The Stag – a fable*

by Marie Marshall

Deep in the heart of the realm of Angria there was a forest. In that forest lived a stag, perhaps the finest stag anyone had ever seen, his antlers spreading like the winter branches of an old beech tree, his flanks red as the ire of winter dawn. In a house just outside the forest there lived a hunter who had vowed to trap and kill the stag, to wear the antlers as his headdress and the russet hide as his cloak. But the stag was many years in age and full strength, wily, swift. He valued his freedom and would bound away while the hunter was still fitting a quarrel to his crossbow. Season upon season, year upon year, the hunter stalked the stag. Prey and predator knew every inch of the forest, every tree, every thicket, every faint sentier, every clearing, every pool, every shadow. At the beginning of one year the stag lifted his head to a new sound, the steady fall of an axe against a tree trunk. He thought little of it as such things are not the concern of deer, but nevertheless he moved through the forest to a place where the noise did not crowd as badly upon such things as did concern him. The sound continued throughout the year, but still the stag thought little of it. Then one day when he approached the edge of the forest he found that his kingdom was much smaller than he remembered, and his way out into the open fields beyond the forest was blocked. There was a high, wooden fence. The hunter had chopped down many trees to make it, and it was cammed in cruel, sharp points. The stag ran to the other side of the forest and found the way blocked there also. He ran along every path he knew and everywhere his was way barred by the fence. He plunged through thickets and briar patches through which he had never gone before, but the fence always thwarted and confounded him. Wherever he could get a run he tried to jump the fence but always, from outside, came the hunter’s mocking laugh or a warning bolt from the crossbow. At last the stag could endure this no more and risked everything on one last, desperate leap. The fence was higher than anything he had ever cleared before, but he gathered all his strength and courage, fixed his eye upon the blue sky above the cruel, sharpened points, and ran. He left the ground, he flew, he soared, wondering if this is what it felt like to be a bird. In mid-leap he could see the open farmland and the hills beyond. It was at that moment that the hunter, who had been waiting for him, loosed his quarrel. It went deep into the stag’s body, right to his heart, checked his leap, and brought him crashing down onto the sharp points. The stag’s eye was still fixed upon the sky and the far hills but now it saw nothing. When he saw what he had done, the hunter dropped his crossbow and his quiver and walked away. He was never seen again, and his house became a cold and empty ruin.
* (c) from ‘Branwell’, a work-in-progress.