Mischief Acts by Zoe Gilbert – Exclusive Extract

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The following is an exclusive extract from Zoe Gilbert’s latest offering, the wonderous Mischief Acts – thank you to Bloomsbury Books for allowing us to showcase this small taster from a book that we are sure will be on everyone reading list soon.

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H e r n e  T h e  H u n t e r

1392

Charm: If a hanged man swinging from a tree I see, this
is the song to bring him down and have him speak to me.

As in a dream, he woke.
He told us this. It was as if he dreamed.
A kind of fever, it seemed, a terror –
Or a chill delight, to watch, as we did, the great white
stag, silver in that magic hour –
The hour before night –
To watch it leap, almost fly, a great horned angel,
A demon, becoming, the dreadful churn of hooves as
it charged –
Charged our king.
Why was our king not on horseback?
He had slipped down to rest, to cool his heated thighs.
He had seen our man, before the rest of us, and wished
to greet him.
Dickie, the kind king, friend to all, had seen our man,
his favourite hunter,
Prized most of all, Herne the head hunter,
Whose absence that day had put us in gleeful mood.
For Dickie might have eyes for us, with Herne left at
home.
He might see us, nimble, swift,
Ruthless, full of grace, in the hunt,
Without the shadow of Herne casting us all into the
dark.
He was not such a fine hunter.
But fine in Dickie’s eyes.
And Dickie King. A king is sacred.
Perhaps the stag knew this, horned angel, then demon,
A silver charge across that leafy space, brown and gold
in sideways dropping sun that made us squint,
Made us see but not see,
Dickie raise a great, powerful arm,
In greeting to Herne, who was suddenly upon us,
having snuck out to the wood.
In greeting to the stag, which was suddenly upon him,
having leapt from the wood.
We saw, but did not see,
Herne’s leap.
Like a dark stag,
A shadow stag,
Betwixt –
Betwixt king and crown of antlers.
A crown not meant for our kind king.
Meant for Herne.
An act of brave self-sacrifice.
An act. He would be most beloved, not just as hunter,
but as saviour.
Cunning martyr.
As if we all dreamt it, standing with our eyes wide open,
Herne took the blow.
A sickening tear of cloth and flesh,
Leather hanging loose, and innard,
The stag rearing, turning, a miracle of strength,
rebuked,
And soon only a trail of silver,
Like smoke, gone through the trees.
Did Herne cry out, when he fell?
We heard and did not hear.
For it was Dickie’s shout, that rang out:
Beloved Herne!
All our stomachs turned at the one torn, and spilling,
now, on the ground at the king’s feet.
As he bent close, breath steaming,
It mingled with the steam of Herne, that rose up,
Almost as if his soul –
Some of the men sped after the stag, headlong,
Heads bent as they went under branches.
And while Herne gasped,
And Dickie gaped,
Breathing one another’s steam,
We heard the shouts, in the wood,
And we heard the hoot, the shriek.
He’s ours, they called.
We’d missed it. The chance of victory.
The chance to take Herne’s place, that was.
For we saw how he was fading,
His fingers all mired in the purple-brown that spilled,
And the king’s open mouth.
That was when Bearman came.
Bearman, whose magic sours the wood.
Bearman, whose sour countenance pleases no man.
No reason why a sorcerer should be near a hunt,
But here he came, from among the trees, his eyes as
wild as his mount’s.
The scene before him as if on a stage,
A stricken king, his finest hunter laid out,
Almost gone,
Honour and horror all in the air.
Bearman rode near and bent to Dickie’s ear.
A strange look came upon the king’s face.
He could not grow more pale, then, for he was white as
the stag already,
And he nodded, and gazed at Bearman with awe.
With fear.
This is our king. If it was fear, it was not for long.
Lift him, he ordered us, and pointed.
From my cloak, we made a kind of sling.
It had been a fine cloak, sacrificed. We lifted Herne in,
Without even a groan, for he knew not what we did, nor
any of the world around him now.
One at head, one at foot, we carried him, following
Bearman.
The light was sluggish by then. Dusk was nearly upon us,
So the gleam of the stag where it lay stood out against
the greying leaves.
That splendid cloak, we then must tear and use to bind
Herne’s middle,
To stop the spillage.
A foul job, but we were as if in a dream, in the darkening wood,
Which was quiet, as if it honoured the king’s grief.
Yet he did not hang his head.
His look was wild, as if the hunt were on and he sighted
his prey, seeing that he might win it.
He was watching Bearman,
Who stood at the stag’s head,
Small beside that beast.
Angel.
Demon.
Bearman raised an axe,
Swung it down without a sound,
Except the crack, the crunch,
As he hacked the antlers off.
Did the king not want that fine head for his hall?
Revenge for his favourite hunter, dead.
He only nodded, with that fevered look, then, stand
back, he said,
As Bearman dragged the antlers, one by one.
He laid them beside Herne.
Not beside, but at his head.
It was hard not to see, in the mind’s eye –
What might be. It was hard to believe we did not dream.
Dickie, our stricken king, muttered at Herne’s feet.
A prayer?
The wood darkened yet.
It was hard to see what Bearman did, his hands working
fast. Lifting Herne at the neck, binding,
Drawing the antlers in close and tight,
Winding, some tattered stuff,
Not rope, not cloth,
So that Herne’s head grew, his brow dark and deep,
The king muttering.
Bearman paused to swig from a flask which he then
held high.
Offering it to the king, we thought,
But no. Bearman poured from the flask some black
water.
It splashed on the antlers, the only things that showed
white now in the gloom.
Then he poured again,
Into Herne’s mouth,
Into his own,
And with his swallow made a choking noise,
We thought.
But no.
It was Herne who choked.
The king stumbled back.
He rested one heavy palm on my shoulder. I felt the
hard grip, and his noble weight as he leaned.
Herne grimaced.
Herne opened his eyes.

Mischief Acts is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

Zoe Gilbert

ZOE GILBERT is the winner of the Costa Short Story Award 2014. Her work has appeared on BBC Radio 4, and in anthology and journals in the UK and internationally. She has taken part in writing projects in China and South Korea for the British Council, and she is completing a PhD on folk talesin contemporary fiction. The co-founder of London Lit Lab, which provides writing courses and mentoring for writers, she lives on the coast in Kent.
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