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Authors: Margaret Frazer

The Hunter’s Tale

BOOK: The Hunter’s Tale

The Hunter’s Tale

Margaret Frazer


Chapter 1


Light trembled through the leaves, little flickers of sun and shade playing across Hugh’s closed eyes where he sat with his head leaned back against the oak’s deep-barked trunk, his face turned upward to the canopy of leaves and dark oak branches between him and the summer sky, listening to the whisper and sigh of leaves away into green distances, the soft sough of branches moving, the busy rustle of a squirrel passing through treetops so high the two wolfhounds—Bane’s large, bony head resting on his chest and Brigand’s against his hip—did not even flick an ear at it. With summer warmth all through him, Hugh let the quiet sink into him, too. Here, for a while, with manor, fields, and family—most especially family—left behind him, there was only the quiet and himself and the two hounds, with no need to speak when he’d rather be silent or feel anything when he’d rather feel nothing.


He wondered if the yelling at home had stopped yet.


His guess was that it hadn’t. Sir Ralph had been at full cry and Tom ready to meet him yell for yell, a furious use of words the one thing he wholeheartedly shared with his father; and if they faltered, Miles was too often in black enough humour to start them up again. Today, when they had set to it at the midday dinner’s end, Mother had risen from the table, called Lucy to her, bid Hugh fetch her spinning to her, and gone out to the arbor at the far end of her garden, not beyond sound of her husband and son’s shouting in the hall but at least away from it.


Hugh had never understood whatever truce there was between his parents. Lady Anneys seemed to live somewhere beyond her husband’s furious outbursts and he had never, so far as Hugh knew, ever lifted a hand against her. His sons and grandson and even Elyn once when she had back-talked him over something had, yes, all felt his fist, but Lady Anneys would simply rise and walk away, and he always let her go.


Today Hugh had escaped, too, because she had bid him come after her, and when he had fetched her distaff and basket of wool to the vine-shaded arbor, he had given them to her with a kiss on her cheek at the edge of the wimple that encircled her face framed by the stiff-starched wings of her white linen veil and said, “I’m away then, if anyone asks.”


She had given him her small smile for answer but Lucy, being fourteen and eager for other than sitting the afternoon away, had started, “Can I—”


‘No,“ her mother had said. ”You can’t.“


Hugh had rubbed the top of his sister’s head in the way he knew particularly irked her and left them by way of the garden’s rear gate through the tall willow-woven fence, crossing over the two-plank bridge across the shallow-banked, narrow stream there to the packed earth of the cart-track running on its other side along the new-mown hayfield where the cut hay, laid out in its long windrows and turning to gold as it dried under the midsummer sun, smelled of all summer’s sweetness. There had been half a dozen village women in the field this morning, turning the windrows over with their wooden rakes, the better for the hay to dry all through before it was haycocked, but they were gone to their dinners and Hugh had gone leftward along the cart-track without need to see or talk to anyone.


The way he went, the track curved behind the manor buildings, between them and the near fields, and then away to the farther fields. The other way it led to the church and village and more fields before it met the road that ran on the manor’s other side and away. The manor of Woodrim had never been grand enough to warrant an enclosing wall; barn, byre, cartshed, ploughshed, dairy, poultry yard, and all else that went into making a manor’s life were spread around and outward from the bare dirt yard in front of the hall in no great order. When Tom, Hugh, and Miles had all been small, the clutter of buildings had made for grand chase-and-hide games, and hiding was what Hugh had been at today, circling around to the kennel beyond the barn.


The kennel was the newest-built and best-kept place on the manor, a high, solid fence around a wide rectangle of grass with the hounds’ low, square house in the middle made with close-planked walls, a thick-thatched roof, a fireplace for warming the hounds in winter or after wet hunting, and a loft for the hound-boy to sleep.


‘The dogs live better than we do,“ Tom sometimes said bitterly, though not where their father would hear him.


It was Miles who said—and did not care at all if Sir Ralph heard him—that the hounds lived best of anyone on the manor because Sir Ralph cared for them more than he cared for anyone else; and Sir Ralph, hearing him, would roar, “You have the right of that, you useless bastard. Better than I care for you, that’s sure.”


Since Miles was neither useless nor a bastard, merely someone his grandfather wished had never been born, that was unfair as well as cruel, but fairness rarely mattered to Sir Ralph. Hugh doubted he knew how to be kind, except to his hounds. Hounds and the hunt were what mattered to Sir Ralph, and Hugh’s good luck was that his own pleasure in hounds and hunting almost matched his father’s. That had earned him something of his fathers favor over the years, since the time he was ten years old and Sir Ralph had found him hiding in the kennel, crouched in the straw with his arms around Pensel’s neck while Paliard licked at his wet face. His back had been aching from being beaten with Sir Ralph’s leather belt for splashing wine on the cloth when serving at table during dinner and, hand to belt buckle again, Sir Ralph had stood glaring down at him, demanding, “What in hell are you doing here, messing with my dogs?”


Angry with pain and the shame of being found in tears and certain there was another beating coming, Hugh had said back, defiant with despair, “I’m not messing. I
them. I like them better than I
like you!”


That should have earned him another whipping but Sir Ralph had eyed Paliard licking now behind Hugh’s ear, the strong stroke of her tongue up-ending his hair, and had said, “Do you, by God? Paliard, here.”


Paliard had given Hugh a final swipe with her tongue, risen with her great, gaunt, wolfhound grace, and padded to Sir Ralph’s side. Fondling her ears, his father had demanded, “What makes Paliard my best running hound?”


Hugh had promptly said, not needing to think about it, “Lean body, small flanks, long sides. Well-slanted shoulders, straight hocks—”


He could have gone on but Sir Ralph had interrupted, “How do you know that?”


‘I’ve listened to you and Master Basing,“ who had been houndmaster and huntsman then, ”talk about it all the time.“


‘Listen, do you? Come here, whelp.“


Wary of pain but knowing there would be no escaping it if his father chose to give it, Hugh had obeyed. Sir Ralph had looked him up and down, felt of his shoulders (not bothering that Hugh flinched from his fingers rough on the belt-bruises) and his arms, his hands, his legs, then held him by the chin and turned his head from side to side, checking him over as if he were a hound himself, before he let him go with a shove that staggered Hugh to the side, and said, “You might do. Tell Master Basing you’re to be his hound-boy until I say differently.”


So hound-boy he had been, with Master Basing as well as his father to whip him when he failed to do things right. But he had learned quickly more for the love of it than because of the whippings, and as his skills grew, the whippings lessened; and when he had grown enough himself that, as Sir Ralph put it, “You’re no longer so undersized that a hare could trample you into the ground, you skimp-boned whelp,” the two men had begun to teach him a hunter’s skills to go with his hound ones. And three years ago, when Master Basing had fallen, clutching his chest, during a midwinter deer hunt, and died before Father Leonel could be brought to him—“A cleaner death than a priest’s mumbling could have given him anyway,” Sir Ralph had said—Sir Ralph had slapped Hugh between the shoulders and told him he was houndmaster and huntsman now in Master Basing’s place. “The great lords can afford houndmasters and a blast of hunters to their pleasure, but I’m a poor knight and nothing more, and by God’s teeth, at least one of my brats can finally be worth his keep.”


The main lie in that was that Sir Ralph was only a poor knight. He had started life plainly enough—though not poor—as the heir to a small manor in Leicestershire but taken himself to London, become a lawyer, married a rich merchant’s daughter, and earned a goodly fortune and his knighthood there, then taken his wealth away to the country, giving up the law for hounds and hunting, his true passions. He had bought the Oxfordshire manor of Woodrim not for what profits it might make him but because of the hunting rights in the king’s neighboring forest of Charlbrook Chase that went with it; and when his first wife died, he had married Lady Anneys, another merchant’s daughter, for the dower of town properties that came with her and the sons she might birth for him. The properties’ rents were to help to pay for his hounds and hunting. The sons were to replace the disappointing one his first wife had given him. For that, to Sir Ralph’s mind, Hugh with his love of hounds and hunting had proved the best; and if Hugh had not friendship or affection from his father, at least he had less of Sir Ralph’s wrath than did Tom or Miles.


Tom, being the eldest living son and therefore likely his heir, drew Sir Ralph’s wrath the way a tall tree in an open field drew lightning, but—possessing much of their father’s hot blood and love of yelling himself—he usually gave as good as he was given whenever he and Sir Ralph set to it, which was often enough because Tom served as his father’s steward, responsible both for Woodrim and all his other properties. Today’s dinnertime quarreling had come out of Tom’s wanting, because of the overhot weather, to give more than the usually allotted ale to the haymakers presently working Sir Ralph’s fields instead of their own, and Sir Ralph’s refusing him with oaths.


With his own escape made before he was drawn into their argument, Hugh had called Bane and Brigand to him from among the twenty other hounds in the kennel yard and set out by the nearest field path across the rough pasture to the wide-cut greenway into the forest that so closely curved around two sides of the manor. If he had followed the greenway far enough, it would have taken him through Woodrim’s thick-grown forest to the more open Charlbrook Chase, which was as much meadow and rough heath as woods, for all it was called a royal forest, because dense woods did not make for good galloping after deer. But neither the manor’s forest nor the king’s was only for hunting. Wood was taken from them for building and for fuel and for sale, and in autumns the lord’s and villagers’ pigs were herded in among the trees to fatten on fallen nuts before slaughter-time at Martinmas.


The grassy greenway served for passage into and through the forest for all of that, but Hugh had followed it only a short way before turning from it into a narrow deer-path leading away among the trees. Less by thought than by long usage, he had shifted into a more careful-footed going, quiet in his soft-soled boots, barely stirring the forest’s midday stillness; and Bane and Brigand, knowing they were on no hunt, had moved easily at his heels, padding as silently as he did. Before long they had come out of the green shadows into this small clearing around the tree Hugh called, to himself, the grandfather-oak because of its age and grand-spreading size. It was a companionable tree, as good company in its way as were the hounds, nor was anyone likely to happen on him here by chance.


But on purpose was another matter.


Hugh opened his eyes. The silence had changed, and the two hounds lifted their heads to listen with him. Someone almost as silent-footed as he had been was coming along the deer-path. Then Bane stood up, tail swaying in a slow wag, and Hugh stayed where he was, unsurprised when Miles came into the clearing, tugged onward by Skyre, the lean, young, not-much-trained lymer-hound that was halfway to throttling herself on the leash with eagerness.


Brigand rose to join Bane in greeting her and Miles, and Hugh asked, “How did she do?” as Miles, still holding Skyre’s leash, folded his long legs and sat down in the grass beside him.


‘She followed your scent as easily as if you were dragging a musk bag.“


‘Me and two hounds. I should hope she could follow us.“


‘No leash manners, though.“


‘Did you bother trying to teach her some on the way?“


‘Not my business,“ Miles said.


‘Not your business to have her out at all.“


‘She got to pacing and whining in the hall. Sir Ralph said to take her out so I did.“


Eyes closed again, Hugh flopped one hand sideways from where it lay on his chest to hit Miles idly on the knee. “He didn’t mean this far, I warrant, you idiot. Are they still at it?”


‘If there was a wind, you could probably hear them loud and clear.“ Miles shifted to lean back against the oak’s trunk beside Hugh. ”You’d think they’d get tired of listening to each other.“


‘Don’t you know the only sound sweeter to my father’s ears than his hounds baying in the hunt is his own voice baying at one of us?“


‘How good for him. How unfortunate for us.“ Skyre flopped down with a sigh beside him. Miles likewise sighed and added, ”Wouldn’t it be good if he’d choke on his own bile and be done with it?“


Hugh said nothing; no answer was needed. The wolfhounds settled beside him again and the forests quiet came back, with only the hum of midges in the clearing’s sunlight and Brigand sometime snuffling in his sleep. For Hugh, Miles’ ability to be silent was one of his virtues. That they were able to be silent together was part of their friendship, more than the fact that, close in age though they were, they were uncle and nephew because “Sir Ralph—disappointed in the son he had had by his late first wife—-had married Lady Anneys much about the time that disappointing son had come back from the French war with a French wife. Lady Anneys had borne Tom a year later and had Hugh a year after that, a few months before Miles was born to their half-brother, who had shortly thereafter died, leaving his wife and infant son to his father’s and stepmother’s care.

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