High in the trees of Woodshire Forest on a sunny day, the light doesn’t seem to come from above you at all. Light springs out of the leaves there, a round robin of tree and sky: it streams off every twig, drips into the edges of each ebbing shadow until the whole canopy floods with gold, until the air itself smells like light, bittersweet and fresh. You can drown in green sunshine up there.
Bird and I used to swim in it every day. We’d climb the trees right up to the very top, or at least, as close as we could get. As we grew older, the young branches on the treetops started snapping under our weight. By the time we were ten we couldn’t quite get above the canopy anymore.
I was bigger than Bird then, and I always told him he should still go up without me. But he never did.
“Why climb a tree at all if you won’t go as high as you can?” I asked him the first few times. He just grinned at me.
Eventually I stopped asking. In truth, I’d have missed him if he’d climbed higher than I could follow; he was always my favorite company, and I his. Like trees and sunshine, Bird and me, although I couldn’t tell you who was which.
I think that’s what bothered John first—?long before he took over the estate, before he became sheriff or tried to marry me off or anything else that happened. Just that I preferred Bird to him.
John never climbed the trees with us. But sometimes he would wait on the ground as we climbed, and I could feel his gaze on the backs of my legs, watching.
Chasing the Hart
The huntswoman sounded her horn, and hounds rushed like water around our horses’ feet.
I leaned forward over my mare’s neck and let out a steady breath as we jumped the stream. She landed lightly, our speed barely breaking, and we plunged ahead with the rest of the party.
I heard a falcon’s cry and looked back just in time to see the great raptor spread her wings and push off from Bird’s leather-gloved hand. Seraph flashed into the green ocean above us and my friend grinned, tucking the falcon’s hood into his sleeve.
I felt the huge muscles under me tighten and I looked ahead to see the fallen tree my horse was about to jump. This time I wasn’t ready, and I had my breath knocked from me on her landing as punishment. One of her ears flicked back in reassurance or annoyance, and I felt a reminding tug on the reins I always kept as loose as I could. Pay attention, she was saying. You’re not sitting in any rocking chair, here.
Bowstrings sliced across my chest as I leaned forward again. I pressed my legs more firmly against the mare’s side and slid my hands into her mane. She felt my focus and began to run flat out.
Soon all I could see were flashing, flickering streaks of green and orange, the forest colors around us flaming toward autumn. The day was crisp, September-cool, but inside my wool riding habit I was beginning to sweat.
Scenthounds bayed just ahead of us. The riders gave out joyful whoops and warrior cries. Close behind me on his red-roan gelding, Bird was silent, but I could feel him, focused and determined, listening for the falcon that rode the wind above us, far beyond the shifting, murmuring canopy.
Then, with a shock like plunging into cold water, we left the forest shadows and entered a sunny clearing, an expanse of tall grass and daisies with a sheer cliff on the other side. There, trapped against the rockface, stood the hart we chased.
His antlers betrayed his age: no young buck he, but a great elder king of the forest, his horns twisting into a crown that nearly doubled his considerable height. He stomped and thrust those antlers bravely forward, menacing us, but he knew well that he was trapped.
He’d have to be old to be caught, I knew. Young and healthy quarry, whether hart or hare, fox or boar, almost always outran the hounds. I’d been on countless hunts, and only a handful of times had our day of riding and jumping and following the graceful calls of hound and horn yielded any actual meat for the Loughsley table.
But this day, it would. I sent up a heartfelt prayer for this animal’s quick, clean death, now that at last we had it cornered.
The hounds hung back, corralled in an instant by the huntswoman’s calls. In the wild, the pack would have overwhelmed this beast in an instant, but a formal hunt is different.
I tugged my mare’s reins, even though she was already coming to a stop. Shifting the balance of my waist and hips in the sidesaddle, I straightened my spine as I pulled the bow from my back.
Prince Rioch moved for his crossbow. As the highest-ranking hunter, the prince had the honor of the first shot, but all of us would be ready to dispatch the animal quickly if his aim faltered. Any good hunter spares their prey needless pain.
He raised his arms and squared his shoulders, settling the heft of the crossbow in his hands. He squinted through the precisely carved notch at its center.
Beside him my brother, John, watched and nodded his encouragement. This was our young royal’s first time hunting without the king: he’d never had first shot before.
The prince’s arrow flew across the clearing.
I felt a familiar shadow pass over me, and without looking up I knew that Bird’s falcon circled us, and that she watched the arrow, too.
It pierced the hart’s hind leg.
He gave a guttural, frothy scream that turned into a panicked groan as he tried to run and found that he could not.
Hobbled, the great stag began a struggling limp toward the forest.
I raised my bow, taking in the long breath that would allow me, on the exhale, to shoot clean and true. Around me two dozen hunters did the same. All of us watched the huntswoman from the corners of our eyes; she would give the signal that would let us end the beast’s suffering, and she would not wait long to do it.
The huntswoman raised her horn.
“Wait!” John called.
I stared at my brother in horror.
“It is the prince’s first quarry,” he said. “Let him try again.”
I looked back at the huntswoman. I was certain she wouldn’t let this stand; she was a clean and rigorous hunter, and I knew the worth she saw in each life her hunting parties took. She was Bird’s mother, for goodness’ sake!
But she moved the curved horn away from her tight-set lips and nodded.