The Huntsman Part I - Prey

Gregor sat, motionless, peering through the tangled branches of a fallen silver birch and quietly surveying the forest glade. Wearing leathers in shades of brown and dark green, he blended in well with the forest undergrowth. It was just after sunrise, and rays of sunlight pierced the dark canopy above, sending spears of light through to the lush, green grass sparkling with morning dew. A glimmer of white, on the opposite side of the glade, caught his attention in the darkness of the forest. He quickly knocked an arrow and took aim through a small window in the branches. Stepping out of the darkness of the forest, and into the sunlit glade, stepped the king of the forest. Gregor's breath caught, and he marvelled at the majestic beast that he beheld.

The stag was easily the largest he had ever seen, and larger than any of the trophies he had seen in the lord's manor. The stag's coat was the richest red, and the antlers...Gregor let out a breath in wonder.... The antlers, which were still mostly covered in velvet—but had some of the points glimmering white—reached far above the stag's head, forming a regal crown. Gregor did a quick count of the points. Twenty-three points! "A monarch..." Gregor whispered in disbelief. A great heart stag like this was rare, and Gregor felt a brief moment of sadness for taking the life of such a rare and beautiful specimen. Sighting down the shaft of his arrow, Gregor took aim. He imagined what it would taste like to rip into the haunch of that beast. Taking in a breath, he slowly exhaled and...

A scream erupted from the depths of the forest.

Gregor loosed, more from the shock of the bloodcurdling scream, and he swung his head in the direction from which he heard the scream. Someone was in trouble. He glanced back at where the stag had been, and was relieved to see that his arrow was quivering in the trunk of a tree. I'm glad I didn't wound the beast, he thought, shouldering his bow as he raced towards the sound of the person in distress.

Gregor raced deeper into the forest, and he passed through an arch of blackthorn trees, and he felt a slight shiver run through his body. Suddenly the forest felt more...ancient. His keen senses picked up a richer, and danker smell to the earth. There was a heaviness to the very air around him. He knew these forests; he'd spent years crisscrossing every game trail there was, but now, as he looked around, none of this looked familiar, and he sensed a wrongness about it all. It almost caused him to stop and turn back. But someone needed help. He slowed to a stop to hear if he could catch the sounds of distress. He heard growling and panicked cries not far off. He rushed towards the sound, his heavy leather boots leaving deep prints in the soft earth.

He heard an even more terrified scream, and with a burst of speed, Gregor broke through the dark forest into a small clearing. He immediately took stock of the situation, and what he saw was not good. A battle scarred cave bear was tearing at a shredded grey cloak laying on the forest floor, and a young woman, in a torn, green dress, was halfway up a small birch tree. Knocking an arrow, Gregor loosed and the arrow slammed into the neck of the large bear. A roar erupted from the bear, and it swung to look in Gregor's direction, its one eye staring intently on its new prey. Gregor quickly knocked and loosed another arrow, striking the beast in the chest. The beast lumbered forward, the arrows in its neck and chest not phasing it one bit. Gregor knocked another arrow and waited for just the right moment.

The bear was nearly upon him, and he saw the yellowed teeth glistening with saliva as it roared its challenge. Gregor loosed, sending the arrow into the gaping maw of the bear, and up into its brain. The beast, with one last surge of adrenaline, swung a crushing blow with its paw, which Gregor took on his right shoulder, sending him smashing to the forest floor and knocking the wind out of him. Struggling to get up, Gregor felt a burning sensation on his right shoulder. Looking down, he saw the rake marks, blood seeping from the shredded leather coat, and his shoulder hanging loosely out of the socket.

Quickly grabbing his dagger with his left hand, rather awkwardly, he walked carefully over to the monstrous creature, and plunged it into the bear's temple, not taking any chances. "M'lady, are you alright?" Gregor asked through clenched teeth.

"I am," the lady responded, as she made her way down the tree. "Thank you for coming to rescue me. I thought I was going to be eaten alive by that monster," she exclaimed. "I would have been, if you had not come so quickly. But you're hurt, let me see."

Gregor unbuttoned his leather coat with his left hand, and the young woman helped him to take it off. "My home is nearby," she said, "we can go back there, and I'll clean and bandage it for you."

"No need," Gregor responded. "I'm glad you're safe. I'll head back to my cabin and take care of this. It's only a scratch. I've had much worse and survived."

"Are you sure?" she asked with concern. "Those claw marks look like they hurt, and your shoulder seems to be dislocated."

Gregor walked over to a tree and leaned his right shoulder into it. He grimaced as he felt the shoulder pop back in place. "There," he said, "fixed that problem."

"I see," she responded with a small grin on her face. "You're too much of a man to accept help from a woman. Well, you at least have to allow me to give you something in return for saving my life."

Gregor was about to protest, when he saw her pull out a small, shining red apple from the pocket of her disheveled green dress. His stomach growled, and he realized he was hungry. Thanking her, he accepted the apple and took a big bite. It made a satisfying crunch, and juice dribbled down into his curly beard. He felt a freshness come over him, along with a sense of...longing? For what?—he was unsure.

"Now, are you sure you wouldn't rather come to my home so I can, take care, of you?" She gently placed her hand on his chest and looked into his eyes.

Gregor felt a sudden stirring in his body that he had not felt since his wife died seven winters prior. A need. A huger. He stared down at the young woman, studying her—her piercing blue eyes, milky white skin, all framed by the most lustrous, and somewhat tousled raven black hair—he found himself nodding. Together they made their way through the forest.

As they wound their way through the twisted trails, the forest did not seem nearly as wrong as Gregor had thought it was before. It was probably the situation of looking for someone in trouble that caused me to feel that way. My senses were heightened, so I shouldn't fully trust what I was thinking in that moment. Gregor nodded in silent agreement with his thoughts.

Together, the two made their way around a rocky outcrop, and Gregor beheld the most picturesque scene. Bellow, in a lush little dell, was a perfectly built cottage with a golden thatch roof set amidst the loveliest of gardens. A small, rock wall enclosed the cottage and garden, and thick, green grass spotted with pink, orange and yellow wildflowers spread out and across the dell. Through the middle of it all ran a babbling brook, teeming with life as he saw several fat fish lazily jump up and out of the water in a high arc, and land back into the brook with a splash. The path they were on continued down into the dell, across a wooden bridge, and to the front gate set into the rock wall. Gregor slowly reached up to his injured shoulder, patted it, and winced at the pain.

"What's wrong?" the young woman asked.

"Just checking to see that I wasn't dreaming," Gregor replied, feeling slightly dazed.

The young woman laughed, the most melodious of laughs, like the sound of birds singing on a beautiful spring morning. "It is beautiful, isn't it? I haven't shown it to many people, because beautiful things need to be protected."

Gregor nodded in agreement. "It would be a tragedy to lose this," he said quietly.

"Well, c'mon," the young woman said, linking her arm in Gregor's, "let's go down and get your shoulder cleaned."

They walked step in step down into the dell, his heavy boots loud in this peaceful setting. With each step, Gregor could not help but feel he was entering paradise.

A single caw broke the serene silence of the cottage dell. Gregor looked up and saw a raven perched in a tree above. That's strange. Ravens haven't been seen in these parts for nearly twenty years. It looked down at him, head cocked slightly, and one beady eye staring down at him intently. For the briefest of moments, he had that feeling of wrongness fill his entire being, but a quick squeeze on his arm from the beautiful young woman filled his heart with warmth once again.

"We have yet to be properly introduced, M'lady," Gregor began. " My name is Gregor Hartwrath, huntsman for Lord Briarwood."

"A simple huntsman?" the young woman asked, her lips forming a small smile. "You showed bravery beyond that of a commoner."

"M'lady. I heard someone that needed help, and knew I could help," Gregor responded.

"Indeed," the young woman replied, as she opened the door to her cottage. "Won't you please come in?"

Gregor nodded thanks, and ducked his head as he entered the cottage. It was cozy looking on the inside. A lively fire burned in the fireplace, keeping a small, black pot hot, its contents bubbling. Dried plants hung from the rafters, spices and herbs in little jars lined the shelves.

"Let's get you into a warm bath," the young woman said, as she quickly washed her hands in a small basin by the door.

Gregor looked and saw that, in the corner, was a large copper tub with steam swirling above it. How odd to have the tub ready to go. I suppose she wanted a warm bath for when she came back from her time in the forest. Gregor lay his leather coat on a chair by the small table in the room, and then gave her a quick glance. "M'lady, this isn't proper."

"Oh pish posh," she said airily, waving her hand at him as if he had said something silly. "You were injured saving my life. It's my duty to make sure you get better. Now remove your boots, shirt and britches, and get into the tub."

Gregor tried to protest once more, but was cut off by a sharp, no nonsense look from her. It's amazing how they master that look from such a young age. He slowly turned his back, stepped out of his boots, and began lifting his shirt over his head. He had a sudden, prickling sensation come over his body, as if he were being watched. Of course I'd have that feeling, idiot! She's probably watching to make sure I comply. Laying the shirt on top of his coat, he contemplated taking the silver chain and locket that hung around his neck off, but left it on. He began slowly undoing his leather britches, glancing carefully to his side to see whether he was being watched. The young woman had moved over to the counter, and was mixing herbs in a clay mortar, which she then began to grind with a pestle. He took the opportunity to quickly remove his pants and slip into the tub while she was not looking. He let out a long sigh and sunk down deeper into the copper tub till all was covered except his head.

"That feels good, doesn't it?" the young woman asked, still busily grinding away at the herbs.

"Very," Gregor agreed, letting out another, deep sigh. It had been weeks since he had relaxed in a hot bath. While out hunting, it was always quick, short baths in a stream or lake. He could feel the pain from his injury slowly fading as the warmth from the water relaxed and rejuvenated his shoulder. He closed his eyes, and breathed in the steam from the hot water. His thoughts drifted, and he played through the events of the day in his head. The one thing he kept coming back to, over and over, was the image of the young woman looking up at him with those strikingly beautiful eyes. Those eyes. He could stare into those all day. His thoughts began to wander as he relaxed in the tub.

Hearing a slight bump, he cracked an eye, and saw that the young woman had pulled a chair up to the side of the tub, and was still gently mixing the contents in her mortar. He opened both his eyes and looked at her, and he felt a smile forming, and then shock when he realized she had changed into a white tunic. She giggled, reminding him of the sound of wine being poured into a silver goblet. "You dozed off in the tub, so I took the chance to clean and change."

"I...I fell asleep?" Gregor asked in shock. "It felt like just a moment."

"Well, this poultice I've made here takes quite some time to prepare properly. It's nearly midday now," she replied, as she tore some clean strips of cloth.

"How can that be? The water is still warm." He felt that prickling sensation coming over him again. He lifted his hands out of the water and could see the deep wrinkles on his fingertips. Surely the water should have cooled, but it felt as warm as when he had first gotten into the tub.

"Oh it's nothing really to be surprised about. While you were dozing I would occasionally remove a bucket of water from the tub, and add some freshly boiled water. See, nothing to be alarmed about," she said with a smile on her face. "Now, sit up straight so I can look at that shoulder of yours."

There really wasn't anything to be alarmed about, Gregor decided. Still, if that was the case, why did he feel like he was prey? It was the same feeling he had several years back when he was stalking a deer, and felt this sensation of being watched. After stopping to watch the deer, he had glanced back to reassure himself that there was no reason to feel this uneasiness, only to see a wildcat stalking him in the shadows of the trees. He gave a small smile back at the young woman, and sat up straighter, exposing his shoulders and upper chest.

"I've got some soap here," she began, "so let's give those claw marks a good washing before I apply this poultice." She worked up a good lather, and then gently massaged his shoulder, being sure to clean the dirt out of the wounds. "You've got shoulders like a bull," she said, somewhat in awe, "very large and firm." She gave his shoulder a good squeeze with her delicate hands, and, almost inaudible murmured, "Oh my...."

Gregor grunted, not quite sure how else to respond to the comment. But he could feel his shoulder loosening a bit more with her fingers working the tissue around the wounds. He watched as she dipped a small wooden bowl into the water, and poured it on his shoulder to wash the soap off. She dipped the bowl again, going a little deeper this time, and he felt her finger brush the tip of his cock. He quickly looked at her to see if she had noticed, but from the way she was looking so intently at his shoulder, he doubted that she had. He relaxed as she gently patted his shoulder dry with one of the torn cloths.

"There," she said. "All clean. Now hold still while I apply the poultice. It might sting a little." She scooped a generous amount into her fingertips, and gently pressed it into the gashes on his shoulder.

Gregor winced, but held still. She was right, it felt like an angry swarm of wasps was attacking his shoulder. He let out a gasp and asked, "By the beards of the gods, what did you put in there?" He could feel a fiery sensation traveling down the length of his arm all the way to his fingertips.

She smiled as she continued to rub the poultice onto his wounds, "Oh a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and some spices from distant lands to ward off any infection."

"Is it those spices that make me want to tear my arm off at this moment?" Gregor asked in jest.

"Probably," she responded with a twinkle in her eye. "But you wouldn't want to do that. Not with what I have planned for you." She got up and put the bowl onto the counter.

"What you have planned for me?" Gregor repeated questioningly, turning himself in the tub to get a better look at her. And there it was again, the prickling sensation. He glanced around the room again. Have those animal bones always been hanging from the rafters alongside the dried herbs? And the corked bottles of...intestines? How did I miss those? It's like the wildcat... His eyes widened slightly at this realization.

"Oh, it's nothing to worry about. In fact, I'm sure it will be quite pleasurable for you. She turned around, and they locked eyes. For a moment, Gregor thought he saw panic in her eyes. "Here," she said, as she hastily grabbed a bowl, ladling some fresh stew from the pot into it, "you must be starving. Have a bite to eat before I dress your wound."

"No, M'lady, I really should be going," Gregor responded, as he began standing up in the tub. He caught the faintest whiff of the stew, though, and the smell lingered in his nose—an aromatic delight—and the panic he had felt moments ago, faded from his memory. "Well, I suppose one bowl would be fine." He eased himself back into the tub, and the young woman sat back on her chair.

"I'm glad to hear it," she said. "I have so much of this stew, I couldn't possibly finish it myself. Here, just relax, and I'll feed you." She dipped a wooden spoon into the bowl, and brought the spoon to Gregor's open lips. He accepted the spoonful of stew, and savoured the rich flavours that mingled in his mouth. It was absolutely delicious! He let out a grunt of approval, and was rewarded with a wide smile from the young woman. "Tell me, what's in the locket around your neck?"

Gregor glanced down at the silver locket, and gently lifted it out of the water. Carefully opening the clasp that held it tightly shut, he revealed a curly lock of red hair on the inside. "My late wife's hair," he said, feeling some sadness. She was killed by a beast seven winters ago.

"I'm so sorry to hear that," the young woman said, brushing aside some of his hair to get a better look at his face. "It's terrible losing those we love." She sat there quietly for a moment, and then offered him another spoonful of stew which he gratefully accepted.

"She had such a pure soul," Gregor said. "I'm sure that wherever she is now, it's reserved for those who lived kind lives here on Earth." He opened his mouth for another spoonful of stew. They sat there in silence for a few more moments, the only sound was that of the wooden spoon scraping the bowl.

"Well, you finished that bowl, let's see about getting that shoulder bandaged." She gently applied another layer of the poultice, and then wrapped the clean strips of cloth around the shoulder, with another, wider cloth to secure the bandages in place. "Your shoulder should be right as rain in a day or two. That poultice is very powerful."

Gregor slowly swung his right arm in a wide arc to test his shoulder, and the bandage. He was surprised to not feel much pain at all from the injury, and the bandage was tied in such a way to allow nearly full mobility of his arm. "Thank you, M'lady. You've shown me much kindness."

"Charissa. My name is Charissa."

"Lady Charissa," Gregor hung on the last syllable of the name as if it were the sweetest honey. "I thank you so much for the care you've shown me. But I really should be going." It pained him to say that, but he knew it would be improper to stay a moment longer, even though every part of his being cried out to give in and have his way with her. But the code of chivalry was a core part of his being, and taking advantage of Charissa would be a grievous act. "If you would please avert your eyes while I get dressed..." Charissa slowly stood up, a curious expression on her face, but grabbed the bowls and went to the counter to look outside the window. Gregor got out of the tub, and, with his back to Charissa, quickly began drying himself with a towel that had been placed on the table.