Lost love and the Wild Hunt
The Master stood at the tall window, as dark and imposing as the great mountain that loomed black against the village below.
Vincent spoke quietly. “Sir, I have made sure the best horse is ready for your departure. Is there anything else you require before I retire for the night?” He struggled to keep his tone free from resentment over the late hour.
The Master smiled, still looking out at the moonlit night — smiled, raised his hand, and shook an empty brandy glass. “Pour one for yourself too, and put another log on the fire. I require your service, no, your company a while longer. I shall make it as painless as possible.”
Vincent felt nervous. A servant drinking with his master was unconventional even for this Master. He poured two more measures of the dark amber liquor.
The Master took a seat in the plump high-back chair and motioned for Vincent to sit opposite.
“You are aware Emily Stillbridge came visiting today?” murmured the Master, still looking out of the window.
“I am, Sir.”
“She has told me with much relish and venom, disguised as discretion and concern, that there is talk in the village. About you and a certain carpenter’s apprentice? She advised me that he is not a boy to be associated with. I thanked her and assured her the matter would be dealt with.”
Vincent was shot through with fear. If the Master let him go in the dead of winter without a reference, he would not live to see the spring. But his fear changed quickly to anger. Talk in the village. All they do is talk in the village!
The Master observed his changing expressions.
“Do not worry, Vincent. I will require your services for a while yet. If you will indulge me, I should like to tell you a story. I know you like our local tales. Mr Clunes informs me you make use of my library often. I confess I have eavesdropped more than once while you and he discuss philosophy. I have heard you tie the old man in knots.”
Vincent gave a shy smile, “I am apt to forget my station, Sir, when my passions are stirred.”
“Quite,” smiled the Master. He looked again to the window and his expression hardened. “Tell me, Vincent have you ever read about The Wild Hunt in my volumes?”
Vincent became animated, “I have, Sir. It is one of my favourite legends. The wild band of daemons that charge down the mountainside looking to take the souls of all who sin. There is a tale in the village that the blacksmith’s father was taken by the hunt before the blacksmith was born.”
“That is the tale I wish to tell. Listen carefully, because I do not think you will have heard this variation.” The Master took a deep sip of his brandy and began.
I was a year older than you when my father passed. If I am to be honest, I felt little grief. It was hard to grieve a man so cold and distant. But I did feel terror. I would be expected to take charge of the manor and all the responsibilities it entailed. A task for which I had no desire or aptitude. Mr Clunes, who was then my tutor, suggested I focus on improving my aptitude, in the hope that desire for improvement would grow into desire for my new role.
I decided the first thing I needed was to assert my authority over the staff. Until then, I had been the milksop son who hid in the library. If the house was to run efficiently, I would need to change that perception.
My initial attempts were met with polite compliance, but I was certain they mocked me below stairs. That is how I came to break poor Nathaniel’s arm.
He was in the library, you see. I forbade any staff to be alone there. Those books were my treasures. Yet there he was, dirty hands stuffing a large book beneath his shirt. Such defiance in his eyes, even though he had been caught red-handed. I reached for the nearest object I could. The poker from the fireplace. The moment I swung, I regretted it. The boy was the victim of my pride and paranoia.
He stifled a yelp, then spoke. “Sir, I am sorry! I had no intention to steal. I meant to borrow it. I need to be able to read. If I am to leave the village, I must be able to read or there is no advantage.”
He began to pant in pain. I sent immediately for the doctor to set his arm. I watched as he did and contemplated the handsome kitchen boy who wanted to read. The idea fascinated me, and I resolved to know him better. I ordered that during his recuperation he would assist me in my study. In fact, it would be I who assisted him. I felt I owed it to him to grant his wish.
He was a voracious student. Within the month he could read as well as I. By the time his arm was healed, he had embarked upon acquiring the knowledge of the privileged class. He would greet each new idea with the vigour of a child stamping fresh snow.
The Master smiled.
Vigorous delight is how he lived. It is how I found his fearless lips pressed to mine one summer’s night in the cornfields. In the moonless night, we explored and mapped one other. The thrill of forbidden terrain intoxicated me.
Although we were careful, talk began amongst the staff and made its way down to the village. Eventually, it became a whisper among the poison pews and dripped into my mother’s ear.
She made no mention of Nathaniel when she spoke to me. She merely said that nobody of my status had any business in cornfields at night. Within the week my engagement was announced, and a week later a girl in the village claimed Nathaniel to be the father of her child.
That is when he first told me of The Wild Hunt. He snuck into my room in the dead of night and described it not as legend but as fact. He had seen it once before, from his window as a child. But what he described was not a loathsome procession of evil. It was a parade of beautiful beings, naked on horseback, lustily chasing their freedom without shame or sophistry.
He had marked the dates of their sightings and observed a pattern. Tonight the hunt would be on. All we must do is find them and join them. I told him I could not, and he kissed me. He said The Hunt was feared by the fearful, but for the brave like us, they would have a place. I lost myself in his frantic optimism.
We found them in the cornfields where our love had first bloomed. As they approached, I saw what he had claimed to be true, beautiful beings powerful and proud. Nathaniel grasped my hand as they bore down on us. But I flinched, my sense of duty and convention stronger than his. The spectral riders cavorted around us. One reached down to lift Nathaniel onto his mount. I watched as his soul burst forth, as he became one of them.
I did not reach out to them. As quickly as they came, they were gone. I found myself alone, Nathaniel’s cooling husk at my feet.
The snowfall hid my footprints. At first, they assumed Nathaniel had fled, but when the thaw came they found him. Many who knew him thought he had chosen to walk into the snow rather than meet his responsibilities. Though some claimed The Hunt had taken him for his sins.
I married. And I know you are aware of how that sad episode ended. I drove the girl quite mad with my cold cruelty. Another victim of my cowardice. Do you know they wouldn’t bury her on Church grounds? Despite her station? It seems their Lord does not forgive desperate souls whose lot is to suffer. That is why she is entombed here. Her grave has served as a reminder of my shame every day these three decades.
The Master turned away from the window and regarded the boy again. “It must be shocking for you to hear your master talk so frankly.”
“Refreshing, Sir,” replied Vincent, emboldened by the brandy.
The Master smiled warmly. “What do you make of my tale, Vincent? Why do you think I shared it with you? And please, afford me the same honesty I have extended to you.”
Vincent exhaled, uncharacteristically unsure of what to say. Dare he speak the truth?
“Sir, I believe you told me because I remind you of your kitchen porter. I see now why you allowed me to study at your books. Your regret is why you have afforded the same privilege to all the staff. As for your story… I think the way you tell it, it is a tale of regret. A fable that warns the listener to be brave and to grasp at every opportunity life presents.
“But Sir, respectfully, I see it as a different tale. A tale of running away. And yes, while you say your bride was a victim of your own fear and cruelty, she was also a victim of her own. Your brave lover who embraced his freedom? Is it truly brave to give up a world where there is so much to be done, so much to fight for, for a new one full of unearned pleasure?”
The Master looked more amused than surprised at his response.
“And if you had the means to influence this world of ours that is in need of fixing, what would you do?”
Vincent’s quick reply betrayed the fact he had often thought on this question, “I would educate the people. The boys and the girls. I would gift them with new ideas, and art and music. I would hope they see there are other voices that should be heard, that their voices should be heard. I would encourage them to see the conventions to which they feverishly cling are their cages. I would offer them a strong hand to grasp, not the nebulous, spectral hand of the hunt.”
“Then I have chosen well,” said the Master. “My story, Vincent, needs an ending. Everyone’s story needs an ending. I have the privilege of not heeding the convention of birthright. I may choose my heir, and I have done.
“It is you I have chosen. The village will talk, of course. They will suspect you must have served your Master in sinful ways. I suspect you will be able to weather the gossip.”
Vincent was dumbstruck. The Master, registering the boy’s expression proffered some help. “You may thank me now.”
“Thank you, Sir.”
“You may go.”
Vincent complied. Mind racing, he took the glasses to the kitchen and washed them before retiring to his cold chamber. As he threw a fur around his shoulders, he looked out of his small window toward the mountain.
A mist, luminous in the moonlight, crawled steadily down its side. It churned and roiled, and Vincent swore that for a moment he could see a bare-chested rider leap from the milky cloud.
In the field below, he made out the figure of a man with no business in cornfields at night, his hand raised in what looked like hope.