Wednesday 30 March 2016

"To Britain's Shores" - Chapter 14 - Hunting the White Stag

"Slow down boy, for Odin's sake!"

Sithric blinks, pauses and takes a deep breath. "I... ahh... alright... Old... old Martha says that Hedric..." He rests his hands on his knees, exhales, inhales again from his hurried run. "That's her grandson..."

I allow myself a chuckle. "I know who Hedric is." I should, I've been teaching him to use a spear for the past winter.

"I... uh. Sorry. Hedric's seen the white stag."

Ecgwine and I exchange puzzled looks, then I catch his woman's expression. Evidently this isn't unknown to her. "The white stag?"

Lavinia worries at her lip, frowns. "It's only a wives' tale."

"Go on."

She shrugs, spreads her hands in a helpless gesture. "It..." Another shrug. "They say it's supposed to be a messenger from the gods. That it's not possibly to catch it, but..." A half-smile. "That it can lead you on a quest, or to great glory or riches..."

I allow myself a faint snort. "What do you think?"

Slim fingers run through dark hair, and she makes a wry face. "All I know is it's a very old tale, and Martha believes it." 

The Young Wolf's voice behind me makes me start. "Where was it seen?"

Sithric blinks, stammers, "Um... up Meagram Wold... or... so Martha says. It's not... that far..."

"Good." Aelfric nods to me. "Get them ready. Godric." 

He turns to go, and I follow him. "You don't believe this, surely?"

A smile, teeth bared like the wolf he's named for. "Does it matter what I believe?"

"I..." Light dawns, and I grin. "No, I guess not."

He chuckles. "Martha's of the local folk, remember. If they believe, and we can bring it down... Besides, what if the Britons do...?"

It is, truly, a magnificent beast. Next to me, as we crouch near some rocks with a wary eye on the Britons who also seem intent on bring it down, Wulfstan breathes, "Gods, Lavinia...."

I nod at the unspoken question. "It's just a stag." As it's no more than thirty or forty paces away, it's easy to see it's just a stag - its hide is a rich white, almost aglow where the low evening sun catches it. Marcus nocks an arrow, as does young Torvald, the newest member of our little band now Aelfric has named Sithric his bannerman. I follow my usual ritual, choosing an arrow, touching my fingers first to the carved cross around my neck on a leather thong, then to its head, then nocking it. I risk a glance back whence the stag came - Aelfric's hearthguard and the British lord are facing each other across a short span of ground, neither willing to make the first move towards the stag... 
This close, I can see it's been wounded, a gash from one of Ecgwine's warriors' spears as it dashed across their front, the blood stark against white. It's maybe a hundred, a hundred and fifty paces from the safety of the deep wood that we'd none of us follow it into, not with the Britons here. 
It turns, for a moment, as I have the arrow at full draw. Three bows loose almost as one, one of the arrows just grazing its hindquarters. None of them are mine - I hesitate, just for a moment, to take this magnificent creature in. 
I realise with an odd certainty that I can bring it down, that it may fall to me to do so some day. That, I decide suddenly, will not be today, though. My carefully-aimed arrow passes harmlessly through the great ivory-tipped rack of antlers, and the white stag pauses, just for an instant, looking at me, then tosses his head and kicks up his heels, full speed for the shelter of the deep forest. To my right, Ecgwine's men raise a shout and hare after it, and there are cries and yells from beyond them as the two hearthguards clash, that grey wolf banner above the heads of the struggling men.
As I watch, the banner wavers, falls...

The boy's... no, the man's.. eyes are open, as he grips my hand weakly. "Godric...?

I nod, pointedly not looking down at the great rent in the mail shirt that he was so proud of, the widening pool of red. "Aye."

Sithric swallows, noisily, voice hoarse with pain. "I messed up..."

I shake my head. "Not that I saw. You did well."

There's a gasp from behind me, and the girl's there, kneeling, hands reaching to check him over. I block that movement with my free hand, and give her a tiny, regretful shake of my head when her head snaps up, dark eyes meeting mine. She bites her lip, hard, sits back on her haunches. "Oh, Sithric..." There's a catch in her voice, but no tears. She's learned well, that one. Warriors don't weep. At least if we do, not where anyone can see.

"Did you get it...?" he asks her, faintly.

Before she has to.. or can... reply,  his grip loosens from mine, hand falling limp to the blood-stained grass. It's not clear if her breathed "no" is answer to him or an attempt to deny his passing.

I give death a moment's space, then reach to close his eyes and murmur softly "Told you to slow down, boy..."

1 comment:

  1. I've just finished a Church raid in a new series of Dux Brit games. Good to see a fresh post here at the same time to keep the interest high. I nearly bought one of the stags at Hammerhead - seeing yours makes me wish I had. I look forward to your next chapter.

    Duke of Baylen


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