My good friend Eli Kurtz has spent this month of May running a Kickstarter for his brand new setting for Savage Worlds, a wuxia/folktale inspired world called The Blackwood. He has spent the last several years building this world and preparing to bring it to the public, and his Kickstarter is fully funded at this time, but with PLENTIFUL stretch goals yet to be reached in the last home stretch here (including more fiction from yours truly). Eli asked me to write a folktale for the game book, and so I chose a few interesting threads from various world folklore traditions to weave together into a new glimpse into the dangerous world of The Blackwood.
If you’re so inclined, please CLICK HERE to check out their Kickstarter and contribute if you can!
I give you “The Lesson of the Hunter and his Stepchildren.” (Extra points if you can name some of the influences on this story!)
“The Lesson of the Hunter and His Stepchildren”
It happened one time in a village by a lake at the edge of the Blackwood that there was a fisherman who died of a sickness. Come the springtime, the fisherman’s wife was left with her daughter Hansa and son Grigg to fend for themselves. It came to be over time that the fisherman’s wife became the wife of another man, a hunter from another village. He did not know all of the ways of this village, nor of any Riverkin folk who live near water by the forests of the dangerous Blackwood. The hunter loved the wife, but he was no skilled fisherman and life in this village suited him very ill indeed.
One day, the hunter said to his stepson: “I am tired of buying other men’s kills at market, and I am tired of eating fish. I am going to the Blackwood to hunt. You must stay and look after your mother and sister, and I will be back before night.”
The boy, Grigg, went and told his sister Hansa what the hunter had said.
“This will not do,” said Hansa. “He does not know the ways of the woods, and surely he will be lost.” Grigg agreed, and the two of them packed a satchel with food and supplies, then hurried into the woods after their stepfather.
As two children who were raised on the edge of the Blackwood, the siblings were well versed in the changing paths, peculiar sounds, and dangerous magics that lay within the trees and bracken beyond their little town. Although their father had been a fisherman, it was he who had taught them carefully the ways of the wood and how to respect the hedged boundaries between the village and the wilderness, as well as how to invoke the blessings of their long-dead ancestors in case of danger.
Before passing into the cover of the trees, Hansa took from her satchel a stick of bundled herbs, which she lit with a match and let burn a moment. This was the way her father and the people of their village performed the ritual, though it was said that other villages had other ways of doing things. Blowing softly on the flame to reduce it to embers, she waved the herbs through the air around herself and her brother. The two of them bowed their heads in prayer, reaching out to the souls of their ancestors, asking for protection and guidance as they went forth to seek their stepfather. When the prayer was complete, Hansa stubbed out the herb bundle on a stone until the embers were black and dead. Then they made their way through the trees, searching for signs of their stepfather’s journey.
They caught up to him quickly, but before they could call out to him, they saw that he was speaking to a strange man with a snow white beard who stood on the path before him.
“My family begs you, sir, to turn back and go home to yours,” the old man said, in a gentle voice. “This area is not safe to hunt in, either for you, or for my own children.”
“Pah!” scoffed the hunter. “I have hunted my whole life long, good man. I know what I can handle. I assure you, I will be very wary of the woods and I will not harm your family. I am not a careless man.”
The old man’s eyes darkened under his bushy pale brow. “So you say. But if you proceed you will find yourself the one in grave danger. Take the word of one who knows what lies ahead in these woods, and turn back, I sincerely beg you.”
“I will not,” the hunter said. “I have children and a wife to feed. I will take only a little, and then I’ll be on my way.”
The hunter passed the old man without another glance. As Grigg and Hansa watched from the trees, they saw the old man turn away from the hunter and vanish – like a fine silvery mist.
The siblings looked at one another in surprise. “He m-must have been some sort of elf,” Grigg stammered.
“Or some other dangerous creature,” agreed his sister. “We had better see to it that our stepfather does not harm anything in this wood, lest he be cursed, and us along with him.”
The two set off again, tracking their stepfather until he came into view once more. They found him stalking a fine young deer, whose head was lowered to graze on leaves and grasses. He was about to fire an arrow at the deer when Grigg called out: “Father, do not shoot!”
The arrow loosed but missed its target, and the deer bounded away into the trees. Angry, the hunter turned to see his stepchildren waiting for him among the trees.
“How could you do this?” he demanded. “I came to hunt and you have scared off my prey! Go home this instant!”
“Father,” Hansa said, holding up her hands. “You do not know what you have gotten into. If you do not come home with us, great ill will befall us all!”
“Do not presume to tell me such lies! Go home at once!”
And off the hunter went, fuming and humiliated by the encounter. Hansa and Grigg had never seen him so angry, but they were determined to protect him as much as they could. Again they followed him into the forest, and again they found him stalking a wild boar.
“Father, do not shoot!” cried Hansa, and again their stepfather loosed an arrow and missed.
Enraged, their father ran after the boar, deeper into the forest, and the children raced after him, trying their best to keep up. They prayed as they ran that they would not lose him in the twisting, winding wood, and that they could keep him from causing any trouble.
Out of breath and frantic, Hansa and Grigg came upon their stepfather at last, but he had already fired his arrow, and it had met its target: a fat, shining-feathered pheasant.
“Oh, Father no!” Hansa cried as they reached him.
“Look what a mighty feast we’ll have,” the hunter cried, proudly, reaching for the pheasant where it lay on the ground. As he reached for it, there was a swirling of fog around him, and suddenly the pheasant was gone. Before the hunter stood the white-haired old man, holding the bloody arrow in one hand.
“You vowed you would not harm my family,” said the old man.“And yet here you are, and this is the blood of my daughter.”
The old man grinned a slow and terrible grin as he let the arrow fall to the ground. Then he lunged for the hunter with clawlike hands. A glimmer of light passed between him and the hunter, and Hansa and Grigg felt the presence of their ancestors protecting them, and protecting their foolish stepfather. The old man snarled, trying to swipe at the hunter and grab at his clothes, but the invisible barrier kept him at bay.
“We are sorry for this fault of our stepfather,” Hansa told him. “We ask your forgiveness, and promise never to return to your part of the woods.”
Grigg and Hansa took their stepfather’s hands and led him back home out of the forest. Although there was no triumphant kill in his hands, it can well be said that the hunter did not go home empty handed, for his children’s hands were there instead. After that, the children taught their stepfather the ways of the ancestors and the hunter worked hard to become a better fisherman for his family.