This story is by Carter Elise Key and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The freezing air burned as it left my throat. In through the nose, burning sensation, out through the mouth, burning sensation. I didn’t entirely remember what triggered the need for this run.
I hunched over, leaning my hands on my knees to keep myself from toppling into the snow. In through the nose, burning sensation, out through the mouth, burning sensation. Huffing and puffing was not a very royal look.
Once the white noise of weaponry silenced itself, a ringing came to my ears. That means someone is speaking of you in your absence. It was a superstition, but one I firmly believed. I tried to tune into the nature around me, ensuring I was alone as usual on this route, but I thought I heard rustling.
My posture shot to straight again, causing little black and purple dots to waltz and tango across my line of vision. I staggered, shaking my head to rid myself of the sudden vertigo. I drew my dagger, the feeling in my fingers returning with a tingling sensation.
More rustling—many small leaves battling to be the sound heard in the otherwise deafening silence. Quiet your breathing!
In through the nose, burning sensation, out through the mouth, burning sensation—but quieter this time.
I have mastery over every muscle, tendon, bone, vein in my body. I am a weapon. I have been trained to be so since I could hold a sword or shoot a bow. I am lethal.
Things I thought were branches previously began to adjust themselves. The motion caught my eye and I tensed, shifting all my focus to that singular holly bush. The red berries stood out against the deep green of the leaves and the ice and snow covering them. Looking at the bottom of the bush, some of them splattered, crushed into the snow by the weight of some creature.
Hooves. Massive hooves.
Brown eyes popped over the bush the rustling is coming from. Two white ears also popped up. The left one flicked off some of the snow that’s been falling for a minute or two now. I squinted to try to get a better look at the creature, and a grey-speckled pelt became visible against the lazy snowfall.
It’s an elk. A huge one, from the looks of it—the thing rose to its full height and was triple, maybe quadruple the height of the bush it was previously hiding behind, and that bush was by no means small. It maybe came up to my waist. How they manage to make themselves so small will always be a mystery to me.
In through the nose, burning sensation, out through the mouth, burning sensation. I suddenly wished I hadn’t neglected to bring my canteen with me on this stupid run. I could use some fresh water right about now.
Apparently, so could the elk. It stooped down and started licking the leaves of the bush, also nibbling on some of the berries that grew, even though they no longer eat them. Its glistening black nose made the leaves rustle even more. It was fascinating, how little this creature cared about the fact I was standing in front of it, no more than a few meters away.
For some reason, I thought the manner its snout moved around the leaves was funny. The fear curdled into amusement, and I chuckled. The creature must have heard me, because it raised its head and stared deep into my soul, its honey-glaze eyes lined with specks of dried blood from its last kill.
If I was burning before, every inch of my body has frozen over. My grip tightened on the knife, flipping it around to a more defensive position. Blade forward to advance, blade back-facing to deflect. That lesson was seared into my memory very early on.
I was suddenly as aware of the thin scar running down my forearm as I was the beast in front of me.
Our eyes locked, and for some reason I felt the impulse to wave. I did. The creature blinked, unsure of how to read the gesture. Was I threatening its place in the food chain? No. I would never dare. This creature is sacred, majestic, fierce…everything I aspire to be.
I dared to venture forward a few steps. Its head raised to its full height, standing at easily five meters tall with the height of its horns added. I sheathed my dagger, unsure of what came over me in the moment, and approached it. I’m walking towards this elk, of my own volition, like a crazy person. My palms facing out, my arms extended slightly to try and show it that I meant no harm.
The creature snarled, the wrinkles in its snout deepening the closer I got. The size of its fangs were…terrifying. They made my dagger look like an embroidery needle.
If I could just…
I gently reached across the bush and laid my freezing hand on the creature’s shoulder. I don’t know what I was expecting, but it was not the warmth which radiated off of it. My hand was no longer numb from the cold, but drowning in the heat of the elk’s pelt.
Its snarl dissipated. It watched me, both of us hyperaware of everything about the other. I could feel the droplets of its breath on my face, the mist descending from high above me.
After a few tense moments, the elk huffed and turned away. Its hooves made little to no sound against the snow, save for the occasional crunching of a branch to make its presence known. I felt it in the absence of life against my hand.
I watched it retreat in awe, wondering how I suddenly was so lucky to have survived that encounter. Or even to encounter the beast during my run initially—this path was seldom one for wildlife. The cloud of warm air that puffed from my nose stung, but it was no longer burning. That’s good, at least. I was calm again. Fear no longer chilled my bones, now it was just the freezing temperature I’ve been standing in doing that job.
Well, back we go. I stumbled across the symbol of our House and was able to walk away without a scratch. A part of me wondered if the deer recognised that we shared the same noble blood.
The crunching sound of my boots on the snow wasn’t as soothing as it once might have been. Holly bushes and pine trees were primarily what filled the space around me, but there was little I could see other than the foliage. I kept my eyes open, not wanting to try my luck twice in the same day.