Isolde held her breath. She stared down the shaft of her arrow, past its barbed steel tip, feeling the pull of the bowstring against her muscles. It tugged hard at her right shoulder as she drew it back, and at her left arm, locked straight and pointing at her prey. She had been stalking the stag for hours, though she had had many opportunities to end the pursuit. For Isolde, born to the forest - “Born with a bow in her hand”, her Uncle John always said - the chase was what mattered. To set out at dawn, ankle deep in the morning mist, and surrender herself to the woods completely. To feel every stirring leaf and hear every snapping twig. To find the trail that others might miss. To stalk in silence and close in like a tightening noose. And then, at the perfect moment…
The kill itself always saddened her. She admired the animals. They knew the forest better than she did, and they fought - or ran - without the weapons and stiff leather armor of her people to broaden their options. The bow in her hands felt almost like cheating. But she was Isolde Hart of Lambley, daughter of the most powerful Ice Mage her people had ever produced, and the latest in a line of brave and skillful foresters that stretched back further than memory. What the forest could not provide you wouldn’t find on the dinner table or the back of a Lambley archer. She fixed the stag in her gaze as it turned slowly to munch on the pale leaves of a budding blackthorn, quite unaware of her presence. Then she breathed out slowly, muttered a prayer for the animal’s swift death, and let her arrow fly.
The stag fell like a puppet with its strings cut. Isolde leapt from her hiding place behind a broad beech tree and hopped gracefully through the undergrowth, ready to grasp the great beast by the antlers and snap its neck to end its suffering, but by the time she reached it, it had already breathed its last. Isolde lay her hand on the animal’s warm flank and closed her eyes for a moment as she whispered another prayer, this time for thanks. She gripped the shaft of her arrow tightly and pulled it from the stag’s heart, wiped it clean with a handful of grass and placed it back in the quiver slung over her shoulder. The moment of sadness that always accompanied her kills passed quickly as she took in the sight of stag in all its glory. It really was a fine creature. And huge! Its meat would provide a feast, roasted on the spit in her family’s great fireplace, or salted and dried for the spartan winter months ahead. Its hide would make clothes and belts and a hundred useful bindings and covers. Its bones and antlers would be buttons and beads, needles and awls, handles and decorations. Nothing would be wasted. It was a fine kill indeed; the biggest side of venison the village would see this year, no doubt. Isolde chuckled to herself as a thought occurred. The chuckle turned into a giggle, and the giggle turned into great, wracking spasms of laughter that made her sink to her knees and hold her sides as if they might split. Oh, she’d caught a whopper, alright. She’d brought down the biggest deer in the forest. Now all she had to do was drag it home; a creature twice her height and five times her weight. It was the work of two full grown men, at least!
Isolde remembered her father as he was years ago, before he was called to duty in the great city of Luxis, when she was four, maybe five years old. She remembered her eagerness to learn and to please him.
“One day,” Isolde had said to her father, as she lifted her bow towards the target for the very first time, “I’m going to shoot down a dragon.”
Her father laughed. “And then what, little one?” he had teased, “There isn’t room in all of Lambley’s smokehouses and salt cellars for more than a slice or two of a dragon’s tail.”
“Still doing it,” little Isolde had puffed, angrily.
Now, she remembered her childish resolve and laughed at her present predicament. The village was a mile or two south, and she could not hope move the deer alone. Quickly, Isolde set about dressing the animal’s carcass. A fresh kill would not last long if she left it unguarded in the open, so it would need to be kept out of harm’s way while she fetched help. She unsheathed the strong steel knife with its bone handle that was strapped to her thigh and shoved the heavy carcass onto its back. With a series of expert cuts, she opened its belly and reached in to haul out the animal’s organs, which she stuffed into a large leather bag to carry home. Next she removed the deer’s head; a fine trophy to return with to the village, and one that would help to convince her uncle and friends that she was not spinning tall tales of giant beasts. From a second bag, she pulled a strong rope which she tied around the stag’s ankles. The other end she threw over a branch and wound around a fallen tree trunk to make a pulley. Then, digging her heels into soft ground of the forest floor, Isolde hauled the huge stag slowly off the ground until it was hanging out of reach of any passing scavengers. A pool of warm blood puddled under the tree where it hung, draining from the wound in the stag’s chest. Isolde hoisted the head onto her back, her arms spread wide to grip the antlers over her shoulders, like a milkmaid’s yoke, and - no need for silence now - she turned for home and set off, singing loudly and stamping through the undergrowth.
The sharp crack of a snapping branch stopped the song in Isolde’s throat and made her freeze. The animals of the woods were too nimble and stealthy to make such a noise. Only clumsy humans walked so carelessly among the undergrowth. Humans, and perhaps Elves. They had been friends once, the strange, lean elven folk of the woods and the people of Lambley. But the Elf King, celebrated in years gone by for his wisdom and fairness, had become a pale shadow of his former self, twisted by greed and ambition. His elven warriors made frequent patrols of the forest lands, sometimes attacking the humans that they encountered. Isolde listened hard. A girl alone, even a crack shot like Isolde, would stand little chance against a party of elven archers. She lowered the stag’s head from her shoulders and placed it silently on the ground, then she stood, head cocked, muscles tense, ready to run.
There was a rustle of leaves and she spun on the spot in time catch the blur of movement as a red-robed figure slipped behind a broad oak tree some thirty feet behind her on the path.
“Show yourself!” she called, boldly, unshouldering her bow and fingering the steel tip of an arrow, “If you’re trying to go unnoticed, stranger, you have failed.”
“Ha ha ha ha ha!”
The mocking laughter betrayed the stranger’s position precisely. He stepped out from behind the oak tree and stood facing Isolde, hands on hips, under a flowing red robe. Beneath its velvet hood, a pair of cold blue eyes narrowed to meet the young girl’s steady, fearless gaze.
“Do you think me a fool, forester?” laughed the stranger, “What need have I to hide from little girls?”
“I could skewer your heart in an instant from this distance,” said Isolde, staring down the length of her arrow, “These are my people’s lands. Tell me what business you have here!” she demanded.
“Your lands?” sneered red-robed stranger, “Run home, little girl, this forest belongs to my master, as does all of Midgard. Run along home. The truth is waiting for you there.”
“What do you mean?” asked Isolde, confused. The stranger’s manner was unsettling; confident and cruel.
“My master’s time is at hand,” the stranger spat through gritted teeth, “The Dark Lord rises, forester. Your home will fall to the bone soldiers I command in his name!”
The stranger lifted his arms and his eyes rolled back in his head as a cloud of dark, swirling magical energy gathered in his outstretched hands.
“Run home, girl,” he hissed at Isolde, “Or would you rather die where you stand?”
He thrust an arm towards her and bolt of black energy shot forward. Isolde threw herself to the ground and rolled behind a fallen tree. There was a crashing sound and the trunk of an ancient elm exploded into charred splinters behind her. She scrambled to her feet and darted through the trees, zig-zagging so as not to give her attacker a line of sight for a second shot. Bone soldiers? The Dark Lord? She knew the stories of course, what child of Midgard did not? But the Dark Lord and his armies were ancient history. They couldn’t be a threat to Lambley. Could they? Isolde dug her toes into the soft, loamy earth of the forest floor and ran like a deer through the tangle of trees, towards home.