Theron Mahariel knows these woods; they are as familiar as his skin, and as well-traveled as the paths he walks in dreams. Every step is spongy with moss and dead leaves; his bare feet sink softly into the forest floor as he pads steadily deeper, silent and determined.
He lost the deer hours ago; it darted past him when the sun was too high for shadow, and now he walked through stripes of darkness and light while night threatened to fall. Tracking the animal was easy, but it was young and fast, and possibly enjoying the chase. It would not be the first time a Dalish hunter lost a day to a playful animal, but patience came easily as he followed the trail, bow and arrow loose in his grasp.
The air was thick with pine and smoke, and though he was far from camp he knew the bonfire was crackling. Regardless of whether or not he caught this deer, the clan would be sitting for supper soon. A branch snapped and his ears twitched upwards, the ambient noises of the forest increasing in volume as he turned his head slowly, straining for the source of that sound. There was a rustle behind him and he spun, nocking his arrow and pulling the bow string taut in one graceful, sleek motion, then freezing, pale eyes wide in disbelief.
Standing before him was a halla, pure white and regal, its coat shaggy and knotted with burrs. This was no tame beast, escaped from a Dalish clan. It had all the bearings and attitudes of a wild animal, and its horns were growing at odd, unusual angles, untouched by the knife of a halla keeper. But according to the stories told to the children, there were no wild halla. The great white deer had been tame as shemlen oxen since the days of Arlathan, and every halla born since then was brought into the world by the tender hand of a halla keeper. This beast could not exist.
Awestruck, Theron lowered his bow, staring with lips pressed firmly together to stifle even the sound of his breath as the animal took a tentative step closer. Its black eyes were intelligent, and when it neared there was a splash of dark reddish-brown on its back leg, a crude metal bear trap still attached to it. Shem hunted in these forests too, and were often careless with their traps. The halla must have had the misfortune to step on one while its jaws were still open. Dropping his bow, Theron sunk to his knees, reverently whispering a suddenly remembered prayer to Ghilan’nain as he coaxed the halla near. Under its thick fur, the muscles in its flank twitched as it shuffled from side to side, understanding but still gripped by that intrinsic fear held by all prey animals. It snuffled and snorted, pawing the ground with one fine hoof as it slowly advanced. Theron made himself small, no difficult task, and bared his palms to the beast. He meant no harm, but he did not expect the animal to understand.
They faced one another, hunter and prey, worshiper and worshiped, head bowed to horns held high, and finally the halla came near. The scent of blood filled the air as every movement caused the teeth of the trap to shift, dull metal scraping against torn hide. It turned, wary and slow, to place its wounded leg directly in front of Theron, the muscle twitching, jumpy and nervous, as it stopped.
It was a poorly made trap, stuck together hastily from bad hinges and scrap metal, and pain shot through Theron’s hand the moment he touched it. The metal was raw, rusted and ragged, and blood oozed from his fingers as he tried from a different angle, grabbing a flat bit and holding it down as he pried the trap open just enough for the animal to loose its leg.
Favoring its back leg, the halla bounded a few steps away from the trap, then turned to stare as it snapped closed again. Theron kicked it aside in disgust, wiping his bloody hands on his soft leather leggings before opening his hip pouch and pulling out a roll of clean, rough bandages, and a handful of green leaves. Sitting back on his heels, he tore the leaves and pressed them firmly into the palm of his wounded hand, hissing inwardly at the sting as he clenched his fist around the camphorous pulp. Eyes squinted shut to the pain, he wrapped it tightly, tucking one end of the bandage in to hold it on. He should have brought poultices; there were plenty at camp, and one or two would not have weighed him down any more than the elfroot did. Marethari would never let him hear the end of that misjudgment.
When he opened his eyes, the halla was still there, far closer than Theron would have expected. Every elvhen child grew up hearing stories of halla carrying knights into battle, and there was no stopping those fancies from creeping into his mind as he watched the beast move gracefully nearer to him again, so light on its feet that it seemed to glide. Theron inhaled a quick, shaky gasp as the Halla came close enough to touch him, folding its legs and settling down with a huff. It nudged his hand with a wet nose, watching Theron with dark, knowing eyes, lowering its head when he raised his hand to stroke its muzzle.
“You’re beautiful,” Theron said, his voice no more than a whisper. Carefully, he ran his fingers over the halla’s soft snout, a smile breaking over his face when the deer twitched its ears. Avoiding the halla’s antlers, he brushed his hand back to touch one of those ears, and clamped his lips to muffle the cry of joy as the beast leaned its head into his hand. “Thank you. Oh, Ghilan’nain, thank you.”
The Creators of the Dalish were said to be locked away, never to be seen until the dread wolf was vanquished, but Theron was convinced that right now, in this forest, the Halla Mother had come to him with a task. He was not sure that simply rescuing the halla from the trap was sufficient, and as he stroked the soft nose of the wild animal, he said silent prayers of thanks, beseeching the goddess to keep the clan’s halla hale and hardy.
It was night when the halla once again got to its feet, stepping tentatively away from Theron. He knew he should have returned to camp hours ago, but even if a dragon had come lumbering through the woods, his only thought would be to protect the halla. The beast shook its great head, then with impressive speed bounded off into the darkness, a flash of white swallowed by the pitch black sky, the canopy covering whatever light might have been cast by the moon and stars. At Theron’s feet there lay a curling shard of horn, and he picked it up, running a gentle finger over the blunt tip. He raised that hand to his face and traced the dark red vallaslin, tracing the similar curls, a tribute to the mother of halla.
He held the horn to his heart and fell back on the mossy ground, laughing, exhilarated, and overjoyed.