Heather Pagano

art by Jennifer Pitcock


 

Beast






 The bow Deuil's father had given him on his name day trembled in his hands.  His arms ached from the effort of drawing the string and knocking the arrow.  Deuil was hidden in a dogwood bush.  Somewhere in the forest his father Ren Doon, his brother Baor, and his uncle Lepad and his men, were likewise camouflaged, arrows knocked, waiting for Teg to draw out the beast. 

 The forest was silent.  Deuil watched the slow progress of a beetle across the yellow palm of a maple leaf.  The leaf was mottled with brown and eaten through in places by caterpillars.

 Deuil had never been allowed to go hunting with his father before.  Ren Doon was an expert marksman.  There was no room for children in his hunting party.  Deuil was armed with the bow his father had used as a boy, and he knew his father expected him to use it.  Ren Doon was waiting, as he'd told Deuil when he'd given him the bow, for Deuil to earn the Doon portion of his name.

 The beetle crawled off the tip of the leaf, across a blade of grass, and down into the empty shell of an acorn.  It lumbered out the other side of the hollow shell as though it had crossed a canyon.  Suddenly, wings unfolded from its waxy, black body, and it flew off the side of the acorn.  Deuil followed the beetle with his eye.  Up it flew, and higher through the dogwood bush and through the slant of light gaping through the bare branches at the top of the maple tree.

 Deuil heard the crunch of a hoof on dead, dry leaves.  Hands slick with sweat, he fumbled to draw the arrow back to his ear.  Deuil held his breath and strained his eyes, trying to see the creature who had made the noise.  He saw a shadow on the carpet of brown and gold.  Deuil's tongue stiffened in his mouth.  He pulled the arrow against the bow string as hard as he could.

 An arrow whizzed past Deuil's dogwood bush.  The arrow was fletched with the feather of a raven.  Ren Doon's arrow. Deuil dropped his bow and tumbled backwards.  Sharp twigs bit into his back and snagged his wool tunic.  The arrow flying so close and fast to Deuil's hiding place had frightened him. Deuil heard the bellow of the wounded beast.  It called, wild, hopeless, angry through the silent wood.  A flock of migrating sparrows burst from the maple tree, sending dusty, yellow leaves raining down on Deuil's head. 

 Baor stepped out from his hiding place.

 Deuil heard the shuffle of eager footsteps hurrying through the leaves.  Ren Doon appeared, knife in hand, bow slung over his shoulder. 

 "Did you see him?" Ren Doon asked Baor.

 "No, sir.  Heard him, though.  Must have been a stag or a buck.  Whatever it was, it was big."

 Deuil's head emerged from the dogwood bush.  Twigs snapped off where they'd caught in his tunic, making small popping sounds that made the sparrows, who had just resettled on the maple, flutter up into the sky again.

 "Stay here, Deuil," Ren Doon said.  "Baor and I are going to go after him.  If he tries to run this way, you'll be the one to shoot him.  Your uncle is to the north and east with some of his men.  The southern pass is your watch."

 "Yes sir."

 "Nothing more dangerous than an injured beast, Deuil."

 "Yes, sir.  You taught me that, sir."

 Teg, Ren Doon's most expert tracker, emerged from the trees.  He eyed Deuil doubtfully.

 "One of us can stay far to the south in case the boy misses," Teg said. 

 "No, Teg.  My son is old enough, or I wouldn't have brought him."

 "Full grown man can miss a target when its running for its life, sir.  The boy can have the first shot at him, but we ought to leave someone behind in case he misses."

 "We don't even know he'll run this way," Ren Doon said.

 Teg hefted his bow over his shoulder and followed his master in the direction the raven feather fletched arrow had flown.  Deuil sank back down into the dogwood bush.  His heart beat against his ribs.  He began to sweat beneath his tunic.  His arms shook badly as he knocked the arrow and strained his muscles to keep the bow taut.

 Minutes passed.  The forest had settled back into silence even deeper than the silence that had preceded Ren Doon's arrow and the beast's terrible cry.  Deuil noticed that the sparrows had not come back to the maple.  The beetle was gone.  Deuil supposed that somewhere beneath his boots, where the roots of the dogwood bush grew tangled, there were beetles and pale pink worms, grubs, and other living things.  They were the silent living things.  All that dared make noise had flown or held silent.

 Deuil blinked the sweat from his eyes.  His cheeks were hot, his neck was cold from perspiration that ran down the collar of his cloak and evaporated.  He heard a hoof fall crackle in the dry maple leaves.  The hoof fall was followed close by a second.  After a pause Deuil heard the third and fourth.

 Deuil's heart beat so hard that it seemed to swell and start creeping up his throat.  He'd heard no shouts, no sounds, no dry cracks as the fleeing stag barreled through the trees.  It approached so softly, so quietly, that Deuil began to doubt he'd heard the hoof falls, at all.

 Deuil peered between the leaves of the dogwood bush.  The deer trail where his father, Baor, and Teg had stood, was still illuminated by honey-gold light that shone through the bare upper branches of the maple.  While Deuil watched, one slender hoof slid into the shaft of sunlight.  Deuil's eyes widened in shock.  He'd believed, like his father, that the stag would run in another direction.  And here this beast was, not running, barely moving at all.  It stood still and silent, perhaps unaware of Deuil's knocked arrow.

 There was no point shooting the animal in the leg.  An injured leg would certainly slow the beast down, but it was a hard shot to make.  As fast as he could manage, Deuil burst out of the dogwood bush.  The arrow was drawn so hard that Deuil's knuckles bumped his ear.  He aimed, he looked.

 A long-haired girl with brown, slanting eyes was staring at him.  Deuil blinked, and watched the way the light made her hair seem to kindle with fairy fire.  Her eyes were the same chestnut color as her hair.  Her neck was thin and white, and nestled between bare white shoulders.  The girl's chest and arms were bare.  Her cheeks and throat were flushed from running.  Deuil wondered why she wasn't cold.

 He dropped the bow and arrow at his feet.

 "Who are you?" Deuil said. 

 He imagined he'd found some sorceress living off mushrooms in the woods, the kind who turned herself into a beautiful girl to avoid a rope around her neck when men saw her.

 The girl was breathing heavily.  Deuil could not tear his eyes away from her chest- he had never seen a naked woman before.  Deuil's eye slid from her chest, down her ribs, down the length of her waist, to her slender hips.  Somewhere between her hips and thighs, the girl became covered with smooth chestnut-colored fur.  Her muscled legs were covered with the same fur.  She had hooves where there should have been feet.

 A bellow of pain sounded somewhere from the north.  Ren Doon had found his mark and the creature roared with pain.

 The girl turned suddenly at the noise.  Her hand flew up to her throat, as though trying to shove her heart back down where it belonged.  She turned suddenly, revealing the muscled flank of a pure bred mare.  Her tail, which was long and flowing like her hair, flicked from side to side.  She galloped.

 Deuil bent down and picked up his bow and arrow.  He yanked his tunic free of the brambles in the dogwood bush, and he followed her.

 Four legs ran must faster than two.  Deuil tamped the sound of his own breath out of his ears, and listened for the centauress' muted hoof falls.  She ran recklessly through the woods, no longer caring if she snapped a twig under her weight.  Deuil followed her sound and he followed the eddies of leaves that sprang up under her hooves and slowly sifted back to the forest floor.

 They ran north, in the direction Red Doon and Baor had gone.  When Deuil could run no further, he doubled over and pressed a fist into his belly.  He swallowed hard, thirsty enough to drink his own saliva.  He listened for the sound of hooves and heard nothing.

 Frightened that he'd lost the centauress, Deuil straightened and stood very still.  He didn't allow himself to breathe.  He hushed even the pound of blood in his temples.  Standing quietly did not bring back the sound of hooves.  Deuil closed his eyes, made his ears the ears of the worms, his eyes the eyes of the beetles.

 He heard a tiny sigh.  It was followed immediately by another, and a choking sound, as though someone were crying.
Deuil hurried forward and stepped between two very large, very old dogwood bushes.

 She was there.  Deuil saw her back haunches fall heavily to the ground.  Her forelegs bent, and her torso sank down with the rest of her horse's body.  She wrapped her arms around a fallen buck, buried her head in its flank, and began to sob.

 The bow hung, limp, at Deuil's side.  He took a few steps forward to get a better look at the buck.  He wondered if it was the buck Red Doon had shot with his arrow.

 The girl was crying too hard to notice Deuil's presence.  Deuil was soon at her side.  He looked down at the buck and saw that it was a centaur- the older, male counterpart of the girl who had flung herself across his body.

 The girl must have felt Deuil's shadow fall over her.  She gasped and lifted her head from the male centaur's flank.  Her beautiful face and neck and arms were smeared with the male centaur's blood.

 Deuil sprang back.  He made no motion to lift his bow, nor did he drop it. 

 Deuil knew many legends of the centaurs.  He knew they fed on raw flesh- men's flesh when they could get it.  He knew they loved nothing better than wine, and that they drank and reveled to mystical songs on faraway grassy hills.  Men who laid eyes on such bacchanals never returned from them, and better for them they did not.  Such things made men mad.

 The centauress' eyes focused on the bow in Deuil's hand.  She lunged forward, suddenly, hind legs bucking behind her.  She dug her hooves into the ground and gripped the arrow that Red Doon had buried in the male centaur's neck.  The jolt from extracting the arrow caused the male centaur's head to roll.  His eyes were dark blue, the shade of blueberries in July.  The centaur had died with eyes open, thick lips parted to reveal blood-stained, pointed teeth.  The centuar's chestnut-colored curls were streaked with gray and matted with blood.

 In the struggle to free the arrow from the centaur's neck, the centauress' face had twisted into a snarl.  Deuil could see her pointed teeth, and knew that they could tear his flesh and eat it raw.

 The centauress held up the raven feather flecked arrow and shook it in Deuil's face.

 It wasn't me, Deuil wanted to tell the girl, though his mouth was too dry to speak.  It was my father, Deuil thought.  But he wouldn't tell her that.

 The grimace relaxed out of the centauress' face.  The arrow dropped from her fingers.  She collapsed on the dead centaur and began to cry.  From time to time she lifted her head to study Deuil's bow.  Her tilted brown eyes seemed to ask him why he hadn't used it yet, why he did not shoot her as the male centaur had been shot.

 Deuil lay the bow at his feet to reassure her that he didn't mean to use it.  When he did that, the centauress cocked her head to one side like a hunting dog who'd heard a pheasant in the bushes.  Her irises expanded and contracted.  Deuil could see himself reflected in her eyes.

 The centauress lifted a hand to wipe the tears from her face.  Every movement she made when she was seated was graceful, like a dancer's.  When her hand came away from her face, her cheeks were covered in blood.  The centauress looked from the blood on her fingers to the centaur's body, then looked back at Deuil.

 Deuil held a hand out to her as he'd once held bits of bread crumbs to the geese who stopped at Doon Lake each November.  She watched the approaching hand distrustfully.  Deuil stroked her hair, as though reassuring a hunting dog.  Her hair was soft and fine.  Deuil repeated the stroking motion as much for the pleasure of touching her hair as to comfort her.

 What relation did the centauress have to the dead male on the ground?  Was he a father, a friend?  Could a beast such as a centaur distinguish its own family?  Or was the young animal simply overcome by the scent of the blood of her species, by the emptiness left in a body that had once run, eaten, played, danced in secret debauchery under the cover of some fairy wood. 

 Deuil fumbled in his tunic pocket for a handkerchief.  He pulled the rumpled linen out and used it to wipe the blood from the centauress' face.  He took her hands and wiped them clean.

 The centauress began to sing.

 Deuil couldn't understand her language, but had no need to.  Notes dripped from her lips like the tears down her cheeks.  It was a soft song, heard by none but the centauress, Deuil, and the beetles in the leaves.  While she sang, Deuil held her hands in his, wondering at how warm they were, marveling at the heat her naked arms and shoulders radiated, despite the fact that Deuil was cold under his woolen tunic.

 Deuil closed his eyes.  The song made him picture a great darkness, lit by a thousand stars.  As the centauress sang, stars popped in and out of existence.  Constellations that Deuil knew well faded away, or warped and changed into strange new shapes.  The new constellations rose and fell through sunrise and surged again at twilight on an unknown pink and purple stained horizon.  Deuil felt as though the song told a very old story of which the mourned male centaur was only the latest part. 

 Hoorah!  Hoorah!  Ren Doon's hunting horn began to sing. 

 Deuil's eyes snapped open and the centauress' song ceased.

 Deuil's father had certainly understood that he'd mortally wounded the beast.  Finding the dead centaur was a simple matter of having Teg track the centaur's panicked flight through the underbrush to the place where he had died.  And when Ren Doon found the centaur, he would also find this creature with the body of a beautiful girl and the hindquarters of a pure bred mare.  Ren Doon would find her pointed teeth, her frightened snarl, her wordless tears and unearthly song.

 What would Ren Doon make of such a creature?

 "You have to go," Deuil told the centauress. 

 He looked her very squarely in the eye.  Though he wanted her to run, he found that he held her hand tightly to his chest.

 "Do you understand?  If they find you here…"

 There's no honor in killing the female of the species, Ren Doon had once told Deuil.  But Deuil had seen Teg gut a female deer one winter when meat was scarce.

 The centauress paled.  Perhaps she'd understood Deuil's words, his fear, or she'd simply guessed the meaning of the horn.  She bounded to her feet.  The full mare's length of her body whirled around.  She began kicking maple leaves with her hind feet.

 Deuil stepped back and watched her, puzzled.  Then he understood what she was trying to do.  Deuil leaned over and scooped up armfuls of leaves to cover the dead centaur's body.  He scurried around the clearing, mussing leaves, using the hand axe on his belt to chop away broken branches and erase all evidence of the centaur's flight.
 

 Hoorah!  Hoorah!

 Ren Doon and his hunting party were almost upon them.

 "Run!" Deuil ordered in a fierce whisper.

 He swatted the centauress on her rump, as if spurring a horse.

 The centauress did not move.  She watched Dueil with her brown, slanting eyes.  Yellow maple leaves had tangled in her freely flowing, chestnut-colored hair.

 "I won't let Ren Doon find him," Deuil promised.

 The centauress closed her eyes in a slow blink, like a sleepy cat.  She nodded.  She twisted around so that her human head faced the direction of her horse's body.  Her tail lashed from side to side.  The muscles on her flanks rippled, and she took off east at a gallop. 

 Deuil hurried to erase the marks her hooves left.

 Deuil burst from the clearing.  "I saw him!" he shouted.

 "Where?" Ren Doon called.

 Deuil could see the quiver of raven feather fletched arrows on his father's shoulder.

 "East.  It was bleeding awfully bad, it was huge, sir."

 "What is it?" Ren Doon asked.

 "A stag, sir.  I'd say it had four, five points to each antler."

 "Not going to go down easy," Ren Doon said.  "I thought from the sound it made, I had it."

 "Awfully big, sir," Deuil said, falling in line beside Baor.

 "Did you shoot at it?" Baor asked.

 "No.  It was too fast," Deuil said.  "It went by like a blur."
 
 

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