The Night of Herne the Hunter
by Adam Jezard
Christmas Eve 2189, Windsor Castle, during the reign of Queen Lilibet III.
The night was growing late and the digitally simulated candles around the castle dining hall were waxing low.
The Monarch looked around the table with a jaundiced eye. The white tablecloth was now grubby and stained in places where those guests less used to such occasions, or the simply careless, had dropped food or spilled soup.
This not being a formal dinner, the Monarch had excused herself from having the principal guest sit at her right-hand side so she could keep a close eye on him, much in the same way as a mongoose keeps a careful eye on a snake. She was of an age where she knew any apparent lapse in protocol would be blamed on her advanced age lowering her boredom threshold, which was partly true, and encroaching senility, which was not.
Despite the Monarch’s years – 70 alone on the throne, like her great, great, great, grandmother – she had not lost the ability to spot who those with impeccable manners were, those who had been schooled for such an event, and those who did not give a jot. It was no surprise to her that the worst offender this evening, the one who should have shown the best manners and the most respect for protocol, was her own Prime Minister. The once white tablecloth was now a muddy brown in large splotches where he sat.
The PM was a mid-sized man with piggy eyes, a mass of now dyed hair that was as uncontrollable as he was. He had a reputation for other preferring other men’s wives to his own, and an insatiable appetite for women, drink, drugs and food – the Monarch had insisted the kitchen prepare not only seconds but thirds to fill the man’s ample, rotund belly, hidden from view behind the table.
“I must say, ma’am,” his voice boomed across the table as he spooned figgy pudding into his mouth, his flabby jowls wabbling as he did so, “the table has been excellently prepared.” He picked up a glass of 100-year-old French wine, of a vintage rare and beyond price, and quaffed it like cheap lager. “And the wine has been good, too. Carpe vinum!”
The PM, renowned for speaking in Latin phrases he barely understood, roared with laughter at his own joke. His wife, a blond woman the Monarch thought had more in common with the front of the brewers’ dray in the castle’s museum courtyard rather than the back of the animatronic carthorse that pulled it, smiled indulgently.
The Monarch, through long years of practice, stifled a yawn imperceptible to anyone else.
“I must say,” the PM went on, “the quails’ eggs étaient très bonne!”
Everyone smiled politely at the PM’s bonhomie, but the Monarch allowed herself a slight grimace at his awful pronunciation. Like most English ex-public schoolboys for thousands of years, he spoke French as if he had a plum in his mouth rather than extending his mouth to make the correct vowel sounds.
This was no formal occasion. The PM, whom the Monarch disliked intently, had wheedled himself and his nitwit of a wife (was she his third or fourth?) this invitation to dinner and an overnight stay so he could pose for photo ops with the Monarch and yet another new baby for the drone paparazzi on Christmas morning. This, the PM’s advisers had thought, would boost his standing with the mindless readers of digital tabloid papers after the holiday and boost abysmal poll ratings.
Truth be told, it was only because the PM had blackmailed the Monarch’s private secretary into arranging the event with incriminating details MI5 had on one of the Monarch’s children that the invitation to dinner and stay in the castle had been reluctantly arranged. The PM’s hope was that the photoshoot would distract voters from his disastrous handling of the country’s affairs.
There had been a few attempts to start polite conversation with the Monarch over dinner, but she’d brushed these aside and kept her thoughts very much to herself, a not unusual occurrence.
The talk during dinner had turned to which world leaders had been best to deal with, and the PM had loudly began opining that the French and Germans were the worst, for historic reasons – “Napoleon and Hitler, don’t you know…” – but that by far the worst were women!
The PM’s attitudes towards the fairer sex were well known. He had written about them endlessly in blogs and digi-tabloid columns and ranted about them in online videos. The only places for them, he had intoned stonily, were the kitchen and the bedroom. The Monarch detested him heartily, but to her disgust many women seemed to agree with him, signalling their accord both with their electoral support and willingness to engage in less public activities with him.
“That last woman world leader,” he had boomed, looking around the table for approval and finding it in the faces of his nodding lackeys, “she had dreadful ideas on how to stop the spread of a global pandemic because she was a scientist! Imagine,” he chuckled, his fat belly noticeably lifting the heavy table in front of him as he wheezed, “imagine, a woman being put in charge of a country as large as that! I mean, the thought’s ridiculous, isn’t it ma’am? The good thing about America is it still hasn’t appointed a woman as head of state yet. I mean…” He and his lackeys laughed.
The Monarch allowed a small ironic smile to play across her lips but said nothing. On the wall behind the PM was a larger tapestry showing a scene from Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and she turned her gaze to this. It depicted the end of Shakespeare’s comedy, where children dressed as fairies had surrounded the luckless Sir John Falstaff, who wore a deer’s antlers and was tied to a tree, to tease and torture him, the traditional ritual humiliation of a man cuckolded by his wife in ancient times. Something about Shakespeare’s blundering, bluffing buffoon, puffed-up, fat, red-faced, arrogant even in the woven image, reminded her irresistibly of the PM.
“Women leaders,” the PM was going on, “still have nothing to offer the world, it belongs to us men.” He was, he told himself, proud of having turned the clock on women’s equality back 300 years.
A cheer from the lackeys was about to be raised, but it was stifled by the Monarch, who spake suddenly. “Tell me, Prime Minister,” she said, her reedy voice silencing the voices around her, which fell respectfully quiet. “Tell me, do you know the local legend of Herne the Hunter and the Merry Wives of Windsor?”
The PM looked at the Monarch as if encountering her for the first time. “Not that well,” he said, “though I did nearly once publish a book about Shakespeare, except I couldn’t even hire a digital scholar to write it for me.” The lackeys began to laugh but were silenced by a stern look from the PM’s wife.
“Then let me tell it to you because I think it holds some valuable lessons for… men of a certain type.”
The Monarch rose to her feet, impatiently waving away the robotic butler that tried to pull her chair out for her. “The story of Herne the Hunter is little known beyond the close circle of the royal family,” she said, her reedy voice, though frail with age, mesmerising her audience. “You see, he became the model for Shakespeare’s bulky rogue.” She walked behind the PM’s chair and eyed his ample behind as she said these words. “The tale Shakespeare told was of a fat man, a knight, who owed money to everyone. He proposed to seduce the wives of two wealthy men in the neighbourhood to raise funds, women who would pay him for his… ahem… services,” she spoke the last word with a distaste palpable to the assemblage.
“Sounds my type of chap, huh?” the PM nudged his wife’s elbow and gave his lackeys a broad wink. It was well known he’d only married his first wife for her money and had abandoned her as soon as he’d milked her crypto-funds dry.
“However,” the Monarch said, cruising sedately around the room in her noiseless power slippers that eased her arthritic aches, “the wives were too clever for him and instead lured him into increasingly ludicrous situations, first dunking him in a river and then dressing him as a woman, finally persuading him to dress as Herne the hunter, where the children teased and mocked him.
“Shakespeare, though, did not tell the whole story,” the Monarch went on. “The real story of Herne is not humorous at all. Like many men,” she walked as she spoke past a row of minor portraits of former leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries, including David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and Boris Johnson, “he was no respecter of women.
“Herne was the head verderer of the Great Park of Windsor in Queen Elizabeth I’s time. He was, legend says, tall, good looking and an excellent hunter. He was strong and archer of the first rank. But he was also a lecher and a gambler.”
She had come full circle and now stood by her seat opposite the PM. “Unlike Falstaff, he wasn’t fat and lazy, but fit and virile, and he had a genuine way with the ladies. Unfortunately, this included several ladies of the Queen’s court, whom he wooed with honeyed words and promises, using the money he gave them to pay his debts. Eventually, however, his philandering and cheating were uncovered and the women who were victims, racked by jealousy and anger, decided to have a terrible revenge.
“It was a Christmas Eve, much like this, and the women persuaded children, as in Shakespeare’s play, to dress as fairies and persuade Herne, then well advanced in his evening’s drinking, to wear a stag’s horns, the mark of a cuckold, a man cheated on by women, and come to an orgy with them, where he would also find a hidden pot of gold as a reward for his loving pains.
“The night was cold so the women built a huge fire near a tree to warm them all. When Herne arrived they played loving games that involved tying him to the tree. When he was bound and helpless, they brought the fire to him and burnt him to a crisp, tree and all.”
The assembled company, which had listened with rapt attention to the Monarch’s words, sat in silence as her story finished. This was eventually broken by the PM’s wife, who asked, in a hushed voice: “And what happened to the women? Were they punished?”
The Monarch let out a half-smile. “Well, no,” she said. “There was a great to-do in the court to start with, and they were brought before Queen Elizabeth, who, legend has it, was at first said to have wanted to serve them as they had served Herne. After she had heard their story, however, the Queen decided that he had received his just deserts and that they’d suffered enough.”
The Monarch sat and looked around the room, a sombre acknowledgement that she had held them all spellbound in her eyes. “That isn’t quite the end of the story. You see, the legend has it that there was a pot of gold buried in the forest and that the spirit of Herne hunts for it every Christmas Eve. Moreover, if another man wears the horns of a stag and joins them in the castle grounds on the Long Walk, he can join the bacchanalia and have a chance of finding the treasure. Who knows, it might be tonight is the night the treasure will be revealed to the man who wears the horns.
“But,” she added, “if a man does this, he must take care. The castle and the grounds are imbued with a kind of… magic, I suppose. And this place has always protected women who needed it.”
“This is the 22nd century and I don’t believe in fairy-tales,” the PM’s wife said, sitting in bed, her arms cradling her latest baby. The richly decorated bed-chamber was lit by digital fires made warm by energy from solar panels stored deep in vaults beneath the castle.
Ever since dinner and the mention of the gold the PM had been struck with a restless attitude that his wife knew boded no good. Now his expressed determination to go in search of the mythical treasure was driving her to her wit’s end.
“Going out on a night like this dressed like that,” she said haughtily to her husband, who had dressed in a long white night short with a pair of antlers on his head, taken from an antique stag head hanging on the castle walls by one of the PM’s lackeys, “is a bad idea.”
“Now, now, dear,” the PM said, trying to remember her name. After all, there had been so many women, some he’d married, some he hadn’t. Then there had been his mother… “Now, now,” he said picking up the loose train of thought that had been in his head, “you know that unless I can swing the next election I’ll be out on my ear and without a bean to live off without all the kickbacks. If there is even the remotest chance that I can find a pot of gold…”
“A crock of horse sh…” his wife started to retort.
“A-pot-of-gold,” the PM enunciated carefully, “it would be of enormous help to our personal finances.”
“But it’s too fantastic.”
“Uncle Willy found a Roman treasure trove once,” said the PM. “In a field. Fell into a rabbit hole and broke his leg. Had to be dug out and they found a heap of gold stuff under him. Mind you, he died from his injuries and never saw a bean of it. It might be something like this: once a year under a blasted oak the moon and stars align in just the right way to light the way to the treasure.”
He was feeling enthusiastic now and his voice rose in excitement. Something about the ancient walls and fabric of the castle was inspiring him and he felt the blood course hotly through his veins.
His wife frowned as the PM headed to the bedroom door. “You’ve been at the white nose powder again,” she said. “You can’t be serious about this.”
“Yes, I can,” he said, wiping his nose on his sleeve to remove any traces of dust.
“You won’t find gold,” she said. “And I guess you really want just want to have an orgy with a load of dead women. At least they can’t go to the press and blag everything for a few thousand crypto-credits!”
The PM, brushing aside her criticisms with a wafting motion of his hands and feeling ready for adventure, departed, leaving her suckling her newborn on the bed.
“Oh well, it’s probably less fantastic than many of his policies,” she told the baby, cradling him to her chest.
The human butler the PM had bribed had been very clear about the secret passage to the Long Walk. The PM tip-toed drunkenly down a long passage, stopping by a tapestry of Edward VII, which he lifted surreptitiously, looking left and right to make sure no one was watching, before vanishing into a passage that led down, down, down to the vaults and finally to a small door that opened, after some pushing, on to the yard behind the castle.
It was nearly midnight and an almost full moon lit the sky so it was bright as day, but a wraith-like fog flung its long trailing arms around the night, turning its cold, dead embrace into a chill living thing looking for sustenance. The PM padded in his slippers down the Long Walk, looking about him for signs of the fire or any indication of a ghostly bacchanal or for any mystic signs that might point the way to spectral treasure. He had been wandering for just a few minutes when he began to regret his foolhardiness. His feet were becoming wet from the evening dew, he was chilly in his nightgown, and the antlers were heavy and uncomfortable. He was about to abandon his search when he heard a low sound as of a pipe being played.
Ears pricked, he began to follow the tune, a haunting melodic refrain that played over and over, like a lullaby but with a few low notes that became more prominent the nearer it seemed to be. Eventually, the PM saw what looked like the licking flames of a fire and within moments he found himself in a clearing next to a large tree, in front of which was the roaring pyre of which the Monarch had spoken.
“Well, well,” the PM said, excitedly. “Well, well, so this much is true.”
He looked around him, desirous of company, especially female company, and he caught sight of several diaphanous figures weaving through the mist’s wispy fingers towards him. The figures swam magically into sight, three gorgeous women, scantily clad in flimsy gowns, who laughed and whirled about him to the sound of the tune, played on a lute by the red-haired girl of the three.
“You are come my lord,” they said as if one, “you are come, come to dance beneath the tree.”
“Yes,” the PM said, puffing out his chest, “yes, I’ve come. But look, don’t tell my wife if we get up to anything naughty, all right?”
“You are come, come to play with us three…”
“Yes,” the PM said, feeling himself become alive with an unquenchable desire. “But let’s not forget the gold, huh? In fact, why don’t we dig that up first?”
“You are come, come to play with us three,” the women laughed again, “but before the gold, there must be the tree. We will not give the gold to thee until we’ve tied you to the tree.”
“The tree protects,” said one of the women.
“The tree will free,” said the second.
“The tree will give our gold to thee,” said the third.
“Oh, really? That’s most kind of it,” the PM said, allowing himself to be led to the tree.
Suddenly one of the maidens was kissing him, a kiss that consumed him, burned him, twisted him, leaving him wanting more. He did not care what they did with him while she kissed him like that.
And then he was bound. The kissing stopped and the maidens backed away. The lute playing stopped. The smiles on the faces of the women turned into vicious snarls, the hair, so well groomed, became as alive as a Gorgon’s snakes. The women writhed and swished around him to discordant, horrid noises that made the PM want to stop up his ears with his fingers – except he could not because his arms were bound tightly to the tree.
“I say,” the PM said desperately, “I say, I think this has gone far enough.”
The spectral woman laughed but said nothing. “Look, can we go back to kissing? I mean, if not, what about the gold…”
“The gold we’ll bring to thee,” one of them said. Lifting up a burning branch from the fire, she flung it at the PM’s feet.
“Ouch, oh, I say, stop, that’s burning my slippers.” Using his feet the PM tried to stamp the flames out, but before he could another branch was flung after the first, then another.
“Here’s the only gold we have for thee, the golden flames, do you not see?”
“No, not really,” the PM shouted, annoyed, wishing he had bought a security guard with him. “This is a bit painful, but it won’t kill me.”
From the fringes of the darkness suddenly there were women, hordes of women, women of every colour, hue and size, every hair type, tall, short, thin, weaving towards him, carrying tied masses of kindling. Among them he thought he saw the wives he’d abandoned, the lovers he’d betrayed, the women who’d wanted to carry his babies, and some who had for just a while; the women he’d abused, misused, ignored, thrown away.
“I say, stop, stop, STOP,” the PM cried as the heaps of kindling grew large around him. “I only want the gold. YOU MEAN NOTHING TO ME!”
“We know,” said the lute player as she flung the first burning brand from the fire onto the pile before him and the women around her laughed.