“The cave was filled with the smoke of a thousand herbs smelling sweet, smoky and savory. Pools of water bubbled on the ground, releasing gouts of steam. Somewhere, water dripped, making echoing, plinking sounds. Mara entered in her white robe, an acolyte of the Oracle. Her hair and face were covered by a light veil.”
The cave was filled with the smoke of a thousand herbs smelling sweet, smoky and savory. Pools of water bubbled on the ground, releasing gouts of steam. Somewhere, water dripped, making echoing, plinking sounds. Mara entered in her white robe, an acolyte of the Oracle. Her hair and face were covered by a light veil.
From the back of the cave, a voice. High and serene, the voice intoned: “Come, my child, I have something to tell.”
Picking up the the hem of her robes, she hurried towards the back of the cave . She pushed through a wall of steam and saw her, the oracle. She was a wizened old thing, ensconced in her brown robes, sitting on a chair carved into the rock of the cave. From her robes emerged a single gaunt hand with one thin finger beckoning Mara towards her. Mara stepped forward and waited.
The oracle began to shake, her bent frame convulsing. Her eyes rolled back, and a milky white was all that was visible in the sockets. Her head bent back and the oracle in an otherworldly voice declared:
“Though the land is broken,
The fields awash with blood,
One will come to rule them,
And unite them in the mud.
The child of the unmarried will do this,
Flying the blue flag,
But to bring peace to the nation,
They must slay the white stag.”
The shaking ceased, the hand went back into the brown robes, and the eyes rolled back and then closed. She muttered a prayer in the hope those eyes would open again. Mara ran back to the entrance of the cave. She had to spread the word.
She emerged from the cave and made her way down the rough track to the monastery, almost tripping on the rough red stone. She could see it now, smoke rising from the kitchens, the spire of the temple reaching up to the gods above. Abbess Eleanor, thought Mara, she would know what to do. She reached the bottom of the path and entered the wide courtyard of the monastery.
“Child, what did the oracle tell you?” said the Abbess, a stern-faced woman, a head taller than Mara with her hair and limbs hidden by voluminous blue robes. Mara repeated what she had heard.
“My, that is important,” said the Abbess. “Come with me.” The Abbess turned heel and Mara followed hastily.
They headed into the main building of the monastery itself. It was built from the same red stone as the mountain with floors worn smooth from centuries of feet walking across them. They turned left and then right and ascended a spiral staircase. Mara could tell they were going to the pigeon roost.
They came to the top of the stairs into a huge room filled with grey and brown pigeons warbling and cooing in little cages. Instead of an outside wall, there was just a giant window out of which the pigeons would fly when released. From out of a corner hustled a short, mousy woman in a brown robe, the pigeon keeper.
“Abbess, to what do we owe the pleasure?” she chirped.
“We have a message, a prophecy, from the oracle,” replied the abbess.
“Ah! Understood. I’ll get the pigeons ready!” she squeaked.
“Abbess,” began Mara softly, “what will happen?”
“Well, we will send a copy of the prophecy to every town and castle in the land.”
“But what if it causes chaos? What if there’s another war?”
“Mara, our responsibility, given to us by the gods, is to hear their will in the form of prophecy. We do not interfere in worldly affairs.”
“I suppose so…” Mara was troubled, but she forced herself to seem convinced.
The Abbess lifted Mara’s head to look her in the eyes. “I know it’s hard for one so young to understand, child, but in time you will come to.”
Winter, the castle shivered in the last snow of the season. Out on the walls, a lone sentry walked, trudging through a foot of snow. Clinging to his spear, he shivered even through his layers of fur, leather, and mail surrounded by a wool cloak. On the tip of his spear flapped the flag bearing the white eagle on a blue field of the House of Maren. He looked out on the snowy field surrounding the castle where once there had been a road and fields of wheat, but now there was only a desolate whiteness.
Jack had lived here all his life, born of a miller’s daughter and a traveling bard in the nearby village. As soon as he was old enough to be considered a man, he was brought into the service of Lord Maren to fight at the Bloody Marsh. He shivered again, this time not from cold, and muttered a quick prayer. A man now of four and twenty, it still haunted him. At night, he still heard it. The braying of trumpets, the clash of steel, the thrum of arrows, a brother’s scream.
The winter had muted the once-lively castle. Where once training swords clashed and horses whinnied, now there was only the soft crunching of snow and the furtive whistling of wind. Through the walls of the great hall Jack could hear them, the people of the castle breaking their fast. The sound of their laughter would be his only companion until he was relieved.
Then he heard it. A clomping sound, like the one made by the destriers the knights rode into battle. It was coming from the forest, but Jack couldn’t see the source at first through the pines and the bare branches of the oaks. He strained his eyes and saw a flash of gold through the trees moving quickly toward the field in front of the castle. Then in a blast of snow it burst from the forest: The Stag.
As tall as two men, its fur was a ghostly white. Atop its head were two enormous golden antlers long as a man’s leg curved and twisted half a hundred times with points like daggers. The sun rippled off them like on a river in summer. And when it snorted, smoke puffed out of its nostrils. But what struck Jack was not the fur, not the antlers, but the eyes. They burned a scarlet red and seemed to flicker like a flame. The Stag reared up and let out a roaring bellow. It was like hundreds of warhorns blowing together in a blast that seemed to go on for a year.
The sound of it shook Jack like a thunderclap did a dog. He sprinted to the nearest tower, dropping his spear. As he ran up the spiral steps, he could see through the windows that the sound had roused some of the men from the great hall and a few were running to the walls. He reached the top of the tower and began to ring the great alarm bell, pulling the rope with both arms. The roar stopped and as Jack looked at the Stag, it looked back, peering into him. He felt its fiery eyes burning into him.
Then, with a push of its powerful legs, it was off again flying over the snow.
“By the gods, what madness is this? What’s going on beyond my walls?”
Clovis Maren, Lord of Rookfort and Stone Harbor, had climbed onto the walls. Closer to fifty than he was to forty, Lord Clovis was no longer the strong man he had been in his youth. He was red in the face and short of breath from walking the long stairs up to the wall. Behind him walked his second son and heir Peter, a young man of middling height and a thicket of curly brown hair. Adjusting his blue velvet tunic, Clovis turned to Sir Wyatt Witspear, the master-at-arms.
“Sir Wyatt, what’s going on here?”
“A stag, my lord, a white one with golden antlers just like in the prophecy,” replied Sir Wyatt. His gravelly voice and scarred face revealed him as one who had lived his life as a creature of the battlefield. A head taller than most men, he wore a tough leather jerkin and at his belt carried a mace, a short iron-headed lead-weighted club with sharp spikes.
“Well who first saw it?” asked Clovis loudly, so all could hear it.
Jack, now back on the wall, shouted back “I did, milord!”
“There’s three gold coins for you. The rest of you, go back to your posts. I have no need of a crown.”
Behind him, Peter raised an eyebrow and smirked.
The forest was eerily beautiful, he thought. The steps of the horses muffled by the snow, the soft clink of armor, a soft chuckle here and there; in the forest, it seemed that everything became quieter. Long, thin icicles dripped down from tree branches, and the green of pine and fir trees was the only break from the endless white and grey and blue of snow and stone and sky.
Hunting was a thirsty business. Hunting for a stag, hunting for a crown…Sir Ryan of Velburg took a sip from his wineskin to keep away the cold. He put it back in the saddlebag of his palfrey. They’d been following the stag for nigh on three weeks now. It had not been a fruitful search. He and twelve of his best riders had been tracking it ever since it was spotted in the forest near Velburg and had been following its huge hoofprints ever since.
He supposed it was fitting that he would try to kill the animal that was his coat of arms. He wore a steel breastplate with a white stag emblazoned on the front. His helmet, slung on the back of his Squire Wat’s horse, had two golden antlers coming from the top. His sword hilt had a pommel with a white stag’s head with ruby eyes. He had been granted Velburg by the King for loyal service just before Bloody Marsh, and with it he took the symbol of the town for his coat-of-arms. He smiled a cold smile when he thought of what he’d done at the marsh.
“Lamb, where in the hell are we?” he shouted back to one of the riders.
“I think we’re in Clovis Maren’s land!” Lamb shouted back. Lambert Till fancied himself the intellectual of the group. He, too, was trained in arms, but he had a stack of books in his saddlebags.
“Maren! Is that fat oaf still the lord? I think he is!” he cackled. “Boys,” he turned his horse and faced his men, “I think we should pay the lovely Lord Clovis a visit!”
Spurring his horse, he gestured back at his men with a wave of the hand and they galloped on. Maren! Ryan remembered that charge, when his horsemen had broken Maren’s lines and won the battle for the king. The king for now… Paying the Lord a visit would be droll. Custom would demand he and his men be accepted into the castle and into the feast hall with open arms. He cackled again. Being a noble was fun.