The stag lifted its head, suddenly alert, tensed to run but unsure. There had been a sound. The slightest cracking. The smallest snapping sending the minutest disturbance through the forest upsetting the natural harmony. Then dipping its head, turning sharply, rear legs pushing and away as the crossbow bolt punctuated the vacated space to thump, vibrating, into the ancient oak tree. The mist rising surreally from the ground, damp grey, all encompassing, born out of the transition from night to dawn and swallowing the bolting animal saving it from certain doom.
“Too slow Billy, you're too slow.” This is Uncle Jack, a tall wiry man with long black hair tied into a ponytail, speaking in a harsh whisper as he relaxed his grip on his crossbow. “Why do you not listen? I’ve told you before aim and shoot. One motion, aim and shoot. The stag hears the forest Billy. Feels the air Billy, the ever present familiar smells. If it senses any change, even the slightest change Billy, then the moment is lost.”
“Leave the lad alone Jack. He knows, he is just…hesitant is all.” Billy’s father is eighteen months younger than his brother. Jack is domineering but John can hold his own. “He’ll learn.”
“He needs to. He’s had enough time. If Billy comes with us he...well you know as well as I do John. We can’t afford to miss. We are relied upon.”
The first glimpses of daylight were dispersing the dark night shadows as they had begun stalking the animal. Stopping only briefly as opportunity arose, it had slowly meandered a path through the density, the delicately nipped shoots evidence of its passage. Downwind and noiseless their hunter’s skills gradually brought them closer, within the range of their preferred weapon. Powerful, silent and deadly. Billy’s opportunity came in a flash before the other two were set. The silhouette, the horned head momentarily lit by a shifting cloud opening the sky. A sudden bright illumination superimposed upon the dark background. His aim instant, his inherited instinct true. Then the pause. The reluctance. That almost inaudible snap. Jack rising to aim but too late, the damage was done.
Billy Morris twelve years old, tall and strong for his age and in his first year of the hunt, observing, feeling his way. The instruction. His father’s patience. His uncle’s exasperation. He was his father’s boy through and through. The build, the height, the uncanny resemblance in all things. A natural affinity and understanding of the ways of the forest. And a deadly aim. His problem. He loved living things. Admired the grace and beauty, the movement, the subtle shifts and nuances of the stag. He was torn between a respect for life and respect for his father who was his world, the love he felt sometimes overpowering. And of course he understood the need, the reason, the necessity for the hunt.
He was clever, probably the brightest in his class. By ten he could read, write and arithmetic was easy. But his education would end at fourteen consigning him to a life of graft and toil and deprive the world of one of the best potential talents to evolve from the northeast. That was his lot. His father could only scrape together the minimum work to pay the rent and feed his family. The cost of further education simply out of the question.
Many men were in the same position. It was the war. The Cousins’ War. The Great War. The War to end all Wars. His father was one of six brothers. They had all gone to war except the youngest who died of a winter illness. Only John and Jack survived. The ironic thing. They had joined first, together, on the first day, the others each subsequent year only to fall quickly in some meaningless battle. Returning home to depression and despair. A country in turmoil, no work and seemingly eternal hardship.
John knew his son’s torment. It was unspoken but he knew. He knew every moment of Billy’s life. It was his love for his son that gave him that power, the power to understand, to sense this battle of loyalties. He could feel Billy’s intelligence and this was a source of frustration, knowing he would let his son down for want of the few pounds beyond his reach that would unleash Billy’s potential. He reached for his knife and cut the bolt from the tree carefully to minimise the damage to something so regal.
“He should do that,” said Jack with some passion. “His miss.”
“Perhaps, but he also feels your wrath Jack. You could be kinder.” replied John.
Jack resumed the hunt walking into the mist with purpose and a determination that the failure would not be repeated.
Crushed bracken indicated the panicked flight that was not difficult to follow, the rush to get away leaving a deep furrow where the majestic beast had passed. They came to a clearing with the sun now clearly visible, the mist dispersing and clouds receding. The stag on the opposite side in the dappled shade, a magnificent specimen and watching them, grey white vapour coming in puffs from its nostrils, its left front hoof nervously stomping the ground. Its head slightly nodding. The distance, maybe fifty yards, the perfect range. Jack dropped to one knee and placed a bolt onto the already taut string. Taking careful aim.
John, watching his son, placed a hand on Jack’s shoulder and said “Not this one Jack, this one’s special. He’s a king and should be spared.”
Jack looked hard at John and then Billy noticing the mist of tears in the lad’s eyes. “Maybe you're right John. Maybe you're right. Let’s go home. We’ve had enough for today.”
They were crouched low in the bracken about fifty yards up the steep slope above a small ledge, silent, watching, knowing a wrong move would have consequences. The china cup clincked against the saucer as it was replaced. The enduring smell of cooking bacon enveloping the immediate area. Two men with breakfast being served by two footmen. Lord Spencer Archibald Cartright and Vincent Moss, estate manager come gamekeeper, on their monthly inspection of the forest that covered many acres of his vast estate. The matched pair of Purdeys embossed with gold-filled chiselling, looking resplendent leaning against the collapsible table, gunmetal blue gleaming.
Vincent was a horrible creature who took advantage of his privileged position to torment and terrorise the less fortunate around him. He bullied his staff and undertook his gamekeeping duties with a relish for cruelty. A devious person, adept at concealing his practices within a cloud of retribution-fueled secrecy, invoking an atmosphere of fear. Vincent meted out justice of his own volition on all poachers he caught: flogging and beating culprits mercilessly and with an unnatural enjoyment.
Spencer had gone to war a son and come home a Lord. But the combination of finding the estate finances in disarray and the cumulative effects of continued exposure to the stresses of command, had caused a lapse into depression and complacency. Vincent had been his father’s estate manager and Spencer, oblivious in his suffering to the manner of Vincent’s authority, had seen no reason to change this. Only recently had he started to explore options to resolve deficiencies within his estate and begin to regain his old composure, doubts forming about Vincent’s ability.
John touched Jack’s arm and signalled a move back the way they had come. They had stumbled upon the scene as they traversed the rise. Immediately crouching. Knowing their peril. John nodded to Billy and they started silently backing away. Keeping low, out of sight. As Billy turned his foot dislodged a rock and he slipped, rolling uncontrollably over the ledge, crashing down into the clearing.
Before Lord Spencer could react, Vincent was up, out of his chair and sprinting to Billy just as he was about to run. He grabbed his shoulder but Billy turned and lashed out catching Vincent a heavy blow to the side of his head. It knocked him back but lacked the power that age brings, failing to put him down. Vincent’s grip remained firm. His face full of fury and malice as he swung Billy round and punched him a full blow to the face, splitting his lip and breaking his nose. Vincent was not a tall man but he had power and strength built from years of farm work. Achieving his current position had provided the opportunity to extract revenge for years of perceived mistreatment.
He changed his grip holding the front of Billy’s jacket in his left hand and back handedly slapped Billy hard across the face. Throwing him down he raised a steel toe capped boot to drive a blow into his ribs.
“Stop.” The piercing voice loud, deliberate and clear, full of unmistakable venom. “Touch him again and I will drop you where you stand.”
John had turned at the commotion, standing tall and dominant on the ledge, dismayed at the scene that had so rapidly unfolded, crossbow aimed at Vincent’s chest. Lord Spencer rising, taken aback by the speed and viciousness of the assault. Jack standing next to John with his weapon set but casually pointing into the air.
“My Lord.” Shouted John “you will not allow your pitbull to maim this lad the way he has maimed those before him.”
“Those before him?”
“Young Walter Tanner. He’s one. You have seen him my Lord, hobbling around the village, half starving, hardly able to move. Your man caught him with a rabbit, a single snared rabbit and beat him so badly he was nearly dead when I found him, left to rot in the depths of the forest. That will not happen to my boy. I will swing for it if necessary.”
“Is this true Vincent?”
“You would believe a cowardly poacher?” snarled Vincent
“There are things you don’t understand Vincent. Things you don’t know, things that are not spoken about. This man is no coward. A poacher yes but a coward...most certainly not.”
Vincent let his anger overtake his mind “I protect your land from the likes of him. This scum and those like him should be put down. You should be grateful my Lord.”
“I say again Vincent this man is not as you suggest and if what he says is true, I have clearly been remiss in my duties and you will be dismissed. Today.”
As Vincent seethed John spoke.
“You know me Captain.” said John as he jumped down from the ledge to stand on the edge of the clearing only twenty yards away. “You know me. We joined together on the first day. We fought together. In the mud. In the chaos. The slaughter. You were my Captain. A fair man. A brave man. A man who looked after his own. Felt the pain of the dying. We followed you Jack and me. You were a man worthy to follow Captain. We followed you to hell and you brought us back. But we left many more there. Our friends. Your faithful troopers. You know me Captain.”
“I do know you sergeant and your brother. Two of the best sergeants. You saved my life in the trench that day. We led the way when all were falling beside us, falling silently, just the thump of the bullet. We reached their trench, the three of us, and there were four all pointing at me. My gun was empty but you and Jack jumped around me and finished them, saved me at your own peril. I do not forget who you are Sergeant John Morris.”
“But you have forgotten the men. The ones that returned that are starving and for that your man beats them. Takes what little they have.”
“I do not doubt your words John. I see now that I have relied upon the wrong man and for that I am truly sorry. I know what you do and have turned a blind eye. You poach my game but you feed the village. I know without you some might starve.”
“And my boy my Lord?”
“I know his worth John. My sister teaches at the school. I will fund his education until he no longer needs to learn. That is my pledge, some payment towards a much larger debt.”
“That is very generous my Lord but what of the men? Your men. Those who followed you. And their families. What is to become of them? They have reached the end my Lord.”
“I understand. We have come back to a different world John. My estate has been failing as are many large estates. I can no longer offer the same employment but I am working on different ways. New ways to replace lost income. Ways that will provide opportunities and wages, good wages. In this I will not let you down. Matters are coming together. I admit I have neglected the estate by relying on Vincent while I have been rediscovering myself. But this can now change. Come and see me this weekend, there are things I can reveal. Ideas that will offer hope, plans that you can be a part of, that you can help me build. To help the men. Tell them I will come and see them. Next week. There will be a meeting. Tell them that if it seems I have forgotten them, this is because my mind has been elsewhere. But I am remembering them now. I do not forget them, will never forget them. Things will change. That is my word.”