By Myranda B. Kalis
His voice, when he spoke, was clear and dark and cold, a resonant voice that, under different circumstances, Morgan wouldn't have minded whispering blandishments in her ear--and, this time, sent a cold bolt of terror straight through her. "Who comes to watch--or is it, perhaps, interfere with?--the Wild Hunt? Speak quickly, woman, for the dawn comes sooner than I like to these mortal lands."
"I am Morgan MacKenna of the Clan MacKenna. It is my people that you and yours have been butchering, Uasal Sidhe," As usual, Morgan came directly to the point. "I would have it stopped."
"Stopped?!" The Huntsman actually sounded incredulous, standing in his stirrups to get a better look at her. "Have all the burgess taken leave of their senses? The Hunt roams where it wills, woman, it kills where it wills. It has been so since before your kind rose to force us into the dark and hidden places of the earth, since before your kind learned how to forge the cold iron that undoes the fabric of our beings. Do you presume to change that?"
"Not at all." Morgan replied coolly, despite the pounding of her heart.
"I merely offer you an exchange. For the past seven nights you have hunted and killed seven of my clan's finest warriors--"
"And tonight we will have an eighth!" An Unseelie voice, harsher and more sibilant than the Huntsman's own, hissed from somewhere in the darkness.
"Be silent!" The Huntsman's roar drowned out the growing snarls of the pack. "This woman intrigues me and I would hear what she has to say."
Morgan nodded slightly and continued on as though she hadn't been interrupted. "You have hunted and killed seven of my clan's finest warriors. Therefore I propose you test the skill of your Hunt against my clan's finest warrior--me."
The response was not quite what Morgan had been hoping for. The entire Hunt collapsed into gales of hysterical laughter at the mere suggestion, the echoes of their unholy mirth rebounding and echoing off the walls of the defile until the entire mountain was filled with the sound of dozens of Unseelie faeries laughing in eerily timed unison. The only member of the party that remained unconvulsed with laughter was the Huntsman himself, sitting calmly astride his great black hunter and waiting patiently for his companions' mirth to spend itself. Finally, when the sound had died away to a few throaty chuckles and the odd shrill giggle, he turned to level a distinctly frosty look at his compatriots.
"Are you all so certain that one lone girl--and a half-grown girl at that--cannot best us in a free and fair challenge?" He asked softly, to the obvious discomfort of the rest of the pack. "Anyone who does may stand aside now and I will carry on this challenge alone!"
"Huntsman--" Began a female voice from somewhere in the back of the pack.
"Be gone the lot of you!" He flung out a hand, gesturing out into the night with a vehemence and temper that none of them dared question. "Find your pleasures hunting elsewhere tonight for I find I have more...interesting...trials set before me."
There was a general grumble from the assembled Hunt but none of them dared question their warlord's judgment (at least not to his face or within his hearing), the pack of dark faeries taking themselves and most of their hounds off in the opposite direction from Emain Scotha. Three of the terrible Unseelie hunting hounds remained, gliding sinuously about the legs of the Huntsman's stallion.
"Pray continue, Morgan MacKenna of the Clan MacKenna." The Huntsman's violet eyes bored into her from above. "You were saying?"
"Yes." Morgan settled herself, squaring her jaw and meeting those unearthly eyes with her rather ordinary pair. "The terms of the challenge. You against me, one on one. I'll have my sword and my dagger. You'll have your horse and your hounds and your hawk and your weapons and whatever else you may have with you. We run until dawn. If you haven't run me down by then, you swear to leave my clan alone, to never again shed their blood or vex their spirits with your Hunt. If you catch me before then--well the reward stands before you. Another soul to add to your clutch of kills, no constraints on how you choose to go about your hunting. Agreed?"
"No." The Huntsman replied, slapping the reins gently against his hunter's neck and steering the giant animal over to where she stood, more or less rooted to the spot. "It seems that I have an unfair advantage over you." He reached down and took her chin between his thumb and forefinger, tilting her face up toward his own, an odd tingling sensation spreading out from where his cool, gloved fingers touched her, moving upwards to center with burning force in her eyes. "There. Much better. Now my dear, brave, mortal child, you shall be able to see as I do, in darkness as in daylight. You shall be able to see me coming for you. And now I agree to your terms."
Morgan reached up, offering him the clay wine bottle. "To seal the bargain."
He flipped the cork out single handed and with practiced ease, taking a long, deep pull from the bottle. "The price is met and the pact is sealed. Run until the moon breaks the clouds, run for your life, for I shall be coming to you." She took the bottle from his outstretched hand and took her own drink, tossing it back to him with a startlingly bright grin before she vanished in a speed and grace that seemed, even to his eyes, nearly fae. "Would they were all so...eager, eh, Hurricane?"
Morgan ran, pushing harder than she ever had in her life, harder than she would have dared without the Huntsman's unexpected gift providing her with the vision of the fae, plunging down the steep granite embankment like a woman possessed. The night seemed as bright as midday to her, enabling her to pick out cracks and fissures she would have missed completely in the darkness, faults and trip-ups that could have resulted in a broken ankle or worse. A certain barbed, serrated lance head through the back, for example, or perhaps an arrow shattering her skull. At least now she had a fighting chance, which was, she supposed, the whole point; the Huntsman didn't strike her as the type who liked his hunts easy or his kills clean, preferring instead to run his prey to the end of their endurance before swooping in to crush all their hopes just as they thought victory was near. An end more in line with the rules of engagement observed by the Wild Hunt.
A quick glance over her shoulder showed the Huntsman still in his previous position overlooking the hunting ground, astride his giant horse, his hounds slithering about his feet, his huge falcon still perched on his outstretched arm. The wind was ripping the cloud cover to rags, tearing gaping holes through which she could see the crystalline pinpricks of stars. Then, even as she watched, the clouds parted with majestic slowness to reveal the silver disk of the full moon sailing the autumn sky, bathing the ground in its cool radiance. A frantic look showed her that the Huntsman was gone, no doubt already on her trail and coming fast.
Morgan skidded down the side of the trail she'd been following, heedless of the danger to her person as she hit the rocks girding the bottom of the decline, splashing through the shallowest part of the stream that she could find. If the faerie hounds hunted like normal dogs--with their sense of smell and not some magic--the water would temporarily break her trail and force them to look to find it again. She followed the stream for close to fifty paces, slipping on all the requisite unstable rocks and slamming down into at least one bolthole, finally hauling herself up the opposite bank where the incline wasn't as steep. She rolled down the concealed side of the ridge just as the sound of steel-shod hooves striking granite galloped up to the edge of the stream, accompanied by the frenzied yelping of the hounds and their whines of frustration as her trail abruptly went dead, even to their faerie-bred senses.
Moving as quickly and silently as possible, Morgan headed along the channel of the stream, bending low to keep her concealment beneath the high-arching lip of the ridge, hugging the granite wall to keep her back covered. Then came the sound that she'd dreaded hearing, the high, thin shriek of a raptor on the hunt, the shadow of backlit wings falling over her as the giant falcon circled overhead, its silhouette passing before the silver face of the moon. Morgan spun and ran, the air catching fire on her lungs as she struggled to make up time and distance, praying for a sudden squall that would force the bird down or risk being blown halfway out to sea. But the fates were conspiring against her, the bird's screams taking on the timbre of triumph as it spotted her from above, its shadow growing progressively larger as it swooped down on her fleeing form. Cruelly hooked talons capable of savaging flesh and bone with terrifying ease drove into her back, wrenching a cry of agony from her even as she went down on her face, the falcon's beak diving for her throat. Reflex saved her, its notched bill slicing into her gauntlet as she brought her arm up to shield her eyes from its pounding wings, the young chieftain of Clan MacKenna batting the creature aside with a violence that surprised her.
The falcon was not long deterred, however, recovering from the buffeting it had received in a short loop, its talons going for her eyes. This time it caught a boot square in the head, the impact bashing the magnificently plumed bird against the granite ridge and sending it down, flopping somewhat less than gracefully on the matted carpet of heather. Morgan twisted to her feet, her arm streaming blood, her back doing likewise and screeching its protests every time she moved. She could hear the pack baying joyously again as they regained her trail but not the telltale pounding of hooves that indicated the Huntsman's presence. And she wondered if he was going to be pleased with what she had done to his bird and how his response to that would shape what he did when he finally got his hands on her....
Morgan tore back up the embankment, intent on taking another stroll through the stream if she had to, only to be hit from behind by a wiry, muscular form that seemed to be half coursing hound and half snake. They went bouncing down the decline together in a tangle of arms, legs, flashing jaws, and flailing fists, Morgan somehow managing to avoid getting her throat torn out by the barest of margins, the hound twisting and clawing with its razor-sharp talons, ripping parallel lines of blood across her stomach. Morgan clawed her dagger free, driving the wide-bladed weapon in under the angle of the hound's jaw and ear before wrenching it back outward with a hideous sucking pop. The hound spasmed in agony once before, with a heart wrenching whimper, it died, its final convulsion sending the both into the stream.
Morgan sucked in a deep breath before letting the current take her, drawing her along down the relative safety of the high-walled embankment. The water itself was so cold she was wholly numb within seconds, her fingers feeling wrapped in several layers of icy wool as she shoved her dagger through her belt, reaching out to catch the gnarled roots of a tree jutting out and down into the stream. It took all her strength to pull her soaked, shaking body out of the water, unclasping her cloak and letting it fall, drifting down the stream toward where it widened into a pool above the falls. Her body ached with exertion as she pulled herself up the bank, using the twisted roots, then the equally twisted branches of the tree to aid her coming up on a small rise above the main portion of the trail, hidden behind the bulk of the tree. Frozen and disoriented from her unexpected ice-water bath, lightheaded with blood loss, black spots dancing before her vision as her lungs gasped for breath they couldn't find, she slumped down against the bole of the tree and decided that just shaking and recovering was a worthy cause at the moment.
She felt the vibration before she even heard the sound, steely hooves striking stone, ducking low behind what cover there was as the Huntsman rounded the bend below her concealment and came out onto the lip of ground overlooking the stream. He stopped nearly beneath where she lay hidden by the tree and the tall grasses, standing in his stirrups, scanning the cut of the stream for any sign of motion. So close was he she could pick out individual patterns in the weave of his cloak, in the tracery of his armor, the play of his muscles beneath his clothing...she could hear the soft breaths he took, nearly the beating of his heart, and wondered how he could not hear hers. Slowly, with infinite care, she drew the broad-bladed knife from where she had thrust it through her belt, easing forward, as close to the edge of the rise as she dared come without alerting him. Then she leapt.
A stone pushed out under her foot and tumbled down the rise ahead of her, the Huntsman spinning in his saddle toward the source of the unexpected sound and catching Morgan's lunge square, the impact lifting him completely out of the saddle with a gasp comprised of equal parts surprise and pain. Morgan angled her full weight into the center of his chest as they hit the cold, unyielding ground, his breath leaving his lungs in a pained, explosive gasp as they landed hard, the dark faerie pinned beneath her. She recovered faster than she ever hoped to, still-numb fingers digging into the long hair she found beneath his cowl, jerking his head and hood back simultaneously, the tip of her blade digging into his throat even as she met his eyes--and froze. Froze because she had never, in all her life, seen such a beautiful creature as the one whose throat she was about to cut, a crimson pinprick welling beneath the tip of her blade, violet eyes widening as her hand shook, unable to move, unable to look away, utterly transfixed by the Huntsman's inhuman glory.
The moment shattered as the hound she had failed to notice plowed into her, the tip of her knife tracing a crimson line toward the Huntsman's ear as she was flung back from the force of the animal's charge, landing hard on the lip of the overhang, hand flying open, her knife spinning away and into the water. Morgan's leg reflexively shot up, connecting hard with the hound's head as it came in on her again, going for the throat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the Huntsman rising, one hand at his throat, the other reaching for the bow he carried across his saddle. For an instant, relief rushed up to choke her--relief that she had not killed him, relief that her blade had not, in accident, inflicted a mortal wound--her knees going weak and a voice in the back of her head screaming, "Idiot woman, you nearly had him!"
Morgan exploded into motion even as the Huntsman knocked a shaft and drew smoothly to his ear, diving for the edge of the overhang just ahead of the jaws of the rapidly recovering hound. The bow sang, followed closely by a canine shriek of agony as the luckless hound intercepted the arrow meant for her back. A second shaft whirred past her head as she dove over the side, the comforting roar of hundreds of gallons of water going over the falls filling her head with visions of victory even as the icy embrace of the water enfolded her again. Home was less than six miles away and she knew every bolthole, every hollow, every secluded hidey-hole where one could possibly avoid being seen. And all she had to do was--
Make it past the falls?!?
Morgan had neither the time, the inclination, nor the opportunity to stop as she came up on the edge of the falls; she simply pushed off as best she could against the insistent rush of the water and prayed whatever good angels still cared for her were on watch tonight.
She hit the falls pool with a resounding splash!, fingers made of frost twisting in her lungs and heart as she inhaled water, gasped, spluttered, coughed, and choked, trying desperately to rise and move. Her leg buckled, refused to support her weight as a shock of unexpected pain ran up from her ankle to her knee and she went down, gasping, on the bank of the falls pool.
Broken, she realized with a sickened twisting to her stomach, feeling, as she did so, the splintered ends of her ankle bones grinding together.
A low, deep-throated growl drew her attention to the far end of the pool. The sole remaining hound was pacing toward her with, if dog faces were capable of it, an expression of pure, unsullied malice. Its long, forked tongue lolled between gaping scarlet jaws, its burning sulfur eyes lit from within by unholy pleasure, the anticipation of the kill. Morgan snarled in return, dragging her sword from its scabbard despite the enormous cost in pain it extracted from her, bracing it between her body and the ground. The hound gathered itself to leap, Morgan bracing hopelessly for what she knew would be the shortest fight of her life, the giant hound launching itself at her full length, her sword swinging up to meet it.
The shock of impact traveled up her arm, hot blood spilled across her face, searingly painful and scented with sulfur, as a shriek of canine anguish clawed at her ears and the final hound fell, cut nearly in two. Morgan staggered to her feet, bracing on the end of her blade, forcing herself up despite the fact that she was crippled in one leg, managing an awkward little hopping run. She almost got as far as the treeline before the bow sang a third time, the crystal-tipped shaft hammering through her left shoulder blade so hard it spun her completely around, slamming her with brutal force into the frost-coated granite that comprised the falls ledge. Too stunned to weep, too beaten to rise, she was barely aware of the sibilant hiss of wood on leather as the Huntsman slid his hunting lance free from his saddle and paced toward her with absolutely soundless steps to stand victoriously over her.
"Go ahead," she whispered, tilting her head back and baring her throat. "we had an agreement, and we've both honored it to the letter. You've won and I've lost, free and fair." The serrated tip of the hunting lance dimpled the skin of her throat, but didn't quite draw blood. "Do it--I gave my word and I'll stand by it. For anything you want to do." Tears burned her turquoise eyes, blurring the image of the dark faerie standing over her. "Please! Do what you like, but do not harm my family!"
The Huntsman recoiled as though he had been slapped, jerking the lance away and hurling it as far from them both as he could. Morgan groaned low in her throat as he kneeled down beside her, laying gentle hands on the tip of the shaft jutting from beneath her collarbones, the dark bloodstain spreading out across the white of her shirt. "My shaft did not quite pierce your heart, as I had intended, but the wound is still mortal. You are dying." The anguish in his voice mirrored by that of Morgan's own expression as he clenched his fists convulsively at his sides, bowing low over her so that his cloak covered them both. "I--have hunted hundreds, no, thousands of your kind, but not one of them possessed the courage you have displayed this night. None of them--with the exception of one--ever came willingly to me to die for those that they loved. None of them ever begged me almost with their dying breath to do what I liked to them in order that I spare another. For none of them did I ever feel--" He cut off sharply, and bowed his head, so that the shadows of his cowl hid all expression, but when he spoke again, his voice was a tender, gentle caress. "You have enchanted an enchanter with your beauty and your courage and your spirit of self-sacrifice, Morgan MacKenna of Clan MacKenna. And for that alone you deserve to live. But these are the hands of a killer--and I cannot heal, only renegotiate the terms of an agreement. If, in exchange for my vow to never again prey upon your people, will you, Morgan MacKenna of Clan MacKenna, consent to live--with me?"
She was silent for so long he feared that she had slipped beyond him in the time it had taken to frame those words. Her answer came on her dying breath, "You drive a hard bargain, Huntsman. I accept."
He pulled back his hood, Morgan's last sight before the darkness came over her was the extraordinary beauty of the dark faerie called the Huntsman, her last sensations the feel of his cool lips as they touched hers, the scent of his raven's wing hair as it brushed her face, and the scream of a falcon as it cried out its master's triumph on his greatest hunt.
To be continued...