Baelin hadn’t eaten in two days when he spotted Lord Tremley’s orchard from atop a roof in town, beyond the walls of the lord’s keep. The sight of red-dotted trees was all he needed to start running. He swiped up reins and a leather harness from a horse-master’s stable, and grabbed a hat off another boy’s head to guise himself as a stable boy, in case anyone stopped to ask him why he was running loose around the lord’s property. He didn’t care if he’d seen the red of apples or cherries or strawberries. He only cared that easily-grabbed food rested over a wide area, with woods nearby should he need to run, and the castle guards were lazier than merchants hovering miserly over their own wares.
The courtyard was busy as Baelin entered. Genuine stable boys ran to and fro, servants carried wineskins and weapons, and at the edge of the thick, dark woods, a line of men mounted horses, facing the line of trees. The white hart had been spotted early in the morning by foragers, said the commotion around the keep. Lord Tremley intended a grand hunt, where he would cut down the pale-haired deer and offer its skin as a gift to the king. The kennel-master sent a dozen hounds along with the lord and the stables poured out their finest horses. Only the sharpest of throwing spears and firmest bows were sent with Tremley, and his men were hand-picked among his friends and huntsmen.
Many of the guards watched them and no one stopped Baelin as he ran around the walls, past the stables, through an outdoor corridor, waited near a corner for one baker woman to pass, and then dashed into the orchard. His belly grumbled impatiently as his eyes darted from tree to tree, pondering which to climb first, which bright red fruit would wet his tongue with sweet juices and fill his empty stomach.
None, he realized, as two heavy hands clapped down on his shoulders. He reeled back his bent arm, hoping to hit his captor’s face and flee into the orchard, and then the woods, but he rammed his elbow into a heavy breastplate instead. The guard spun him around and punched the boy’s gut once, knocking out his wind. All the strength dribbled from Baelin’s limbs like water and the guard scooped him up by the waist, carrying him away from the orchard and its sweet fruits.
“The lord’s justice will have to wait for his return from the woods,” the guard said, tossing the boy into a jail cell beneath the keep’s walls. “You’ll see your fate in the evening. Perhaps if he returns from a happy hunt, he’ll be lenient with you. If not, he may let you stew until morning, or perhaps he’ll never come for you at all.” The armored man slammed the barred door shut before the boy could stand and walked away laughing.
Baelin sat cringing against the stone wall, feeling cold stone against his skin, moldy hay against his feet, and worst, the sucking pain of hunger in his gut. Mercifully, a kindly middle-aged woman came through the dungeon hall with a small piece of bread and slid it through the bars for him. It wasn’t sweet fruit, but he thanked her nonetheless.
“You might prefer to starve,” the woman said, patting his hand. “The lord returned in a dark mood from an unhappy hunt, and the mood grew darker when he heard of your misdeed. I do not know what he plans for you, but you might be best off not seeing the light of day.”
Three guards came for the boy in the morning, two grasping his arms and one leading the others. Baelin asked what was to be done with him. The leading guard raised his hand to smack the boy, and then thought better of it and went on toward the stairs. They stopped at the end of the sunlit courtyard, where the woods encroached on the keep’s edge, and dropped Baelin in the dirt. He thought the woman from the dungeon had been wrong, that he was to be shown mercy and let free.
Then he heard a horse’s whinny and looked to the courtyard again.
A line of horses stood where he and the guards had crossed. Over a dozen hounds snapped at their hooves and at the feet of the young men holding them on thin leashes. The sharpest of throwing spears and the finest bows were held by men mounted on the horses, picked among the lord’s friends and best huntsmen. At their center sat Lord Tremley himself, his two dark eyes burning over a heavy rust-colored beard.
Baelin would’ve gone on staring, straining to comprehend the lord’s intent, but a guard patted his shoulder and pointed him toward the woods. “You’d better run fast, boy.”
“Fast?” he asked, looking to the shadowy tree line.
“Faster than hounds. Faster than horses.”
Baelin staggered toward the woods, his feet stumbling over a root, and then tree limbs cast a shadow over him. He watched the hunting line for a moment longer as a guard waved Baelin’s stolen hat in front of the hounds’ snouts. Then the boy turned and fled, leaping over roots and down slopes, around thick tree trunks and brushing aside thin ones.
It wasn’t long before he heard the frenzied barking of the hounds, heated for the hunt, and the thunder of horses’ hooves. Men hollered and laughed, fanning out through the forest. Tree branches shook and acorns fell. Ferns wavered on the ground and the tremble of tree limbs made the scant light waver. Baelin didn’t dare look back once, running across ground, scrambling over small ledges, sliding under fallen trunks. Every pine and briar prick sent him scurrying faster, terrified that a hound’s teeth had nipped his leg, or that an arrow had grazed his skin and one of the laughing huntsmen had found him.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
He slowed down as his legs began aching. The horses were everywhere now, whinnying and stamping the dirt. Baelin stopped near a thick set of trees and began digging, hoping to lay a trap, but he realized he had no time for digging a pit deep enough for a horse to break its leg when they were chasing him already. He didn’t want to come close to the hunters. Unfortunately, he also lacked rope to snare any of them, or weapons to battle them.
“Their arrows would never give me the chance,” Baelin said to himself. “I’m not a man to them—not even a boy.” He took a moment to rest and then walked, hoping that faint footsteps and a quiet breath would keep him alive until nightfall. Lord Tremley wouldn’t stay in the woods through the night over a hungry boy, pride be damned.
A clearing opened beyond the next line of trees and Baelin paused at the edge of the sunlit grove. The open space was the worst place for him, easily visible by any of the mounted men, and a clean breeze swept down from above that might catch his scent and carry it to the hounds.
But a thin stream ran into a pond in the clearing’s center and Baelin’s mouth had gone dry in the chase. His belly and tongue seemed to command him these days, so he wandered to the shallow pool’s edge and cupped cool water to his mouth. The water’s surface rippled back from his hand at first, and then rippled toward it as the water broke across the pond. Baelin’s head jerked up, terrified that one of the hunter’s horses would be drinking ahead of him, but instead he spotted the white hart lapping gently at the water.
He was the most beautiful stag ever imagined. His white fur was as clean as mountain snow and the gray underside as cool as steel. Thin muscles tore beneath his skin, as an animal used to the chase, sought by every hunter’s eyes in all the western kingdoms. Proud antlers curved skyward from his brow, as white as ivory, and his eyes didn't carry the nervous stare of most deer, but the same burning intensity as Lord Tremley’s eyes.
Baelin smiled, looking Tremley’s failure in the face. “You weren’t slain,” he said.
The white hart lifted his mouth from the water and stared back at the boy. “It was not my turn yesterday. Nor is it my turn today.”
“No, it is mine,” Baelin said.
“The odds are heavy against you, child. What will you do?”
Lord Tremley’s hunting party turned in the woods, reforming near the clearing, and it was then that one of the lord’s huntsmen spotted the boy through the trees. His arrow slipped into his bow and swiftly flew off to the grove, where it dove into the boy’s leg, dropping him to the ground. The huntsman grasped the hunting horn from his belt, blew it twice, and then rode for the clearing, thinking he’d find the boy limping away. His jaw dropped when he spotted the white hart fleeing through the trees on the other side of the clearing.
The other hunters gathered behind him within moments, and Lord Tremley rode at their head. “You’ve killed my mark,” the lord said, trotting his horse around the fallen boy.
“The arrow struck his thigh,” the huntsmen explained. “It should not have killed him. But more importantly, lord, I’ve seen the white hart. It leapt into the woods just the instant I found the child!”
Tremley’s burning anger for the boy left his mind almost instantly. “Then lead us, sir. I want that stag!” The lord’s hunting party poured through the clearing, storming past the pond and leaving Baelin’s body crumpled alone on the forest floor. A couple of the hounds sniffed at his limbs, but not one lingered, as if the scent had been lost from him entirely.
On and on the horses rode and the hounds chased. They followed scents caught by the dogs, trails of hair left on tree bark, and tracks in the dirt, all leading them deeper into the woods, and in circles once they were far from the forest’s edge. Sunlight waned and many of the lord’s friends were ready to quit, but then one would see white fur flitting through the next line of trees and the hounds would regain their fervor. At even the faintest glimpse, Lord Tremley urged his party forward, while the white hart led them in circles.
Yet by nightfall, even the lord’s resolve had worn out and he turned the horses west, toward home. “I have failed a second day when given such a rare sight,” he said miserably. “I fear we will not see the white hart again.”
The woods seemed to darken then, deeper than when first losing the sun’s light, and a chorus of raspy voices arose through the trees. “Oh, sweet Tremley, that is the last thing you should fear.”
Before Lord Tremley could respond, the hounds’ barking cut him off. Foam slathered from their mouths and they spun around, tearing leashes from their handlers’ hands and knocking them to the ground, where the dogs tore out their throats. Then the hounds turned blood-frenzied eyes to the horses and began chasing after their legs, sending the steeds on a panicked dash.
The woods thundered and roared with galloping, as if a hundred deer stampeded through the trees surrounding the horses. One huntsman vanished into the dark on the right, and then another on the left, and soon Lord Tremley found himself riding alone, his horse scared witless of the snapping jaws behind its legs. The lord pulled at the reins, hoping to get his horse on track and head west, where the keep lay beyond the woods, but the horse wouldn’t obey, no matter how much its master kicked and swore.
A great shadow billowed up ahead like a wall and the horse finally stopped, rearing up on its hind legs and throwing Lord Tremley to the ground. He couldn’t even grip the reins again as his mount rushed away from him like a frightened foal, and he hit the forest floor like an abandoned sack. The shadow grew above him into a man’s shape, if a man were as tall as the trees and grew stag’s antlers from his head.
“You laid the odds too favorably for yourself against too meager a foe,” said the shadow. “We so rarely intercede in mortal woes. Your lust for glory has now brought your end. It is the right of kings to hunt the white hart, not bootlicks and lesser men.”
The phantom vanished into the air before Tremley’s eyes and any response was again cut off by the coming hounds. The pack had finished another kill and came on snarling with blood caking their snouts. Tremley hurried away like a scared boy as the hounds snapped at his heels, feebly slashing back with his sword and trembling at the sight of glowing eyes chasing behind him. He spent so much attention looking back that he failed to notice the slope ahead of him until his foot ran over the ledge and he tumbled through ferns and briars.
He lost his sword in his clumsy descent, and his nerve too. “Where are my men?” he cried. “Where are my friends? My horse? Help me, sirs! I have been your lord, rewarding and just! Rescue me and you shall have any prize!”
The white hart appeared before him, followed closely by another, darker stag. The lord found familiar eyes watching him from beneath the ivory antlers, the same Tremley had seen before in his own reflection, burning intensely with a lust for the hunt. Then the lord saw nothing as the white hart’s head swung quickly to one side and the antler points scratched across Tremley’s eyes.
He fell back against the slope, shouting and swearing again, and both stags plunged their antlers into his thighs. Each shook his head, spraying the grass and dirt with Tremley’s blood, letting the scent cloud the air as the hounds appeared atop the slope. The lord’s screams rang sharply through the forest as the pack barreled down and savaged his flesh, and the dark stag listened with satisfaction as he and the white hart walked away.
The screams followed the two deer all the way to the clearing, now washed beautifully in moonlight, glittering from the pond’s surface and glowing over the abandoned skin of a boy. The white hart nuzzled the body, turning the boy over on his back, and then nodded to the dark stag. But the dark stag shook his head, stepping back from the skin of the boy named Baelin, and nudged the white hart.
The pale stag leaned down, licking at the boy’s mouth, and then pressed his face between his teeth. He pressed gently and squeezed his forelegs together, tight as he could, and bent his antlers back. His body cringed close to the forest floor and he pushed forward, stretching his hooves into where hands and feet belonged like a man slipping on a shirt. After another moment, the white hart’s eyes burned from within a new skin, and he clumsily stood on Baelin’s legs.
The boy looked up at the dark stag in the moonlight across the grove. They nodded to each other at once and turned their backs to the pond, the stag heading west, the boy heading east, one intent on trying his hand at ceasing to be the much-pursued white hart, and the other eager for a break from being a starving boy.