Twenty-seven – 02

For a second, he thought his heart might stop.

The Wild Hunt.

They had been in those stories that Aoife O’Credne told all those years ago when he was still a boy, on those dark and fire-lit nights and the long winter days when he and his sister could do little but tuck in and listen.  There had been thousands of them, drawn from the fabric of centuries of life and even more of legends and tales she’d heard secondhand, passed along.  They were the stories that Grey Miller had memorized, had written down, so that he could pass them along to his son after Aoife left.  He didn’t think that Grey had forgotten a single one, either.

Like he knew.  Like he knew she was never going to stay.

It was one thing to go off chasing stories and legends because David had seen something.  But now, sitting here, confronted with the Wild Hunt, all the moisture from his mouth dried up and something inside of him coiled up, shrank back—a primal fear, a soul-deep warning.

“I think he’s heard of us,” Miriam quipped.  “Look at his face.”

“Don’t be that way, Miriam,” Bastien said, his mirth fading.  “He looks fit to run back out into that storm and I’m the first to tell you, boy, that’d be ill-advised.”

“I take it you’ve heard the stories,” Caleb said, his voice still gentle.  “I won’t tell you that they’re not true, but they’re certainly a product of another time—another age.  And not all of it’s true.  There’s quite a bit of exaggeration in some.”

“And not enough in others,” Jakob observed, pouring another mug of tea, his manner relaxed, casual, but not lacking…something.  It wasn’t predatory, nothing like that, but…

A readiness.  An alertness.  Bryant’s fingers tightened around the enameled metal of his mug, eyes fluttering shut for a few seconds as he tried to find his center, find calm.

Breathe.  Just—just breathe.

“But the stories—” he started, then stopped, his heart stumbling over itself.  “—the stories always said that you were doomed to keep riding, always hunting.  And—and I thought you’d faded from the world.  That you were gone.”

“The Hunt never truly goes away,” Miriam said.  “Either a gift or a curse, that.  With everything in the last couple decades, the rules have gotten more flexible, though, if they ever really were rules at all.”

“Rules, spellcraft, who knows,” Ariel rumbled from where she was still dressing the deer.  She held a haunch out toward the fire pit and Bastien heaved himself up, moving over to take it from her and mount it on a spit Bryant hadn’t noticed.  “It all got strange when the Otherworlds started cracking open and spilling back into the world.  One wonders if the folk who spilled out are trapped here now, or not.”

“Or if those Otherworlds still exist,” Caleb said, his voice almost too quiet to hear.  For a second, his gaze flicked toward the barracks, then off toward the rest of the village.  “If all we’ve learned over these years is to be believed, they may well not.”

“Well that’s a cheerful thought that I’m not nearly drunk enough to consider,” Miriam said.  “Is that the current theory, then?”

“Something that’s been batted about, anyway,” Caleb said, then shook his head.  “Not our business until someone makes it our business.”

“And that hasn’t happened yet,” Bastien said, starting to season the haunch.  Bryant recognized the salt he sprinkled on it, but nothing else from the tins open on bricks of the fire pit.  “And may not be anything we ever quite need to know.  The watch continues, the ride eases.  Did you hear what Gilad came back to report?”

“Anselm’s already planning on sending out another group,” Jakob said.  “See if they can pick anything up.”

Bryant’s gaze bounced between them, his brow furrowing.  “I—”

“Probably nothing for you to worry about,” Miriam said, though the troubled look that crossed into her expression suggested that she was reconsidering the words even as they left her mouth.  “Just an increase in raiding.”

“That we haven’t seen in more than a few years,” Bastien muttered, glancing at Caleb.

The scarred man sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face.  “It could be something—or nothing.”  He turned a reassuring smile on Bryant.  “Could be bad luck.”

“Yeah,” Bryant said with a faintly furrowed brow.  “Guess so.  We saw some on the roads on our way here.”

“Is that how your friend got hurt?”  Ariel asked.  At the silence and the stares of her companions, her brow furrowed and she paused in her butchery.  “What?  I heard everything from Paul when we were down in the ravines this morning.  He was on watch.”

For a second, Bryant’s voice lodged in his throat, the images—the memories—flickering through his head.  “No,” he managed.  “No, not unless raiders are big, coal-black things with wings and claws and glowing red eyes.”

The group of Huntsmen went silent, exchanging looks.  It was Jakob that spoke, his voice quiet.  “Camazotzi.”

“Like Thom and Marin’s boy,” Bastien said, his gaze settling on Caleb.  “Think Anselm knows?”

“Probably,” Caleb murmured.

Bryant picked up on the subtle shift to their mood and slowly set down his mug.  “I—I’m sorry if this comes off as rude, but this clearly means something to all of you that I’m missing.”

Bastien mustered a smile and shook his head.  “Not anything for you to worry about yet, lad.  Maybe not even anything for us to worry about yet.”

But there was something in all of their expressions—especially Caleb’s, especially Miriam’s—that said something different.  It said something had changed and it wasn’t good.

As he reached to pick up his mug again, Bryant decided he wasn’t sure he actually wanted to know.

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