It had been four years since the last time he saw his father, four years of hardly a thought for the man who so easily threw him away. He visited Fallon often, but she didn’t speak much about Azaiah, but only said very cryptically that everything was as it should be. He had grown into a very strong man, all muscle from top to bottom with a nice rack of antlers. A scar ran from his chest to his abdomen. It was one he had earned fighting and killing a rogue Minotaur. It had hurt and taken over a month to completely heal. He was well versed in the ways of the wild, knowing every plant and animal, good or bad. Fallon expressed pride in his intelligence and often had him walk with her and tested his knowledge. She could still see that he was not completely happy even though he said he was, but she knew he had to do things on his own or not at all.
Hern stood in front of the large cave mouth, scratching his head. He was amazed that he had never seen it before. He wondered if it had always been connected to the river. He wanted to leave and ask Fallon about it, but he was afraid she would just smile and nod instead of giving him a straight answer. He sighed, feeling drawn in to the cool darkness. He took a step forward, wanting to see what lay beyond that opening. He moved into the cave, stumbling in the dark, but managing to find his way by running his hand along the cave wall. His heart beat overly loud in his chest and he almost turned back. He shook his head. He was no child afraid of monsters under the bed, he was a grown man. Light bloomed in front of him and he shielded his eyes as he stepped out into a snow covered forest.
“Where the hell am I?” He asked out loud as he kept going. He glanced briefly behind him, glad when he saw that the cave was still there.
He moved cautiously through this new place, listening intently to every sound. He heard something that sounded like talking and followed that single voice. He found a man sitting on a tree stump in a clearing, a quill and paper on his hands. He had never seen a creature like this. He moved closer, curiosity getting the better of him. The man froze and turned slowly to face him, screaming and falling into the snow. Hern cocked his head to the side and wondered if this creature had lost his mind.
“What are you?” He asked as he crab walked backwards.
“I am Hern.” Hern answered.
“Mmmmhmmm, what a spectacular name.” He watched him scribble something down and noticed he spelled his name H-E-R-N-E.
“What are you?” Hern asked.
“I am William, a human man.”
Hern arched an eyebrow, not knowing what a human was. He scratched his head. “Where am I exactly?”
“English country. How did you get that nasty scar?”
“Yes, yes Herne the Hunter. I like that and they will too. You seemed to have cure my inability to write.” He smiled and sat back down on the tree stump. “Would you like to share my fire? You could freeze to death without a good shirt.” He said and gestured to the pile of burning wood.
“Uh sure.” He sat down across from him where the fire had melted the snow. “English country? What a strange name.”
“Not from around here are you? No worries, well there might be a few worries if I am hallucinating.”
“I don’t think two beings tend to imagine the same thing at the same time so I think it is safe to say that we are both awake and thoroughly confused.”
William laughed at that and had to stop writing so he didn’t make any messy marks on his paper. “I woul say so. Being confused is the greatest adventure.” He laughed some more and Hern couldn’t help but smile. He liked this strange human man.
They sat and talked until the sun started to go down. Every now and then William would scribble on his paper. “Well Herne the Hunter, I must rest. Feel free to share my tent, it is large enough for both of us.” He stood and walked over to his sleeping area, climbing into the tent and laying down.
Hern wasn’t really tired. This world was far to new and exciting. He stood and started walking as quietly as possible, not wanting to wake his new friend. The moon made the snow glow blindingly bright. He found himself walking through a grove of trees and was sure they were oak. They had the same trees in his world. He touched the trunk of the largest one. It was a beautiful tree. He heard voices and then the sound of something whizzing past him and imbedding itself in the tree behind him. It was an arrow. He heard the voices again and stepped angrily out if the grove. Two men froze at the sight of him.
“How dare you try to kill me.” He yelled and they ran, screaming.
He almost went after them, but decided against it. If they came back he would handle them then. He ripped the arrow out of the tree and snapped it in half. Stupid humans had very nearly killed him. He wondered if they were all this stupid. He ran his fingers through his hair, brushing his antlers. Realization dawned on him. They must have thought he was a deer. He sighed in irritation. Now people would be searching for him. He tossed the arrow pieces on the ground. He went back to William’s campsite and crawled into the tent. He fell quickly asleep, his mind racing with the stories he would have to tell Fallon.
He woke the next morning to the sound of talking. The tent flap had been pulled close and he was alone. He moved slowly into a crouch and listened. “My men came running back screaming about a half beast man. Do you know about it?” A deep male voice asked.
“Indeed I do sir. He is Herne the Hunter, guardian of the wood, Lord Of the Hunt.” William answered. “He is a spirit who does not take kindly nature being abused.” Hern wondered why he was saying all these things.
“The men did say he became enraged after one of their arrows hit an oak tree. Perhaps that is his tree.”
“Indeed sir, now you must pay homage, ask for forgiveness.”
“We will indeed, part of our next kill will go to him.” He heard footsteps moving away and the tent flap was suddenly pulled back.
“How about some breakfast?” William asked and Hern nodded then crawled out of the tent.
“Why did you tell him all those things?” Hern asked as he sat down in front of the fire. There was a small pot hanging over it and William was throwing things inside, mostly potatoes and some sausage. It smelled delicious and had his stomach growling.
“It was just a bit of sport really and may get them to look before they try to kill something. You will be a legend some day.” He stirred the contents of the pot and sat down on the tree stump. “These hunters are always in their own little world. If they have a guardian to look up to then they will hunt smart.”
William cooked until the potatoes were soft then dished the food out in two bowls. Hern practically inhaled his food, leaving William laughing. “What?”
“Should I put ‘he has a love for potatoes and sausage’ in the story I plan to write?”
“You’re writing about me?”
“It is not often one meets a creature as interesting as you.”
Hern laughed and asked for seconds. William gestured to the pot and he refilled his bowl. It was one the best meals he had had. Only Fallon’s was better. She always fed him when he visited and sent him off with leftovers. He felt very sad, already missing her.
“You look a little down.” William said as he stood. “Would you like to help me rinse these and talk about it?”
“Sure, I guess.” He lifted the pot off the fire since it was completely empty and followed William to a river on the other side of the oak grove. “I miss a very close friend of mine. I guess you could say I’m homesick.” He bent down and let the river water flow into the pot then shook it around and dumped it.
“So go home.”
“I’m not ready yet sir. I want to see more of this world.”
“There are things you may not be happy about, tyrants rise up here and there. This world can be quite scary even though it seems so peaceful here.” William rinsed the bowls and sat them upside down on a flat stone slab. “If I were to take you out of the woods and where we humans dwell you would surely be captured and put in a freak show.”
“A freak show?” He arched his eyebrow and sat down next to the river.
“In a circus. Maybe there’s something I can do to hide those antlers. I have a cloak in my tent I think, but you must promise to keep the hood up.”
“I promise sir.” They made their way back to the tent and stuck the dishes inside. Hern put out the fire while William dug around in his things and pulled out a large cloak.
“This has always been a little big for me, but it was what I could afford at the time. It should fit you just fine though.” He handed it to Hern and he quickly put it on and pulled up the hood. “Perfect. I will leave my things here, I plan on coming back anyway.” H started walking and Hern followed close behind him. A hour later they found themselves on a dirt road, their boots kicking up dust as they walked. Hern could see people herding animals through large fields. He had never seen such odd creatures and they reminded him of living clouds.
“What are those?” Hern asked and pointed.
“Sheep, delicious and their wool is used to make clothes. Kind of like how you use doe skin to make your pants and boots.” William answered and waved at the shepherd.
It was noon by the time they reached a small town where people were selling food and wares from stalls in the street. He found himself looking at everything and William chuckled, waiting patiently. He picked up a necklace, admiring the way the sunlight glinted off the green stone. He sat it back down and smiled at the young woman standing behind the stall. She blushed and he moved on.
“I am telling ye, Mister Shakespeare himself said there was a spirit in them woods. One of the hunters came back, sad his name was Herne.” He heard a man say and paused for a second to listen.
“That cannot be true, that man writes plays. He is full of imagination.” A woman replied.
“I am telling ye, the man looked paler than flour, said Herne the Hunter chased him and a friend out of the woods.”
The woman rolled her eyes and Hern moved on. He wasn’t paying attention and bumped into a man. He apologized, but the man yelled, “Excuse me sir, but do you know who you nearly knocked down?” Hern turned to him, agitated by the arrogance in this tubby little man’s voice.
“An idiot who thinks he’s better than me?” Hern glared and the man glared back.
“How dare you peasant.” He drew a sword and Hern readied himself. The man slashed at him and he back pedaled. He stabbed and Hern batted the sword to the side and slapped the man hard across his cheek, making his face grow red in embarrassment. “No one lays hands on me.” He growled and William was suddenly in between them. “Move playwright.”
“Now, now I will not have you harming my friend.” William said and the man glared at him.
“What is he, your guard?”
“Yes and a very good one.”
“Keep your dog on a leash and male sure he watches his back.” The man sheathed his weapon and turned away.
“Well that was entertaining. His name is Ferdinand or Ferdi if you want to make him angry.” William said as he turned and smiled up at Hern.
“Sorry to cause you such trouble.”
“Think nothing of it, not many would stand up to a twit like that. Now, I promised you a freak show.”
Hern followed William to a large tent on the other side of town. Lining the small dirt pathway were cages and stalls. He could see animals sleeping unhappily inside and felt a twinge of sadness. Keeping animals caged was horrible, barbaric even. Once inside the tent William led him to the left where an area had been sectioned off with a large piece of cloth. What he saw on the other side sickened him, not because of the deformities, but because of how sick and sad these people looked. Some looked underfed and pale, a young woman with scars covering the right side of her face was crying. There was a piece of wood beneath her exhibit that said “The Burned Gypsy”. His heart broke for her. She was still very beautiful with bright green eyes and olive skin. He leaned close and she flinched away, terrified.
“You don’t have to be afraid of me miss. I won’t hurt you, I promise.” He glanced around then pulled back his hood for just a moment. Her eyes widened and he touched a finger to her lips as way of telling her to keep quiet. He tugged the hood back over his antlers and smiled. “I’m different just like you and neither of us are freaks.” He said softly and she smiled. “Just keep your chin up, things will get better with time.” He moved on, talking to as many as he could before following William back outside. He inhaled the fresh air, wanting very badly to find the man in charge and demand he release these people and animals.
“There is nothing you can do for them that you have no already done. Your kind words will help bring them a sense of peace that they did not have before.” William said and patted him on the back.
“We do not do things like this in our world. My father would have performance at the castle, but everyone was highly respected and those who were different were cherished as special. This world sickens me.”
“I told you that you may not like what you see.”
“Yes you did and I should have listened, but thank you for bringing me none the less.”
“You are welcome. Lets get a couple of rooms at the inn then we can head back out to the woods tomorrow.”
William paid for two rooms at a place called Iron Fire Inn. Hern thanked him and went directly to his room. There was a knock on his door and he opened it. “How about some food and a drink?” William asked.
“I’m not hungry.” Hern replied.
“At least have a drink then. Come on.”
He relented and followed him out into the main room. They found an empty table and William ordered for the both of them. A very beautiful young woman brought them what they wanted and smiled flirtatiously at Hern. He ignored her and picked up his cup, taking a sip of the bitter contents. He shook his head and sat it back down. “Not very good.” He said quietly.
“You have to drink it for years to get a taste for it. I will finish yours so please don’t worry.” They chatted as William ate. He wanted to know everything about Hern and his world. He was really excited when he learned Hern was a prince. Hern shrugged it off, not really liking to discuss the details of that particular part of his life. “Are you sure you are not hungry?”
“Very sure.” He looked around the crowded room. “I think I’m going to go to bed.”
“Please do, I will wake you in the morning.”
Hern pulled the cloak off and lay down in his bed. He stared up at the ceiling for what seemed like hours before finally falling asleep. He dreamed of his mother, of her bright smile and beautiful voice. He listened to her telling him a story about a mighty dragon and how it had been locked deep inside a mountain. He felt so sad that this was the only way he would ever see her. In his dreams she was so full of life and love, so strong and understanding. He jerked awake, tears sliding into his hair. He sat up and wiped at his face. He needed air. He stood and pulled the cloak on and left the inn. He walked down the dark road, inhaling the cool night air.
“Well look at what we have here.” A very familiar and annoying voice said. He turned to see Ferdinand and six others coming up behind him. They formed a loose circle around him, drawing swords.
“Can I help you Ferdi?” Hern said cooly and the man glared at him.
“No one calls me that, no one.”
“Are you going to cry about it?”
Ferdinand screamed and gave the order to attack. Hern jabbed out at one of the men, catching him in the stomach and then upper cutting him so he toppled backwards. Another man stabbed at him and he spun, the sword catching the cloak and tearing it. He elbowed his in the back of the head and the man fell face first into the dirt. Two down. Two more came at him as one and he grabbed them both by the throat, pitching them back. One grabbed his clock and it was pulled from his shoulders.
Everyone froze, wide eyed. “What the hell are you?” One of the men asked.
“This is Herne the Hunter.” Another answered.
“What have we done?”
“Nonsense, this is just another freak. I bet the circus will pay good money for him.” Ferdinand snapped. “Tie him up and drag him to the tent.”
“No, we will not. If we do that, then our hunting will be bad forever. We will not get a single deer.” One of his friends responded, fearfully.
“Then I will take him myself.” Ferdinand attacked him, slashing and stabbing angrily. Hern ducked and sidestepped, spun and then hit the man in the face. Ferdinand screamed, enraged. He became clumsy and Hern gripped his wrist then elbowed him twice in the face, breaking his nose.
He gÅ‚ared at the other men who picked up their friends and took them away, everyone except the plump young man at his feet. Hern lifted him by the front of his shirt, looking him right in the face. “If you speak a word of who I am to anyone else, I will come for you.” He dropped the man so he hit the ground hard. He picked up his cloak and put it around his shoulders. Tomorrow he would have to be going home before he drew more trouble to him. He went back to the inn, staying awake in case Ferdi decided to get someone else to kill him.
The next morning there was a knock on the door and he opened it, smiling down at William who looked a bit worried. “Let me guess, stories have been going around?”
“Yes sir, I believe it is time for us to leave and get back to the woods before anything else happens.” William said.
“After you sir.”
They made their way quickly away from the town and to the woods. It had snowed during the night so the cold white powder was up to his ankles. They sat down in the tent and William grabbed his quill and paper, scribbling some stuff down. “I’m afraid I will have to be leaving soon.” Hern said, a little sadly.
“I know and it would probably be best of you didn’t come back here for a long time.” William replied. “I will truly miss you Herne the Hunter.”
“And I you William. You have been nothing but kind and decent, an apparent rarity in this world.”
They sat there until nightfall and Wlliam made a fire. Hern handed him the torn cloak, thanking him for everything. They shook hands and Hern moved deeper into the woods, finding the large cave. He looked back, smiled and then stepped inside. He walked through the darkness, his hand on the cave wall. He stepped back into his world, his boots touching the soft azure grass. He wondered of anyone could come through the cave or if it only opened when it needed to. He would have Fallon tell his father to put a barrier up just in case.
He found a place to sleep near the river since it was a clear night. He stared up at the stars, his head resting in his hands. He had never had such an exciting day. He would really, truly miss his new friend. He knew going back would be a mistake. He didn’t want to have to kill anyone or cause William anymore trouble than he already had. He would forever remember the very odd looking human who spelled his name wrong. He drifted off, smiling in his sleep. He woke the next morning and rinsed his face in the cool water. He took a sip and pushed himself to his feet. He wanted to see Fallon.
He walked slowly, taking his time and enjoying the sweet smell of the flowers blooming around him. He could see the castle in the distance, but wouldn’t be going there. He veered off to the left and went up a hill to a beautiful cottage at the top. He knocked on the door and Fallon opened it with a smile. “Come on in dear, I’m a bit busy, but please make yourself at home.” She said and stepped aside.
He stepped into the incense filled living room and smiled at Tulip. She was holding her four year old son Rain who was coughing so hard it jerked his body. “Is he alright?” Hern asked, worried.
“He’s been very sick lately.” Tulip said. “He can’t eat or sleep and he’s dehydrated.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Could you grab the bucket and bring me some water?” Fallon asked warmly.
“Anything for you Fallon.” He stepped outside, grabbing the bucket and runniÃ±g quickly to the river. He filled it and ran back, not spilling a drop. He went back inside and Fallon asked him to pour it in the cooking pot. He did and then sat down next to Tulip and Rain. “Hey little man, how are you?” He asked.
“Not good, my head hurts.” Rain answered, his voice hoarse from coughing.
“Fallon will make you all better.” They sat in silence as Fallon worked. She dumped honey, mint, and chamomile into the boiling water. She mixed it, the steam filling the cottage. She dipped a ladle in the mix and poured it into a small bowl then handed it to Tulip.
She helped her son drink the warm liquid, not wasting a drop. Fallon bottled the rest and handed it to Tulip. “Every night until it’s gone and he must drink it all or he won’t get better.” Fallon said softly.
“Yes ma’am, thank you so much.” Tulip left and Fallon finally turned and hugged Hern.
“How are you young man?” She asked.
“Good, I have something to tell you.” He answered. “I found a cave to another world.”
“Oh that old thing? I hope you were careful. The other side can open up anywhere, but the end on our side is always open.”
“I made a friend, but had to leave because of some very unfriendly people. Humans, disgustingly evil creatures besides William.” Fallon frowned. “I don’t very much like their kind. I hope to never have to be in their presence again. They can’t get through can they?”
“No dear. It only opens for those who need it most on that side.”
“You should have father put up a barrier just in case. I don’t want our people going through and getting hurt and I don’t want their kind here.”
“I’ll do that. So, other than that have you been well?”
“Yes ma’am, happy even. I missed you while I was away.”
She smiled and nodded. “Why don’t you stay for lunch.”
She cooked them a nice rabbit stew. He and not eaten since the circus so he was starving. He ate three bowl fully and then pushed his bowl away, sighing with contentment. He was very happy to be home. He told Fallon he had to get going, but that he would be back in a couple of days. She packed the left over stew with a loaf of bread and a few apples then sent him on his way. He went back to the river, laying down in the grass and enjoying the sun. He would never leave his world again.