outfox :: couture :: spell :: grate :: willow
I stop at the willow tree. Heart galloping. Fast – so fast! Breathe. Look. I can hear them – smell them. Not far. Hallooooing trumpets, their dogs in a frenzy.
I have nowhere to go.
They are coming.
I blink. Breath tears through me. Thirsty so thirsty so tired… Instinct takes over. The world looks strange as I run. Behind, not far enough, the howling starts again. They have my scent, and they are coming.
I had been cleaning out the grate when it happened. I froze as I heard the Ladies coming back into the Great Room; I’d been sure they’d left for the day, but I must have been mistaken.
Or, they’d changed their minds. It wasn’t unknown.
Their voices tinkled in the hallway, and I doubled my pace, fingers trembling, praying…
‘Ah! Look, sister. Our little soot-boy is still here.’
‘It cannot be!’
‘I assure you.’
‘But, whatever for?‘
‘I presume he has been lazy, and has left his tasks undone until the last moment. Wouldn’t you think so, sister dear?’
‘No other explanation presents itself, certainly.’
I stumbled to my feet, turning and bowing low. I hid my filthy hands from their cool, clean gazes; I shrank my plain, worn garments from their gowns, elaborate, couture, worth more than my life.
‘My ladies, I -‘
‘Do not speak, boy,’ spat Lady Mary. ‘Have you been given permission to speak?’
‘Milady, no -‘
‘Again! He spoke again!’ crowed Lady Elizabeth. ‘Did you hear him, sister?’
Lady Mary did not answer. She crossed the room, her steps quick, her shoes click-click beneath the rustling of her skirts. She stood three feet from me, and I could hear her breathing. I crunched my eyes shut.
‘You. I tire of you, boy. Your insolence upsets me.’
I said nothing. My eyes burned.
‘A punishment, sister!’ called Lady Elizabeth, from the door.
‘I have just the thing,’ replied Lady Mary. The hissing of silks and two careful steps, and a giggle.
And then the pain.
I wake in her arms. Lady Mary’s. Her fingers cold. Cruel. Like metal. My breaths too quick. No voice. No hands. I kick. Her fingers dig in, deeper, like a claw. Like a trap.
‘Peace, soot-boy,’ she hisses. ‘The spell is yet to settle fully. If you disturb it now, it will be worse for you.’
I do not believe her. I try to cry out again, but nothing comes.
Striding toward the door. A hand reaches to unlatch it. Sunlight, air, a bright day.
Distant yapping makes my spine contract. I struggle. I try to bite.
‘You beast!’ screams Lady Mary.
She flings me from her and I fall. I miss my footing. No – I cannot find my feet, because they are not there. Before I can move, a savage pain bursts through me and I spin, splayed, out onto the lawn.
She has kicked me.
And then I see it. I am covered in fur.
The keening of dogs makes me heartsick. I know without knowing that they are coming for me.
‘Let’s see you outfox us now, little hare,’ I hear. Lady Mary. Lady Elizabeth stands beside her in the doorway, laughing. Her eyes dance.
‘Run, soot-boy!’ she calls, waving.
Once again, as I have always done, I obey.
The dogs are upon me. I can smell them. I can taste their hunger. No matter where I run, they are there.
Trumpets. Shouting. Howling. Heartache. Agony.
I taste my own blood on my tongue.
A flash of light draws my eye. Through a haze, I see. Sunlight. Sparkling on water.
A snarl to my right makes me veer left; a howl to my left makes me redouble my pace. I cannot breathe. These limbs, not my own, are numb.
Screaming from behind me. I cannot hear the words. I do not need to hear to understand.
I stretch, further than I think I can bear. Feel like I am being torn in two.
The dogs’ breath burns like an open flame.
Then the water, so shocking, so cold, so fast, so clear, and the pain, the pain, the thumping, deafening, whirlpooling agony, the popping and bursting, the groaning of muscles and sinew, the stretching and rending of bone…
I drag myself up on the far shore. My fingers run red. I am shivering, naked. I turn, blinking through my own eyes, through a film of exhaustion, at the hunters.
The water washed the spell away, along with my scent, but the dogs play at the shoreline, dancing with the water, waiting for the word. They don’t need to smell me to tear me to shreds.
A hunter raises her bow, and cocks it.
‘Wait!’ calls another, a slender girl, her skin flushed. ‘Not yet.’
‘But they will ask for his heart,’ replies the other. The bow does not tremble.
‘We can find another hare,’ says the slender girl, turning to me. Her dark eyes fill with fire. ‘Leave him for another day.’
‘Just do as I ask,’ says the slender girl. She smiles, but it is not gentle. ‘He has given us the best chase in years. Would you destroy him?’
The bow is lowered.
‘And, as we well know,’ says the slender girl, ‘men make much easier prey than hares.’
She blows me a mocking kiss and pulls her horse around. The others follow, reluctantly, and soon I hear the howling start again.
They will know the heart is not mine.
I do not have long.