By Cody Claassen
The Old Forest reaches from top to toe,
And through this woods we all must go.
Let evil be vanquished with each kill we sow,
What the Children learned then, the Elders now know
“Wilric, what is the most important thing to remember during The Great Hunt?” Teacher asked. Wilric jolted awake from where he sat in the clearing, lit with the dying sun and the content flames of the fire in the middle of the circle of children. He saw a disappointed look from the retired Forest Guard. Snickers from the other Leaf Scouts tittered from his left and right side.”I’m sorry, Teacher, I didn’t hear the question. What was it again?”
The scarred teacher sighed. “During The Great Hunt, what should you do?”
“Ummm… You should chew on willow bark?” said Wilric, his tone jovial.
“No, Wilric,” the teacher chided. “That’s for mild pain. Can anybody else remember?” Many other hands shot up from the other children gathered in the clearing. Murmurs and pleas for selection arose from the young students. “Marten, what is the answer?”
“During the Great Hunt everyone should stay indoors, lock all doors, and open them only after the sun has risen again, always keep something made of iron on your person or close by, and keep a fire made of rowan burning hot in the hearth,” said Marten with no hesitation or pause.
“Very good, Marten.” said the teacher, scarred from age and combat with a smile, pride briefly touching his one good eye. “And if you are caught outside?”
Marten paused before speaking. “I don’t know. I suppose I would want to seek shelter anywhere I could.”
“Hmm, that’s part of it, definitely seek shelter: find the safest place you can find. But the most important thing during the Great Hunt is to be mindful. Be mindful of your surroundings, be mindful of the time, and most importantly, be mindful of the horns,” the teacher said grimly.
“Well,” said Wilric. “I think we should also look out for antlers and tusks and all manner of pointy things.”
The teacher’s face changed into a gnarled mass of anger, but only for a second. “No, Wilric,” he said in a restrained voice. “By horns, I mean bugles and trumpets. Horns that would be used in a hunting party. If you are outside during the Great Hunt and can hear the horns, find the direction it is loudest and then go the opposite way. If the horns end suddenly, you’re already dead. Find shelter, do not build a fire, and do not draw your weapons. That will only enrage her.”
“Her who?” asked Wilric.
“The Erlking, Fey of No Court, Mistress of the Hunt,” said the scarred teacher in a grave tone.
Silence took the clearing as the young students took in the information. They had all heard stories of the Erlking, about the one who stalked through their woods one night out of the year with her immortal party of the land’s deadliest hunters and killers hunting dangerous game. Tales of how she had killed all the dragons in the forest as they made great prey, how she made great warriors that dare boast to be better hunters weep as she tracked them mercilessly through the woods. She would hunt anything she felt would make a worthy trophy. But those were only stories.
But the scarred teacher said she was real.
The teacher finally spoke up again. “The Great Hunt will happen tomorrow, once the sun has set. Tomorrow, seven of you will make your way to the Western Outpost, a half day trek through the deepest part of the forest to continue your training as Forest Guards. If you can make it, you will go up a rank, from Leaf to Branch.”
The clearing hummed with excitement. Notes and chords of conversation thrummed amongst the children. The teacher waited until the chatter had died down and spoke again.
“You will leave once the sun rises, that should give you enough time to make it to the Outpost before the moon has risen too high in the sky. If you can’t make it there before the hunt begins, find shelter and try to make it through the night. Today, you should go and prepare for the journey, and remember to pack for life at the Western Outpost. Bring no food with you, part of the test is your foraging abilities. When you come back to this village you will be true Forest Guards. Go now, you are dismissed.”
The children left the wooded clearing and went down the path towards the village, the late day sun casting a dim, burning light for them to follow. Wilric got up to leave with the rest of the group. Suddenly, the harsh voice stopped him where he stood. “Wilric, stop. We need to discuss something.”
The blood rushed from his face as he turned around to face the grizzled ex-Forest Guard. He looked into the eyes of the man that had been teaching the gathering of Leaf Scouts. One of his eyes, left one, had become milky and dimmed from an angry red scar that crossed his face, a result of a fight from the man’s youth. But the other eye, the right eye, was bright and quick. It was the blue of the inside of a flame, the hottest part, where iron and steel is tempered and forged.
“Wilric,” began the teacher. “You should not participate in the journey.”
Wilric’s heart froze. His insides turned to ice and his mouth dried. “Why not?” he stammered out, the only thing his stunned mind could think of at the moment.
“You do not have the skills required to make it to the outpost. Your woodcraft is lacking, you failed all combat exams, and your knowledge of the bestiary is laughable at best,” stated the teacher in a very matter of fact manner. “No, in your current state, you would only harm your scout mates.”
Wilric’s face flushed an angry red. Tears welled up behind, threatening to fall. He pushed them back. He knew all of this to be true but still a small part of him rebelled.
“Sir, I’m going on the journey and you cannot stop me,” said Wilric.
The teacher let a small smile touch his face. “And you suppose that your stubbornness will convince me that you deserve to be there, on the trail with the other Leaf Scouts? Come now, Wilric, that only works in stories mothers tell to their mewling babes.” The teacher began to walk away from the clearing, leaning heavily on a walking staff. “No, you are a boy of thirteen now. You need to know that there are consequences for your failures. You can go on the journey next year with the next group.”
Wilric stepped angrily towards the old Forest Guard, all frost and fear inside him forgotten, being replaced with sizzling pride. “I will go on the journey, tomorrow. That is a fact.”
The scarred man continued to walk away. “Fine then,” he said over his shoulder. “Go with them. I’ll be sure to tell the priests to prepare a stirring eulogy for the brave and cocksure Wilric, fool of the Leaf Scouts. See you tomorrow, then. Be sure to put out the fire before you go.” And with that the teacher limped into the late day shade of the forest and disappeared down the path.
Wilric stood there for a long moment. The sun had finally dipped behind the tree line and cast its dying light through the forest. He felt a shiver as the chill of the night began to creep into the air. He then gathered himself and doused the fire with water from a nearby stream and hurried down the trail for the village.
The small village of Lodin was quiet when Wilric reached it. Every year on this day, the graduating Leaf Scouts would gather with their families and have one final night of peace before they would have to leave for their training in combat.
Wilric made his way to his home on the other side of town, walking through the center of Lodin. He past a few shops and taverns along the way, all empty except for the taverns filled with a smattering of travelers and traders that had come to spend the night. Music whispered out of these places but that only served to highlight just how quiet the village was tonight.
Tonight, Lodin was proudly and reverently waiting to send their youth out to die. The trip had become safer over the years and a path had been created and maintained. The Leaf Scouts had been trained more effectively than in prior years, but the journey would end the childhood of those who left tomorrow. It was nearly impossible to reach the Western Outpost with your innocence intact.
It was an honor to be a part of the legendary Forest Guards, though, and Lodin had produced the most Leaf Scouts in recent years, a fact the village was very proud of. The Forest Guard had made life inside the Mother Woods possible, allowing for a prosperous, if dangerous, existence for many of the people living under her canopy.
Wilric wanted that honor desperately. He craved it in ways he could hardly tolerate.
He reached his house. The wooden structure was not much to look at, but it had been his home for all his meager years. He opened the oaken door and made his way inside.
“Are you leaving, then?” A deep voice asked Wilric. It rumbled through Wilric, setting a deep fear inside of him, deeper than the fear of having to wait another year to leave this place. Wilric set his feet and put on his best brave face.
“Yes, father. I leave tomorrow.”
The eight Leaf Scouts were gathered together at the head of the trail. The early morning sunlight seeped through the foliage above and danced on the morning dew. A small crowd of people from the village had grouped together to see the boys off on their journey. The teacher walked to the front of the group and began speaking.
“Today, we see the future leaders of the Forest Guards off on their journey. To help them on their travels, a gift of an iron blade is presented to each Leaf Scout.” The teacher passed out short swords, two and a half hands long, to his now former students.
“Their uses are many: clearing the path ahead of you, crafting the tools to help you survive, and perhaps the most well-known use, killing the evils of the forest. Our ancestors realized that the only way to confront the demons and beasts that thrive in this forest, our home, was to take them head on and destroy them. Leaf Scouts, grab your packs and go now. And remember: it is an honor to live beneath her leaves.”
The gathering chanted back to the teacher in a reverent tone:
May we die beneath those leaves.
And with that eight Leaf Scouts left the village that birthed them.
“I’m surprised they let you go with us, Wilric. After your poor performance in the combat trials and the woodcraft trials, oh, and the bestiary trials,” said Marten, veiled poison on his voice. “Was there any trial that you did pass?”
Wilric frowned. “Well, there was one trial I did really well in, but sadly, your sister was the only judge of it. And, though it depressed her greatly, she could not give me a badge for my giant cock.”
Marten’s face flushed red. “How dare you insult my sister.”
“Oh, it’s not an insult at all, she was a great judge. Your sister has had a lot of experience with giant cocks and agreed that mine was a spectacular specimen,” Wilric said, a grin now gracing his face. “She said it was a shame, though, that I had to be cursed with such a gigantic member because it would always get in the way of my combat, woodcraft, and bestiary knowledge.”
Marten lunged at Wilric, knocking them both down. They rolled around on the ground, both battling for supremacy of the tussle. Eventually it became evident that Marten was the clear victor and the other boys pulled him off of Wilric.
“That’s enough, you two. We don’t have time for this kind of thing.” Said Donnel, the self-appointed leader of the traveling Leaf Scouts. His father had been the leader of Forest Guard at the village before a beast in the woods had taken his life. “We need to make it to the Western Outpost before the Great Hunt starts. Come on, let’s go.”
Wilric and Marten reluctantly got up, dusted themselves off, and followed the rest of the group.
The group traveled in silence for a long time. The Sun rose to its apex and shone hot daggers through the leaves and branches above them. The path that they had been following became difficult and treacherous, with roots coming up to trip feet and holes twisting ankles. It had been six hours since they had started the trek from the village. The legs of the boys, although toned and conditioned from rigorous training with their teacher, were now aching for a rest.
But Donnel refused to stop, not for rest, not for food, not for anything. He was determined to push the Leaf Scouts to the outpost before the Great Hunt started. It wasn’t until one of the boys slipped on some loose gravel that he finally relented and stopped the troop.
“Leaf Scouts,” he shouted at the group. “We are breaking for lunch now. This is the only stop we are going to take. Do not eat too much and do not drink too much. If you do, you’ll cramp up and slow us down. Understand?”
The rest of the Leaf Scouts nodded in acknowledgement, all except Wilric.
“Where are we going to get food?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Donnel, trying to keep an air of command about him. “That’s the point of foraging and woodcraft, to find food.”
“I understand,” Wilric said, rolling his eyes. “But how are we going to find the food?”
“I don’t care. Forage, hunt, whatever you want to do, just be back here in an hour, ready to go.” said Donnel. “Now go or don’t. I don’t care.”
Wilric turned and left the path in huff. He wasn’t going to wait around while Donnel and Marten searched for food. If nothing else, he could have an hour without them around. And who knew? Perhaps he would find some food after all. Wilric began searching.
After roughly three quarters of an hour, he finally found a bush of berries. He began picking the ripe ones off of the thorny bush and putting them into a handkerchief he had remembered to pack. Once he had had enough, he folded the handkerchief into a bag shape. He was going to bring this back to the Leaf Scouts and eat them in front of them.
The trek back took almost the rest of the hour but eventually he made it back, bramble scratched and tired, but happy with an insane delight.
“Well, look who’s back.” said Marten, sarcasm dripping off of his tongue. “I was hoping we could leave you behind.”
“Lucky for your sister, here I am.” said Wilric. “And I’ve got tasty berry treats to eat now.” Wilric shook the sack in front of Marten’s face. “These will taste delicious, much fresher than whatever nuts or mushrooms you found.”
Marten’s eyes narrowed and then a sick smile crossed his face. “Go ahead then, eat them, see if I care.”
Wilric was unsettled by the smile but didn’t let it bother him. He opened up his makeshift sack and popped a couple of the dark red berries into his mouth, chewing in a delicate manner.
“How do those Wolf Berries taste?’
Wilric froze mid-chew. “What?” he said.
“The Wolf Berries, how do they taste?”
Wilric swallowed. “Those weren’t Wolf Berries, they were just buckthorn berries.” He tried to keep calm, but doubt was creeping into his mind.
“Oh, yes they were, I could smell them from inside the sack. They don’t call them Death’s Scent for nothing. Couldn’t you tell from its distinct sweet smell?”
Wilric smelled the bag. He smelled fresh fruit and sweetness and…something else.
“That’s right, you failed you woodcraft trial, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Wolf Berries and any other tasty morsel.” grinned Marten. “God, sometimes I’m just a great big idiot.”
Wilric was stunned. His mind was racing. Wolf Berry was a poisonous berry that caused…it caused …what? Something to do with blood. That was it, he would throw up blood and… limbs, something with limbs. He would lose all feeling in his limbs.
He dropped the bag of sweet death and ran to Donnel.
“Donnel, you have to help me. I’ve been poisoned!” said Wilric, panic creeping into his voice.
“I ate some Wolf Berries I found,” said Wilric. A mixture of shame and fear tinged his words.
Donnel’s face changed to a frown. “Then you die.” His voice was filled with disgust. He shoved Wilric out of the way. “Leaf Scouts, we leave now.”
“You can’t just leave me. That’s not right,” said Wilric. “I don’t want to die out here.” His voice broke as he spoke.
“We don’t have time for that, we need to make it to the Outpost before the Great Hunt, otherwise, we’re all dead,” said Donnel, his voice taking on a commanding tone. “Come on, let’s go.”
“My death will be on your hands, then,” Wilric said, trying to appeal to Donnel’s honorable side. “Can you live with that?”
A tone of general consensus rose from the group. Donnel looked from one Leaf Scout to another. Seeing that the majority of the troop was in favor of staying with Wilric, he finally relented.
“Fine. Leaf Scouts, we need to make camp then. We get off the main path and build a fire. We have preparations to attend to if we are going to make it through the night.
Six hours later, the Leaf Scouts were off the path and underneath a rock overhang, roots of a tree forming walls to their North and South. The last of the day’s sunlight was falling through the foliage, signaling that the day was coming to an end. A fire was roaring inside the makeshift shelter, nice and hot. On one end sat the Leaf Scouts, silent as they waited for night to come, and with it, the Great Hunt. On the other side, lay the prone form of Wilric. He shivered as the poison of the berry worked its way through his system. He coughed, blood seeping through his clenched teeth. One of the scouts leaned over his body dabbed at his face, wiping away the crimson liquid.
“We should have left him,” sulked Marten. “He’s dead weight, now.”
“Be quiet, Marten,” hissed Donnel. “Besides, this is your fault, too.”
“My fault?” cried Marten indignantly. “How is it my fault?”
“You let him eat the berries. If you had stopped him, we would almost be at the Outpost by now,” said Donnel. “Why did you do it?”
Marten was silent.
“I know you two don’t get along, and that he is not a good Leaf Scout, but that’s no reason to poison him.”
Marten’s face showed nothing.
“Come on, be honest with me. Why does he bother you so?”
Marten answered. “Because he does not deserve to be a Forest Guard. He has neither the skills nor the knowledge on how to protect our people. By letting him die, I would have saved future people from his incompetence.”
Donnel was about to retort when Wilric let out another cough, more blood spattering out. He wheezed, “Do you think I was trying to be a failure? I tried my hardest at everything.”
Marten laughed. “And it wasn’t enough. Face it, you failure, you weren’t cut out for the Leaf Scouts.”
Wilric sat up. “Shut up.”
“Heh, make me, failure,” said Marten, drawing his new iron blade.
“Marten, put your blade down. That’s an order,” said Donnel, attempting to sound like a leader.
“Why?” Marten asked, hysteria filling his voice. “It’s not like it’s going to matter now. The Great Hunt is going to happen any minute now and we are all going to die.”
“Not necessarily. Teacher told us how to make it through the night,” said Donnel, trying to comfort Marten, but even he didn’t sound convinced.
“And the entire strategy for survival was to run and hide. No, that’s not going to work. Not with him slowing us down,” Marten said, pointing at Wilric with the tip of his short sword.
“I’m not going to slow you down. I’m fine now, honest,” said Wilric, standing up. It almost looked like he was telling the truth, till he coughed up more blood.
“See, he’s weak. We should have let him die. And we still can.” Marten took a step towards Wilric, blade poised in a dangerous manner.
“Stop it, Marten, we can’t kill Wilric,” shouted Donnel. “That’s just–”
The last of his sentence was cut off by the sound of loud and terrible horns. Horns that signaled the beginning of a hunt, the chasing of prey, ending of lives. The horns of The Erlking, Fey of No Court, Mistress of the Hunt.
The sound of the horns spread fear through the Leaf Scouts. Murmurs of panic and prayers were made. Through it all, Donnel issued unheard orders to the children.
“Do you see? Do you see it, now?” shouted Marten in a high pitched manic shrill. “We should have killed him. But none of you could. But I can, I can do it and save us all.” He lunged at Donnel, sword first, killing him. “You should have let Wilric die.”
The entire troop was enveloped in silence. All that could be heard was the horrifying sound of horns in the distance. Marten struggled to pull the blade free from Donnel’s failing body. He dropped to the ground bringing his blade with him. Marten looked at his body, then at the rest of the Scouts, then back down. It was the first time he had seen so much blood. It was darker than he thought it would be. And the smell, the coppery smell overtook all the other smells, destroying them. The forest, the fire, every smell was gone except for the blood smell flowing from Donnel’s essence.
“You killed him,” said one of the Scouts.
The dragging sound of iron against leather was faintly heard against the sound of the horns.
Marten looked back at Wilric. Tears were forming in his eyes. “Marten, I’m going to kill you.” His voice was perfectly calm, like he was stating the obvious, like it’s raining, or the trail is a little rough here, or you killed the one person that took care of me and now you need to die to restore the balance of the world.
Marten feared Wilric, now. He was scared of the boy with his sword drawn with the intention of spilling his blood. He took a step back and looked towards the other scouts. None of them looked like they were going to give him support. He returned his gaze to Wilric. He took a step towards him, and another, and another. He was close enough to touch him with the blade now.
Marten did the only thing he could think of doing. He ran out into the wilderness, with the horns still blaring and the moon coming up.
A Leaf Scout stood up, putting out the fire with water they had prepared beforehand. “Everyone, we need to hide, now.”
“No, I’m going to find him and kill him before the Erlking can,” Wilric said, sounding very unlike the child of thirteen he really was.
“You’ll die,” said one of the other scouts.
“I’m already dying,” said Wilric smiling. Blood coated his teeth, making a ghastly display. “This won’t change much.”
He dropped his pack and cloak and, despite his condition, limped into the forest.
Wilric had limited woodcraft skills but even a blind and infirm old man could have followed the panicked trail that Marten had left.
Broken branches, disturbed rocks, they all led Wilric towards his prey. His drawn sword gleamed in the moonlight. It was full tonight and very bright. The horns still echoed in the night, louder now than before under the overhang. He didn’t have much time before the Erlking was upon them. That was fine, as long as he got to Marten first. He would be glad to die by the Erlking’s hand.
Marten’s trail led to a clearing, very much like the one teacher used to teach them in. How poetic. This would be a fitting end for him. He could hear Marten’s labored breath near the center of the clearing. He stayed in the shadows of the trees and moved into position.
Marten’s breath was slowly coming back to him. He stood up straight and began to scan the tree line for an indication on how to proceed. The horns were at their loudest now. He could hear the baying of dogs now. Not long now.
Marten finally turned around, giving his back to Wilric. Wilric, with the last of the energy he could muster, charged out of the shadows: sword at the ready, an animal scream at his lips. Marten turned around but it was too late. The sword went down in to his chest. And down again into his chest. And down again into his chest. The sound of violence and the horns melded in his head till they were indistinguishable from each other.
Blood sprayed Wilric, the hot liquid hitting his face, blinding him. He kept stabbing. He stabbed until his arms burned and even then he still stabbed.
Finally, his arms gave out and he collapsed on top of Marten’s body. He rolled off and just lay there, eyes closed.
He listened to the night. He could hear the crickets. The sound of night birds singing their midnight aria. The sound of howling–
The sound of the horns was gone.
He sat up, trying to wipe the blood from his eyes.
“That’s the worst, is it not? Getting blood in your eyes, I mean.”
Wilric stopped moving. The voice was unfamiliar to him. It was strong and confident. It was light and feminine. It was commanding and feral. It was unearthly.
It was the voice of the Erlking.
“Here, let me help you with that.” Wilric felt a cloth being wiped over his face, cleaning it. “There, that’s better.”
Wilric opened his eyes and looked at the Erlking.
She was a tall figure, taller than anyone he had seen before, and looked very strong. She didn’t bulge with muscle, but rather, the way she stood signaled the kind of strength she had. Her body was covered in various furs and leathers from different animals. On her head she wore a helmet made to look like a snow owl. It was topped with the horns from what must have been the biggest deer in the forest.
“That’s a rather messy kill there. Is it your first?” asked the Erlking.
Wilric nodded, too scared to speak.
“That’s not too bad, then, I suppose. It definitely could be better though.”
“It’s my first time, I’m not exactly… proficient.” Wilric said, trying to mask his fear with humor. This was the deepest fear he ever had felt. More than the fear of being left in his village, the fear of his father, or the fear of death. This was the fear of prey.
The Erlking laughed a big booming laugh. “No, I guess you probably are not proficient, not with the yell you let out.” She continued laughing.
“I thought perhaps it would scare him, put him on edge,” Wilric said, trying to defend himself. “I didn’t have much going for me besides fear and–” The adrenaline from stalking Marten had worn off, allowing the Wolf Berries’ poison to affect him again. He collapsed.
The Erlking sat next to him and took off her helmet. Red hair tumbled around her face messily, glowing green eyes examined him. Her nose flared, sniffing the air around him. Her head cocked curiously. “Why would you eat Wolf Berries? I thought most mortals knew they were poisonous.”
Wilric wheezed, “I knew they were poisonous, I didn’t know what they looked like.”
The huntress hummed in acknowledgement. “You really are a foolish boy, aren’t you?” She placed a hand on his chest. “You don’t have much time left at all.”
She stood up and put the helmet in the crook of her arm. She looked down at Wilric, his body entirely numb. “What is your name, Leaf Scout?” She said, her voice commanding.
“Wilric Desselson,” he said weakly.
“And you have not sworn a fealty to anyone before today?” she asked.
Wilric faltered. “I…don’t–”
“Answer the question, Wilric Desselson.” she shouted, suddenly angry.
“No,” he said fearfully.
The Erlking continued. “Then in exchange for healing you of all of your ills, you will swear fealty to me.” A smile crossed her face. “You will obey my every order, you will attend to my every need, and you will accompany me on all my business. Is this acceptable?”
Wilric’s mind raced. He would be part of the Erlking’s court, one of her huntsman. What could he say?
“It is acceptable.”
“Then swear it.”
“I swear to you, Erlking.”