Copyright © 2015 Shae Christi
No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in retrieval systems, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recorded or otherwise without written permission from the author.
Cover Design by Author using public domain stag silhouette and outline. Vector swirls (http://www.webdesignhot.com/) used under the creative commons attribution license. Pixlr software was used to create finished cover/inside image.
Published digitally by OAK CROWN publishing in 2015.
About The Author
Many moons ago on the eastern sides of the far reaching Vasterium forest a section of fir trees exploded in to a raging inferno of fire which swallowed up and devoured everything in its path. A forest so thick and lush and teeming with life was now turning in to smouldering compacted skeletons of ash and cinder and all the wildlife scattered desperately for the remaining safe Vasterium woodlands.
From the once sleepy dell the towering trees blistered under their coats of fire and birds of all species and all colours circumnavigated the air for sanctuary. A number of them flew too close to the pulsing heat and burst in to burning embers that rained down on to the forest floor. Amongst the terrified throng of wildlife ran a stag who barrelled through a thicket, his lungs fit to burst. He ran and ran until he could no longer feel the threat of the heat at his hooves and he continued until he came to a stream of cool diamond waters and saw to quench his thirst with the rest of the animals that had survived the fire and the stampede. After drinking his fill he wandered up to the top of the hill and stood watching with feelings of desolation at the distant landscape before him. He could see the thick, acrid smoke belching up and dispersing on the wind to the North. Then he collapsed to his haunches and cried. Where was his family? Why hadn’t they stayed with him as he ran terrified for his soul? He began to sob because he couldn’t understand how he was unable to remember their faces or their names. His absolute terror had blurred out their existence. He couldn’t even recall any of his friends’ names or faces. He only knew his name and it was Corinthius.
After staying on the hilltop for a long while and watching the fire and smoke fade out on the wind he made the decision not to venture back in to the eastern forest. He was too terrified to do so. What if the trees caught fire again? To perish by fire must be an awful way to go and he shuddered at the thought. He turned his hooves to the dying scene behind him and walked under the descending dusk searching for shelter, food, water, and hopefully company. For Corinthius felt an overpowering sense of loneliness and isolation. He tried to blot out the grisly thoughts that his family and friends, if he had any, were consumed in the greedy fires on the eastern side and he told himself to keep on walking.
He walked for an hour and the sun began to dip low on the horizon throwing up shades of copper and rusted red light behind the trees and on to the grassy floor. He became more aware of the spiders trembling in their webs. Of the dark winged birds roosting in the ancient trees. And he watched the hares scurrying away and heading for their warrens. Their homes. To their safety. But, nowhere could he find a home of his own or his own tribe. He felt like the only stag left behind in the whole of the Vasterium landscape.
He gently loped over the meadows which were adorned with a carpet of wild, beautiful flowers. The sky began to gradually get grainer and darker. After sniffing out some fresh grass shoots, acorns and flowering weeds to eat he wandered upon a female doe in the dying light of a glade. He stood stock still not quite knowing what to do. What should he say? He didn’t want to startle her. He only wanted a kind soul to help him and speak to. He slowly went towards her and then stopped in the shade of a giant fir tree and watched her for a while before she cantered off back in to the shadow of the forest beyond. Corinthius followed her and did his best not to be seen or heard. He hoped she belonged to a herd that would be friendly and welcome him. Indeed she did meet her herd and they were calmly walking beside a thick copse of rowan trees. Corinthius struck up as much courage as he could and stepped out of the shadows.
“Hello there. Could you help me, please? My name is Corinthius,” he said nervously. Even though he approached gently he still startled the does.
“Who are you? What do you want? We’ve never seen you around these grounds before,” snapped Geru, the doe with the long scar that wound itself over the bridge of her nose. “Why do you come here?”
Corinthius looked at them terrified and gave off the air of a stag with a broken spirit.
“I don’t know. I’ve lost my family. I don’t know where to go or what to do. I came from where the fire ate the trees.”
“Well, what do you suppose we can do about it? We don’t care about your business. It’s nothing to do with us,” spat Zelna, the doe with a chocolate patch that covered her right eye.
The young doe he had followed out of the forest stood to the right of Geru and appeared to be studying him with her large eyes. Two young bucks, Burwin and Bremo, pressed in close to their mother, Zelna, before finding their youthful courage to spring towards Corinthius curiously. Zelna quickly butted them back in to their place with her nose and she gave them a disapproving look that made them bow their heads.
“Stay away from him. Both of you! He could kill you if you get too big for your hooves,” she hissed impatiently.
Corinthius shook his head.
“No, no. I wouldn’t do such a thing. I promise you.”
Zelna eyed him suspiciously.
“Males, once old enough, do not roam with the females after growing up, Corinthius. Go away,” she said coldly.
Corinthius felt sick. Where was he to go? The night was descending in fast. Why were they being so cruel? He didn’t want to be alone.
“Hush, Zelna. Don’t be so awful to him,” said Mia, the gentle eyed doe stepping forward to get a closer look at the young stag.
“He’s lost his way and he’s frightened. All the animals in the forest that came in from the east are. Can’t you feel it? I’m sure we can take care of him until he finds his way.”
“Absolutely not!,” squealed Geru, the disgust written over her face with comical sourness.
“Come now, Geru,” smiled Mia. “We can all see and sense he is no danger to us. He looks terrified. He’s had a horrid experience. Show some kindness for once.”
Mia looked over at Zelna and her two young bucks who were still hiding behind her haunch but watching and listening to the conversation with curious eyes and ears.
“What if the same were to happen to your little boys, Zelna? Wouldn’t you want someone to show them some compassion?”
Zelna eyed Corinthius haughtily.
“Well, as long as he keeps his distance,” she said in a castigating tone. Mia turned to Corithius and smiled.
“Do you think you can keep a little distance, Corinthius? From those two?”
Corinthius nodded agreeably and a wonderful wave of relief permeated his entire body. He then bowed to all of them to show his gratitude. Zelna, Geru, and Mia to an extent, thought he had to be the strangest stag they had ever seen in their life.
After a few days of roaming through the thick forests they came to a meadow and grazed for a few days on the delicious wild flowers. The female does began to lessen their suspicion towards Corinthius as he proved to be a good play friend for Burwin and Bremo, who really liked him. Zelna and Geru’s irritation towards him waned as he kept to his promise of keeping his distance from them. He did his best not to give them a reason to make him feel unwelcome, or worse, have him removed from the herd entirely. The two older does also tolerated Corinthius and Mia keeping company together but expressed concern towards Mia that should the King of the stags, Elkuri, find out, she would be in serious bother. She told them not to worry about her. She was only looking out for Corinthius the way a mother would for a bewildered child.
Mia and Corinthius grew close and he felt settled and secure having someone around that was warm and friendly company. She didn’t judge him the way her two older sisters did who deemed him to have very peculiar mannerisms for a stag. Still, with the mood relaxed Corinthius began to feel more at home with a family, pretend as it was, around him.
He played tag with Burwin and Bremo who chased him from one end of the meadow to the other and he helped wear out their little legs. Helping to expend their youthful energy the way he did meant they were less bother around their mother, Zelna, who seemed to want to just doze in the morning sun or a shade of a tree and didn’t care for her boys play fighting all the time. They also slept more soundly than ever.
After an energetic play of tag, Corinthius and the two little bucks caught their breath and relaxed and sipped from a thin stream that cupped the outer edges of the meadow. As the boys began to play fight close to the water’s edge Corinthius gazed up at the giant fir trees that fenced the meadow in from the view of the main road that twisted its way through the enormous Vasterium forest. He sat back and listened to the air alive with the sounds of bird chatter and song. Then he heard a peculiar noise in the pale blue sky. It was alight with a small screech and chattering of a lone bird. The bird was hovering like a kite in a gentle wind and was watching something in the grass to Corinthius’ far right. Burwin and Bremo cantered over to see what was so interesting to have caught the stag’s eye.
“Look. That bird up there. Its searching out its prey in the grass somewhere near the hazel trees,” he whispered.
The two baby bucks sat either side of Corinthius and watched intrigued as to what the bird was going to do next. The chatter stopped and the bird hovered in the sky for a short while silently scanning the scene below. Then in one split second it nose dived down in to the grass at an incredible speed and all three of the bucks sat and waited for it to rise out of the green sea with its reward in its talons. But, nothing happened. Concerned, Corinthius gingerly trotted over to the patch of grass where the bird had aimed for. Burwin and Bremo followed cautiously behind. What he saw was a sparrow hawk lying in a patch of damp mud with its neck twisted to a sickening angle. In its claw as it lay dying was a little white mouse trying to wriggle away desperately. Corinthius stepped forward and nuzzled the bird’s claw open and the mouse scarpered off in to the long grass. Burwin and Bremo chased it excitedly and tried to nudge it out in to the open. But, Corinthius didn’t follow them. He stood and stared at the small brown bird and watched its yellow eyes roll over in its head. The bird was brown on its back, wings, and underneath which revealed it was female. Mia came over to see what he was looking at.
“So, sad,” he said, mourning the bird’s brutal but quick death.
“Perhaps, but this is nature, Corinthius,” said Mia gently and wishing Corinthius wouldn’t pain himself with the things she saw as every day events.
“Still, I saved a mouse today. That’s something,” he said slowly shaking off the melancholy that had enveloped him.
He went to shoo the baby bucks away from scaring the mouse. Mia smiled and they all went off in to the forest to cool off out of the morning sun. Zelna and Geru joined them as they found a cool glade and dozed lazily in the shade around its ring of day light. Corinthius lolled about lazily sniffing the deep, woody scents that were evaporating up from the warm forest floor. The air was thick with pine needle aromas and pungent flowers and it was all blown through the glade and beyond through an unseen corridor where a cooling forest breeze escaped through. It was the first time in a long time Corinthius felt at ease as he enjoyed the moment. He looked over to the three does and the two little bucks and they had begun to nod off in to a warm nap. Corinthius was just about to follow in to his own slumber when he again became aware of birds chatting in the trees again. He could hear very sweet singing coming from a chorus of birds he hadn’t heard before. His curiosity got the better of him and he got up and he gently wandered off in the direction of the singing which sounded like sweet little bells chiming in a mild wind.
There on a large low slung branch smothered in vine leaves were perhaps close to thirty little birds in the most divine colours he had seen. They had migrated in from far off exotic lands and were resting for a while in the shade of the forest. Some birds had strips of electric blues and magenta pinks on their breast and crowns and were called Sky Bottlers. Among them were a handful as brilliant yellow as the sunshine with silver and black dots in their plumage who were called Gold Hunters. The remaining ones were snow white with beaks of orange peppered with red and collars of cerulean blue and they were called Reedmill Catchers. Corinthius thought they were all the most beautiful things he had ever seen and stood staring at them rooted in astonishment as a few at a time dived off their branch and pecked at the soft mud in the forest floor for insects.
Then from a fir tree to Corinthius’ left sat a brilliant red coloured bird. Its breast was cream coloured and it had half a dozen different shades of red in its wing and tail feathers with a sliver of black standing out to great effect. Another black strip emerged from between its winged shoulder blades and curved up into its spiky black crown and down to the bridge of its yellow beak. It was a Crimson Pepper Wing. It looked at the other birds then over to Corinthius as it tweaked its head this way and that to take in the presence of the wondering stag in its eyes of black glass.
And then it began to sing. A song so sweet and honey toned on par with the robin. Yet, its song was far more complex and rapturous. A large number of the birds sounded to its sweet reply and then the little red bird planed down off his branch and landed on Corinthius’ antlers. It then began to gently peck away for insects in the fur on the top of his head.
Then something spectacular happened. The other birds flew off the branch and landed all over Corinthius’ back and some sat singing on his wide antlers. Corinthius felt his heart fit to burst with happiness and walked back to where the others were dozing. He decided against waking them and wandered off in to the meadow towards the thin stream. Many of the little birds drank their fill from the water and proceeded to clean their wings, before ascending on to his antlers again. Corinthius enjoyed the mild tickling in his fur that their tiny beaks made and felt blessed that he had made some new friends.
Many of the birds were perched on his antlers when Bremo pranced out of the glade and in to the meadow. He was astonished to see Corinthius decked out like the finest Yule tree in the land and ran up to him to inspect the birds. The birds immediately began to inspect Bremo’s fur for insects and he wriggled excitedly under the tickling of their bills.
After a little while had passed and the sun disappeared behind a thin cloud Geru came out of the forest and saw Corinthius’ antlers adorned by the vivid coloured birds who were still happily singing their hearts out. Bremo was on his back giggling as three birds searched for insects in his belly fur.
“Bremo, come here, please,” said Geru from the entrance to the forest.
“This is too much fun, aunty. You should try it,” giggled Bremo.
“Get here. NOW,” demanded Geru furiously.
Bremo rolled back on to his front instantly.
Corinthius looked over at the stern Geru then down at Bremo who shuffled in close to his side.
“Go on, little one, it’s alright. It’s me she’s really angry with not you.”
Bremo sighed and stood up and ambled sheepishly towards his aunt. Geru scolded him by head butting his haunch and Bremo quickly scarpered back in to the glade. She turned and looked over at Corinthius and gave him a look of great disapproval which saddened him greatly.
A couple of days later they all left the meadow and went hunting for fresh wild plants in a denser part of the forest. Corinthius wandered off on his own near a giant elm tree when he was attacked with such force to his right flank by a very large stag. Mia quickly ran to his aid after she heard him scream out in pain. She was struck almost dumb when she realised who Corinthius’ attacker was.
“Elkuri?,” she gasped.
“How dare you mix with this underling, Mia. How do I know nothing about him or where he comes from? I am supposed to know everything that goes on in my Kingdom,” boomed the Vasterium king of the stags.
“I am free to mix and befriend with whomever I wish,” said Mia, her voice quivering.
She motioned to Corinthius with her eyes for him to stand up.
Elkuri didn’t like this interaction between them one bit and as Corinthius scrambled up on to all fours Elkuri ran towards him once more. But Corinthius moved just in time. Elkuri rammed his antlers in to the bark of the tall elm tree that was behind his intended target. He looked a bit embarrassed but then rounded up on Mia to take control of the situation again.
“You will mix with whom I say you can.”
Corinthius came up slowly to Elkuri who looked like he was ready to charge at him again.
“I mean you no harm, Elkuri. I promise you. Mia and her sisters have only offered me a temporary home until I find my way.”
Elkuri frowned. He seemed bemused by Corinthius’ statement.
“A temporary home?” said Elkuri before turning to Mia sternly. “Stags do not hang around does looking for temporary homes, Mia. Why does he not know this? Is that what you like? Peculiarities in a potential mate?”
“Elkuri, please. Why are you so threatened?,” pleaded Corinthius again. “There is no need to be angry. I am no threat to you.”
This time Elkuri furrowed his brow with such menace and his breathing became angry and primal.
“Me threatened? By you? How dare you address me as such.”
He rounded up on Corinthius and his sheer size was intimidating.
“If you want to stay, you will fight me. Do you know why? Because that is our code. It is not normal you hang back with the does unless you intend to mate with one of them. Which I will never allow. Males herd with other males until the mating season begins. But, I know nothing of you, Corinthius, or where you come from. And from what I have seen and heard you are by far too strange to roam with.”
Corinthius didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t bullish or territorial like Elkuri. All he wanted was to feel safe and have a home and know he belonged some place he could call his own. For some peculiar reason that made him strange in the eyes of Elkuri and the does.
“I will meet you in the Arrondon valley and we will fight tomorrow during the midday sun, do you understand?” demanded Elkuri with his powerful voice that scattered the birds out of their trees.
“No, Elkuri, I will not fight you,” said Corinthius rather too pragmatically for Elkuri’s liking.
“Oh, yes you will.”
“No, I won’t.”
“Give me one good reason why you won’t,” retorted Elkuri impatiently.
“Because you will beat me easily. Hooves down. It is no contest. You’ve already won,” said Corinthius simply. “But, if it’s just the rage inside of you wanting to hit something that you don’t understand then why don’t you just plough your mighty antlers in to that tree once more to rid yourself of it? It doesn’t matter if it impresses the other does of your prowess because you clearly own them anyway.”
Elkuri stood and stared at him long and hard for what seemed like an inordinately long time. Mia and Corinthius were not sure quite what he was thinking but the very act of thinking appeared to pain him.
“You are by far the oddest, cloven hoofed creature I have ever met.”
Then, Elkuri turned and strutted off. He then stopped to look over his shoulder staring in Corinthius’ direction.
“I’ll be watching you, Corinthius. I can assure you of that. Step one hoof out of place or mate with my does and I shall kill you.”
“I promise you, Elkuri, I won’t do those things,” said Corinthius earnestly.
Elkuri gawped, a dumb puzzlement etched in to his muzzle and frown. Then he shook his head and let out what sounded like an irritated sigh before disappearing in to the forest.
The following evening Corinthius bedded down close to the three does. Burwin and Bremo were huddled in to their mother, Zelna, in the long grass. Corinthius laid next to Mia and he gazed up at the stars twinkling in the distant firmament. Mia watched him mystified.
“What on earth are you looking at?,” she finally said in a whisper so as not to wake the rest of the sleeping clan.
“I’m not looking at anything on earth. I’m staring at those glittery things in the sky.”
Corinthius turned to Mia surprised that she would even ask him such a question.
“I don’t fully understand why. But, I feel they are important. Like they are the moon’s little babies. I believe they have been there for such long time. So they must be very wise. When I look at them I feel like I am a part of them, as if for a brief moment, I am made up of stardust too, and everything, all of us, becomes connected and infinite. I sometimes wonder if they are looking at us and thinking the same thing. I wonder if it’s all quiet out there. Don’t you ever look up and wonder where it all came from. Where we came from? Where we fit in to it all?”
Mia shook her head astonished at Corinthius’ peculiar way of thinking about the world around him.
“No, never. I thought I only ever needed to know that night time will turn in to daytime and daytime in to night. That there is enough food to sustain our existence. That me and my clan are safe. If all those things are in harmony then I can have my own children and thus continue my blood line and that we does and bucks can afford to continue indefinitely. The only odd thing that I wonder about is, sometimes I sleep and see pictures.”
Corinthius inclined his head towards her becoming even more interested in the conversation.
“You dream too?”
“If that is what it is called then, yes I do. Do you?”
“All the time?”
Mia laughed again.
“All the time? What do you dream about?”
Corinthius looked back up at the stars again and he saw a silhouette of an owl delving in front of the thin milky white face of a crescent moon. Everywhere was quiet but for the usual low drowsy din of nocturnal life in the trees and on the forest floor.
“Sometimes I dream I am around people and they seem to like me. I sometimes even dream I am one of those people. Perhaps I lived with humans before and not a herd of deer. I’ve wondered about that since the forest fire.”
Corinthius looked back down on to the moonlit meadow peppered with sleeping flowers and sighed.
“I wish I could be a man. They seem to have the capacity to live such interesting lives from what I have seen when they pass through the forest. But, so many seem to squander it on trivialities. I could be a better man than a stag, I think. I notice when I dream all the colours are brighter and more vivid than they appear when I am awake. I wonder if that is the fundamental difference between living a life as a woodland creature and living a life as a human that has so many possibilities. I like dreaming a lot. Have you ever had a dream like that when it appears more real than the waking world?”
Mia stared at him and then shook her head.
“No. My dreams are very boring compared to yours, Corinthius. Sometimes I’m running from something and can’t quite run fast enough. Those dreams are frightening.”
“Oh, yes, those are horrid ones.”
Mia spoke about a couple of dreams she considered strange and Corinthius listened intently to them.
“But, usually, I’m searching for food. Though I have to say, my dreams of finding food shows me where to find them in the waking world. It means I am an integral part of the herd.”
“That’s an important role, Mia. I wish I belonged some place and felt like I was integral to its existence. To live peacefully under the trees and wish no bad tidings ever take hold over the land.”
Mia studied him for a long time as he craned his gaze back up in to the night sky again.
“I am truly concerned for you, Corinthius. You are too gentle a beast for this life. The forest will eat you up and swallow you. I honestly fear for your safety. It’s too wild out here for you.”
“I think I’ll be okay, Mia. If there is one thing to get me by it is I have my wits about me. They should keep me in good stead.”
Mia agreed that he might be right and then watched Corinthius continue to ogle at the star dappled heavens as if he was in a wakeful dream of his own and she wondered what it would be like to be inside his mind for a day and a night. It was probably a whole sight more interesting than the life she had been living with Zelna and Geru. It wasn’t long before both Corinthius and Mia slipped in to a soundless restful sleep and dissolved in to their own dream worlds.
Geru had been watching them both from the long grass under the guise of a half sleep and didn’t like the weird, strange thoughts and dreams Corinthius was sharing with Mia. He was clearly having an influence on her and Geru was now fearful for Zelna’s two bucks. What would happen to the entire cervidae species if all the males morphed in to a peace loving, gentle natured, stargazing oddball? No, Corinthius had to go, she decided.
The following afternoon Corinthius roamed alongside a river and drank from its refreshing waters. He watched his reflection in the slow moving water as it gently swelled and diluted his face in to comical distortions. He marvelled at the reflection of his wide antlers as they reached out over the moving water and looked like bare tree branches being buffered under a wind.
“I imagine you wish to see a man when you look in to that wet mirror, Corinthius. Do you not?,” spoke the distinctive deep voice of Elkuri as he strutted up powerfully beside him.
Corinthius swung round alarmed by the unexpected company.
“I’m sorry?,” he said puzzled. What on earth would Elkuri know of wanting to be a man? he thought.
“You should be sorry. For ever wanting to dream of becoming a man. They are dangerous, vulgar. They are a irrevocable disease over the natural lands and they destroy it. They have an infinite greed to control all territory and wield and bend it to a shape that is pleasing to them. Stone by stone, tree by tree, and acre by acre.”
“The same could be said of us, Elkuri,” said Corinthius as he went back to sipping the water.
Elkuri bristled at his words and stood over Corinthius deliberately intimidating him with powerful effect. But, Corinthius chose to ignore him and continued to drink from the stream.
“They are cold, cruel, unforgiving and ruthless. They regularly hunt us for food like they hunt the lowly boar, every species of fish, and the magpies. We are nothing more than chunks of meat to them. To aspire to such an ideal means you are nothing but a base and inferior animal and certainly not to be trusted. Just as I expected you to be. You have no clue what it means to be a potential king of the forest and you are not worthy of being part of our world. I want you to leave immediately. I am casting you out from this herd for good. Everything about you is unnatural.”
Corinthius looked up startled. He hated the way Elkuri pronounced the word ‘unnatural’ as if everything about him was to be despised. What was it that was so unlikable about him? He looked over to Mia who had overheard Elkuri’s lecture and came cantering over begging him to let Corinthius stay. Elkuri told her to go away, but she stood her ground. Mia looked over to Corinthius who was becoming unnerved by the situation at every turning second.
“It wasn’t me who told him, Corinthius. I swear. It must have been one of my sisters who overheard us talking last night.”
“It’s okay, Mia. I believe you.”
Corinthius tried to remain strong and show he was not frightened. But, inside he was terrified in not knowing where he was to go next, to be cast out to walk the earth alone.
Elkuri charged at Mia driving her hard to the ground. Then he turned to Corinthius and gave him a hard arrogant stare. Corinthius felt utterly helpless.
“You will leave this instant. Otherwise, I will mortally pierce your sides and send you to your death for the sheer fun of it. Now GO!,” bellowed Elkuri his anger emanating towards Corinthius like a tsunami heading for land to destroy everything in its path.
Corinthius did as he was ordered and he turned and galloped to the top of the hill. Once he reached the pinnacle he looked back and saw Mia limping back to her herd. Elkuri had followed Corinthius to the bottom of the hill and stared. Corinthius could feel Elkuri’s anger and immense energy from two hundred feet away. Corinthius then took one last glimpse of Mia. Even Burwin and Bremo appeared to be getting pushed back by their mother from following him. With a heavy heart he turned away and trekked towards the mountainous regions within the forest. He felt sick that he would never see them again. Once again, he felt like the loneliest soul on the planet and walked for a very long time nursing his pain until his hooves could take him no further and he collapsed and fell in to a deep sleep beneath a large hawthorn bush that kept him dry from the incoming rain overnight.
Early next morning Corinthius woke with a mild headache and felt awful. His mouth was dry and his stomach yawned and growled for food. The instant he roused from his sleep and realised Mia, Burwin, and Bremo were no longer there he felt his stomach knot up. He had to get to his hooves and move around and distract himself just to prevent himself from crying from the loss. He gently loped down to a small thin stream that wound round a weeping willow and he drunk from it greedily to rid the dry, parched grain that had set in his mouth. He watched a small frog hop over the protruding wet stones and disappear in to the thick grass.
Then he heard an odd sound. First he thought it was one of those delightful little birds he had heard in the glade. Then he changed his mind and wondered if maybe it was distant bells ringing out from some unknown village on the outer reaches of the Vasterium forest. Then it became closer and he turned to find a young woman singing to herself as she weaved out from a forest path and began to pick some berries from close to the hawthorn bush he had been sleeping under a few minutes before.
Corinthius quickly hid behind the willow tree and was partly standing in the stream. He was grateful for its drooping branches thick with leaves to conceal his presence from her. He remembered what Elkuri had said about the race of men and their ugly human nature. Yet he studied the woman with side braids woven in to her raven hair. She was smiling to herself as she sang and every so often stopped what she was doing and stood to inspect her surroundings as if she had a deep gratitude for it all. She then took a small axe from her belt and walked over to a copse of hazel trees. She took to work by lopping off the long, thin branches then tying them in to bundles with rope.
Corinthius was so intrigued by what she was doing he was completely unaware he had stepped out from under the willow tree to watch her more closely. The woman swung the bundle of hazel stems over her back and as she stood she caught sight of Corinthius and smiled at him. Corinthius was startled that he had been seen and turned and ran to hide behind the tree again. But, he peeped his head from behind the trunk to see what the woman would do next. She picked up her basket and slowly walked his way.
“It’s okay. I won’t hurt you,” she said holding out her hand to him and in such soft tones that mesmerised Corinthius’ senses like flower nectar to the spring bees.
But, Corinthius remained rooted, like the tree, to his spot. What if she pulled out her axe and killed him? His fear seemed to paralyse him and his eyes grew wider. The young woman could see his fear and she stopped walking. Instead she sat down on the grass verge beside the forest path and stream and pulled out of her basket a handful of strawberries. Corinthius eyed the thick, juicy orbs with envy and he could feel his stomach growl insolently from his gaping hunger. He realised he hadn’t eaten since yesterday afternoon. He came out slowly from behind the willow still eyeing the pretty raven haired woman cautiously.
“I bet you’re hungry, aren’t you little fellow?,” she asked him.
Corinthius’ fear receded a little. He slowly mustered up his courage and walked towards her where she placed the handful of bright red strawberries in the dry grass for him. All the time he looked at her then the berries then her again. Finally, Corinthius was a mere few feet away and he quickly shovelled up a few berries and then studied her face while he chewed. The sweetness trickled down his throat and he felt more at ease next to her when he took another bite from the small fruit mound.
Then the woman reached out her hand and Corinthius froze at her action. But she stopped a couple of inches from his muzzle and allowed him to approach her when he felt comfortable. He slowly went in to sniff her hand. He could smell the intermingled aromas of all the fruits and herbs she had harvested that morning. Then he lightly touched her fingers and she gave out a sweet laugh. She was delighted that he was comfortable enough to allow her to touch him and she stroked his entire face and touched his antlers and tickled under his chin. Corinthius adored the sensation of her touch and felt blessed to feel physical interaction again, even if it was with a human. He slowly moved in and began to smell her hair which caused her to fall about in to a spasm of giggles. He could smell the sweet smell of apples and cinnamon which tempted him to start nibbling at her long raven braids as if she were good enough to eat for breakfast. The woman fell in to a heap of more giggles and she sweetly told him no and pulled her hair away from his mouth. She stood and wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed his ears and Corinthius leaned in to her because she was warm and smelled of apples in a spring rain. Then she knelt again in front of him and held his head in her hands.
“I’m Adalheid and I’m going to make you a lovely breakfast. Would you like that?”
Corinthius studied her deep olive green eyes before he nodded. Adalheid was astonished by his reaction. She didn’t really expect a stag to nod to her question but nod he did.
“Do you understand what I’m saying to you?”
Again, Corinthius nodded.
Adalheid was delighted and kissed the warm fuzzy part between his eyebrows and scooped up her basket and she began to walk back through the wood urging Corinthius to follow her.
That morning Adalheid made him a divine breakfast of acorns, blackberries, grass shoots, acorns and herbs and Corinthius devoured every morsel. He washed it all down with fresh stream water. They spent the entire morning walking the wood together, through glade and dell, and she taught him the names of flowers and trees. She even taught him where to hide if there was ever a storm that loomed. In between her lessons they chased each other and laid in the grass together where Adalheid taught Corinthius the types of clouds and their meaning to the incoming weather. She was extremely clever and independent and Corinthius quickly came to adore her lapping up her company like a fine mead. She gave him the name of Hazalia on account of his beautiful hazel eyes. She promised every morning to meet him by the weeping willow and they would accompany each other in their woodland walks and lessons. Corinthius thought to himself how very wrong Elkuri was about humans. He had found a wonderful friend in Adalheid and thought that Elkuri not knowing the same, well, his life was all the more poorer for it.
After only a few weeks in her company Corinthius knew he had fallen deeply in love with the lovely wild crafting maiden. When he dreamt of being a man he dreamt he was walking in the wild meadows with bare feet and feeling every blade of grass and each droplet of dew next to his skin. He would be holding Adalheid’s hand and feel her warm fingers threading through his own. When he awoke a sorrowful depression began to choke him because he knew they could never be. He would get up and gallop like he was madness personified throughout the dells and meadows to rid himself of his negative thoughts.
Then one morning Adalheid did not show up at all. Corinthius was beside himself with panic. He ran as far as he could where he thought Adalheid might be but she was nowhere in sight. A few days went by and Corinthius had slumped in to a deep dark depression. Even his dear friend’s apple scent had evaporated from his fur and his own stag smell assaulted his nostrils. He told himself, tortured himself even, that she had fallen in love with a human and she had left her wild crafting life and friendship with Corinthius behind in the forest forever.
Corinthius took to walking the rubble strewn dirt path that weaved up to a stone bridge that arched over an iron grey river that ran like a vein through Vasterium. Because he was so involved inside his own thoughts he was not paying attention to his surroundings. A band of men were walking over the bridge towards Corinthius’ side. The man in front caught sight of the stag coming his way.
Suddenly an arrow grazed Corinthius’ hind leg burning a track of blood caused by the edge of the arrow head. He looked up and saw the last man of the five reloading his quiver. The men in front also scrambled to load theirs. Corinthius quickly bolted for the dense forest of fir trees to his right. The men dispersed in all directions to hunt him down, their voices shouting in the forest air. Corinthius quickly sniffed out a small overhang of rock that Adalheid had shown him which was covered in flourishing vines. There was enough space behind the vines to hide himself as the men scattered and regrouped before dispersing again.
Corinthius eventually heard them pack up and move on, their voices gently fading away as they took the road that would finally lead them out of the forest to the North.
Corinthius later rummaged for scraps of food and drank from the nearby river before he bunked back down again behind the vine threaded rocky overhang. He felt hot, confused, and deeply sad. All throughout the night he kept waking and thinking of his beloved Adalheid and the deep wound in his heart caused him to weep out for her to come back to him. Once again he left the rocky overhang and walked for a while under the inky blue sky and stared up and wished he was as far away from Vasterium as the stars in the heavens were from earth. Finally he laid down beside the river and watched it rush past his front hooves gurgling up a strange elemental language he could not decipher. The motion of the water sent him in to a deep trance which eventually cajoled him in to a soundless sleep.
In the pitch dark before the dawn broke and before the birds began to sing in a new day Corinthius woke to the awful sensation of having his antlers twisted violently out of his head. He felt the earth sliding away from beneath him. The stones and rubble scrambled like hard shelled animals underneath his weight. Under the milky cream of the moonlight he could see a gang of men in dark robes. Their frightening hoods hid their faces under even darker shadows. They were pulling him away from the river bank and in to the dark forest where the giant fir trees were. He tried to stand but they had bound his legs so tightly he could only muster a mild wriggle. He wondered how had he not woken to the sound or feel of them as they tied him up while he slept. He could see in the distance the direction the men were dragging him to that there were cones of fire crowned on the ends of tall wooden poles which illuminated an opening in the wood.
Then the drumming and chanting began and filled up the thick forest air with an unnerving malevolent energy. Corinthius could feel his own heart drumming fiercely against his chest as if it were begging to be let out of his body. A priest took to the altar and spoke very strange, dark and frightening words. He projected his voice upwards as if whatever deity he was communicating with just hovered above them in the thick oily blackness where the light of the fire couldn’t reach.
The drumming and chanting stopped and one of the men came over to Corinthius and hunkered down next to him and pulled out a knife. Corinthius flinched at the sight of the glaring blade and hoped that the deep pain slicing in to his flesh would be brief and merciful. But, the man merely cut away his ropes and two other men grabbed his antlers. They hauled him towards the priest’s direction and dumped him unceremoniously over a large boulder with a flat shiny surface. The priest sang out a number of those strange, unnerving words that Corinthius couldn’t comprehend and raised his knife over his hooded head and the knife blade glittered dangerously under the fire light. Then the priest aimed the blade immediately for Corinthius’ throat.
Suddenly a terrifying clap of thunder burst through the air above them and shook the earth beneath and the priest fell back a few feet in utter shock. Corinthius rolled off the boulder and ran skittishly for the dark trees but his legs gave way under him and he laid dazed beneath one of the wooden poles of fire. The wound where the arrow head had sliced in to his hind leg was stinging badly and he began to lick it clean.
Then lightning struck the ground and burned a ring around the men and Corinthius. A carpet of green smoke snaked round their ankles. The men fell to their knees in reverence and awe and seemed to praise what they believed was the entity that they were prepared to sacrifice Corinthius to moments before. A bright ball of blue light and trailing smoke exploded into a green mist. They waited for what was to come next. No fantastic exploding colours came. No thunder or lightning. It all went quiet.
Then, a twig snapped in the dark shadows surrounding the fiery ring. A tall woman stepped forward and interrupted the men’s ritual space.
“Hello, gentlemen,” she said.
She wore a black metal crown with side plates that cupped her ears and it was embellished with a gold design that flashed beneath the firelight.
The priest looked disgusted and stood up. He removed his hood and Corinthius immediately recognised his face as one of the men on the stone bridge who hunted him earlier that day.
“A woman! You’re not Axelwane,” he sneered.
The tall woman laughed at him coldly.
“Evidently,” she purred. She looked over at Corinthius.
“You were about to sacrifice a stag? How quaint and somewhat archaic, if I might add. If you don’t mind, I’d rather have him alive if that’s all the same,” she said in a seductive tone that only irritated the priest all the more.
“Get out of here, you infidel! You will not be taking the stag,” screamed the priest. “We found it. It’s ours. Now get out of here.”
The tall woman looked the priest up and down with an unnerving icy glare.
“You would do well to mind that mouth of yours, little man, otherwise instead of sacrificing animals for deeper connections to a deity, well, I can send you to meet him in person, all of you, if you’re not careful. Axelwane is my father, a true misfortune if ever there was one but, he would be ever so pleased to have you for dinner, I’m sure.”
She gave a cold, sinister laugh.
The priest immediately fell quiet. He had caught sight of the design on her helmet and recognised the gold braiding all around the rim of two mountain snakes intertwined over gold rope. The priest stepped aside with a worried look now etching in to his brow.
The woman waved her hand and a blue-green light emanated in front of her. The men behind the priest gasped and realised this really was a supernatural elemental goddess in their presence. The priest fell to his knees immediately.
“Belovaya, Dark Queen of the Underworld, I offer my most sincere apologies and did not mean to offend. How can we be of service to you?”
Belovaya ignored them and set her sight on Corinthius who began to crawl away from her on his unsteady hooves. Her tall, slender frame, glittering lavender eyes, and a sly smile that crooked the corners of her full mouth deeply unnerved him.
“Come to me, my little one, my beautiful Corinthius.”
She knew his name. That was enough for Corinthius to turn and try his best to bolt the ring of dying fire for the dark trees. Belovaya flung her hand forward and the emerald mist struck him with such force. But, he did not hit the ground. He began to hover quietly a few feet from the earth and immediately fell in to a half sleep.
The priest and his men wailed with delight at her power and begged her again asking if they could be of service to her. Belovaya looked at the men on their knees, their hands clasped in front of their chests to show her their utmost respect, the absolute expectancy in their wide eyes.
“No,” she said in an almost bored tone. “The very sight of you pandering to me sickens me to my core.”
She snapped her fingers and an intense fire smothered and devoured them like a wild elemental animal. Their screams of agony were heard the entire time she walked through the dark forest lanes of giant elm trees. Corinthius caught a drowsy glimpse of what she did to the men but then began to drift in and out of consciousness.
He was barely aware of his surroundings whilst in his suspended animated dream world as Belovaya held gently on to his antlers and made toward her home in the Berring dells, a lush green valley guarded by ancient yew trees. By the time she crossed the dark meadow the men’s screams had stopped but the wind carried the scent of their charred bodies over the wet morning dew.
Belovaya arrived with a dreaming Corinthius in front of her home. A cave covered in moss and entangled in the embracing roots of an ancient yew tree. Inside the cave and deep down below was the Underworld. Belovaya’s natural home.
She rested Corinthius gently down on his side in the soft grass beside the large yew and blew a sapphire mist over him. Soon his eyes opened and he struggled to figure how he came to be there. Then he craned his head up towards her. He recognised her face. He tried to stand but, he could barely move.
“I think you have had enough time in purgatory to ponder my offer, sweet Corinthius,” said Belovaya bending down close to whisper in his ear.
He tried to move his head away from her to no avail.
She smelled of something so primal and pungent. Like the black dreadful mud deep in the Vasterium earth. Something so archaic and alien to him.
She grabbed his muzzle and his head moved under her will and he was forced to look at her. He couldn’t help but look deep in to her mesmerising purple eyes that had a light all of their own. And he half remembered something as if drifting in and out of dream and kissing the edges of the real world. A faded memory of a man who once lived in the deepest part of the forest.
He suddenly felt the sensation of the earth beneath his feet. He managed to slip his face out of Belovaya’s mellowing grasp and he looked down at himself in the breaking light of the dawn. He had now become a half man, half woodland creature. His legs were still those of the stag he had been moments before but he now had human feet. But, he had a real human torso and arms and he reached up to his face and the muzzle had gone. He felt his rough hands on the flesh of his cheekbones.
Was this Belovaya’s idea of a twisted joke to half turn him in to the very thing he dreamt of being? Forcing him to remain a half creature of the forest? Something the natural world would never accept nor the human one if they ever laid eyes on him? If it was it was a deeply cruel one.
As he brushed his fingers through his chestnut hair he touched his antlers, now so wide and large like the thick branches from an oak tree. He looked at Belovaya who was taking great delight in his own astonishment. She reached out her hand to stroke his face and it was like an ice cold electric charge shot through his body. Corinthius stumbled back from her.
And then he remembered.
His memory became bright and brilliant and burned like the stars in the firmament. He had been a man once who had lived in the woods. A true, blood, bone, and muscle being of human origin and not a beast that roamed the wood like a vagabond. He had always been Corinthius. A simple, nature loving, young man. A woodcutter, who was happy and content with his simple life.
Belovaya had been watching him from afar for some time and had fallen in love with him. He was unlike any other man she knew of or had seen in her thousands of years roaming her dark lonely world. He didn’t move through the Vasterium world with the air of self-entitlement or predatory instincts. Desperate to have him as her own and to hide her real identity from him she changed her appearance to lure him in. Days became weeks and weeks became months and she remained patient for Corinthius to notice her but, sweet and gentle as he was with her, he only ever looked on her as a little sister whom he had to protect. The deep feelings that she held for him almost burned her from the inside and she ran away.
Three nights later under the thin quiver of a Balsamic moon Belovaya paid him a visit at his cottage. This time she revealed her true identity to him. She explained how Corinthius exposed some deeper emotion inside herself she never knew she had. Corinthius was horrified that she freely used her dark magic to transform herself in the hope she could make him fall in love with her. He hated the fact she tried to bewitch him and his feelings in such an immoral way. He told her never to come back again. But Belovaya persisted and promised him power, riches, and extraordinary gifts beyond his own human comprehension. She promised him that he would rule with her in her Underworld and make him a King.
But, Corinthius had no interest in power or material possessions or supernatural gifts and again he asked her to leave.
Belovaya’s patience snapped and she slammed Corinthius against the wall by his throat. She had never in all her many centuries alive been turned down by a mortal being. And a useless, pathetic one at that, she snarled. She threw him across the front gardens of his cottage in a savage rage and once to his feet he tried to run for the forest ahead to escape her. She immediately hit him with an dark magical fog that slammed in to him like an angry ox and winded him severely. He stumbled but managed to gain his footing again and he kept running in to the thick wood until he looked over his shoulder. There above him he saw a terrifying charge of fire engulf the tall fir trees under the night sky.
He immediately forgot what it was he had been escaping from and assumed it was the angry inferno he and the rest of the animal stampede were departing from. Under all the frightening chaos Corinthius could hear a woman’s voice scream out how she would destroy everything he loved. Now completely unaware of his real identity, Corinthius had become the stag he believed he always was. He just kept running and Belovaya in her rage and unrequited shameful feelings turned a vast section of the forest in to a seething hellfire. Destroying the things he revered the most; his cottage, the trees, the wildlife, the plants, and the feeling of sanctuary it all gave him. She wanted revenge.
But, afterwards, when she descended back in to the Underworld she tortured herself over what she had done. But she despised her feelings more because she could not control them. And she became even more bitter that a man, a mortal being, had undone her into becoming an irrational supernatural being. Again. When the forest fell calm and the danger was over she watched the overwhelmed, little wandering stag from afar but didn’t intervene until his life was almost over.
Corinthius gently scraped the soft, fleshy pads of his feet against the wet dew and relished the feeling he didn’t realise he had missed, ached even, for so long. Then he stared hard at Belovaya.
“Why did you do this to me? You destroyed my home. You eradicated my identity. For what? What did you gain out of this?”
Belovaya came close to him. She looked deeply repentant for what she had done.
“I gained nothing. Nothing at all, Corinthius. Because I still don’t have you.”
“Belovaya, you must understand. You will never have me.”
The realisation of his words bled in to Belovaya’s face and she closed her eyes as if to conceal the emotions churning angrily within. She shook her head.
“No. No. You don’t win this game, Corinthius.”
Corinthius was stunned at her lack of reasoning and began pacing out of sheer impatience.
“This is not a game, Belovaya. My life is not a game. Your feelings are not a game. Who wins out of this? Neither of us!”
Belovaya’s tears fell from her eyes and the light in them made them glitter like amethysts in the rain. She would not accept his rejection and she grabbed him again in such a vice like grip he thought she would dislocate his jaw. Her supernatural flesh on his skin caused her ice like waves to shoot into his body but this time he was able to withstand her energy. Her skin was glacial cold and he was warm to the touch.
“I’m not asking you, Corinthius. I’m telling you. You now have no choice in this matter. You are to be betrothed to me and you will rule my kingdom with me. You will show me the gratitude I deserve for taking you out from your free peasant roots and for transforming you in to something even more divine than you already are.”
She began to cry and moved in so close to him, in an effort to find comfort in their strange intimacy while breathing in his intoxicating scent, that their lips almost touched.
“If I still refuse what will you do?,” asked Corinthius placidly.
She slowly pulled herself away from him and studied his face.
“What will you do, Belovaya?,” said Corinthius confidently as he pulled himself away from her mellowing grasp.
“I won’t do it, Corinthius. I’ll never forgive myself.”
“I will not be your King, Belovaya. I will not rule your kingdom. So, you have no choice. You have to kill me.”
Corinthius knelt before her and spread out his arms.
“Kill me. Take aim at my heart and kill me, Belovaya. I’d rather die than be a part of your own immorality.”
Belovaya seemed to struggle with what was being asked of her. She struggled to comprehend how he felt so little for her and she too much for him and that there was no meeting point to connect such wild opposites. Corinthius became impatient with her lack of resolve.
“Why won’t you end my life? Be merciful, for once. Put us both out of our misery. You’ve had no problem destroying men left, right, and centre throughout the ages. You may have put me in a trance when you took me out of the woods but I know you burned those men alive and have no conscience about it.”
“I did you a favour. They were evil.”
“And you’re not? We men are of little consequence in the grand scheme of your magical life,” shouted Corinthius hitting his chest with his hands to reiterate his point. “Why are you deliberating over mine? What makes me so special to you?”
Belovaya screamed out like a wounded animal no longer able to hold back her raw, deluging emotions.
“Because you are different. You are not like the others. Their arrogance is something I abhor about human nature. Their predatory natures with their intention to conquer and rule disgusts me. They are not my equal. That is why I take enormous pleasure in eradicating them from the face of the earth. But you…”
Corinthius stood and met her at eye level.
“You are so different to many that have walked before you. Had the world been bestowed to you, Corinthius, you would have change it all for the better. If all men were like you, I wouldn’t be the woman you see before you right now.”
Corinthius looked at her gently and felt her impenetrable sadness. The Dark Queen of the North was an image that frightened him and many other children in his youth. Belovaya was known to be so incredibly powerful she was meant to be feared. He had even heard tales of men who had been turned in to rats and pigs for displeasing her and they were the lucky ones who escaped with their life, lowly as it was.
Yet, here she was, Belovaya, the Dark Queen and ultimate ruler of the Underworld and wanderer of Vasterium exposing her real feelings. She must have felt like a raw, exposed nerve unto the elements.
A loud explosion suddenly ricocheted through the distant trees and a deep orange and crimson light bled in to the sky to the South of them. The trees were on fire close to the Berring dells. Belovaya looked annoyed by the turn of events.
“It appears they are looking for me. Again.”
“Who?,” asked Corinthius alarmed at the raging sight in the early morning light.
“The King’s army. They will destroy everything in their path looking for me. They think once they find me I am easy to kill. They never do learn.”
“With you and the army involved Vasterium is not going to have any natural world left at this rate,” said Corinthius concerned as he listened to the distant roar of men and horses obliterating everything in their path.
Belovaya looked at Corinthius.
“Wait here, Corinthius. Please.”
She immediately exploded out of existence under a supernatural sapphire coloured mist and the remains of what was once Belovaya was blown away in the morning breeze.
But, Corinthius didn’t wait around. He ran until his feet couldn’t carry him any longer. When he came to a stream he had purchased such a raging thirst inside him he thought it was enough to drink the waters dry. After harvesting just enough woodland mushrooms and berries he fell asleep instantly by the water’s edge.
After an hour or two of broken sleep Corinthius wandered the landscape thinking how his life would be from here on in. How things between him and Belovaya would resolve themselves. He was concerned his alarming appearance would scare the animals away and was afraid humans would consider him a hunting trophy. He imagined grisly thoughts of himself roasting on a spit before the humans devoured his remains.
He came to a dirt path beside a row of ash saplings and saw the path lead up to a rocky face thickly bearded in moss and decided to wander up there and stand on its pinnacle. Just as he started his journey a trumpet blast was heard coming from up near its rocky peak. Corinthius stepped back in to the trees to hide his strange appearance.
Then a large stag burst in to view at the top of the rocky path. A group of men on horses thundered after it and Corinthius saw they were carrying crossbows and aimed them at the terrified animal. It ran desperately for cover and sprinted past the row of ash saplings and towards the dense shelter of forest. Corinthius followed behind unseen by the men in to the trees on a similar path. He quickly noticed he was running parallel in the direction of the stag. He knew it was Elkuri by his sheer size.
Then after a few moments it immediately went quiet and Corinthius stopped running. He could no longer hear or see the stag but only the distant excited chatter of the men and their horses running in behind after their reward.
Corinthius ran towards a glade and it was there that he saw him. He was lying in the half light gasping for air and in between his beastly snorts came frightened whimpers of pain. Corinthius could see Elkuri was tangled up in rope netting and exhausted. He hid back and stood in the shadows when he heard the steeds thunder up to the edge of the glade.
One man alighted his horse and ran towards the exhausted stag. The other men scampered in after him. The man that lead the hunting party grinned satisfactorily when he came upon Elkuri’s felled body.
“Go on, Maki, put the poor bugger out of its misery. I’m starving. I want to get this prize hunk of muscle up on the spit and get a belly full before we head out tomorrow morning.”
He looked over to Maki, a young thin, blond haired boy of about fifteen years of age, who looked a bit startled to have been asked to do the honourable deed.
“Come on, son. We ain’t got all bleedin’ day. Pull the damn bolt, now. You can see where his heart is beating. Just aim right in the centre of it and it’ll be over and done with.”
Maki aimed his crossbow in the direction of Elkuri’s exposed chest where his heart beat so hard and fast it almost burst out of his chest cavity. The air fell silent and just as Maki was about to pull his trigger a branch snapped to the left of the hunting party and they all swung round with their crossbows at the ready.
Corinthius stepped out of the shadows and the sight of him with his enormous antlers and height caused the men to shiver in fear and take a few steps back.
“By the light of….What the hell is that?,” gasped one of the men, his dark brown eyes wide with terror.
Corinthius moved extremely slowly so as not to make them antsy and make them accidentally pull their triggers. He held up both his hands his palms facing towards them.
“You can’t have this one, boys,” he said motioning his fine crowned head in the direction of Elkuri.
The leader began to get cocky and strutted up towards Corinthius standing just a few feet away from him. Corinthius could see in the man was showing bravado for the sake of his men but beneath his confident attitude he was as nervous as Corinthius was.
“No, sorry, Lord of the Stags. We earned this hunt. It’s ours.”
The leader hooked his thumbs behind his belt and turned smugly to his men and laughed. He then addressed Corinthius again.
“That there yer dad, is it? Had a bit of how’s yer father with the dairy maid, did he?”
The other men laughed but Corinthius knew it was nerves. He stood and stared at the leader and didn’t say a word. This made the leader uncomfortable not knowing how to read the strange creature before him.
“Look, we’ve got a long journey in the morning that will take us a couple of days. So, we need some decent meat to sustain us. So, go on, off yer go.”
Corinthius looked over them all solemnly and two of the men began to get twitchy.
“What yer gonna do about it anyway if we do take him? Man has hunted down stag and boar long before you and I were born, I no doubt imagine.”
Corinthius didn’t say a word. The man turned back to his men and gave a sly smirk. He then began to wave his crossbow in Corinthius direction.
“Look, sod off will yer. If yer just gonna stand there and….”
Corinthius snatched the crossbow out of his hands and the axe from his belt with a supernatural speed that left the leader speechless. Corinthius then looked over to the men who were nervously aiming their bows in his direction before staring sternly back at the leader.
“I swear, I will put this bolt through your eye if you don’t tell your men to lower their bows,” boomed Corinthius angrily.
The leader pondered for a second then turned to his men and told them to do as they were told and they gingerly lowered their bows to the forest floor.
“Now, I said you can’t have this one and I meant it,” continued Corinthius. “I’m the guardian of this forest and I don’t like it when men come in and take things without asking. Its impolite and very bad manners. Even more galling about it all is you seem to enjoy doing it which is thoroughly immoral. If you don’t leave I will have to inform my mistress, Belovaya. I’m sure she will deal with this situation effectively.”
A cold wave of fear went through the men when they heard The Dark Destroyer’s name.
“So, either get back on your horses and leave. Or wait for Belovaya to deal with you all. You have a choice here. It might not be the one you like, but still, it’s a choice.”
The hunt leader acknowledged what Corinthius said and ordered his men to get out of the forest. They left as quickly as they could and galloped like rolling thunder out towards the northern mountains.
Corinthius sighed with deep relief and noticed his heart was beating fast and his hands were shaking. He hadn’t realised how frightened he was of them until after they had departed. He threw the crossbow on to the floor and went to Elkuri’s aid. Elkuri had been watching the entire event unfold from the opposite side of the glade. Corinthius could see the stag was bleeding from his shoulder.
“It’s going to be alright, Elkuri. I promise,” whispered Corinthius as he used the leader’s axe to cut the ropes from his antlers and away from his ankles where it had entangled.
Elkuri laid there calmly and allowed Corinthius to tend to him. Corinthius searched for a particular plant in which he split open the stem and a white cream oozed out on to his fingers. He rubbed it in to Elkuri’s wound to stop any infection spreading.
“I am so sorry this has happened to you. To be the subject of their vile abuse. I understand now why you are so angry about them all,” Corinthius shook his head ashamed as he rubbed more of the antiseptic plant cream in to the King stag’s shoulder.
“If there was anything I could do to stop it all, I would. You have a right to roam freely.”
Elkuri sat up and watched the strange man with the antlers and remained perplexed. It was only when Corinthius finished cleaning the stag’s wound that he locked eyes with him. Elkuri was astonished to recognise the big honey coloured eyes to be that of the little stag he had bullied and ostracised out of his herd. Shame immediately agonised him and Elkuri tilted his head and he made a sorrowful noise. Corinthius understood Elkuri instantly.
“It is okay, Elkuri. I don’t hold grudges. I forgive you.”
Elkuri stood and was too ashamed to even look at Corinthius who had shown him nothing but kindness.
He walked on with a limp and Corinthius followed gently behind. They came to the edge of the forest which looked on to a sweeping field of wild flowers and Elkuri turned round and took on the proud air of the stag king of the wood and he addressed Corinthius with serious eyes. Elkuri then bowed his head showing his absolute respect. Corinthius did the same.
Then Elkuri turned and ran and quickly disappeared out of sight.
Corinthius stood for a while at the edge of the wild meadow and watched the birds in their aerial displays. Large murmurations of birds flexed and swayed in the azure sky like silk fabric in the wind. A pair of grey rabbits scurried off through a copse of hazel and hawthorn bushes.
Corinthius realised he was still holding on to the hunt leader’s axe. He removed the axe from its pig skin cover and he turned the handle over in his hand feeling the grain of the wood. He touched the pummelled, grinded and sharpened iron that had become its blade and sniffed the metallic aroma along with the rustic tones of its oak handle. Once again he remembered his life as a woodcutter and became deeply saddened for the life he had lost. He hated the fact he couldn’t go back home because there was no home for him to go to. Belovaya had destroyed everything. Now, he had to get used to being a half man, half beast of the wood roaming aimlessly. Corinthius put the axe back in to its pigskin leather cover and threw the strap over his shoulder and continued on his way.
He wandered the trail and throughout that time he pondered on the idea of accepting who he had now become. A half man half woodland creature. He was so absorbed with his thoughts he didn’t notice he had walked right in to the sight of a woman collecting berries from the hedgerows. Corinthius stopped dead in his tracks. It was Adalheid. She stood to her feet in awe at the image before her. Corinthius ran to hide in the shadows.
“Please, don’t hide from me,” said Adalheid softly so as not to frighten the creature.
At first Corinthius wanted to run up to her and sweep her up in his arms and say how much he had missed her and their friendship and how much she meant the world to him. But, nothing came out of his mouth.
Corinthius slowly stepped back out from under the shadow of the elm trees and stood before her. Adalheid put down her basket and walked up to him looking him over and seemed to be impressed by what she saw. She walked around him and then stood in front of him admiring his antlers.
“Can you speak?,” she asked.
“I can,” he said in a deep resonant voice.
Adalheid smiled at how warm the timbre of his voice was.
“So, what is your name?,” asked Adalheid. “You do have a name, don’t you?”
Corinthius cracked a big warm grin and it caused Adalheid to react with the same.
“You know my name, Adalheid.”
She was caught off guard.
“You know my name? How? I’ve never met you?”
“You told me the first time I met you,” replied Corinthius.
Adalheid looked at him with an air of suspicion. But, there was also a glint in her eye that she actually liked playing this game.
“How mysterious you are. Did you tell me your name?”
“I couldn’t speak at the time.”
Adalheid frowned. She knew she had never met him because she would certainly have remembered such a meeting.
“Well, if I don’t know your name I would definitely recognise your face. And I don’t.”
Again Corinthius smiled and he strolled over to her basket to check out what else she had harvested.
“You know my name, Adalheid, because you named me,” he said as he plucked out a handful of strawberries to eat.
Adalheid was a little annoyed at his liberty in taking her food as he popped two strawberries in to his mouth and chewed them devouring their taste and smiling.
“Only, I had four legs then, not two.”
“Oh, my stars. Hazalia?,” she said astounded at his transformation. She ran up to him and stood up on her tip toes to touch his antlers and he tilted his head so she could reach before they both burst in to a puddle of giggles.
“So, what is your real name and where have you been all this time?,” she asked her head buzzing with questions like the bees of curiosity.
“It’s Corinthius,” he replied.
Adalheid looked mightily impressed.
“Corinthius,” she said slowly as if feeling each syllable on her tongue gave his identity more weight.
“Yes, you suit that name far better. You look elegant and strong.”
Adalheid quickly set down her food for them both to share and she asked him a barrage of questions of which he was only too willing to answer. It finally felt good to be back in her company and talk with someone about the strangest things he had gone through in the past few months.
Adalheid had been through a terrible time too. Her father had passed away which was why she had been absent from the forest. She searched for him for days but could not find him and accepted that he must have moved on, which by a strange turn of events, was true.
Adalheid said the thing she admired the most in Corinthius was his ability to be positive and look at the best things even after being turned into a magical creature of the woodlands. It would send any other mortal man insane.
Corinthius said in recent days he began to feel he was much closer to the forest than he ever had before. Even more so than when he lived his simple life as a woodcutter in his little cottage or when he had succumbed to his life as a completed stag. He felt more a piece of Vasterium than ever before.
In the following weeks Adalheid spent more time with Corinthius in the forest. They continued where they left off and she taught him how to use her bow and arrow. There was no other man in the land who could beat her at archery, she said. Her feelings for him were less of the loving friend of a woodland creature.
Adalheid was falling in love.
One day they shared a kiss under the spring afternoon sun in an apple orchard.
Adalheid had plans for Corinthius. She was going to teach him the art of archery properly and give him his own bow and a quiver of arrows. Corinthius may have been a dandy in swinging an axe but could he fire an arrow on its true course? she asked him. Corinthius was only too willing to allow Adalheid to teach him.
In return he would teach her about the constellations and how the moon affected the tides and the seedlings in the earth. They planned to meet the following day by the very willow tree where they had first met.
That evening Corinthius roamed the meadows and valleys of Vasterium for a while before returning back to the oak where Adalheid had earlier departed from him. He rested in its large ancient branches and sat and watched the sun go down and the full moon rise. The air felt like a comfortable warm blanket on his skin. And from the best view in the forest he watched all the little lights popping in and out of view from the faerie realms down below on the forest floor and from the edges of the wild meadow. He gently fell in to a reverie with thoughts of his beautiful Adalheid and daydreamed about their future. He knew in his heart he loved her deeply. He soon fell in to a sweet slumber as the moon rose to its highest point in the night sky.
But, his sweet dreaming turned dark and dangerous. His nightmare revealed to him a dark, ancient tree and its roots were exposed pulsating with blood and black thick liquid deep inside them. Then some of the long branches coiled and snarled themselves around Corinthius so tightly he could barely breathe and they began to lower him in to the mouth of a sinister looking cave. Corinthius tried to scream but nothing came out. Then he felt the ice cold energy, like a creeping frost smothering the roots of his nerves. In his half-dream, half-terror he looked up in to the crown of the oak tree looming over him and he could see its branches like sharp, crooked fingers against the back drop of the full moon.
He woke with a violent shock gasping for oxygen to fill his lungs. There, right up close to his face by mere inches, was Belovaya floating in the air. Her deep amethyst eyes now burning coal red with resentment.
She had her long rangy fingers wrapped around his throat and he could feel her icy bitterness pulsating through him. Her energy felt like ice water seeping in to his veins and freezing everything that made him human. He groaned in agony under her grip.
“You dared to defy me by running away, Corinthius? How dare you even perceive the thought. I saw you today with that maiden. You give your heart so freely to her and barely look in my direction?”
Tears began to fill her eyes again and the absent amethyst colours he knew began to flicker through the fiery red of her pupils. Corinthius could not tell if her tears were from hurt or her impending revenge that was poisoning her from the inside out.
“You think you are too good for me, is that it?”
Corinthius looked her in the eyes and then he raised his hand and stroked her face even though her energy was almost depleting his own life force. His tender action startled her.
“Belovaya, I have never thought that. I feel so sorry for you and I mean that with sincere compassion not arrogant mortal pity. You are desperately lonely and your anger and hatred is consuming you. There is no way I can compete with something so powerful and soul destroying. You can never know what real love is because there is no room in your heart for it.”
Belovaya’s tears fell and then her anger took over. She threw Corinthius out of the oak tree with such force. The impact of hitting the ground almost broke Corinthius’ body and he screamed out in pain.
“You asked me earlier to kill you. And I couldn’t. But, now I know your heart is connected to another it will be an easy thing to manifest. I can never accept you and her together. I forbid it. For your betrayal, I have no problem in granting your request. You’re right, Corinthius. My heart and soul is one black, festering hole where there is little room for love. So, in killing you, I will learn to live with it and yet hate what I have done. Torture myself and grow even more darker. Because that is my true nature. It is what I have become. And in some perverse way, I will still own a small part of you. I will own your soul as my own. I can never allow you and her to be together. Never.”
Her physicality seemed to grow larger, taller, more menacing and the look on her face more cruel and terrifying. She brought up her hand to strike the fatal blow of dark magic in to Corinthius’ heart when an arrow came out of the dark wood and pierced her abdomen.
Belovaya faltered and reeled sideways.
Corinthius was stunned.
Belovaya was a supernatural elemental dark energy and he couldn’t understand how she was reacting to an object from the mortal world in this way. Belovaya tried as she might to pull the arrow out of her body but couldn’t.
“What have you done?,” she cried out.
Corinthius stood dazed by what was happening.
“I didn’t do this, Belovaya,” he pleaded. Then a figure stepped out of the wood and was reloading another arrow.
“It was me. And I swear, if you think you are going to kill Corinthius just to settle a score, well, you had better try and get past me first!,” spat Adalheid as she stormed forward aiming her arrow towards Belovaya’s head.
“I don’t take too kindly to folks taking things that never belonged to them.”
Her arrow glinted brightly under the soft moonlight. Adalheid saw the perplexed look on Corinthius’ face.
“Its gold. Arcane mountain gold to be precise. The only element that can fell a supernatural being from one hundred yards.”
Belovaya writhed on her knees as the head of the gold arrow felt like scolding hot acid exploding inside her stomach. She then began to dredge up as much energy as she could and used her faltering magic to open a portal to access the Underworld.
“Not so easy, Belovaya,” said Adalheid aiming the gold arrow at her chest. Adalheid could see a glint of fear in Belovaya’s eyes which were blurred with tears.
Adalheid pulled the twine back from her bow and was just about to release when Corinthius stood in front of her.
“Don’t, Adalheid. Please,” he pleaded softly.
“Corinthius? She was about to kill you.”
“Yes, and the only person she was going to hurt was, ultimately, herself. She is forever destroying herself and rebuilding herself back up with hatred and irrational behaviour. Have pity on her.”
Adalheid looked on Corinthius dumbfounded. Belovaya struggled to stand.
“As you wish, Corinthius,” said Adalheid lowering her bow.
Corinthius smiled at her and he stepped aside for Belovaya to disappear in to her Underworld portal. Belovaya turned and looked at both of them and was about to say something before she decided against it. Once she stepped beyond the shadowy opening the portal disappeared and all that there was to see was the wide empty space of the wild meadow beyond.
“What made you come back tonight, Adalheid? I thought you were coming back tomorrow. Though I am eternally grateful you showed up when you did,” said Corinthius after a long while tilting his head. “Otherwise Belovaya would have turned me in to food for the meadow worms.”
“I couldn’t wait. I’ve got your bow and arrow here for you,” she said removing them from her shoulder and handing them over to him.“Also, you were going to teach me about the moon and stars and well, look, a full moon. What better time?”
She smiled and gave him a kiss.
Corinthius felt deeply grateful for the way fate had intervened. He looked up at the sky and watched the moon suspended in its sea of ink.
“I have an idea but, we haven’t much time,” he said. “We have to do this before the sun rises. If we don’t hurry the dawn is going to threaten my plan.”
Adalheid followed him as they ran through the forest to the east. Corinthius headed for Belovaya’s main Underworld entrance beneath the ancient yew tree in the Berring dells. Once they arrived they both stood and stared for a while before Adalheid looked up at Corinthius.
“Are you expecting us to go in there together? Because if you are might we do it this second before my fear really takes a grip over me.”
Corinthius smiled at her.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said.
“If you think you are going in there by yourself, think again, Corinthius,” said Adalheid as she removed her bow and began scrambling for one of the golden arrows from her quiver.
Corinthius reached out his hand and lowered her bow.
“We are not going in. I promise.”
Adalheid looked at him puzzled.
“So, what is your plan?,” she asked.
“Because I am still half transformed I have Belovaya’s dark magic still inside my veins. We are connected on some level by it. When I was dreaming in the oak tree she found me. Her coming close as I slept turned my dream in to a nightmare. I could see the cave to the Underworld and the roots of the tree were pulsating with blood. They were crushing and strangling the life force out of me.”
“Where are you going with this?,” inquired Adalheid.
Corinthius unsheathed his axe from its leather holder. He held the axe blade up against the dreamy morning light and could see how the man who previously owned it had kept it in tip top working condition.
“The roots of the tree hold some power for her over our world here in Vasterium. Those roots go deep in to the earth and way down to her Underworld. That tree connects both worlds together and for me and her, I believe,” explained Corinthius.
Adalheid now fully understood what his intention was. Corinthius looked at the black night turning to a dense grey and the moon dying away for another night.
“She’s down there right now gathering up her energy and healing. If she comes back tomorrow night I’m not so sure she is going to be so lenient to you after what you have done.”
“Oh, charming. Blame me why don’t you,” said Adalheid in mock irritation.
Corinthius cracked a wide smile.
“Well, she’s going to hate me even more than you when I do this. Here’s hoping to this working.”
Corinthius then went to work with huge force swinging the sharp blade of his axe deep in to the trees exposed root system and hacked out as much of the bark at its base as he could. Deep inside the cave came wails and screams. Belovaya was crying out for Corinthius to stop.
“Please! You don’t know what you’re doing, sweet Corinthius.”
“This is for your own good, Belovaya,” hollered Corinthius between each mighty hit of the yew’s roots.
With every strong swing of his blade the earth rumbled beneath his feet deep down in Belovaya’s Underworld. With every blow he became more exhausted but kept at it until the magical tree, thousands of years old, shattered where the base was weak and then toppled heavily crashing over the mouth of the Underworld cave.
Suddenly the earth rumbled and quaked violently and the rocky hillside shuddered and collapsed in on itself sealing up the entrance to Belovaya’s refuge.
Corinthius’ work was done.
Depleted of energy he lumbered towards a large boulder close by and he and Adalheid sat and watched the sun rise as it bled in to the sky like butter with all its glorious creamy yellows. They sat and held hands and Adalheid was concerned how worn out Corinthius looked. He began to feel a little unwell and Adalheid pulled out a flask of water for him to drink which he did greedily.
“I think I went to work on that a little too enthusiastically,” he said with a weary smile. “I haven’t felled a tree in almost a year. I’d forgotten that there is an art form to it.”
Adalheid gave him a long hug and then helped him towards a large nearby willow tree and set him to rest under its shade as they listened to the birds fill the air with their morning song.
Adalheid then went off and harvested breakfast from the hedgerows for them both but the feast she brought back for Corinthius was turned down. He didn’t have a hunger for food only for sleep. She put her cloak over them both and then tucked herself in close to Corinthius holding on to him as they both fell in to a slumber.
After a couple of hours dozing Adalheid was woken by the sound of marching feet and horses hooves in the gravel on the road at the edge of the Berring dells. Then the sound of horses feet thundered over the grass and she got up to peak through the willow fronds and saw it was the Royal army.
The sky had turned leaden grey and the air had become chilly.
Adalheid looked over to Corinthius who seemed to be having a bad dream, the beads of sweat trickling from his forehead and in to the sides of his hair. She woke him gently and he roused looking confused.
“It’s okay, Corinthius. Come on. It’s time to go home.”
“Home?,” he whispered weakly.
Adalheid stroked his cheek and smiled. She was deeply concerned that he had lost a lot of energy felling the tree. But, now he looked so utterly vulnerable and lost. She stood to her feet and gave him her cloak to keep warm before stepping out from under the willow.
The captain of the army caught sight of her and shouted for his men to stop and gather close by. He then alighted his horse.
Corinthius wrapped the cloak tightly round his body and stepped out from under the willow tree in to full view of the men.
The captain was awe struck by his appearance. His antlers so thick, and wide and majestic. Then he looked at Adalheid her face pinched with concern for the creature.
“My Queen, we have been sent out to look for you. Nobody could find you this morning. The Kingdom has been in a merry dance over your whereabouts.”
Corinthius was stunned. He looked over to Adalheid.
“My Queen?,” he said in a whisper.
Corinthius stumbled and Adalheid stepped forward to steady him. She looked at the captain who was still staring wildly at this half creature, half man.
“He felled the Berring dell yew, Orlando. It caused the entire hill to collapse over Belovaya. I don’t think she will be causing any more problems in Vasterium but we need to get him back to the palace as quickly as possible. The felling has taking it right out of him. He’s nothing else to give.”
The other soldiers who were staring at him began to chatter amongst themselves impressed that someone had finally put a stop to Belovaya destroying the forest and killing men for the fun of it. She had ruled with darkness and caused much fear in the vicinity for thousands of years as did her father, Axelwane, before her. They looked at Corinthius with admiration. Poor, exhausted, pale, Corinthius, the saviour who freed Vasterium from a wicked impenetrable darkness.
One of the soldiers turned his horse around and galloped off towards the hay wagon they had passed a mile or two before on the main road. The soldier directed the driver of the wagon back to the Berring dells.
The small, wiry driver was astonished to lay eyes on his own Queen and a half man with antlers.
“But what is this half-creature, my Queen?,” he said as he bowed to show his respect.
“Please, don’t call him a half-creature. His name is Corinthius.”
The driver looked appalled that he may have caused any insult and apologised profusely for his bad manners.
“It’s alright. What is your name?” said Adalheid with a warm smile.
The thin man held on to his tatty hat and bowed again.
“It is Sanford, my Queen. Sanford Mills.”
“Thank you, Sanford. Would you be so kind as to allow Corinthius and myself on your wagon and take us back to the palace. The army will escort you, if you would allow it?”
Sanford’s eyes grew wide like a child and a big grin cracked his weathered face exposing two teeth in his mouth.
“Yes. It would be an honour. An absolute honour, I say.”
With that he ran to his wagon and removed some of the hay to make the ride a comfortable one for his important passengers.
“Just as well he said yes, really, isn’t it? I wasn’t in much mind to get my hands dirty this morning,” said Orlando leaning in to Adalheid.
“Nonsense, Orlando. There are many ways of turning a situation in your favour without it becoming a conflict,” said Adalheid irritably. “Now, let’s get Corinthius to the palace, shall we?”
But, Corinthius couldn’t move. He seemed to be rooted to the spot beneath him and he began to groan and clutched his stomach.
“What is it, Corinthius?”
Corinthius shook his head not able to find the right words to express the disturbing feelings and sensations that were happening inside his body.
“I’ll get the healer once we arrive at the palace,” said Adalheid encouragingly. “You’ll be warm, fed and looked after and you will heal. You will get better but you must go. NOW.”
Corinthius gave her a look of absolute defeat and again he shook his head.
Adalheid felt sick to her stomach. She tugged at his arm.
“No, Corinthius. You’re coming with me. I’ll get you better, I promise.”
Suddenly Corinthius gave out a terrible wail and he fell to his knees.
“It feels like burning,” he screamed. “My arms, they feel like they are on fire.”
He pulled his arm out of Adalheid’s grasp and then held both of his arms out in front of him to study where the pain was.
Then, to everybody’s sickening horror his veins opened up and he began to bleed profusely.
“What’s happening to me?,” he cried.
Adalheid pleaded with him to get to the wagon quickly. Then she turned to Orlando her eyes wide with terror.
“Do something!,” she demanded.
Orlando was speechless and felt helpless because he could offer nothing to resolve the problem. This was magic at its worst.
Adalheid knew from the look in Orlando’s eyes there was nothing to be done and she fell to her knees and held Corinthius’ hand as tight as she could.
“It was the roots of the tree, wasn’t it?,” said Corinthius mournfully. “They and I were connected somehow. She was screaming for me to stop but, I thought it was because she didn’t want me to seal her in or weaken her magic. I got this all wrong didn’t I, Adalheid?”
Adalheid began to cry and so did Corinthius but the tears he released left crimson track marks down his face. Blood then began to poor from his ears. Then another vein opened up in his neck and he fell to the ground choking and gurgling.
Adalheid screamed and pleaded for some divine god or goddess to step in and stop it.
Then Corinthius fell in to a deep calm barely breathing and Adalheid cradled him in her arms and covered his face in desperate kisses. He looked up in to her face and stroked her hair.
“This is it, I can feel it,” he said softly.
Adalheid shook her head as if to rid the words he spoke out of her ears.
“No, don’t say that.”
“Promise me something, Adalheid,” he whispered.
“Anything, my love. Anything.”
“Promise me you won’t seek revenge for this? She was trying to tell me not to do it. I didn’t listen. This is my consequence.”
Adalheid faltered and tried to change the subject.
“No, Adalheid. Promise me.”
Adalheid’s eyes welled up and released a river of more tears.
“I promise, Corinthius.”
Corinthius’ face relaxed in to a warm, gentle smile.
“That’s my girl. I’m so glad I knew you, if only for a brief moment in time.”
Orlando told his men to face away and go to their horses and he wandered up to the driver of the hay wagon who looked on as grief stricken over the situation occurring as Adalheid did.
“You have changed my life beyond all recognition and for the better, Corinthius, and for that I am grateful,” said Adalheid tenderly her voice quivering under the emotion.
Corinthius smiled a long warm smile again and then something seemed to catch his notice.
“Can you hear that?”
Adalheid looked around listening for a sound, perhaps a chorus of birds in the hedgerows.
“I only hear the wind, my love.”
Corinthius shook his head.
“You must be able to hear that? Its breathtaking and beautiful.”
Corinthius looked up in to Adalheid’s eyes and breathed slowly taking in her features as he tousled her raven hair with his finger tips.
“It doesn’t hurt anymore,” he finally said in the faintest of whispers.
Then the light faded from his warm hazel eyes.
Adalheid cradled Corinthius so tightly and sobbed like a person who had been given the most divine and precious gift and lost it forever.
Orlando stepped in and gently coaxed her out of her torrid grief and back in to the present.
Adalheid slowly gathered her senses and asked the soldiers to place Corinthius’ body on to the hay wagon.
Many quietly fought between them to do the honourable act before Orlando picked eight of them to do the job. They stepped forward and gently loaded him in to the hay.
Adalheid washed away the blood with the water from some of the soldier’s flasks and placed her cloak over his body.
Once the army was ready, Adalheid took Orlando’s horse and Orlando sat on the wagon with Sanford and they made a slow funeral column for the market square outside of Amberlaine Castle. Adalheid trotted in behind the wagon and sat in complete silence and stared at the body of her beloved who gave the appearance of being in a serene sleep.
As they arrived in the town the people applauded the arrival of their beloved Queen and the sight of the Royal Army. But, they soon realised it was not a time for celebrations. Men and women gasped at the sight of the man with the antlers. Children gawped in amazement.
Adalheid climbed down from her horse and slowly ascended the wooden platform in the market square to address the many people who had already gathered for the Harvest Moon Festival. Adalheid looked out, dazed, at the gathering crowd. They looked up to their young Queen who was strewn in blood looking completely desolated.
“I have come to tell you all that Belovaya will no longer be a threat. Every man, woman, and child from here on in will be able to roam the lands, the woods, and the dells freely without her dark energy permeating the edges of our security. We no longer have to live in fear.”
Murmurs began to undulate in the crowd and astonishment rippled throughout the market square.
“Is she dead, my Queen?,” asked a man from the back of the square.
“No, she is not dead. She has been sealed up in her Underworld, hopefully for eternity, and that is good enough for all of us to live a joyous and unthreatened life.”
A ripple of cheers and claps deluged towards Adalheid but she put up her hand for them to quieten down.
“The man responsible for Belovaya’s eternal incarceration is the man on that cart there, that you see.”
All heads in the crowd looked over at the lifeless body laying in the hay.
“His name is Corinthius. He was once a man, a woodcutter, but Belovaya changed him in to a woodland stag for not returning her affections.”
The crowd gasped at the horror of what had happened to the antlered man. Men winced at the transformation and pitied his existence to be one of the most hunted animals in the land. Some whispered to their wives saying he would have fared better had Belovaya turned him into a rat or a worm like many men she had done to before.
“She later turned him in to both man and stag and that is what you see before you. I wounded her with a golden arrow and she scurried off in to the Underworld like the snake that she is.”
A fervent nod of heads and a sea of approving looks revealed themselves in the gathered congregation.
“But, Corinthius cut down the tree. The ancient magical yew tree that guarded her entrance to the lower world. The hillside collapsed in on her. But….”
Her voice began to break under its own sorrow and her eyes began to tear. She looked down at her dress and her tears fell. Quickly wiping them away and gathering her strength she continued to speak.
“Belovaya’s magic somehow existed in the roots of the yew tree and her magic existed in Corinthius’ veins. The act of cutting down the tree resulted in his own death.”
The crowd turned to look at Corinthius again and this time there were even more approving looks of his heroic act that freed them all.
“From today I am declaring a new law in this land that you all must abide otherwise severe consequences will be paid.”
The crowd listened intently to her words and an air of expectancy buzzed throughout the square.
A thin rain began to pepper down from the sky and the ravens cawed out from the battlements above.
“No more will any person hunt down the stag. From this day forth they are hallowed and held with absolute reverence throughout all of Vasterium. They will now have the right to roam freely on the royal grounds and beyond. Corinthius would have wanted this.”
A roar of applause rolled out from the crowd and there were chants of ‘All hail Corinthius.’ When the roar of the applause died down Adalheid continued.
“When you see a stag it will always be a reminder of what Corinthius has done for our land. He has freed us all from the wickedness that permeated the world beyond the end of the market town road which has prevented us from moving forward in to the forest. I will be making plans to have a bronze statue erected here in the market square in honour of him.”
The people of the Vasterium market town applauded Corinthius’ noble deed fiercely and mourned his passing with the greatest respect. Everybody turned out to pay homage to him when Adalheid organised a funeral held in his honour. The Vasterian people scattered the road with oak leaves and red and white roses as his casket passed by on a hay cart pulled by two large shire horses ready for burial in the royal grounds of Amberlaine Castle.
When the public furore that enveloped the town for a few days eventually died down, people wandered out far in to the woods without fear. A blessed contentment resonated throughout Vasterium for many years after.
On the first anniversary of Corinthius’ death a crowd was milling outside the castle walls and throughout the market square when something strange happened. They stood perplexed at the sight at the foot of Corinthius’ bronze statue.
There a stag stood gazing mournfully at the figure that glinted under the crisp morning sun. The wild animal stayed for a long while and appeared unperturbed by the crowd swelling up with curiosity hoping to get a peek at the oddness of it all.
Then the stag took a few steps back away from the statue. What it did next made the people gasp in awe. The stag lowered the front of its body and bowed its head solemnly, its enormous wide antlers on display like an oak crown, in great respect toward Corinthius’ statue.
Then he slowly turned and left, apparently unaware or just not bothered, by the human presence buzzing with excitement around him.
The people followed the stag to see where he would go and he sauntered on to Amberlaine’s royal grounds where he was to be found regularly with seven does and over a dozen progeny before his own death a few years later.
Over the centuries the Vasterian people moved closer in to the forests and they continued to hold a deep respect for what Corinthius had done for them. His heroism and sacrifice quickly turned into legend and soon he became the ‘Woodland god, Corinthius’ whose spirit they believed permeated every acre of Vasterium and kept them safe.
Queen Adalheid went on to marry a good man and had two daughters but she would often disappear in to the Vasterium forest on her own and walk the paths, the dells, the hills and glades, where she and Corinthius had once walked.
She wished, ached even, that Corinthius would come back. She would often roam the leafy lanes and river banks until night almost fell and the sight of any stags seen in the woodland at dusk would make her heart miss a beat and the rich memories of her time together with Corinthius would flood back in to her mind.
Sometimes she was sure she had seen him or glimpsed his shadow there among a dense cluster of firs, ambling through an apple orchard, or dozing in the branches of a large oak tree. And she was certain she could smell his warm scent in the evening breeze while sitting in silence in a forest glade.
And it all reassured her as she returned home happy under the watchful light of a full moon floating in an indigo firmament scorching with stars, that Corinthius’ spirit really did live on forever in the places he loved deeply.
Shae Christi lives in a grey, windy coastal town in the North of England and has been adopted by 3 cats and a Portuguese Podengo dog named Rosie.
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Corinthius is a lonely stag who is caught up in a seething inferno engulfing the Vasterium forests and tries desperately to find a home of his own. In his quest to find roots and understand who he is, he is forced to deal with the unforgiving and cruel nature in deer and man alike, a dark supernatural being who wields an incredible power over him revealing a history between them, and the transforming love of a wild-crafting maiden. But, Corinthius is destined make a decision that will reap a terrible consequence. I, Corinthius is a 18,500 word Novella. It deals with the themes of identity, love, emotional pain, and compassion. Visit the magical backdrop of the Vasterium forests, a parallel world that once co-existed alongside our own back in ancient Britain.