|The White Hind
Author: Guede Mazaka
Mist in Britain curls heavy and damp over the ground, sucking at the horses’ hooves so they stamp impatiently and toss their heads. Tendrils of it twine higher to lick away the frayed edges and careworn patches on the knights astride the horses, smoothing the differences in years and in bitterness so they all have the look of fey spirits. Gazing across the field, it seems to Dagonet that he watches not a collection of rag-tag soldiers, matched more by deaths and by Rome’s arbitrarily heavy hand than by natural affinity, but a group of the old golden heroes to whom songs are dedicated.
It is still early. The glimpses of grass beneath the mist are shining with dew, and the sun just crests the tops of the trees. Occasionally a knight will yawn, or rub a dirty, rough hand over his eyes, but that still seems as natural as the birds launching themselves into the air or the rabbits quietly slipping over the ground around them. The constant exhaustion of their lives has carved itself permanently into the planes of their faces and the set of their bodies, but nevertheless their eyes are bright and their hands restless on the reins. It is not often they are permitted beyond the fort walls for pleasure instead of plain killing that is tedious when it is not dangerous or deadly.
The horses will not rest still, for they too have a touch of hunt-fever and so they neigh and paw at the ground, weaving the knights around and past each other. But for all that, Dagonet can still discern the patterns. A few of the oldest knights, those bitten too hard by loss, knot themselves near the back; not even the prospect of a free run through the woods can reconcile them to finding any sort of joy. They look dully on the fog-muted world, heads always dipped like the dog who no longer knows anything past the next beating.
The younger knights strain at the bit, turning their horses up and down the edges of the group with eyes to the woods as if they could will the scouts to reappear. Their hands slip again and again to their swords and bows. One or two catch themselves guiltily, finding their bloodlust too close to the killing cloud which every knight throws over his mind in order to carry himself through battle. But the greater part of them either do not notice or do not care, seizing what they can with white-knuckle fervor.
Galahad lurks on the fringes of them, Dagonet sees. If the youth had joined them in time for the last hunt of fall, perhaps he would have been foremost, straining both forward for the hunt and away from the choking presence of the other knights, but now he stretches between that kind of short oblivion and Gawain who waits patiently with the bulk of the knights. Gawain seems to draw some special comfort from the earth, for he has been long with those knights who have lost their softness to war but have not yet been stripped raw by it.
He acts as landmark for the others, for Lancelot never stops moving and his reason for that has little to do with anticipation. He harries the unruly tips of the group, barking and smiling thinly by turns, cutting the edges sharper and sharper. Sometimes he leans toward the forest, sometimes away, and never do his eyes stay anywhere for long before circling back to the man patiently pacing out the boundary at the head of the group. Arthur holds the knights back—or at bay. He never seems to see that he does so, facing as he does always backward so he cannot measure what he has done against what is left to be done. His eyes pick out only the holes, and before he can do more than see them, Lancelot has already moved to close them. Lancelot sometimes pauses in one, eyes glowering, and Arthur never can look long.
They mistake each other’s meanings, Dagonet thinks. Which is the trouble with simply looking.
The dots flying over the field soon grow into the scouts, Tristan among them. He stays furthest from the knights and closest to the trees. If he kept to himself before, he does so even more now. His eyes always carry some shadow out of the woods that had not existed before the winter. It would have cooled any other man, but it brings a strange heat to him that pales the warmth he shows whenever Gawain or, to a lesser extent, Arthur, addresses him.
There is no horn, no rush of gamboling hounds, no fanfare. There is only Arthur’s quiet voice slicing through the mist, his figure turning head-on to them and then the easy flowing canter of knights passing him. The shouting and the high humor come later; right now the pleasure is in the pure feeling of pursuit that fills the veins of every knight including Dagonet.
They ride, and they ride, threading their way through trees and leaping shallow streams, their eyes always forward. It is rare that they are offered a prize for their toils, and even rarer that such a prize is so close, flashes of it leaping frantically through the brush. So close they can see it, smell its rank fear so strongly that it seems a hand stretched out would have it. So close that they kick their heels into their horses’ sides, uncaring of tiring muscles and rasping breath, and urge on and on and on.
* * *
Scouting allows Tristan to hunt often and hunt alone, as he prefers, so his nerves do not race so eagerly when Arthur manages to wrangle permission from his superiors for a day like this. He peels off early from the rest of the knights and slips around their back, one ear always cocked for hoofbeats so he will not find himself shot by another knight.
He means to check upon some other trails on the far side of the fort, but a flash of white stops him.
It is spring now. The snow still lies in thick patches on the ground but it is dirty black and brown, misshapen into humps and ridges. Pure white, bright and unsullied, is nonexistent.
Tristan freezes where he is, half-crouched over a clump of half-rotted leaves that obscures something’s tracks, and stares into large liquid eyes. They are red like blood, eerily sad, and the body in which they are set splashes white against the black, black trunks of the still-slumbering trees.
The deer sees him but he does not see the deer. He sees a winter storm, a dead land and two people so alive they nearly burnt each other to death in the midst of all the ice. He sees her blood on the edge of his sword and suddenly his wounds that were healed begin to ache. There is blood in his mouth.
Slowly the deer dips its head, eases towards him and slowly he steps back till his heel catches on the tip of a twig. He knows it is there and what it is, and he knows what he does when he lets down his weight so its snap cracks like a whip above the deer. The animal is gone, quick as a snowflake melts. Quick as he shows the tree beside him is when he slashes a long thread of sap out of it, as he is though he’d hoped he had bound the cold of winter permanently within himself.
Tristan stands for a long, long time and watches the sap reluctantly release its grip on his sword. The long clear strings of it drip down to pool near his toes, circling and crossing the tracks that had caught his attention so he sees clearly the way their fragments come together to trace out a long, slender foot with an ugly bump distorting its side.
He flicks aside the dirt and leaves with more care than he shows when tending his knives, careful not to disturb any part of the tracks. They are several days old, some part of him notes. A part which first startles and then comforts him with its coolness; perhaps winter is over, but he can yet learn how to carry its lessons with him through the deceiving new growth of spring and warmth of summer.
Very carefully, he wipes his sword and puts it away. Then he takes a dagger to a branch above his head and cuts in the angular script of the Britons the only word of theirs he knows how to write. He leaves before the sap has done more than begin to bead in the scars. His feet take him towards his business, and away from the white hind that dances ever further into the forest, a taunting memory.
* * *
Brat takes leaps like a cat, clawing his way over any obstacle in his path. It’s a skill that has saved Gawain’s neck more than once, but it also makes for a jarring, teeth-gritting whirlwind of a ride. Branches flash by so quickly that Gawain never can judge how close he’s come to being knocked out of the saddle, and he supposes that is just as well for he’d not be able to ride at all if he did know. As it is, his hands will be numb for hours afterward because now he grips the reins and saddle so hard, and when next Galahad tries to thread his fingers through Gawain’s hair bloody strands will tangle them.
More of their fellows are dangling now from every tree behind Gawain; once Tristan had commented that he need only follow those to find Gawain in the woods. He could and had smiled. Gawain thinks he smiles also, but he does so because the rush has peeled his lips from his teeth, left him too shocked to do anything but smile and try to push through the rest of the way.
“There! There!” calls someone, and Gawain has barely touched heel to side before Brat is wheeling, hooves chopping up a spray of clods.
Another branch nearly takes off Gawain’s head and he ducks so his nose smashes against Brat’s neck. His skull jarred, he almost lets lightheadedness do the rest of the tree’s work and take him to the ground. But his hands hold him on, speed forwards the horse, and somehow he is laughing through it because it is wild and insane and so few are his chances to allow himself that any other time.
And then it comes, crashing across his path out of nowhere. It’s a shocking vision that jerks back his hands on the reins, that slams his heels into Brat’s side so his horse nearly leaps sideways in an attempt to stop in time. The white deer blunders up against Gawain in its fright, maddened by all the rush. He can smell its musk, feel its fur rasp over his trousers.
“No!” Galahad screams. The sound rises above all the clamor.
Gawain turns around, hand going for his ax, but Galahad is in no danger. Rather, he is about to precipitate it, having just knocked up the bow of one knight who’d been too lost in the hunt and the dazzling splendor of the white hind to see Gawain. Now he lunges forward, fury blinding him, and is only barely held back by the others. His intended victim reels away and then simply reels as comprehension dawns on him.
“I’m fine,” Gawain calls. Too softly, for he is still breathless. He sends Brat cantering up to Galahad’s side before he remembers, but a look over his shoulder tells him that the deer is long vanished. He turns back to the man before him and spreads his hands, trying to replace strength of voice with strength of gesture. “I’m fine. Missed having that for a new saddle cover, though. And you could use one, too.”
“I—” And at first it looks as if Galahad is about to plunge at Gawain, but suddenly the anger drains out of him. He twists in the saddle, exhilaration of the chase still having him in its hold, but the crook to his smile is somber. “I can get my own by myself, thank you,” he says, tone dropping in acknowledgment of their private joke.
He doesn’t snap the words, nor does he join in the other knights at throwing wistful looks at where the white deer had stood. Instead he looks at Gawain as if here stands the great prize.
The next moment he’s turned away and has plunged after the others in resumption of the hunt, but Gawain is content to follow more slowly behind. Once he has caught his breath, he can pick up the pace. He knows that he’ll be waited for.
* * *
No sooner has Lancelot seen the white flash than he’s dove after it without a care to the rest. His horse soon outstrips all the other knights, cutting so close that its fore-hooves and the deer’s hind ones are nearly clipping each other. The white beast desperately leaps ahead, nearly tripping itself with how sharply it takes its turns, but Lancelot keeps pace with it.
It’s a blistering fast race—too fast for him to risk reaching for his bow or even his swords. He clings low to his horse’s back, air burning over him, and whispers, curses, prays for more speed, for enough headway to cut off the deer. They are running so fast that it almost feels as if they’ve taken wing.
And yet the deer slows, little by little, and he is able to ease ever closer to taking it. He stretches till every bone and muscle is singing, willing for that space to shrink. His head is swimming with the speed, vision narrowed to the streaking white form before him. He thinks he is laughing; he can hear someone laughing, high and mad and utterly uncontrolled. His heart pounds with every slamming hoof and he thinks briefly that this is how life was meant to be. Racing the wild beasts, answering to nothing and challenging everything.
The hind suddenly bounds and Lancelot’s spirit bounds with it, so high that he almost does not glimpse the ground. Then he realizes that he does not see the ground and it has nothing to do with speed or freedom or rightness, but simple crushing fact: he has run nearly over the edge of a cliff.
He throws his weight back and his horse champs at the bit, feeling its bite like Lancelot feels that of the reins in his hands. Together they claw frantically back for firmer ground, fighting to dig back every inch until suddenly a fierce grip pulls Lancelot the rest of the way. Fear-frenzied eyes slash into view, then out of it as Arthur twists to bring Lancelot around to the side, putting himself between Lancelot and the cliff.
“What were you thinking?” Arthur demands, voice flattened to a growling hiss. The shake he gives Lancelot comes closer than the cliff to throwing Lancelot out of the saddle. “Have you gone mad?”
“Maybe. For a moment.” It’s an honest answer. Lancelot finds it hard to lie at the best of times and now, heart choking throat and skin clammy outside but burning inside, he finds it impossible. “I saw it and I—”
But Arthur’s looking past his shoulder, attention caught by something else. It’s a familiar sight but never one that Lancelot easily accepts, and so he turns with a snarl on his lips.
The deer stares back at him…no, at Arthur. And Arthur’s breath catches, his hands shift towards his bow. He has a perfect shot and the big dark eyes of the white hind know, yet it does not move. It would take an arrow from his bow though it has led the rest of them a merry chase, and Lancelot a nearly lethal one.
Something changes in Arthur’s eyes, something that makes Lancelot’s hand go tight on Arthur’s arm. Arthur lowers his hands.
A moment, and then the deer is gone.
“Why didn’t you take it?” Lancelot asks. His words rattle and sputter like twigs popping in a fire. “You could have—”
“Some things are better left alive, and free,” Arthur slowly replies. His gaze lowers to Lancelot, who finds that he cannot meet this one.
Instead he shakes his head, grudgingly lets their arms slide apart for they’ve held on too long even for two friends relieved at still finding each other alive on a field of battle. “So you say. Some things should be seized, lest they’re never offered again in our lifetimes.”
This time it is Arthur who can’t meet Lancelot’s eyes, though he tries nonetheless. It is painful enough to watch to make Lancelot look away to spare the man.
“Don’t do that again.” Arthur’s hand briefly clasps Lancelot’s shoulder before he is riding back to the hunt.
Even briefer is Lancelot’s hesitation before he takes the trail behind Arthur instead of the trail the white hind has left. For both of them are right in part, and so neither of them is. Not everything that is captured can be freed, and what has already been taken cannot be taken a second time.
* * *
They’ll be telling the tale of this hunt a long time, Bors figures. The white hind, the near-misses and the near-quarrels it’d strewn in its wake…aye, as good a story as any that Vanora tells their children. He’d seen it himself—gotten a look at its hindquarters as it’d kicked out—and there was something unearthly about its color. Something that sang.
Still and all, he’s glad to get back to the fires of the fort, the barracks and the bawdy conversations of the other knights. Tales are well and good, he thinks, but it’s the living men and women that make the days full and the seasons spin.