Renaissance, short stories, Subjects for discussion

Wilding – an ancient tale for modern times

During the Renaissance, the myths of classical Greece and Rome entertained and inspired artists, poets, playwrights and in particular, Titian who used them to create a series of paintings for Philip II of Spain’s private camerino in Madrid during the 1550s.

Today, these myths and legends still inspire those with a creative mind. Loosley based on Ovid’s rendition of the tale of Diane & Actaeon in his Metamorphoses, and inspired by Titian’s painting, The Death of Actaeon (1559. NG, London) Elaine Currie’s story, Wilding, will, I hope, engage you in these days of pandemic lockdown. It is not for late night reading!

WILDING

“Are you OK?” she asked. “You look pale.”

Probably,” I thought. I didn’t do small spaces, or small projects, or small cars, and here I was stuck in a tiny, hired town car in the middle of a downpour, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the afternoon, though it was black enough to be night. We were driving west, catching the tail of a weather front heading east, and all I could see was the deluge coming down clashing with the surface water rebounding up; the whole watery hell reflecting the tail lights and head lights of our car and those around us in a fuzzy, orange glow.

Her hand closed over mine so I looked in her direction just in time to see that smile, the one overriding thing that had attracted me to her in the first place. Not her elegance or passion or sleek blond bob, no, it was the smile expressing everything I could not say. ‘HelloYou’re beautifulSo confident. I fancy you.’ Only now it was tinged with sadness.

“I’m fine,” I said. “We’re fine.”

“We’re almost there,” she said as the rain flowed away into puddles and garish reflections, and as she changed gear. Sure enough, veering left onto smaller and smaller roads, we were soon looking out for quirky village names and clues to our destination, at last seeing the lights of our weekend hotel set against the glories of the setting sun. A safe haven as much as a four star stop over, we had chosen this place to bring us, if not back together, at least to reconciliation. As we drove up to the carved stone porch, a man half hidden under an umbrella hurried out to meet us, his broad accent warm and soft as he welcomed us in. Behind me my personal worries faded with the retreating clouds.

“Why don’t you go through to the snug?” the man was saying. “There’re plenty of seats around the fire in the grate, and you’ll be the first guests to arrive, so take your pick while we park your car for you.” Keys chinked in his palm as Diane took a step towards a broad, open door. “I’ll see that your luggage is taken to your rooms,” then he was gone, dashing towards the car with another man close behind.

“I’m leaving.”

That was how it had started seven months back.

“The project,” she clarified.

I relaxed a little, or enough to continue pouring myself a beer. “I thought you liked working with us.”

“I do. It’s just…” Putting her own drink down she walked briskly across to the glass doors that led onto the balcony. “Don’t you ever get fed up with that?” ‘That’ was the ever expanding metropolis of greater London, the early spring sunshine highlighting a million shades of grey while flashing quicksilver glances off the sullen river Thames. “And don’t tell me ‘no’. It’s constricting, overpowering, with its ancient alleys choked with history and its broad thoroughfares clogged with people. You try, I’ll give you that, with your vertical gardens and roof top terraces, but the city doesn’t want to know. What was the last big project you worked on? That bridge across the river? I told you it wouldn’t work out. The only wildlife crossing that bridge at night would be rats, foxes and drunken partygoers. Who knows what you’d find in the bushes in the morning? Why won’t you broaden your horizons?”

I let her go on. This was old territory. 

“So, I’ve been approached.”

This wasn’t. “Who by?” I asked, too quickly. “Tina, George, that bunch of old timers down at…”

“As if,” she interrupted. “They’ve not got an original idea between them. No, it’s a start up. Old money looking to be poured into a local, to them, rural development scheme. They visualise a high tech twist on back-to-basics philanthropy. According to my contact they need someone who knows their way around, who can get things actioned and turn aspirations into reality.”

“And they picked on you.” We both understood that I was goading her. 

“They would like it to be us. Come on, this place must be worth millions by now. We could sell up, move out, buy somewhere less pretentious. Re-wilding is the latest big thing environmentally. It combines my technical and managerial skills with my broader interests. And I’m keen to be in at the start.”

Of course, her environmental qualifications. Who doesn’t want to change the world? “Where are you thinking of?”

“The West Country.”

“And I’d commute would I?”

The flow of words stopped. “You could down-size to a pied-a-terre, here,” she said. Then, as I turned towards the kitchen, her quiet voice threw her final ultimatum at my back, “I am qualified to start my own business.”

“Just like that?”

And that was it. Reality caught up with her as she realised what she’d said. It was my salary that paid for this place, my international architect’s business that paid my salary and hers. It had taken years for the firm to get established, copious investment to become a known name, and ongoing networking to be taken seriously. “So, I’ll buy out Rex shall I?” This was my long term business partner, a wide boy turned king pin and a man vocally uninterested in small niche projects.

My tone of voice must have got through, seeing as how Diane didn’t speak to me for the rest of the day. 

“Neither the title ‘snug’, nor the description of ‘a fire in the grate’, did justice to the room we walked into. Large, spacious, scattered with red and gold rugs and wing backed leather chairs, ‘Baronial’ would have described it better. As for ‘grate’, well, the outer fire surround was a mellow stone copy of the arched porch protecting the front door from the elements, and nestling inside that was a smaller, plainer version still large enough to roast a hog in. The fire, refusing to be intimidated, was a crackling blaze of sturdy logs.

“How sweet, there’s an honesty bar.” Across the room Diane was leaning on a polished counter, staring, fascinated, between an open book and the selection of spirits lining the wall. “All you have to do is write in what you’ve helped yourself to, and your room name. If you can remember it. Wow,” she said, pointing at a bottle of single malt and lowering her voice to a whisper, “You know how much that is a shot, well whoever was staying in the Pheasants room last night has got through half a bottle of it.” 

A whisky man myself I knew how much it cost in central London and doubted I’d be shocked by prices out here. Having turned my back to the fire, and left Diane to her snooping, I took in the rest of the room. Opposite the bar, and hidden from view as you entered the snug, was a memento of times past, and, seeing as it was the motif on their website, something that I should have been expecting. 

Big, beautiful and terrifyingly real above a brace of crossed swords, was a stuffed stag’s head, its many branched antlers taking up more room than my arms would stretch. Unexpectedly, a lump formed in my throat as it reminded me of home.

“This place lacks colour,” had been Diane’s one and only comment on my furnishings when she eventually hired out her tiny flat in Islington, joining me in mine about three years ago. We had met in Italy amongst the crackling pine forest surrounding a luxury spa complex east of Rome, her skin and hair damp from swimming, mine dusty and hot from a run around the goat tracks and shepherds’ trails that encircled the local hills. Early morning sunlight shaped a golden aura around her body, while I stood, panting and sweating and in her way. That she spoke to me seemed a miracle at the time. That we got on so well, so quickly seemed beyond belief. The goddess and the nerd, how did that happen?

Her moving in had involved me giving up some wardrobe space and her struggling to keep the place as surgically tidy as a human could manage. Rex had ribbed me about ‘a woman’s touch’ so I was living in fear of a rash of fluffy cushions, or a spot of un-wiped grease on my pristine black hob. The one I never used. Instead I acquired a quietly understated, sophisticated accessory to the sofa, an eloquent companion at the breakfast bar, and a keenly competitive gamer for nights in. My friends were impressed. In our office, or on site, so were my clients. And, unable to believe my luck, so was I.

“You need a focal point there, at the head of the table.” 

The table was one large slice of oak balanced on industrial, metal legs. Above it a wasp nest inspired LED chandelier added a delicate balance. So, what to put on the wall? I trawled the glass fronted artisan shops surrounding the market, searched the Web for inspiration, finding what I wanted in a pop up art gallery out past the Shard. 

“It’s perfect,” she said, brushing her fingers over the seed pearls shimmering down the stag skull’s long, straight, bony nose. 

“Inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. I didn’t know how you’d react.”

“We eat venison don’t we?”

That night a ritual was born. Over venison steak I raised a full bodied red to, “The founder of the feast.”

“To the wild within,” she replied.

“Oh, they have one here.” Her voice, behind my shoulder, woke me from my reverie. “A country cousin.” Reaching up Diane ran her fingers down the short, dusty fur between the stuffed stag’s glass eyes. That was easy enough for her, she had a good couple of inches on me. More if she was wearing heels designed to impress. 

“What are the swords for? I thought that was a Scottish thing,” I asked.

“They’re to kill the stag. The hounds chase the deer until it’s exhausted, those heavy antlers weighing the head down. At last it will turn at bay, using its antlers as weapons of last defence as the dogs try to drag it to the ground. Then a man goes in, with those swords, and ends its suffering.”

“They don’t do that now do they?”

“Not legally.”

“But we do cull them,” said a voice from the door, “or they would starve come winter.” It was the manager with a gaggle of new arrivals behind him. “And, if you would follow me, your rooms are ready. We have one specifically named for you,” he said, smiling at Diane. “Honouring our favourite goddess.”

“And me? Not Saint Anthony, beset by temptations?”

“No, Saint Eustace, patron saint of hunting. Not quite a match, but I hope you’ll like it.” 

He led the way up broad, carpeted stairs, opening a door onto a room full of hunting scenes for me, before leading her further down the corridor to something prettier I guessed. Separate rooms. That was telling me something. Sitting on the edge of the bed I stared at the prints. The goddess Diana was a huntress too. If Di’s room was as subtle as this neither of us would sleep tonight.

I’d asked her once what she saw in me. 

“Sturdy legs, glossy brown hair,” she’d said as she’d riffled her fingers through what was left of it, “and shiny, shiny eyes when you are happy.” 

They’d been shining then, but not now. Now I thought back to the cold, glass stare of the beast in the snug, feeling an unholy sadness, and maybe a little guilt. “Enough to make you give up venison,” I said to myself. But it was on the menu that night with me tucking into the red meat while she chose the vegetarian option.

The next day she was down for breakfast before me, chatting with the manager as if they were old friends. 

“Brampton suggests we make the most of the sunshine and look around town. We could view the prospective site this afternoon.”

So we did, ambling along what passed as the High Street with its gaggle of butcher, baker, Make & Mend craft and furniture shop, micro brewery and farm produce store. There was the obligatory pub, and the quaint, pocket sized Anglo Saxon church, Saint Eustace, where we admired the elegantly carved rood screen and late addition stained glass windows. Now we were standing outside gazing up at the grotesquely carved stone corbels holding up the roof. Two in particular were under discussion.

“St Eustace’s deer and the Green Man. Hunting and nature worship. The images are everywhere from the inn sign to the quilts in the craft shop. Even the local beer is themed.”

“Even the rooms,” I muttered.

“Um. Then there’s the book shop’s extensive local history section. Folk law, rituals, archaeological finds. They were very keen on Roman mythology, said there was a Roman villa around here somewhere.” She was still staring upwards. “That was an interesting example they gave on how a story evolves as it travels between cultures.”

“The story of Actaeon? It’s possible. Started off Greek, became Roman. They spread it throughout their empire. Resurgence during the Enlightenment.” Looking at her sideways I could imagine what a Muse she would make for some Old Master. “Bit of a leap to Saint Eustace’s deer though.”

Still her eyes gazed at the ancient stone carvings. “The Dark Ages.”

“Of course,” she’d gone straight to the heart of it, “Christianity poured itself into a vacuum, glossing over the pagan world. Out goes the strong female deity, in comes the Christian martyr.  The hunter still hunts.” I glanced towards the yew trees surrounding the church. Old religions never truly die and the Green Man’s been here since the ice age.  “Go back far enough and deer would have been sacred, even if hunted.”

She turned towards me then, her gaze fixed, staring at me as if I had spoken something profound. As if I had hidden depths she’d never noticed before. For a moment I saw her differently. Her blue eyes, the colour of the sky, looked hollow, her sun bronzed face nothing but a mask in a Greek play. Inhaling sharply caused her to blink, bringing back a softer face and a playful smile.  “Come on,” she said. “Time for work.”

At Brampton’s insistence we borrowed the hotel’s Land Rover, picked up a packed lunch, and set off to explore the hills and dells of this dramatic county. Diane was quiet, focused on taking notes and photos, recording her thoughts on potential opportunities while including me whenever she remembered to. At one point we saw a crow mobbing a tawny owl, a feather floating down to land at Diane’s feet as it flew away. I’d never seen her look so serene, so lost in her surroundings.

“What do you think of this wood?” She asked me. “Perfect for coppicing and pheasant rearing.” Then, “There’s a river further down.” That smile was back, cheeky now. “How do you feel about beavers?”

“Industrious little beasties and on the increase.”

“And what sort of accent is that meant to be?”

After that we walked downhill in silence, until the land flattened out. “Ideal,” I said. “Dams here would save on flooding downstream.”

“Which is where you and Rex would come in, building an ecologically sustainable village in an area desperate for housing, with the latest inter-connective communication links allowing people to work from home.” Looking at me sideways she pulled a face mimicking a mutual competitor’s distinctive voice, “I’m thinking, apprentice schemes with master craftsmen. High tech meets trad skill sets.”

“Back to the future.”

“Sort of,” she acknowledged. Turning her back on me she took a few strides along the river bank towards a stone built bridge. “I know,” she said. “It’s not what you do. Not splashy enough.”

“You want us to build mud huts?”

“To do more than throw up another glass needle that sits empty and bright, scratching impotently at the sky just to satisfy your ego.”

Ouch. We both took deep breaths.

“Things have to change,” she told me. “We could be the initiators here, show people a modern, sustainable, desirable way of living. Work with nature. Make it sexy. Prove it’s doable.” With a twist of her mouth her voice changed again, bordering on sarcasm, “Glass and steel, it’s so yesterday don’t you think?” Her eyes met mine, serious and sad. “Your company name would add kudos, true, but that’s all. I don’t need your money. I have the backers I need. This is an offering. It’s up to you whether you buy in or not.”

And there it was. My one-upmanship had been trumped. She didn’t need me, my money or my company’s backing. Bluntly put, how much did I need her?

“Hallo. Miss Graf?” From the bow of the bridge a man in a waxed jacket was waving both arms to get our attention. “John Halt. Forester. Glad you could make it.”

Things didn’t get any easier. We spent an hour talking through species re-introductions and habitat loss, took in John’s extensive knowledge of flood plains and rain shadows, discussed tourist potential and demographics. Di was at her best, simultaneously professional and friendly. I was lagging behind, my heart not in it. I tried contacting Rex, remembering there was a contract we were hanging on, but connectivity was zero out here. Putting my useless phone away I caught up with the others and tried to look keen. We walked as we talked, going back the way we had come, and some, until the trees cleared away leaving a swath of grassy meadow dropping down a muddy bank into a shallow, gravel ford.

“Is that a chapel?” Diane was pointing to a small, round building the other side of the river.

“No. An ossuary. Want a look?”

Of course she did.

I hate small spaces, always have. It was one of the things she threw at me when ‘encouraging’ me to move out of London. “All that space,” she would say, waving at a map of Devon or Northumberland “and you coop yourself up in this congested city.” She had a point.

Just as well we were wearing wellies, the river was low, not dry, the field the other side tussocky with long grass still wet from last night’s rain. With a jangle of keys John opened first a studded oak door, then not one but two iron barred doors. The whole place was reminiscent of a prison. I was starting to tense.

“Are you OK, Ant?”

I nodded. John had been bigging this up. Unique late Roman remains, privileged access, not open to the public. To say ‘no’ would have been an insult. He handed us torches, warned us to mind our heads, and then we started down the steps into the dark. It was as bad as I thought, the ossuary. Not the bones, though they were unusual, a mix of human and deer from what I could tell, but the closeness of the dry bone walls, the smell – not unpleasant but intrusive, and the stark contrast of black shadow and pitted winter white caught up in the sweeping light of our torch beams. It took the brain micro seconds to catch up and formulate a picture from the dislocated after image. Starless eye sockets, palmate antlers curling towards you, catching at your clothes. Teeth. Silver. Gold. I tried not to visualise careening into a wall and bringing the whole fabrication down. Di’s fingers squeezed my arm as I took a breath, counting to five before I let my breath out.

Sensing tension, John glanced back, set his face to concern and asked, “Are you OK? Do you want to turn back?”

“No, I’m fine,” I managed.

“Almost there,” as he held his stare a moment longer then moved forward into the darkness.

Focusing on my feet, and Di’s firm grip, I followed on down the narrowing tunnel, the sound of our shuffling feet soothing me a little until I could look to the sides once more. Anywhere but straight ahead. Anything than imagine what might be creeping up behind. 

“Is that jewellery?” I asked. “In amongst the bones.”

“Crosses and Christian iconography at the beginning of the tunnel, Pagan stuff towards the crypt,” replied John, his voice as dead and hushed as the remains surrounding us. “And here it is. Don’t fall in.” Holding out his arm John swung the torch in a slow arc around the chamber. Startling colour bounced back: blue, red, black and gold, a formal design set against a white background of Roman mosaics more surprising than the walls of bone, framing a darkness in the middle of the floor.

After minutes creeping around the walls the torch light slanted down towards a rectangular pit, illuminating more elaborate mosaics and even more skeletal remains. The bones here were coherently laid out, the metal more obviously shaped. Detritus and offerings scattered the floor, heaping up towards the edges, encroaching on the corpse. Some of it, wild flower heads and leaves, looked fresh.

A nervous cough broke the silence. “This is a grave that became a shrine. Before you lies a man transfigured by a god.” Then, as melodramatic as myth or John’s awed voice could make it, came the story of Aelius, a local Roman settler who left his villa to go hunting only to return transformed.

I was fighting for breath by the time we climbed back to the surface, and not just because of the claustrophobia. Diane was being politeness itself as she said goodbye to John before turning back towards the car. I managed to hold my breath and my merriment in check at least until he was out of sight. Then I burst out laughing.

“Our very own Actaeon’s tomb,” I sobbed between breaths. “What do they think we are? A deer’s skull, a fake human skeleton from a medical school and a couple of rusty old swords from some Victorian attic, and there you have it. A late Roman mystery transported to our leafy Albion glades. As if Diana would be skinny dipping in our balmy climate.” Slowing my voice and thickening vowels I imitated John’s warm accent. “Even back then man was seeking ways to reconcile his separation from nature.” A snort escaped me. “Right up your street isn’t it?”

“You’re being cruel.”

“I’m being pragmatic.”

“Aren’t you always.”

She’s been laughing too. Now, our tension released we both quietened. “You’re not staying, are you,” she asked.

Shaking my head I wished her luck but affirmed her conclusion. “I’ll pack tonight and leave first thing tomorrow morning.”

“You haven’t forgotten the ride I booked have you? You said you were looking forward to it.”

Yes, I had. The ‘wildlife at dawn’ excursion. A chance to ‘experience nature from the back of your own trusty steed’, according to the blurb.

“I could drop you off at the station afterwards,” she continued, “it’s too late to cancel now.”

“Sure.” A final goodbye. An acceptance we had already parted company and could do so with grace.

“One last thing.” Unclipping the Saint Christopher she wore around her neck she placed it around mine. “For the journey.”

I dined alone that night. Diane was meeting her mystery backers, while I needed to update Rex on developments my end now my phone was receiving again. 

“Are you in a pub?” I’d gone up to my room early. The hotel was quieter than usual, the few diners disappearing as soon as desserts were cleared, while the bar in the snug was empty. So was the Reception. Helping myself to the honesty bar I wrote my room in the book, swirled the whisky around the glass, and inhaling deeply headed towards the stairs, stopping when something didn’t feel right. Opposite me was the stag’s head, his glass eyes staring through me. What was it? Of course, the two swords were missing. Hadn’t Brampton mentioned something about cleaning them? Taking a sip from my glass I raised a silent toast to the stag. I had come here with such high hopes, now, with plush carpets softening any footsteps it felt as if I alone was creeping around an empty shell. 

“Yes, informal meeting. Something interesting may have come up.” Rex’s reassuringly smooth tone soothed my disquiet.

“Good to know you’re back in the country.”

“No hanging around when there’s work to do.” His next words were muffled by the screech of background jollity. “I said how did things go with Di and this project of hers?” he repeated. Then, after I told him, “Well, if you’re sure. I have something I need to discuss with you myself.” Once again the background noise broke through, followed by intermittent crackles and broken, undecipherable bits of speech.

“What?” It was no use, reception had disintegrated to meaningless noise. “I’ll see you tomorrow,” I shouted into the phone, “I’ll be back in London mid-afternoon.” That was the best I could do, hope he heard the last bit and that what he wanted to discuss could wait.

Later that night Diane knocked at the door, inviting herself in, her mood flat as she took in the decor. “I have Diana and Actaeon on my walls,” she said. “Who chose this hotel?”

“You did.”

We stared at each other, half smiles embarrassing our faces. On the table beside the bed the Saint Christopher gleamed, its gold chain reflecting warm light into the suddenly cold room. Picking it up Di ran the chain through her hands, stopping to glance at the image of the saint.

“Are you sure you won’t change your mind, Ant? It would mean a lot to me.”

Shaking my head I told her about getting back to see Rex. She stiffened a little at his name. “This contact of yours…” My voice stuttered to a halt. This suspicion was crazy, but Rex would chase any opportunity for promotion if the stakes were high enough.

“You should be wearing this.” Pouring the charm into my hand she rose quickly, almost running to the door. “See you in the morning. Think about changing your mind.” Then she was gone.

It was barely light when I checked out, the manager himself seeing to my departure as he continued the usual banter you’d expect from someone sniffing out repeat business. I was filling in the gaps, not really paying attention.

“Yes, great day. We went to the tomb,” I offered.

His shoulders stiffened slightly as he bent over the register. “Did you leave an offering?” he asked, non-committal, saying what was expected of him.

“I left an owl’s feather.” This was Diane, coming through from the back hall. “Ant didn’t have anything to leave, he didn’t leave anything at the fountain in Rome either,” she added.

“That’s a shame.”

“I did, so I’ll be going back.” She raised an eyebrow in my direction as a soft clip clop noise snuck in from the half open front door, then moved to look. “Ah, the horses are here, two white chargers as ordered. Come on, let’s go.”

My phone rang as I dropped the room key on the desk, Rex’s number showing on the screen. I took it as Di was striding outside, hurriedly thumbing my biometric signature on the agreement papers he’d sent through.

“Important?” Di asked. Already up in the saddle, she and her mount looked ready to go.

“The Venice Biennial. We have the pavilion contract.”

“Congratulations,” as they started to trot away.

I was playing catch-up, entering the woodland ride as the distinctive sound of a vintage Porsche snarled behind me. Turning in the saddle I looked back towards the hotel, then told myself not to be so stupid, that could not possibly be Rex’s car. Ahead, Diane’s mare had quickened pace, I had no option but to give chase.

The landscape, at first unknown, became more familiar as we retraced our way back towards the river. Sensitive to Di’s moods I picked up a coolness towards me and kept quiet, soon I would be back on familiar territory and she would be a pioneer for a new generation of social architects. Forcing my eyes from her back I took in the ancient woodland we were passing through. It had rained a little overnight and the bridle path was muddy, churned as if a herd of horses had come this way. Why, at this time of the morning I couldn’t imagine.

“Looks like the others are here before us,” she said as if reading my mind.

And there was I thinking this was just us. Up ahead I picked up gentle noises, whines and yips. Dogs. Wrong, I discovered as I dipped my head to enter a clearing. Hounds, and a dozen other riders spaced out in a semi-circle, waiting silently for us to join them. That was the strangest thing about them, their stillness, and their focus on me. Different ages, heights, weights, all adults, all practically dressed in dull colours, some in tweeds, some in waterproofs. Diane had slipped from her horse, holding the rein of mine, signalling me to join her on the ground before leading both animals to one side, passing them to a man on foot. In return he offered a hip flask which she took almost hesitantly before stroking its silver side then pressing its mouth to her lips.

“You too,” as she stretched out her hand to me. “It’s tradition. It will keep you warm.”

Sweeter than brandy, thicker than port, herby and strong it slid down my throat with no more than a ticklish heat.

“You can take more.”

So I did. Then I dropped the flask. Then I fell to my knees. Failing to scream as my body rearranged itself, I was struck dumb, watching through the pain, incredulous as my limbs transformed, my hands fused into hoofs, my thighs bunched into haunches, my vision distorting as my eyes relocated to the sides of my new, elongated skull. No scream but grunts and whistles as the hallucination took hold, my senses going into overdrive as I staggered to my four feet, shaking away the human clothes entangling my brown pelted limbs. Awareness of my enemies surrounding me, of the attention of the toothed carnivores pointing in my direction, their scent and desire for blood, of the two legged one who stood before me, dazzling like the sun. A sudden noise startled me. A two leg and a four leg rushing into this clear space, startling the dogs and the birds in the trees.

For a split second I had clarity. That man was Rex, that woman was Diane and I was… lucidity returned with reminders of stories past. Diana’s temple, her guard Rex, a man who killed to gain the role. Actaeon, who disturbed Diana bathing and who paid the price of transmutation. The man became a stag. The stag torn down by the man’s own hounds. The gods, jealous and cruel, demanded more than worship, more than sacrifice. They lived here still, their ways unchanged. It was best not to cross them. Best not to cross Diana, not to cross Diane. Before me, beautiful beyond reason was the woman I had loved.

“Your service is done.” Her voice, soft and cold. “Now run for your life.”

Diane’s words reverberated in my skull, loosing meaning as fear took their place.

With the baying of the hounds my past was gone. I shook my head, heavy with horn. Something glittered, just beyond sight, tangled in the splayed branches of my antlers. Something I would have recognised once. 

Scent overtook me: earth, water, danger. I turned and ran, heart pounding, muscle cramping, racing through dappled bush, over bloodied briar, across field and fen, the hounds at first left behind were gaining, gaining. Their tongues lolling, as was mine. Their voices keen with anticipation, as my breath rasped in desperation. 

On and on as my speed dropped and my strength faltered, while they carried on, untiring. 

On and on until my hooves cooled in running water, my heavy head lowering to take on the teeth, the noise, the jaws of death as it clung to my throat, launched at my ribs, sunk into my haunches. 

At the last I turned bloody eyes toward the sound of metal. 

I could almost remember, a man, a name, two swords.

The Death of Actaeon. 1559. Titian (1490 – 1576). National Gallery, London.

If you feel inspired by a painting – be it modern, ancient, or something you have created and have written a modern story, then why not send it to me and I’ll publish it on my website. You will retain all the rights, and are free to publish it anywhere. Consider this as a platform for free publicity. If you are writing, or have written one that is based in the 16th century, then you might like to send it to www.TudorsDynasty.com for the Decameron 2020 project Rebecca Larson has started to help fill in the time during the pandemic.

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