A Hymn of Blood and Curses

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(Verse 1, Line 7) Huntsman's Herald

“The Huntsman’s Guild celebrates as many national holidays as its members require, but there is only one celebration that unites the entire guild...”

- Excerpt from ‘The History of the Huntsman’s Guild.’

Esther got back to the Shack with a simple and easy plan: Drink herself into oblivion at Edyta’s expense. Drink and forget, forget and drink. Drink and pray that everything returned to normal in the morning.

After tossing her satchel under her bed at the Lodge, the building north of the Drunken Huntsman where every full-time huntsman kept a room, she all but fell through the tavern’s doors. It was mostly empty apart from a few small groups and Esvian sitting vigil on his own at their usual table.

“Oh, Esvian. I’ve never been happier to see you,” she said as she slumped down in her usual seat. Spurred on by a strange mixture of shock, terror, and relief, she threw her arms around his wide torso. Esvian stiffened but didn’t fight her embrace.

“Something is wrong,” he guessed as she released him. “Something big.”

“Later,” Esther said. As quickly as she’d collapsed into the bench, she shot out of it. “Come on. Yarvier’s announcement happening in the training quarters soon. If we hurry, we can get a spot near the front.”

Esvian snorted. “You may need a spot by the front, but I don’t.”

“I’m not short,” she retorted.

Esvian grinned lopsidedly. “That’s not what I meant.” He rose from the bench less gracefully than she did, suggesting he had a head start on drinking. “Follow me.”

He led her to a table in the north corner of the tavern, which sat under a window covered by thick shutters. It was the only window that remained covered year-round, despite the demand for window seats in the summer.

Esther tried to open the shutters, but they were sealed shut. For good reason, she supposed, since it overlooked the sands of the training quarters. No one wanted an errant throwing knife knocking over their drinks.

She moved her ear closer to the shutters. She could hear talking through them, but it was muffled. “This is no use, Esvian. We can hardly hear a thing.”

Esvian checked that Jorin the barkeep was busy before shoving his sleeves up his arms. He grasped the shutter’s handles and pulled with all his strength. At first, a small clump of dust freed itself from the seal, but the shutters didn’t move.

“Are you even trying?” Esther teased. “A five-year-old boy from the workhouse could do better.” A nearby cat meowed. At least someone appreciates my joke, she thought.

Esvian grunted and his face reddened with the effort. “You’re welcome to help,” he snarled. But Lady Luck was in Esther’s favour, and with a mighty creak and clamour, the seal around the shutter’s frame burst. They swung open and one of the handles fell off in Esvian’s hand, sending him flying backwards.

“Shit,” he grumbled, at the same time Jorin yelled:

“What in Dealth’s seven sacks was that!” When he saw Esvian with the broken remains of the shutter handle in his large paws, his face turned the colour of beet and the veins on his neck popped out. “Again, Esvian!” His booming voice attracted the attention of the remaining huntsmen in the tavern, and even a few outside in the training quarters. “Last time it was a chair. The time before that, a table. Last month you broke a door. When in the dark depths of hell are you going to end your crusade to break my pub and bring fiery ruin to my retirement?”

Esvian turned a worrying shade of white and widened his eyes. Esther could barely hold her laughter at bay. “It was an accident,” he said innocently.

Jorin glared at him and slammed his fists against the bar top. “Accident or no, now I have to re-seal that window. I’m putting ten cereks on your tab. Hopefully stripping your pockets clean will convince you to check your strength next time!”

Once Jorin turned away, Esther’s laughter exploded. It pulsed through her body, bringing her much needed relief after everything that had happened that day.

“So much for being debt-free,” she said, wiping the corner of her eye.

Esvian scowled and a sullen mood overtook him. “Trap it shut, you harvel,” he growled.

While Esvian sulked, Esther watched the crowd through the open window. The training quarters looked unnaturally small as the crowd thickened, squeezing themselves between wooden and straw dummies.

Koryn’s guildhall hosted around one hundred full-time huntsmen and three dozen part-timers and contractors, but they were never usually gathered in one place. Fifty of the full-time workers lived in the Shack, and Esther knew all their faces and names.

She was less familiar with the other fifty, who were often distributed between the minor guildhalls and huntsman’s outposts scattered around the northern, eastern, and western sections of the outer wall. She was the least familiar with the part-timers and contractors, who either lived in the city or on the deadlander farms.

The deadlander huntsmen stood aside from the rest of the crowd, each one shifting nervously. With it being the sacanda moon and the autumn equinox, it was too dangerous for them or the farmers they protected to be in the deadlands that night. And they may have started out as huntsmen, but they had become true deadlanders at heart, and being surrounded by walls made them feel uneasy.

It wasn’t long before Esther spotted Edyta’s fiery hair through the crowd. She hung off of Reeve’s arm, basking in the surprised glances and jealous stares aimed her way. Esther sunk in her seat, desperate to remain unseen.

“She must have been something special to have everyone so riled up about her return,” she mumbled.

Esvian grimaced. “She wasn’t special. She was a bully.” His mouth hardened. “She had one half of the guild wrapped around her little finger and the rest under her thumb. Only a few of us escaped her machinations, but only if she didn’t think we were important or if she didn’t feel threatened by us.”

“That much I can understand now. She saw me earlier.” Esther dropped her voice to a whisper. “She knows I’m a conservator.”

Esvian tensed and his face reddened, but not from physical exertion. “She what?” he hissed.

Esther continued to watch Edyta through the window. “She said she’d stay quiet because we’re ‘friends,’ but I don’t believe it. Do you think she’ll say anything?” Despite the internal maelstrom of fear and uncertainty, Esther’s voice was oddly flat and disconnected.

In a rare display of supernatural self-control, Esvian calmed himself in an instant. He had the temper of a bull, but his anger always ran cold, not hot. Esther found his switch from rage to a collected calm unnerving.

Esvian ran a finger down the small scar on his right cheek. “Not without good cause.” Even though his grey eyes pointed in Esther’s direction, there wasn’t any comprehension behind them. His attention must have been focused on his recollections of Edyta’s actions years before. “She hoards secrets like a dragon hoards gold. Expect her to give you an ultimatum when it suits her. Or several, depending on how far she thinks she can push you.”

Esther’s eyes fluttered shut. She wanted to dig a hole and bury herself alive.

“So I have to do whatever she says from now on, is that it?” She didn’t relish the thought, but she’d do it. If any of her fellow huntsmen discovered who she was, they’d never think the same of her.

“No.” Esvian fiddled with the broken handle. “The best way to get her off your back is to tell the secret first. Then it has no power.”

“You know what would happen if I did that,” Esther whispered. He’d always urged her to tell the truth, but he didn’t really understand the risks like Esther did. “I’d rather spend the rest of my life kissing her arse.”

“Those in her inner circle are no better off, they just don’t know it yet,” Esvian said. “She uses her favour as currency, and they’ll do anything to get it. Even the ones with half a brain are susceptible to it. When she was together with Reeve last time, he acted… strangely.”

Esther looked more closely at the pair in the training quarters. Reeve looked relaxed and happy, and he appeared to relish in the envious looks he got for being the centre of her attention.

“He doesn’t seem upset right now,” she said.

“It’s only the beginning,” he said. “Give it time. It may happen again.” His mouth twisted, and he began to pick the paint off the broken handle. Esther snatched it off him and placed it out of his reach.

“I suppose it depends in what way they were together. Were they serious, or were they just fucking?”

Esvian frowned and avoided looking at her. While they both found it uncomfortable how casually a lot of the huntsmen treated sex, they handled it in different ways. Esvian avoided the topic entirely, whereas Esther forced herself to be upfront and direct about it. She’d grown up expecting to get married at seventeen and to stay faithful for the rest of my life, squeezing out at least four children along the way. She couldn’t wrap her head around how a lot of huntsmen treated sex as something to share between multiple friends and not a single serious lover or marital partner.

Esvian was saved from answering because Yarvier appeared and deftly used a barrel to climb up onto the training centre’s ten-foot-tall wall. He looked utterly wild and terrifying as his grey hair took on a life of its own in the wind. Esther had once been terrified of the four scars running down his face and his empty left eye socket, but after five years of knowing him and collecting a few scars of her own, she hardly noticed them.

“All right yer noisy squicks, settle down,” he yelled, cupping his hands around his mouth. A strong breeze caught the chestnut knee-length leather coat he wore over his bare chest, whipping it up into a frenzy behind him. A huntsman near the back, whom Esther recognised as Reeve’s hunting partner, wolf-whistled at Master Yarvier’s exposed skin.

“Trap it shut, Ignacy,” Yarvier growled. “If yer think I’m that good lookin’, I worry about the state of yer eyes.” Most people in the crowd laughed good-naturedly.

“Now,” he bellowed, clapping his hands together. “I’ve gathered yer here today to make an important announcement. As yer know, this year marks the return of the huntsman’s trials.”

A tornado of excitement ignited in the pit of Esther’s stomach. The trials were legendary and said to push a huntsmen’s skills to their limits.

“As yer’ll well know, Ignacy led our team to victory last time.” A few people whooped and cheered in the crowd. A man started to chant Ignacy’s name. “Trap it shut, Henley. Humility is a virtue. I suggest you try it sometime!”

“Sorry,” the man called.

Yarvier continued his speech without acknowledging the apology. “I have much more exciting news, fer this year, we’ve been chosen to host the trials.”

After a stunned second of silence, the crowd broke into a raucous cheer. Yarvier tried to calm them down, but the crowd wouldn’t listen. After a while, he gave up and let the merriment run its course.

“Can you believe it?” Esther asked Esvian. Excitement flooded through her, so strong it almost made her nauseous. Not only would this be the first huntsmen’s trials during her service, but she’d be able to watch!

Finally, the crowd calmed down enough for Yarvier to continue. “In traditional fashion, the details are bein’ settled by our Duke Koryn and some clueless huntsman Overmaster we’ll likely never meet, so I can’t clue any of yer in. Not like any of yer harvels deserve it.” A few people chuckled.

“You love us really,” Reeve heckled.

“That’s questionable in yer case,” Yarvier replied without missing a beat. Edyta scowled but forced herself to fake a smile when everyone else laughed.

“Yer lazy louts have two weeks to make your petitions to the senior huntsmen. Don’t all come at me this year! I have a guild ter run, I don’t have time for all the hecklin’ like last time. There be thirteen of us, so go bother them first.” There was no laughter that time, and people were so serious no one cracked a joke about the mythical thirteenth huntsman, whose identity no one knew.

“The seniors can only sponsor one huntsman each. As far as I’m aware, the trials will occur on the new moon.” Confused murmurs rippled across the square. The deadlands went into a semi-hibernation during the new moon, which made little sense considering the Trials were famed for pushing huntsmen to their limits.

“The seniors ’ave until ter morning of ter Trials ter decide which of yer to sponsor, and then our new Duke will choose our three representatives from the people our seniors nominate.”

A woman booed. “But the other guildhalls know who’s entering when they leave to travel here,” she said. “They’ll have weeks to prepare. Why do we only learn on the day?”

Yarvier scowled at her as best he could with a half-paralysed mouth. “Are yer dumb? We’re hosting ter damn thing, so in the guild’s mind, we have the home advantage. We know the terrain, and we know the ecosystem. We’re kept in the dark until the last moment so we don’t have an unfair advantage.”

“It’s true,” Ignacy said, his voice impossibly low and gravelly. “Last time, the Porthpyreen huntsmen barely struggled with the terrain or challenges. But because they had no time to prepare, they struggled to co-ordinate and it put the rest of us on equal footing.”

“Well said,” Yarvier commented, nodding his head. “One last thing, and ter only thing yer money-hungering varlet’s care about: the prizes.” Most of the crowd leaned forward on their toes. “As yer know, ter winning team will be showered with riches. It’s ter be a bit more than last year, ter account fer inflation.” Huntsmen’s knowledge of economics was limited to ‘how much drink can I buy with this week’s paycheck,’ so most didn’t have a clue what he meant.

“This year, ter guild is reintroducing ter position of Grand Champion.” People were even more excited about that announcement, which added an additional dynamic to the trials. It meant there would be two objectives; a team objective and a solo one. Having two winners made the competition fiercer and more fun to watch.

“And before yer ask, no, I don’t know ter victory objectives of either the teams or the Grand Champion. Those’ll be announced upon ter day. What I do know is the grand champion will receive double prize money and the chance for a promotion to any huntsman’s guildhall.”

The crowd’s jovial team spirit disappeared as the hopeful competitors eyed each other. Only one person from any team could become grand champion. The trials had seen multiple betrayals and destroyed friendships as teams competed against each other to win the position. And the additional prize money and promotion only sweetened the incentive to betray one’s teammates.

Yarvier pulled a piece of parchment from his pocket and quickly scanned it while mumbling. “We’re hosting, I don’t know shit about what the trials are, fourteen days to petition, don’t bother me, new moon, Duke chooses, grand champion... Yer, that’s it.” Without warning or ceremony, Yarvier jumped off the wall and strode off, leaving the crowd in a state of shock at his absence.

As the crowd in the training quarters grew more excited, Esther watched as Yarvier walked towards a man who waited to the side. Squinting to see through the mass of bodies, she noticed he was just under five feet tall with startlingly green eyes and brown skin with chestnut undertones. He was dressed in flamboyant, brightly coloured clothing and mismatched boots. The huntsmen kept their distance from the small man, who was clearly foreign. However, Yarvier greeted him with an easy nod and they disappeared into the Main Hall together.

“What’s Overmaster Ysim doing here?” Esther asked. As Overmaster, it was his job to oversee all the guilds in the city, including the conservators guild. She’d never seen him in the Shack before.

“I have no idea,” Esvian said.

As the crowd in the Training Quarters dispersed, Jorin the bar-keep deliberately shifted the knife he kept at his hip so it was more visible.

“Don’t none of you even think about discussing trial sponsorship with me,” he said to the few huntsmen who’d been too lazy or smart to join the crowds in the training quarters. “And I want a nice quiet evening outta the lot of you. I know Edyta paid for an open bar, but that don’t mean I can’t kick people out for drinking too much.”

While Esvian attempted to close the window, Esther ordered them a keg to share on Edyta’s coin. They met at their usual table and poured themselves a flagon each. Esther drank half of hers in one go, and as the ale settled in her stomach, it chipped away at the edge of her fear surrounding Edyta.

She slammed her flagon down and started jittering in her seat. “I can’t believe we’re really hosting the trials!” she said. “Can you believe it?”

Esvian shrugged, his attention glued to the froth sliding down the side of his metal flagon. “The glory and showmanship have never interested me. I prefer to leave that to cock-sure idiots like Ignacy.” Despite the insult, Esvian spoke fondly of him. As Reeve’s hunting partner, Esvian and Esther knew Ignacy well, even though he preferred to socialise with other huntsmen.

The doors to the tavern flew open, spitting a fresh wave of giddy huntsmen into the building. Reeve and Edyta were amongst them, but as soon as Reeve saw Esther and Esvian, he left her side and marched over. Edyta tried to pull him back, but Reeve evaded her attempts to catch him. Esther watched with great interest as Edyta’s eyebrows furrowed as he left her.

“What news!” he said, plonking down and helping himself to Esvian’s unattended flagon. “Hard to believe that we’re hosting this year! Give it two weeks and we’ll all be drunk in the stands, cheering Ignacy on.” He took a last swig before Esvian snatched the drink from him. The scuffle left Reeve with a foamy moustache.

“You’re not entering?” Esther asked, shifting her position so she didn’t need to see Edyta in her peripheral vision.

Reeve shook his head and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “Why compete when everything I need — a good job, a dazzling reputation, and my adoring fans — are right here?” He pointed at the huntsmen slightly out of earshot, sipping their beer, ale, and spirits while pretending not to watch him.

“Show off,” Esvian said.

Reeve smirked. “That may be the case, but I’m happy here. Isn’t it Esvian’s dream to travel the Natyran chain and kill one of every dangerous creature? Winning the trials could get you that chance.” It was a dream Esvian spoke about infrequently, and always accidentally. He was satisfied with his life in Koryn City, but he longed to explore the other Natyran islands before he retired.

“It’s not a dream I’ll risk my life for,” Esvian grumbled.

“Smart man,” Reeve answered quickly. “Besides, there’s nothing more entertaining than watching the other guildhalls’ huntsmen get so terrified they soil their britches. Now, enough of this trial business. I came over here to drink and celebrate. You two in?”

Esther glanced over at Edyta on the other side of the tavern. “What about her?”

“What about her?” Reeve said. “She doesn’t want to get drunk. I do. So here I am. As much as she’d like to be, she’s not the one in charge of me.”

It was enough for them. Forgetting about Edyta and even the trials, they finished their first keg in record time, regaling each other with happy, hilarious, and exaggerated stories. They were well into their second free keg of the night when Esvian stood up during a pause in the conversation.

“Before we lose our memory, there’s something you two should see,” he said, a glint of excitement shining in his eyes. “But we can only see it outside, and only once it gets dark.”

Mischief glimmered in Reeve’s eyes. “If this is a three-way ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ scenario, count me in.”

It was a deliberate barb to make Esvian uncomfortable, and it worked. Esvian reddened and stuttered. Esther, who’d drunk more than the pair of them, punched Reeve in the arm as hard as she could.

“Keep quiet, Reeve,” she hissed. It was very rare to see Esvian so excited, so she stood up too. “Let’s get ourselves a table in the garden.”

They selected a table on the edge of the beer garden and got down to the serious business of drinking and merriment until darkness fell and Esvian’s excitement grew. By that point, the three of them were deep in their cups.

“Quiet, look!” He pointed skyward. Reeve squinted so hard his mouth opened.

“Is that a bird?”

“I think it’s a bat?” Esther said.

“Na. Too big to be a bat.”

“Well then, it’s just a buxom bat!”

“Bats aren’t buxom.”

“Says who?”

“Trap it shut,” Esvian growled. “I’m not talking about the fucking bird.”

Esther giggled. “Yeah, Reeve, not the fucking bird,” she repeated in her best Esvian impression. It was so terrible it made her laugh harder. When her mirth turned into howling, Esvian elbowed her in the ribs to knock some sense into her. It wasn’t a hard shove, but in her drunken state, Esther rolled off her seat and landed in the cool grass.

Exasperated, Esvian pointed again. That time, he pointed in the right direction.

“ ’Tis a full moon, Esvian,” Esther slurred. “ ’Tis a bright one, too.”

Esvian sighed and laid on the ground with her. “Just keep watching.”

Minutes passed in silence. Esther found it peaceful, laying side by side in the cool grass. They watched in comfortable silence until the moon changed. Slowly, it shifted in colour. The argent colour shimmered as the moon blushed a beautiful scarlet.

“A total lunar eclipse,” he said. “Otherwise known as-”

“- a blood moon,” Esther finished.

Esther gaped at the lunar eclipse shining against the twinkling white stars and the endless black void. Her sight stirred unnaturally at the sight, but Esther was too transfixed by the colour. The shade of red was so beautiful, she struggled to see why Gardarans feared it much. A common idiom said ‘red be the colour of death, the devourer of souls, and the mark of the damned,’ but blood was also shed during birthing.

Esvian rested his hands behind his head. “Growing up, my mother would sing to me,” Esvian said. “Or rather, she would on the few times she felt the maternal urge.” Esther listened closely as the crimson moon glowed above. Esvian rarely opened up about his upbringing, and she dared not interrupt. “Lunar eclipses always remind me of one of her lullabies.”

Esther tuned out the noises around her as the moon took up her entire vision. It looked lonely. Her sight wriggled and tried to reach out.

“Could you sing it?” she whispered, hugging herself. “My mother used to sing to me. No one sings to me anymore. I can’t remember what it’s like.”

Esvian was silent for a while, and then he sang. His voice was low and gentle, barely a whisper, but it warmed every corner of Esther’s soul. Tears pricked the corners of her eyes as she stared at the moon, lined on the edge of her vision by the tall, foreboding trees of the deadlands.

When old powers awaken, our mother will rise,
While moons bare their blood and shadows slash skies.”

The longer she looked at the moon without blinking, the more her vision warped and reddened. A pressure grew behind her eyes as her conservator’s sight longed to stretch out.

She will be chosen to fight for our lives,
And though she is tested, we all will survive.

Esther blinked, but the moon’s red light had burned into her eyes. It followed her wherever she looked. As her sorrow grew and more tears formed, the red orb wavered and wobbled in time with Esvian’s melody.

We are her children and her strength is our own,
As she guards the land from her eternal throne.”

Esvian fell silent, but Esther could still hear the last notes ringing around her head. It made her sight dance in circles. A minor ache licked up her temples, burning through some of her drunken haze.

“What does it mean?” she whispered.

“It’s a song of comfort,” he sighed peacefully. “The tribe I was born to worshiped the sage mother, and the legends say she once gave her life to protect us. The song promises she’ll return and help the tribeswomen cross the Paravian Wall so they don’t need to live in the deadlands any more.”

Esther could hear the pain the words brought him. It saddened her that Esvian’s upbringing had been miserable enough he needed to say ‘the tribe I was born to’ instead of ‘my tribe.’ But from the stories he’d told, she knew why he did it. The Paravian tribes were matriarchal. Esvian and Yarvier were considered second-class citizens, useful only for breeding and hunting, and the tribesomen’s power over them was said to be absolute. Esther could see why they fled the wilds in search of a better life.

The table creaked and Reeve’s head appeared between them and the lunar eclipse. The red light framed his bronze hair like a fuzzy halo.

“Are you two dead, or just asleep?” he whispered loudly.

“Neither,” Esther said. “Esvian was singing to me.”

“Oh. So you were just being boring.”

Esvian propped himself up on his elbows and swore at her under his breath. “Nostalgia isn’t boring,” he said.

Reeve picked up his flagon and tipped the remains down his throat. “Nostalgia doesn’t get you drunk, therefore, it’s boring. Now, get your arses up off the floor. This keg is empty, but I’m too dizzy to get another one.”

They got up off the floor and drank until the blood moon faded, and well past then. As they burned through round after round of Edyta’s money, Esther hoped she’d wake up to discover all of her problems had disappeared.

Up Next: After a night of merriment, the Shack is quiet and hungover. So why is Edyta sober and sneaking around?

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