Gwyron moved through the forest on thin, fragile legs. His pace was little more than a crawl, his withered muscles too weak to allow him more. Wearied, he stopped and rested against a barren tree. In the branches above him, dried and wilted leaves rattled in the wind. The sound scraped against his thoughts, chafing his mind and leaving it red and raw. He closed his eyes, imagining the rain, remembering the lush and vibrant greenery that this forest once had.
He opened his eyes, and the rawness in his mind moved down to his throat. The woods before him looked as he felt—withered and worn, desiccated and near decay. Everything looked brown and dreary, as if life had forgotten the world and only dust remained.
Gwyron tried to swallow, but the dryness made his throat constrict and he coughed instead. He pushed himself away from the tree and kept on walking. If nothing else, he needed to keep walking lest the dust consume him, leaving behind nothing but a pale and hollow shell.
The brush cracked and splintered under his steps. It scratched at his legs, snagging his skin and drawing beads of thick, sticky blood. His body ached, but he dared not stop, fearing that if he did, he’d never again find the strength to move.
And then a drop of moisture hung in the air, wicked away by his own parched skin. It was just a taste–a whisper of a rainy day long since passed–but it was enough. Gwyron quickened his step, pushing away dried and drooping branches before coming to a stream.
The waterway was little more than a trail of mud wending its way through the forest. Yet a line of water still trickled and oozed along the damp soil. Gwyron closed his eyes. He could smell the wet earth, the hint of pine that clung to the liquid. He wanted to put his ragged hands in it, bring the cool mud to his hot face and suck the water to soothe his scratchy throat. But he dared not–this water was not for him.
He stepped away and sat down, watching as the water wound through the mud. He waited.
Darkness fell, but the air remained arid and stifling. The trickle of water danced in the moonlight, the only life and vibrancy in the otherwise vacant and vapid woods. Gwyron licked his cracked lips with a dry and swollen tongue, yet still he waited.
The wind stirred the trees, sending a cascade of dried leaves to flutter around him. Then movement stole across the corner of his eye. Gwyron held his breath, not daring to move, not daring to blink, willing himself to become invisible and still. He was nothing more than a tree, lifeless and withered, just as all the others.
The movement drew closer, and then a stag came into view. Its fur was a deep brown in the moonlight, as were its antlers, gnarled and curling like branches of a robust oak. Leaves sprouted from the stag’s crown, the only greenery Gwyron had seen for a very long time. He closed his eyes, no longer trusting himself to watch, fearing his own need and fear would sour the air. He couldn’t let the stag sense his desperation—he couldn’t let it sense him.
He waited and listened. The dry brush rustled, quietly and calmly, borne from careful and considered steps. And then a gentle lapping sound as the stag drank what little water remained.
Gwyron opened his eyes and took a breath. He breathed in the night and the scent of the stag, pulling all of what remained of his strength until it wound within him like a tight little ball. He focused his attention and, without a sound, got to his feet. One foot in front of the next, he crept until he reached the stag. Then, just as the stag turned its head and met its gaze with his, Gwyron grabbed it by the antlers. They were rough under his hands, like the bark of a tree. The stag tried to pull away, but Gwyron unwound his strength and held on.
“Sacrifice,” he whispered into the stag’s ear. “I will honor your sacrifice.” And then, just as he had willed himself to be nothing more than wizened tree, Gwyron willed the stag to yield. The animal’s legs buckled and Gwyron kneeled along with it down into the mud.
He spoke a series of words, soothing sounds that were soft on the tongue, and the stag calmed. He stroked its bristly fur, whispering a prayer for forgiveness and for strength, and then he put his hand into the stag’s chest.
Its body was tight and hard, scratching and leaving splinters in Gwyron’s parched skin. He gritted his teeth and sent his fingers in deeper and deeper until he felt the smooth, supple surface of the animal’s heart.
He wrapped his fingers around it and, slowly, pulled it out. The heart shone pale green in the moonlight, round and taut like an apple, and as vibrant as a newly unfurled leaf. The stag lay motionless on the ground, a thin layer of lichen spreading over its darkened body. Gwyron put the heart to his lips and took a bite.
The heart was dense and fibrous, coating Gwyron’s mouth with sticky sap. It soothed it his parched throat and tongue and Gwyron struggled to control his fervor as he chewed. He forced himself to calm, to breathe as he ate the heart with controlled measure. And, with each careful bite he took, he could feel his strength return. His legs grew stronger, his thoughts clearer. He closed his eyes as he chewed the last mouthful and, when he opened them, he looked at the forest before him with renewed sight.
Gwyron breathed deep, and the hot air cooled as it passed his lips. He exhaled, long and slow, and the leaves in the surrounding trees regained some of their color. He flexed his hands, no longer withered and worn, but strong and lithe. He closed his eyes and spread out his arms, and then Gwyron called the rain.