01 Feb Among the Court of the Stag-King
I can still see him. The image is clawed into the back of my mind. His name, I cannot remember most nights. But tonight, I remember it clearly. I remember who he was before they took him, before I let them take him. His face, pale as a corpse, his eyes like hellfire, I remember who he was. His hair once was blonde. His eyes were as crisp as the clearest emeralds. That was before his corruption. His name, if I remember right, was Robert Ehrler.
He still calls to me. When I lie awake at night, I can hear his voice echo from the woods where we used to play. Some nights, I foolishly light my lantern and step onto my porch. The dark, ominous woods that surround my home are always enveloped in shadow and mystery. As a child, I often wondered what lurked out there, but now, in my old age, I know what horrors await. Most nights, when I do muster the courage to face Robert, do I see him, standing on the edge of the forest. The light of the moon dances on his mort flesh. The shadows of the wood seep from the edges of his hellfire eyes. It is as if he still lives, when I know better. He always says the same thing when I see him. He waves his hand in the air, as if to beckon me. His voice, the original I do not remember, is always corrupted, hollow, false, when he says, Come now! I want to show you something! Come now! I want you to see what I’ve seen…
Most nights I step inside. Most nights I ignore my long dead friend. But some nights, some nights I gain the courage to say to him, “I’ve seen it. I saw what happened. I need not see it again.”
Then why did you take me! He becomes enraged. His body convulses and shakes. The shadows of the night flow from his mouth as if it were a poison he wished to spew at me. Why did you lead me there? Why did you take me? I was a boy, friend! A boy!
“And I was a boy too.” I say, shutting the door behind me.
He screams after that. He screams throughout the night, trying to bring me back out. I know what he wants, justice.
Every night I feel pain and sorrow, an immense guilt, for the death of poor Robert Ehrler. Yet, by morning I often forget. I forget my dead friend, aged and withered in the most unnatural way, standing and calling me to my reckoning. I lived a full life without him. I hate to say that, but it is true. I’d seen things that he could only imagine. He never would. I don’t know what the dead see, but something told me that Ehrler was not dead, nor was he living. I often thought him a figure of my imagination, but I know better. I’ve learned from my past mistakes and when the dead give warning, the living should heed.
Robert was my best friend as a child, my only friend really. We were thick as thieves, running around our small territory town. We’d get into all sorts of trouble together. We were young and full of life. Most days we would run in the woods together, safe from the war that raged in faraway states. His father had passed, as had mine, amongst the thousands of others in the carnage. That grew us closer. He really, honestly, was my best friend. In death though, I don’t think he remembers. For I, in my old age, find it difficult to recall moments of my past. Some are better left forgotten. Still, we played in the woodland that surrounded my family home. We would pretend to hunt most days. We tracked a legendary beast within our minds, one that Robert had heard of from his mother. He told me the story of the Great White Stag. That, on most days, was our objective. Neither of us believed in such a story. Robert’s mother was a strange woman. She often spoke of her husband visiting her in her dreams, calling to her to see a great city of some kind. My mother didn’t care for her, so neither did I. She was ill, had to be. While Robert and I were friends, as were our fathers, our mothers never saw eye to eye. One saw the bottom of a bottle, and the other lived trapped in a mind of lunacy.
Robert would often leave at sun down. His mother always wanted him home by supper, saying that his father would be there soon. She didn’t like him being in the woods for she feared that she would pay a heavier price. That is what she said. I found it strange, as did Robert but he was adamant that she just grieved differently than others. When Robert would plead to stay out, she would tell him of the horrors of the forest, something his father told her. I didn’t believe her. Neither did Robert, but still he wanted to keep his mother’s good graces. How foolish we were…
One night in particular, Robert returned home after we went on our imaginary hunt. I, wanting to continue to avoid my fatherless life, continued to play. I cradled a stick in my arms as if it were a musket. I marched through the woods in search of the Great White Stag. We foolish boys chased an imaginary creature. It was a goal that we would never achieve, but yet we tried, day after day in our imaginations, trying to catch the stag. Maybe, I told myself, I would have a better chance of catching the beast if I were alone. So, I continued my trek deeper into the forest. The sun was setting, I remember that clear as day. The darkness around the trees began to grow. The forest floor, littered with decaying leaves and twigs rusted with the evening winds as they began to pour over the hills. I was alone, isolated. That is when I saw it, The Great White Stag.
I, at first, thought it to be a trick of the eyes. It leered at me from behind a massive oak. The tree itself appeared strange. It was tall, taller than any of the other trees. Its bark was dark too, almost as if it were scorched in some fire. The stag peered at me from around its base. I could not see its body, only its head. Its fur was as white as snow. Its eyes glistened with a deep red. Its antlers were tall, mighty, and majestic. I dropped my stick in excitement. I, honestly, thought it to be my imagination. I thought that maybe I was hungry and that I must’ve been hallucinating. I reached down for my stick in a panic, and grabbed hold of it. I slung it to my shoulder, as a foolish child would, as if I were to shoot the beast. The deer stared at me, not moving. Hell, I couldn’t even tell if it were breathing. That is when I heard them, thousands of them. Flies swarmed around the stag. Some entered its nostrils. Others danced on its open red eyes. The mouth of the stag hung open and its tongue dangled slightly out of the gap. The flies clung to it. I panicked, realizing that I stared at a dead animal, a dead dream.
Then, the majestic beast spoke in a raspy, gravelly voice, Do not fear me, boy.
Its mouth did not move. Its eyes did not move. The dead stag just stared at me and spoke, Where is the other?
The other boy who hunts me…
“It is close to dark.” I stuttered out. I, while staring into the face of the dead creature, felt a fear that I never thought I’d feel. Yet, a strange wave of happiness and joy overtook me. I stared into something that I only thought of as legend.
The stag said, The only time to catch the Stag-King is at dusk…
I smirked, “I did not know that.”
Most do not, which makes you very wise now.
I liked the Stag-King’s compliment.
He continued, It is close to dark…but can you get him?
“I’m sorry?” I asked.
The other boy, can you fetch him. I, the Great White Stag-King, wish to show him my court.
All great kings hold a court…
Like Arthur, he said. Do you like King Arthur?
I nodded. My father used to read me those old stories. They reminded me of him…
Just like King Arthur has his round table, I, the Great Stag-King, hold a court. Would you like to see?
Go then, fetch your friend. Come back.
I did my king’s bidding. I dropped my stick and ran as fast as I could to the edge of town, where the Ehrler’s resided. Their home, much like my current residence, was a small two bedroom shack with cheap, flimsy wood that appeared as if it would cave in on itself at any moment. When I reached Robert’s home it was pitch dark. My mother wouldn’t worry. She was too busy trying to make a wage without my father around. I dashed to my friend’s window but felt too scared to knock. I feared that his mother would hear, so I stood on the edge of the forest, and tossed a rock at his window. It lightly scratched the pane and I soon saw him peer out. He smirked at the sight of me and quickly exited his home. His mother must’ve been sleeping and he must’ve just woken. He wore his pajamas and decided to enter the darkness without a lantern. He stepped out onto his porch, leaping down into the tall, uncut grass. He stared, confused, until I beckoned him with a wave of my hand.
He ran to me quickly, eager. Never had I ever come to visit him in the middle of the night. He must’ve known that the news I brought was urgent. As he approached, he whispered, “What is it? What is going on?”
“It’s real!” I whispered back, a bit too loudly. He hushed me with a motion of his hand, signally that I spoke loud enough for his mother to possibly hear.
“Real?” He questioned. “What is real?”
“The Great White Stag…” I said a bit annoyed with him for not putting two-and-two together.
His eyes grew wide as if he’d seen a ghost. That faded quickly and a look of disbelief took over. He gave a shove on my shoulder, “Stop your lies. That’s not funny. Don’t poke fun at my mother’s stories like that.”
“It’s the truth.” I said. “He asked me to fetch you.”
“He wants you to see his court.”
“All kings have a court,” I said. “He wants us to see it.”
“This is not funny,” he stated again. “I should go back to bed.”
“But I’ve seen him.” I said, “I promise.”
“Why have I not?”
“The Great White Stag can only be seen close to night, at dusk.”
“Says the Stag-King…”
Robert rubbed his hands together, nervous. He looked back towards his home, then back to me, “I shouldn’t. Mother is always talking about the horror in the night.”
“This might be your only chance of seeing it.” I told him.
He looked back towards his house, then back to me again. I could see that he wrestled with what to do. His inner turmoil seeped from his face. He nodded, “Can it be quick? She will beat me if she finds out I left.”
“Of course,” I said. “Grab some shoes. We have to run.”
I led Robert back to where I’d seen the Great Stag-King. We stayed quiet for most of the journey back. The forest radiated a darkness that I hadn’t seen before, or was too oblivious to before that fateful night. My friend and I walked in silence for the most part. Here and there we’d stop, listening to the rustling of the branches and foliage. We were nervous of being caught. I desperately wanted to show Robert the stag, and I wanted to make sure we got there. We took our time, yet moved as fast as we could while still being cautious.
When we arrived in the small overgrown grove, nothing stirred. The wind had stopped blowing. The trees sat still in the thick summer air. We looked around in the darkness, trying to see anything that we could. There was nothing there, nothing except for the great hulking oak where I’d seen the Stag-King before. “Here,” I showed Robert. “This is where I saw him.”
“Around the tree?” He asked.
My friend approached the tree, rubbing his hand against the ancient bark. Pieces fell away at the light touch of his hand as he caressed the large hulking trunk. He shook his head, “Why would you lie? I will be in trouble.”
“I am not lying.” I said, approaching the tree. “It was here, I swear it. At first, I thought it was a dream of some kind, a hallucination like my father spoke of when he was ill. It wasn’t. It was real.”
“Take me back,” Robert said. “My mother will be worried.”
“I am telling the truth!” I exclaimed. My voice carried through the darkness of the forest. The thick shadows appeared to move and twist as the sound passed through them. Something unnatural was happening around us. We were too young to see it.
Robert grabbed my arm. His eyes were widened and startled. It was as if he didn’t think I would yell. He yanked me towards him, crazed with a fear, “Do you want to be caught? Just because your mother doesn’t care about you, doesn’t mean mine is the same! If we’re caught, she’ll kill me!”
I shook my head, “I’m sorry, Robert.”
“Take me back,” he said, releasing my arm. He turned away from me, stepping away from the great oak. That is when we heard it.
A loud crackling sound began to echo through the forest all around us. Robert stopped, turning to face me as if I were the one causing the commotion. I shrugged, just as confused as he was. Then, as if it waited for us to speak loudly enough, the great oak began to move. Its grey bark began to shrivel and depart towards the forest floor. The base of it swayed as if it were living. It began to move inward and outward with a slight pulse as if it were breathing, as if life itself crept back into the dead husk. Then, the bark peeled back and something began to emerge from the center of the tree.
At first, it appeared to be more branches, tangled and gnarled with one another. Yet, the further that the strange object came from the tree, the more I realized that the branches were antlers atop a decaying head of white fur. The head of the white stag emerged from the hulking oak, slightly swaying as it did so. It stopped at the beast’s neckline, and it raised its head upwards to see us. Those eyes, those deep red eyes, leaked an oozing black substance that flowed upwards into the darkness of the night. The mouth of the stag did not move, yet the beast’s hollow, raspy voice began to speak to us, Your friend speaks the truth, boy.
Robert, my brave friend, moved a step forward while I took a step back. He eyed the glowing mort fur of the Stag-King and the crown of antlers that sat atop its head. In the dead of night, an image of an eye could be seen where the bones began to intertwine with one another. “What are you?” My friend asked.
Why…I am the Stag-King. You have been hunting me for so long, haven’t you?
Robert couldn’t believe what he stared at. Neither could I. I’d seen the stag before, but not like this. I hadn’t seen it in the dead of night. I hadn’t seen it in its domain. I didn’t like it. My heart raced. My body became drenched with a thick sweat as I stared into those deep, haunting eyes. I took another step back, knowing that I shouldn’t have been there. I knew that I shouldn’t have brought Robert but there we were, face-to-face with the Great Stag-King.
I am the mightiest of kings. The Stag-King said, And I have the greatest of courts.
“We are pleased to meet you,” Robert said with a nod. He glanced to me quickly, then back to the Stag-King. “But it is very late and we must be on our way.”
“I am sorry?” Robert asked, taking a step backwards. He moved closer towards me in doing so.
You cannot leave, for we have not discussed why I called you here.
Robert turned his back, motioning me with his hand that we should leave. I nodded. I turned as well and in an instant, the forest felt as if it had shifted and the great oak with the white stag protruding from its trunk stared us down. It blocked our path. There would be no way out. We could not leave, not unless the Great Stag-King willed it.
Do not test me.
We didn’t speak.
You have hunted the White Stag for many months.
“Did you tell him something you shouldn’t have?” Robert asked me, nudging me in the back.
I shook my head, not breaking my gaze from the seeping eyes of the stag.
My eye sees many a-things in my domain.
We didn’t say anything to that. We didn’t know what to think or believe or…
There is something we must discuss, hunters.
“What is that?” Robert asked.
My wisdom is unmatched and I must show you the ways of the world. Your kind cannot see as I see. Your kind lacks the power of my court.
We listened intently as the great stag lifted its head and began thrashing it in the air at the mere thought that passed through its mind, Do you wish to see?
“See what?” I asked.
“What does that mean?”
Your fathers are here with me now…
I looked back to Robert, who stared off into the forest, behind the great oak ahead of us. His head was titled, confused. I glanced back to see what he saw. I wish I hadn’t. Behind the great oak, on either side of it, eclipsed by the darkness of the forest, two tall silhouettes loomed. They looked down on us boys. Their faces were shrouded in shadow. Their eyes though, glowed with the color of the moon.
They belong to my court, slain amongst my bones and blood.
I heard Robert ask, “Father? Is that you?”
Whispering began to fill the air. I couldn’t make out what it said, but Robert could. He began to scream, covering his ears. He fell to his knees, trying to fight whatever spoke to him. I turned, facing him. I knelt down next to him, “What are they saying? What do they want?”
Everything stopped. All the whispers faded away in a fraction of a second. Robert looked to me. His eyes welled with tears. “Well?” I asked, “What did they say?”
Come now, the Stag-King demanded.
I stood to face the Stag-King. The silhouettes of our fathers continued to watch from behind the oak. They swayed in the darkness, as if they were reeds in murky water. In the moment, I felt as if it was the bravest I have ever been my whole life. I approached the tree, reaching my hand out as if I were going to touch the Great Stag-King. Just as my hand was about to pet the dried, decaying nose of the beast, it let out a loud haunting squeal, rearing its head upwards towards the night sky.
Not you, boy! The other…
I turned to face Robert. He still sat on his knees, staring at the great tree. His hands fell into his lap. His eyes watered with tears of massive fear. He stammered out, “What?”
I thank you for bringing him to me and for that, you will be rewarded.
I looked back to the Stag-King, “You cannot take him! You cannot take my only friend!”
I am your only friend, young hunter. I am the only friend that you will need.
“Please!” I begged, “Do not take him!”
He is mine to claim. His father calls for him. Can’t you hear him?
I couldn’t. I didn’t know what he was talking about.
For your great deed, you shall be rewarded. Do not deny me though, boy. When I call for you to see my court, you come.
“Please…” I whimpered. “Please, don’t take him…”
Evade me, boy, and you receive my justice. When I call…come…
I stared into those seeping eyes. I could not break my gaze. Then, the stag lowered its head, showing me its gnarled crown of antlers and branches. It spoke again, Leave, now.
I took a step back, moving towards Robert. I looked down at him. He stared at me with wide eyes and bewilderment, “Please, don’t go!”
“I have to.” I whispered. Tears flowed from my eyes. “There is nothing I can do.”
“Take me with you!” He said, trying to stand. As he did so, roots of the massive tree sprung from the ground with a massive force. They wrapped around my friend, forcing him back into his kneeling position. They grabbed ahold of him so tightly, that blood began to dampen his clothing on his arms and his legs. The branches moved away from me, with my friend still in their clutches, sliding him towards the tree.
I began to run. I dashed off into the forest the fastest I ever ran in my life. I heard Robert scream, and I looked back to see. The trunk of the great tree had opened like a flower in spring. Inside though, sat a pool of swelling darkness and muck. Atop of it though…atop floated the body of a pale nude man. His body glistened amongst the moon light. The darkness flowed from his body, as if it were a part of him. Atop his shoulders sat the head of the Great Stag-King. I watched as the glowing eyes of the dark silhouettes faded into the night. Robert slid closer toward the tree against his will. Then, I saw as the Stag-King threw open his arms as if to embrace my friend. I dared not look back after that.
When I call you to my court…come…
Robert calls for me now, but it is not his bidding but that of the Stag-King. Long have I evaded his summoning and long have I feared his justice. Yet, with this memory now so clear in my mind, it is as if I cannot escape it. I will just have to wait till morning…I will just have to forget once the sun comes up.
I regret taking Robert, but what was I to do? I did not believe in such things. I was a child. I did not know what would happen. That cannot be my fault! Many times I told myself it was a nightmare. Many times I told myself that Robert just disappeared. Many times I lied to ignore this haunted reality. I regret what I did, but I didn’t know! I didn’t know what would happen! Now, I fear that I have evaded for too long! I worry what Robert will do to me if I were to go and see him! I worry what the Stag-King will say…I never want to see him again…but now, so clearly in my mind, I can see his great crown and his great eye. I can see it all.
Robert beckons me. I can hear him. I can hear him calling from the late watches.
I want you to see what I’ve seen…
No! I tell myself this is nothing but a nightmare.
I can only imagine being led by my dead friend through the dark, haunting forest, leading me as I did him…to an untimely demise. He knows though. He knows what awaits in the forest.
I can only imagine being strangled and wrapped by the roots of the great hulking oak. I can only imagine how terrible that must feel. I don’t want to experience it. I see the head of the great Stag-King so clearly in my mind. I can see him clear as day with those seeping red eyes. They tear away at my heart! He wants me to join him! He wants me to see his court or face his justice!
I have to muster the courage to ignore him. But I can’t…I have to see him. I have to face my justice now, for if I don’t, he will find me. He will follow me. Death is no escape. I know that now. I can only imagine what awaits once that tree opens and I see the black abyss. I can only imagine what is on the other side…