by Kristin A. Masters
“Hold the bow steady now, Luke, and keep your eye on the target,” Hunter said encouragingly, guiding his little brother’s hands with his own. “That’s it, like Papa taught us, remember?”
Luke, a pale and starry-eyed boy, released the arrow and it landed at the base of a nearby stump. No longer bound up in concentration of the shot, the boy replied blankly, “I don’t remember Papa, Hunter.” He set his bow on the ground and nursed his raw hands, complaining, “This hurts. My hands are too weak to hold the bow right.”
“They will strengthen, as mine have,” Hunter encouraged, sending an arrow into the stump with ease. “You’ve already improved a great deal. Come on, let’s collect our arrows and go.”
“Go?” the boy asked, “Where are we going?”
“I’m taking you hunting today, little Luke,” Hunter declared, dividing up the collected arrows and offering a handful to his brother.
“But you never let me hunt with you,” Luke said quizzically.
“Today, you’ll help me catch dinner,” the youth reiterated with determination.
“What will we eat?” he asked excitedly, his stomach gurgling in expectation.
“Whatever we can catch. But we have some hawthorn branches left, so we can smoke whatever we catch with its sweet flavor.”
“Can we have hawthorn berries for dinner?” Luke asked expectantly.
“No, Luke. Hawthorn bushes don’t blossom in the wintertime,” Hunter said, sighing at his little brother’s ignorance.
“Oh. But, brother...” the boy began, but his brother quickly silenced him with a swift gesture. Alert to his surroundings, Hunter noticed a shadow move in the distance, rustling the bare branches in its path. With a nod he directed his brother’s attention and whispered, “Did you see that, Luke?”
The boy nodded.
“Let’s hurry to catch it, then, before we lose our chance for dinner.”
* * *
As soon as she saw the humans approach, she fled in fear. As she ran, she transformed: her feet tapered into hooves and fur grew from her pale skin. She became a dappled deer in flight, recalling her parents’ warnings: “It is better to turn on a spit as a deer,” they had said, “than to be tormented for your elfin blood.” So she fled on four legs, and not two.
An arrow pierced her side, and she stumbled. She shuddered in terror as she watched the humans draw near...
* * *
Hunter paused to allow his brother the opportunity to shoot first. It was a successful shot; he gasped in surprise as he watched their prey stumble forward.
Luke hastened to the doe. “I got it! I got it!” he cried excitedly, recklessly tossing away his bow and quiver to quicken his pace. Hunter followed behind more warily, picking up their scattered belongings along the way.
He found his brother kneeling by the deer’s side, motionless. “A doe!” he exclaimed in encouragement, “Good job, brother, we shall dine well tonight! Roasted venison, yum!” His mouth began to water at the thought of their next meal as he freed his dagger, preparing to slit the creature’s throat.
Luke remained still, horrified at the sight of the blood pouring from the sleek animal’s side onto the powdery snow beneath her.
“Luke?” the teen called, concerned; he tousled his brother’s hair affectionately to stir him into action. Somehow Hunter expected what happened next; a ghost of a smile haunted his lips at the boy’s reaction.
“What have I done?!” Luke cried, desperately pressing his hand to the animal’s side to staunch the bleeding. “She’s so innocent! Help, we must help her!” With a loud cry he picked up the young deer in his arms and staggered away. Hunter sighed and hurried to guide his tear-blinded brother back to the abandoned stable that they called home.
Once inside, the boy bound the doe’s wound with his ragged shirt and laid her in the stale hay by their makeshift hearth to keep her warm. As he stripped down in the February frost, Hunter scolded him with an icy look, handing him his own threadbare tunic. Luke refused it angrily, and instead used it to further cover the injured animal.
“Why did you take me hunting?” he demanded, wiping away his tears with his bloodied hands, “Why did I have to hurt her?”
“Brother,” Hunter said with a sigh, “We need her for food. We are hunters; we kill to eat. Her flesh is the tender venison steak that you love so much. You have to learn to hunt for yourself in case I...”
“We can’t kill her — or eat her!” Luke said, aghast. “I’ll...” he thought a moment, “I’ll eat bread instead! Then she can live!” he exclaimed, clinging to the shivering doe and his own futile hopes.
“But we have no bread, Luke. And even the bread that I earn and steal is from the blood of the earth and the sweat of the farmers who raise the wheat. We are human, and live only by the death of others. I cannot protect you from this forever.”
“Let me die, then! I cannot eat, knowing that others must suffer for me!” Luke vowed in childish petulance.
“You don’t mean that!” Hunter replied, exasperated. “I will not have you perish. You must eat.”
“What about the fairies? You said that they live forever without paining others. They are nourished by the earth itself and never have to kill to eat...” the boy said desperately.
“Luke,” he sighed, “That’s just nonsense that I filled your head with to help you sleep at night. Don’t you see? We’re stuck. And we’re starving.”
“But she’s suffering...”
“And so are we. Brother, I cannot let you starve.”
Luke sighed, crying anew.
“It’s alright,” Hunter whispered, defeated, “I’ll take her out back so you won’t have to watch. But you were very brave to tend her wounds.” As he placed his hand upon the doe, he shuddered in sudden realization; freeing the animal of its bandages, he motioned for the boy to back away.
“Luke,” he whispered, “pry open the door and stand by the far corner.”
“Do it!” he barked, tossing the boy his knife.
“But why?” Luke asked, hastening to obey the order.
“Because... she isn’t a deer.”
“Don’t you see? She’s bleeding golden blood. We’ve wounded a fairy,” he whispered in horror.
“But you just said that they didn’t...”
“I’ve heard that they sometimes take on animal form to elude humans, but I never believed...” Hunter spluttered. He gently eased the doe onto her feet and drew back slowly until he was backed into the same corner as his brother. He retrieved his dagger from Luke’s hands and took a long, deep breath to steady his shaking hands.
“Fairy,” he shouted at her, raising his voice to conceal his terror, “Forgive us! We didn’t know! Just leave — your kind will know how to heal you better than we can! Please just go. And spare us.”
“Hunter, she moves!” Luke said in wonder as the doe hobbled towards the door, watching them warily as it went. As she scampered through the doorway her enchantment dissolved, revealing her elfin form.
Luke’s eyes widened. “She’s beautiful,” he breathed.
“She’s dangerous, brother. We shall pay for her wounding.”
“Don’t be afraid. My iron blade shall protect us both.”
“I don’t understand. She’s free; she won’t come back,” Luke said, puzzled by Hunter’s fear.
“She won’t come back, but her parents will,” the teen explained as they heard a merry shout outside. Through the open door they could see her tearful reunion in the waning light. There was a cry of sympathy from the doe's mother as she saw the wound on her daughter’s midriff, but she placed a hand over the bloody welt and it disappeared, instantly healed.
The girl’s father kissed her on the brow and growled angrily at her injury; he turned towards the stable and his eyes met Hunter’s. He boldly entered the dwelling as his daughter pulled on his arm plaintively, vainly trying to calm the manling’s rage.
“I’m sorry...” Hunter began, but he was interrupted by Luke’s movements behind him. Before he could intervene, the boy squirmed out from behind him and addressed the maiden with the most piteous and remorseful cry. But then he gaped in wonder at the smooth skin where the wound used to be; he held back his tears with a loud snuffle.
She touched his heart with her palm and he folded to the ground.
“No!” Hunter cried, but as he extended a hand to defend his brother, he was stabbed in the breast by his antagonist’s horn dagger. Its poison-stained blade seared through his veins and he fell to the ground with a groan.
* * *
And then he dreamed that he was walking through a haze. As his mind began to clear, his first conscious concern was of his brother and of the boy’s imminent danger.
“Luke?” he called, “Brother?”
An arrow whistled past him and he ducked out of its path. Another followed it and a rustle behind him told him that he was being pursued. So he obeyed his first instinct and fled.
Hunter soon realized that the arrows came at regular intervals, and he began to suspect that his feet were being guided by his pursuer. Taking a deep breath, he stopped mid-step to face his antagonist.
“Where’s my brother?” he demanded.
A familiar form approached him, replying with a laugh, “Your brother is mine now, little one.”
“No!” Hunter roared in panic. “You must spare him; he was merciful towards your daughter...” he pleaded, recognizing his adversary as the wounded doe's father.
He chuckled, “Our daughter is smitten by the boy; of course he will not be harmed. We’ve taken him into our family; he will be one of us soon enough.”
Hunter sighed warily. “The doe — she’s safe, too?”
The elemental nodded, adding, “In spite of the grievous wound that she received by your hands.”
“We didn’t know that she was a fairy, I swear! We released her as soon as we realized the mistake. I know better than to hurt a fairy.”
“Why not? You kill easily enough.”
“I kill only to eat. I’ve never intentionally harmed a sentient being. I use wooden arrows that cannot harm elementals. I’m careful,” he spluttered defensively.
“But the deer that you slay feel pain, too, and you murder them nevertheless.”
“I’m no murderer! I hunt so that my brother and I will not starve.”
“But you force your brother to have hands as bloody as yours.”
“I had to,” he sighed. “Last season I grew sick and couldn’t get food for us. He nearly starved because I was too weak to protect him. That’s why I took him hunting, so that he would be able to protect himself if I couldn’t.” Hunter paused and added quietly, “I apologize for wounding your daughter, sir. If I could take on her wounds instead, I would, please know that.”
The grizzled elf merely scoffed in mistrust.
“You’ll really take him in, and protect him from the ills of the world?” he asked hopefully.
“I will. I protect all creatures of this wood,” he explained. “He will be safe.” A moment passed and he added, “But you...”
“You, who are a hunter and a killer, cannot continue to threaten my kind.” He sighed. “Yet you have a good heart, and only acted in your brother’s interest. How long have you cared for the boy?”
“For two years. After Papa died.”
“You have raised him well. But he is adopted into my family now, and he will have little use of your protection.” He interrupted himself again with another sigh, and continued, “I suppose that we can take you in, too, and let elfin blood flow through your veins. But first you must promise not to hurt any of us and to put aside your bloody talents...”
“I cannot. I will always protect my brother — and my new sister, for she too is vulnerable — and therefore I must always keep myself armed to protect them,” he ceded.
“You would join me, then, and use your arrows to defend the deer, and not slay them?” he emended.
“As long as I live,” the teen swore.
“Very well, then. I am Melchior,” the elemental added in introduction.
“I am Hunter.”
“Hunter?” Melchior snickered at the inauspicious name, “Not for long.” He shook his head, still amused, and added, “We shall give you elfin flesh. You will slumber a long while as your spirit becomes accustomed to its new form. Rest now, and awaken to a better life.”
* * *
Hunter awoke and swore quietly; he was hopelessly sore and it was too dark for him to see his surroundings.
“Brother?” he called. No one responded.
He tried to rise, but he found it difficult to maneuver, as he had an extra set of legs that he did not know what to do with. But concern for his brother overpowered him, and so he stumbled onward, continuing to call his sibling’s name.
“Luke? Where are you?” he called. He found a doorway and pushed himself through it. Instantly snow fell into his eyes and covered his knees; in surprise he tried to step backwards into the warmth of the shelter, but in vain. For the door from which he had emerged had disappeared and all that he could see was a tree as solid and nondescript as the hundreds of other trees in the forest.
He swore again and shivered. His hindquarters were covered in fur, but his shoulders were bare and his human mind was still accustomed to clothes. In the dying moonlight he could discern the shadow of his new form. He thought that he had been transformed into a centaur, but at the first glance at his new tail and flanks, he smiled at the irony of his shape: his hind parts were those of a deer.
Hunter sat in the snow musing for a while, but soon shook himself from his reverie and began to wander about to accustom himself to his new form. He stopped at a small stream in an unsuccessful attempt to use its icy surface as a mirror to gaze at his new self. After spending an hour lost in thought, a doe approached him.
“Are you the fairy?” he asked quietly. Previously, he would have watched the doe, carving her up in his mind and noting all of its edible parts; now he gazed upon her in reverence.
She shook her head. “Will you...hurt me?” she asked skittishly.
“No. Not anymore,” he vowed.
“For food. My brother and I were starving.”
“We were human...” he began, but she darted off in terror.
Copyright © 2005 by Kristin A. Masters