he was better than fair at it now that he put his mind to it. Look at what a fine hunter I have become, he thought as he looked at the carcasses hanging thickly, leaving little enough room for him.
Like as not, the sleigh will be out in a day or so, but I’ll be off tracking game. Hunter had learned by now that at first you think you’d be happy for any human contact, but the same old small talk and news about folk you don’t know makes one feel all the lonelier. He would let them take his work back to the warm fires of Murchadh’s hall and leave him the things they always did. Best get to sleep Hunter, you’ve a long walk on the morrow.
The days were much longer, but Winter showed no sign of flagging. Hunter Wilde travelled snowy game trails in the thick wood, a world he was learning well. I am the alpha hunter and I stalk my prey. Just now he tracked a huge sow. What he would do if he cornered her, he had not thought. Perhaps he was over-confident, or perhaps a bit mad. Alone he had ranged ever wider to find game so that his hovel saw him no more than once in four days and, as often, not at all in ten. Wandering in pursuit of game, he only had himself and his thoughts which did carry him away at times.
The brush exploded ahead. He fumbled with his weapons dropping unstrung bow and spear. Hunter glanced up in terror at a huge bristle wild sow, tiny eyes fixed on her tormentor. Wilde gathered himself as she charged. He flung himself out of her way and tumbled into the scrub beside the trail.
The sow crashed on, preferring escape to violence. Not so wise the man, for Hunter gathered his things, taking time to string his bow, and then, heedless of anything but the pursuit, he sprinted after her.
Her passage was obvious, she tore through the undergrowth heedless of path or briar patch. Hunter followed as fast as he could and much faster than he should. Then, when he might have turned back, he came out into a stream and again he saw her scrabbling up into the verdant fern and bough of the opposite bank.
Only then did it strike him as strange that he had pursued the wild sow into Spring time. The stream was not ice rimed. There was neither snow nor frost on the green slope to the North. The great pig thrashed off to the East.
Hunter splashed across the rivulet and charged after the sow. The man followed into a tightening gorge by sound as a mist bespoke the falls he heard as well as the pig. Then he saw her at bay, head low, staring at him as he approached. She pawed the gravel, he drew, expecting her charge, but she turned in a spray of brook water and rock and pounded up into the green. Hunter Wilde followed.
“Hunter!” beautiful and strong, he heard a woman’s voice, “leave off!”
Hunter stopped, looking after the boar. Then among the fern and the mist, from behind a birch tree, stepped a lady more lovely than legend. Her golden hair fell to her waist, her raiment was soft doe skin embroidered with gold and silver and emerald. There was a golden torc around her long creamy white throat. Her eyes were smoldering amber hued.
“Why do you pursue the Mother of Generations?”
He stood dumb, gazing at her, wondering how to speak to such a creature, wondering, how does she know my name?
“Go back Hunter, this is not your place, you have strayed into the lands of the Ui Uilsen of the Elves.”
“You know my name?”
Her laughter was music. Her smile was radiance. “I think this mother of generations is not to be meat for you. . . . . . Hunter. Go!”
He turned to obey without thought, so commanding was her presence, but following the moment of compulsion, Hunter succumbed to curiosity. He turned back, “My name, you know it, but I do not know yours.”
“It is not I who came unbidden, nor do you have need of my name, She said, though not unkindly, but her wrath gathered like storm-clouds on her lovely face. “You must go from here!” The woman’s anger was clear to see. In her long fingered hand she held up a bronze dart of lethal aspect. “Flee Hunter, South into Winter from whence you came.”
He stumbled back, feet slipping in wet rock so that he fell to one knee. He looked up fearing the dart would take him or perhaps to see her, but she was gone.
Hunter did as he was told, he ran, but he did not run his fastest after he left the stream. When snow began to fall again, he slowed to a walk.
Wilde had plenty of time to think both about the beautiful elven woman and everything else as he walked back to his hovel. As he went, he hunted. He brought down a beautiful stag and he thought, “I really am a fine hunter,” and suddenly he knew that the magical elf woman had not truly known his name, only his vocation.
He pursued a doe into a clump of bushes. As he approached, three wood hens exploded from the branches, flapping and squawking, and he thought, The sow ran past the woman, but the sow was not the woman. These realizations made him a bit sad, still, what an adventure to see such a beautiful, magical, frightful sight.
And so, when, by happenstance, or fate, or the thawing of my luck, the sleigh and Hunter were both at the hunter’s hovel, the men told him that he was welcome to come back to the Murchadh’s warm halls. Hunter Wilde rejoiced. Hunter the singer, Hunter the poet, Hunter the bard had a tale to tell. In it the shape-shifting fairy woman, the Mother of Generations, knew his name. . .