Another entry in the Tale before the Trial series.
The Huntsman gazed down from the cliff that overlooked the smoking entrance into the underground city of Muirias. The forest echoed with the screams and squall of the slaughter taking place within. Behind him, the Wild Hunt stirred. The spectral dogs sniffed at the blood in the air. Their flaming eyes blazed with the need to rip, tear, and rend. So many fresh souls cried out for aid—for release.
From the heart of the carnage one voice called the hunter by name—though not by the name that mattered. That name he had buried beneath a lifetime of servitude, answering to lesser monikers if it meant concealing the only one that could truly destroy him.
A once-proud, ravaged voice summoned him, certain he would come.
Herne, to me…!
The Huntsman did not move.
It was as much an act of treason as if he wielded the blade that struck his King’s heart. His hounds could have driven back the Solitary horde. When the Wild Hunt ran there was nowhere their quarry could flee where they could not follow. By holding them back, the Huntsman allowed the rabble to take the day.
Too long the graceful creatures of the four reigning courts had looked down on the grotesque, misshapen Solitary Fae. They hunted them, hounded them, and humiliated them at every turn. This was the result. This inevitable uprising would change the face of Faerie forever. Not even immortals could escape the wheel of change.
Listening to the battle raging below, the Huntsman wondered to which side of the conflict he truly belonged. He was an anomaly, Solitary as time, yet chained to the courts through his connection with the Wild Hunt whom the High King sent to annihilate his enemies and strike fear into all those who fell out of his favor.
Through the long fae centuries the hunter had learned to adopt the appearance and graces expected by the superficial Court Fae. Almost without thinking he could assume the form of a dark man with tawny eyes and shoulder-length black hair, and when he ran with the Hunt he took the shape of a silver stag, majestic and graceful, leader of the herd. But his true form lay somewhere in between—two-legged, cloven-hoofed, a rack of antlers on his head. He cared nothing about his appearance, but the other fae did. No matter what form he took one side or the other drew back in hate, but regardless of sides they all drew back in fear.
He knew the exact moment the King’s soul departed. It was as if a cord inside him drew taunt, wound tighter, and then snapped. His powerful frame shuddered, cut adrift from the only bond that had ever held him in restraint. He closed his eyes and lifted his face to the east.
For the first time in the millennia of his existence he had no master. There was no one to command him to take innocent souls to torment until they withered into shades. No one could force him to haunt the sick and dying with the hunting cry of his hounds. No more must he be a figure of fear for mortals and fae alike. He could turn his back on Faerie and never again answer the call of the hunt.
A victory cry rose with the dawn. Howls, caws, cackles of glee overshadowed the moans of those who had been vanquished.
His expression hardened.
As much as he longed to roam the forests of Annwyn unhindered, his path had already been chosen. He alone had the power to keep the Holly Court intact. Though the Court Faeries would resist, he was the most powerful among them, and none would challenge him if it meant facing the Wild Hunt. The Solitary Fae would relish his leadership. In their eyes he would be the first of their rank to infiltrate the vile Gentry camp.
With any luck he could make peace with Darragh of the Summer realm and Credeilia of the Spring to prevent Scatha’s war on Faerie from spreading. He had witnessed enough human dynasties rise and fall to know that the court oppressors would soon become the oppressed.
He felt it then, the whisper of power massing around him. Although wars were often waged over thrones, the deep magic of Faerie always marked the next ruler when it was their time to ascend the throne.
With a heavy heart he bowed his head. Ancient magic crawled up through the earth, winding around him, climbing like creepers up his boots and over his legs, chest, and head. At last it settled at the base of his great branching antlers. His nostrils twitched against the smell of holly berries. In moments, the circlet of spiked leaves wreathed his head. A crown of winter thorns for the new Holly King.
Untilhe stepped down or his reign was cut short, Winterthorn he would be. He absorbed the new mantle with steely grace. The title meant nothing. It was just one more layer of defense around the only name that could truly damn him or set him free.