Mythology & Folklore & Legends!!
What Would Neil Gaiman Do?
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7th-Apr-2009 07:04 pm - Herne the Hunter.
Title: Herne
Character(s): Herne the Hunter/Richard II/Philip Urswick
Folklore: British Isles
Rating: PG
Summary: The plotting of hunters against Herne, and the outcome of their plot against him.



There is an old tale goes, that Herne the hunter,
Sometimes a keeper here in Windsor forest,
Doth all the winter time at still midnight,
Walk around about an oak, with great ragg'd horns;
And there he blasts the tree, and takes the cattle;
And makes milche-kine yeld blood, and shakes a chain
In a most hideous and dredful manner.


--The Merry Wives of Windsor, William Shakespeare


He was falling. Forever falling. He couldn't stop himself, couldn't catch onto anything. But this didn’t stop him from trying to regain his balance. For the briefest of moments, he thought that if he just stopped struggling, everything would be better; that somehow, he would reach the bottom of this endless fall, and he could finally start making his way up. But if he had just given up, he never would've become the king's best huntsman. Even if the king didn't know, he did, and so did the others. He had the feeling that they were jealous of him and his abilities, but that couldn't stop him from trying to do his best.

But the king did notice him, finally, on this last hung. Did notice how well, and easily, he had tracked the white stag. And certainly did notice when, after the stag had been cornered, and there was every reason to believe that it would try to kill the king. When the stag charged, he pushed the king out of the way, and took the hit himself, the king's entire focus was on him. Part of him was happy that he had finally been noticed for all of his hard work, but after he'd been hit, it seemed entirely too late to matter.

And it was that hit that made him loose his balance, that hit that made him start to fall. But it didn't matter, because the king had not been harmed. He had taken the hit, and the stag had made a break for it. That was all that was important.

Then, he started to her voices. Voices all around him. He couldn't hear what they were saying, let alone if they were talking directly to him. Struggling, he tried to concentrate on them, tried to understand them, but the more he tried, the more difficult it became for him to make any sense of the words.

But within moments of the words beginning, he slowed, and finally stopped. He floated, soft and weightless. Floated contently, blissfully. There was no pain, no worries. Nothing but time, and the ability to sleep.

And he was happy.

But then, the pinprick of light blinded him in the complete darkness. He felt his body jerk, and with a spasm, he felt himself rushing toward the light. Rushed toward it until the light encompassed everything. And now that it was everywhere, it was no longer blinding. Instead, it was a comfortable level, and he wondered if that was because he now had nothing to compare it to.

Suddenly, his ears popped, and h realized that he was standing. On what, he had absolutely no idea. A buzzing filled his mind, causing him to close his eyes and shake his head in an effort to clear it. He was sure that when his eyes opened again, everything around him would go back to making sense. It had to. If it didn't, he’d have to accept that he'd gone mad.

When he opened them again, he saw someone walking toward him. Whoever it was, started off as a speck in the distance, hard to make out. But within moments, the person was startlingly close, even though it appeared he wasn’t moving past a leisurely pace.

He closed his eyes again, sure that he was seeing things. There was no way that this person could be walking so casually, and still be covering so much ground. It made no sense. There was no way that anyone could do that, especially when there seemed to be absolutely no effort in doing so.

Again, he opened his eyes, and standing directly in front of him, not three fee away, was the man he had seen walking towards him. He was standing calmly, with only the barest hint of a smile on his face.

"Who are you?" the one who had been falling asked the one who was smiling.

"That doesn't matter," he said. "But I know who you are ... Herne."

****


King Richard pulled Phillip aside, as huntsmen were putting Herne's body into Philip's hut.

"Are you sure this is going to work?" Richard asked, worry seeping out of every pore.

"Of course, it is," Philip replied, a broad smile crossing his face. "I will have your huntsman back to you in no time, and he will be as good as new."

"You are sure?"

"Absolutely."

"Good. Good," Richard said. He paused for a moment, seeming to think to himself, and after a few moments, he looked Philip in the eye. "If you can really do this, I am going to make him my head huntsman. It's the least I can do for what he did for me."

"That sounds like a good thing to do. I will let you know the moment I am finished, and Herne's life is restored."

"Thank you," Richard said as he turned. "I believe I will leave you to your work now."

As Richard turned and started to walk away, the smile fell immediately from Philip's face. The king really had no idea what was happening, or what Philip had in store. But really, he had no need to be concerned with the details.

Going to his hut, he went through the doorway, knowing that it would be overcrowded inside. And he was right about that, as Herne's body was laid out across the floor, and all of those who had helped bring him in, where standing around him.

"Are you sure this is going to work?" one of them asked Philip, in almost a whisper. He was young, and Philip imagined he was have a bought of conscious.

"Yes," Philip said. "I am very sure. It will work smoothly."

"But how can you know for sure?" the leader of their group asked.

"I have done this bit of magic plenty of times before," Philip said. "Certainly enough to do what needs to be done, without any annoying hiccups. But if it's needed, I can certainly describe everything to you. And if you need further proof, I can let you sit in on the procedure."

"No," the man said, crossing his arms across his chest. "I doubt that will be necessary."

"If you don't think I'm adequate for the job, I can always give you the names of others of my order. Then, you can send them all word, requesting their presence, wait for them to arrive, and then, go through the process of screening them for the proper candidate."

"No, no," he said, bringing his hand up, "we won't need to do any of that. You will be enough for this."

"Why, thank you," Philip said, dryly. "Your faith in me is most reassuring."

Their leader didn't press the issue, and Philip started to check his supplies. From what he could see, from the quick once over, everything seemed to be in order.

"And now," Philip said, turning his attention back toward the men, "I believe it's time that I got started. So, if you will all excuse me ..."

Taking the hint, the men left the hut, and Philip to what he needed to do. Several charms were placed on Herne, and the antlers of the beast that had nearly killed him, were tied to his head.

From outside, the men heard noise that they could not explain, and smoke that held a fragrance they did not know.

****


Days later, Philip stopped in front of Richard's throne. He bowed slightly, his right hand crossing his body, and resting on his left breast. As he straightened, and looked at Richard, he saw the shocked look on the king’s face.

Richard's eyes weren't looking at Philip. Instead, they were looking next to him, at the man who stood beside him. Surely, Richard was amazed by the fact that Herne seemed to have deer antlers growing out of his forehead, but the very fact that Herne was standing there (alive and in the flesh) was far more amazing. It wasn’t every day that someone saw another brought back from the very brink of death, just as they were starting toward the other side.

Coming down from the dais, Richard rushed toward Herne, embracing the man and laughing out loud. Herne seemed to be rather shocked by the reaction, as Richard slapped him on the back.

After a few moments, the king pulled back, a wide grin spread across his face. Turning back toward the throne, he ran back up to the dais. Reaching it, he looked back toward the people that were gathered there in the room with him.

"My friends," he said, "our friend Herne has returned to us. And to celebrate such a stupendous occasion, and to reward Herne for his continued excellence in his work, I am promoting him to the position of Chief Keeper."

Applause filled the room, and Herne beamed up at Richard.

****


He had been ecstatic when he had been promoted to such a position, but it became clear from the onset that something was very wrong. While he had been very good at what he did, before the stag had run him down, now ... it was gone. He did the same things he had done before, but his mind became muddled every time he tried to do his job, and his eyes would start to cross every time he tried to force it to clear.

It wasn't long before Richard also noticed that Herne wasn’t able to do the things that he used to be able to do. And it wasn’t long after that that Herne was called into a private room with him.

"Thank you for coming," Richard said, after the door had closed.

"Of course, your majesty," Herne said, bowing, a feeling that something was very wrong rising up within him.

"I'm not going to sugar-coat this for you," Richard said, his body completely rigid. "I'm sorry, Herne, but I'm going to have to let you go."

"I ..."

"This can't come as a surprise to you. Ever since Philip brought you back to me, all of your abilities as a hunter and gamekeeper seem to have left you. I cannot keep you on as my Chief Keeper, if you are no longer able to perform the job functions."

Herne's face fell, and he lost any ability to speak, or to move.

"I'm sorry, Herne, but this is the way that it has to be."

Then, Richard called one of the guards, and Herne was escorted out.

****


He was falling. Forever falling. He couldn't stop himself, couldn't catch onto anything. But this didn’t cause him to try.

He had worked so hard, tried so hard, to be everything that the king might want in a Chief Keeper; did everything that would make him the best at what he did. But it didn't matter now. For some reason, which was beyond him, he had lost every ability that he had ever had before, and in the process, he had lost everything. What was the point of trying to continue, when everything that he had ever really wanted, would never have it again?

The sun has teased him, skipping within his reach; then, rushing away again, just when it was close enough for him to grasp.

How could he face anyone in the court now, let alone his fellow hunters? They would soon hear what had happened, and he would never be able to face them again.

He was shamed, and his dreams were no longer available to him.

There was only one thing left to him now.

****


The boy had as many of the huntsmen around him as he could get to listen to him. He talked loudly about how he had found Herne's body, swinging from an ancient Oak in the midst of the forest. Most brushed the boy off, saying either that he was just telling wild tales, his imagination was running away with him, or that even if what he said was true, it really didn't effect them in any sort of negative way.

But a few listened. Oh, yes, they listened. They had carried Herne's body, when Philip told them to take it into his hut, and they knew that there was something significant going on. Philip had lived up to his part of the bargain that they had made: Herne had lost any sort of ability he had had in the forest. And now ... now, there was a possibility that he could very well be completely dead. If this was really the case, he would never find out what they had done. He would never know that they had plotted against him out of jealousy. He would never take revenge on them for their parts in his undoing.

They had to be sure that what the boy said was true; they had to see with their own eyes that Herne was really gone, or they would always be looking over their shoulders for him. So, that night, they quieted the boy out of his bunk, and forced him to show them where Herne's body swung.

Hours later, the boy having a bit of difficulty remembering where exactly he had seen Herne's body, the men came across a giant Oak tree. The boy insisted that this was the very tree that he had seen Herne hanging from, but now, there was nothing. It was only when one of their number found a frayed rope, and what appeared to be the signs in the dirt that something had been dragged away, that they believed the boy’s story. Someone had, in fact, been hanging from the tree.

The next morning, they came back to the spot, intending to follow the signs until they came across the body itself. But it wasn't far away from the tree, when all signs disappeared, and they were never able to pick up the trail any farther than that. They were forced to take the boy’s word that he had seen Herne dead, though this gave them all an uneasy feeling.

Within the days that followed, a new Chief Keeper was appointed from the huntsmen's number. And it wasn't just any one of them; the new Chief Keeper was the leader of the group that had plotted against Herne, asking Philip to bring about his demise. He was quite pleased with himself. Not only had he gotten rid of the only huntsman who he saw as a threat to his own upward motion (and had essentially gotten away with it), but he has also been rewarded for his actions. Everything was going perfectly.

Well ... it went perfectly, until he had been promoted. Once he had his new position, he found that he could no longer focus. He knew all of the things that he needed to do, and how to do them, but once he needed to put that knowledge into action, he found that he was no longer able to. His mind became muddle, and his eyes would cross any time that he tried to force himself. For as long as he could, he tried to fake it, tried to pretend that nothing was wrong with him, and everything was still perfect.

But it wasn't long until the loss of his abilities was also noticed by the king. He lost his promotion, and another (from the same group) was promoted to Chief Keeper. But the same thing happened to him ... and to the next ... and to the next ... on and on down the line, until the entire conspiracy was effected thus, and even some who hadn’t been part of it.

Finally, those who had been part of the conspiracy came together again. They agreed that they would go to Philip again, and beg that he undo whatever bad luck was upon them. They sent a message to him, and he agreed to meet them at the very same Oak that was the scene of Herne's last act.

On the agreed upon night, they gathered around the tree, but they were not met by Philip. Instead, they saw someone that they did not expect.

"Hello, gentlemen," Herne said, coming out from behind the tree. "Beautiful night, isn't it?"

None of them answered; they couldn't not find the words. And their inability to answer him, only seemed to amuse him, as his face was split from a dirty, big grin.

"No need to answer," Herne continued, looking up at the stars. "Sometimes, on nights like these, talk only takes away from the beauty.” He took a deep breath, looking back at them. "And to fully enjoy the beauty, I suggest that we take a ride, 'gents. Get back on your horses, and follow me."

He turned, quickly, not looking back to see if they followed, but he could hear them scurrying to not be left behind.

He lead them several miles, weaving in and out of the trees, seeming to not have any real direction in mind. But then, they saw it: a Beech that was alight. It was consumed by the flame, but the fire didn't seem to actually be eating at it. It stood straight, and tall, and looked perfectly healthy ... except that it was covered in tongues of fire. And when they were able to pull their eyes away from the tree itself, they saw that the flame didn't effect anything else. The only thing that it touched was the tree; all of the other vegetation appeared as though there was no danger to it.

And then, as they watched, Philip appeared out of the flame itself. He walked towards them, smiling faintly.

"How can I help you, gentlemen?" he asked.

None of them spoke. They could not get their minds to form any sort of coherent thoughts, or their mouths to create sounds. Instead, they stood, staring at him as though their heads might cave in at any moment.

"Oh, it matters little," Philip said, waving a hand. "Because really, I have a proposition for you."

The men rustled slightly, seeming to try to pull themselves out of their dream state, trying to force their minds and voices to work correctly.

"What?" Philip asked, one eyebrow raising. "No one wants to see what this offer might be?"

Finally, the youngest of the number, the one who had wanted to know if everything would work correctly, when they were in the hut, seemed to make his body work in any way. He took a few, reluctant steps forward, looking Philip in the eye.

"I do," he said softly. "I want to hear what it is."

"Good, man!" Philip said, clapping his hands together once. "My offer is this: be loyal men to Herne, as you should have been in the beginning; promise that you will never go against him, and you will always be his men, through and through, from this moment on."

"And if we don't?" the leader of the group asked, seeming to finally find his voice.

"Do you really want to know the answer to that question?" Philip asked, his voice hard and cold.

Several of them shifted, obviously, where they stood, and shook their heads.

"Agree to this," Philip said. "Everything will run much more smoothly, if you do."

"And the charm you put on us?" the leader asked. "The one that makes us loose all of our own abilities? You will remove that, if we agree?"

"Yes," Philip said, "as soon as the agreement is made."

They all looked to the leader of their little conspiracy, to see what he would say, but after only a moment, the youngest agreed. He pledged himself to Herne, and gave heartfelt apologies for his part. After that, the others agreed quickly, until, finally, their leader also gave his agreement.

Soon after, they began to hunt. They hunted long, and hard, and well, and the deer were no match for them.

Even now, if you are in the part of the world where Herne once walked, you might find an Oak that looks larger, and older than any of the others that are near it. If you stand under this ancient tree, and listen closely, you might just hear a horn blowing in the distance. Watch closely, for you might just see Herne riding on horseback, hunting deer. And you will know him for who he is, for it is said that his antlers are impressively large, and with many points.
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