The old stories were once again told as the great hearth fires were lit in the village for the celebration of Lughnasadh, the harvest time would soon begin and all of the the tribe, young and old, gathered in the village as those amongst the eldest (like myself) passed along the ancient tales of our people; I presided over the dutiful kindling of the hearthfire in our small inn and lead the procession as the burning brand was carried to a large bonfire that the youths of the village had built near to our well. As the flames caught and the heart of the village once more awoke and burnt with flame, the face of all the people in the village both young and old were briefly illuminated in tones of burnt orange and yellow. I lifted my voice and, although my summer years are far behind me, I felt the winter recede a little in the glow of the fire as I lead the village in a prayer of thanks to the spirits.
Our chief, a mighty warrior who still strode through the village like a giant despite having many seasons behind him, thanked me and beckoned for the warriors of the village to come forward and tell a tale of their deeds so that we might acknowledge our present as well as our past; as each of the warrior stepped forward and told their tale one of the stories seemed to shine for a moment brighter than the rest. I cannot say whether it was my own connection with the person who told the story or the tale itself that drew my attention, but the young daughter of the village druidess (my female counterpart and balance), a rough a tumble young urchin who continually evaded the chiefs attempts to have her settle down with a warrior from the village, spoke of going to battle with her father and seeing that most mighty of men laid low by the treachery of the unbelievers. Thanking her for the story, but admonishing her to beware the black road of vengeances, the chief made a gesture to me and, with a handful of young helpers, I began to pour out the ceremonial mead for the villagers, handing to each a cup as they told their own stories, each of them weaving together into a tapestry that forms the history of our people. Raising his cup the chieftain said “We drink for all the fallen, in three nights the hunt begins,” I would be expected to lead the hunt for the stag with twelve horns, it’s presence (or lack of it) boding either good or ill for our next years harvest.
The chieftain sought me out after his speech, he had apparently been talking to Siann (daughter of the druidess) and Scotia (a young woman who had become the village blacksmith) and attempting to persuade them that part of their duty was to help produce the next generation of warriors for the village, but it appeared that they did not agree with him; he told me of a dream of vision that he had where he had walked across a battlefield littered with the bodies of our Roman enemies and our own people, the Morrigan walked amongst the fallen, her black robes flowing our behind her like crows wings, but she would not take the souls of those that had died. Troubled, I spoke of how the old ways were slowly being washed away like sand on a beach as the tide of unbelief took root in our lands and that those who forsook the old ways, the right ways, would be forsaken by them in turn and would know no rest in this life or the next; ancient legends and stories passed down to me had spoke of the living death, souls who could not pass from this world but were no longer living, forced to linger for eternity in the bleak grayness between realms, it was not a fate that I would wish on anyone.
At the urging of the chieftain, over the few days leading up to the hunt I talked to Scotia and Siann to see if I could discover why they continued to defy our chieftain; both of them were extremely headstrong and proud (as only the young can truly be), raised by warriors who fought with faith and sword to protect our way of life it seemed that the two had their doubts about the worthiness of the village’s younger warriors to be a husband to them. Seeking to find a solution that would satisfy both parties I suggested that perhaps, when we held the May festival, the two of them could set a challenge for the youths of the village where they could prove there prowess and then select a husband from those they deemed suitable, this would satisfy the chieftain and would also give them far more choice in the matter; my solution seemed to be acceptable to both parties and I began to seek out the village druidess for spiritual council as the hunt approached.
Finding the druidess in our sacred glad, we spoke at length about how the stories of the world were changing but that as long as tales were told then the gods would listen to them, both of us were old and our time, our world, was passing away but still we strove to keep the old faith alive so that the new world to be born afterwards would not be a faithless dark place where the old gods lay forgotten. We spoke of her daughter and her quest for vengeance, a dark, black road that is often dangerous to travel, but sometimes necessary if a stain is to be sponged from the soul.
On the day before the hunt, with the chieftains blessing I announced that the true test of a warrior was not simply killing, any fool with a stick could kill, sometimes the true test was in the capture of the prey; I told the young warriors that, with the blessings of the old gods, I would take on the form of the stag and that their goal would be to hunt and capture me without killing. The person who succeeded would have be marked in the eyes of the great god Herne and our Hunter.
Come the morning of the hunt I arose with the dawn and cleansed myself in the cool stream that runs through the village, giving thanks for the new day; it is necessary to cleanse the body and mind of impurities before assuming the form of a beast, lest your mind be lost and you become so lost in the tangle of the wilds that you cannot find reason and your way back to your own life. As the hunters gathered I repeated that their goal would be to return me unharmed to the village then, whispering a prayer to Herne, I pulled the tanned stag skin around me, feeling it hold fast to my own flesh and shrank down into the form of a shining white stag; kicking my now strong legs I bolted into the woods behind the village, my ears picking up the sound of the warriors moving in pursuit, slowly and clumsily in the way of man.
I darted through the woods with time and the trees flowing around me, I don’t know how long it was before the real pursuit began, time seems to move different when seen through the eyes of the beast, perhaps man does not really understand time or perhaps the way we see it is the only way we can understand it? A noise to my flank startled me and I raised my head to see Siann (I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised) closing on me, I lead her a merry dance through the woods until it became obvious that I would not be able to escape and that she had succeeded. Standing to my normal height I felt the stag skin slip from me, with it’s usual reluctant, clinging for a moment before allowing me to return to the form of man, I sometimes wonder when it is our time to leave this world whether we simply throw off the shape of man and move on to something else, but that is a question only time and the gods can answer.
Throwing Siann’s arm into the air as the other warriors crowded around her I lead them all back to the village where our chieftain proclaimed her the village Hunter, it was at this moment that he also chose to announce that both Scotia and Siann would be chosing a husband at the end of the May festival, whoever could best their challenges.
As was tradition the new Hunter went to the sacred glade in order to speak with the druidess, as the Hunter, Siann would be given a test, the success or failure would judge how the gods favoured us for the coming year; emerging from the glade Siann informed us that both myself and Scotia were to accompany her south through the Great Forest and the unbeliever kingdom of Vinovia, our goal was to successfully broker a peace or understanding with the Wild Ones that lurked in that area, ancient spirits in human-like forms whose ways were not our own, but who had existed since the time of the gods themselves. If the dying words of my old tutor the previous druid were to be believed, my own mother had been one of these creatures and something of their blood flowed through my veins; I had studied the old tales of the Wild Ones and new something of their ways, as precaution I directed Scotia to craft us some beaten iron weapons for the trip should the Fair Folk prove to be hostile.
Days later we travelled through Vinovia, I swallowed my distaste for the kingdom of non-believers, reminding myself that this task was set us by the gods and that my own personal likes and dislikes were not of importance, I was here to help the Hunter accomplish her task and return to the village, heralding a year of prosperity for us all. We passed by a huge ruined wall, a Roman folly that they had built to keep our people out before they had realised that Britain would not be cowed by the likes of them and had left these shores, their “great work” now lay in ruins, crumbling as the green mosses and lichen reclaimed it for the land; the old tales are changing indeed. As we travelled further south the air became warmer and richer until it felt like a soupy broth that left us all feeling quite light-headed.
We reached the Kingdom of Eberauch and began to move further inland, all around us were signs of what the unbelievers called ‘progress’, huge trenches and wound where they had cut into the land with their machinery and their tools, seeking the riches that lay within, in their blasphemy they had even gone so far as to redirect the flow of the rivers, ignorant that they were more than simply a source of water, that they were the lifeblood of the land itself. Not willing to let this simply stand I channeled my own anger and the seething, brooding will of the land, pulling it around the place as I wove small totems from the rocks, bones, wood and grass that I found and hung around the area, laying a curse of bad luck and ill-fortune on any who sought to profit from the desecration of the land here.
Our only real sign of other people so far had been an encounter with a solder who shouted at us in a language we didn’t understand and then moved on, other than that we had barely seen a living soul and so decided to make camp in the forest; whilst our Hunter was bringing down one of the many wild boar that roam the area I took a stick and poked the embers of our camp fire, gazing into the smoke and flames for a glimpse of the gods great pattern. In the embers I saw a village of the new faith and lurking at the centre of it, like a great spider was a deep and terrible darkness.