Published January 25, 2018
W hen out looking for the lords, Jessup sang. He had no real tune and he didn’t think he was pleasant to hear, but he sang for the joy of it.
Several hours passed and one of the lords met him between a pair of oaks. It had a goat beard, knobby legs, and cloven hooves. It came up and paused to sniff Jessup’s chest, its nose much too narrow to be a horse’s but with nostrils that flared too large to be a deer’s. Its tongue was purple and narrow, like a lizard’s, and the teeth it revealed were sharp as its horn.
The lords of the forest were gentle with Jessup and moved with a drugged slowness in his presence. Lords were usually private, skittish creatures, giving birth to dependent sets of twins. The herds used to run like water through the forests, Jessup’s mother had told him.
Jessup smiled. “Hello.” The lord’s pupils were blown wide as he bent to lick Jessup’s palm.
“There we go.” Jessup paused to scratch behind its ears, the tough, white fur tinged with a glinting violet. In the tones his mother used to use, he said, “You’re fine. You’re just fine.”
As Jessup sat on the grass, so did the lord. It tucked its legs under its body and lay in Jessup’s lap. He felt it vibrate with a warm, wheezing exhale of contentment. Though he grinned, he did not feel the same.
Jessup pulled out his knife, the blade worn and freckled with rust. When he pushed it into the lord’s throat, its long lashes flickered.
The blood was purple as it leaked onto the grass but dried black on his clothes.
Jessup took the body home and pulled it into his shack. He didn’t sing, then. That would have been unkind to both of them. He skinned the lord (male, smaller than the females) and cleaned off its bones. Before she died, his mother showed him how to use the boning knives and how to strip the skin away from flesh. The meat was too gamy to be sold and, worse, tasted awful.
After, Jessup headed into the village. He felt the forest asking for him back when he was there, but he survived on the money he earned from alchemists, ivory dealers looking to sell to the governor, and eager parents wanting to cure their newborns of pox and pneumonia. Remedies mostly worked on children and rarely on adults, though they always worked on Jessup. When the governor’s soldiers came to ask what, exactly, he was up to, he bribed them accordingly. They all smiled at each other throughout the transaction as if they were old friends.
Jessup bought a skin of wine in the village when the bones were gone. When he arrived home, a two-room cottage intended for a family, Jessup mixed the wine with his great bag of powdered horn and drank it. He had found a strange lump on his foot a few days ago and didn’t like the look of it.
He sat down to a good meal. When the powder began to addle his brain, the urge hit him to run outside.
Jessup ran and birds screamed when he got too close. The woods swung from side to side and when he tripped over the roots of a willow, Jessup fell down and slept, serene but empty. He killed them, he thought, but that was all right because they liked him. He sorrowed one minute and laughed and gasped the next.
Leaving his lords meant being lost. He had tried to run several times. It was right after his mother had died, when she could no longer convince him to hunt with her. The powder hadn’t yet distanced him so severely from his own heart.
The farthest he had gotten was two towns over before the shakes started, before he began to claw his arms and cry. The innkeeper was so disturbed, she removed Jessup from his room and put him out on the street.
He had muttered and wept to himself for days before making it back to the forest. It wasn’t even the powder that cured him. No, it was the presence of the lords that had brought Jessup back to his senses.
Jessup woke up feeling slight and withered in the gray dawn haze. He went home, everything too loud and bright. No food today, he thought. He started to pour out the rest of the wine into the vegetable patch but stopped himself. Jessup knew he would want it later.
Grass rustled and looked up to see a young woman standing in front of his cottage. She was short and box-shaped. “Do you live here?”
He looked around. She didn’t appear to be traveling with anyone. It was difficult to focus on her, especially the way his stomach roiled and tried to push up his throat. “Yes?”
She frowned. “The others told me the hunter who takes apprentices lives here. I wanted to hunt unicorns and see if she would help.” She used their unlucky name.
You did not call them unicorns. One had to have more respect than that.
“She’s not here.” A different man with a headache so enormous would have yelled. The powder made things remote, however, like he was the only real thing in the world.
“I can come back tomorrow. Are you a relative?”
“No.” It was hard to grin at her, feeling as thin as he did. Jessup went back into the cottage and shut the door firmly.
When he crawled into bed, shadows of leaves swayed on the quilted blanket his mother had made when he was a boy. She usually didn’t make him many things like it and he suspected it was originally for his father. Before falling asleep, he noted that the lump on his foot was gone.
Jessup woke up feeling more whole, but the effect was spoiled by the sharp knocking on the door. The only visitors who came these days were some of the more foolish lords who came to graze on his vegetable patch.
Blanket around his shoulders, he went to answer it.
At the door was the boxy young woman. “She’s dead.”
Jessup woke up more fully. “What?”
“The woman who owned this cottage. I was told she built it with her carpenter husband before pox took him.” She dropped her voice to a whisper and leaned close, eyes narrowed. “Did you murder her?” He jumped.
She smirked and he realized she was joking.
With a snort, he said, “I inherited it from her when she passed too, I’m afraid. Are you here to learn the trade?”
“Of course!” Pushing past him, the woman walked inside. She looked around. “I was worried when I talked with the others. I thought all the hunters out here were lonely for women.”
“Not that lonely,” said Jessup. “If you choose the company of a lover, the lords of the forest refuse to be near you.”
She attempted to suppress a smile. “The sisters told me that was a myth. Unicorns can’t divine something so individual.”
Jessup hoped she would stay for a little while. Jessup’s last apprentices were the hunters Catherine Clearly and Kiernan James. Both eventually left to make their fortune in the capital. Last he had heard, they had started a family together. “It’s a myth that’s served me well. That’s your first lesson. If you wish to hunt the lords, you must call them by a respectful name. That’s your second.” He nodded toward the table. “Could you wait there while I get dressed?” “You’re taking me on as an apprentice?” Her firmness wavered. “You don’t know my name.”
“It’s Grace,” said Jessup. “All the girls raised by the convent nearby are named ‘Grace’ by the sisters because they’re the Order of Grace the Serene. My mother was named Grace and, if you’re from the same convent, so are you.”
“Ha! Yes! Grace Eighteen! Not to be confused with Grace Sixteen or Grace Twenty. I roomed with both and, well, if you think I’m difficult, you should meet them. What number was your mother?”
“Grace Three,” he said. “I’ll be back out in a moment.”
Still shaking away the powder, Jessup took nearly an hour according to the coo-coo clock that hung in his bedroom. He wondered if Grace Eighteen’s patience would last.
“Your name’s ‘Jess,’” she said when he walked out in a cleaner tunic. Grace leaned back in his only kitchen chair, heels up on the table and hands behind her head. “The other hunters told me that a man by that name was nearby.”
“Jessup,” he said. “It doesn’t matter, though, because you might be gone tonight.”
Her chair tilted backwards. He was pleasantly surprised when she caught herself. “Then I won’t be an apprentice?”
“That’s up to you to decide,” he said happily. Catherine and Kiernan had certainly been hesitant and there were many besides them who were scared off. “I wouldn’t mind someone to clean out my shack and maintain the tools, but you may not want to stay.”
“You don’t think I have the stomach for it?” Then Grace Eighteen’s eyes widened. “Or you don’t think I’m a virgin? Because first of all, I still don’t believe that sort of story, and second, if you think a homely face like mine can attract anyone, you’re more hopeful than I. I might as well go ask a prince for his hand!”
“I think we should go on a lord hunt, first,” he said. “Then you can decide.”
“You don’t believe me?”
Jessup did. The convent turned out women who were sure in all their actions. They had raised his mother, after all. “First, we need to hunt.”
She hiked her skirt up her leg to reveal a leather scabbard. Grace pulled a dagger from it. “I’m ready.”
Jessup was sorry he had to show her. He liked her a lot.
In the forest, they sat under a tree and waited. It was a short distance from where Jessup had killed the lord yesterday. This time, he decided not to sing though it was one of his few pleasures.
“The governor has eunuchs,” Grace said when the silence stretched too long.
Jessup, who was not used to people anymore, eventually realized he had to respond. “That’s very interesting.”
“The eunuchs hunt the unicorns. The governor’s men geld some servants when they’re boys. Then the boys become men and the men grow huge and the unicorns come right up to them and the eunuchs can twist off their necks like this.” Grace demonstrated. She mimed holding a lord, pushing its head to one side, and dropping the body.
“I thought you said needing to be a virgin was a myth.”
“The sisters told me the governor is superstitious.” Grace smiled. He realized she was trying to impress him.
She didn’t need to try. He already admired how at home she seemed traveling about. Jessup could not do the same.
By the time a lord wandered out of the woods, it was almost sunset. She was a large, hulking creature with a silky beard, her black dugs heavy and her eyes wide and mean. Whatever the stories, it was clear she did not like Grace.
Grace did not flinch. She just pulled her blade and leapt.
There was little of his mother in her, Jessup thought. Before she died, gored by a lord despite years of experience, his mother was subtle and soft-spoken. If he liked women--if he liked anyone as much as he liked hunting--it might be someone like Grace Eighteen.
And the mare that Grace managed to stab in the haunches recognized that fire. She reared, smacking Grace in the nose with one of her cloven hooves so that she fell backward. It wasn’t a horse’s kick, so no bone snapped.
Grace swore as she struggled to stand.
The mare backed up and leveled her horn with Grace’s chest. Jessup had forgotten what they looked like when they aimed and charged. He stood, but he feared he was too late to take the lord down.
Or maybe he hesitated. Because they were his and he was theirs. His mother had been taken and, oh, that had hurt, but things had been better after.
Grace rolled out of the way, which left him grateful. From her other thigh, he was relieved to see she pulled a new dagger. No, she was not ill prepared.
There was little need for this, though, as the lord drove herself like an arrow through the tree trunk directly behind Grace. The wood made a sound like lightning had forked it in half. When she realized what she had done in her blind fury, the lord pawed the earth desperately. She whinnied and that whinny became a scream.
As the lord fumed, Jessup drew near to her with his rusted knife ready. Grace made a sound of protest as did the lord, but he ran a hand through her mane. The lord’s breathing became deep and he watched, pleased, as her pupils grew wide.
“What are you doing?” Grace came forward cautiously. It was smart to be afraid.
“I’ve been practicing since my mother took me hunting. Their smell is on me and they adore me the way a drunk adores a tavern.” Jessup pushed his blade through the lord’s throat.
Grace stood watching the dark blood pour out. She squinted as if measuring the volume that fell onto the grass. When the lord had bled out, Grace said, “How young did your mother start taking you out to hunt?” and Jessup realized she hadn’t been measuring blood but time.
“Ever since I could remember.” Jessup tried to heave the mare out of the tree. Her body, alas, was much too heavy and limp. “She felt she needed a virgin and I would be useful.”
“But you must have been so young.” Grace helped him cut the carcass out of the tree. “Why would she do that?”
Jessup felt a wave of grief hit him, but he beat it back with annoyance. Sadness was of no use to him. “Well, there was no one to watch me, anyway. And the horn powder helped with teething, she said.”
Then they both heard the bleating.
Jessup should have known by the heaviness of her dugs that the lord had just given birth. The twin foals had sleeker coats than their mother and murmured pathetically.
“They sound like babies,” said Grace.
“It’s a capital crime to kill the foals.”
“I heard. He doesn’t want them over-hunted. Does that stop you?”
“Absolutely not. Their horns go for even higher because they’re so much more potent. Their coats are especially rare. Will you help?” Jessup nodded to his knife, damp and purple up to the hilt. “They’re orphaned, now. It would be a mercy killing.”
Her mouth stiff, Grace didn’t hesitate. She held her dagger tightly.
Jessup could never figure out how to calm the young ones. Their parents were so much easier to lull with his presence. Still, because they were foals, they were weaker. They keened sharply like exotic birds in warm countries Jessup had never had the chance to see. The forest loved him too much to let him go.
Afterward, Jessup was happy that Grace helped him skin and clean all three. She was very good.
So it surprised Jessup when she thanked him for allowing her to come along but she would be leaving now. It shouldn’t have.
“It’s gotten dark.” She glanced at the thumbnail of moon above them. “But I know an inn where they may have a spare room.”
He shook his head. “You can stay here for the night. But why leave at all? You have the stomach for this.”
Her brow furrowed and she looked past him, toward the door of the little shack that housed the bones of the mare and her offspring, their innards still cooling. “This all came to me much too easily. The sisters at the convent always said I had the resolve to be a huntress, but I don’t like the woman who came out in the forest.” Grace focused on him again. “I’m sorry, Jessup. I thought I wanted this, I really did, but I can’t tend that part of myself. I’ll see if the governor’s chief gardener needs another set of hands.”
He smiled but it hurt. Still, this was not a life Jessup could push on her without reservations. What if she started to take the horn powder, too? Too few hunters were smart enough to avoid it. “I thought you were going to ask a prince for his hand in marriage.”
Grace snorted, wiping her eyes. If she was crying, Jessup didn’t see any tears.
Before they retired, he shared some potato pie with her and had none himself. Grace told many jokes, some of which left his sides hurting. He offered her the bed with the quilted blanket and said he would be fine at the kitchen table. She only accepted after he assured her, twice, that it would be no great difficulty to him.
He had never intended to sleep. Jessup was very good at lying, pretending to be happy, an aspect he wondered if he had gotten from the horn powder. He went to the shack in a dark mood and didn’t like how much it stank.
Jessup mixed the horn’s powder with sugar. He had never liked how it tasted. He spilled it onto a glass mirror, something Kiernan left behind, and ran a fingertip over it. Then Jessup pressed the powder to his gums and rubbed it in, sliding it over his tongue as it dissolved.
The feeling in his jaw deadened.
He became convinced he had fallen into a well of stars. Jessup stared up at the ceiling and felt sublime, the universe flowing through his skull like a jeweled river. The gentle whinnies of all those lords murmured in his ears. They said it was right to kill them, assured Jessup he was a kind soul and, if not innocent in action, innocent in heart. They sounded like his mother, though he could not say he still remembered her voice.
When Jessup came back to himself, he was on the floor of the shack. One of his boning knives was in his hand and the mirror, now broken, in the other. His hand bled.
Oh. He hadn’t meant to do that.
Rather than stand, he lay still. He did not feel better.
Unlike Grace, he was not a free man. He couldn’t abandon the lords, whatever he wanted when it was just him and his thoughts.
Briefly, as he lay and contemplated the ceiling, Jessup considered if Grace would ask him to come with her. They were not in love, but she was kind enough. Maybe she would turn out to be the sort who helped when he began to shake and wail.
He did not sleep though he tried.
Grace came to him in the morning and stood over him. It did not look like she had slept well, either. “I thought you had gone hunting for them again.”
He managed a dazed smile but felt it slip away from his mouth easily. “I need to hunt them every few days.”
“Does it hurt when you don’t? The sisters, they mentioned, well. That can happen.”
He said nothing.
Grace exhaled. “Look, we haven’t known each other long, but you’re calm. Patient. Me? Not always. You would make a good business partner if we found work together. What if I asked you to come and help me? Just for a while?”
Jessup sat up quickly.
She flushed. “Not like a man running off with a woman, like in ballads. Just two companions. You’re not happy here. It’s all over your face.”
“I’m not going to last long outside the forest,” he said finally. “You might have to leave me behind in order to pay court to the governor.”
Considering this, Grace said, “I can’t promise anything, either. The sisters took care of women who were addicted to drink, but I never helped.” She held out her hand. “If I try, though, would you?”
When they left the cottage a week later, Jessup was afraid he would be back. He imagined the voices of the lords from his visions, their song bright and silvery. The sun was warm, though, and the road to the village stretched out in front of them, running like a stream ready to carry him away.