Written in Spring 2001, this short story was published in The Prelude and received the Algie Hardwick Hill Prize in Creative Writing from Huntingdon College.
by Deborah J. Brannon
He lay upon the woodland floor, body bathed by the morning dew. The fingers of dawn caressed his body, strengthening as the moments went by, until they touched his eyes, picked them out of the shadow of night: a glitter of darkness, already open to this new morn.
His body remembered what task lay before him, though his mind lingered yet in the dream mist. He rolled to his feet, shaggy, fair hair brushing his shoulders; his step as he picked his way to a nearby stream was light as a wary doe’s. His kind had learned to be quiet, in order to evade enemies, seek food. And the ribs now rising in sharp relief assured that no misstep would today cost him his quarry.
The man knelt beside the rushing water, delved his cupped palms into the stream to bring water to his parted lips. As he slaked his thirst, his eyes roamed the landscape about him, alert as any woodland creature.
He counted six magpies singing their raucous song and very nearly smiled. He was lucky not to have any needlessly small and shiny thing of value with which to tempt the little ones. He turned away, startled a hare he had not noted before, harvested some berries from a near-withering plant. They were bitter, but food, and made his last few strips of dried venison easier to swallow cold. He would need all his strength for what he must accomplish today.
He’d ranged from his home– more than a full day’s stride– seeking and following this small herd of deer. Once he’d picked up their trail, matched them stride for stride, he’d done as the world commanded: prepared himself for the hunt and asked to be wise and thankful.
He purified himself, dedicated his spirit to Cernunnos of the Wood, and slept cradled in the Mother’s embrace– the bole of an elderly oak for his pillow and leaves for his blanket. The God had kept the warrior safe while the Goddess sent him her blessing in dreams.
The doe he must kill, there, no young fawns at her side. But why did he run so low to the loamy smelling earth, feel the death of his prey flow between his teeth? Warm, the life. He lived.
He shook his head, pulling the gut from his pouch and set to stringing his yew wood bow. Though nearly as tall as him, he bent it easily, deftly completing his task.
He moved downstream to seek the shadow of the deer.
* * *
The young human caught up with the herd midday and summarily circled wide around them to find the worn trail though the forest that showed their kind preferred to pass there.
He’d hardly settled in his preferred position, off the trail and partially hidden, when the deer arrived much sooner than anticipated; the young warrior realized he’d not been the first to find them.
His heart’s sudden pounding, the buck’s sudden urgent passage with his brood not far behind disoriented the man, made him hesitate with his arrows, his bow.
Only the lame doe lagged behind, the one without fawns; only she felt the teeth of the wolf that closely followed, lone and hungered as the human that watched.
The dream shocked through him.
Another of the doe’s legs went out from under her, ripped by the predator’s teeth. Her eyes rolled, front legs flashed forward in the full desperation of this dance with death. He trained his arrow upon the wolf, breathing harsh as the fanged creature easily evaded her thrashing hooves and fastened to her throat, tearing it out as he jumped away.
The wolf heaved every breath the twin to the man’s. His fangs trailed red (he tasted the blood), pulled back from his teeth as he nearly took a step toward his conquered prey; yet he stopped, raised his eyes to meet those of the still hunter.
We are one. Brothers, you and I. She gave herself to us. The circle of life, death to feed life. We are one.
The powerful gray body leapt for the hunter, but had hardly left the ground when an arrow slammed well-intended into his chest.
The wolf collapsed amid a howling scream.
He ate the heart and the eyes. Raw, with blood streaking across his face. He took the claws and the skin to make a cloak. The rest he left to the forest, to feed the cycle that would eventually consume him.
Fáilbhe, a newborn wolf, carried his deer home.