The gunshot had come from the south and east of where we found the sheep, and the satyrs flowed through the trees and over the hilly, branch-strewn ground with the thundering sound that spelled doom for anything in their way.
Hector bellowed as we stampeded down into a small gully, and the roar echoed off the hills around us as we joined in. The sound of splashing and a small waterfall, followed by an almighty splash, as the head of the pack hurtled off the ledge, propelled by strong bandied legs, and landed in a trout pool below the waterfall.
Seamus followed, and surfaced with another roar. They leapt off, one after the other, and I with them. The icy cold water burned my skin and made me feel even more alive as I surged upward, clawing my way up the rocks to the shallows. They weren’t waiting for me, and I didn’t expect them to.
I ran behind them, water steaming off my skin into the warm August night. This is what I needed, what I remembered, what it meant to be more than human. My strides grew longer as I chased my pack, and I moved through the murky darkness as quick as thought. I scared owls with my passage, jumped over confused foxes, watched a herd of deer that had bedded down for the night burst through the trees, running away from the masters of the forest and the one who ran with them.
I was concentrating so intently on my running, exulting in the feel of being free, that I didn’t see where a ledge of Scottish granite ended, breaking into one of the ritual circles, until I was less than ten feet away from open air.
I grinned, put on a burst of even more speed, and leapt into the welcoming arms of the night air, landing alongside the middle of the Pack, and kept going. The herd of deer that I had spooked was moving across our pack, and Connor launched himself at the biggest buck, the steel of his knife glinting in the starlight. He got one arm around the beast’s thick neck, fingers gripping into the mane, and the knife flashed again – a clean slice across the throat, and they went down in a tangle of legs and antlers and blood.
A second gunshot rang out, and one of the does stumbled, limping on three legs, screaming in pain. Another one of the satyrs caught her by the neck, shoved one hand under her jaw, and twisted hard, ending her suffering with a bony crunch. She fell at his feet, eyes already glassy, as the pack circled, looking for the source of the gunshot.
The spirits of the forest swirled around us, the stag and doe nuzzling each other in recognition before they faded away between heartbeats. I watched the others, bright as stars between the trees, and they bounded off, leading towards our poacher.
Throwing back my head, I howled a wordless challenge, and the pack answered me with another roar. I ran into the underbrush, the brambles failing to do more than snag my clothing, not finding any purchase on my skin. I smelled the stench of burning tobacco, and the whiff of cordite and cheap whiskey. I was on the right path, and for the first time, I led the Pack on our hunt.
A dim glow, growing brighter as we came – they had lit a fire in a clearing, pure idiocy in the tinder-dry summer forest, and humans silhouetted against it. No one but a poacher would be out on a night like this, and then I saw the pile of dead deer in the back of their little pickup truck. They had been roughly butchered, which explained the heaps of entrails and the pile of deer heads off to one side. All hinds – not an antler among them. I felt my own anger, which was never far below the surface when faced with rampant idiocy, begin to boil over.
Oh well, they wouldn’t be around for long.
The satyrs immediately slowed to a stalking pace, silent in the rising wind. Their prey was in sight, blissfully unaware of what stalked in the woods. Hector was off to my right, Seamus to my left, and I could see the forms of the rest of the pack spread out into a circle around the fire-lit clearing. Seamus gestured, and they stilled.
Hector raised his hunting horn to his lips and blew. Through its own inherent magic, the ringing notes sounded further away than they were, and the half-drunk humans barely looked up from gutting the last two deer they had dragged into the firelight. The stench of cheap beer was stronger, and there was a moderately impressive pile of empty tins near the fire, with whiskey bottles and cigarette packets glinting through the detritus.
Hector blew again, and Seamus raised his arm. I tensed as much as the pack did, raising onto my toes and preparing to run into the fray.
There was a whistled chirp, the signal to catch my attention, and I looked at Hector. He raised a finger and twirled it in a circle, then pointed to the fire. I nodded, and relaxed from my tense stance. My fire wouldn’t spread.
Kneeling, I touched the underbrush on both sides with my hands and kindled a blaze in the scrub. Quick as thought, it whooshed into life and surrounded the clearing in leaping flames, chest-high on a man, white-hot.
Seamus stomped his feet and roared. The more sober of the three in the clearing was yelling about getting in the truck and getting out of there, while the other two stumbled around, still covered in the blood of their ill-gotten prey.
Hector, his mane blazing gold in the firelight, stepped through the ring of flames and blew his horn again – the horn of the Wild Hunt. Anyone who listened to the old tales knew that a Wild Hunt only ended in blood of the evildoer or oathbreaker. Seamus moved through the fire on the other side, grinning like a demon, red as the heart of the fire.
The sober-ish one (a lot more sober now, I would bet) was screaming, trying to reload his gun, dropping bullets in his fear, and the pungent scent of his terror was thick on the air, heady as whiskey. He managed to get one shot off, which was a mistake. The bullet didn’t even slow Seamus down – but it did piss the rest of them off.
With the fury of primal forest guardians not seen since the time of myth, the Satyroi surged into the clearing as one, bellowing their war-cry. Hector grabbed for the sober one, smiling in a fang-filled grin while the rifle stock shattered on his horns, the doomed poacher screaming and swearing in Scots Gaelic. Hector lifted him up one-handed, then bent his neck to rip out the man’s throat in a spray of blood, then flinging the dying man to his sons and grandsons. He met the same fate as the wayward sheep,
Golly, one of the bigger satyrs, the best stalker in the Pack, had one of the others lifted by the throat, kicking and flailing. He spat in the man’s face and punched directly into his chest, and I heard the splintering of bones and the wet tearing sound of flesh as he ripped out the man’s heart and bit into it, still throbbing and pumping as Golly’s fangs shredded the muscle. Those who hadn’t gotten a taste of Hector’s kill helped themselves to this one.
Seamus had the last one by the shirt front, and I stepped through the flames before he could finish him off.
“Let him go, War Chief. Let him flee from this place, to remind the world that monsters are real, and waiting for those who break the laws of nature.” As much as my own inner anger wanted to see him torn apart, a lesson had to be sent. “Let’s make sure he goes back empty-handed.”
One of the younger satyrs – Jamie, I think it was – leaped into the back of the truck and began handing the carcasses down to the others. Five, six, seven…I was thoroughly disgusted with the wanton waste. Seamus threw the terrified poacher into the truck cab with enough force to rock it on its springs. Hector tossed the mangled rifle into the cab with him, still wearing his friend’s blood as warpaint.
“Get ye gone,” he growled, the words rumbling through his barrel chest with unmistakable menace.
The engine started with a screech and the poacher floored the gas, sending the little truck bouncing down the track and back towards the village as I parted the flames with a wave of my hand. I would be amazed if he made it back to the village without wrapping the truck around a tree.
Blood-hunger satisfied, the satyrs began to clear up the mess in the clearing as I called the flames back to my hand. The piles of viscera from the deer were spread out for the scavengers to find, and the remains of the humans and the deer skulls were piled into the fire in the middle of the clearing. The boys dragged in more firewood, and we built a pyre, one that burned hot and clean and would devour bones to crumbling ashes.
As the last body was being thrown onto the pyre, Connor emerged from the treeline, the stag slung over his shoulders. He walked up to where I was standing and knelt before me, laying the magnificent beast at my feet.
“Cridhe Teine, Heart of the Flames, I bring you the fruit of my hunt, killed by my own hand. By the blood I have spilled tonight, I declare my intent in front of my sire and grandsire to court you and honor you above all others. I will bring honor to your name and your temple, should you accept this offering.”
I was completely taken aback for once, and before I could speak, he looked up at me with those sweet golden-brown eyes, and I felt my anger begin to melt away as he continued.
“Chiron asked me to look after you before he passed, my lady. I’ve never been happier to carry out a dying man’s wishes. You’ve been kind and loving and protective of the entire Pack since my great-great-great grandfather’s time, and it’s my honor to take up Chiron’s mantle, if you’ll have me.”
You need someone to remind you that fire can be gentle as well as all-consuming, my love, Chiron had said countless times. You are the goddess of home and hearth, not only the sacred flames that consume the offerings given out of duty rather than reverence. Not everyone has forgotten you, and you have more admirers than you know – even beyond this tired old centaur.
The clearing was silent, save for the night wind and the crackling of the fire. It felt like the world itself was holding its breath. Even the forest spirits stopped their gamboling around the flames.
I reached forward, took his face in my hands, and kissed him through the tears running down my cheeks.
The Pack cheered, raucous in their joy. I was the Lady of the Pack again, and that called for a celebration. Connor grinned up at me, pure mischief, and stood up, grabbing my hand and pulling me in for a proper kiss. It was wild and primal, and he tasted of blood and smoke and pure, unadulterated belief, and made me slightly drunk on the heady sweetness.
All the other satyrs – Hector and Seamus, Golly and Jamie, Alex and Iain, and the rest – began to pick up the carcasses of the hinds and head back home.
We stood alone next to the fire, Connor holding me close, my back against his chest, as we watched the fire burn out. The clouds parted as dawn approached, and we made our way home through the morning mists, vibrant with birdsong. Connor carried the stag as he had the night before, slung over both shoulders, the antlers bobbing with each footstep.
“Tis a good thing we had a good hunt,” Connor said, hefting the stag. “It’s the Glorious Twelfth tomorrow, and you know what that means.”
“Well, I at least have enough venison for a proper feast, even if you all don’t get a single grouse,” I said, and laughed in the growing brightness. “Besides, you get to meet some of my friends.”
“Oh aye?” Connor answered. “Some of the pretty wee goddesses I saw flittin’ about in your place in Greece?”
“Something like that,” I laughed. “The Goddess of the Hunt and the Lady of Night. Mind your manners around Artemis, though. She’s great fun, but if you put a hand wrong, you may draw back a bloody stump.”
“That sounds more like a problem for Jamie and Iain,” he answered. “They were the other two who were sniffing after your skirts. They like a bit of divinity in their women.”
“We will see,” I said, and took his free hand. “They are looking forward to meeting you, and I’m looking forward to a proper feast with my boys.”
A day’s rest, and then the work would begin.