Aphelion Issue 289, Volume 27
November 2023
 
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The Old People

by John Horan




Cathair had spent his whole life hearing tales of the Old People. Sometimes tricksters, sometimes heroes, always straddling this world and the next. They were real of course, real like the stars in the sky. And just as irrelevant.

The Chatinoi, who had come to these lands a generation before, were fascinated by them. Cathair had seen scarred Chatinoi veterans stand rapt as a mother told her children stories of the Old People leaving gifts for honest folk. So when the Thegn sent him to capture them, Cathair was not terribly surprised.

“You know these woods well, huntsman. Tell me, have you ever seen the towns of these Old People?”

Cathair was grateful to be looking down as the Thegn asked this. Still kneeling and forcing himself to keep a straight face, he took a moment to reply.

“No lord, most people have never seen them. From what I can tell, they don’t like the company of humans.”

The Thegn paused for a long time, and Cathair wondered if he had said something to offend the war leader.

“I saw the town of the Old People in my dream last night. As did many of my men. They had high walls, and their warriors rode great flying horses.” Another pause. “I believe it to be real, a place that can be found. A place that is a threat.”

Cathair resisted the urge to laugh and was again grateful that he was looking at the floor.

“What you are to do, huntsman, is scout for me. I have spoken to my warriors, no one knows these woods better. You will find this town of the Old People, you will report back their numbers. For this you will be rewarded.

However, ridiculous the request, you did not refuse a Chatinoi thegn. So now Cathair found himself in the forest with his bow strapped to his back and a fighting knife at his waist. He had decided he would spend three days here, then return and say that he had found nothing.

Many of his folk did not like traveling the Green Wood, especially through the night, but in truth it had never bothered Cathair. He liked the refuge, had stayed there for days at a time, and a visit in the service of the Thegn wouldn’t hurt.

Cathair had not traveled far when he noticed the first of the tracks. Bending down to get a better look, he noticed they were hooves, like those of cattle but much bigger. An aurochs, he realized. They were rare this close to human settlements, but Cathair had encountered them before. Without even thinking, he began to follow them.

` As he always did whenever he moved in the forest, Cathair suddenly became incredibly aware of everything around him. He heard the birds in a tree half a mile away and could sense wind rustling the leaves nearly as far. For lack of a better word, he dug into the forest, just as the roots of an oak tree dig into the ground.

Moving through the forest was easy for him, and he could move quickly and silently. He did this now, following the tracks deeper into the forest, gliding along familiar game trails.

Until the forest suddenly changed. Cathair stopped, looking around in shock. He had been on a familiar trail, had thought he knew where it led. Now he stood in an unfamiliar clearing. The trees were taller and their leaves were red and brown, as though it were the dawn of winter.

The Aurochs stood across the clearing, grazing placidly and ignoring Cathair. Even from this distance he could see the creature was injured. The bull limped slightly, its horned head drooping. As he looked closer he saw small arrows in its side, like something from a child’s bow..

A part of Cathair wanted to turn around and leave the great beast here in the clearing. Aurochs were nearly as tall as a man at the shoulder, and Cathair had seen the wounds that a bull’s horns could give.

But still he continued to walk forward, moving almost silently. The bull seemed not to notice him, or content to ignore him, until he was only ten paces away. The Aurochs finally paused in its grazing to look placidly at him.

Cathair only had a heartbeats warning, but fortunately that was enough. He crouched down, just as something flew past where he had been. In a swift movement, Cathair pulled free his bow and began to run to the cover of the trees.

“Stop, poacher” Those words, quietly spoken, made him stop. He turned to where the voice had come, his feet rooted to the spot. He knew he should run, get out of the open, but felt as though he couldn’t move.

A figure stepped out from behind the trees, a small bow in their hand. They were small, barely larger than a child and moved with a bouncing energy. They wore dull hunter’s clothes and had a fine featured hairless face.

“What are you doing in my wood?” The person walked up very close to him, staring up at him. Their face was young, but the eyes boring into him were old.

For a moment, Cathair considered taking the bow from this foolish person, but something in their face told him that would be a bad idea.

“I saw the tracks of the creature coming from my end of the wood, I followed them here.”

My end of the wood.Anyone would know that all the woods on this island belonged to the Thegn, and no hunter could lay claim to it. However, the small hunter nodded like this made sense.

“Well then we must decide who gets the creature. I propose a shooting contest.” The little archer bounded back lightly. “But first, tell me your name, so I could know my challenger.”

Cathair opened his mouth to answer, but then a memory hit him. When dealing with the Old People, never give your name freely. With a start he realized he was talking to one of the hidden folk. And, he noted as he glanced at the unseasonably red leaves, he was in their realm.

“My name is unimportant, I am just a woodsman.”

The small archer’s eyes narrowed, but they nodded. “I will pick the mark.” the archer turned to the bull who now looked at the two of them with mild interest. With barely a moment’s pause the archer pulled one of their small arrows, knocked it and shot it into the Aurochs’ side, right above the shoulder. The animal barely acknowledged the dart.

Cathair pulled out his own longer, heavier bow, and nocked an arrow. It was barely twenty paces, and a simple enough shot. But once again, he remembered advice from his childhood. Pausing in his draw, Cathair whistled at the Aurochs. The creature turned lazily to face him directly. Its enormous horns splayed out before it, with the tips curving together slightly at the end.

After a moment, Cathair shot his arrow dead center between the bull’s horns, and it embedded itself within a tree. Cathair turned to the other archer, who was staring at him in surprise.

“I could not bear to harm such a creature.” He shrugged as he said this, shouldering his bow.

Never harm a creature of the Old Wood,his grandmother had used to say, No matter how much the Old People try to force you.

“Well then I win” The Archer said, a glint in their eye.

“No, friend, we drew.” For a moment the archer crossed their arms and looked like they might argue with him, but then they nodded. They made a short gesture at the Aurochs and the arrows fell out of its side. The beast shook itself as though waking up, and then plodded off into the forest.

“So tell me, ‘just a woodsman’, how did you find yourself here?” They were speaking conversationally now, and Cathair guessed that whatever challenge had happened, it had passed.

He gestured back towards the way he had come. “The Aurochs left tracks in my wood. I followed them.”

Again the archer considered him. They looked him up and down, and Cathair got the uncomfortable feeling that they were trying to see deep inside of him.

“And you are sure you are ‘just a woodsman?” The archer’s mouth quirked slightly at this.

“All I have ever been,” He responded lamely. The archer looked like they might say something more, but decided against it.

“You should follow me. The Court would be glad to meet you.” The small hunter turned and began to walk out of the clearing, only stopping at the edge to wait for Cathair. For a moment, he considered turning and trying to leave the wood. He knew what direction he had come from, and maybe it led back to familiar ground.

But he had been ordered here to scout the fortress of the Old People. While Cathair did not feel any particular loyalty to the Thegn, he felt some pull to follow. It was true that he was just a woodsman, and there were few parts of the forest that he did not know or attempt to understand.

So with the briefest of pauses, he walked after the archer. Once they knew he was following, they bounded off through the forest. Cathair did the same, gliding along the forest floor like he always did. It was silent as the two of them flew past the trees,

and for the first time, he had a chance to watch someone move through the forest like he did.

It was hard to get a clear look at them, so quickly did they move. However, he could see that they seemed to be pushing off trees and propelling themselves forward. As he saw this, Cathair noticed with a detached sense that he was doing the same thing.

He did not have long to ponder this, because soon enough they arrived. And for a moment Cathair did not know what he was looking at. It appeared to be just a hill. But then he noticed the stones.

The stones were huge, as tall as he was and twice as heavy, and they ringed the bottom of this hill, holding it up as though they were support beams. Each of these stones was carved with abstract shapes, swirls and waves that were precisely detailed. The most shocking part, however, was that these designs were glowing.

The archer kept moving, clearly used to these bright designs, and instead moved towards a passageway in the hill.

“Stick closely to me, woodsman” They said, taking his hand and pulling him along. The passageway was low, forcing him to crouch, but he could see a faint light deep inside of it. The moved along slowly for what seemed like a long time, though it couldn’t have been more than a few moments before he could finally stand up.

They were in a hall, larger and more beautiful than any he ever stood in. torches hung from the walls, and benches and tables filled the room.

All of the folk here looked like the archer by Cathair. They were small and finely featured. They wore long flowing dresses or brightly colored cloaks, and all of them were smooth cheeked like children.

Slowly the whole room turned to look at him, and Cathair became uncomfortably aware of his burly frame and shaggy beard. The Old People all gazed at him, some in awe, some in hostility, and some with mild interest. Ignoring them all, the archer dragged him along.

As he moved past them all, he noticed a high dais where a throne sat, with two heavily armored guards by it. The figure in the chair was taller than anyone else in the room, and stared at him with sharp interest.

Three paces short of the dais, the archer stopped and kneeled, and Cathair did the same.

“Mistress of the Hunt,” The archer began, “I bring you a guest from the Other Wood, one of the big folk. He is a woodsman of great skill, and tracked one of your bulls into our land.”

The interest in the room was piqued, and everyone waited on the Mistress’ word. Cathair, kneeling face down, longed to look up at her, fearing to at the same time. He stayed still, waiting like everyone else.

“It is hardly a surprise that young Cathair can travel our forests. He was, after all, born in them.”

From the moment the Mistress said his name, he felt as though something had been taken from him, but he couldn’t say what. Instead, he looked up sharply, forgetting decorum. The Mistress stared at him with a wintry smile.

“How do you know-” He paused, for some reason unable to say his name. Or even remember it for that matter. He felt a pit in his stomach and sweat breaking out on his forehead.

“How do I know your name?” The mistress asked with mild amusement. “Because I was the one that gave it to you, and I do so again now.”

It was as though a weight had been lifted from his chest. Cathair felt sweeping relief, and felt the irrational urge to thank this Mistress.

“Your father came here years ago.” The Mistress mused now, “He was here for only a time, but you were born before he left. He took you then.” There was no sadness in her voice, no emotion at all except for a wry humor.

Cathair had never known his mother, it was true, but that was hardly uncommon. In the Chatinoi invasion, the thegns had captured men and women, and taken them across the sea by the dozen, leaving whole villages empty. He had always been just another orphan boy.

He stood up to his full height towering over all of the Old People. The Mistress looked up at him with the same expression of amusement. She alone among the Old People seemed truly ancient. Her face was smooth and ageless, but her eyes had centuries of wisdom behind them.

“My lady,” Cathair finally spoke, his voice echoing through the halls. “You must know that I am of the Other world. I was raised there, and know the ways of those people.”

“You are from Both worlds, young hunter,” She put her hand up to silence him, “And I have called you back here tonight.”

For a minute Cathair looked at her blankly. Then realization dawned.

“My lady,” He said, “You gave the Chatinoi those dreams?” It seemed a strange plan, though certainly, these were a strange people.

“It is a simple enough skill to enter the dreams of the Big Folk.” She answered carelessly. The Mistress seemed to sense his next question, and continued. “Now, Cathair, I am the Mistress of the Hunt, a great event among us in this hall.” Cathair heard murmuring around him as the others agreed.

“And who better to join the Wild Hunt, than a woodsman?” She gestured to the archer who had risen to stand next to him, and now walked to the back of the hall. After a moment, the archer returned, holding a longbow. Cathair looked at it for a long moment. It was beautifully wrought, with animals carved along the sides.

Never accept any gift or help from the Old Folk, for once you take something from their world, you are always a part of it.

The whole hall seemed to hold their breath as Cathair looked at the bow. Finally, with a smile he picked it up.

The woodsman was only the first of people to disappear into the woods outside the fortress. The Chatinoi hadn’t understood it at the time, but they were right, the Old People were a threat. The native folk, who knew the stories of the Wild Hunt, made the offerings, and left the living things of the Green Wood alone, were largely left alone. The thegn’s hunters however, began to disappear, and many of his soldiers returned to their homeland no longer interested in this hostile island.

The sightings began as well. Folk reported seeing small folk traveling through the forest, bows and spears at the ready. The Thegn finally led a warband into the Green Wood. Weeks later, one young warrior stumbled from the forest, muttering to himself. Before he left for the mainland, never to return, he spoke of a burly bearded woodsman, who moved like a spirit.


THE END


2023 John Horan

Bio: John Horan is an amateur writer living in Cambridge Massachusetts. This is his first published story.

E-mail: John Horan

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