The Blood of the Hart
By Pauline Park
There was once a king who had two sons. The elder son was growing up to be a hardy warrior like his father, while the younger son had the gentle bearing of his mother and loved everything about the world of women. The king ruled a distant land between the mountains and the sea that was peopled with warriors noted for their ferocity, and every young man was expected to go on long expeditions to pillage in foreign lands and bring back heaps of booty. While the king’s elder son thirsted for battle and adventure, his younger son stayed at the side of the queen, learning to sing, dance, knit, and play the pipes, showing absolutely no interest in archery or swordsmanship, to his father’s great disappointment, even while the elder of the brothers increasingly came to master the arts of war. For the king, the only saving grace of the situation was that it was the older of his two sons who was his heir; the younger, he feared, would be difficult to marry off to any marriageable girl of high birth, should her father see how profoundly unmanly the boy so evidently was.
One day, the king decided to put his sons to the test and take them hunting in the forest near the castle in which they lived. The elder of the brothers eagerly took his bow in hand and strapped on a quiver full of arrows, but the younger – who hated the idea of killing animals for sport – had to be ordered to hunt with his father and his brother. The day had dawned brightly, but soon became overcast as the three entered the great forest. Fog also began to roll into the wood, obscuring flora and fauna both. But suddenly, the fog cleared and there stood before the three a great white hart with an enormous rack of antlers. The elder brother leapt to the challenge, firing an arrow at the stag and landing a hit, with the arrow piercing the side of the great beast. But before the young man could take aim again, the hart bounded away, too fast for the young hunter to pursue. To the king’s surprise, it was his younger son who scampered after the beast, but before he and his elder son could follow, the boy was already out of sight, and a great fog bank rolled in, obscuring their view; soon, they could not find either the younger boy or any trail left by the bounding stag.
After hot pursuit, the young boy found the wounded stag lying in a pool of his own blood, partially concealed in a grove of trees. The boy approached, threw down his bow and arrow, and knelt by the hart, weeping at the sight of the arrow piercing his flesh. Just then, the boy remembered his mother once telling him of the curative properties of certain leaves such as those of the bilberry, and so he went in search of whatever he could find. Just a short ways away, he found a bush with delicate bilberries hanging from it and plucked a handful of leaves, rushing back to the hart, who was falling into the darkness of unconsciousness as death seemed to creep up upon him. The boy took the leaves and gently rubbed them into the wound, loosening the arrow’s puncture enough to allow him to slowly pull it out of the animal’s side. After a little more rubbing of leaves in the wound, the bleeding stopped and the stag returned to consciousness. At the same time, the boy bent down to kiss the wound, getting a drop of blood on his lips; when he licked them, he was astonished to hear the hart speaking directly to him.
“You have saved me from a cruel death, and for that, I shall demonstrate my gratitude to you,” the hart said to him.
“Why, how is it that you can speak and I can understand you?” the boy asked, astonished.
“From compassion comes comprehension,” the hart responded, adding, “A drop of blood from the wound you have healed has given you a power that surpasses ordinary understanding.”
“I must find my father and brother in order to make my way out of this forest, which I know not,” the boy said.
“I will show you the way out of the forest, my little one,” the hart responded, adding, “But before you go, I can grant you one wish; but think carefully on it, because it cannot be undone, except by magic far more powerful than is granted to me to wield.”
The boy hesitated, pondering the offer. “There is so much that I wish to understand,” he finally said. “There is so much that I wish to know.”
The hart replied, “You need not wish for knowledge, for the saving grace of your good deed has already given you the power to see and to know things that others cannot.”
“What can I now see that I could not see before and that others cannot see?” the boy asked.
“Wondrous things, and dark things as well,” the hart replied, adding, “You see, I am no ordinary stag, but the oldest living creature in this forest who has dwelt here since time immemorial; one who has saved my life is granted the power to see the past and the future as well as the present and to discern truth and falsity in the hearts of men.” Just then, the stag stood up. “I must go now, but before I leave, you must make a wish if you wish to have one.”
The boy paused before speaking, saying, finally, “If it is one thing I have always wished for, it is… it is… to be… a woman.”
“Then so be it,” said the hart. “But for your tender years, this wish will not come true until your 16th birthday.”
“Must I wait until then?” asked the boy.
“You will understand when you awake upon your 16th birthday,” the hart said. “Until then, watch and wait, for much will be revealed to you.” The stag arose, and then said, “Come, climb on my back, and I will take you to the edge of the forest, from whence you can make your way back home.” The boy climbed on the hart’s back, and in no time, they reached the edge of the great forest, where the boy dismounted and then kissed the hart goodbye.
“Shall I ever see you again?,” the boy asked.
“One cannot always know these things; but perhaps you may,” said the hart, adding, “One last thing, my young friend. Say nothing of this to anyone; all will be revealed when it is meant to be.” At that, the stag bounded off, disappearing into the forest.
The boy made his way back to the castle, explaining nothing to his father or his brother or even to his mother, who sensed a subtle change coming over her son; she knew it was significant, but could not comprehend it, neither did he explain anything to her.
That night, and for many nights thereafter, the boy slept fitfully, falling into a deep slumber, and dreaming dreams that were as fantastical as they were incomprehensible to him. It seemed to him, upon waking, as if he had gone back into the past – sometimes the recent past, but more often, a distant past, with startling images not of the world he knew. At other times, he had the distinct sensation of seeing events that were to be but had not yet occurred.
And so the weeks and the months passed by, until the second son of the king was on the verge of his 16th birthday. On that day, he was to come of age and go through the ritual appointed for that occasion, as his elder brother already had. The night before, the king remonstrated with his second son on his lack of interest in manly pursuits, while his mother followed the king’s departure by trying to encourage her younger son to look forward to the morrow’s events not as a trial but as a passage into a manhood that he in fact did not desire.
But the boy remembered the wish he had made and wondered if it would come true as he hoped and as the hart had promised him. That night, he fell into a deep sleep, and upon waking in the morning, found himself clothed in a diaphanous gown of white silk, with long, flowing hair. He hesitated even to look beneath the gown for what lie beneath it. When the queen came into his room, she shrieked in horror, not recognizing this young woman lying in her son’s bed. As the queen fled, the boy held up a mirror and saw that he was indeed now a young woman, to all outward appearances and to his complete astonishment and delight.
The young woman found by her bedside a long gown, which she donned, quickly brushing her hair, putting on a pair of daintily elegant shoes, and striding out of the room and into the great hall of the castle. The king, the queen, the crown prince – as their eldest son was now known – and the entire court were astonished at the appearance of this young woman, looking so much like the younger son of the king and queen and yet so different. “Who are you?,” asked the queen. “This cannot be,” stammered the king in complete bewilderment. The proceedings for the young prince’s coming of age clearly could not go ahead as planned, and the young woman who now stood before them seemed relieved, commandeering a horse and riding off with nothing but the clothes on her back. She rode off like a wild creature, with her hair blowing freely in the wind, until the castle disappeared behind her. But where to go? The young woman had no thought of what would now become of her, or what she should do with her new-found freedom, shedding her old body, it would appear, along with the expectations that had been placed upon her since her birth that she now left behind like the dust flying off the hooves of the horse she rode.
After a while, she stopped by a small pond – one not far from the castle where she was raised but one that she did not recognize. As she sat by the pond contemplating the water, suddenly, the water turned black, and in it, she saw a vision of her father the king fighting off raiders or warriors from afar, her mother the queen besieged along with everyone she had known as a boy. Then the pond seemed ringed in flames, startling her as well as the horse, with another ring of flames encircling the first, and still a third around it; both woman and horse seemed trapped within the circumference of the fire. The young woman sought to flee, but the horse would not pass through the fire.
“Animals of the forest~!” the young woman heard herself exclaim, as if it had been someone else who had said it. “Hear my cry~!” Suddenly, there came bounding through the flames a reddish brown deer, who spoke to her gently, “Do not be afraid, my lady; simply put your hand in the water and it will quench the flames. The young woman reached out across the flames, put her hand into the pond, and both rings of flames subsided as the deer had predicted. As she lifted her hand out of the water, she felt it grasp a sword, which she pulled out of the pond with her hand. At that, the deer disappeared, but the young woman, sensing that the vision of her family besieged in the castle was either a vision of the present or a portent of the future, mounted the horse and rode back to the castle, sword in hand.
Just as she had seen in the vision by the pond, there was indeed a small army besieging the castle of the king, with flames now coming out of various windows and portals. The young woman looked on in horror, not sure what to do. Just then, she looked down and saw laying on the grass at the foot of her horse a ram’s horn. Dismounting, she grabbed the ram’s horn and blew into it, not knowing what else she could do. At that, what appeared to be a small army in the colors of the king began to ride up from behind her. Mounting her horse again, with sword in hand, she signaled to the castle, pointing her sword in that direction, and led the newly appeared battalion forward to challenge the besieging forces, vanquishing them and prompting those who survived to flee.
When the king, the queen and the crown prince saw the young woman riding up with an army behind her, vanquishing their foes, they were as astonished as they were relieved. They welcomed the maiden back into the castle, still perplexed, as she still refused to explain who she was or what had become of the boy who was the second son of the king. So once again, she rode off, leaving behind her family and the castle she had saved from the besieging army, even while the battalion she had conjured up seemed to have vanished into the mist from whence it had come.
This time, the young woman rode still further, to the edge of the great forest, where she dwelt for a time out of time, lost in her thoughts and lost it would seem to time itself. Falling into a deep sleep one night beneath the stars, she awoke with a dread that something quite fearful had once again overtaken the family that she thought she had left behind forever. In the early morning light, the maiden found herself walking into a circle of great stones, upon which were carved small marks in a language she did not understand. When the sun arose, it illuminated the circle, and a small fox cub came into the circle, addressing her directly: “For a long time, you have dwelt outside of time, but in your absence, a great famine has stalked the land. It is now for you to return home to feed your people,” the fox told her.
“And how am I to do that?” the young woman asked, astonished.
“Just beyond the ridge behind this stone circle, you will find a loaf of bread,” the kit replied, adding, “Take it with you to the castle; you will know what to do with it when you return there.” Before the young woman had a chance to ask the fox any further questions, he was gone; but just as he had said, she found on the top of that ridge one small but perfectly baked loaf of bread, which she put in a small sack as she mounted her horse and rode back to the castle. And just as the kit had said, everywhere on the path to the castle, she saw evidence of famine, with gaunt figures even pulling up the grass to fill their empty bellies. When she reached the castle, the maiden asked an old servant of her father’s what had happened; the old woman explained to her that a great famine was stalking the land, with the crops having failed time and again, for no apparent reason.
As the young woman entered the great hall, her father, mother, and brother were there; but none looked kingly, queenly or princely now; they were thinner, even if not as gaunt as the rest of those about them, and they seemed to be dining on nothing but thin gruel; the three looked up at her astonished, as she took the small loaf of bread out of her sack, and without even thinking about it, suddenly felt the urge to drop it into the king’s bowl of gruel. At that, the loaf grew larger and larger, astonishing them all as it seemed almost to fill the great hall. The young woman went out into the courtyard of the castle to tell everyone to come in and feast on the gigantic loaf of bread, but they were all now looking up as small loaves of bread from the enormous one in the great hall seemed to be flying out of the great hall and out of the castle altogether in ever larger numbers, with peasants and warriors alike reaching out to grab them as they flew through the air. The young woman now mounted her horse and rode out of the castle, seeing along the way the dead crops seemingly come to life, revivified by something beyond her comprehension, as farmers along the way jumped for joy to see the grain bursting from the ground.
Her work seemingly done, the young woman retreated to the edge of the forest for a third time. Once again, she lived in simplicity and solitude, apart from all human contact, foraging at the edge of the forest for nuts and berries, and drinking water from a pure spring surrounded and concealed by a grove of trees. One day, as she was roaming in the forest just near its outermost perimeter, she was startled to see the white hart whose life she had saved so long ago. The stag was lying in a bower, surrounded by white lilies of the valley. The young woman approached, not quite sure whether the animal was dead or alive, when he spoke to her.
“You are indeed as beautiful as I imagined you would be,” the hart said as he lifted his head from his gentle repose; the maiden blushed and could think of anything to say, when he added, “But you have one last task, and that is to save your father’s life. He is dying, and only by bringing him the leaves of the elderberry bush with buds of hawthorn from the highest mountain in the kingdom can you save him.” The hart then proceeded to tell her how and where to find these leaves and buds, which she did, bringing them to the castle of the king. When she arrived, the queen was clearly distraught, tending to the king, and the crown prince sat nearby in stony silence.
With no word of explanation either for the cure she was about to administer or for her disappearance, her reappearance, or even her identity, the young woman took the elderberry leaves and the hawthorn buds and dipped them in a bowl of water near the king’s bed, then placed them on the dying man’s forehead, rubbing them into his face and his neck. The queen and the crown prince looked on astonished as the king now roused himself from his deathly stupor, and looked upon the young woman with wonder and tenderness, as if seeing her for the first time and yet knowing her for a very long time, saying, “Do I not know you? And are you not the son who once lived with us here in this castle?”
“I am he, and yet he, who was transformed. He who was once your son but is no more has returned now for the last time to complete the task appointed to her,” the maiden responded.
“Then it is you who are meant to rule this kingdom after me,” the king said to his own astonishment as well as that of everyone else, and by his decree, he set aside the rule that only the eldest son could succeed and named the young woman he now called his daughter as his successor. As for the crown prince, he was married off to the princess of a faraway land whose father had no male heir, to reign jointly with the princess after the death of that sovereign lord.
The king and the queen lived a very long age, and dwelt with their daughter and the rest of the kingdom in happiness and tranquility until she succeeded her father upon his death, becoming beloved of her people and known far and wide as the wisest as well as the gentlest of monarchs, adopting as her emblem an image of a great white hart.
[copyright Pauline Park, 2018]