Hunting Season in the Ninth Kingdom

Cath UK

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Even the birds had gone quiet, Virginia noticed, her heart pounding with terror. Even one sound would betray them to the Huntsman. Her father, Wolf and the Prince were all hiding nearby. Virginia cursed their bad luck – all her father’s really, but it made no difference because they travelled together – for entering the Huntsman’s domain. If he found them, their mission would be compromised, not to mention their lives.

Wolf’s suggestion of hiding under the thick cover of dead leaves that covered the forest floor like a russet cloak had either been brilliant or incredibly foolish. Virginia supposed they would find out in a moment. She could hear the Huntsman nearby, his tread light but still terrifying. He was looking for them. Her eyes closed by instinct – a child’s reaction: if she couldn’t see him, maybe he wouldn’t see her. She only hoped that the heaps of leaves under which her party were buried would mask their sight and their smell. Not to mention their tracks: the Huntsman, if he lived up to his name, would surely be looking for those, too.

Virginia could hear the faint crunching of twigs and dead leaves just a few feet away. She held perfectly still, cringing as it came slowly closer. And closer. And closer.

And then, at the worst possible moment, she felt her nose begin to itch.

It was the dusty ground and the leaves, of course. She had tried to breathe as quietly as she could, only through her nose, cautious intakes of essential oxygen. Yet somehow, it hadn’t been just air that had entered – small particles of leaves and dust had been taken in too. Incompatible with her system, her body now wanted to reject them in one big, satisfying explosion.

Virginia shut her eyes even more tightly. Another footstep reached her ears, soft, cautious. Had the Huntsman spotted one of the others? No, surely not, for if he had, there would have been the pop of his crossbow and then a hiss as the arrow flew through the air in an unerring path to the victim’s heart. Virginia couldn’t afford to blow their cover. She simply could not allow herself to sneeze.

Oh, but she wanted to. She forced herself to breathe in small, shallow intakes, fighting the tickling that was building at a now alarming rate. She could practically feel the dust particles vibrating with each breath, tickling her mercilessly, making her want to…


She was almost shaking with the effort it took to keep herself under control. Even through the tears that had started to well up in her big blue eyes, Virginia looked through the small spaces afforded by her covering of leaves. She saw one of the Huntsman’s boots, not three feet away from her. It moved. He was taking a step away from her… and one towards where Wolf lay, perhaps just as frightened as she.

The tickle flared. It was all Virginia could do not to moan with the desire to cave in and sneeze. But the consequences if she did! Only… only, she now realised, this was going to be one explosion it would impossible to avoid.

At that moment, the Huntsman took another two quick steps away. Through the leaves, she could just see the end of his crossbow, with its lethal metal-tipped arrow. Then, by chance, Virginia noticed that she was lying crouched with her hands near her face. She grimaced, wrinkling her nose, trying to no avail to stave off the dust-wrought itch. If she could just raise her hand and bring it to her nose, slowly, without making a sound… The Huntsman was facing away from her – maybe she could chance it.

She did. Slowly, her hand crept up to her face like a small, blind animal and pinched her nose shut, hard. Virginia took a silent breath through her mouth. She relaxed, allowed the incredible tickle to reach its apex and… sneezed. Quickly, soundlessly, it was perfectly stifled. She’d managed to barely even move.

The Huntsman paused, she saw as her eyes snapped open, still facing away from her. Had he somehow heard her? Had she given them away? Just as these thoughts were running through her mind, Virginia realised that her initial relief at having chanced a sneeze had been premature. By pinching her nose shut, she’d trapped the irritants inside. She could feel her nose beginning to tickle again, and she blinked back tears. Her hand hadn’t left her nose – a small mercy. She needed that hand. She shut her eyes, opened her mouth, her brows nearly touching each other as she concentrated hard, willing the sneeze to come. It did, more powerful than the last, forcing her to bend slightly at the waist as she felt its momentum rush up and away.

This time, the Huntsman had heard something. Virginia brought her hand close to the ground again as she looked through the tiny gaps in her hiding place. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to be exactly sure where the tiny, infinitesimal crackling of leaves had come from. It could have been a squirrel, or a bird – only, she thought for the second time, there were none around to be heard. Had the Huntsman also noticed this oddity? He certainly didn’t appear to think there was any natural fauna in the area. Virginia’s heart began to pound anew as he took a slow, tentative step towards her. She kept perfectly still. If none of them made a single sound for the next few minutes, she told herself, he’d move on and it would all be over.

And then, the slightest of breezes began to blow, making the leaves flutter and tremble. One of these was right in front of her face. The wind made it vibrate, tiny, tiny little back in forth motions, that caused its peduncle to twist back and forth along the bridge of her nose. In her current irritated state, that small tremor was too much for Virginia. The leaf’s movement seemed to reverberate along the whole length of her nose, growing stronger and stronger, amazingly ticklish, making her previous need to sneeze seem like the most banal of foreplay. This time, she couldn’t even think of resisting. Before she could even try, her mouth twisted itself open; she took a heaving breath, threw her head back and let out a desperate, mighty loud roar of a sneeze:


The leaves in front of her face blew away in a torrent, as if a small bomb had exploded in the vicinity. And then, even as she heard the heavy crunching of the Huntsman’s tread, Virginia kept her eyes shut and did it again:


Now, her whole head and half her body were exposed. She blinked twice, dazed. A rough hand seized her by the hair and did not let go as it pulled Virginia to her feet, making her cry out.

“I’ve got you now,” the Huntsman hissed, his bony nose almost touching her reddened one. “You’re coming with me, and when your friends come looking for you, I will have them, too.”

“No!” Virginia wailed. She thought of Wolf, her father, and Prince, still hidden nearby, hearing every word, powerless to help her, for if they showed themselves now all would be lost. “They’ll find a way to save me…”

“The only thing they will find,” the Huntsman sneered as he raised his crossbow, “is death.”