by Chandler Groover
There once was a king who kept a castle near an ancient forest, where he was forever hunting. The hunt was his greatest passion, second only to the feasting that followed, for this king was an inveterate gourmand. He was always seeking after new flavors, could pride himself on having tasted delectables from every animal in the royal bestiary, and his most trusted advisor was his cook. You might imagine that he was a rather fat monarch, and indeed he was, in the good old-fashioned medieval style; the court painters flattered his silhouette with ample furs in portraiture, and the dogs never wanted for bones at his table.
Now hunting, in those days, was no mere sportsman’s hobby. A hunt was an occasion like a festival or wedding, where everyone woke early in the castle, rang the bells, and bid the huntsmen farewell on their forest expedition. The king, like all serious hunters, traveled with a party, accompanied by his master-at-arms, and his master-of-hounds, and his courtiers and servants. They lived in tents for the duration, like soldiers on a campaign, but these tents were all furnished with carpets and couches, and hung with tapestries, and radiant with lanterns. It was a holiday. The king lived in the largest tent, where he scrutinized maps and moved ivory markers across them to plot the maneuvers as he would at war.
Perhaps this creates the impression that the king was no huntsman himself, but only a tactical commander; however, when the horns had blown he was in saddle, with his spear, like all the rest, and would not flinch at tracking a boar into its thicket in winter on foot. He had even, on one legendary hunt, nearly been gored to death; the people were prepared to unfurl the funerary shrouds; rival kings were eyeballing his boundaries like choice pies; but within a fortnight he was savoring the guilty hog for supper, having stalked it for vengeance with the sutures still fresh in his flank.
It will come as no surprise that, with this attitude, the king had elevated in his fancy an ideal quarry. That was why he frequented the forest, because it was the lair to a mythic beast which nobody had ever brought to ground. Many had lost their lives in its pursuit, although none could agree on what it was. Some said chimera, some perytion, while others might hypothesize griffin, but it had wiles, whatever its name.
The king had only seen it once, and that had been out hunting years ago. A bloody rout had divided the hounds, and scattered every man in the party, when a summer storm broke over the forest. Then the king had glanced upward and glimpsed, on a crag overlooking the gorge into which he had come, a shadowy form, monstrous, gazing down; and as the hounds went pouring past his horse, and a bolt momentarily fractured the sky like splintered glass, the creature’s antlers, lightning-lit, were gold. The deluge, afterward, had blocked his sight, and when he made it to the crag later, he could discover no traces left there.
This had been the tinder and flint to his sporting mania after the beast. It wasn’t an aggravating mania—he could laugh about it in good humor, and did not lose his temper on returning empty-handed from his quests—but it was persistent. He would constantly study the soil for prints and fewmets, and investigate abraded barks on trees. His maps were scrawled with dotted paths to chart the monster’s migratory habits. And whenever travelers had fresh reports, his doors stood open in welcome.
But to document each turn in the king’s ongoing hunt would consume many lines, and these lines are concerned with what befell the king and beast when the king, in the end, did catch the beast. That happened, not under any extraordinary circumstances, but during another routine expedition. A few lady hunters had cudgeled some hare earlier in the morning, and everyone was just prepared to have a picnic with hare sandwiches when a squire appeared with the hand-wringing announcement that he might have hit something with an arrow. It wasn’t a bird, because it had snarled at him. Birds don’t snarl, as a rule.
The hare sandwiches were forgotten. The dogs were set upon the trail, and weapons seized, and rides mounted, with the king riding foremost after the wounded animal. Into the forest they plunged, with the branches bending back, in a fine frolic, still half-drunk from the interrupted picnic.
The air was filled with springtime smells, the forest green and mazy with the sunlight slanting through, the dogs determined, but for some reason the king began to feel a foreboding, and his speed slackened, allowing all his party to pass by. The sensation was that this had happened before, many years ago, and that his memory held a secret that could somehow make the woodland readable. He reined his horse around, like a man in a dream who knows his direction through unknown wilds, and soon he had entered into a gorge. There were blood patterns along the rock, whose dribblings meandered toward a sun-beaten boulder, and in this boulder’s shadow was the beast.
What was the beast, at last? It had no chapter in the royal bestiary—about that, the king could be certain. Its torso was lionish; its lower anatomy snakish, yet bordered with two flukes like a dolphin; its arms simian, with clawed fingers; its neck ruffed with plumage, and its jugular beaded with glittering scales underneath. It had wings, but they were folded, with the squire’s arrow stuck through one shoulder, and its face surpassed in beauty any human. However, more beautiful still were its golden antlers forked in countless tines.
The king dismounted, angling his spear as he approached, and the creature recoiled more into the shadow below the boulder. It had put its head aside, with its eyes downcast, to anticipate the deadly blow, but then it spoke and said: “O king, spare me.”
The king did truly wonder, in that hot weather, whether he were dreaming.
“I am a piteous beast, sorely injured,” the monster continued, “and in no fighting shape to wage combat. Besides that, I confess, I am craven, and seeing my own blood there on the rocks is already enough to give my heart the palpitations.”
“A talking beast!” the king said.
“A perceptive statesman. We are miracles both, it would appear. What a pity it would be to start a feud.”
“You are my prey, and I am your hunter!”
“Is that our arrangement?”
“I have tracked you for years.”
“Not alone, although I can never tell what drives your kind to give me such mad chase. Everyone from dukes to queens to baronets must needs come knocking at my door, and bumbling in my forest, attempting to needle me through like a pincushion. What ever have I done to earn this wretched fame?”
“You are yourself, and there is none other.”
“Then I have no hope at escaping myself.”
“You have no hope escaping—that is true.”
“Just one moment!” the beast said, when the king had raised his spear again. “Don’t suppose you are the first to capture me. I have survived generations, and have dealt with many noble athletes such as yourself during that time, over which I have learned that where compassion fails, bribery may prevail. That is why I am still here. I am a bargainer.”
“What bargains could you make?”
“Any and all, with this subclause: that you must never speak about my influence later. Otherwise I should be plagued by fortune-seekers. My livelihood is troublesome enough.”
“Do you mean that you grant wishes?”
“I can execute requests within my own extensive capability.”
“I have helped to win wars and establish princes, and I have helped to upset nations and lay waste to lands. I have led misers down into underground mines where the gemstones sparkle in the walls. I have taught spells that would raise the dead to sorcerers. I have woven enchantments, and wrought magic rings, and made the barren fertile, and the fertile barren with a curse. I have brought lovers together. I have riven dynasties apart. I would do, my king, whatever you would ask, would you only unhand that weapon. Its proximity is very disagreeable.”
The beast looked quite submissive and pathetic, but the king did not brood long before he drove his spear into the monster’s throat, leaning against the shaft until its blade struck the boulder behind.
“I am a king, and want for naught,” he said as the creature convulsed underfoot. “You have only one thing that you can give.”
Eventually the struggle had ended, and that was when the king’s triumph began. There was no unmaking or curée, such as would have been practiced when hunting deer, which is when the animal is disassembled and select viscera fed to the hounds, because in this case there was no precedent to follow. The king only trusted one person to handle the carcass, and that was his cook. He returned with the beast slung over his steed, amidst cheers and hurrahs, just like a conquering hero, and the nighttime was merry with celebration.
His hunting party had ventured deep into the woods, but notwithstanding their distance from the castle, they were able to convert the forest glen where they had encamped into a festive hall. The trees were columns rising into leafy rafters, and the full moon was their blazing chandelier, with the stars twinkling as tapers, though the party had wax candles too, and orange rushes lighting the dark lawns. There were musicians strumming instruments and singing songs, and ladies dancing barefoot in the grass, and great casks rumbled out and their spigots knocked open, and silver coins scattered for confetti. The squire who had shot the arrow was rewarded with a diamond larger than a pommel. There was much feasting besides, which goes without saying, but the famous beast was reserved for the king, and the cook funneled every art into its preparation.
Out came the beast to the king’s royal plate—no ligament neglected, no scale left undressed, with parts brimming in many pots, and roasted joints steaming on many racks. The monster had yielded itself into a myriad fantastic recipes. There were savory quiches stuffed with morsels in red wine, and almondegas and pumpes in cominée, and fyllettes stewed in ale sauce with saffron, and shanks endored in gingery batter, with one enormous wing basted in almond milk and pellydor, and knuckles wrapped with crackled ham, with the creature’s flukes poached in fresh mint and vinegar, not to mention the flampoyntes, the honeyed doucettes, and the sausages encased by their own kindred intestines. It was all for the king, and into the king’s bottomless belly it all disappeared, course after course, hour after hour, until more than the minced tongue, the braised ribs, and the clove-darted heart had been devoured, but even the bones, whose compositions wonderfully melted like rendered fats into a sweet and bubbling beverage, lighter than champagne. When the last lid was uplifted, there was a lemon custard with gold flakings from the antlers, but the antlers were preserved intact apart from this one sacrifice. The king would have them mounted to hang above his throne at the castle.
After he had finished eating, the table was littered with crumbs, but that was all. Everything else, even the grease on his fingers, he had licked down absolutely. It was the happiest that he had ever been, and his stomach could visibly testify.
But unfortunately for the king, this perfect bliss was not sustainable, and the next morning he awoke to his advisors bending over his bedside with distressing news. Dawn had not broken, but already the camp was astir, for messengers had ridden overnight to report an invasion on multiple fronts. Some usurper was putting hamlets to the torch and had mustered armies to blockade the roads.
The hunting holiday was at an end, and war had come.
Conflict was not uncommon in that region or era, to the extent that martial interest did in some respect define the times. Debates were often settled with swordplay, there was nothing nobler than knightly contest, and the landscape was divided into many squabbling kingdoms, which would bicker over their territorial prospects with more pettiness than pinchpennies haggling for buttons at the market. Sometimes the sovereigns swarmed as thick as fleas, and only a massacre could thin them out again.
The king had dealt with this particular usurper in the past, whose claim to the throne derived from technicalities relating to a morganatic marriage decades previous. Of course the usurper had his own throne too, but it wasn’t good enough, and he would throw more soldiers at the king whenever he had strength to lob them. These assaults had always been repulsed. On this occasion, however, greater advancements had been made, and greater gambles staked, such that the king found himself confronted with something like an elaborate chess gambit, where the pieces align to hidden patterns that manifest too late to counteract. There had been battles lost and strongholds seized before the king’s advisors had even woken him that morning in his tent.
It should here also be mentioned that while some leaders sit at the rear during a war, issuing orders through subordinates but never gracing the field themselves, the king was known to take the very vanguard and chop into his foes with his own arm. When he was not in the fray, he was still marking its measure, but now this secondary role would come to utterly subscribe him. The problem was digestive, as well it might have been. His symptoms began to grumble on his ride back to the castle, and once he had returned he nearly toppled from his horse in the courtyard. He could not stand in armor, and soon he could not stand at all, despite his gritting efforts to confound his pangs. Although daily attempts were made to see him to the lines, the truth was that he never surpassed the drawbridge, and leeches were summoned to attend his chambers when in better health he might have been consulting generals.
From his window, he could distinguish smoke against the horizon. There was a pandemonium throughout the kingdom that had practically encroached to his doorstep, with villages abandoned, crimson rivers choking with corpses, and belligerent voices rising from the castle galleries, where his councilors fought like rats for the command that his withdrawal had dropped into their nest. What he would have given then to boom decrees, but in his roiling torment he could barely pronounce a dictation without the bile climbing to his teeth. Nothing could settle his disordered humors, nor void the compacted load gripping his gut, whose evil seemed to seep out from his glands and ooze into the linens on the bed. The king knew with firsthand insight that being stabbed would have engendered less malignant agony than the radial barbs knotting roots through his flesh. He was delirious, insensible to his attendants in their dwindling numbers, unable to articulate more than a moan. It was at this lowest moment that, disaster having overwhelmed the realm, the enemy lay siege to his castle.
As weeks elapsed and no signal came from within, doubts mounted outside as to whether the castle had not become a tomb, but then one night the drawbridge slowly descended. There was no fanfare, and no resistance to prevent the enemy from entering. The corridors were empty, with bodies sprawled occasionally here and there, not starved but slaughtered. These were the royal councilors, and from their dispositions one could interpret betrayals and betrayals. A stillness suitable to ruined abbeys hung over the sumptuous apartments, reechoing footfalls as the usurper led his sergeants-at-mace deeper into the darkness, toward the inner hall, where long tables stood spread for banquets that would never be, arrayed with plates and goblets and silver, and where the king, sitting upon his throne on a dais, seemed like a grotesque tumor masquerading as a man clad in samite. Gaunt servants, his last loyal retainers, clung to the shadowed walls, yet even in that chamber’s meager candlelight the golden antlers gleamed above the throne.
It took a mighty effort for the king to speak. Each sentence had to be assembled by the syllable, and the words stuck together like phlegm in his mouth.
“You have undone me,” said the king. “My court is in a shambles…”
“Gluttony and sport have undone you,” replied the usurper. “I have studied your predilections and here is the outcome. While you were hunting, I was hunting you. I am a hunter too, you know. We have that in common.”
“A hunter does not besiege his quarry…”
“A hunter’s quarry rarely wears a crown. Under whose order was the drawbridge lowered?”
“Then you acknowledge that the chase is at an end. My claim will be legitimized before this night is through, with your own blessing sealed into the parchment.”
What followed could not have been labeled negotiation, but it did involve quills and inkpots, and it did produce a treaty, for the usurper had a fanatical concern regarding letters patent, which could be traced back to his own legal slightings. He called forward his scriveners, and in the gloomy hall the king scrawled his kingship away with a trembling hand. He was a king no more, but in his crippled misery he had no disillusion that another outcome might have been obtained. Even sitting upright on the throne had been a trial when his body seemed eager to burst at any stimulus. But it did no such thing; bursting would imply a more definitive eruption than what subsequently occurred.
To begin with, there was a protuberance beneath the samite, near the navel, which suddenly arose and fell again to make the fabric ripple outward from that spot. Evidently this had punched some little rift through unseen crevices, because a bloody trickle struck the floor below the throne, and the samite was saturated with a spreading scarlet moistness. Then there were more and more bulges poking hither and thither, although the fabric no longer rippled after them, having wetly adhered to the flesh underneath, until these diverse lumps were concentrated like fingertips pressing against a barrier. The fingertips began to scratch, and the watchers in the hall began to scream, although the screaming might have begun earlier, with only the usurper managing his composure. A cat struggling inside a sack would have demonstrated the same violence as these scratching fingertips, but they were equipped with sharper claws than any cat ever possessed, and soon muscle and fat were shredding freely, the sternum cracking, the ribcage breaking into halves, sludges cascading onto the dais. The entrails slipped for antimacassars over the throne’s two arms, and where the king had been, there coiled the reconstituted beast in his exploded bowels.
The onlookers quaked, and the sergeants-at-mace were prepared to attack, but the usurper extended his hand to bid them pause while the beast lifted its dripping head to survey the assemblage. Its expression was not beautiful anymore, but terrible, with a true monster’s authority over the mortals in the room. The only thing it lacked were its antlers above the throne.
“In all my prior centuries,” it said, “I have never been tasked with a more reeking errand than this. Who would have imagined that someone might willfully decline my bargain in order to eat me for dinner instead?”
“I would have,” the usurper said.
“Indeed you did, and it has come to pass. I trust that you have now taken the kingdom?”
“I have taken it.”
“And satisfied yourself with the paperwork you put such stock into?”
“Above all else.”
“Then I have discharged my duty.”
“You have done that.”
“In which case I may say,” the beast continued, “that though you might have captured me before he did, and with much less complacence on my part, you are no hunter next to this dead king beneath my claws—the only hunter I have ever met to drive the weapon home, and place the hunt above my promised temptations. Here was a real sportsman! You are unfit to wear his crown.”
“It is mine by right!”
“Perhaps, and perhaps not, but your laws make no difference to me. I follow only one tenet, and you are a violator. I warned you not to speak about my influence.”
Well, if you have ever seen a serpent lunge, and a lion pounce, and a falcon drop upon its prey, and if you can envision these assaults combined together, then you may be able to appreciate what happened to the usurper next. It did not take very long, and when it was over, there was not very much left. The sergeants-at-mace did not attempt to interfere this time, having fled the hall with everybody else, and the beast was left alone to contemplate its new predicament.
Its abilities had been exposed to the public, after all, and it could no longer return to the forest and expect that everything should remain unchanged. The only sensible decision was to strike for another shore entirely. But first it ascended the throne, clambering to perch atop the crested back, and then it pried its antlers from the wall. It could not reattach the antlers but it refused to leave them behind for some flimflammer to collect when the castle was inevitably pillaged. Having done that, it went upstairs and emerged onto a tower balcony, where it could view the armed forces swept with panic beyond the moat, and beyond them the desolated kingdom stretching onward, now kingless, into midnight.
Because it was too dark, nobody noticed the beast when it took to the sky, although a few observers might have seen the stars blink out and then blink back briefly, concealed by an unlikely airborne shape. But owls or other unimaginative possibilities were probably suspected, and in any case, there were no further accounts about the beast from that day forward in the land—or at least, no one was willing to give them.
* * *
Chandler Groover was born in Atlanta and now lives in NYC. His novel Finnian's Fiddle is available as an ebook through Amazon. Another hunting tale he's written, HUNTING UNICORN, is playable as a free online hypertext game.
Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
This story was inspired by the great hunting scenes in The Once and Future King by T. H. White, and by the monster in "The Griffin and the Minor Canon" by Frank Stockton.