A Christmas excerpt from Fortune’s Hand (1)

The Palace of Whitehall is all decked out in green, hung with sprigs of holly, ivy, spruce and pine. A resinous scent conjures forth the forest in its wintergreen glory. As if the forest has brought itself inside for us. And the hunting scenes depicted on the hanging tapestries are in the process of coming to life.

I move among the boughs of an enchanted woodland, towards the music. Conifer needles crunch beneath my tread, strewn over the reed mats. In the candlelit flicker, dim presences flit in and out of my vision. I almost believe I can hear the clip of cloven hooves. The conviction takes root that there is a stag wandering the palace corridors. Its antlers throw tangled shapes onto the walls. At least that is how I interpret the eerie shadows I see there. My heart beats in time with the heavy tambour rhythm.

I imagine myself armed with a crossbow, hunting down the stag. But the image is not entirely apt. I am no longer the hunter in search of a target. I have shot my bolt and killed the finest beast in the forest. My task now is merely to gather up my fallen prey, to claim my reward.

But if I have killed the prey, why do I still hear its hoof steps echo?

I must hold my head angled upwards to see my way, and fully turn my head if I wish to look to the left or the right. Otherwise the fabric of my mask obscures my vision. It turns the floor into a black void into which I fear to tread.

Strange sounds come to me out of the encompassing blackness, sounds other than the clip of the phantom buck and the pulse of the music. Whispered insults, hissed slurs, the click of disapproving tongues.

‘Butcher!’

‘Shame on you!’

‘Monster!’ So, despite my mask for the revels, they know me for who I am.

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