The Wild Hunt, Part II

part one here.

Jaima pushed the water cart from one small cluster of people to another, slowly making her way across the smooth concrete plane of the rooftop. The sun had already set, the grey stone screening the dancing shadows of the villagers amidst the orange glow of their fires. Night was coming earlier and earlier as winter approached, but the cheerful blazes pushed back the gloom of the cold season. She filled tin cups and glass bottles alike from a carafe, a peaceful smile on her face. The thankful nods of her elders warmed her heart even as the small flames they gathered around warmed their old bones. Her village was lucky; in some places, people didn’t live nearly as long as they usually did in Old Town.

Wrinkles deepened around twinkling eyes as the elders chatted with each other, waiting for the feast to come. One would occasionally reach out with a calloused hand to swat at the gaggles of swarming children darting to and fro among the crowd, their aged chuckles a counterpoint to the youthful giggles of the boys and girls underfoot. Jaima smiled again. She loved feast days.

It wasn’t often that the hunters were able to bring home as much meat as they had that night. Even with half of the deer going to the salting house to be dried out and stored for the long winter, there was still enough meat to have a feast. Families from throughout the building would gather on the rooftop shelter to share their respective dinners with each other and enjoy the freshly prepared venison, a spontaneous celebration in their community. Jaima could already detect a dozen different aromas permeating the air as she walked from group to group, mouth-watering smells beckoning to her over and over again. She rolled the cart around until she was satisfied that everyone had water for the time being, bringing her mostly-depleted container back to where the side of venison was roasting. She left the cart, looking for her brother. Her smile faded as she saw Rik on the far side, speaking with the other leaders of the village.

Rik was angry. It was hard to tell for many people, since her brother was usually terse and withdrawn on the best of days—at least, he had been these last few years. Jaima, however, could read her brother’s moods easily. The set of his shoulders, the annoyed flexing of his arms as he crossed them over his chest and a dozen other minor cues pointed to his tension. Rik was well-respected in Old Town, but he was only the foremost of their hunters—what they called “predator”—not a member of council. His knowledge of warfare and the surrounding terrain had helped Old Town protect itself from the traveling gangs of scavengers, raiders and other peoples that would sometimes pass through the area; as such he was accorded a voice in some village decisions, but not all. Jaima quickly returned to the water cart, casually directing it towards where Rik stood with a councillor; she couldn’t tell which one, their features obscured by a heavy hood. She knew that eavesdropping was frowned upon, especially by her moody sibling—but that didn’t mean she couldn’t deliver some water while they were discussing something important.

As usual, she couldn’t put anything past Rik. He gave her a wry smirk, seeing through her façade immediately, but he didn’t say anything as she approached them. The hooded council member beside him turned, having noticed the change in the first hunter’s expression. He pushed back the hood of his thick coat and smiled kindly at Jaima. She nodded her head to the eldest member of council, holding out a ceramic mug of cold water.
“Hello, Macabe. Would either of you like a drink of water?”
“Thank you, my dear.” Macabe’s baritone voice was soothing, but authoritative. He reached for the mug, taking a sip. Rik shook his head, not even bothering to uncross his arms. He was obviously still upset; when the older man turned his face from him, her brother scowled at the back of Macabe’s head for a moment before looking off to the side.

Macabe reached up with a gloved hand and ran the bared tips of his fingers through his short beard, somehow even whiter than the snowy, thick curls atop his scalp. Pale blue eyes sparkled above a bulbous nose and apple cheeks made ruddy by decades of windburn and—if the village gossip was to be believed—too much drink in his youth. Holding the mug in both hands, he turned back to Rik, the smile fading. Jaima began to push the cart away at an embarrassingly slow pace, her ears straining for a clue as to what had Rik so agitated. Macabe’s smooth voice reached her as she inched her way past them.
“I understand your concerns, Rik. Believe me, I do. I just don’t think that the rumours of a swamp witch are any reason to be putting ourselves on alert like this. You’re not a kid; you should know that crazy woman speaks in half-truths and nonsense.” Even with her back to the pair, Jaima could practically see Rik bristling at the dismissal.
“You’re wrong. She’s been right before. When she talks, I listen—even if I don’t always understand or even follow her advice, I listen. You should too. Or have you forgotten how I came to be predator in the first place?”

Jaima missed a step. She knew all too well how her brother had risen to his current position, and the memory was painful. She bit her lip, forcing herself to keep moving forward incrementally, staying in earshot for as long as possible. Macabe, although she couldn’t see his face, now sounded angry too.
“I know very well—and you’ll do well to mind your tone with me, predator. Your role here might seem a lofty one, but there are more important issues at hand than the ravings of your so-called oracle and I will not rouse our people into a panic whenever she casts her bones and predicts another calamity.” Jaima peeked over her shoulder, stopping the cart again a few paces away from the pair. The light of the nearby fires was reflected in Rik’s dark eyes as his expression darkened even further.
“You’ve lived a long time, councillor.” Rik gestured over the ledge to the ruined cityscape below. “You should know that calamities happen, whether half-truths and nonsense are spoken or not.” Macabe’s shoulders slumped somewhat; Jaima pictured his face as thoughtful in that moment.

The first councillor was not a contrary man by nature, known for considering views other than his own. It appeared that her brother’s words had their desired effect as the old man placed his free hand on the shoulder of Rik’s leather armour.
“I see your point. Okay, Rik. I’ll tell the story tonight, after we eat. But we won’t speak of the witch’s warning. Only my words—the tale will be enough. I’m sure that this will be simply a feast-day story, and not a portent of things to come.” Rik’s face softened somewhat at the elder’s words, and he returned the simple clasp of palm to shoulder before striding away purposefully.

As he passed Jaima, she left the cart behind and quickened her pace to match his. He glanced at her as he walked to the other hunters, putting an arm around her and whispering into her ear.
“Don’t say anything about what you heard. Just listen.” She saw the trust written across his face, nodding.
“Okay. Just promise you’ll tell me later?” He nodded in return. “You’ll tell me what Dorti said to you?” Another nod. She reached the fire around which the other hunters were sitting, spotting a space open between Chuckles and Vim. Rik stood apart, taking a cup of tea from one of the others.

Jaima squatted near the fire, warming her hands close to the flickering heat. Chuckles was in the midst of telling another bearded hunter a crude joke, but stopped abruptly as she arrived. She looked over her shoulder at the ginger giant. He screwed his face into a slightly embarrassed grin. She snickered lightly, rubbing her palms together.
“Don’t let me stop you, Chuckles. Afraid you’ll ruin my girlish sensibilities? Let me guess: it’s the one about the mechanic and the fisherman, right?” The big man snorted.
“Please, that’s an old one. It was the one about the—wait, you know the one about the mechanic and the fisherman?” He gasped, legitimately surprised but still feigning most of his horror. “Jaymee, your purity’s been corrupted!”
“Well now, I wonder how that happened. Who do you think I heard the joke from, anyway?” She laughed again and sat down next to Vim, giving her friend a hug. “And stop calling me Jaymee.” The slender hunter laughed too, handing her a tea of her own.
“Chuck, you better watch this one. She’s much smarter than you are.”
“She was smarter than me when she was eleven, Vim. There’s no need to draw attention to it.” His self-deprecating expression was difficult to discern through the thick beard, but his terribly overdone acting more than made up for the ambiguity. “I think we could just forget about the joke,” he said to the man on his other side. “Everyone’s a critic.”

The evening meal was delicious. The fresh venison was accompanied by an assortment of other dishes, from greenhouse vegetables and hearty stews to porridges and loaves of sourdough bread. At the end of it all, the gathering of people lounged around their fires. Some drank tea, others beer and ale. Children dozed, their bellies full and bodies warm, confident that someone would wake them when needed. Many lit cigarettes and pipes, fragrant smoke mixing with that of the flames. Jaima found herself smiling again, drinking in the contented air of her people. The only worry on her mind was, as usual, her brother; what had Rik spoken about with Dorti?

The so-called witch, Dorti One-Eye, was known and feared all through the region surrounding Old Town. She lived in the swamp where city met coast, all alone in the shattered spire of an ancient building that people called Broken Tip. The narrow, needle top of a structure once so tall it was said to have scraped the sky, the upside-down edifice speared through the center of a bog, moss and vines crawling up along its sides. Jaima had never seen it personally, but she had been told many things about it and its mysterious occupant. From the “fact” that it harboured evil spirits, monsters and everything in-between, to the tales of Dorti’s magical powers and her lust for the blood of children, there was no shortage of folklore surrounding Broken Tip.

Rik had told her a long time ago the truth of it was that Dorti just had electricity—Jaima wasn’t sure if she believed that. Many people said that the old woman used magic to keep the lights burning in her home and to prevent it from falling into the swamp. It was easy to imagine, she guessed; even so, Rik had never held much stock in the rumours that the woman could work magic, or tell the future. Not until a few years ago. Nobody had heard from her since her last prophecy years ago—the same night that she and Rik had lost their parents. The lights in her spire were always on, but even the raiders left her alone. No one wanted to tangle with an oracle; given the fact that the last few who tried had wound up crucified outside her swamp, bizarre burns and other wounds across their bodies, no one had exactly dropped by to say hello in some time either. She would ask Rik about it later. For now, she turned her attention back from her introspection to the sense of expectancy that had fallen over her friends and family.

All of them were waiting—it was customary for a member of council to address everyone when they all collected together. Sure enough, after a period of digestion and conversation, Macabe stood from his spot among the other councillors. The venerable man didn’t need to call for silence; when he stood, the talking and laughing died down in a wave that spread from his proximity to the edge of the group. He began to speak, his words carrying easily to the furthest villagers as he began to walk between circles of people, meandering around the assembly in a seemingly random fashion.
“I hope you all have enjoyed your meal. What do you say—our hunters have brought us quite the gift tonight, right?” The crowd sounded their approval, some cheers mixed with applause and agreement. Macabe held up his hands, lowering them once the racket had died down. “I would like to tell a tale tonight, if you would let me.” Another cheer resonated from the throats of the well-fed villagers. “It seems to me that this story comes as a reminder, a reminder that the past holds as many mysteries as the future. Tonight, you’ll hear a tale I’ve not heard since I was a young man—and trust me, that was some time ago. I know it well, though; it’s not one easily forgotten, especially in Old Town.

“Stay with your families, and keep your little ones close. Tonight, we delve into dim legend of a time forgotten since the End. Tonight, I tell the tale of the Wild Hunt.”
(end of part two)

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