The Poacher


Andrew Prentis

November 1986

There was a definite buzz in the air tonight. The star-filled sky was indigo-black and crisply cold, the stars barely twinkling in the cold, still air. It was a perfect night for poaching. A silent shadow moved carefully through the wood toward the shack which housed the Lord's treasured pheasants.

Even though he was young, years of practice and stealth meant he moved quietly and easily through the rough undergrowth, keeping a careful watch out for the Lord's men set to guard the precious birds. Away to the poacher's right could be seen the flicker of a campfire where some of the watchmen waited and tried to fight off the encroaching cold of night. The fire made it easy for the poacher, the guardsmen's eyes would be used to the glow of the fire and not the darkness, plus the noise made by the fire would disguise any sound which might be carried to them - unlikely as this was though.

Congratulating himself at his own cunning and the stupidity of the guards - whoever heard of fighting men doing the job of gamekeepers? - the poacher covered the last few yards of open ground to reach the side of the aviary and hid in the shadows.

There was no lock on the door of the wooden shack, a building in better repair than some he had seen down in the village. Opening the hatch, he peered inside, his dark-adapted eyes able to make out the roosting birds. Smiling to himself, he crouched in the doorway, pulling the ragged sack out from his belt ready to take his booty. Stepping into the aviary, his foot snagged on something strung across the doorway and a bell clanged loudly outside. A trip-wire! The birds in the shack were roused by the noise and added to it, as did the shouts of the guardsmen alerted by the alarm.

Cursing his own stupidity, the poacher span on his heels, racing for the cover of the wood. The guards shouting were suddenly joined by the baying of hounds - they were setting dogs on him! A surge of panic washed over him, but he fought it down, concentrating instead on a means to loose the dogs. Speed now was of the essence - silence was for slow stealthy travel, now he would sacrifice silence for speed.

Ahead he knew there was a stream cutting through the wood - this ought to hide his scent. He came upon it so suddenly however, that he nearly tumbled headlong into the water. Recovering his balance in time, he leapt into mid-stream and turned to follow the course of the flow. He waded through the stream for a time, until he heard in the distance the splash of the dogs entering the water behind him followed by their howls of frustration at loosing the scent. He could hear the shouts of the guardsmen further back in the wood, following the hunting hounds.

The stillness of the night broke suddenly with the rustle of a breeze through the wood, blowing in his face but also carrying his scent back upstream to the howling dogs! Their baying began as they picked up his trail once more and the sound of splashing told him they were after him again.

Taking off away from the stream again, he headed for a region of rocks he knew beside a hill a mile or so distant. The dogs were gaining though and his stamina was running out. It had been out of hunger and desperation that he had taken up poaching so recently. The lack of good food was telling on him now as he tested his fitness against the well fed dogs. His blood was singing in his ears and his sides ached with the exertion. Branches whipped at his face and snagged at his clothes, added more rips to the many that had been patched before. The sound of the dogs pursuit grew continually louder, closer - the hill not far off, but could he make it?

Suddenly he burst out of the undergrowth, less than a hundred yards from the rocky cleft he was aiming for. The dogs were hot on his heels, but his sanctuary was nearer. Here, a rocky cliff extended into the wood, and in the face of the cliff was a narrow cleft no more than a couple of feet wide, which continued up to the top of the cliff. The poacher had used this before to steal eggs from the birds nesting in the cliff, but had never dreamt he would need to use it to escape pursuers like this.

By the time he had reached the base of the cleft, scrambling over the loose scree, the hunting hounds were at the edge of the wood. Catching sight of their quarry for the first time, they started barking again. He glanced back at them - they were huge brutes, sleek dark coats, powerfully muscled shoulders and fiercely fanged jaws.

Squeezing sideways into the tight crack, he began to climb, ignoring the scrapes and scratches on his hands, back, knees and shins in his desperation to escape from the ferocious animals almost upon him. The dogs were at the bottom now, leaping over the broken rocks and trying to get to him. His judgement had been sound, the gap was too narrow for their broad shoulders and all they could do was leap at the cleft and howl in frustration at being so near and yet so far from their quarry. He was safe for the time being. but soon the men would be here, likely with bows so he must be far enough so that even with torches they would not see him.

His hands were bleeding with many cuts and gashes and he still had some distance to go when he saw the men emerge from the forest. Several carried torches. He continued upwards, aware of the howling and shouting below him but concentrating on reaching the top.

His eyes began watering as he smelled smoke and suddenly he was engulfed in it - they had built a bonfire at the base of the cleft which was drawing the smoke up like a chimney! Choked and blinded by the smoke, the effort of climbing now reached new heights of agony. Groping forward automatically now, eyes closed, trying to breath as little as possible, he had to feel for each handhold totally blind. At least before, he had had a little star light to see by, but now...

The handhold supporting his weight suddenly gave way, a shower of rocks falling in his face as he slithered downwards several feet before he could brace himself again. He was covered in bruises now - would this torment never end? After what seemed an eternity, he found the cleft widening as it neared the top. The sounds from below were much fainter now, the dense smoke thinning out as he finally reached the top of the cleft and crawled out, exhausted beyond belief. He had never been this far up before and so knew nothing of what he would find. Not that he was particularly worried at the moment, he was simply thankful he had made it in one piece.

His eyes still streamed from the stinging smoke and all he could see before him was a blurred golden light before the ground before him vanished and he tumbled forward down the slope. He was barely conscious when he came to rest, but before the darkness enveloped him, he saw towering above him the long regal neck of an eagle, clothed with golden feathers and backed by powerful lion's hindquarters surmounted by a pair of mighty wings, all golden in the strange light of the cave he had stumbled upon.

"So my friend, you are feeling better now?" the soft voice appeared in his head. His eyes were glazed and he could not see clearly. His head hurt, in fact all of him hurt so no, he did not feel better. "That is sad," came the voice in his head again, "but I am afraid you cannot stay here. I cannot take the chance of your hunters finding this cave." As the voice continued, his sight cleared and he was able to see the magnificent beast standing before him. His memory had not let him down, the golden plumage and coat of the creature, half-eagle, half-lion, dazzled him in glorious light. The deep azure eyes regarded him with compassion, an overwhelming aura of power radiating from them as they held him in their gaze.

"Who... what are you?" the poacher gulped, sitting up and slithering to a far corner away from the massive beast.

"Has the race of man forgotten me already? The last of my line and they forget." the voice held a sad note of regret, almost self-pity. "Still that is what must come to us all in the fullness of time. You live and you work - no time for the magic of life, no time for the richness of existence. It is the curse of man that they forget..." the creature shook its noble head sadly, the wickedly curved beak catching the early morning sunlight as it shone into the cave. "You live in the village down yonder?" the head nodded in the direction of his home. The poacher nodded, too frightened to speak. "Good, then I can take you there before I am discovered. Are you strong enough to stand?"

"I - I think so." he got to his feet carefully, keeping well away from the creature.

"Good, then you can climb on my back and I will take you down." The poacher froze, terrified at the thought. "You have nothing to fear, you will be perfectly safe with me, I ate my fill two days ago, I am not hungry." The words were hypnotic like its eyes and the poacher found his resistance weakening and his feet taking him forward. Before he knew where he was, he was perched on the back of the creature, between the two large wings as it moved towards the mouth of the cave. He had never been so high up the mountains before and the view was breathtaking: the wide sweep of the triple-branching bay to the south east of the mountains, beyond the forest, backed by the unending blue of the ocean reaching right out to the land of the rising sun, where each day spirits laboured to rekindle the cold embers of the sun, extinguished each evening by the western ocean.

The wings flexed and with a lurch they were airborne. They soared high over the mountains and over the forest, past the pheasant hutch he had tried to rob the night before, flying swiftly so that they could not be seen. The poacher clung to the creature with a strength born of terror, but could not bare to close his eyes for fear of missing any of the spectacle of this journey.

With a jolt, the creature landed, hidden within the forest in a small clearing, not far from the village. A part of the poacher was thankful that it was over, the nightmare journey was finished, yet another part of him yearned for the freedom and exhilaration of soaring through the sky. The creature's mind commanded him to dismount and to go.

"But you didn't answer my question?" he plucked up his courage before leaving the clearing.

"Question?" came the voice in his mind again. "Ah yes, who... what am I? Well remember this, you have had the unique privilege to ride with Aslarn, the Golden Griffin, last in Mardona. Remember it." and with that, Aslarn the Griffin stretched out his wings and beat them powerfully, lifting the massive body above the treetops and away again.

Myrid, the poacher turned away, an ache in his heart for the lost beauty of the Griffin and trudged slowly back to the village. Still, how many ten year olds were able to say they had ridden the back of the last Griffin in all Mardona?

As he reached his village, Myrid saw his mother waiting outside their miserable hut, glaring in his direction and swishing the cane she liked to carry and use!He grimaced at the thought of what was to come, his punishment for not only staying out all night, but not coming back with anything for the family! What was it Aslarn had said? "It is the curse of men that they forget..."

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