We are delighted to share King Kenry by Kerry Andrew, one of four shortlisted stories of The Space Crone Prize for speculative and science short fiction. The special one-off prize, established by Silver Press in collaboration with The Ursula K. Le Guin Literary Trust, celebrated the publication of Space Crone by Ursula K. Le Guin, a selection of writings edited by So Mayer and Sarah Shin.
The winner and shortlist were announced at Burley Fisher Books’ BFDay23 on Friday 22 September 2023. The winner and shortlist were chosen by a selection panel including Sophia Al Maria, India Downes-Le Guin, So Mayer, Una McCormack, Josie Mitchell, Nisha Ramayya, Sarah Shin, Angelique Tran Van Sang and Isabel Waidner. The winning entries, by Fer Boyd and runner-up E de Zulueta, can be read here.
It’s time to hunt the hart.
The flanks of the horses glisten. Cold air-clouds ride just ahead of our shouts.
A sallow day. Mist, holding all the stories our mothers told us at night, is wreathing amongst the oaks. The call from the curling horn is a dampened sun.
Today? Durwyn had said. Can we not rest awhile?
Today, I said. And a my lord wouldn’t go amiss.
My goshawk’s eye is the brightest thing for many miles. She shall not hunt today, but her streaked brow and keen look bring me strength.
There. A fleeting breath of deer. I feel their shivers in the thin skin beneath my eye. Deer the same colour as this mist-wood, a brown that is grey, a grey that is brown. Here, then not. A dream of deer.
But my men and women are skilled and fast. Our hounds a coursing river, a quickening of lust and blood. A snap, a call and they set flight their lungs and legs, my hawk their shadow. The roes begin to split up, and Avery’s steed twists and he falls as I overtake him, and the great one is there, all bulk and heft, trees sprouting from his ears, and I leave the others and follow in his wake, grip my thighs onto my mare, let my arrow sing.
Sing it does, into the haunch. The buck flinches, turns, thunders lengthways into a hollow. It is enough. I slide off Sorrel, take the knife from my calf, slit its throat. I bloody my hands, wipe the hot iron-stink across both of my cheeks. Crouch. Hold his haunch.
Life, ebbing. The trunk of the beast is as thick as oak, burnished. Warm. The eyes grow dull.
Herne, I say, though I know it is not him. My greatest hunter, more wood than wood. Gored by an antler, bested by deer. Looking at me with a child’s fear in his eyes, then earth-stillness settling like a blanket. I have seen him in every stag since.
Sweet shot, says Durwyn, panting. Thought you were too old for this.
Not yet, I say.
There is a scream from behind us.
The boy? I say.
Bone broke clean through the skin, Durwyn says. He’ll live.
I bloody his forehead. He grins.
A rumble, and we both look up.
A storm’s coming.
It is late, and too far to ride back. There is talk of a hunting hall, at the northern edge. The stag is held high, flanked by four does. Shouts for my luck. I smile, look at the sky, which is darkening by the heartbeat. A memory of the hounds in the wind.
Only two maids at the hall, looking sour, but we make good cheer, find what we need. A feast-table, the lungs and liver and heart offered to me first. We drink ale, piss-thin. Bread past its best. We laud our gods, and my men and women sing to me through bloodied mouths. Stop only for a blink at the roar of thunder.
Your room’s ready when you want it, Durwyn says, in my ear.
I nod, happy to hear the old ballads stretching to the top-beams, and beckon for more ale.
The stag-meat is rich, fire-roasted. I taste Herne on my tongue.
The wood-walls rattle. Rain like upturned bags of nails on the roof.
Thunor’s not happy, Durwyn says.
I know, even then, that it is not Thunor. The darkening on my heart presses deeper, like a great thumb.
Someone uses the table as a drum, with a fist and a flat hand. The songs loosen.
Then – the earth shakes. Not a dream, though I have had many of this kind, not a trembling in one’s own bones, but the stirring of mud and roots and boards beneath our feet. The songs blunt in our mouths.
The strike of a door, slamming against the wall.
Frig’s bones, says Durwyn, and his face turns to ash.
I turn, and see what he sees.
No god can guard us from this.
A thing almost as high as the rafters, as broad as two stags, stamping on the ground as if this is their home. Rain coming off them in iron sheets. One from the underland.
We need to go, says Durwyn, in my ear. Now.
All the others have fled, as quick as thought. The horses are whinnying outside.
I stay still. This is my hall, my lands.
A thing that speaks only of death, standing in the doorway. Teeth like runes. A nose hammered into a boulder. Jaw like a blade. They are not-quite-here.
My blood is ice. And yet. Show kindness with your last breath, my mother had always said.
Come, I say. My home is yours.
Woden’s blood, says Durwyn in a whisper. I’m sorry, my lord.
He’s the last to leave, and I hear the horses’ hooves soften into the storm, die away.
Nothing but I and this foreteller of death, staring at me.
Come, I say again.
The stench of open wounds, offal, rot. Dun-coloured hair hangs in dank ropes. Their eyes are two arrowheads in my chest.
I take off my cloak. Warm yourself, I say.
A hair-creeping stillness. I wonder if they know man’s words.
They step forward, and the hall rocks. A wooden beam splits open. They take my cloak, wipe their face. Toss it aside.
Meat, they say. An utterance like none on earth, that works into my body, scrapes against my skull. You’ll give me meat.
Ay, I say. And you’re welcome to it. I wave at the skinned stag on the table.
They stumble over, set upon it as a pack of wolves, a field of ravens. Meat, sinew, guts, bone, nothing left but the hide. It takes only a few breaths.
They righten, and the winter grips me, for I know they are not sated.
More meat, they say.
There are others, I say, and nod to the back of the hall.
It takes time, a king in his five-and-fortieth summer dragging four deer like oat sacks. The rasp of them along the boards.
I watch as they eat each in turn, every bit. Meat, sinew, guts, bone.
More meat, they say.
I have no more, I say.
They stamp one foot on the ground. A rafter rips from above my head, flies off into the night. You have more, they say.
I swallow. They cannot mean it. The only meat is not yet dead.
Give guests all you have, my mother had said.
I bring Hild over to them. Stroke the hooded head, whisper words. My fleet arrow, my soul-in-the-air. Hold out my hand.
One gulp, and she is gone. I hear the neck break.
If I had any, it would be yours.
A stamp, and timbers shake free their nails. Rain is coming through the roof now.
You have more.
Kindness, always, my mother had said.
I bring in the hounds. They are first blithe, interested, then gather together, whimpering like tall pines in a gale. Gone, and gone, and gone again. Hound after hound, lost into the black mouth. Their skins dropped like cloths.
There is nothing left, I say. I think of Sorrel, tethered to the post outside, steadfast.
You have more.
The stamp, and the wood jolts on every side of the hall. More strips of night.
I go outside, to the wolf-wind and the shards of rain. My mare is snickering, blows heat onto my hand. I am so sorry, I say to her. Brush her sleek neck with my fingers. She is as good as a wife.
I draw her inside, and watch her legs crack and her ghost fly, and give thanks for her quick death. They have left her long golden mane, her shimmering hide.
Ay, I say. My hands shake as I tip wine into a horn cup.
That is too small.
I have nothing greater.
The death-thing looks at my mare’s hide on the ground.
My good-hearted lad, my mother always said, a hand on my hair. You are your father’s son.
I go the maids’ room, fetch needle and the thickest thread. I sew part of the hide into a bowl, my fingers not my own anymore, my mind neither.
I let flood every flagon, fill the hide to the brim. They drink.
Ay. I lead the way to my room, as the hall shudders around us. Durwyn had set candles, furs, a bowl of water with elder oil.
It is yours, I say, and pack my cloak on the pallet to make a pillow.
The thing heaves themselves down, a groan that is the earth’s long death.
Take off your clothes. Lie with me.
I drop my chin to my chest. I see Herne, sliding out of bed, finger to his lips. Saying, there’s more gold in you than these rings on your fingers, my Henry. The long bone-gleam of him as he dressed.
I taste my breaths, for I know these will be my last. That I cannot do, I say.
The thing does not strip me clean, splinter my limbs, leave nothing but my ghost-skin. There is a shine in one eye that I think to be hunger. But it rounds, and glints, and rolls down their cheek. Hits the ground like a stone. Their mouth opens, and I see the blackish tongue. They seem to want to speak, yet nothing comes.
My heart opens, as it always does.
Very well, I say.
I take off my clothes and lie down. The bed is tilted so far I tumble into them. The reek of copper, the hairs of my mare about their lips. They look at my scars, the blackberry wine-mark with which I was born.
They put their hands on me, and I let them.
I sleep deeply. I have no dreams of deer or earth-shake. When I wake, it is not to the endless underland.
A person lies beside me. A little smaller than myself, with a neckbone that juts like a shield. As naked as I. A tumble of rust-and-flax curls and a bold, clean jaw.
They wake. Their eyes, as green as the sea when the light shines upon it, widen. There is the tear-glint I saw last night, though now it rings true.
This is a dream, I say.
No dream, they say, and roll onto their back, stare up at the split roof. The bird’s egg blue of the sky, skittish clouds. They spread their fingers, look at them as if trying to understand. They breathe like a newborn bairn.
I am a knight, they say, and I see the truth in the shape of their sword arm. They tell me of speaking against the father’s new wife, her curse. How this blessed body would not return until the head of a house gave meat, drink, their bed and their all.
Ah, I say.
Seven years, they say. Holdings fleeing at the sight of me. Some gave meat, some drink. Some even gave their houses, their wives and children, though I did not want them. But none lay with me. Why did you?
My mother, I say.
A hand, cool and sure, on my side. I am so sorry, they say. Your hawk. Your mare. It was not me.
Herne is not here. He would think well on them.
Do not dwell on it, I say, and rest my hand on their cheek. Tell me. How long will you stay?
Sea-green eyes. Curl of careful smile. As long as you will have me.
‘Til all my days are past, then, I say.
‘Til all your days are past.
King Henry (Child: 32) is a traditional ‘loathly lady’ ballad with a probably always-fictional king. It has links to the English Arthurian ballad ‘The Marriage of Sir Gawain’, and the Scottish ballad ‘The Daughter of King Under-Waves’.