By Nicholas Kotar
It took Voran a maddening hour to get through the city's reaches and out the gates. Another half hour away from the paths as he tried to get his bearings in the forests beyond the city. He was intent on his path like a pointer on the scent. But when the howling started, his blood turned to ice in his veins.
He had heard wolves before. This was no mere wolf. The sound was deeper and darker, like the buzz of a hornet compared to a fly. He tried to recall the details of the many stories of the white stag. Was there a legendary predator to accompany the legendary quarry? Not that he could remember.
A blur of white raced before his eyes, so close he could spit at it. In an instant, it was gone.
The sun showered the foliage with dappled light. Something that was not the sun – a strange golden mist-light – flickered through the trunks, as though the stag had left a trail of light behind it. The mist beckoned him deeper into the forest.
Voran plunged headlong into the deepwood. The strange light continued before him for a mile or so, then blinked out. Voran looked around and realized he had never been in this place before. He stood on the edge of a clearing awash in the morning sun, so bright compared to the gloom of the woods that he could see nothing in it but white light. He stepped forward.
The light overwhelmed him, forcing him to crouch over and shield his eyes. Fuzzy at first, then resolving as Voran's eyes grew accustomed to the light, the white stag towered in the middle of the clearing, almost man-high at the shoulder. Its antlers gleamed gold, so bright that they competed with the sun.
Voran froze in place and adopted the deep, silent breathing pattern that an old woodsman taught him in childhood. Inch by inch, he reached for his bow. His quiver hung at his side in the Karilan manner, so taking the arrow would be the work of half a second, but extricating the bow strapped to his back was another matter. A single bead of sweat dropped from his forehead and slid down the side of his nose, tickling him.
The deer turned its head to Voran, showing no inclination to flee. As though Voran were nothing more than a fly, it flicked both ears and continued to graze.
The howl repeated, just to Voran's right. Out of the trees crept a black wolf the size of a bear, its fur glistening in the light of the antlers. It paid no heed to Voran, leading with bristling head toward the grazing deer. It lunged, blurring in Voran's vision like a war-spear, but the stag leaped over it and merely moved farther off to continue grazing. The wolf howled again and lunged again. Back and forth they danced, but the stag knew the steps of this death-dance better than the wolf. His nonchalance seemed to infuriate the hunter.
The wolf charged so fast that Voran missed its attack. The deer flew higher than Voran thought possible, and its golden antlers slammed the wolf's flank like a barbed mace. The wolf screamed. The sound ripped through Voran, an almost physical pain.
The stag trotted to the other end of the clearing. Looking back once more, it waited. Gooseflesh tickled Voran's neck. The stag called to him, teasing him to continue the hunt. Voran ran, and the deer launched off its back legs and flew into the waiting embrace of the trees.
Voran stopped. His body strained forward, intent on the hunt, but his heart pulled back. The wolf. He could not leave a suffering creature to die, even if it was the size of a bear, even if it would probably try to kill him if he approached. With a groan for his lost quarry, Voran turned back.
The wolf dragged itself forward with its forepaws. Each black claw was the size of a dagger. As Voran approached, its ears went flat against its head, and it growled deep in its throat. Voran's hands shook. Gritting his teeth, he balled his hands into fists and willed himself to look the wolf in the eye. Its ears went up like an inquisitive dog's. It whined.
In the eyes of the wolf, Voran saw recognition. This was a reasoning creature, not a wild animal.
"I can help you," he found himself saying to the wolf as to a human being. "If you let me."
The wolf stared at him, then nodded twice.
Voran pulled a homemade salve – one of Lebía's own making – from a pouch on his quiver. Tearing a strip from his linen shirt, he soaked it with the oils and cleaned the wound of tiny fragments of bone. The wolf tensed in pain, then exhaled and relaxed. Its eyes drooped as the pungent odor suffused the air, mingling with pine-scent. Soon the wolf was snoring.
As Voran watched the sleeping wolf, something stirred in his chest – a sense of familiarity and comfort he had only felt on rainy evenings by the hearth. For a brief moment, the wolf was a brother, closer even than any human. Perhaps it was better that he had given up the chance to hunt the stag. This stillness was enough.
A rustle of leaves distracted Voran. He turned around to see the white stag returning into the clearing with head bowed. Voran could not believe his good fortune. He would be the successful hunter. His family's dishonored name would be raised up again on Vasyllia's lips. Trembling, he reached for his bow.
The stag stopped for a moment, as if considering. More boldly, he walked to Voran. Voran's heart raced at how easy this kill would be, but the excitement died when the stag didn't stop. He stared right at Voran as he strode. Voran pulled out an arrow and nocked it. The stag walked closer.
No. He couldn't do it. This beast was too noble, his eyes too knowing. Killing him would be like killing a man in cold blood.
The stag stopped close enough that Voran could touch him. To Voran's shock, he bowed his two forelegs and dipped his antlered crown to the earth, a king of beasts making obeisance to a youth of a mere twenty-four summers. Gathering courage, Voran approached the stag. His hands shook as he reached out to touch the antlers.
Something shook the branches in the trees ahead. Voran looked up, shoulders tensed. Something, some sort of huge bird, much bigger than a mountain eagle, perched in the crown of an orange-leaved aspen. No, not a bird, something else. Then Voran understood, and terror and excitement fought inside him, leaving him open-mouthed and rooted to the ground. The creature had a woman's face and torso, seamlessly blending with the wings and eagle body. Her head was adorned in golden-brown curls, and each feather shone like a living gem. A Sirin.
She opened her mouth and sang. It was his song, but he had never heard it like this.
Voran no longer felt his body. It soared above the clouds; it plumbed the depths of the sea; it hovered on the wings of a kestrel. The song pinioned him like a spear to the earth, but raised him on a spring breeze above the world's confusion. He was once again in the arms of his mother as she nursed him, her breath a soft tickle. He was inside the sun, and its music weaved him into existence. The earth shuddered, and he knew that he could turn it inside out.
The song of the Sirin stopped, and life lost all meaning. It was all grey, ugly, useless without her song.
When he came back to himself, the stag, the wolf, the Sirin were all gone, though her song lingered on the air. It seemed he would never rest, never sleep until he found her again.
Nicholas Kotar is an epic fantasy author and an Orthodox deacon. You can learn more about his writing, teaching and other work on his website.
The above excerpt comes from The Song of the Sirin (Raven Son: Book One), which is available for free as an ebook, as well as in audio and print formats (not free). The excerpt was published with permission from the author, who holds the copyright.