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The rising sun lit up the dirt path in front of me as I breathed in the cool, crisp morning air. This day marked the Spring Solstice. Later today a feast would be held in my village as a celebration of the spring returning and offering to the forest for a bountiful crop year. However, I wouldn’t be in attendance. The Spring Solstice marks the day something much more important than spring returns to the country.

I rounded the ridge and looked down at the forest below. It spread from the Hawk River in the East to the Demise Cliffs in the West. The bare branches tremmered in the swift breeze as the melting snow revealed patches of dead leaves scattered on the ground. The Path to the forest floor was steep and rocky, too dangerous to be climbed in low light. But I wasn’t planning on returning today, or any day. 

I tightened the leather boot straps around my ankles, gripped my staff, and started on the path. Many of the people from my village had adjusted stones on the path to resemble steps, making some parts easy going. The remaining route along the cliffside was too steep, forcing climbers to climb across rocks. For this reason hunting parties lasted for days, giving them ample time to fill their baskets with food. There were many pulleys along the route that the hunters would attach ropes to on their way down so they could pull the baskets up on the returning trip. 

The fur trim on my boots kept my legs warm as the wind snapped along the stones. The wall to my right was eroded away from years of rain after the disturbance it took to build the Path. The stones showed streaks of dirt that were carried off the side of the cliff. When it rained, the Path became deadly. Hunters could lose their catches if not their lives. 

My third trip on the Path. Lilette and I were returning from a teaching trip to the coast in the North. The sea-faring people were expert fish trappers, having had many generations to perfect their trade. We spent four nights on a boat with a small fishing party, learning their ways of traps to modify for the forest. The clouds had shown no signs of disapproval for our journey until we were well into our ascent. A sudden storm with rain pellets larger than berries. The stones were too slick for our summer slippers to have proper footing. I fell and landed on top of the inventory of nets I was carrying. I got tangled and couldn't regain my footing. The panic set in and my fear showed more than I would have liked. But Lilette paid no mind. She understood emotions. She turned her back when I cut my finger skinning a rabbit, walked away when I grew frustrated after improperly mending a kayak. 

She was the first to tell me about what else returned with the Spring, the only. Now she was gone, and I was to blame. 

A gust of wind pushed me face-first into the dirt wall. I clung to a root breathing through the Earth and waited until my breath caught up to my heart. When the wind stopped I stepped back on the Path. It twisted now, the first turn. The dirt wall continued on my left. The sun moved further into the sky, casting the shadows out of our realm. I continued down the Path, climbing over boulders stuck in their paths and jumping down sheers until I had reached the bottom. It had taken my years to time the descent, and with the sun two feathers in the sky, I was right on schedule. 

The air was heavier on the forest floor. Little trails through the dead leaves showed the paths the deer took. I turned Northwest to follow the Demise Cliffs out of the valley to where the land opens up into a flat, less dense forest with old oaks and maples compared to the clustered pines in the valley interior. The walk through the valley was a shadowed one as pine needles crushed under my boots. This Spring would be a cool one, like everyone before it. 

The shadows grew thinner as the sun moved higher in the sky. I looked through the canopy to track it. Not yet at its peak but slowly nearing it. I picked up my step to stay on schedule. 

I reached the end of the valley and the land opened up before me. Here, many trails forked off. The Northern trail was the most travelled as it acted as a trade route to the sea. My village had no use of products made by others, but we sold excess products we made. The elders made quick work of travel clothing and pouches. The other trails that branched off were hunting paths that led to grounds with tents set up to rest during long hunting trips. 

There was one path that was forgotten long ago. Lilette had described it to me. “A trail you could only see if you knew where to look,” she had said. “It curved with the land. Drifted with the wind. And the destination is one you didn’t know could exist.” 

I had spent almost an entire fortnight in these woods the moon after she died, looking for any trace of the place she spoke of. I lived off rations of berries, squirrels, and stolen sips from streams. Took myself into untraveled places of the forest until I was weak with hunger and had lost sight of the path I took to get to where I was. I had found it on the last night. Once you see it it is impossible to unsee it, even after three years. So, standing at the fork of the branches, I took the forgotten path on the left. 

The cliffside was a solid, jagged feature next to me as I walked. Before me loomed rock outcrops that stretched for longer than the valley did. One could walk between them for one hundred nights and still be in their grasp. I reached into my memory from those years ago to remember the path. Around this bend, up this hill, across those plains. I was so far from the village now. I looked up at the sky. The sun was close to setting, I had to hurry if I would see it in the daylight still. 

I started to run. My satchel banged on my hip but I paid it no mind. I could feel myself getting closer, feel its presence. 

So it must be true. 

Into a gorge I ran. The end stood a solid wall. I leaped and grabbed hold of cracks in the wall and pulled myself up. There was a ledge that circled the entire gorge. My feet steady, heart racing, head buzzing, I crept along the ledge until a breeze blew from the stones. Behind a hidden corner of the rock wall was a tunnel large enough to walk through. My hands scraped over stone as I felt my way through the tunnel. 

I emerged to an open sky, like the hand of God carved a bowl out of this landscape, surrounded on all sides by rock and Earth. I breathed in the sweet scent of fresh air and spring water. This is it. This, what the sun was setting on, is where I would find it. There were sweet apple trees, pools of spring fed water, and little creatures spread out in this hidden world before me. It was large enough to take an entire day to explore. I jumped down from the tunnel, scattering pebbles in my wake, and crouched down next to a pool. The water was cool on my face, in my throat, and on my skin. 

I opened my coat to take off the necklace that had hung over my heart since I took it off her cold body. Lilette had saved a tooth from her first human kill and wore it as a reminder. I sent a silent prayer and dunked the necklace in the pool, letting it sink to the bottom. 

The bushes behind me rustled. I stood and faced the canyon. It was time. 

The first day of Spring. But something else returns to the country today. The white stag. Lost legends have few accounts of sightings, and certainly fewer of actually encountering the creature. Through my years of searching for hints, clues, any insight on the creature, I have found one story of someone killing its mate. They recalled eating the heart and gaining a wonderful sight, allowing them to see the world from all angles, see the tracks animals take, know their weaknesses. The antlers, when worn around the neck, gave the strength of multiple men in one. The skin was made into a blanket that healed the sick and lengthened life. It was said that the man who killed the buck went mad with knowledge. He would sit around the feast fire and tell stories that worried the elders. One day, his mind gained all control and he vanished into the forest, with the antlers and hide. 

The doe has returned to the canyon every Spring Solstice. For how long she stays and where she goes inbetween, nobody knows. But I wonder, if a dead stag can give a man overwhelming knowledge, what can the live doe give me? Wishes? Friendship? 

Power?

I walked away from the pool, leaving the necklace at the bottom. The bushes parted with no resistance. Critters scurried away from my path and trees bent to bow like subjects. She was in the canyon, waiting for someone to find her. 

A flash of white on my left. A twig snap on my right. I turned in circles until I grew dizzy. The moon was casting a bright light on the landscape, illuminating every cranny. The silence of the canyon was deafening. Not a chirp, not a rustle of leaves. Just myself and the doe, somewhere, hiding, waiting. 

A hoof padding at the ground. I swung to face the largest tree in the canyon, an old willow. She stood before the drooping branches. Pelt whiter than new fallen snow. Crisper than water taken from a spring. Eyes more innocent than a babies, but more knowledgeable than all the elders combined.

I smiled and took a step forward. “Welcome back.” 



April 02, 2020 17:54

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2 comments

Violet Wald
20:33 Apr 09, 2020

Great job creating a unique atmosphere and integrating beautiful nature description! One thing that could be improved would be a slightly more smooth introduction of the flashback ("My third trip on the Path").

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Meli Mangos
12:05 Apr 11, 2020

Flashbacks and transitions aren't always the easiest for me, but I'll work on them! Thanks for the read, hope you enjoyed it.

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