The Black Fawn 

by Carol Holland March

Once I was happy.

       

An only girl and baby of the family, I grew up believing I could do everything my brothers did. Our village sat near a crossroads, which brought travelers to my father’s shop on the square where he sold the crops and crafts our neighbors produced and traded for exotics. We lived in a house that rambled, another room added with each child. Behind it, we grew vegetables and kept a pasture for our cow and goats.

Mother taught me to gather herbs in the forest, where to find wild onions and how to dig for yams. My grandmother with the golden eyes told me stories of ancient times when animals and humans mingled in peace. For hours I sat at her feet as she rocked and knitted and murmured her tales. She trusted me with the truth, she said, then smiled so quickly if I wasn’t paying attention, I missed it.

I learned to follow the animal paths. My eldest brother presented me with a bone-handled knife he had made and with it came his promise to teach me to hunt. I followed him into the deeper wood where we stalked rabbits and called fish from the streams into my net.

Not long before Jed rode into our village on his fine gray horse, Grandmother left us to join her beloved husband in the next world. I mourned her while the whole village buzzed about the handsome captain from the castle who came searching for a bride. Attired in the bright uniform of the duke’s Royal Guard, he made a fine figure. Gold buttons glittered on his chest. Red piping adorned his shoulders. Even his horse was resplendent, prancing and snorting, with the golden circles of the duke’s crest shining on his bridle and breastplate.

When he failed in his quest and was readying for departure, my mother dragged me out to meet him. Jed was about to mount his horse, but looked around when my mother called. He gazed at me with the most beautiful brown eyes I had ever seen. He removed his royal helmet and bowed low. From habit, I curtsied. He took my arm and led me to the center of the square where benches formed a circle.

Never had I met anyone like him, and even though I was just shy of my sixteenth name day, I soon agreed to marry him. Since then I have wondered how much grief influenced my judgment, but in truth I was smitten, finally understanding why other girls spent so much time talking about their suitors.

I wanted Jed and I married him. The whole village celebrated our wedding, and he carried me away in the finest carriage he could procure. We traveled for three days and when we reached his cottage, nestled in a valley near a meadow where ancient oaks grew and deer grazed, he carried me inside.

Now I was a wife and could no longer roam the woods. Jed was patient and only shook his head when he returned at night to find me in the vegetable garden with no supper in sight.

Our breathless nights made up for my scanty household skills. When he held me close, I thought of nothing else. I had not imagined married life would be so pleasurable. Jed said he could not get enough of me, and I counted on that attitude to last until I learned how to manage a household as well as my mother did. Often I wished I had paid more attention to her lessons.

When the black fawn came to play in the grass in front our cottage, I had been a married woman for six months. The fawn visited two days in a row. I watched it from a window as it gamboled, expecting its mother to appear and herd it away, but she never came. The second day, I went outside.

Except for its white tail curling over its back, the fawn’s coat was pure black. Big eyes regarded me, so close I saw its eyelashes. Floppy ears pricked. At a crow’s scream, it wheeled and bounded across the road toward the meadow. Beyond lay the forest Jed had forbidden me to enter. He warned me that robbers traveled its paths. Only the duke’s royal hunters could take its game.

The fawn enticed me. I itched to follow, and promising myself not to go far, I rested my broom against the steps.

With me in pursuit, the fawn jumped the brook and raced across the meadow. The day had grown warm and the grass smelled sweet. I thought of fat blackberries that would be ripe enough to pick if I could locate the bushes. Jed wouldn’t mind my disobedience if I presented him with a fresh-baked pie with his supper.

The fawn raced across the meadow and up a steep trail. I stopped at the edge of the meadow. The forest loomed dark and mysterious. The fawn peeked around a tree and tossed its head. Longing for my lost freedom, I decided to follow. I would be back in plenty of time to have Jed’s supper ready.

I hurried to catch up. The fawn disappeared between two trees with vines crawling up their trunks. I walked on soft loam, feeling adventurous. Ferns grew everywhere, tall as my waist, and plants with thick leaves that felt spongy under my fingers. In the distance, water gurgled. Blackberries grew near streams. I hurried on, imagining my delicious pie.

At the stream, I found no blackberries, but drank my fill of sweet water. The fawn had disappeared, but under the willows, I fancied the rushing water as music a troop of fairies might make. I leaned against a young willow tree and listened. Soon I dreamed.

A harsh noise woke me. Legs covered in rough leather. A filthy hand grabbed my throat. A man pushed his face close to mine; his rotten breath filled my nostrils. I tried to escape, but the fingers tightened.

“Look what I found,” he yelled.

My vision darkened. Silver sparks danced. The hand released. I fell back, gasping and dizzy. Two men stared at me. They had thick splotchy faces with pale, red-rimmed eyes. They pulled me up and inspected me as if I were an animal.

“Where you from?” the taller one demanded.

 

“Near the road to the duke’s castle. If I don’t return, my husband will search for me.”

 

He frowned. “Where is this road?”

 

I made my second mistake that day and pointed toward the meadow.

 

He grinned and nudged his friend. “See, she’s helped already. Maybe she knows these trails.”

 

“I don’t.”

 

The shorter man said, “Let her go, Simon.”

 

Simon scowled. “You’re a fool, Janks. Now we got a native guide.”

 

Janks huffed out his breath. Simon pushed me against a tree and patted my dress. He found my hunting knife in its leather sheath and snatched it, then pushed me toward a narrow trail leading through dark trees. I stumbled along, thinking how right Jed had been.

 

We walked most of the day, uphill into wood so dark the thick branches of the towering trees made a lattice that blocked the sun. The trail angled through dense bushes. Thorns clawed my arms.

 

Simon and Janks carried long knives on their belts. At their sides hung leather quivers, each holding a bow and arrows. Janks showed his skill with the bow when he killed two rabbits with two shots. While they made a fire and stuck the rabbits on sticks to cook, I looked for my chance to escape.

 

We ate huddled around the fire. When Simon whispered to Janks about sharing his blanket with me, I pretended not to hear, but felt around for a rock large enough to hurt a man and secreted it in the pocket of my apron. If he put a hand on me, I’d bash in his head.

 

Janks dissuaded his companion, saying I would be more use if he left me alone. He threw me a blanket and after I wrapped it around myself, he tied my hands together behind my back. While they snored, I rubbed the rope against my wrists until I bled. At some point, I feel asleep.

 

The next day we walked without stopping. By afternoon, we entered a part of the forest where the trees grew farther apart. Light warmed my head. More birds sang. We came upon a red-barked tree standing alone, its leaves as crimson as oaks in autumn.

 

As we passed, it whispered. Amarante. Amarante. The forbidden land.

 

It was clear we had crossed into sacred ground, but if the men heard it, they gave no sign. We walked for another hour when Simon stopped dead.

 

Janks stepped up beside him. “Would you look at that?”

 

A woman of light complexion and pale hair wearing a tawny gown that covered her from neck to feet stood amidst the trees. She was tall and lovely, with golden eyes larger than any I had seen on a person.

 

“Oh, Lady,” I said. “How did one like you come here?”

 

“This is my home, child.” Her eyes drew me in. “You have entered a land forbidden to your kind. You must turn back.”

In a loud voice, Simon said, “We come from Portney looking for game. Had nothing but bad luck. Now we’re lost. Can you tell us, Lady, how to return to our home?”

 

She pointed to the trail. “You left the duke’s forest behind when you passed the sentinel tree. Did you not hear its warning?”

 

“No, Lady.” Simon made a small bow. “We woulda stopped.”

 

“Go back as you came. When you pass the red tree, you will be in the duke’s forest. Where you go from there is not our concern.”

 

Simon bowed again. “Thank you, Lady, for your help.”

 

I gave him a hard look, to tell him he sounded the fool. When I turned back to the Lady, she had vanished. “We have to go back. There’s no telling how fierce the men of her village are.”

He shoved me forward. My thoughts flew in circles. It was if the beautiful woman had stopped my mind. I stumbled and fell into a bramble bush. Janks yanked me up. I walked.

 

As we passed the red tree again, it hissed without words. Just beyond it, the men stopped and threw their packs on the ground. Janks pulled out the rag he used for waxing his bow and giggled. “This is the place. You’ve led us true. Today we shoot a magic deer. Just keep your mouth shut.”

 

My chest felt heavy. “What magic deer?”

 

Simon grinned. “You think we come this far for ordinary deer?”

 

“You said you lost your way.”

 

“Not since we found you. If I didna know better, I’d say you were one of them. You look like those deer people, with that yella hair.” He reached for me. I pulled away.

 

“Ah, leave her alone,” Janks growled. “She’s done her job.”

In my pockets, I fingered two rocks. They were likely to kill me now, so I had little to lose. If I could stun them, I could run.

Janks unpacked four long arrows with silver heads. “Never mind her.”

 

I stood out of reach. “Why are the heads silver?”

 

Simon grinned. “A sorcerer put a spell on ‘em to kill magic deer. They’re gonna give us everything we ever wanted.”

“Are these magic deer large?” They didn’t look up, so I inched toward another tree.

 

“Nah.” Janks spat on the ground. “Normal size, but fast. And their meat, well—that meat is magic.”

 

“You know these creatures?”

 

“A year now, in this wood.” Simon hadn’t noticed my retreat. He settled himself on a rock and tested his bow. “Me and Janks had bad luck hunting. Every arrow missed. Then we saw a big buck. I loosed one and the gods guided it straight into his heart. Best meat ever. Then I noticed it. Janks too.”

Without looking up, Janks nodded.

 

“The meat changed us. We saw right through the forest, almost like we were . . . some kind of godling.” His face softened. “I saw through the woods to a trail on the other side of a hill, and past that, I saw which way was home. Couldn’t account for it, but I knew. So we packed up what we could carry and set out. And I was right! We found a trail just where I said. We walked for a day, then come upon a real road. Next morning we found a village. Everything I seen come true.”

 

“Because you ate the meat.”

 

“That ain’t all. At a tavern we had the cook roast up what we carried. And you know what?” He looked at me without noticing my change in position. “I knew the money a man had in his pockets. Whether he had a knife. If he’d put up a fight. A whole ‘nother world opened. It was easy to choose who would give up his silver to a stranger.”

 

“You’re a common thief.”

 

“Not so common.” Simon bared his crooked teeth. “They obliged me.”

 

“No one wants to be robbed.” 

 

He laughed. “Many men will give up coin for a bit of excitement and a tale to tell. Some don’t think they have a right to their own money.” He shrugged. “Robbing that kind of man makes him happy.”

 

I nodded to keep him talking, but my mind was busy with how to escape without getting one of those arrows in my back.        

 

Janks stood up. “We’ll kill a magic deer and eat the meat and be gods again.” He hoisted the quiver onto his back and took the bow in his right hand. “We’re headin’ back to that meadow.”

 

Simon nodded. “Even after we finished the meat, we still had the knowing. Now it’s gone. Except for you.”

 

“What?”

Simon grinned. “The knowing told me to bring you along.”

They put me between them and started back to where we had seen the golden-haired woman. My only chance was to fade into the bushes, then run for my life. They wouldn’t leave the deer to follow me. I hoped.

 

Janks passed me and walked beside Simon. I slowed. We came to the edge of a clearing. They stopped, but instead of following my plan, something pushed me on. I came up behind them. That’s when I saw her.

 

The doe stood between two trees, her head turned away. The creature’s tawny pelt looked softer than anything I had touched. My chest pulsed with heat. Janks signaled to take cover. I ignored him. The doe turned. The muscles in her back rippled. Janks’ bowstring stretched.

 

I screamed a warning. Nothing mattered but saving her. As Janks pulled the bowstring tighter, the air shifted. The deer bounded straight up.

 

As the arrow launched, I threw myself at Janks’ back. I knocked him sideways. A piercing scream issued from her throat. I landed beside Janks, but scrambled up in time to see the doe bound away with an arrow protruding from her hind leg. Simon cursed and shoved me to the ground.

 

I threw my arms over my head, but when no blows fell, I looked up. I was alone. I hugged my knees as sobs tore from my chest. Within me, joy and grief warred, for as she leaped away, I glimpsed the doe’s face. It was not that of an animal. This creature whose land we had invaded was of the legends I had learned at my grandmother’s knee—a deer with a human face.

 

When I recovered, I raced along a narrow path skirting the meadow. At the sound of voices, I slowed and crept forward. Just beyond the trees, on thick grass where purple wildflowers grew, deer-people stood in a group. Ten, I counted. Twelve. Close enough to see the long lashes fringing their enormous eyes.

 

Even though a tree trunk concealed me, one stepped forward and nodded her lovely human head. Tawny hair flowed over her deer shoulders “We greet you.”

 

“Hello,” I stammered. “There is danger near.”

 

“It has passed.”

 

A patch of tall grass rustled. The deer-woman said, “We found the dangerous ones.” She nodded toward the shaking grass.

I followed her and saw Simon and Janks on their backs, bound hand and foot with vines, their mouths stuffed with leaves.

 

“What will you do with them?”

 

“They must account for themselves.”

 

The scent of lilac made me dizzy. She gazed at me with luminous eyes. “You are a credit to your people, Tuana.”

 

“It was only right.” I did not ask how she knew my name.

 

“I am Marala. We are grateful to you for saving our comrade.”

 

“Does she live?”

 

“She will recover.” Marala paused as if deciding whether to go on. “Long ago my people, the Amarante, covered this land. Times changed when the hunting ones came. We retreated. Many died, some prey to hunters, others of grief. Now only this forest remains to us. We must protect it, so none of your kind who sees us may live.”

 

I wondered if her golden eyes were the last sight I would see.

 

“No,” she said as if she knew my thoughts. “You have served us. For one who serves, there is always choice.”

 

Behind us, the Amarante had formed a circle of legs and backs and lashing white tails.

 

“What are they doing?”

 

She moved closer and breathed on me. A mist came over my eyes, golden brown like an autumn sunset. I felt pleasantly dizzy, as if I had drunk too much wine before supper. I thought I must be asleep. The mist cleared. Marala stood before me, but now she was the golden-clad human woman I had first seen.

 

She pressed her forehead to mine. A gentle touch. I felt as if I were falling. My vision expanded inward and outward. I saw another forest when Amarante and humans and animals lived and played together. Strange-looking animals moved through the trees—great shaggy cows with black fur, a beast so long-necked it fed on leaves high in the trees. A snake wider than my waist slithered by and gazed at me with knowing eyes.

 

“That was long ago.” Her voice broke the spell. “You must not reveal what you have seen.”

 

When I looked at Marala, a wildness rose in me. “I would never betray you. You have my oath.”

 

She looked so sad I thought my heart had cracked. “I pray you keep your promise, Tuana. Now, come.”

 

Marala drew me into the circle. Two long-tailed lemurs dropped from a tree and untied Simon and Janks. The men spat out leaves.

 

Marala stood erect. “Explain why you ignored my command to leave our forest. Explain why you shot one of us. Why you killed another and consumed his flesh.”

 

Simon tried to rise, but when the largest Amarante thrust his horns forward, he fell back. “This is a mistake,” he whined. “The one we shot at, we thought an ordinary deer. I didn’t see its face until the arrow had gone. I swear.” He looked at me in a sickening, pleading way.

 

The Amarante stamped their hooves in a rhythm I felt in my legs.

 

“The charge of murder?” Marala said.

 

“That wasn’t us.” Simon drew his legs toward his chest. “I’d never injure a magical creature.”

 

Janks entreated me with his eyes. They meant me to keep their secret because I was human, but in truth, their guilt was clear.

Marala guided me away from the circle and asked, “Do you wish to return to your home?”

 

I thought of Jed’s strong arms. Our little cottage under the oak trees. Then I remembered the fawn.

Marala smiled. “You see truly.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“I sent the little one to invite you here. Encountering the wicked men was unfortunate, but we needed to deal with them. Come, Tuana.”

 

When we reached the far side of the meadow, the sun had set. We came to a small cabin constructed of stone with a wooden door and two curtained windows.

 

“Inside is food and a comfortable bed. Will you allow me to care for you tonight?”

 

I nodded and squeezed her fingers. Marala led me inside. The room was warm and homey, with a hearth, a table and two chairs in one corner, and a row of thick pillows along a wall.

 

When my foot crossed the threshold, I knew I was home. Marala led me through the room to a curtain of a silky material the same golden color as her hair. Through it we entered another room furnished with a featherbed, a single chest and a hearth. I sank onto the bed and removed my dress and shoes. Marala pulled a feathery quilt over me. She was speaking in that bewitching voice as I fell asleep.

 

I woke in darkness. Moonlight streamed through the window. Beside me warmth and soft breathing. I burrowed deeper into my pillow and inched backward.

 

A hand crept over my hip and squeezed, so gently I wasn’t sure it happened. I feared to turn but did not pull away. The hand caressed me, slow and deliberate, down my leg and up again, probing at my belly, then dancing over my ribs. Ripples of pleasure moved outward from the pressure of those soft fingers. I could not force myself to stay still. I exhaled, surprised that my breath came out like a moan.

 

Moonlight limned Marala’s profile. “Tuana,” she breathed. I pressed closer. Her hands encircled my face. “I have waited long for you. Your grandmother left us when she was a girl. She followed a human man out of our forest to live among his people. I dreamed of meeting one of her descendants. Then I learned of you.”

 

I remembered Grandmother looking out of golden eyes like those Marala turned on me. “She never told me.”

 

Marala explored me with gentle, whispery hands that left tingling trails of sensation along each nerve. “I wish only to give you pleasure, Tuana.” I heard the smile in her voice.

 

My chest and belly were melting into delicious sensations of warmth and movement. I pushed against her, filled with images of gushing forth. I am a river, I thought, about to cascade over a tower of stone. I will fall so far my form will dissolve into its essence. I will rise from the river as someone new.

 

Her mouth was hot and yielding. Hair fine as silk fell brushed my face. She pushed me deeper into the bed and covered me with kisses.

 

Until then, I never knew such pleasure.

 

We slept entwined. I dreamed of moonlit nights and animals who spoke. I dreamed of Marala’s hands inscribing strange symbols in the night sky, hung there as signposts to another world.

 

When I awoke, dawn had not come. Marala stirred but did not wake as I crept from the room, thinking to start the morning fire. The stillness of the meadow beckoned me, so I wandered outside. Thoughts of home and husband had fled. Marala filled me.

 

I had picked a bouquet of pink and purple wildflowers when first light shone on the meadow. I turned back, but then came the screams. Humans begging for mercy.

 

I ran toward the sound and found Simon and Janks still trapped in the circle of Amarante.

 

“What are you doing? What justice is this?” I called.

 

Two males faced me. “This is not for you, human.”

I stood my ground. “What are you doing?”

 

They shook their antlered heads. The circle tightened. The human wails rose to a keening scream.

 

The Amarante rose on their hind legs. For a moment, they balanced upright, motionless in the misty light of dawn. They stabbed their razor hooves at the hapless humans. Janks and Simon fell, still screaming. They rose and struck again. The screams stopped. The largest Amarante rose a final time. He emitted a wild cry, a screech of triumph, and slammed down his hooves on what must have been the lifeless bodies of my captors.

 

I turned and ran.

 

Marala met me before I reached the cabin. “Tuana!” She caught me in her arms. I sobbed, holding onto her as if she could stop me from drowning in what I had seen, for I knew what she would say. “No,” I pleaded. “Don’t make me leave. I will never tell. I love you.”

 

Her golden eyes glistened. “And I love you, sweet Tuana, but you have seen what is forbidden.”

 

We held each other for a long time. Then we returned to her cabin and made love again. It was sweeter than before. Even in my grief, my body soared under her touch. We came together as two sides of a single soul. Tearing ourselves apart caused a physical ache in my side. I feel it still.

 

Marala stroked my hair. “Because you are beloved, I will allow you to leave our forest. I will give you supplies for the journey, but you must tell no one, ever, about us. Do you understand, my love?”

 

“Your secret is safe. I swear it on my life.”

 

“Do not forget me, sweet Tuana. If you keep your promise, we might someday find each other again.”

🍎

 

I left the Amarante on a summer day, carrying a pack, the hunting knife my eldest brother gave me, and a quiver with arrows and a bow. In sorrow, I walked through the forest.

 

To return to the forest near my home should not have been a long journey, but grief cursed me. I didn’t want to leave Marala and I wandered, unable to find the familiar wood.

 

Always in the wood I had known which way was home, as if my feet knew more than my eyes. Now I was blind. Everything looked the same. At night, the stars hid behind clouds. I marked my passage by making on trees I passed, but in all my wanderings, I never encountered one of them again.

 

The weather turned cold. My supplies ran out. The berries froze. I kept my mind blank and put one foot in front of the other. No tracks revealed any sign of humans. I walked with the bow in hand, ready to shoot any animal I saw, but none appeared. In my dreams, Marala smiled with such sadness I wept in my sleep. I begged for help. Whatever she said, I could not hear.

 

When so weak with hunger I could barely walk, I emerged from a thick patch of forest on a steep hill. Below was a clearing. A dirt road passed through it. In the distance stood a cottage and stable and cultivated fields.

 

I stumbled down the hill and into the stable. A group of men and one woman sat at a rough-hewn table.

 

The woman, red-faced, with long black hair and high black boots, stood and greeted me. “Come in, child. What do you seek?” She was a light in a sea of darkness.

 

“My name is Tuana. I’m starving.”

 

When she touched my shoulder, I trembled. “Come and sit.”

 

She steered me to the table. The men moved closer to make room. She gave me milk, the most delicious food I ever tasted.

The others were silent, but swayed against each other from side to side. I thought it must be how they comforted each other. When I finished the milk, the woman led me to an empty stall, thick with fresh straw. I clutched her hand. She pried my fingers away so she could spread a blanket over me.

 

In the morning, I woke dizzy and disoriented, lying on straw facing a wooden wall. I brushed the straw from my clothes and tried to remember how I got here. When I stumbled out of the stall, I remembered.

 

They were all there, sitting at the table. They nodded their long heads in greeting and again made room for me. I drank milk and ate bread smeared with sweet butter. The man beside me had a lock of black hair hanging over his forehead that he moved from his eyes by shifting his head. “You wandered a long time,” he said. “That’s a wild forest. Where are you headed?”

 

“Home,” I said.

The lock of hair flopped over his eyes. “Why were you in the forest?"

The faces of Simon and Janks swam before me. “Two men took me prisoner. I escaped, but lost the trail.”

 

He nodded. “It’s a wild wood. You’re lucky you found us.”

 

The man opposite, a fellow with gray skin and pure white hair smiled, revealing large, yellow teeth. When I finished eating, the woman folded her arms across her bosom. “Now, Tuana,” she said, “You must pay for your room and board.”

 

Her request startled me. “I have no coin. But if you will direct me toward a road, I swear to return with any payment you desire.”

 

The woman patted my arm. “We don’t need coin. We live alone, far from any village. We have food, so we need only your story. Tell us how you came to the wood, and how you found us. A story to warm our hearts. Then we’ll direct you toward your home.”

 

I laughed with relief, thinking how lonely they must be. “If that is all you want, I will comply.” I told them about my village, and how I married Jed, captain of the Royal Guard. I told how I ventured from our cottage and followed the black fawn into the wood. How Simon and Janks captured me and everything that followed.

 

When I finished, they kept nodding their heads in unison. The gray-skinned man rose and brought a mug of water from the pump. “Tell us the rest.” He placed it before me.

 

“There is nothing else.”

 

“Why did you break your promise?”

 

He had such long lashes for such an old man.

 

My promise to Marala had flown from my mind. The one thing I swore not to do! “I wish you were not so interested in my journey.” My misery filled me with darkness.

 

“We did not force you to tell.”

 

He was right. I had one obligation and only myself to blame for not keeping it. “Please,” I said. “Overlook my transgression. With all the wandering, I am not myself. I pray that none of you will pass on my tale. Let my story be a phantom that vanishes like smoke. I beg this of you, that I may not cause more harm to the beautiful Amarante.”

 

“Ah,” sighed the man. The others nodded their heads, up and down, until I felt dizzy. “To silence so many is difficult. Even those of good will, which we have here. The Amarante knew that when she required it of you.”

 

“My heart aches.”

 

“As it should. She must have loved you, to let you go.”

 

Their faces were blurring and running together. My vision narrowed and wavered. I knew I was sliding off the bench, but could not stop myself.

 

When I opened my eyes, I lay in sawdust. A circle of horses surrounded me, a black and a dun with a black forelock, a fat bay mare with black stockings, and a tall gray with a white mane. I thought I was dreaming, but one of them switched its tail against my arm, and the sting was sharp.

 

I opened my mouth to scream.

 

All the horses staring down at me had human faces.

 

I screamed and screamed.

 

When I stopped, nothing had changed.

 

The man who had become the gray was firm. “When men invade our forests and find a magical creature, they enslave it. They make it carry things or enshrine it so it dies of loneliness. We cannot trust you to remain silent, so we will return you to your land, but you will not find companionship for many years. I am sorry, but this is what will happen.”

 

I could no longer speak. My chest ached so, I feared I would die on the spot and save them taking me to a deserted place. As it turned out, the horse-people took no special trouble. They instructed me to climb on the back of the bay mare and then we all trotted out of the meadow, past the cultivated fields into a wood on the far side of a creek.

 

We traveled all day. I tried to talk to them, but they didn’t answer. Near evening, they stopped in a clearing. I slid off the mare’s back. Already the horses were turning away.

 

The gray nodded, and the movement whipped his mane around his face. “We leave you here. You must find edible plants, but you can do it if you pay attention. Do not seek the Amarante or return to us. Walk east to find your way. I thank you again for the service you performed for our cousins.”

 

The other horses nickered their farewells.

 

“Don’t leave me,” I begged. “I won’t tell a soul. I swear on my mother’s life, on the lives of my unborn children.”

 

His eyes were compassionate. “I hope to never see you again. There can be no mercy a third time.”

 

I stood straight. The gray trotted to catch up with its companions. When they were out of sight, I fell on the ground and sobbed.

🍎

I learned to dig roots and find wild vegetables. I learned to call the animals for company. Deer came often and squirrels, sometimes a rabbit. I never used my knife or bow against any living creature. Companionship was better than meat.

 

I gauged direction by the sun and walked east. I never saw an animal with a human face. For this, I counted himself fortunate. Neither did I see a human, nor any sign of one. I walked and walked. The seasons passed. My body grew hard and lean.

 

I longed for Jed who sometimes in my mind became Marala. I dreamed of his voice and her face. Sometimes I thought I had found her wood again. Then I learned the tricks the mind plays and how real illusion can seem.

 

Often I come upon a meadow that looks familiar. Sometimes cresting a hill, I’m sure I will recognize what lies beyond. Then I understand this is due to a heightened awareness developing in me. After so many years alone, I see more than what lies before my eyes. Whether it is past or future, I cannot tell. I understand this is a curse.

 

Memories of Jed warm me, although I no longer recall the contours of his face. His love draws me on as I slog through the seasons, striving eastward, hopeful for the day when the meadow near our cottage appears before me.

 

I am grateful when I dream of Marala of the golden eyes and silken hair, and on mornings when I am very lucky, I wake with a memory in my limbs of the pleasure I knew with her. It took a long time before I realize she is drawing me too.

 

I suspect I do not progress because love pulls me from opposite directions. I may be walking in circles, but if I trod only a small portion of the forest, I should find evidence of my passing. Is that not true? When I find no sign, I ask myself if my power of reason has fled, but get no answer.

 

There is nothing to do but keep on. I do not die and so I walk. As I walk, I repeat my story to myself so it does not vanish into the recesses of my mind. I walk and remember the truth of my life. These things happened.

 

I am Tuana, beloved of Jed, Captain of the Duke’s Royal Guard, and of Marala of the Amarante. Someday I will find my way home.

 

_________________________________________

Carol Holland March writes speculative fiction about what peeks from behind the veil. Her stories have appeared in online and print magazines and anthologies. Her fantasy trilogy, The Dreamwalkers of Larreta will be published by Ellysian Press in 2016.  Carol teaches creativity and writing for healing at the University of New Mexico. Follow her on Twitter @CarolHMarch

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