“Nearly the end of summer,” said the mistress of the tavern, to no one in particular, as she heaved another log on the fire. She gathered her shawl around her shoulders and watched her girls weave among the split-log tables and rough wooden chairs to serve drinks to the thirsty men.
The old man sat where he usually sat, on a simple wooden stool in a dark corner, his pewter cup balanced on his knee. The nobleman sat in a cushioned chair at the biggest table in the tavern, the tavernkeeper fawning over him, the wenches waiting to serve him, his men hanging on his every word. He held a bottle in his right hand, and he waved it around as he spoke.
“. . . it was massive—and it ran like the wind! And golden! Golden like a coin in the sun! Ah, if I hadn’t taken that path alone, you all would have seen it, too!”
The old man nodded his head and softly muttered something.
The nobleman continued. “. . . And so I followed, into the deep brush, leaving my horse to fend for himself! I sought him alone, just my spear in my hand, my sword at my belt!”
“Her,” muttered the old man. “Sow.”
“. . . And I had him cornered! I had him cornered against the rocks! But just as I raised my spear for the kill—he charged me! I thought I was dead! So I threw my spear, hard as I could, and I hit him! I hit the Golden Boar! But he ran past me into the woods!”
“No, you didn’t,” muttered the old man. He raised his cup to his mouth, slopping some whiskey on his pants.
“What did you say? What did you say!” The nobleman cast his gaze into the dark corner, as did his men, the tavernkeeper, and even the wenches.
“I said, that is a noble feat, to chase the Golden Boar. And to hit her with your spear? That is a very rare deed. A rare deed, noble sir.”
“What would you know about it, Grandfather?” asked the tavernkeeper. “All spring and summer long you sit in your cups, until the weather turns and you go to your lonely hut in the forest. When did you ever hunt a mouse, let alone the Golden Boar?”
The nobleman laughed, his men laughed too, and the wenches laughed even harder.
“That may be true,” muttered the old man. “That all may be true.”
“May be true? You look like you might have a story to tell us, Grandfather,” said the nobleman. He waved his bottle aloft. “Tell on! Tell on!”
The old man in the dark corner emptied his cup and set it on the floor. He turned to face them.
His eyes looked first at the nobleman, then at his men, then the tavernkeeper and the wenches. He leaned his head back against the wall.
“Perhaps I will,” he said, his voice rising. “Perhaps I will tell you all why I have lived alone, tell you why I disappear when the days begin to wane, where I go when I see the leaves start to color and close on themselves like bloody fists, when the dirt on the ground smells like life abandoned.
“But, first, yes first, you must buy me another drink, noble sir. Buy a drink for the old drunk!”
The firelight flickered, the nobleman nodded to the tavernkeeper, the tavernkeeper nodded to the wenches, and the wench with the red hair took a bottle from behind the bar and refilled the old drunk’s cup. The mistress of the tavern turned her chair from the fire to listen.
“I was in the prime of my youth.”
The old man leaned forward, lifted his cup to his mouth, swallowed, then continued.
“I was young and strong, much like you. I could throw a spear like a soldier, lift a hammer like a smith, wield a sword like a prince of the realm. And the ladies, the ladies loved me. I had coins in my pockets, fine clothes on my back, a solid house, and a fine horse. I had strong bones and a thick head of hair. Never think the old were always so, children. The old were once as young as you.
“I had been with my friends, out hunting, all strong young men, but somehow I found myself alone, like you were, sir. Have you ever seen a wolf separate a young lamb from the herd? I’m not suggesting that I was a lamb—nor you, sir, of course, not you—but that is very like the manner she hunts. . . .
“As you hunt her, she hunts you. She is a killer. The previous year, she had killed two of my men—two men I had known all my life. On this fine autumn day, the sky as blue as starflower, I was determined to end her life.”
He had their attention now.
“When she smells men in her wood, she begins her dance. She’ll come close enough to seduce you: a rustle in the bushes—was that a deer? But she’ll stay far enough away, keep herself almost hidden, tease you until she’s alone with you. A broken branch, and maybe some skat, and you think you’re on her trail. You! The mighty hunter!
“But you’re not. No, you’re straying slowly into her trap.
“And so I found myself alone, examining an arc of stiff, short, golden bristles standing out like a golden necklace against the white trunk of an old dead tree. ‘She’s passed here!’ I thought, congratulating myself on my skills.
“Leaving my horse harnessed to a nearby hawthorn, I took my spear and I walked carefully, quietly through the forest, her forest, looking for more signs.
“She’s such a large beast. Massive. You could see where she’d gone like a warhorse through a stand of bushes. And fool that I was, I had no dogs, even. No one to back me up. But in I went.
“It was so still; the birds were silent, not a sound but my own boots in the leaves. My heart started beating faster—was that a flash of gold? Shining in the sunlight? Toward that thick stand of young willow? I crept slowly. She didn’t move. When I was about five feet away, with a great thunder she bolted through the branches. I lifted my spear and ran forward—I had her!
“I burst through the willows into a clearing, only to find that she had disappeared. I circled, searching, my spear balanced above my shoulder.
“She came from behind me; I only stepped away in time, her tusks grazing my side. I turned and went to throw my spear, but again she was gone. I was afraid she’d escaped. I didn’t realize escape was the last thing on her mind. I circled around again, straining my senses for any sign of her, any sign at all—a sound, a glimpse of gold—before I found her, low to the ground, watching me. She rose, stood there, like she was sizing me up.
“A hunter looks into the eyes of the beast he hunts; he chooses when and where he’ll put the edged point in, what angle to hold the shaft. It takes seconds, or maybe only one second, before he puts all his strength behind it and throws. I never had the chance.
“She turned and bolted. I ran as hard and fast as I could to where she had been. I wanted her! And she was waiting. Yes, she was waiting. Because she had dug a hole in the ground, a hole to trip my feet.
“I went down hard. My spear flew from my hands. I rose up as fast as I could, knowing that this could be very bad. I saw I was in a circle of boulders, no way out now, except past her.
“My spear was in the dry dead leaves, a few yards from where I’d stumbled, its tip caught in the rocks. She was already past it, lumbering toward me, her huge head swinging from side to side. I backed up against a tall oak, my fingers scraping against the deep dry rivers in the bark.
“She pawed the ground, snorting, growling.
“I tried to move around the tree, but I was blocked by a tall, wide stone. I swear she grinned, then she rushed me, gathering speed, a lumbering, easy charge, strings of saliva dripping from her thick pink lips—and, terrified, I braced for the weight, and the sting and rip of her tusks and her jaws—but she slowed a few feet from me, staring . . . and again she stopped.
“Suddenly she reared up! Her tusks level with my face, she stood balanced on her hind legs somehow, some strange fey way. She shook her head sideways, shook her body, and . . . sir, she changed! She changed in a blur of forest dust and golden skin and hair. And this I swear: I was looking into the face of a woman.
“Before my eyes, her bulky, muscular body melted, and her snout condensed to a small human nose. Her stiff hair faded away, and upon her head rested a golden crown of curls. Her pupils were dark, but her face was as pale as a candleflame and fairer than any I had ever seen. Yet, from her lips two sharp tusks still curled upward. Her skin was smooth and supple, her legs long and taut, and as her arms reached out to me, I saw that she still had a sow’s chest, three pairs of breasts like six small pink apples with tight brown nipples as stiff as stems.
“I stood there, stunned, unable to move. She leaned forward, like she was for a moment unused to the balance it took to stand upright; she fell toward me, her arms outstretched on either side of me against the tree. Her breath was sweet, like overripe pears and mown grass. Her lips were on mine before I could think. Twin pinpricks drew scratches across my cheeks. Her elbows collapsed and she brought her body closer; she felt so warm and soft, smelled so musky, and she tasted of sweet cool streams, moss and clover, rich blood and dark black dirt.
“She drew me to the ground, shifting her weight uneasily, nearly falling sideways with me. Straddling me, she tore open the laces of my shirt and pulled at my belt. I hooked my thumbs under my trousers and pulled them down. Even in my terror, I knew what she wanted.
“She gazed down and smiled, then she ran her hands along my chest and up and down my shoulders and arms.
“I couldn’t stop myself. I cupped her breasts, first one, then another, then another, yet another, my thumbs slipping under the roundness of another, my fingers circling a long hard brown nipple. And then another. So many! I rose to kiss her again.
“She bent her head to suck my chest and left long bloody scratches across my ribs. Then she slid a hand between her legs and straightened my manhood and impaled herself on me, groaning, writhing, and moving slowly on top of me, down and closer to me, until my arms were tight around her and she was breathing into my ear, gasping, snorting, grunting as her hips moved against mine.
“Gods, we moved like that through all the seasons, I swear. Through winter, spring, and summer. We moved and the forest grew to life around us and bloomed and enveloped us until it withered and fell and died. I came in a scalding rush, like she had stripped my shaft raw. I didn’t know if I was pumping blood or salt. She kept rocking above me until I felt the ground beneath us turn to mud.
“Then she stopped and, still breathing hard, lay quietly on me.
“After a while, her breathing slowed, became more rhythmic. We lay beneath the oak, its roots tangled and hard beneath my back, and I could see the sky was still clear and blue up above. Was it even the same year, the same day?
“I ran my hand up and down her back, caught my fingers in her hair. I reached for her hands and cut myself. They were gone; hard hooves had returned. Her face, near me, grew longer, and her soft skin began to pinch and poke. I gently rolled her beside me and watched as she changed back to what she was. My lover was going away, and yet, here she still lay. I took off my shirt and draped it over her back and watched as it rose up, soon too small to cover her.
“I retrieved my spear, still jammed upright in the hole in the rocks past where I’d fallen. Then I sat against the oak and waited.
“Before long, I could see muscles moving along the length of her body. Then she began to thrash her head from side to side. She rose up and turned and rooted her nose in the mud where our juices had mingled. Then she saw me.
“She gazed at me for a very long time. I sat, holding my spear tightly in my hand. Finally, she came closer, head lowered. I wasn’t sure if she would charge me. And she couldn’t know that I wouldn’t plunge my spear into her throat. But she came to me and sat in front of me, her breath in my face scenting the air. I reached out my hand to caress her cheek. She turned, and trotted slowly into the forest, and I followed.
“Soon we were in the deepest groves, weaving around the tallest trees; their shadows enveloped us as the light above rapidly faded. We came to a small hill, and I instinctively moved to go around it, but she kept trotting straight ahead. She didn’t go over the hill, she went into it, under it, and still I followed.
“It was night under the hill, suddenly dark, but I could hear her in front of me, her hooves, her breathing, and I didn’t falter. A dim golden light teased at the edges of my vision. I kept shaking my head, not understanding what it was. The light grew larger, brighter, and I looked around in wonder, and looking ahead of me, I saw she walked upright, naked and proud. She turned her head, and her face was that of a woman again, the pale skin, the tusks, even, but upon her soft hair was a dusting of glittering stars.
“I may be an old man, sitting here now, a withered and bent fool who spends too much time in his cups, but I would not barter a single moment I spent with her under that hill. I have seen the world above and the world below, and my heart still beats fast when I change in the deep woods and run with her, hoof to stamping hoof, tusk to sharp bloody tusk. There I wear dead leaves in my hair, and I shall be young in every autumn until the day I die.”
The tavern was silent as each man reached for his mug, even those whose mugs were empty.
Then the nobleman smiled and stabbed his finger at the old man. “What a funny story, a true fairy tale. But if even if it is true, know this: Know that if I see you—or her—I won’t think twice before I throw my spear!”
His men laughed, more drinks were ordered, and the young world went on its way.
The old man muttered something no one heard.
The mistress of the tavern shivered and stared at the fire.