Many arrows filled the thick tree trunk’s surface. Many close to the bull’s eye. The hunters puffed up, sure of themselves. Knowing the shaman had only one choice to make, sure what he would say. As he stood there, waiting his turn, palms wet with worry despite the chill in the air, he watched the next hunter pull his bowstring tight. The arrow loosed and thunked into the tree, bark flew off to land in the freezing dirt. A wisp of snow touched it lightly, like a lover’s caress.
He counted the inches picked out in metal points dancing around the last arrow. From here though, he stood too far away to accurately judge how close to the mark his opponent had come. The shaman narrowed old eyes at the target, the ritual skin around his shoulders beginning to show its age. He shuffled forward, then back. “Last one,” the shaman said, as if he didn’t know his place in this competition. Last one, again. Would he fail this time as so many years before?
The warriors around him grumbled and he knew they sized up their opponents. All thought themselves the winner. He wasn’t sure. He knew that luck, that handmaid who had guided him this far, was as fickle as summer. Failure seemed a likely option.
Apprehension tightened his neck muscles. He plucked his bow from where it waited against his knee and took aim. Wind whispered over the feathers, kissed his cheek. He took a deep breath and let the arrow fly. A slight gust of wind angled the arrow up. He held his breath, not trusting the trickster gods to work against its final destination. When its tip lodged in the bull’s eye, he nearly dropped to the ground in relief.
“He can’t be the one!” one of his rivals groused.
The tribe’s ancient shaman grunted a little from a decades-old war wound as he approached the target. With some effort straining his old, gnarled fingers he tugged the arrow free and pointed it at him. “You have been chosen,” he said. “May the gods bless your hunt.”
His opponents narrowed their eyes, and said nothing. But as he stalked by, one shoved him aside. No one needed the outward display to see how angry he was. The air sparkled with his rage. A bad omen, but would his rival interfere with this sacred hunt? Time would tell.
He ignored the warrior’s anger now, the challenges, the snarls that had flown his way in the ensuing hours, and leaned his bow against the tree. Kneeling down in the snow, he listened to the ancient forest sing. A frigid wind blew and he cursed himself. He must be crazy to be out on a night like this, no extra layers between his skin and the cold! If pre-solstice proved this bitter, how would the weather fare tomorrow?
He shivered. His backpack slid off his back and so he dropped it to the ground and opened the top, yearning to find anything inside to warm his shivering frame. His beloved had thought of almost everything. Surely, the tea inside was her gift. Surely, it wouldn’t hurt to partake of it. If he broke his fast now, would he fail in his task? Was the shaman correct? If he failed, would the goddess remove her favor from the tribe?
Hoof beats thundered through the air. With shaking hands, he set the warm flask aside, fumbling for his bow. A lone stag’s footfalls sounded all around him. One became hundreds. He tried to keep his heart and his hands steady as he knocked an arrow; yet he could see nothing. The fast must be affecting him. Wind and snow swirled, and he squinted. Heart hammering in his chest he pulled the bowstring taut.
The stag burst from the fog, a woman on its back. The stag’s antlers, regal and harsh, bent toward the heavens. Naked as a newborn the woman sat atop the animal, her skin as red as a burning ember, her eyes as black as cold coal.
He hesitated, lowered his bow.
The stag snorted, the maiden remained silent. Watching.
He raised his bow, hesitated again. Beautiful ice-green eyes bored into his soul.
The unforgiving wind curled snow and fog lightly around her. When it cleared he saw her pearled nipples and the goosebumps covering her granite-smooth skin.
Worried she might die of the cold, he slipped off his thin jacket and offered it to her. She dismounted the snow-white stag and approached him. She smiled as she took the garment from his hands. He dropped to one knee in the snow, wet, shivering. “Thank you,” he said, not knowing why he thanked her when he offered the gift. Did he thank her for the chance at generosity? Or something else?
The Maiden bent and kissed his cheek, a warm brush across his cold skin. The winter world paused. Spring cleared her throat, ready to take the stage. A sparrow sang somewhere in premature hope.
But a sigh later, Winter blew sleep over the forest again. The Maiden climbed back onto the stag, turned, and raced off into the snowy night. He dared not look up until the hoofbeats died away. Then he pushed himself up, and pulled the backpack close, relieved when he found a thick coat inside. One lined with deer fur, white as the snow around him.
A coat that hadn’t been there before. He smiled, slid the coat on finding it thick and warm like a deer’s winter coat, and turned for home to report his news to the tribe. The goddess had granted her favor.
Spring wasn’t far away now and anything seemed possible.
[Juli D. Revezzo has long been in love with writing, a love built by devouring everything from the Arthurian legends, to the works of Michael Moorcock, and the classics and has a soft spot for classic the “Goths” of the 19th century. Her short fiction has been published in Dark Things II: Cat Crimes, The Scribing Ibis, Eternal Haunted Summer, Twisted Dreams Magazine, Luna Station Quarterly, and Crossed Genres‘ “Posted stories for Haiti relief” project, while her non-fiction has been included in The Scarlet Letter. She has also, on occasion, edited the popular e-zine Nolan’s Pop Culture Review… But her heart lies in the storytelling. She is a member of the Indie Author Network. Her debut novel, The Artist’s Inheritance was recently released. Visit her here.]