The tiny village was nestled in a valley carved between two rugged mountains. Forest blanketed their rocky slopes, stretching endlessly away from the small clump of huts. For as long as she could remember, a heavy fog had laid over the land. The residents of the village moved always in a hazy mist, their clothing and hair wet and limp from its cloudy blanket. The tops of trees were hidden by its white sheets, and she moved through the forest as if through a great hall, with a ceiling of cloud, pillars of wood and bark, and a soft carpet of moss, damp and silent, beneath her feet.
She tugged her furs more tightly around her shoulders and readjusted her grip on the leather-wrapped handle of her bow. Since the first gray light of dawn had filtered down through the mist, she had been out in the forest hunting. With any luck, she would return with a few hares or grouse, their downy and feathery coats dark and slick with moisture.
The sound of steps on leaves floated through the trees, and she froze, crouching in the underbrush. The steps stopped, and she held her breath in the silence as neither hunter nor prey moved. A soft chuffing floated through the trees. Deer. Her grip tightened on her bow. Scents hung heavy in the mists, and deer usually avoided the forests near the village, but a harvest like that could feed them for days. The chuffing stopped, and the steps resumed. Through the mist hanging between the trees, she could see a dark form moving slowly up the slope. Antlers glistened white in the occasional flicker of light that managed to filter down to the forest floor.
The undergrowth was thick, and her arrow would never reach its target unhindered, so she quietly began to follow, drawn forward by the occasional chuffing and the sound of hooves in damp leaves. A soft breeze brushed her cheeks as it floated down the slope toward her, carrying her scent away from her prey. The stag moved slowly onward, occasionally stopping to lift its great head to the wind and inhale, its grunting breaths making her hold her own until eventually, their journey resumed.
The ground became slick and the air heavy the further up the slope they went. The fog grew thicker and thicker around her until she could barely see the wet leaves beneath her leather shoes. An occasional snort and the sound of shifting undergrowth through the fog led her forward with timid steps. The heat in the air grew stifling, and the mists swirled around her like phantoms. She was about to turn back, giving up all hope of bringing down the stag, when the rushing roar of water caught her attention.
Curious, she slowly fought her way onward through the mist, the roar growing to an earth-shaking thunder. A loud snort rang out behind her, and she whirled to see the stag watching her. He turned and darted back into the fog. A gust of wind sent the mist swirling away from her revealing a deep chasm carved into the earth, the edge inches from her feet. Water cascaded into it. She grabbed a nearby tree branch and leaned out to gaze down into the pit, the scorching mist burning her face. At the bottom, dizzyingly far below, a red mass heaved and spat as the water poured into it. Billows of steam belched up toward her. She stared into the heart of the earth until her eyes ached with the heat.
The stag had seen her, and the morning had long since passed, so she turned her steps back toward the village, searching for the steady decline of the ground under her feet. Her hair hung loosely around her face, and her furs were drenched. She shivered as the air began to cool around her, chilling her damp clothing. The trees grew tall around her again, but she recognized none of them. She fought her way onward, more and more disoriented, until she had little hope of ever finding her way back to the village.
She stopped to free a pebble from her shoe, and when she looked up, the stag was standing at the edge of the swirling mists, staring at her. With a loud snort, he spun, rushing into the fog. She stumbled onward drawing up short when she saw the stag again standing at the edge of the fog. With another snort, he retreated into the white mist, and she found herself led onward by its ethereal form, the ground gradually sloping away beneath her feet.
The trees suddenly ended, and she stumbled into a familiar clearing. It was the spreading field of browning grasses around the village, their blades wilted beneath the heavy fog. The stag stood at the edge of the trees, watching her, the tall undergrowth brushing the wet fur of his belly. Dropping to one knee, she notched an arrow and drew back her bow with cold fingers, the tip trained over the creature’s heart. For a moment, they stared at each other before she let the string loosen and dropped the bow to her side. With a snort and a toss of his head, the stag galloped back into the forest.