The Silverthorne herd are notorious for being highly superstitious, but sometimes those superstitions are born in truth.
Gráinne’s dam Duana was a timid little creature, never outspoken or particularly noticed. Her hide was not unpretty, but there is little flashy about faded brown and black. Never the less, she had a pretty head and a kind eye, and was selected for a young soldier’s harem when she was five. Duana was overjoyed and anxiously awaited her first child. She became worried when her belly did not swell like the other does, and they assured her that the first was always the smallest, it was safer that way. However at the beginning of winter she had terrible pains, and would lie down in the snow to try and alleviate them. Eventually she sought the help of a herbalist who instructed her to eat a single nightshade berry each evening for the remainder of her pregnancy. The pain only got worse during the day, though the berries did send Duana into a deep, dreamless sleep each night.
On one such evening only a month into winter, she woke with a start and realised she was going into labour far too early. Confused and terrified, she crept away from the herd and into the Iron Hills, knowing she could not ask for help or her first child would certainly be killed, if it was born alive at all. She went on until she knew she could walk no further and took shelter in a dense bramble thicket, getting covered in cuts and scratches as she forced her way in. It was here she gave birth to a dusty brown fawn with a dark line running down its back like its sire. By some miracle or curse the pitiful creature was alive - barely - and Duana knew she should put it out of its misery before someone or something else did, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The tiny fawn seemed to be perfectly formed, aside from overly large ears and a malnourished look about it. The sickly child fed and then her dam curled around her and they slept.
Duana stayed with her daughter for a week, building up the bramble den to better protect it from the weather, with old branches and packing the inside with snow. She was forced to return to the herd then, before they came looking for her, and promised her daughter she would return each night. Though the herd was initially worried over her sudden disappearance, Duana assured them she had simply gotten lost and had been unable to find her way home, and the event was soon forgotten. Each night she would creep back to the bramble thicket under the cover of darkness, moving like a faint shadow across the land praying her child had survived the day. But the fawn was strong of spirit, despite being weak of body, and fought on through the winter months.
Duana was terrified that come the spring she would be discovered, as surely a fawn born months ahead of the rest would be far larger, but the little creature barely grew in the winter months, maintaining the starved look about her as she could only ever feed when her dam returned at night. Ever cautious, she didn’t officially leave the herd to ‘give birth’ until some months into spring when the air was notably warmer and grass was beginning to appear beneath melted snow. There were a few whispers of how thin Duana looked, but when she did bring the tiny starved fawn back a week later this seemed enough to quieten any doubts from gossipy does.
Duana was highly protective of her little child, and rarely let her go and play with the other fawns in her first month. When asked, she said she’d called the little fawn Gráinne, and the other does in the young soldier’s harem demanded why she’d call her child such a name. Duana replied that she had decided to name the fawn that in the winter months, when she feared it was dead inside of her. In truth, Duana was terrified of her fawn, who now fleshed out her little form a little once she was receiving more regular food. Her mousy brown coat was newly flecked with hints of gold, but also dark hairs were beginning to spread across it like a cloud across the sun. Duana was nervous and wary, well aware of the stories and tales of fawns born premature, born of ice and storm. Gráinne was still weak, but growing stronger each day and soon she was frolicking with the other fawns. She seemed no worse for wear for the ordeal of her birth, and Duana prayed that aside from being small that was all was wrong with her daughter.
The first hints of trouble began when the it was apparent Gráinne was no longer being teased by the other young foals for her ears, or being so small. None of the taunts had ever seemed to bother the dark faced fawn, who smiled perpetually and trotted here and there with the confidence of a queen. She began to wander further and further from the herd more regularly, and Duana was helpless to stop her. The other fawns avoided her now, though you could see the flashes of fear in their young eyes. When the dusky foal did approach them it was as if she held them in a trance, unable to break away from her influence. Their mothers soon began to usher them away whenever she was near, and Duana became increasingly afraid, wishing she too could run from her child. Once weaned off milk, Gráinne was even more elusive, quick and agile and seemingly able to disappear into thin air. By now the higher powers within the herd had been told of her antics and try as they might, keeping a close eye on her was harder than they imagined.
The young grulla spent her time wandering the far reaches of the territory, seemingly impervious to proprietary, predator or peril. Her strange behaviour rocked the herd, as no doe should surely be that independent or lawless, it was dangerous to wander so freely with the abundance of dangerous animals. Some worried she might lead them back to the grazing grounds, and further attempts to tame her were made. These were short lived however, for the still small two year old disappeared fully this time, not returning to the safety of the herd periodically like she had before. Her dam pleaded with her on the night of her escape but Gráinne simply laughed and farewelled her mother before melting into the Silverwood.
The herd saw neither hide nor hair of the smoky doe for many years, though scouts swore on their lives they had seen her shadowy figure weaving through the trees or her reflection over The Grey Lake. None could track her for more than a few miles, none could corner her if they spotted her; she was like the smoke that darkened her pelt. The truth of the matter was the young doe was clever, very clever. She knew she was different from the other does in the herd, the stags too. She could hear the bumbling fools far sooner than she could see them, or they saw her, for her enormous dish-like ears served more purpose than looking silly. In the same way she evaded predators, and learned their haunts on her travels. She memorised the country, wandering farther and farther afield, ever watchful.
After a year and a half of travel her defiance of the environment and death were beginning to lose their entertainment, and it was in early autumn as she slept under the aurora lights on the rocky shores of Skylake that she began to dream very strange things indeed. A raven, sometimes white with wingtips stained with blood, sometimes black as the night sky with eyes like stars, would whisper dark secrets to her in her sleep. She began to wonder whether these dreams held a speck of truth, as they became interspersed between images of battle, fire and death. The raven told her of caves that could be accessed if she she held her breath and dove deep beneath the surface of Skylake, and the wonders within, so Gráinne woke under the winter twilight sun and did just that, barely feeling the cold waters as they threatened to pull her away from the world. She discovered a treasure trove of wonder; a plethora of glowing mushrooms and fungi, and she ate those the raven had instructed. More dreams, more instructions. She was learning.
It wasn’t until one morning in late spring of her seventh year that the Silverthorne herd saw Gráinne again. A group of does were lipping delicately at a patch of clover when one of them looked up and was alarmed to see the dusky form of the doe standing some ways off, also grazing in the remnants of the morning mist. There was instant outcry, though Gráinne herself made no symphony over her return, she simply appeared as abruptly as she had disappeared. This caused an amount of disquiet, but it wasn’t until some days later that news of it reached the King, as Gráinne mostly kept to herself on the outskirts. The does all wanted her gone, some of them the grown fawns who still remembered her from their youth with trepidation. However, the stags won over, for a number of them had already decided Gráinne was very pretty indeed, despite her small size and mysterious reappearance. Though she was tiny, far smaller than any of the other does in the herd, she was perfectly formed aside from her uncharacteristically large ears, with a long arching neck and even longer legs. Her mane now hung past her knees, twined with a black raven’s feather and a collection of obsidian chunks. Her tail was whippy and elegant. She was indeed a picture, though she gave off an air of danger, like a wolf stalking its prey, which made many afraid to approach her as she moved further and further into the herd.
Some very brave stags did approach her, trying to win her will before rut. These stags were smart, remembering her independent nature from her youth well. Gráinne regarded them all with interest, but showed no particular preference which led to raised tempers among the small group of suitors. There were fights outside of rut, a young stag was killed, the herd was outraged with such behaviour. Does whispered fearfully that Gráinne held the stags in a trance, as she had done when they were all children. When rut did approach though, the smokey doe offered nothing more than sultry glances and half smiles to any stag, and defied them all, once again drifting here and there, uncatchable and untamable as she had been in the wilderness.
Winter came and went, and no stag did the grulla doe take. This in itself caused further stir, as rarely was it the doe’s choice in these things. However with spring in the air and new fawns on the ground the defiant doe was soon forgotten by many. She as per usual kept to herself, grazing here and there, occasionally disappearing for a day or two but always reappearing. Summer rolled in and there was nothing of the competition from stags that there had been the previous year, the doe’s complete lack of interest had deterred many of those thinking she had returned when her biological clock had instructed her to bear children. This was clearly not the case, though none could make rhyme or reason for her return to the herd. Perhaps she had one too many scares with wolves. Others suggested she had found trouble in neighboring kingdoms and any day now they might come raining fury down upon them.
On midsummer’s eve, the night was hot and the moon hung low and orange in the sky, lazily casting its light and deeper shadows. It was unnaturally still, with the oppressive feeling like before a storm though the skies were clear. The herd was restless. Come dawn, a fawn was missing, disappearing from his dam’s side as she slept. The herd searched high and low, combing glen and valley in vain, for the child. The fawn was a young prince, golden like the sun, the King’s own blood. The doe had not felt her foal leave her, nor were there any tracks to be followed, no scent to be detected. He had simply disappeared.
It was not until some days later they found his body. Even when they did, it was hard to tell what had killed him. The variety of mountain predators had found him before the Silverthornes did, crumpled at the bottom of a cliff. His grave was an unnerving place, a circlet of stones around a great pedestal. He was missing a leg and a tail. The herd grieved for his loss, then searched for one to blame. None of the predators came near the grazing grounds at night, not with their fires blazing. The fawn could have wandered off, uncharacteristically. He could have been lured off. Gradually, more and more eyes turned to the sooty doe. No one had seen anything suspicious from her, she had been with the herd the whole time. They were sure they remembered her. Or did they?
Some days later, Gráinne was gone. The herd woke up, and it was as if a great weight had lifted, but some sour taste remained. They didn’t go looking for her, and they hoped she had suffered the same fate as the little prince. Instead, the sooty doe smiled as she headed north. She got what she came for.
This time she went beyond Skylake and its icy shores. She went beyond Whitepeak, and down into Widow’s Hollow. The raven led her to a cave, an old cave with paintings in blood on the wall. There were bones too; fawn, bear and wolf. Tooth and claw and hoof. She remained in solitude in her eerie for the winter, then the spring and summer, and autumn too. Many times over. Her dreams and visions kept her company, and occasionally the raven from her dreams would join her in her cave. She learned a great many things from the raven; she learned how to become more than she was. Then one day, the raven flew onto her back, white as snow with eyes like the blood that stained its feathers. This day, it spoke directly to her.
“War is coming. You will bathe in blood. Come.”
Gráinne went. She walked for days over perilous cliffs shrouded in mist, hooves unerring as she made her passage steadily lower into a great, deep valley. She did not stop to eat or drink. When she reached the valley floor, everything was black, and little light penetrated the dense needles in the canopy above. She stepped forward with purpose, dainty hooves as sure as they had been on the shaly slopes. She heard them before she saw them.
The dark giants stepped out from the dark trunks, forms solidifying in the dim light. Some were thin, some were more skin than bone, some were built like bears. All were dark. And Gráinne smiled.