Poppy waited shivering in the castle’s entrance courtyard. She wore a long riding tunic and boots, a long haired, brown fur fastened round her shoulders — she had no idea what kind of animal it came from and no desire to know. A pack of over-excited beagles wandered hither and thither, barking enthusiastically, sniffing each other and wagging their tails.
Eventually Larnick swaggered out of the castle, a bow slung over his shoulders and a quiver of arrows on his back, leading a gang of about twenty of his friends. They greeted the dogs but ignored her. Her insides contracted, she felt her cheeks flush with humiliation. I’m less important than a dog, she thought to herself.
The clip clop of hooves made her turn towards the stables. Her heart did a somersault of joy when she saw Petros among the stable hands, leading the hunting party’s horses towards them. He was holding the reins of a handsome palomino, whose golden coat and contrasting white mane and tail gave him a breathtakingly stunning appearance. When he set eyes on her, Petros’ serious face broke into a bright smile. Tears welled in her eyes at the sight of a familiar, friendly face but she quickly brushed them aside when she saw his happy expression crease with concern.
‘How are you, Pops?’ he whispered when he was close enough.
‘Oh, you know,’ she stroked the horse’s smooth coat and swallowed her emotion. ‘It’s just so different here. They’re so different. So . . . joyless and so obsessed with killing. They’re taking me hunting today to kill a stag! Oh Petros, I don’t know if I can bear it.’
His forehead wrinkled and a look of pain crossed his face.
‘I’m sorry, Poppy. I don’t think you have a choice. But don’t worry,’ he squeezed her arm encouragingly. ‘Annifer’ll be back soon and it’ll all be alright.’ Poppy gripped the front of the saddle and put one foot in the stirrup. Petros lifted her by the waist and she swung onto the saddle.
‘Goddess protect you,’ he patted her leg.
‘We’ll ride through the arena and out through the gates, then along the road that leads to the forest,’ Larnick announced to the assembled hunters. He was mounted on a sleek, muscular black stallion. ‘The princess will ride with me,’ he said without looking at her, Reluctantly, she steered her horse over to his side. ‘We’ll have to gallop or the dogs will attack the bear. Hunters, are you ready?’
‘Yeees!’ they yelled back raucously, fists punching the air. A shiver went down Poppy’s spine. She shrank inside her fur, wishing she could just disappear. Larnick took a deep breath, raised a curved bone hunting horn to his lips and blew a long note that resounded through the courtyard. Next thing Poppy knew, they were galloping through the arena, the wind whipping her hair. The bear bared its teeth and backed away, pressing its huge black-furred body into the stake it was chained to and swiping its claws towards them. Then it raised its muzzle to the sky and roared in protest as they rode past, dogs yapping threateningly at it but not swerving from the direction the hunt was heading. Poor animal, she thought as the pain in her heart swelled.
Petros had been Poppy’s riding teacher and she was a skilled horsewoman. Her mount was swift and obedient. She kept up the pace, Larnick on her right, head down, concentrated and fierce, his cloak swirling out behind him, the dogs charging out in front, the other hunters thundering behind them.
They galloped through the arena gates onto a road which soon disappeared under the forest canopy. There they slowed to a walk. The snow was thicker here where the sun hadn’t penetrated enough to melt it. Thick trunks rose on either side of her and new leaves were beginning to sprout from high branches, succulent and fresh. She breathed in the clean, moist air, tanged with leaf mould. In any other circumstances she would have enjoyed the ride but now her stomach churned with apprehension. The dogs sniffed around, trying to pick up a scent.
Woof! In an instant they were all barking and tearing off down a track which led deep into the forest.
‘Tally ho!’ Larnick called, throwing his arm in the air to show the game was afoot. She nudged her horse into a gallop and they set off after the pack, the other hunters bringing up the rear. Faster and faster they galloped, the wind whistling past her ears, making her eyes water. She held tightly to the reins as the trees vanished behind her, her heart beating in rhythm with the pounding hooves.
And then she caught sight of it. At first it was a white blur on the road up ahead, hard to make out against the snow, but soon her eyes distinguished the shape of the stag, their prey. It was enormous – as big as the horse she was riding, majestic antlers, like branches reaching outwards, bigger than any she had ever seen before. Noble, dignified, magnificent, and it was running for its life, leaping in great bounds, hind legs kicking up flurries of snow as the dogs chased it down.
‘Goddess protect this stag! Please, Goddess protect this stag!’ she chanted desperately as the gap between them closed. Suddenly the stag swerved to the side on its nimble feet and darted off into the thick of the forest, closely pursued by the beagles. Larnick yanked his horse around to follow it. Poppy did the same. The rest of the party was further behind now. They galloped through the narrow gaps between the trees, Poppy keeping her head down, holding her breath, scared that any minute, a branch might knock her off her horse.
All of a sudden, the barking got louder and they came out into a clearing. She pulled her horse to a halt beside Larnick’s. The stag swung his huge antlers around and stood facing them on splayed, trembling legs, flanks heaving, nostrils flared, terror showing the whites of his eyes. An impenetrable cluster of holly bushes barred its way and, surrounded by baying hounds, it had nowhere left to run. She saw that the dogs had been trained to chase down but not attack their quarry. No, the pleasure of the kill was to be Larnick’s.
Eyes fixed on the stag, he lifted his bow and reached back for an arrow. Poppy contemplated throwing herself bodily at him to knock the bow out of his hands but she knew that would make an enemy of him forever. Lips pursed in concentration, Larnick notched the arrow to the bow and began pulling back the string. Poppy reacted in a split second. She let out a scream, released the reins, leant sideways and allowed her body to slide off the horse in a pretend faint.
I hope the snow cushions my landing, she thought to herself as she surrendered to gravity and plummeted to the ground.