Running of the Elk
by Nathan Miller
Serfws paused just inside the forest fence while his eyes adjusted to the dimness. Beside him, small trees the girth of his legs drooped low branches to merge with the brambles that formed most of the wall of greenery separating the wide fields from the forest. Further in, the small trees gave way to their parents. Massive trunks with deeply furrowed bark held a sky of their own, their branches soaring high overhead, casting a deep, green shade that made all shadows even darker. The frequent passage of elk, deer, and men had ground up the leaf litter and worn path of earth that contrasted with the leaves.
He took a deep breath, his lungs drawing the still, woodland air into his nose. The familiar scents of a midsummer forest filled his nostrils. Strongest of all were those of his daughter.
He suppressed a snort. The young were so imprudent, doubly so when men were concerned. Where was she anyway?
Serfws lowered his head toward the path and sniffed carefully. His daughter had clearly followed the path for several paces, then veered away across-slope. He followed, ever alert.
The trees grew tall and broad here, their massive trunks spaced far apart. Serfws felt at ease among such trees. For the most part, the old forests remained untouched by men--men who usually feared to enter, particularly at night. Yet men still visited them from time to time, nearly always by day, their tools in-hand, sometimes taking such things as mushrooms, berries, or the bodies of the dead. Men were very strange, and very dangerous.
Serfws moved as quickly as he dared, his motion efficient and fluid. The wide spaces between the trees let him cover ground quickly and see far. After a while, he heard a voice like a babbling brook, an unmistakably human voice.
He slowed, creeping forward. He peered around a massive tree and froze. A dozen paces away, his daughter stood, her tail toward him. A few paces in front of her stood a man-child. At least, he thought it was still a child, nearly full-grown in stature, but still young in manner. Both daughter and child looked abruptly at him.
Serfws snorted for effect, and drew himself up to his full height. He stamped forward until he loomed over the two, then snorted again.
“Elain,” he said sternly, “back away slowly.”
“Do as I say,” he snapped. “She is dangerous.”
Elain looked at the man-child, then back at her father. “But she seems kind.”
Serfws peered at the man-child. He leaned his head toward her and snorted again.
“Croeso, Arglwdd Elc,” said the child. She slowly raised her hand toward his snout.
Serfws pulled away slightly
“Plesio, peidiwch ofni arna ti. Na dwi ddim yn ti brifo.” She smiled. “Rwyt ti hardd. Gwen verch Caradoc ydw i. Beth yw'ch enw chi?”
“What is she saying?” Elain asked.
“I do not know,” Serfws answered. “I do not understand their language.”
“Gwen?” A woman's voice floated through the woods. A man's voice echoed the call.
“Yma i!” the girl called over her shoulder.
Moments later, two adults crashed through the undergrowth. It always amazed Serfws that men made so much noise despite their small size. In fact, they made so much noise, he could have hoofed one in the dark with his eyes tight shut.
The pair stopped abruptly. One of them raised a stick, its shape one that Serfws recognized all too well.
“Elain,” he said, “run. Now!”
His daughter wheeled about and vanished from his vision, leaves rustling and cracking beneath her hoofs. Serfws snorted, then spun and lit out after Elain. A faint thrum and snap came from behind him. A cold sting erupted across his upper hindquarters, followed a moment later by a whack and buzz as the arrow meant for him embedded itself into the bark of a tree.
“Ewythr!” the girl shrieked. She sounded annoyed.
He left the voices behind him and caught up with Elain near the gap in the forest fence she'd used not long before.
“Father! You are hurt!”
He snorted. “I will heal. The scar will join the others.” He changed the subject. “What were you thinking? Have I taught you nothing?”
“She seemed so kind.”
“She will grow up to be like the others.”
Her eyes widened. “Surely she wouldn't...”
“Of course she would. She is one of them.”
Elain let out a long breath. “But why do they do it, father? Why do the men kill us and eat us?”
Serfws exhaled. “I do not know. In some ways, they seem more noble than the bear or the wolf. Perhaps even as much as us. In others? They are dangerous, Elain. That is why we must always look not only with our eyes, but with our noses and ears as well.”
“Things are changing, daughter. Come, and I will show you what I mean. But you must be more prudent. Always pause to look, listen, and smell.”
Serfws led Elain through the forest fence and out into the bright sunshine of midday. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the light. Smelling nothing but the newly cut grass the men gathered up for their own purposes, and seeing nothing but a wide open field, and hearing nothing of consequence, he trotted off across the slope, putting some distance between himself and the forest that still clothed the hill.
He found a light, loping pace somewhere between a fast walk and a full trot, one that his daughter could maintain without difficulty. Around the hill they trotted, always keeping well away from the trees. Far off up the valley stood one of the strange stone structures built by men.
At length, they came out onto a cleared bench. Several sheep grazed the short-cropped grass.
Elain snorted at one of them. “How can you eat that?” she asked. “It is so...short!”
Several sheep looked up at her, their expressions vacant. “Baaa,” they said.
“What?” said Elain.
“Baaa,” the sheep repeated.
“Do they not speak our language either?” she asked.
“Does that surprise you?”
Elain looked back at one of the wooly creatures. “They cannot think, can they?” It was more of a statement.
“It would appear not.”
“Then why do the men not eat them and leave us alone?”
“I do not understand. Father, you spend so much time observing men, yet you scold me when I go and do the same.”
Serfws shook his head. “Because you do so recklessly and so I fear for your safety.”
She cocked her head. “Because I am the future?”
“Precisely. Next autumn, you will be of mating age.” He paused. “Do not look at me like that.”
Serfws snorted. “The way your mother looks at me when...” He broke off, then changed the subject.
“The Creator made some of our kinds special. If only the others would see it. But look there, across the valley. That is what I wish to show you.”
Below them, two rivers met amid a wide, marshy plain. From the north, a large group of men made their way along one of the wide ribbons of cleared earth the men made for moving themselves and their possessions.
They were strange men, foreigners most likely, all dressed in red. They moved together, like a serpent, but slowly. Sunlight glinted and twinkled on them.
“Father?” said Elain at length.
Serfws suppressed a snort. “Patience,” he said quietly.
“Elain!” he snapped.
“They make so much noise,” she protested. “They cannot possibly hear us.”
“I am not worried so much about them as I am about what we do not see.”
“They are strange, father. I do not understand them.”
Serfws grunted. He turned and met his daughter's large, brown eyes. “Who does? But what have I always taught you about that?”
“To know a thing requires that I watch it.”
“Correct. Now we will watch. And you will tell me what you learn.”
He turned his attention back to the mass of men in the valley below.
The herd of red men spread out into the river's flood plain. They held shining slabs, similarly shining sticks poking out between them. They moved as a single body, like a flock of terns, first surging forward, then back, then forward again, their slabs raising and lowering in unison, a single shout rising together from their throats.
From somewhere out of sight around the curve of the hill, another, much larger, herd of men appeared and surged across the valley, clashing with the first. Serfws did not think they could be more different. The men of the second herd wore hardened animal skins and earth-colored cloth. They fought chaotically, but with a violent savagery. Serfws saw some of them concealed in the trees both across the earth ribbon and between himself and the stream, throwing arrows at the red herd.
The fighting went on and on as the sun crept across the sky. Men on both sides fell over to lay motionless upon the ground. The air filled with shouts and cries and screams.
“What are they doing?” Elain asked.
“What does it look like?”
“They fight each other. But I am too far away to see clearly.”
“It is called war. They are killing each other.”
A few moments of silence followed. “But...there must be a hundred dead on each side by now!”
“At least that many, yes. And only from this one day.”
“There have been others?”
“But their numbers continue to grow. I hear everyone talking about it. How can that be, if the men slaughter each other?”
“We are unsure. We think it is partly because only males go to war. Also, it seems that for them, it is always mating season. But you see why I tell you that men are so dangerous.”
“Besides that one of them tried to kill us in the forest?”
“Men will kill anything, even each other. Perhaps the Council is right. Perhaps we should forge an alliance with the wolves and the bears.”
“But do they not also kill and eat us?”
“Yes, but many of us believe that it need not be so. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. The Council fears that unless we unite against the men, they will eventually destroy us. Their numbers will continue to grow. And as they grow, they will spread and either kill us all, or push us out of Cymru.”
“Unless we can make peace with them.”
Serfws exhaled. “If only that were possible. No, I fear that our days may be numbered.”
“Why would the Creator allow such a thing?”
Serfws chuckled. “You ask so many questions, daughter. You make me think there could be hope for us.” He looked back toward the valley were the men in red moved toward him. “We have seen enough. It is time to go.”
updated by @nathan-miller: 01/28/16 10:04:36PM