A pure white hide, like in the tales the old hunters told. The elusive White Stag.
Fin gripped his bow, his hands slick with sweat. His quiver lay beside him in the damp undergrowth, three arrows left. Not taking any chances, he nocked all three. He had heard the stories of hunters missing a shot to the deer's vitals out of nerves, alerting the deer and have it dash off into the woodland never to be seen again.
Fin remained crouched, not willing to risk moving in case it spooked his target. He drew the bowstring halfway and exhaled. He closed his eyes and pulled to fulldraw, his hand just below his right eye. His eyes snapped open to his pale target, he didn't see the White Stag of legend anymore, he saw a necessary kill. And he would kill.
He loosed the arrows, they shot out from his hiding place in the bushes with a whistle and landed their mark with three satisfying thuds.
The deer staggered and turned its head towards Fin, two arrows in its neck and one in the lung. The White Stag cried a deep guttural groan layered with a high pitch scream. Fin's head swirled at the sound, nausea gripped his stomach, but he kept his eyes on the beast. It turned away from Fin and bent it's legs.
Fin dropped his bow and pulled his knife, scrambling out of the bushes. The stag had already taken off, heavy hoof prints and blood giving away where it had fled. Fin ran, knife in hand.
His mind was clear of all but the chase. He ducked under pine branches and jumped over roots, wide eyes scanning for broken brush and blood. His pace remained steady - the fastest he had ever run. The ducking and weaving through the woodland at dusk threatened to disorientate him, but he mentally stood his ground. It didn't matter if he became lost, all that mattered was that deer.
He came to a clearing, no stag in sight. Fin turned to his other senses for guidance. He heard a trickling from between a craggy rut a few paces from where he stood. Stooping down, he saw a thin stream of water slightly tinged with red.
Fin ran uphill, following the stream to its source. The hill became steeper with every bound, soon Fin was climbing up a sheer rock face. Water tumbled over rock beside him, the stream now a small waterfall. His hands bled as he ascended but he didn't think about the pain, only hoping that it didn't interfere with him tracking the stag's blood.
Nearing the end of his climb, Fin pulled himself up just high enough to peer over the edge. There - upstream twenty paces away- it crouched, panting in between gulps of water from the stream. Fin watched as it drank, the streams of blood slowed. The arrows seemed to be pushed out from the inside, landing with soft clicks on the pebbled shore. Its wounds began to close - soon it would be fully healed.
Fin shuffled sideways until water tumbled over him and soaked his tunic. He climbed upwards into the stream, gripping at the rock face in resistance to the water's push. Upwards he climbed, over the edge and into the stream. It would be just deep enough to cover him. He took a final breath of air from the surface before he plunged under, clawing at the riverbed making his way upstream. He took his knife that he had stowed for the climb and used it to dig into the mud while he grabbed at rocks with the other hand.
Bone white antlers pierced the water not far from Fin as the White Stag took another healing drink from the stream. He waited for them to disappear before making his way over to where the beast would take its final drink. Fin's lungs burned for air to fill them and he began to go lightheaded, but he waited. Agonizing seconds passed before the antlered head loomed over the water.
Fin waited. The head got closer. His chest burned. It broke the waters surface. Fin threw his arms up and around the stag's neck, his knife finding its mark, but it wouldn't be enough. He pulled himself up and around the antlers and held on.
The White Stag bolted downstream, bleating furiously. Fin managed to pull his legs up before they were shredded on the riverbank. Using the strength of the deer's neck, he swung himself onto it's back, gripping its flanks with his knees.
He pulled his knife free of the creature's flesh that had already begun to heal and plunge it into the base of its skull. The stag ran on, headed for the cliff Fin had scaled. Panic threatened to throw Fin off the stag, but he held on nonetheless. He pulled his knife free and again stabbed at the deer's skull with increasing ferocity. He kept stabbing, blood spraying over him and coating his skin.
The White Stag cried out again and threw itself over the edge of the cliff. Fin withdrew his knife and wrapped his arms around its flanks positioning the tip of the blade over his mark. Primal fear gripped him as the ground rushed towards them.
They landed with the sickening snap of bone, the fall breaking the stag's legs. Its underside hit the ground, fresh blood sprayed around Fin's hands.
He rolled off the still body of the White Stag and lay on his back panting. He was winded, but the deer's body had broken his fall. He rolled again, onto his hands and knees, pain shooting up his arms from the pressure. He made his way to the stag and pushed it onto its side. He could see the end of his knife hilt sticking out of the stag’s chest. He had driven the knife through its heart.
Fin took a moment to admire the creature. It's pale pelt - though bloodied - had a mesmerising sheen, almost a glow to it. It's now limp limbs were thick and strong, ending in white hooves. But the stag's most impressive feature was its antlers. There were more points and knobs on them than his spinning head could count.
He stood, pulling his shoulder blades back to let the air fill his lungs, his breathing settled. He looked around at the ancient fern and pine trees and red dirt, he was still in the Knotwood Forest, that much he was sure of. But violet flowers sprouting from dark vines were telling Fin that he was close to the borders of Vinereach, the next region. He had chased the White Stag further away from his home than he had ever been. Curiosity tempted him to venture out and discover new prey, but he had been hunting for a reason. His village needed food and he would provide a legendary feast.
With some effort, Fin pulled his knife from his kill and wiped it on the corner of his tunic. He sliced at the bark of some of the larger trees and laid it next to the stag. He knelt next to the vines and looked closer, sure enough, thin spines lined them, purple liquid oozing from their tips. He pulled off a bunch of flower petals from the vine, using them to grip the vines and cut off several lengths of it.
Soon Fin had fashioned a sledge large enough for him to lay the White Stag on. He wrapped more flower petals around the handle he had fashioned from the vine and begun his trek back to Knotwood village.
Night had well and truly fallen by the time Fin had made his way back to the village. Part of him expected a hero's welcome, or at least his mother or father for him to return. He should know better by now.
"Must be hours past your curfew isn't it boy?" a rough voice said.
Fin smiled, "Come see my kill, master Garron."
From a shadowed corner of a wood hut, Garron made his way over to the sledge.
His leathery brow furrowed, "Bring it into the light boy." Fin obeyed, pulling the makeshift sledge over to a flame lit lantern beside the hut. Garron gasped and gripped Fin by the shoulder, "Is it?"
"The White Stag, yes."
"Finch Wulfkin," Garron's voice trembled, "Stories shall be told of this day."
"It's thanks to your training master."
Garron nodded, "Come, bring it to the hall."
As the sun rose the village gathered in the hall, where Fin and Garron had been preparing the deer most of the night. The village gathered around, most oblivious to the significance of the pale hide stretched out to dry, but many stopped to look at the antlers set atop a central table in the hall.
Fin's family were first to speak to him, in their own way. His father patted his son on the back, before joining other older men at one of the tables. His mother was a little more vocal, assuring Fin that they were both very proud of him, trying not to look at the gore that covered her son and the clothes she had made for him. His brother, however, jumped right at Fin, not caring that deer blood might gather in his blond hair.
"You came back!" He cheered staring up at Fin.
"Of course I did Terrin." He ruffled his brother's hair, likely adding to his mother's grief. Terrin soon released his brother and rushed over to a table lined with the deer's organs.
He marvelled at them for a few moments before calling out for his brother's attention, "Why is the heart still beating?"
Fin knew better than to discard his brother's words, Terrin had a wild imagination but he was no liar. He made his way over to the table and sure enough, the heart was beating. Fin held the heart, the beats getting stronger and a humming filled the air the longer he held it.
Fin looked around, not many were watching him or seemed to notice the growing sound.
"When you finish, come back." Terrin's small voice cut through the humming, he stood back and watched his brother with mischief twinkling in his eyes.
"What?" Fin took a step towards his brother, but everything went bright. Colours swirled around him and light filled his eyes, but it only lasted a few moments.
Fin was in a courtyard, a huge, decorated courtyard. He wasn't in the Knotwood region anymore.
He looked around, other bodies falling in through bright rips in the fabric of reality. After a few moments, there was what looked to be twenty other people in the courtyard, all looking as stunned as he was feeling.
From a balcony overlooking the courtyard, a robed figure wearing a crown lifted his hands to the crowd, "Welcome all, to The White Stag Trials!"