01 | HUNTING THE HUNTED
Chapter one : to taste the triumph blood of a werewolf.
The eerie forest was dark and filled with wildlife. The bask afternoon sun casted a celestial, honey-saccharine, indigo luster upon the forest floor and the approaching dusk between the tree-like canopy clicked, glowed, and fluttered.
Jeongguk felt the soft, emerald grass beneath his bare feet—he had been too short a penny to afford a new pair of clogs. He felt the hairs of grass tickle between his toes and felt as the tiny twigs and sharp stones pricked his feet. He tightened his grasp on the thin, ochre leather strap of his satchel and slung it higher on his gaunt shoulder as he trudged through the dense, never-ending woodlands.
Eyes narrowed in determination, Jeongguk tucked a tousled, strand of overgrown, ombré locks behind his ear as he ventured further into the forest, and heard as fallen leaves crunched beneath his feet. The derelict, cobblestone path he took from his small cottage long gone as it faded into the forest edge. He twisted around branches, pushed away vines and hopped over stumps and thick, tangled tree roots.
Jeongguk was headed towards the village center. He lived on the other side of the forest away from the other, more affluent, villagers.
He loved the heavenly fragrance of wildflowers that wafted through the immaculate forest zephyr and the honey-sweet, saccharine taste of the fresh fruit he picked from the trees, sometimes. The gentle hands of the wind combed through the canopy of evergreen leaves, tousled tree branches and Jeongguk’s long, wavy, ebony locks. He felt it hug around his concaved waist beneath his brown, threadbare mantle that grew airborne and swayed in the draught wind.
“Almost there,” Jeongguk uttered between spurts of air, and his exquisite chocolate glazed irises lit up upon seeing the edge of the unforgiving forest. The forest brought terror upon him. It was rumored to be supernatural, almost. If one were to be inside the dense woodlands during nightfall, they would be trapped, taunted by the wilderness and never returned after as they were presumably deceased. The forest was deemed to be cursed and bombarded with witchcraft. Just the mere thought of being trapped alone in the iniquitous forest sent uncomfortable chills down his spine.
A triumph grin tugged at the corners of his rosy lips once he saw the light at the end of the forest. He crawled through to the other side.
“Finally,” Jeongguk sighed in relief and stretched out his aching muscles. Even though he ventured to the village daily, he was exhausted. After he regained energy and adjusted his shaggy appearance, he pulled his satchel up his shoulder and sprauchled along the cobblestone footpath towards the vivid village center.
The village buzzed with endless banter. Villagers crowded various food stalls, baskets clasped in their hands as they exchanged their Shillings for fresh goods. Jeongguk lowered his head shamefully as he strolled through the hoards of villagers.
In the autumn zephyr, women’s long, ankle-length, tunic gowns swayed and strands of their hair stuck out from their wimples. The men walked beside their partners, chins raised proudly, and their tailored, form-fitting suits flaunted their wealth along with the top-hats atop their heads. Jeongguk gnawed on his bottom lip and was hit with a sharp pang of jealousy. He wished he was able to afford a tailored suit. However, he knew it was very unlikely for him to own one as he did not even own a pair of shoes nor a pair of fitting trousers.
He took the hood of his mantle and pulled it over his head, because he did not want the villagers to see him—he was afraid of their judgmental glares. Jeongguk stood out like a sore thumb amongst these nobles for he was but a mere peasant.
Behind him, Jeongguk heard the protruding thunder of hooves. Frozen, he turned around and watched as a lone stallion, Cornelius was his name, galloped through the bleak bask village center. The magnificent stallion’s muscles rippled from under its freshly groomed pelt and its long, muscular legs propelled it forward. Cornelius’s wispy black mane whipped like raging fire in the wind. The horseman tightened the reins attached to the horse’s bit and led the beautiful creature into a trot before he pulled it to a halt beside Jeongguk.
“Good day, Jeongguk-ah,” said the man, Hoseok, who sat atop the embellished leather saddle. Hoseok pulled back the embroidered royal blue hood of his cape so that Jeongguk could see his face more clearly. The loose strands of his raven hair fell over his almond irises gently.
“Good day to you too, Sir Jeong,” Jeongguk beamed brightly.
Hoseok had been granted an honorary title of knighthood by the head of the village for his bravery against predators.
“What brings you here at this hour?” asked Hoseok. The knight was handsomely dressed in a gambeson jacket, luminous boots and armor, and there was an arrogant, cruel tilt to his chin—presumably because he came from a long bloodline of heroes.
“Well, you see, I had overslept and when awoken, realized my food supply had depleted,” Jeongguk explained with a short-lived giggle. Hoseok nodded and dismounted the beautiful black stallion and stroked Cornelius’s long face—similar to his own striking features.
“You better hurry on then,” Hoseok glanced at the daunting sun that dared to brush along the colorful horizon, “it be best you return home safely before nightfall.” Although Hoseok’s gruff voice dripped with concern, he omitted physical display of his perturb behaviour. Jeongguk pursed his lips. “Do not fear, my friend, I will make it back in the nick of time,” he assured.
The edge of Hoseok’s lips molded into a heart-shaped smile which displayed all his pearly white teeth.
“I see you still lack the warmth of clogs,” Hoseok gestured towards Jeongguk’s bare feet. The ebony-haired boy eluded his gaze, embarrassed, and drew his feet together. “I have been meaning to purchase some, but I have not the money,” Jeongguk admitted, cheeks set ablaze.
“The time I see you next, I shall gift you an old pair of boots.”
Jeongguk’s eyes lit up with excitement, “Thank you, thank you so much, Sir Jeong!” Hoseok nodded and winked. “No problem. Take care,” he said and saluted. He adjusted the shiny sword that hid in its brown sheath, took hold of his horse’s reins and lead it through the village center towards the weapon smith’s stall to purchase a new crossbow.
After their departure, Jeongguk weaved through the crowds, edging through the dense flow of people with his satchel tight in his grasp until he ultimately found the Pottage stall. The sun mercilessly shone down upon the market. He walked to the front of the line after he had waited a few minutes in queue and from his satchel he produced 42 Shillings. He exchanged his Shillings for two servings of Pottage, one for his crippled mother and the other for himself. Jeongguk thanked the shop owner before he strolled away.
Content with his purchase, Jeongguk looked to the distant hills where the tantalizing sun crawled beneath. He would have to return home quickly. Suddenly, he heard cheers erupt like an auditory volcano. He looked towards the excited shouts and quirked a brow as he watched crowds of people huddle together down the wide avenue.
Jeongguk furrowed his brows, he tightened his hold on the strap of his weighted satchel and turned towards one of the store owners. “Excuse me!” he piped and caught the attention of a pretty, mixed-race maiden behind a fruit stall.
“Good day, sir, what may I help you with?” asked the woman with pretty freckles dusted upon her rosy, caramel cheeks. She forged a content beam, curly sepia strands of wispy hair peaked from underneath her white wimple.
“Good day, madam,” he gave a polite tilt of his head. “Have you any knowledge of the commotion happening down there?” asked Jeongguk, and gestured towards the assemblage that moved like a multi-headed beast that shared only one brain.
′What could possibly be so confounding?′
The woman’s hazel eyes lit up in astonishment at Jeongguk’s kindness. Most men neglected her presence or scolded her of her ‘rebellion’ against society’s enforced edict. ’Woman were nothing but nurturers and childbearing dolls’, they claimed and it frustrated her. Woman were just as independent and strong as men! Why could the two not be equal?
“Why yes! A righteous hunter had recently hunted down a great beast, a wolf!” The woman leaned over the wooden counter, eyes widened with a sense of youthful exuberance.
Jeongguk looked at her perplexed, and said, “That’s a huge achievement, it has been ages since we last caught a wolf.”
It was extremely rare for one of the village hunters to successfully hunt down a wolf. A wolf was a pack animal, dangerous and strategy technical. They traveled in nuclear families and cooperatively hunted big game, as demonstrated by their physical adaptations to tackling large (mainly hooved) prey such as Elk.
Curiosity getting the better of him, Jeongguk dashed down the street towards the jostling, clamorous mob, after he thanked the woman for her time. His heart pounded in the carven of his chest, anticipation scourged through his veins and he heard his blood roar in his ears as sweat dined at his temples. He shoved and swerved through the masses of people until he ultimately stumbled to the front.
However, whatever excitement he had ceased to exist. Jeongguk’s face contorted in horror, he gasped and shuddered at the sight of the deceased beast that lay comatose at the center of the crowd. The slaughtered wolf was as cold as the ground it lay on, its golden eyes were open but unseeing, tawny-black fur matted by the gushing crimson of fatal wounds, and its mouth ajar. The effluvium cruor of its brown, blood-stained fur ruffled in the wind.
Jeongguk clasped his hand over his mouth and forced his eyes shut with optimisms to block every sight out. His head pirouetted, nausea twisted in his stomach like candy floss and his eyes became slightly glossy. He gaged, the putrid stench of blood pestered his nostrils. This was inhumane. He wished to un-see that picture, however, the memories branded his mind with hot metal until they engraved into his pupils.
“I, Hunter Kim Namjoon, have slain this wild beast during my session in the woods,” announced the tall man who stood proudly over the tawny wolf’s bloody corpse. Dimples were deeply pressed beside the corners of his mouth as he spoke egotistically. The crowd cheered loudly and stared at him with awestruck accolade. He wore a thick woolen winter coat.
“There comes a day where I shall slain a wolf.” Jeongguk heard Hoseok mutter coldly from the crowd. His face poised in a dyspeptic scowl.
Jeongguk rolled his eyes at that. Hoseok had always wanted to slaughter a wolf, he was obsessed with the thought, even. He claimed it was his duty as a knight, more so a hunter.
Everyone applaud, whistled and cheered at Namjoon’s great accomplishment and raised their fists in the air. A catch like this was worth a fortune and sure to gift immense recognition. Despite the unsettling sight, Jeongguk could not help the small smile that crept across his hollow-cheeked face. This was a major achievement for their village. This meant that they were back on the food chain, perhaps even at the top for successfully hunting down such big game. However, his smile faltered after he made eye contact with a stranger from across the roaring crowd.
Unlike the other villagers, the unfamiliar man’s lips were pursed in a crestfallen scowl as he casted his dark hood over his grim visage. The ivory skin between Jeongguk’s thick brows scrunched together as the strange man lowered his head and disappeared into the crowd.