I go to bed without food and without my father. He’s off hunting and I stay home because I disobeyed him. “It’s not becoming,” he told me. “And only men may hunt.” Going with him would bring me food and show him I can hunt. That’s not what happens tonight. Tonight I stay home and go hungry.
Or do I? The stars shine above me as if my home has lost its roof and the woods surround me like they’ve replaced the walls. My toes squeeze soil and feel the earth quiver. A great host comes through the trees and I know, without seeing a soul, that they’ve come for me.
They are goblins and fair folk, savage men and old archers. They are ladies armed with falcons and hawks, they are horses and hounds. Taller than all stands a mighty steed and on his back sits a mighty rider, whose arms are thick as tree trunks and whose head is crowned by gnarled, sharp antlers. He is the leader of the host, I know before hearing a sound. A hunting horn swings at his hip and a lance the length of a tree aims at me.
“You have the soul of a great hunter,” says the master of the hunt. “Will you ride with us and bring down the white stag?”
I look over the host. They don’t seem strange to me. “We need so many hunters to kill one deer?”
The hunters chuckle and the antlered man smiles. “He is a crafty stag. We need every soul who is willing. So there’s the better question—are you willing?”
I have to decide quickly. The great horn is howling with the great hounds. “I’ll hunt with you.”
The hunters cheer. I’m given a steed, a crossbow, and a quiver. The horn howls again and I ride with the host, tearing every which way through the forest, searching for a sign of the white stag. There are tracks and hair traces, and the hounds have a trail. We follow across a narrow creek, through a peaceful glen, and past a black ravine. The host divides the farther we go, until I’m following a trail of my own.
The others are near, somewhere, but I can’t see them. It’s me, the stars, and my steed. For the moment, that’s all I need. I don’t even need my father or food. The quiet of the forest soothes like no hot meal or pat on the head has ever done.
A twig snaps and I jerk my head. White fur passes behind a line of trees and antlers glimmer with moonlight. All I need is right there—the prized stag. I kick my steed’s sides and we barrel deeper into the woods. The crossbow slides into my hands. I’ve never used one before, but I know it like my own fingers. I point and I touch. The crossbow’s arrow does the same. It sails between the trees and a sharp, mewling cry breaks the night.
The stag is hurt, but not dead, and I know without having been told that only a clean kill will please the hunting host. Our prey shouldn’t suffer. My steed curls around the line of trees and I spot the limping stag, his white fur darkened red near the ribs. I load the crossbow again and send an arrow into the back of the beast’s neck, dropping him to the forest floor. The redness spreads into earth and leaves.
The host surrounds me again. Goblins congratulate me and fair folk kiss my hair. Birds of prey shriek and their ladies smile, while the men hoot and holler. The master of the hunt steps down from his steed.
“I knew I spotted a hunter’s soul,” he says, clapping my shoulder. It feels like a tree falling on my back. “Let us take the prize back to the fire, and roast it as is proper, and drink until dawn.” The hunters cheer and we ride until the fire is found, where we do all the master says. The stag is roasted and somehow gives enough meat to feed us all. We take turns drinking red wine from the hunting horn. The wine is stronger than I’ve ever had. My vision blurs. The laughter swirls with the wind, the forest spins around me. I can’t stand, can’t even sit. I fall and all goes dark.
My eyes open. I’m in my room and my father’s snoring tells me he’s returned as well. I don’t feel drunk, but my belly feels full, and I’m sure no dream could do such a thing. When my father wakes up, I try to tell him, but he’s not interested in dreams. He sets me to chores. I’m fine with chores today—I don’t need to hunt with him and the more I work, the faster I’ll fall asleep tonight. With each task, I give my all. Now the sky is getting dark and my father sends me to bed after supper. I’ve only eaten a little. I want to save room for hunks of stag and mouthfuls of wine. My eyes close.
The stars shine above me. I trot between the trees, alone. My hooves scrape the soil and I feel it tremble. A great host approaches and I know, without seeing a soul, that they’ve come for me. So I run. Other hooves beat the ground behind me, but they aren’t my kin. Creatures like wolves chase, but they’re only helpers to the fiends whose teeth stretch far from their bodies. They’re cheering and closing in.
Which way? There is a ravine and a creek, and I’m not sure which to cross, but I have to decide quickly. The great horn is howling with the great hounds. I charge the ravine and leap.
One back leg snatches the far side and I feel the awful snap. It tells the host where I am. It tells me I’m going to die tonight. But I can’t die. I’m not ready. My back leg drags and I hobble into a glen surrounded by thick trees. I need darkness, where the hunters can’t see my white hair. What’s that smell? Dog? Man? I stumble to look behind me. The smell is my blood. My fear.
They’re here. They crash through the trees and a big man shoves a long tooth through my chest. It can’t end this way, not with lonely bleeding and laughing darkness. I fall. They cheer. They cut into my neck and I can’t move anymore.
I don’t know why I haven’t left my body to walk the great misty trails of my kin. The hunters haul me off the ground and carry me far through the woods. Burning light fights the darkness and I want to thrash, cry out, run away, but I’m dead and can’t move on my own.
The teeth enter me again and I feel them. They course through my body, peeling away skin and hair. My blood is drained. My raw innards blister and burn. I’m the fluid dripping into the fire and the charred chunks split among the hunters. Inside their bellies, I fill them, and my blood is poured into a white drink, darkening it. This fills their bellies too. The pain is far away now. My death gives them pleasure. I am them and I hate them. The stars go dark. Everything goes dark. Is it my time? Where are the misty paths? Am I damned?
My eyes open. My bedroom surrounds me and my father snores elsewhere in the house. My belly is empty, but at least it’s still in me and hasn’t been split between a hundred mouths. I jump at every blade in the house. The fireplace lives in the den—I can’t go near it.
Father wakes up and wants me to do chores. I tell him I can’t, that if I work too hard I’ll fall asleep tonight, and I’ll be hunted and hurt once more. He calls me disobedient, but I don’t care. There is a world beyond any he has imagined. He’s a simple creature. No one ever made him a deer. He never asked how his prey felt or respected their pain. Chores, hunting, discipline—those make his world, his whole world, and there is nothing more to him. I can’t believe I was once so desperate to impress such a man.
I go to bed hungry. Part of me wants to sleep, remembering the first night when I dined on stag, and part of me is terrified of sleep, remembering when I was the stag and others dined on me. I can’t fight forever. My eyes close.
The stars shine above me. I look down, checking for toes or hooves. Even having the thought to check tells me I’m no deer tonight. The soil quivers. The great host approaches and there is no doubt they’re coming for me. I see goblins, fair folk, hawkers, archers, hounds, horses—all of them hunted at my side and ate from my side.
“The hunter’s soul,” the antlered master says, beaming down at me. “Is it still you? Or have you changed?”
“I was your deer last night,” I say. “The pain was—”
“Enlightening?” The master of the hunt aims his lance at my chest. “We must all play our parts in the great hunt. You may be hunter some nights. You may be hunted others. We may chase a great stag, or be chased by famished trolls. But even without the sun, we may bring down a troll with our cleverness, and a deer may bring down a hunter with antlers or hooves. The hunt is never simple. You’ve learned that, haven’t you? No matter what they taught you in the other world. This is no place for the simple.” The master sits up straight. “So you’ve learned. Your heart may tremble. There is the question tonight—will you join us, be you hunter or hunted?”
The host looks on expectantly. My heart tussles with itself. If I refuse, I’ll never be the deer again. If I accept, I could be the deer any night. In my world, there is my father. In this world, there is the master and a hundred possibilities. I don’t know which is right, but I have to decide quickly. The great horn is howling with the great hounds.