Part 2 of our Strangeways Christmas story, or as close as I can make myself write, anyways.
Looks like this'll run to three parts as much as I wanted to avoid that. I won't promise that anything will go up on Friday, so it appears that there'll be Strangeways-related content next week, for those of you who can't bear to tear yourselves away from the intarwebs over what should be a vacation.
Merry Christmas to all of you, and a belated Solstice greetings to those of you of the pagan persuasion (hint: I'm not). I'd throw Chanukah in there, but I'm weeks late for that, aren't I? I am. Weeks late.
The hounds came first. But these, these were unlike any hounds Collins had seen before. Coal black and trailing dust behind them from tattered and shaggy hair, all lank and muscle stretched in pursuit. Their jaws were open in howls and growls as they rolled across the grassland, hot on the trail of the stag in long strides. Their eyes glittered green, a trick of the light somehow. No dogs had eyes that color, nothing did. They glowed, ember bright and hot.
Collins waited. They didn’t seem to be interested in him at all, fixated on their prey as only a dog can be. In their passing, they felt like a group of racehorses pounding the ground, dirt and grass ripped and flying. At their closest there was no doubting, their eyes were as flame. It was no trick that could be played out to the dusk.
The horn rang again over the bell of the dogs’ howls, cleanly slicing through the din. Then too, the hunting party broke the treeline. There were only two of them, both astride magnificent horses. Power roared from the beasts’ legs. Looking at them, Collins knew that he was looking at the horses that his grandfathers spoke of reverently, around whom everyday horses would only seem a disappointment, a pale shadow.
Symphonies of muscle and sinew twitched underneath taut skin and shining black hair. Each of them was a storm bound into a mortal shape, fighting containment, resenting the bridle but loving the master that drove them to their limits.
“God damn” was all he could whisper in reply.
The male rider was a giant among men, seven feet if he was an inch. He wore grey buckskin and leathers that looked as if they could turn a knife blade if not a bullet. An Indian? Perhaps, but it was impossible to tell his skin color or features at this distance, no matter how rapidly he was covering it in his approach. And he wore a mask, too. At least Collins thought it was a mask or a headdress. A pair of antlers seemingly sprouted from the man’s head, a good 12 points. Maybe an Indian, maybe not. Collins had seen quite a few tribes but none of wore anything much like this. Closest he could think of was a Sioux he’d met once on the Express. But that was nothing like the figure coming up the road whose eyes glowed as green as those of his hounds.
The huntress rode beside him, not behind him. She carried a burning torch dripping pitch in one hand, the reins in the other. She smiled, reveling in the chase, the revelry making her all the more strikingly beautiful. But there was something else there, not necessarily dark, but far from jovial. It was primal, of a hunger about to be satiated. Boys played at this, though they didn’t know what drove it. Some men would spend their entire lives hiding from it. But not her. She embraced it. She was it.
And that revelry was infectious. It leaped into Collins’ very heart without him even knowing it. Not until he was swept up in the desire, the need to get on his horse and follow them, though the thought of it was folly. What chance would this mere horse have of catching up to these elemental beings?
Which is why he didn’t think at all and simply spurred the horse. The horse obliged, leaping and whinnying as if jealous and eager to show what he could do, too, just given the chance to run wildly.
The dancing light of the torch was all that Collins could follow in the silvering moonlight. The cold and the promise of a warm room somewhere were not only forgotten but reviled. There was nothing, nothing on this earth that Collins wanted more at that moment than to join the hunt, to catch up and to take what was his. No troubling thoughts of Josephine or nagging worry of bestial nightmares that walked on two legs and sometimes four, no Colonels ruling his restless sleep, no swamp mud that he could never shake the feeling of.
All of those things burned up in the fire of the hunt and the wind scattered their remains. Collins’ heart raced as he felt as if he was gaining on the huntress now. He clenched the reins in his hands, tight enough to dig furrows in his flesh and drip blood. Faster. Faster now. The wind dug needles in his eyes and they cried until they too felt like they were weeping blood as his hands were. No matter. He could still see, and even more, he could hear the cries of the hounds now.
The torchlight guttered in the rush of wind, shedding sparks before it faded and disappeared. No matter. Collins’ eyes had adjusted to the darkness and everything else, and he could see, maybe not as if it were day, but better than he should have been able to. It was as if the razor-thin crescent had swollen and grown into a full moon in mere moments. The thought of looking back to see it danced through his mind before the rush and urge of the hunt drowned that thought out.
He could see the huntress now, riding bareback on her mount, her hands too tightly holding the reins, gripped perhaps by the same ecstasy that wracked Collins. Even in the too-bright moonlight, he could see the dark spots of blood on her thigh. In that, they were bound.
The antlers of the huntsman glinted as if honed and sharpened, and just ahead of the three of them now, the hounds frantically clawed at the grassy earth trying to gain a little more speed. They were close enough to taste the stag on the wind and were not going to be denied. The lights of their eyes was pale green as it played over the trees that grew up on either side of the road now. Oaks stripped by winter, their branches were a tangle of fingers, uselessly grasping and naked but for mistletoe that glimmered moonstruck.
Ahead of that, the golden glow of the stag poured behind in his wake. Collins heard the brittle snap of the stag’s hooves breaking underbrush and howled in spite of himself. The huntress laughed, her voice as clean as the snap of icewater or the pond breaking underneath your very feet.
The huntsman raised the horn to his lips and tolled a final toll.