Friday, April 13, 2018

In the Lionwood

In the Lionwood
Bobby Derie

In the winter when bellies grow taut, none is sadder than the rabbit-eater, who may starve though their stomachs distend with hare-flesh. Long might a hunter stare at the brown hare, when the snow is on the ground, yet not waste arrow or spear. Yet when the spring comes, and the green grass breaks through, the trees bring forth new leaves, and the snow is only seen where the shadows of the trees shield it from the sun...then perhaps a hunter may stretch their legs and, secure in game, give chase after a coney. For a change in taste.

Hafdana chased the grandmother of all hares through the melting forest; the thing was as big as a greyhound, and bounded with astonishing speed between the evergreens, through thickets of wet bramble that two weeks before had been incased in ice, down little valleys and across narrow streams of meltwater. Whatever designs Hafdana had on the creature - whether for the stewpot or for its pelt - was lost in that glorious run, the little legs kicking up snow, and her long stride behind.

It was not until the brambles turned to golden wire, and small meadows of long thin grasses poked amid scraggly trees spaced wide apart like bent old men, and the grey stones piled up into mounds with gaping mouths that Hafdana realized she had entered the Lionwood.

There were wide paths through the Lionwood, which might once have been roads paved with stone; and the endless caves were thought by some to be too regular to be anything but some ancient city, weathered and swallowed by the advancing forest. Tales were told by granddams over the fire - of the lion that slew a god, and a cursed city whose people mated like animals, of an ancient law broken and a revenge claimed by strange felines - and perhaps these were of the Lionwood, and perhaps they were strange dreams brought by chewing the wrong roots to stave off hunger.

Yet Hafdana raced on. The hare was tiring, the pace told on its heaving flanks. The hunter herself loped with the long stride of the far-runner, keeping the prey in sight but not seeking to close, until it tired itself out.

Eyes watched her. Slit pupils in the tall green grass, the shadows of low-hanging branches and the dark mouths of caves. Tawny tuffs of fur marked the rough bark of the old trees, and the scars of claws. On, on into the Lionwood, and a great purr came up as Hafdana passed under those trees, a staccato cachinnation, and a hiss that had nothing of the reptile in it as she strode through the sun-dappled tall grass between the patches of shade.

Worst was the silence. When all the sound faded away, and all the eyes seemed to flee. Hafdana clutched her spear tight, for the great rabbit itself seemed to sense the stillness in the air, but just as it was to turn from its path, a vast golden paw came down.

The hare had been the size of  a greyhound, long body covered in brown fur. Yet the paw was as thick as the bole of an oak tree; each claw would have made a terrible curved sword for a woman of average height. Hafdana's stride broke, and she stumbled forward. Stared up through the leaves of the trees and caught sight of great slitted pupils in green eyes the size of pumpkins. If a cat had been built on the scale of an elephant, it might have looked like that. The paw pinned the great hare to the earth...and then rose, and the beast padded silently through the trees.

Hafdana stumbled forward toward the hare - it's neck carefully crushed - and wondered for how long the lord of the Lionwood had been following them in chase. She picked up the broken hare, slung it over her shoulders, and turned back along that lane. Cats, she knew, were wise - and knew better perhaps then women, not to rely too much on rabbit-flesh, when winter was not yet over.


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