At last, a rider in the rain. A silhouetted shadow riding hard against the hell that seemed to pour in from all angles, the hooded rider bent hard forward, nearly flush against the horse’s back. One rider where there ought be three. A bad omen, surely. The beast’s hooves thundered into the wet ground, deaf against the heaviness of the rain, sending up clods of mud and earth up to meet in defiance of the rain falling down. A voice called out and the gates to the fort creaked open, just wide enough that the rider’s cloak flicked at the wooden fortifications as they rode past. The gate shut immediately behind them and the rider pulled hard on the reins, the horse’s muscles rippling as it dug its hooves deep into the wet mud within the fort.
Gwenaëlle swung off the horse, one hand sliding to rest against the horse’s cheek, the other cradling a bundle she held tight in front of her chest. She touched her forehead to the bridge of the horse’s nose and listened as it heaved for breath.
“Bless you, Roscoe,” she whispered. “Your work is done, you rest now.”
She heard the heavy clack of barricades being thrown against the gate once more. Already men were hustling towards her, their hoods low to protect against the unrelenting rain. Despite his age, Steward Munty was the first to reach her.
“Lady Gwenaëlle, what has happened?” He shouted over the storm. “Are you alright? Where are the others? What of Dorian? And Christoph?”
The others had reached her now, sliding to a halt in the mud around her, wearing worried expressions on their faces.
“Take Roscoe to the stables and see that he’s well taken care of,” Gwenaëlle said with a pat to the horse’s shoulder before turning to face the steward. With one hand still clutching the bundle of cloth in front of her, she used the other to sweep back her hood. She breathed deeply of the cold, damp air, welcoming the feeling of the rain as it washed over her. A cleansing rain.
“Where is my father? I must speak with him.”
They had left three moons prior, Gwenaëlle on her Roscoe with Dorian and Christoph riding abreast. They left in the cold dark of morning with none but the guards to send them off. Not that Gwenaëlle had expected much fanfare. Few expected her to be successful. And if she failed, what horrors might await the rest of them? So instead they hid in their homes, peeking out through shuttered windows, as the trio rode off into the morning fog.
“Lady Gwen?” Dorian asked after they had ridden for the better part of an hour and the sun was beginning to crest over the treetops to the east. He said “Lady” in that familiar way, a subtle emphasis that somehow sought to strip the word of its authority. It was a pernicious way of saying it, a silent affront that she couldn’t well point at but which both parties knew was there. Gwenaëlle never cared much for titles, yet it irked her to hear it misused all the same.
“Just Gwen is fine, Dorian. What is it?”
“Well, I was just wondering,” he smirked, not at her but across her to Christoph, who rode in silence and whose eyes remained committed to the road ahead. “Whether you were worried at all. I mean, it’s your first hunt. Scary business, hunting is, ‘specially your first time. And we never had a hunter that was a lady before. Sorry,” he laughed. “A hunter that was a Gwen.”
“Huntress,” Gwenaëlle said, pushing Roscoe forward hard, forcing Dorian and Christoph to whip at their horses to keep up. “I believe the proper term is huntress.”
They rounded a corner and Gwenaëlle could just barely make out the line of a fence through the heavy fog. They followed the line, past dark, hulking figures that grazed on the weeds in the fields alongside the road, until they saw the outline of a building.
“There. Up ahead,” Christoph said.
They hitched their horses outside before entering the inn. Gaunt faces turned and stared at them, immediately distrustful of anyone dressed so well for a place like this. Gwenaëlle went to the barkeep and loudly ordered a round for the whole room, which softened their faces considerably. She only hoped it loosened their tongues the same.
“We’re just here to talk,” she said, taking a seat at an open table. Dorian grabbed the first ale the barman poured and stood with it in the corner, sipping it moodily as he watched the room. Imbecile.
“How are your farms?” She asked. “Not well, I suspect.”
“Farms?” An old man spat out as he grabbed a pint from the bar, the skin of his sinewy arm stretched taut. His ragged clothes hung loosely off his skeletal frame, like a scarecrow that wouldn’t worry a swallow. “You need fields for a farm. Alls’ I got are deserts and lakes.”
The others nodded in assent, lining up to grab drinks of their own before following the path the scarecrow man had already tread. They each seemed eager to tell Gwenaëlle their sorrows, if not because of her stature as a Lady of the keep then simply because they at last had someone new to tell. Gwenaëlle listened as they told her of days so hot and dry the soil crumbled hard underfoot. Rains that wouldn’t stop til they’d filled the fields full, drowned cattle struggling to crowd onto what little higher ground they could find. Of storms that lasted for days, and lightning that a man swore aimed for houses. Once she felt all the grievances had been aired, Gwenaëlle leaned forward and set her empty tankard on the table.
“Sounds to me like a Crone’s moved into the area.”
A hush fell over the crowd, but Gwenaëlle had expected that. Folks didn’t like talking about Crones, lest it draw the Crone’s ire onto themselves. Finally, the scarecrow man spoke.
“And what’d you know about that?”
“It’s what my Lord Father has suspected. He’s hunted Crones in these lands before. He grows old for the hunt, and so he sends me. I am a Huntress,” she shot a glance towards Dorian, who smiled at her over his tankard as he took another swig of ale. “So I'm the one to take care of this Crone problem. Any information you can offer will help me greatly.”
Gwenaëlle watched as the faces around her fought between hesitation and skepticism under the flickering light of the lanterns. At the back of the room, Dorian nudged Christoph and began to rise, certainly to employ some oafish tactic aimed at getting them to talk. Thankfully, at last, an old woman brought her tankard down hard on the table, sending up small splashes of ale.
“Bugger then, I’ll talk if no one else’ll speak.” The old woman rose from her chair, gaining little height in doing so. “I’m old enough I look half a Crone, I’m sure. But sometimes us old women need to get the work done. Not got much time left for worrying, anyway.”
“Out north side of my field, found a calf laying in the grass. Dead, but still warm. Missing its eyes and tongue, it was. Didn’t bother checkin’, but I’m sure the heart’s gone too.”
She sat down and looked expectantly at the others. Dorian and Christoph stood frozen in their spot near the wall.
“Aye,” the barkeep spoke up, pouring a draught for himself. “My boy was out mushroom picking that way, says he saw something in the forest. ‘Big as an ox’ he says, ‘all hunched over, with a slathering mouth’.”
The man shuddered and downed the rest of his ale.
“Told him not to go mushroom picking ‘round there no more. But he’s just a young boy, and hungry enough he don’t understand. We’re about to start having to eat the furniture if something don’t change real quick.”
With that, the barkeep receded back behind the bar, taking sudden interest in thoroughly cleaning the tankard he’d just emptied.
“Well then”, Gwenaëlle said, rising while giving courteous nods to the faces around the room. “Thank you all for your courage in sharing your stories. I ensure you, the safety of your lands and your families is well entrusted with me. I will find the Crone. Things will be prosperous once more.”
At last she gave a nod to Dorian and Christoph, who followed her to the door. She hoped she’d given the townsfolk reason for calm, but the haste they used in clamouring for another round of ale as she stepped out the door suggested otherwise.
The next day as they trotted down the game paths in the forest, searching for evidence of the Crone, Gwenaëlle found herself returning to what the townsfolk had said the night prior.
“Isn’t it curious what the villagers said about the weather?” She asked, ducking under a tree branch that hung low across the path.
“What do you mean, Lady Gwenaëlle?” Christoph called out from behind her.
“It just seems rather fickle. The driest of heat followed by the heaviest of rain. That doesn’t sound at all like the stories my father used to tell me.”
“Do you think something might be different with this Crone?”
“I haven’t a clue,” she admitted. “I just find it strange is all. The fraughtness of it. It reminds me a bit of when I was breaking in Roscoe.”
She leaned forward and scratched the horse behind the ear the way she knew he liked and he gave a contented snort.
“When he was a colt and Steward Munty was teaching me to ride, he would act that way. He’d stand still as a stone, no matter how hard I pulled or shouted. And then, without warning, he’d take off like an arrow, kicking and fighting. Anything to get me off his back.”
They came to a fork in the path and Gwenaëlle gave a gentle nudge to the right, which Roscoe dutifully followed.
“It wasn’t until I came to understand him, understand what he wanted, that he started to listen to me.”
Dorian gave a snorting laugh from the rear of the troupe.
“Yeah, you could do all that sweet stuff” he laughed. “Or you could use a whip and get it done in half the time.”
He gave a kick to his horse, sending her running forward and taking the lead position.
“And if that doesn’t work,” he called over his shoulder, “there’s always more horses.”
For weeks they continued on through backroads and farmer’s fields. Whenever they spotted a farmhouse or village, Gwenaëlle would ride forth and listen to whomever would speak to her. They would tell of a shadowed beast, or a monstrous, cloaked figure, skulking through their fields. Some would name it outright as a Crone, spitting the word out like a curse. And each would point, not with outstretched arms but with small, submissive gestures, towards where they’d seen the creature.
They took their horses through dark forest, forced to weave winding paths through the thick underbrush. They rode in silence, exhausted of both conversation and patience. Listening only to the breathing of horses and the snapping of twigs, Gwenaëlle thought she heard something else.
“What was that?” She asked, pulling Roscoe to a halt.
“Some other godforsaken beast in this bloody shit forest,” Dorian muttered, oblivious to the sound now growing louder. A whisper, turned a whistle, before a rising, shrieking scream.
Black feathers descended upon the party. The birds, dark as night, came from nowhere and everywhere at once. Their talons raked at the eyes of both horse and rider. Gwenaëlle threw an arm across her face to shield her eyes and urged Roscoe on. Peeking under her crooked elbow she saw Dorian surge forward, his horse bucking wildly. Dorian’s face was already a red mess as he swatted at the birds, who evaded his clumsy strikes with ease before diving in to peck again at his flesh. His horse bolted forward again and Dorian’s head collided with a thick, low branch with a wet crunch. He fell from the saddle, landing with his face in the mud, and lay still. His horse whinnied as it stumbled off into the forest.
“Keep low,” Gwenaëlle shouted towards Christoph as she lay flat against Roscoe’s back. She could feel the needling of the birds’ strikes as she peered just over Roscoe’s shoulder, steering him through brush and bramble. They began to slow and Gwenaëlle again pushed him on before realizing that the horse’s hooves had begun to stick in the swampy mud. The earth gave wet sucking sounds as Roscoe struggled against the muck, eyes peeled wide in panic. Behind her, Christoph’s horse had just hit the same bog and she could see it sinking even faster.
“Come boy,” she whispered in the horse’s ear as reached up towards the branches that hung overhead. She grabbed the branches, keeping herself in the saddle and gripping Roscoe with her thighs as she pulled up with all her might. Underneath she felt Roscoe’s muscles struggle as he pulled a leg free and took a laboured step forward.
“You’re light as a feather, Roscoe,” she panted, swinging her arms forward to grab new branches and pull hard again. “You’re quick as the wind.”
She looked back to see Christoph’s horse sunk nearly to the torso. Christoph had dismounted and was himself stuck up to the knee, waving his arms at the birds that still harried him. Behind, Gwenaëlle could see points of starlight, the glowing eyes of beasts that prowled their way out of the forest towards the fallen rider. Christoph unsheathed his sword and turned to Gwenaëlle.
“Go on,” he shouted before turning and letting out a scream at the beasts as they closed in.
Roscoe began to speed up as the mud lessened and finally he pulled free, giving a shake that sent clumps of mud flying into the brush. The birds which had attacked them seemed to have doubled back, so Gwenaëlle pushed Roscoe onward.
Soon they came to a clearing. The trees opened, letting light in from the sky above. The ground here was damp but firm, with a thick layer of moss covering the floor. The clearing looked to be a perfect circle and in the middle sat the Crone. A hulking, cloaked figure, Gwenaëlle could make out little of its true form nor face. Its body bulged in unnatural places and it wore a heavy cloak which seemed to meld with the moss covering the ground. From under the hood, Gwenaëlle could just make out a large hooked nose, teeth both wide and sharp. Skin the colour of weathered stone.
Gwenaëlle dismounted and stepped slowly towards the Crone, placing one hand on the hilt of her sword. As she approached, the Crone turned to face her. Something moved under her cloak but Gwenaëlle remained steadfast. With an impossibly long, withered finger, the Crone beckoned Gwenaëlle closer. She approached, and slowly the Crone began unwrapping some unseen thing she kept hidden beneath her cloak. At last, with two hands gnarled as tree roots, the Crone held it aloft, and spoke with a voice that sounded like the rustling of leaves.
Gwenaëlle was led into her father’s chambers, where he was meeting with the chamberlain. They both leaned over a table covered in papers and ledgers. She clutched the bundle tighter as she listened to the soft patter of rain dripping off her clothes onto the stone floor.
“If we ration more strictly, one potato to the man, we can stretch our reserves longer. It won’t be popular, but what’s necessary rarely is. Unfortunately the cattle are… Oh dear!”
The chamberlain stopped, having noticed Gwenaëlle standing in a puddle in the doorway. He looked nervously between the Lord and his daughter before muttering a small pardon as he scurried out the door, lifting his skirts over the puddle as he went.
The Lord turned to face Gwenaëlle. His face was harsher than when she’d left. His cheeks sunk in, leaving his face hollow and bony. The months she’d been gone must have been harder than she’d imagined. Yet still she could see on the table in front of him his customary goblet of wine.
“Gwen, you’ve returned,” he said as a matter of fact, not celebration. “You’ve been gone far longer than it should have taken. I trust you’ve at least dealt with the Crone, then? And what is it you’ve got there, under your cloak?”
“I haven’t, Father.” She said. “And I don’t believe that I wish to be a Huntress any longer.”
Gwenaëlle took a step forward, unwrapping the bundle she held in front of her. With her gentle touch, the bundle began to make gentle movements. A small, plump arm poked out from under the cloth, its skin mottled and wrinkled like the bark of an old tree. Gwenaëlle unwrapped the baby fully and held her aloft, the child naked and blinking against the candlelight.
“What is the meaning of this, Gwenaëlle?” The Lord yelled. “Whose child is this?”
The baby, startled by the sudden outburst began to cry. As she cried, they could hear the winds pick up and begin to buffet the stone walls. Thunder cracked loudly overhead as the sounds of rain intensified. The stone walls and floor around them began to quake, and beneath their feet small buds of green started peeking up, worrying themselves through stone and earth. The thunder above was met with the cracks of stones splitting as fresh vines drove through them like worms through soil. The shaking rattled the table, spilling the wine and staining the papers a deep crimson.
“I think we were wrong before, Father, about the Crones,” Gwenaëlle said as she rocked the baby.
“We were wrong, but the old ways have been born anew.”