Continuation of part 1 and 2, you can read both here, if you wish:
Chapter 1 - The Winter Stag (continued)
Ancient Poland, near the Baltic Sea
My boots sink ankle deep into a thick layer of snow, crunching the ice as I walk through the woods. I’m swathed in heavy woolen layers and furs, with nothing but a dagger and a bow and arrows slung across my back. My fur-lined hood is tied tightly around my face. As I make my way through the icicled trees, frozen ferns brush against my skin like cold fingers.
I take slow, measured breaths, letting winter fill my lungs, tuning myself to the wild, to the creatures that dwell in the forest.
I heard stories about the rare winter stag when I was young. They live in the coldest parts of the world.
The day after Zeus destroyed the bathhouse, I took all the money I’ve saved over the years and booked passage from Aphor to the northern city of Kavala, and from there, made my way further north, north, north, to the wildlands at the edge of the Baltic Sea. There were times in the last few months when I wanted to turn back. To abandon my grueling journey and go home. But the memory of Serena kept me going.
Zeus has to die. But I’m not strong enough to kill him. The only way I stand a chance is to join the Cult of Athena, the only lesser god with strength that rivals that of the three great gods: Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus.
I am heart-deep in the forest, hunting for my prey. For my tribute to her.
People bring all kinds of offerings to the Goddess of War. Weapons, armor, pelts of dangerous beasts they’ve killed. If I bring Athena the head of a winter stag, I know I’ll impress her.
And I’ve already spotted one, guessing by the oversized deer tracks in the snow.
They say the winter stag is twice the size of a very large horse, and from the looks of these tracks, it’s true.
I kneel down by the edge of a thornberry bush, tracing the indentation of the stag’s tracks in the snow. The two leaf-like prints line up together like two halves of a heart, with circular indents underneath the curve of each print. I spread my palm across it, and the heart-shaped print is bigger than the size of my hand.
He’s nearby; the lightly falling snow hasn’t filled in the footprint.
I rise, loping through the ferns, letting the tracks lead me forward. A winding path takes me deeper into the wood until I reach the edge of a clearing. The ground slopes downwards, and at the opposite side of the valley, there’s a pond, completely frozen over.
Sunrays dapple the icy surface, rippling like ocean waves as the clouds race across the sky. The pond glistens like a porcelain plate, making me squint. Then a massive cloud passes over the sun, casting a large shadow over the clearing. And that’s when I see it.
The winter stag.
Lingering at the edge of the trees, he leans down to nibble the bushes. His fur coat is as white as the sun. Massive antlers crown his great head like snow-covered branches, icicles gleaming on the tips like stars.
He’s breathtaking. And much larger than I imagined. At least the size of a great bear.
For a few moments, I don’t move at all, completely mesmerized.
Concealed in the shadow of the trees, I hover at the edge of the wood, crouching low in the ferns. My bow and arrows feel heavy, very heavy, all of a sudden. Why do I feel as though I’m trespassing in his domain?
I shake my head. Focus. I didn’t come all this way just to leave empty-handed.
Silent as a shadow, I slink around the clearing to get closer to him, keeping close to the darkness under the trees and taking advantage of wet patches of ground untouched by loud snow. The twisty branches screen me from sight, and when I have a good view of the stag, I move closer to the opening in the trees.
The stag freezes. My breath stops.
His rear is facing me. He lifts his head, turning right around to look in my direction.
For one moment my eyes lock on his silver-white eyes. Can he see me? If he knows I’m here and he runs off, there’s no way I can catch up with him.
Let him go. Says a voiceless whisper in my mind. I ignore it and wait with tensed breath as his eyes tunnel in on me, silver spheres of suspicion.
I don’t move. I don’t breathe.
He looks away.
A grey puff of air escapes my lips. The stag leans down to nibble at the bushes again. He shifts his body ever so slightly, giving me a clear angle of his head, neck, and chest. This is my chance.
Slowly, I take off my thick gloves, one by one, and let them fall to the ground. I reach back and unsheath my bow and arrows. My eyes stay fixed on his head as I raise the bow up to my chest. The drawstring presses into my fingers when I pull back the arrow, aiming the arrow at the stag’s head.
The side of his face is to me, giving me a perfect angle of his neck.
Holding my breath again, I pause. Hesitate.
He’s still chewing on the ferns, oblivious. Frosty sunlight streams down from the sky, making his snow-coat glow. Truly a rare creature. Magnificent.
My heart throbs painfully. For Serena.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper.
And then, releasing the breath I’ve been holding, I let my arrow fly.