Eardwulf the Hunter first earned his title for his love of the chase and the wilderness, and in later years he kept it for the manner in which he hunted after wealth, power, and opportunity.
There were those who said he should rather be called "the Wolf," for always it seemed he was stalking the edges of a place—be it in the wilds or in a neighbor's hall—looking for any weaknesses of which he might avail himself. Many a young man in those days would think themselves clever for finding a piece of land or an opportunity for honor only to discover at the last that Eardwulf had seized it for his own. Worse still, whenever he could not take something he was wont to salt the land or poison the ears of those close to it; for he saw no reason another should have what he could not.
It was in this way that Eardwulf amassed his fortune when he was young: he hunted great beasts and gave the trophies to powerful men, so that he won renown. With that fame he wooed Aebbe, the daughter of a man who was much like he himself would one day become: wealthy, but deeply unliked by all his neighbors. Now the wooing proved something of a challenge, but it is said Eardwulf won it through guile, approaching Aebbe's father under the pretense of lordship and keeping the truth of his low birth secret until after the wedding. By then the old man could do little but threaten to beggar himself (he was a spiteful man, Aebbe's father, and thought in that way to unravel Eardwulf's plots and leave him with nothing) but that never came to pass.
All that is only gossip, of course. There are none now who will speak to its truth, for the old man died only a few days after giving away his daughter and neither Eardwulf nor Aebbe—who, it must be said, seemed quite happy with her new husband—ever deigned to acknowledge the rumors.
So it went for many years. Their household seemed to be given over entirely to meanness and ambition, and all the success the two qualities create. Eardwulf proved time and again his ruthlessness and his drive, and Aebbe proved herself no less than him in any way. When they had their first son, Dunstan, he was called "the Wolf-Pup" until his reputation for dark moods and ill intent earned him the name "the Black" instead.
It was not many years after Dunstan had first been given that name when a slave came to Eardwulf's household with a message. He had been sent by Lord Beohtric, he claimed, who was a great and renowned lord of no small wealth.
"Give me this message, then," Eardwulf said upon receiving him. Aebbe, who sat beside him, saw the signs of anticipation writ in his gleaming eyes and in the grin lurking just beneath his stark black beard. Here was another opportunity, and the Hunter was set to pounce.
The slave bowed. "My master requires you attend him at his hall before Fire's Night next. And he bade me to give you these gifts, and assure you they are only a taste of what he holds in store for you."
The gifts were indeed very fine: a tapestry made of red-dyed cloth, an arrowhead made of silver, and a tidy sum of coins. Aebbe at once hung the tapestry across the door to the bower and then vanished within to store the silver. The arrowhead was for Dunstan.
"It seems your lord has thought only for my wife and son," Eardwulf said. "Where is my gift?"
The slave smiled. "My lord Beohtric knows well your reputation. He said if you asked for it, to tell you he has something more fine than any of these trifles waiting for you in his hall. Attend to him and you will have it freely."
This Eardwulf did not like, but he returned the smile all the same and bade the messenger go with news that he would follow as soon as he might.
"I'll not be ordered about," the Hunter said as soon as the door was closed. "Not by a man who treats me with such disdain. 'Attend me,' he says. That is no invitation, that is a command. Am I to obey, as though I were a slave? Damn his titles and damn his lordship, I'll not go."
Aebbe laughed from within the bower, and the sound was so unexpected that all eyes in the hall turned to the tapestry which now hid the doorway. Eardwulf especially watched as though enchanted; the fine new curtain caught the light and danced and shivered as it was parted. The way it seemed to cling to his wife as she walked out from behind it reminded Eardwulf of their younger days. Before Dunstan and his siblings.
"Have you forgotten yourself, husband?" Aebbe said. "You, who saw fertile ground in the wastes of my father's coffers?"
"Not wastes. Only misused, mispent."
Abbe sat down beside him again. When she rested one hand on his leg he nearly jumped. "That is just what I mean. You saw opportunity where all others saw waste."
"You saw it as well as I."
"Perhaps I did. If you believe so, then think well on what I am about to ask: why now do you call what lies ahead a waste, when all others see an opportunity? I saw your look, before, but now something has soured your mood."
"Beohtric has nothing for me. He is an old, frail man who plays at lordship. He wishes to use me."
"He is a noble man. But yes, he is aged and yes, he wishes to use you."
"Then why would you have me play into his trick? He must want after what is mine."
"Just as you want after his, no doubt. Oh, would that I were granted a husband half your quality, if he were only half as stubborn!" She seized her purse and keys from where they hung about her neck. "Look, here is our wealth, in my hands. I keep it, as I have ever done since the day we wed. Do you see it?"
"I see it."
"Has your trust in me failed?"
"Then go to Beohtric, and know that our fortune is safe. I will not let him have it, no matter how foolish a bargain my husband may strike. And while he seeks to use you, use him in turn."
They spoke to each other in this way with smiles creeping at the corners of their mouths, and their servants and their children were made to think of two wolves circling one another, nippping at their partner's flanks. By the end of it the purse and keys had dropped again to their accustomed place and the distance between man and wife was half what it had been. Without any more words between them, they rose together and made for the bower, through their new curtain.
The rest of the household left quickly to attend to duties elsewhere.
Eardwulf waited half a week before making for Lord Beohtric's hall. He took with him an enoutrage of servants, as well as Dunstan, who alone was allowed to walk beside his father. The others kept to a great distance, as they had been ordered.
"The road to Beohtric's is littled used," Eardwulf said. "If we're to venture close to the wild I'll have my time in it as I like. That means I'll not have a dozen men stumbling along at my heels."
It was by then the very beginning of the summer season. Even for those less given to it the journey was a pleasant one, and none were more given to it than the Hunter; in truth, it was the happiest Dunstan had seen his father in some time. Eardwulf was quick to point out the songs of birds and the signs of an animal's passing, though he lamented that they saw very little of the beasts themselves. "Too loud yet by half, with all those behind us." He grumbled. "I must go hunt again after this business is done. I've been with civilized folk too long."
At night Eardwulf sang around the fire and all those with him were amazed to hear it.
They found Lord Beohtric's dwelling on the fourth day of their journey. The hall itself was perched atop a tall hill, and was very finely built: its timber walls were carved all over with runes of safeguarding and luck, and above them the thatch roof was so well kept it seemed to shine in the light of the noonday sun. Next to the hall stood another building only a little less grand, and this was the temple. More buildings yet could be seen running down the hill and into the dells below but there the travelers' view was blocked by the high stone wall which encircled the whole town.
"Are you Eardwulf the Hunter?" Called the man at the gate as they approached.
"I am. Who are you, to know me already?"
"Only Cella the guardsman. I was told to look for you, and guide you to Lord Beohtric's door. Will you let me?"
Eardwulf liked this treatment much better than the message he had received at his own home and gladly accepted. So Cella led him and his entourage up the dusty thoroughfare to the high hill, and after the great oak doors had been made to swing wide at their approach, it was also Cella who announced them.
Beohtric and his court sat inside the hall at their long tables, but all rose at once when the lord himself stood to greet the visitors. He stepped from behind his table to clasp arms with Eardwulf, and gave no indication that he missed the normal signs of obeisance which he could have, by right, expected.
"Welcome, my friend," the lord said. "May you find yourself most pleased as a guest in my hall. Here, eat with me, and drink. Let your companions do the same."
Eardwulf and Dunstan were led to a place just next to the lord's own high table. There they ate and drank, for Lord Beohtric would not hear of anything but idle discussion until such a time as everyone had feasted to his heart's content. To this end he gave only the very best of meat and of ale, and afterwards he gave each of the visitors a token. The servants were given coins or drinking horns. For Dunstan, Lord Beohtric provided a beautifully crafted knife with a blade of swirled steel and a hilt inlaid with rubies.
At last, Eardwulf was again the only one without his gift. Beohtric smiled and let the chatter die down before calling for it to be brought in.
The curtain to Beohtric's bower heaved and then rolled aside as the servant stepped through. In that moment between breaths it came to Eardwulf that it was not one of the lord's men but his own wife behind the cloth; he fully expected Aebbe to greet him, looking just the same as she had days before. For some reason he could never afterwards understand—though he tried many times, looking back on that moment—the thought brought with it a feeling of fear: a dread at beholding the person, the thing, the opportunity which was even now pushing the last thin barrier aside. He balled his hands into fists to keep them from shaking.
Then he drew another breath and the moment passed. The servant stepped fully into view. The curtain fell back into place. The fear washed away and was replaced by elation at the prize given over into his eager hands.
Eardwulf held his new greatbow almost as though it were a child as he drank in the sight of it. It was perhaps a handspan longer than he was tall. Most of it had been made from one long piece of light-colored wood, the tips carved into wolf's heads with jaws tilted to serve as hooks for the string. Along the back and face of the limbs ran panels of a darker wood, joined so cunningly Eardwulf could feel no fault or seam; had he been blind, he would have sworn it to all be a single piece. The grip was a wrap of fine leather stitched tight against the middle of the bow's shaft and patterned with a design of interconnected knots and rings.
The Hunter was silent for a long time. All eyes lay on him.
Only Lord Beohtric appeared confident in the gift.
"You know me well, lord," Eardwulf said at last. "This might seem nothing but a well-made tool to another man; perhaps, even, an unseemingly gift. But for myself, I would value this above any gold or jewel."
"I thought you would like it," the lord said with a smile. "Few in my household can even draw it to its full length, though I think you will have no such trouble. The bow is of ash wood, for the most part, but those stripes that you see there come from a flying rowan. A particular rowan, one which was planted when the Si still walked openly in these lands."
Eardwulf admired it a moment longer before he let it drop to his shoulder. It seemed to all who looked on that it rested there as naturally as though it had been made for him. His face was glad, but in the next moment a dour look came over his brow.
"This is too fine a gift," he said. "I accept it all the same—it is not in me to deny it—but I would not have it said I took advantage of you, lord. How can I repay this?"
"I am not some peddler." Beohtric's face darkened for a moment, but then he mastered himself. "A man, a lord, should be generous. So I am. You may take take your gift and leave at once, if you will. And though I would be saddened if you were not to call me friend or visit my hall thereafter, still I would not begrudge you that which I freely gave. But, if you wish to answer my generosity, there is something you might do."
At once Eardwulf recognized the scheme, but of course by that time it was too late. He could say but one thing: "Name it, lord. I will see to it."
"I am plagued by a man named Sivna who lives north of here. A wild-man he is, and a wizard. A danger."
Eardwulf nodded. "You wish him dead?"
"Then it will be done."
They set off the next day as the coming dawn limned the horizon. Eardwulf had learned the night before where Sivna was known to make his lair: beside a spring between two hills some five or six days' trek to the north. He packed to travel as lightly and swiftly as he could. The rest of his company was to return and assist Aebbe in the usual summer duties.
"I'll not be cast aside," Dunstan said, appearing out from the shadows as the Hunter made ready. "We will hunt the wizard together."
"You will obey your father and return with the servants."
"The other servants, you mean." Dunstan sneered.
Eardwulf stopped his preparations and turned to fully face his son. They were alone, the only two in the dark night just outside the hall. "You are my son and I love you. But this is my task, not yours."
"We're alone, father. No need for lies."
"Very well," he sighed. "You are my son. When I die you will inherit everything I've built up in my life. And you will have it all for nothing, save this: until that time, I expect you to be grateful. And obedient. Now, you will go with the servants and when you see your mother you will give her my love."
Neither spoke. Neither moved. Overhead the stars watched on. Day would not arrive for a long while yet.
"You worry at... all this... like a dog at a bone," Dunstan said at last. "But you've only one son, and he has neither fame nor skill. Do you think you'll be remembered well? You will only be the man whose fortune was squandered."
"Are you so dead-set to spite me?"
"I can do nothing else, it seems."
"You are not the first person to threaten to beggar himself for my sake," Eardwulf growled. "It did not go well for him."
Dunstan spat. "Is kin-slaying to be the way of your house, then? Your wife's father first, and then your own son?"
Silence stretched between them again, this time long enough for fear to take root in Dunstan's breast. He was strong and much younger than his father, true, but still he wondered if it would be enough. Some small voice told him it would not.
Then Eardwulf spoke, and his voice was resigned. "If my own son will make himself a failure just for the joy of spitting on my grave, so be it. But it will not be said it was because his father did not teach him. And in the meantime, maybe I will at least give you reason for your hate. Get your things together. It is past time we left."
So father and son set out for the north. Their trek this time was not a happy one—as might be expected—but Eardwulf's mood grew a little lighter once Lord Beohtric's hall had fallen away into the distance.
Eardwulf took to his new role as teacher with equal parts grim resolve and simmering anger, and the latter only served to bolster the former. By the end of the second day Dunstan had already learned more about hunting and the manner of trees and animals and hills than he had in all his previous sixteen years.
The landscape changes in that span through which Eardwulf and Dunstan ranged. The ground there grows steadily more barren under the wanderer's feet as they travel north, for the loose soil gives way to large, flat planes of rock. Few plants can find root there. The only greenery comes in the sodden places between the stones. Yet even these fertile stripes of soil are home to their own hardships, for there the brush must contend not only with the leaves of their neighbors but also with the hoary old trees which took root there long ago. Beech and elm have little use for such places and their numbers grow fewer as the wanderer travels north, while in their stead grow pine and hickory in abundance.
Once, when they had been traveling silently for nearly a league, Eardwulf stopped without warning and put his arm out. Dunstan might have said something, but already his father had told him the importance of quiet out in the wilds.
The Hunter put a finger to his lips, pointed. A sound came to them, a sharp crack and then something like tearing, from within a stand of trees not far away. They crept forward slowly. It had been one of Eardwulf's first lessons: to move slowly. A dozen heartbeats or more passed in the time between one footfall and the next.
From the top of a stony hillock they were able to look down and spy the source of the sound: a wolf devouring a deer carcass. The wolf was old, its fur had lost its sheen, and everywhere it was discolored by a patchwork of aging fur and scars. There were no other wolves in sight. This elderly predator was alone.
Dunstan held up his bow—asking permission—but Eardwulf shook his head. This would be his kill.
A skilled archer sights the target well before they loose their shot. They work ahead of themselves, feeling the shape and the strength of their movements before their clumsy muscles have even stirred to motion. By the time the string is allowed to snap taut, the arrow allowed to go hurtling on its way, the skilled archer already knows just where it will land. Even as Eardwulf's back and shoulders strained against the greatbow, he knew he had found his mark. The wolf's yelp half a breath later was only confirmation.
Say what you will of wolves, but say this: they do not die easy. The beast stumbled under the arrow's impact but did not fall. Then it ran.
"This isn't our errand," Dunstan said as his father moved to pursue.
"But it is, now." Eardwulf looked his son in the eyes. "If you are to take a life, have the courtesy to end it as swiftly as you might."
"We've no time for this."
"What hurry? Your mother and the servants tend to the house. Come." With that he loped off after the wolf. It was a long-legged and easy run; he had no more need for stealth, and his quarry would not be able to stray far. But while he ran he thought of Dunstan, and wondered about the young man's sudden interest in this errand, and his haste. He could find no answer just yet. He resolved to watch for more signs.
They found the wolf in a hollow space beneath the roots of a tree. It lay on its side with its hind legs curled up toward its belly. Its front legs were still out before it, and just above its shoulder the arrow stood in a sea of red-matted fur. Its fletching quivered with every shaking breath.
Eardwulf drew his knife as he approached. The beast growled. He knelt, said something too low for Dunstan to hear, and cut its throat.
"Do you understand what it showed us, today?" The Hunter asked from across the fire.
Dunstan paused, his mouth half full of wolf meat and another morsel already in his hand. He shook his head.
"We caught the beast unaware because its hunger mastered it." Eardwulf said. "No, keep eating. Have no fear, I am keeping watch. It's the lone wolf who must be the most wary when they stop to have their meal. There is no time more dangerous for a hunter than just after the hunt. When he first tastes his victory."
"You've said as much to me before," Dunstan ventured. "But not about wolves. About men."
"Aye, that I have, because people aren't so different from wolves as they believe."
Dunstan nodded at this and looked off into the dark. The next morning he took the pelt so that he might one day hang it before his own bower. He told himself the sight of it would every day remind him of the wolf's lesson.
The next days passed more slowly than those before. Eardwulf remained ever the grim teacher. Dunstan's mood darkened with every step.
"It may be this errand will lead us to nothing," he said once. "The wizard could be naught but an old man, or a hermit. When did Beohtric last see him?"
Eardwulf shrugged. "If it leads to nothing, such is the price of the hunt."
"You would spend our time, and all the things we might've done with it, for no gain?"
"Your mother manages the homestead well, as I've said. She has no need of me for some time yet. There are enough hands to keep the fields while we stray. What harm, if we aren't able to help?"
"There is more to do than keep hearth and home."
"Yes, but more of what? This year has been a quiet one."
Dunstan said nothing and the two walked on. The Hunter still pointed out the lessons he had learned in his time in the wilds—the subtle signs of an animal's passing, the way a tree shows north in the manner it holds its branches and leaves—but now his teachings fell on deaf ears.
Eardwulf worried at the problem in silence. What could change the mind of his son, the same boy who had defied him in order to come, so suddenly? It seemed Dunstan wanted the fame this hunt might bring, and yet was loathe to be away long enough to gain it. When the answer finally came to him he smiled. How simple.
"Who is she?"
Dunstan started at the question, and this more than anything confirmed Eardwulf's suspicion. Next came all the clumsy misdirections and sharp inquiries that one might expect. This was not the boy's first tryst, not even his second or third, but it was the first which he had kept hidden. All the same Eardwulf had it out of him in the end, just after they'd finished their evening meal.
He frowned when he finally learned her name. Dunstan had been right to keep it hidden. "No," Eardwulf said.
"No." The faintest trace of a smile flickered over the Hunter's lips. As though he were only stating a truth, one even an infant should know. "I know the family: her father is without merit and her brothers no better. There is nothing for you in her."
"What needs have I in a wife? Not wealth, not fame. What does Hild lack?"
"You speak as though my fortune were already yours to squander."
"Who else will have it if not me? You've but one heir, and you're too much a miser to spend it yourself."
" 'Ware, pup. Your father has fight in him yet, and but little patience."
"I'll not marry as you did. I'll not sell myself for coin, nor expect a wife to."
"You will do as you are told," Eardwulf roared, and at once he was over the fire and upon his son. The fight was over swiftly. Dunstan was younger, true, and desperately afraid before the end, but the Hunter's long years of adventure had honed his muscles to fibers as implacable as iron.
Afterwards he held his son in an embrace which might have been tender, had it not been for the already-forming bruises and the young man's ragged, tearful breaths.
"This is the end of it," Eardwulf hissed. "You'll be no more the upstart. We'll hunt this wizard, the two of us. Because of your eagerness, your mother and I will find you a girl. You will marry her before the season is out. You will do it gladly. Obey me in that and the rest I will overlook. Call me what you will, piss away the good I've done you after I'm dead. Bed the whore if you like—keep her as a servant—it matters not to me. But, on my grave, you will never call Hild wife."
Neither father nor son was quick to sleep that night. Dark thoughts kept them company while the stars looked down from their faraway seats. The waning moon retreated across the sky as though turning away in shame.
It was two more days before they found the wizard's den.
The first sign of it came much earlier, when Dunstan spied a long trail of vapor rising into the air before them. "A cloud?" He asked. Dunstan had said little since the fight, but now curiousity and, more importantly, fear drove him to break his silence.
Eardwulf shook his head. "It runs up and down, you see? Smoke."
"That is not smoke."
"We will see. Smoke or not, surely it points us toward the wizard."
As the two hunters drew closer it became apparent Dunstan had the right of it, for the most part. The column they saw was not smoke but steam, a gout of vapor so large they could think of nothing that could cause it.
"It must be a giant," Dunstan said. "Boiling his meal."
Eardwulf only frowned. Some stories have it the Hunter saw many strange things in his wild youth, and giants may have been among them. He spoke of them but rarely, if at all, and some things he kept even from Aebbe.
Their final approach to the spot came just as the sun's dimming rays began painting the sky red. The steam belched forth from between two high and rock-strewn hills. The eastern hill was high and steep, the western shallower, curving up over a long stretch of land to come within only a dozen feet of its neighbor before abruptly giving way. The effect was a sort of ravine, a narrow corridor in the earth strewn all over with stones and almost entirely lost in a rising torrent of vapor.
Eardwulf went first, bow in hand and arrow nocked, moving slowly. His eyes quested this way and that for anything which might resolve itself into the shape of their quarry (or whatever nightmarish thing a wizard might employ). His ears strained for the words, the voice, that would proceed a magic spell.
The sky was a deep crimson by the time he reached the base of the hills and, with a nod for Dunstan to begin his own slow approach, Eardwulf slipped between the hills and was lost to sight.
"We came here for nothing," Dunstan said.
They sat at the entrance to the little ravine. Between the hills the air was cloying, the stones hot to the touch and dripping wet. Near the far end they found the reason: a spring ran out from the eastern hill and formed a pool before spilling into a stream that went out and off to the north. It was nothing remarkable, save only that the water seemed to boil nearly as soon as it entered the pool. They could find no reason for this, and so it must have been the wizard's doing.
Only after a long search of the area—coming outside frequently to cool themselves—were they able to find scraps of cloth and food, a place where the rocks had been pushed aside to form a hollow, the makings of a bed. The wizard's meager camp.
That left only one difficulty: they could not find the wizard himself.
Eardwulf glanced at the setting sun. Though it was by now quite late, the long summer day meant they would have light for a while yet. "We missed an opportunity. Such is the way of things. This is the wizard's lair, right enough. We've other chances we might seize upon, if only we reach for them."
"If he is near, he must have seen us. If not, we waste our time. All of this was for nought."
"Do you remember the wolf? Where did it run, after the shot?"
"To a hiding place."
"No." Eardwulf smiled. "It ran to its den. In that, hunter and prey aren't so different. Wound them—frighten them—and their first thought is for home."
"I would think no differently."
"No, and we must hope the wizard is not so mad he would. Listen closely. This is how we will catch the wizard yet, if he can be caught: you stay here, and keep these hills with a watchful eye. I will go into the woods and make a wide circle; if he is nearby, I will find him. Then I've only to drive him out, and where will he think to run, but toward where you lie in wait?"
"We catch him between us."
"Just so. And then we fill him with enough arrows he cannot ensorcel us."
"I don't care for this. Too many dangers, yet."
Eardwulf shrugged. "We are hunting a wizard. If you haven't the stomach for danger, leave. See how well you fare alone."
For a moment it seemed Dunstan would argue more but then a new look came into his face. It was only the briefest flicker, and then he mastered himself and it was gone. He nodded. "I will wait and watch."
"You'll have earned a story of your own before the night is out."
With that the two parted ways, and it seemed for all the world that their earlier difficulties had come to nought and been forgotten.
But one of them remembered yet.
There is an allure to the wild places. Life holds but three laws: do as is your nature, seize what you may, and above all, live to see the morrow. These had been Eardwulf's guiding principles all his life (the second above all) and he had risen to wealth and fame through them. Now he would enact them again, and seize what he might in exchange for Sivna's head: the honor of a gift repaid and the fame of having slain a wizard.
He had only to find him.
Elm and even hickory had mostly given way to hardier trees; here and there a few of the southerly kine could still be found with branches raised to the cold sun, but as the shadows lengthened they were hidden more and more by the dark needles of their northerly cousins. Eardwulf stalked quickly between the trunks, moving farther and faster than he had with Dunstan shadowing his footsteps. And yet by the time his growling stomach forced Eardwulf to stop and eat, he'd found no sign of his quarry.
He had crossed many long and lonely miles that day and smiled through all of them. After his meal, as dusk crept across the land, he set his feet on a path that would take him to the boiling spring by a long and circular route. He kept the column of steam in sight as best he could, but in time the sky darkened and he could mark it only now and then by the way it veiled the stars, making them shiver and dance in a line from the horizon to the firmament.
The stars, for their part, watched and waited.
It was full dark and his going slow when he found the wizard. Eardwulf had been listening to the noises all around him—nearly deafening, insects and night-birds and the furtive movements of beasts—when he came to a place where it all at once gave way to silence. The Hunter froze at once, midstep, and bent all his thought to his senses. At first he thought it the rolling silence which so often heralds a predator's approach. But nothing stirred, and no predator came.
A lesser man would never have discerned the signs, and even Eardwulf was slow to realize it: the wind had changed. All day a breeze out of the west had been his companion, but now it came to him out of the north. What could have caused the change, and so suddenly, he feared to guess at. But what could it be if not a sign?
The Hunter put his face to the unnatural wind and, with the boiling spring now at his back, made his way deeper into the wood.
When the light appeared over a lip of stone Eardwulf nearly started, and that surely would have been his undoing. His eyes had grown accustomed to the black and it took many long moments before the traces of that light disappeared from behind his lids. When he was able to look without squinting he crept silently forward onto the little stone ledge and looked down to the illuminated spot below.
Not even a stone's throw away stood the wizard. He faced the other direction, giving Eardwulf a view of little more than his ragged clothing and a back covered in thin pink scars and dense black hair. Before him lay a bed of embers which glowed, somehow, bright enough to light the whole clearing in an evil shade of red.
"Come to me," said the wild man. When he raised his hands Eardwulf saw they were covered in something dark and glistening. Blood. A few drops fell into the embers and hissed. At once the wind grew stronger. The trees rattled their branches as though angered by the blasphemies committed in their midst.
That was enough for Eardwulf. He had no interest whatever in the wizard's schemes.
He aimed the bow before drawing it; felt the arrow's flight before loosing. The wizard grunted and fell forward into the coals. The sound and smell of burning flesh filled the clearing and rose up to the ledge where Eardwulf waited. He counted out two score before descending to claim his prize.
It was not long enough.
The wizard gave a pained moan when Eardwulf dragged him out of the embers. He might've managed to stand, or cast a spell, had the Hunter not flipped him onto his back and buried a knife in his chest. And again. And again.
As it was, the wizard could do little more than look up into the void above and whisper through singed lips: "The sky, the sky, the sky..."
Eardwulf followed the wizard's gaze, but saw only the stars gazing back.
He made his way to the boiling spring as quickly as he could, and with no more care for quiet. He kept his new prize—his quarry's head—at arm's length. There was some part of him which felt it still contained a kind of power.
"What did you mean, the sky?" He asked it. There was no response, for which he was grateful. The wizard's words troubled him. The way the dying man had said it, entreating him, begging. So consumed was he by his thoughts, he failed to notice the two hills rising before him until he was already almost at their base.
The water no longer boiled. Now it was only a pleasantly-bubbling spring set in a cleft of the earth. Dunstan had made a fire a little ways up one of the hills and now he stood at his father's approach.
Eardwulf was raising his hand to show his son the head when an arrow blossomed in his chest. He staggered back (with a noise not unlike the one the wizard had made) but managed to keep his feet.
He tried to speak, but agony radiated through his chest and halted his breath. The blood roared in his ears, and over it he heard only Dunstan's mocking laughter.
The Hunter dropped his prize and fled back the way he had come.
Seize upon every opportunity. How many times had he told his son those words? It seemed at last Dunstan had learned. Eardwulf almost wanted to congratulate him. And yet... If you are to take a life, have the courtesy to end it as swiftly as you might. That had been a lesson as well, one it seemed the boy had ignored. As he made his shambling way through the darkened wood Eardwulf was unsure whether or not to be grateful.
He had no den to which he could return, not before his end found him. But he knew of one place where he could at least die alone, as he preferred.
Everything was as it had been. The mutilated body had not stirred, nor had anything else come along to defile it further. Not yet.
Eardwulf fell gracelessly down the stone slope. Dunstan's arrow was still lodged in his chest; somehow he felt not pain but only pressure, as if a weight were bearing down on his heart. That changed when he tumbled into the wizard's clearing and the arrowshaft snapped only a finger's breadth out of his flesh. Eardwulf screamed, and for a time there was nothing.
When he awoke the ground was stained red. The pain had gone again but now it had taken with it all sensation in his legs and in his fingers. Thought was gone as well, leaving only the Hunter's animal instinct. Live to see the morrow. A mantra, one of the edicts of the natural world. Live. Live. Live!
Inch by inch he approached the coals. He was cold, his skin clammy and pale. If he understood the futility of the act he gave no sign; he only crawled forward until he found himself before the still-glowing embers beside the wizard's headless corpse. Eardwulf rubbed his hands together and held them out, as though warming himself before a fire.
It took him a long moment—maybe a heartbeat, but he could no longer count his own—to remember why he was covered in blood.
A drop of it fell into the bed of coals, hissing. Another.
The wizard's words rang in his ears.
Something changed around him. Not a physical change, but a sensation which cut through the haze of pain and the slow ebbing of his mind. It cut through to the instincts of every beast which has ever been prey: You are not alone, it said. And yet he was alone. Only the onlooking stars kept him company now.
The feeling came again. Stronger, sharper. Now it cut to Eardwulf's core, and the dying man laughed, and laughed, and laughed. He rolled onto his back and looked up into the empty heavens. No, not empty.
There was an opportunity here, the Hunter knew, and he would take it.
Above him the stars shivered, shuddered. The night sky seemed to darken and then to bulge. It surged, spreading, growing down and out. The air was pressed down onto him in great gusts of wind as the void itself pushed toward the earth.
The horizons shrank away to nothing.
The stars swelled and the midnight sky—the final and greatest curtain—was pushed aside.
I've had that final image, of the night sky being pushed by the movements of something far greater, stuck in the back of my mind for at least six or seven years now. It's probably what reignited my love of the cosmic horror genre. But, though having it has done me some good, I'm very glad to say that writing this piece seems to have exorcised it once and for all. I'm afraid I still haven't been able to do my original conception justice, but such is the way of things. The idea is gone, it's in the world (in some small way), and most importantly, it's out of my head.
Sheet music on the homepage!