The Hunt at Rotherdam
by A.C. Wise
I always believed my father would be the one to take me on my first hunt. However my elder brother Cecil was the one beside me as the carriage pulled into Rotherdam’s wide, circular drive.
“Try not to be nervous, Trev.” Cecil patted my thigh awkwardly.
I peered from the window at the expanse of Rotherdam Hall. It was every bit as imposing as I’d imagined, made more so by the lowering sky framing the roof’s peaks and valleys.
“I promise you, it’s not half as bad as father’s stories, and it’ll all be over one way or another within three days.” There was more resignation than conviction in Cecil’s voice as he reached past me to open the carriage door.
“No sense dawdling.” The tightness of Cecil’s jaw and the way he moved, the point of his cane viciously attacking the stone drive, left me wondering if his leg pained him especially here. After all, it was during a hunt he’d received his wound, and yet he sought to reassure me?
Generations of men in my family, going back to my three-times-great grandfather, had come to Rotherdam to hunt. All the young men of a certain age within a thirty-mile radius did the same. I wouldn’t escape my fate by wishing things otherwise.
I followed my brother up the wide, shallow steps to the front door. Demure statues of women stood to either side of the entry. Incredible skill showed in the delicate veils covering their faces and the merest hint of features visible underneath. A chill ascended my spine.
The head butler greeted us with a bow, taking our coats and hats. Another servant took our bags, indicating we should follow him up the grand staircase. Rotherdam’s interior proved just as oppressive as its exterior – dark polished wood, jewel-toned carpets, and portraits glaring out at me from the walls. The eyes of patriarchs followed me, brows angled in judgment, marking me as one who didn’t belong.
Cecil and I were given rooms beside one another. In mine, I found a wash basin and a pitcher of fresh water, of which I availed myself. The décor and furniture were as heavy as the rest I’d seen, drapery the color of a good claret surrounding the bed and pulled tight across the windows. Thinking to let in a little light, I twitched the curtains aside and was dismayed to find my room looked out over the very woods where we would hunt tomorrow.
Twilight had already begun to gather, a bruise pressed against the clouds. I couldn’t shake the vision of pale shapes moving between the shaggy trees and I yanked the curtains closed again. A knock at the door adjoining Cecil’s room with mine startled me, and I unlocked it from my side.
“I need your help with this blasted thing.” Cecil held out the silken length of his tie, his collar undone. Despite being the elder brother, he’d always been hopelessly clumsy in such matters.
“Aren’t you ready yet?” Cecil eyed me, still in my travel clothes, as I sighed and took possession of his tie and collar, setting them right.
“Unlike you, I am fully capable of dressing myself quickly and impeccably.” I affected a haughty expression, lifting my nose. Cecil responded with mock sourness.
“Well do it, then. Cocktails start within half an hour, and I’m desperate for a drink.”
Cecil retreated, and I dressed quickly. As I emerged to meet him, a bang drew my attention at the far end of the hall. I turned to see the same servant who had carried our bags struggling to lift a dropped trunk, while the butler stood nearby berating him. The man to whom the bags presumably belonged made to help, but the butler steered him away, frowning.
The man belonging to the trunk was blond and slightly rumpled from travel, giving him a roguish air. He looked up, either by coincidence or perhaps sensing my gaze, and flashed a smile. My cheeks warmed, and I was immediately grateful for the hallway’s dim lighting. Cecil took my shoulder, guiding me to the stairs. This time his sour expression did not dissolve into a grin.
“Do at least try to pretend to take the hunt seriously.” Cecil spoke into my ear, leaning on me as we descended the stairs. “Even if you don’t catch anything, give the appearance of effort.”
At the bottom of the stairs, Cecil gave me a significant look. Voices and laughter drifted from a room to our right. It struck me that Cecil had volunteered to accompany me in order to shelter me. I could only imagine how the weekend would go if my father were indeed at my side. Gratitude and guilt flooded me, and I stood straighter, vowing not to give my brother occasion to regret me.
Drinks were pressed into our hands and we were pulled into a swirl of conversation and bodies. Cecil introduced me to our host and his wife, and then in rapid succession a dozen others whose names I promptly forgot.
I watched the young men who, like myself, had come to Rotherdam for their first hunt. They spoke loudly, their claims brash, either nerves or genuine excitement. Too many had eyes that spoke of hunger, and I looked away, turning my attention instead to the women.
There were few enough – our hostess, the wife of a retired colonel who was a peer of our host, and a sister-in-law who had survived her husband, our host’s brother, and now lived at Rotherdam Hall. They reminded me of the veiled statues outside, speaking with their heads bowed, their lips scarcely moving. I had the feeling that their true conversation occurred telepathically, that they only spoke the occasional word aloud for the sake of decorum.
I tried not to let my gaze stray to the door too often, wondering after the man I’d seen in the hall upstairs. When he appeared just as I happened to look up, I nearly dropped my drink. Dread and hope gripped me simultaneously as he worked his way around the room, introducing himself.
“First hunt, eh? Harrison, but you might as well call me Harry.”
My mouth went dry, but I managed to shake the proffered hand, only imagining it lingered a moment longer in mine than was strictly necessary.
“Trevor. Yes. First hunt.” I took a sip of my champagne, too quickly, coughing, and Harry thumped me on the back.
“We’ll muddle through together then.” His eyes flashed, achieving the effect of a wink.
I was spared the need to reply when the bell rang announcing dinner. Course after course appeared, all meat, bleeding and on the edge of raw. My stomach twisted. I watched our hostess, who had perfected the art of moving food about her plate to suggest consumption, though I never once saw her put a morsel to her lips.
I could not deny her loveliness, but nor could I deny the eerie, otherworldly quality to her beauty. Her black curls were perfectly coiffed, her dark clothing chosen to blend with Rotherdam’s walls, features sculpted from wilder stuff to match some Platonic ideal. Ropes of jet beads dripped from her throat and ears, and two thick, silver cuffs circled either wrist. I thought of chains.
After dinner, the men were ushered one direction, and the women disappeared in another. Brandy and cigars were brought round. I wanted the night to be done, the whole weekend done, my hunt failed, and Cecil and I our way back home to my father’s disappointment.
“Remember, lad, don’t venture onto the grounds after dark. That way lies certain death.” The retired colonel threw his arm about Harry’s shoulder jostling me without ever noting I was there.
Face florid with drink, the colonel leaned closer to impart more advice, his gray moustache fairly tickling Harry’s cheek, and I felt a brief stab of envy. Harry tossed a look my way pleading for rescue. I froze, arrow-shot. My head, already made light by the endless wine at dinner, and now the brandy and cigar smoke, spun.
“Steady on.” Cecil caught my arm, speaking through gritted teeth. I couldn’t tell how much of my brother’s grimace was on my account, and how much because his leg pained him.
I’d only seen his scar once, a jagged line like a lightning strike, made by a savage claw. If it had not been for my father, Cecil surely would have bled out on the forest floor.
At last we were released to our beds, and I helped Cecil up the stairs. I could not resist one last glance from the window. The moon shone unnaturally bright, throwing every detail of the forest into sharp relief. I saw then, distinctly, the shapes I had imagined before.
Low and white and long, they crept along the ground like mist, winding between the black trunks of trees. They poured themselves like things liquid and boneless. Every terrifying story I had ever heard about the hunt came back to my mind. Tomorrow we would face those things, their uncanny eyes, their howling voices, and their hunger for blood.
• • •
Dawn came too soon, rising gray and pearled with moisture. We were roused by a great pounding, fists banging on doors. Then all was a flurry of bundling into our warmest clothes and rushing outside. I had the brief thought that I might slip away amidst the chaos, but reminded myself that if I brought shame on myself, it would fall on Cecil too.
Fog clung everywhere, making me feel I had stumbled onto a journal page – bold ink lines for the trees drawn on cream-white. I tried not to think of what the fog hid.
We moved as a group, holding close for a moment before fanning out. I immediately regretted the loss of others around me, even the brash and bragging ones. I thought at least Cecil might stay with me, and I wondered if our host had contrived to separate us. Not just my brother and I, but all of us.
The hunt had its traditions after all, and it wouldn’t do for two men to catch the same bride.
I moved cautiously, hoping to find a spot to remain unseen until the hunt came to an end. I had no intention of taming one of the wild ghouls of Rotherdam’s forest to be my wife, beyond having no interest, the practice was barbaric.
Oh, I knew all the reasoning – how much happier the women were once caught, raised from the status of mere beasts by virtuous marriages to good men. Without the hunt, they would wander forever, wailing and haunting forests and moors, bringing unwary men to ruin.
The image of our hostess came to my mind again, roped in her jewels. I thought of my mother, my sister-in-law, and the scar on Cecil’s leg.
A low, whuffling sound came from my left. A dim shape, sniffing the air. Shadows bruised its eyes, and deep within, I caught a hint of moss and stone, the color of the forest itself. Thin lips surrounded a mouth full of teeth. Nostrils drank angrily at the air. Hair, long, ropy, and tangled, dragged through the leaf mold, making a horrible sound as the creature swung her head from side to side.
I squeezed my eyes shut, praying she hadn’t seen me, praying my scent wouldn’t catch in her terrible nose. Fear sweat rolled from me beneath my layers of wool. A hand clapped itself across my lips, and a shout lodged in my throat as another pulled me roughly away.
I was spun, pressed against one of the trees, the hand still in place so I tasted the salt of the palm on my lips. Harry’s eyes met mine and he lowered his hand.
“Our first hunt is a rousing success so far, wouldn’t you say?” Again, that flash of grin, cutting through to the heart of me.
Even though he’d removed his hand from my mouth, his body still blocked mine against the tree. If anything, he leaned closer. I scarcely dared breathe. His scent mingled with wet bark, dripping pine.
“Jolly good thing I was here to save you, eh?”
“I hate this.” I’d meant to hold the words back, but they were there, blurting themselves free.
Harry’s eyes widened. He didn’t move. My pulse thundered. I took a breath, and plunged on.
“It’s horrid and barbaric. These things—”
“Brides,” Harry interrupted me.
“Women,” I spat back. “There has to be a better way.”
I imagined what he must see. A coward. A deviant. The curved blade of Harry’s smile returned, gentled, but no less wicked, no less dangerous. Perhaps more so. It left me flayed.
“I agree,” Harry said, voice low. “The hunt is barbaric. Do you know, once they’re caught, the women are locked in attics? Sometimes it’s months or years before a wedding occurs, and even a marriage isn’t a guarantee. I had an aunt, my uncle claimed she had returned to her old ways, reverted and gone feral …”
He let the words hang, a look of disgust crossing his face.
“That’s terrible,” I murmured, trying for the appropriate amount of sympathy, to convey my full agreement and shed the awareness of his body against mine. “Surely it can’t be like this everywhere?”
“No.” This time, Harry’s expression was a grimace. “There are places where men fish their wives from the sea. There are forests where they hunt, but not wraiths, deer and bear and foxes, animal brides whose skins are stolen and locked away. I’ve heard of things like our ghouls, but raw and bleeding, women with entrails hanging from their waists, creatures who feed on unborn children, and drowned things pulled from rivers and ponds.”
“But we are Rotherdam men, and for us it’s misty moors, attics, and the hunt.” Harry shrugged, then his expression flickered, almost calculating. “What would you have instead? Romance? Courtship?”
I thought he meant to tease me, but I found sympathy in his gaze, and perhaps even hope. My breath stuttered. He placed a hand against my jaw, so that he must feel the pulse thudding in the hollow of my throat.
“Matches made for love?” His thumb traced my lower lip. “Or desire?”
Had his body not held me up, I would have fallen. I couldn’t believe his boldness. I opened my mouth, perhaps to object, but his lips replaced his thumb so swiftly I scarce had time to register it. Dizzy, I let his tongue explore mine, clutched at the front of his coat as he slid his hand to the back of my neck and gripped it firm.
“Better?” he asked. Harry’s face was flushed; I imagined mine must be pure fire.
“In some ways, yes.” I let out a shaky breath. “Worse in others.”
I would have spoken again, but a sound caught my attention. A bride watched us from between the trees. Harry started back, hand straying toward, but not touching any of the weapons or restraints we all carried.
The woman’s eyes locked with mine; I thought of storms wracking the heath, lightning-struck oaks. Panic shredded the last of my nerve, but the woman made no move. She put a finger to her lips, and melted back into the mist.
All three of us were spared.
Then a shout and a ruckus went up from deeper in the woods, followed by a ragged cheer. One of our party had captured a bride.
• • •
The woman howled and thrashed, hands bound, as a group of three men, the colonel and our host among them, led her back to Rotherdam Hall. I caught Cecil’s eye. To his credit, he held my gaze, ashamed, but his posture clearly said he believed nothing could be done. This was the way of things, and always had been.
My blood boiled. Words rose to my lips, but Cecil moved closer and placed a hand on my arm. Sorrow tinted his gaze. I held my tongue, but my heart sank as I watched our hostess and the other women take charge of the chained bride. They spoke low as they led her up the stairs, a hushing sound like wind through pine trees, a language meant for her ears alone and not mine.
“This is horrible,” I gripped Cecil’s arm. “We must leave.”
“One more day, then we’ll go home.” Chagrin in his voice.
Another realization struck me - he would be the one to bear the weight of my father’s disappointment should I return brideless. Cecil was the elder, the one upon whose shoulders the family’s future rested. Though he had never said as much aloud, I suspected my father knew my true nature. It was Cecil’s duty to see me sorted and out of the way where I could not damage the family name.
I swallowed around the lump in my throat and nodded, though my eyes stung. One more day wouldn’t kill me. And at least Harry would be there as well.
• • •
Another night of rich food, brandy, and cigars. Where the first night’s dinner had been all reminiscence of hunts past, and advice solicited and unsolicited, the second night’s meal was decidedly celebratory. The successful hunter, who I learned was the retired colonel’s nephew, was toasted repeatedly. The women – our hostess, the colonel’s wife, and the sister-in-law – had been excused, or perhaps banished to tend to the new wife-to-be. Would they murmur comfort in their forest voices, or would they tell her to run far, far away?
Another dawn arrived, this time dripping with rain. I bundled myself as best I could, but still the weather bit at me as I trudged outside. Cecil excused himself, pleading important correspondence, but I could tell his leg pained him.
I tried to contrive a way to stay near Harry, but again, we were all separated. Misery gripped me. Rain fell into my eyes, steady, relentless drops wearing at my clothes and my mood.
I only had to endure a few hours, and then we could return home. And I would never see Harry again.
The thought struck me as a blow. Perhaps if I were bold enough, I could find my way to him tonight. My mind lingered over the possibilities, and as I stepped around the trunk of a tree, I found myself face to face with a bride.
In my haste to flee, I tripped. Pain jolted from my tailbone up my spine as I struck the ground, and damp immediately soaked my clothes. I kicked at the leaf mold, but my heels slipped, finding no purchase.
With supernatural swiftness, the bride was upon me. She caught my ankle, holding it in a grip like iron, nails pricking my skin even through my boot. Breath left me. Had I wanted to, I couldn’t even have screamed.
Eyes like rain-wet stones watched me. I tried to imagine her features reshaping themselves into something soft, demure. Slowly, she removed her hand from my leg, making certain that I marked that she was letting me go.
“Sister.” The word emerged rough, from a throat unused to human speech, the edges grating.
She jerked her head, long ropes of hair swinging, and I looked behind me to Rotherdam Hall.
My throat dried, though the rest of me was soaking wet, and I fumbled the words more than once before getting them out.
“I’ll help you,” I said. “If I can.”
• • •
A foolish promise, perhaps, but what else could I do? I loathed the hunt. I wanted to see it ruined, but I could not rip the tradition out by its roots. Still, perhaps I could spoil at least one wedding.
I knew I wouldn’t sleep, so it was nothing to slip from my bed and creep down the stairs. I found my way to the kitchen where a door let out onto the side yard. I had arranged no signal with the bride; I could only hope she would be waiting. I had no clear idea what she meant to do, or how I might help, but even though my heart pounded, I was determined.
I pushed open the door, stepped into the yard, and took a single breath of the night air before a shadow fell upon me. Two. I yelped, struggling, and when I finally sorted my limbs free, I found Cecil and Harry gaping at each other and me. Evidently, they had both been watching for me.
“Trevor.” Cecil spoke first, his tone warning.
“Look, I can—” Movement near the line of trees froze us all.
Cecil lifted his cane as if to use it as a weapon. The bride emerged from the forest, tall and pale and terrible in the moonlight. Her hair hung like a shroud, and at this distance, her features were but smudges of shadow.
“Get back.” Cecil and Harry both tried to push me behind them. Cecil shot Harry a sour look, Harry looked in turn amused.
I stepped free of both of them.
“I promised her my help.” I lifted my chin, defiant.
From his initial shock, Harry’s expression cracked into a grin and he slugged my upper arm in approval. Cecil, however, frowned.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I’m going to help her free her sister, and if you’re not going to help me, I suggest you get out of my way.”
I’d never stood up to Cecil as such before. I’d never had the need. I adored Cecil, looked up to him. And over the weekend at Rotherdam, I’d come to realize just how much he had kept me from the worst of my father’s moods. Still, on this, I would not budge.
After years of following in his shadow, that I had suddenly grown a spine and taken action on my own probably surprised him more than anything. Cecil shook his head. He clearly thought me foolish, but he wouldn’t stop me.
“Perhaps you’d best return to bed,” I told him. “If I’m caught, you’ll have plausible deniability.”
“No,” Cecil said after a moment, his expression grim. “You’re right about … everything.”
I wondered again about my sister-in-law, whether she remembered anything of her former life. Cecil was a gentle soul; perhaps it was no accident he had yet to produce an heir. Perhaps it was his own small act of rebellion against our father, the system of the hunt, and a way to apologize to his bride all in one.
I lifted my arm and waved toward the trees. The bride glided forward, sniffing a question as she reached us, gathering the scent of Cecil and Harry. Her lips curled.
Unchecked, untamed, I’d heard it said a bride could tear a man apart as easily as a scrap of lace.
“My brother,” I explained in a whisper. “And my … friend. They’re here to help, too.”
I held open the kitchen door. Cecil had explained to me during our carriage ride that wards protected Rotherdam and kept the brides from entering or leaving. Perhaps she needed nothing more of me than a way in, but I followed as she moved deeper into the house, Harry and Cecil close on my heels.
We climbed to the top floor and found servants’ quarters and one room with an iron bar and padlock closing the door. The bride’s expression curdled in disgust, lips peeling back from her teeth. She reached for the barred door, then drew back, the tips of her fingers smoking. More wards. Beyond the door, I heard the drag of chains.
“Keep watch,” I murmured to Cecil.
“How will we get it open?” I turned to Harry, speaking my gnawing despair aloud.
The bride’s hands twitched impatiently and she glared. If denied what she’d come for, would she turn on us instead? I imagined Harry’s flesh rent, blood soaking his clothes. Had I doomed him? Had I doomed us all? But Harry merely winked.
“Ah This is where I come in.” He reached into the pocket of the smoking jacket he’d thrown over his sleepwear, producing a tied bundle, which he undid to reveal lock-picking tools. “Never travel without them.”
He knelt, setting to work. The bride paced behind him, and I willed Harry to go faster. I heard the satisfying clunk of the lock undone, and simultaneously, the terrifying sound of a door creaking open further down the hall.
The colonel emerged, and time slowed to a molasses thick crawl. Our perilous mission hung suspended in the safety of the dark as the colonel busied himself stuffing the hem of his shirt into his trousers. A frightened maid peered out from her door, clutching the front of her nightgown where the buttons had been torn.
She let out a squeak of alarm. The colonel’s head snapped up, and he fixed us, moustache working furiously.
“What it the meaning of this?” He took a thundering step toward us.
The bride fairly shoved Harry out of the way, and through the open door, I saw her sister caught in a slant of moonlight. Her hair had been braided, her skin washed. A chain circled her ankle and ran to a ring fixed to the floor. Already, she looked different, less.
“How dare you interfere with my family’s property? I shall raise the alarm. I—” The colonel’s blustering advance halted as suddenly as if he’d run into a wall.
Between one moment and the next, three shapes solidified from the shadows so I couldn’t tell whether they had always been there, or simply appeared – our hostess, her sister-in-law, and the colonel’s wife.
Before either Harry or I could see to the chain holding the captured bride, her sister had crossed the room and snapped it as though it were nothing.
“You can’t …” The colonel’s words ran out of steam almost as soon as he opened his mouth.
His wife laid a hand on his arm, and I swear I saw him tremble. Our hostess turned, gaze flicking once to the brides behind us before landing on me again.
Simple words, but they carried the power of a storm, relentlessly pounding the moor. Even supposedly tamed, I could hear the lashing, howling wind in her voice. Her eyes were black, fathomless, and despite the demure way she kept her lips closed, I knew her teeth were still sharp.
She bowed her head, and I could not see whether her expression glittered with hunger or shone with regret as she turned to stand shoulder to shoulder with her sisters, moving toward the colonel as one. All I knew was that I didn’t want to see what came next.
“Come on.” I grabbed Harry’s hand, trusting the brides to follow or make their own way free as I ran for the stairs.
Cecil no longer stood guard, and I hoped he’d followed my earlier advice and returned to bed where he could claim innocence. However, as Harry and I burst from the front door and onto the circular drive, we found Cecil waiting, a carriage and two horses ready.
“I took the liberty of procuring transportation.” His expression was wry, amusement pulled in a veneer over sorrow, despite his best efforts to keep it hidden. It took my breath away.
In this moment, my hand in Harry’s, warm palm against palm, Cecil thought he was losing me. I couldn’t say what the future would hold, only that I would not be welcome at Rotherdam any time soon, and perhaps never again in the world it represented. I let go of Harry’s hand, throwing my arms about my brother so I nearly unbalanced him. He staggered back, only my embrace keeping him from falling.
I kissed his cheek, then turned back to Harry. I had no right to expect anything, and my heart stuttered on hope in the instant before his hand landed in mine. He squeezed my hand once before taking the driver’s seat while I climbed inside.
Just before Harry cracked the whip and sent us galloping away, a scream echoed out from the upper reaches of Rotherdam Hall, followed by the keening sound of wind, though the night was utterly still. I thrilled and my blood ran cold. I vowed never to forget that sound - gruesome death and bloody vengeance rolled all into one.
Copyright © 2021 by A.C. Wise