Thursday, October 30, 2008

Lord of the Hunt

The lord’s tax collector entered the lord’s sitting room. Bright morning sunshine slanted in through the windows, forcing the tax collector to turn his eyes away from the glare. That’s why the tax collector did not immediately notice the nearly empty wine bottle sitting on the table beside his lord. By the time he did notice, his lord had turned his bleary attention to his servant.

“What is it?” Lord McConnell demanded loudly.

“Nothing, my Lord,“ began the tax collector.

“You intruded on me for nothing?” roared Lord McConnell.

“Um, no, my Lord. I meant nothing urgent. I’ll just deal with the matter my-“

“Oh, no you won’t! You’re here. Report this nothing so I may determine how to deal with it,” Lord McConnell slowly, as if concentrating on each word.

“It’s just a tax matter, my Lord. One of the peasants hasn’t paid his full measure,” answered the tax collector. “I will go to the village this morning, with your permission, and deal with the matter.”

“Ah, very good. Very good indeed. I believe I shall accompany you on your task,” said the lord. “Yes, I believe I shall. Perhaps I will have the opportunity to do some hunting during the ride.”

Lord McConnell staggered to his feet, bellowing for horses and hunting dogs to be readied.

Lord McConnell’s cavalcade arrived at the peasant’s cottage without incident. And that was a problem. Deprived of his one great love, hunting, Lord McConnell further indulged his second love. His retainers were amazed their lord could still ride.

Drawing up outside the cottage, the tax collector made to dismount, saying, “I’ll just take care-“

“Peasants!” shouted the lord. “Your lord and master demands you stand before him and pay your taxes!”

The door to the cottage flew open as a man and boy hurried out to bow before Lord McConnell. “Please, my lord, I have given all I have! I beg you allow me to pay an extra measure next month.”

“My lord,” the tax collector said, “this man’s wife is the village healer. I believe she will earn well in the next month as November always brings the first ill humors of winter. The man should have no trouble paying the extra measure.”

Lord McConnell swayed in his saddle, gazing off towards the nearby forest. “Do you know the forest well, peasant?”

“My lord? I don’t-

“It is a simple question, one even a simple man such as you can answer,” Lord McConnell shouted.

“Aye, I know the forest well, my lord,” the peasant replied.

“Then I offer you a wager, peasant. If you win, you owe nothing more for this month. If you lose, I’ll consider your offer of an extra measure in November,” said Lord McConnell. “The wager is simple. You and your boy run into the forest. In five minutes, I loose the hounds and give chase. If you remain free when darkness falls, you win. If my hounds and I catch you, I win.”

“But my lord-“

“Now go, peasant. Fly to the forest and give me the best hunt ever!” the lord said.

Everyone stared at the lord, aghast.

“Are you so confident, man?” asked Lord McConnell. “Your five minutes have begun.”

Fear filled the peasant’s face. Without another word, he grabbed his son’s hand and ran off toward the forest.

“He runs well,” mused the lord. “Huntsman, find something in the peasant’s hut and give the hounds the scent. Perhaps this won’t be a wasted day after all.”

But Lord McConnell was wrong. The hounds treed the peasant and his son within twenty minutes. Angered at the poor quality of the hunt, the lord ordered them both taken to his dungeon. Having seen the man and boy chained to the wall in his dungeon, Lord McConnell repaired to his sitting room where he tried to drown his anger in wine. Instead, the wine only stoked the anger further.

Knowing well their lord’s temper, his servants did their best remain outside of his notice. Yet all could hear Lord McConnell’s anger build into rage as he paced the floor of his study, wine in hand, muttering and cursing. As the sun disappeared below the hills, the lord’s fury overwhelmed him.

Staggering purposefully toward the stairs to the dungeon, Lord McConnell said, “Damned peasants! They rob me of taxes and of the joy of the hunt! Damn them!”

Lord McConnell continued to rant as he descended into the dungeon. The servants heard the door to the dungeon cell open and slam shut. Then they heard the lord yelling and the peasants pleading. The yelling grew louder, the pleading more desperate. Then, the pleading turned to screams of anguish then screams of pain. Screams that went on and on and on. Finally, silence fell and Lord McConnell emerged from the dungeon, blood coating his hands and clothing.

At that very moment, the healer woman, wife and mother to the peasants in the dungeon arrived at the castle.

“My lord,” she said, holding out a jingling pouch, “I have begged and borrowed from the villagers and have the full measure of our taxes. Please, lord, where are my husband and son?”

Taking the pouch, the lord said, “Come. I will take you to them.”

Lord McConnell led the woman into the dungeon and threw open the door to the cell. The floor was red with blood. Trembling, the healer woman entered the room and beheld her husband and son. Both had been slashed and cut dozens upon dozens of times. Both had their throats slit wide open. Lord McConnell waited in anticipation for the hysterics to begin. For the second time that day, he was disappointed by his peasants.

The woman spun around to face Lord McConnell, eyes blazing with rage. Instinctively, Lord McConnell fell back a step from her fury.

“I curse you, lord,” the healer said coldly. “I curse you to be hunted just as you hunted my husband and my son. I curse you to be hunted by hounds from Hell, chased until you can run no farther then ripped limb from limb! I curse you!”

Without thinking, Lord McConnell drew his dagger and plunged it into the woman’s heart. As blood flowed from her wound, the woman smiled.

In a voice as cold as death, she said, “By my words invoked. By my blood sealed.”

As her lifeless body dropped to the floor, Lord McConnell’s hunting dogs began to bay and howl. The sound ripped through his mind and clawed at his sanity. Staggering out of the dungeon, hands clasped over his ears, the lord ordered his huntsman to silence the dogs. When nothing the huntsman could do would silence them, Lord McConnell took his sword and slew them all.

From that day forward, Lord McConnell could not bear the sight or sound of any dog. Panic would seize him should hear a dog bark or see a dog in the village. So the lord issued orders that all dogs in his fiefdom were to be slain and none allowed to enter it. When the grisly work was done, the lord was able to sleep at night. And, slowly, his terror of the curse faded.

One year later, the curse all but forgotten, Lord McConnell reclined in his sitting room, relaxing after a fine dinner and enjoying a fine wine. Then, far in the distance, he heard the sound of hounds baying.

“Who has brought hounds into my fiefdom?” he demanded of a servant.

“Hounds, my lord?” asked the servant.

“Yes! Did you not hear them baying in the distance just now?” asked the lord.

“I heard no hounds, my lord,” the servant replied.

Thinking, perhaps, it was the wind or his mind playing tricks on him, Lord McConnell settled back and took another sip of wine. Then hounds bayed again. But this time they sounded as if they were just outside the castle.

“Surely you heard that!” demanded the lord.

“I swear, my lord, I heard nothing!” replied the servant.

Then the hounds bayed again, this time from the castle courtyard.

“And now? Will you swear you heard no hounds now?” screamed Lord McConnell.

Backing away slightly, the servant gave no answer.

Then the lord heard growling coming from the far side of the room. Terrified, he looked toward the sound. Six pairs of glowing red eyes stared at him out of the shadows. Slowly, the eyes moved out of the shadows and Lord McConnell once again cast eyes on his very own hunting hounds. The hounds he slew one year ago.

Throwing his goblet at the dogs, Lord McConnell cried, “Keep them away from me!”

“Keep who away from you, my lord?” asked the servant.

“The hounds! Keep the hounds away from me!” Lord McConnell screamed as he fled the room.

Baying, the hounds gave chase. Lord McConnell ran toward the dungeon, all the while pursued by the hounds. Down he ran, to cell where the curse had been laid. Slamming the door shut, the lord’s servants heard him beg and plead for the hounds to be called off. Soon, his pleading turned to screams and the screams went on and on and on. When the screams finally stopped, not one of the servants would descend to the dungeon at night.

The next morning, a guard went into the dungeon and opened the door to the cell. Blood was splashed across the walls and covered the floor. Lord McConnell lay dead, ripped limb from limb.

Hundreds of years later, there are those visitors to the castle who can hear screams coming from the dungeon. But those who have darkness in the hearts hear not the screams. They hear the baying of the hounds.