2 December 2002
Robert Partridge never seemed to get the impressive bucks. Sure, he’d get a deer each year, but it was rarely anything worth mounting. The meat was good, but this year he desperately wanted to get something he could show off to his friends without fear they’d have bagged a better one.
He lived on a state road outside of town and knew about a large wooded tract of land that rarely anyone drove by. He’d spent the summer and fall poking around, and was now very certain there were deer worth his attention hiding behind those trees. He also knew no one else was hunting there; the No Trespassing signs and rumors in town about an overly protective owner, as well as state game lands nearby, kept most hunters occupied enough. But when he looked into the owner to try and get permission to hunt there, he found it apparently unclaimed, the signs having been posted without the proper legal process to make them binding. It seemed he was probably in the clear to go there, but he knew it would be worth his time to check with the guys who seemed to know everything about the lands surrounding the town center.
So he spent part of last evening in the Four Winds Bar, waiting for Thompson. They weren’t close, but he knew Thompson well enough from nights at this bar to know he’d be by, and he’d have answers. It was three beers and two lost games of pool before Thompson arrived, and Robert was getting antsy.
“What is it, Bob?” Thompson asked, having barely taken a seat before the younger man was sidling up to him.
“I was wondering about that stretch off 949,” Robert said, taking a seat and waving for another Yuengling.
“You know, the one no one hunts.”
“For good reason, kid. What’re you thinkin?”
“I looked it up, and it ain’t owned. The signs ain’t legal or nothin.”
“By who? No one ever goes there, there’s no house nearby, everyone talks about some owner but no one seems to know who they are!” The bartender delivered their drinks and gave Thompson a look that asked about Robert. Thompson waved him off and finally looked at Robert.
“Look kid. Not everything is on some book somewhere, not everyone who got a claim likes to come into town. I’m tellin you, leave it be.” The two went back and forth for another twenty minutes, Robert wanting answers and Thompson having nothing more solid than what he’d already offered. Annoyed, Robert left to get some rest and prepare for the season to start the next morning. Thompson, the bartender, and three others watched him go, the streetlights catching in their eyes like a flashlight in the eyes of a cat.
Now Robert was in a tree, looking out over a rocky brook and a small clearing that looked like it hadn’t been touched since the Earth was new. It was surprisingly warm, as the brook lacked any ice and there were still some flowers in bloom. The dawn was just starting to threaten the horizon when he finally spotted a deer approaching the water. He pulled his gun up to line up the shot and confirm it had a suitable rack. With his attention focused on the deer, he had no chance to see the arrow coming that buried itself in his shoulder.
He screamed, dropped his gun, and fell out of the stand. He heard a loud crack and, checking, he was convinced his leg was broken. He took short, sharp breaths, trying to avoid making too much noise or passing out from the pain, as he tried to drag himself toward the water. Hooves came into his field of vision, and his gaze followed them up to see what owned them.
The body was certainly that of an elk, large and muscular, with patches of moss and mushrooms apparently growing in its fur. Where the neck should have been was a lean humanoid torso, dark like the forest. Its head, for Robert couldn’t tell a gender from anything he saw, had pointed ears, long hair woven with flowers and leaves, and massive antlers with spider webs and vines hanging between their points. It was holding a crude bow and glaring down at him.
“You come to kill,” it said, clearly but sounding more like a branch breaking than a voice.
“I-I’m sorry, please, I didn’t mean-”
“You didn’t mean to get caught. You have broken the ancient pact.”
“I didn’t know! What pact?! What-please, let me go, I’ll do anything, I swear, just-” he paused, trying to catch his breath.
“Yes. I believe you will.” The fae raised its hand, and shimmering light began to gather like sand in its palm from the nearby flowers.
“Is-is that...pixie dust?”
“You humans insist on naming everything, as if you have the right to define it.” The fae blew at the substance, which flew over and landed all over Robert’s body. He took a deep breath, waiting for it to heal him, but instead he began to feel pressure building around his legs. When he looked back at them, there were roots emerging from the ground and wrapping around him.
“What-no! What is this?!” The roots lifted him upright, causing him to scream as they applied pressure to his broken leg. The fae seemed to be looking beyond him, and as he regained focus with shallow breaths he managed to turn his head enough to see vines and sticks coming together into a tight bundle that started to move on its own and stand upright. He could feel the tightness moving up his body and, looking down, saw that everything from his waist down was buried in the bottom of a tree. He looked frantically between the fae and the slowly animating bundle of material as it gained moss and grass, giving it a more defined form.
He begged, as the wood covered more of his body and pinned his arms. The fae ignored him, walking over and touching the bundle. It was a changeling, he began to remember from old stories, as it took its first breath and molded into a clearly human shape. He tried to scream but no one was listening. The last thing he saw before the wood closed over his eyes was himself, turning and walking out of the forest, the morning sun flashing in the changeling's eyes like a cat’s.