First published in issue 29 of Indie Shaman magazine.
There were six of them.
Each wore a Deer skull with the antlers attached, from holes in the skull a Deer skin was tied to hang like a cloak over their backs; it was only partly cleaned and the men walked bent forward so both their scent and shape were disguised. Five of the group carried bows or spears.
One, who walked slightly behind the others, carried only a handful of fresh shoots and grasses.
They moved slowly and quietly through the trees, following the animal tracks. As one, they suddenly stopped.
Behind a thin curtain of saplings, a sun lit glade opened in the forest and dappled shapes slowly moved around it or stood with heads lowered as they fed on the lush undergrowth.
The two leading hunters carefully raised their bows, drew back and by some instinctive understanding born of long practice, let fly together. The air sighed as it parted round the arrows as if sad that it could not stop death in mid flight; they struck cleanly and two Deer fell while the others leapt away crying out in panic to their kin; and the quiet thunder of their fleeing hoof fall swiftly faded away between the trees.
The hunters walked into the glade and the two who had fired gently and carefully removed their arrows; as soon as this was done, the five who carried weapons dropped face down on the grass and lay utterly still, as if they too were dead.
The last member of the group, who had waited in the tree line until all this was done, now stepped lightly forward and knelt. He took a pinch of powder from a pouch at his waist and placed it on his tongue, then removed his Deer skull and untied the skin cloak from it; turning the skull he held it before him for a few moments, whispering words as if speaking to it, he then placed it back on his head so it became a mask and he was looking at the world through the bones of a Stag; looking through a Spirit face.
And so he saw into the Spirit world.
And so he saw the spirits of the two Deer who had been killed.
They were nervous and fearful, unsure what to do in this place of plenty that had now become so strange; one was sniffing at its own body as it lay on the ground, the other was looking towards where the herd had disappeared into the forest; their forms were made of the worlds breath, the same breath that could be seen lying in the hollow places of the earth on a cold morning as the day began to rise.
They both looked round in confusion and panic at a movement on the edge of the glade and saw a Stag that seemed of spirit like them; the Shaman was walking in the other world.
In this world, the Shaman bent to the ground picked up the grass and shoots he had carried and placed them in his mouth; in the other world, the Stag quietly and calmly began to graze. He raised his head with the food showing in his mouth and turned towards them with lowered eyes, he meant them no harm; cautiously the Deer moved towards him, beginning to trust, beginning to forget their other selves that lay on the ground.
One of the Deer stepped gently up to him and took a few strands of grass from his mouth, on his other side the second Deer did the same, it was enough; the offering had been accepted. With a shake of his head the Stag was running and the others ran with him.
In this world the Shaman, standing with eyes closed, was as taut and still as stone except his breathing was deep and quick but in the otherworld where he ran, the trees blurred, the grass and wild flowers became a passing rainbow of colours that they seemed to travel over as well as through. At one point they stopped at a stream of an ever darkening blue and where, in the depths, what seemed like tiny white stones glittered and shone in the ripples that spread from their drinking. Then they ran on and the path they traveled seemed to tremble as it passed beneath their hooves.
Then, in the distance, there was a Pine tree; a tree whose trunk stretched from earth to sky without touching either; a tree whose branches swirled and shook and shaped on winds that were never felt by any living thing; and on the land that was around it, a herd of Deer were grazing.
There was a Stone standing by the path they ran on, a Stone covered in shallow grooves and scratches; the Stag stopped beside it and the others stopped too, unsure once more. With slow and gentle movements the Stag nudged them onwards keeping his body calm and his eyes lowered, telling them there was nothing here for them to fear; so they stepped forward across the shining land that reflected the green light and life of the trees branches and were welcomed back into their Herd.
The Stag stood still a while, then twisting his neck he struck the Stone with his antlers; once; twice. The sound drummed down through the Stone into whatever earth it was that it stood upon; he lifted his head to gaze into the branches above him for a moment and then closed his eyes.
In this world the Shamans eyes opened and he dropped to the ground, muscles shaking as they suddenly relaxed and sweat running across his body. The others came to their feet and went to him; one gently removed the mask revealing eyes that did not quite see the world they looked on; another lifted his head and gave him water while a third placed a mash of berries and dried meat in his mouth. The Shaman chewed the food and then took the drinking horn and swallowed down the rest of the water, when he lowered his hands, his eyes were once more focused on the here and now.
The rest of the group busied themselves collecting their gear and tying the carcasses to carrying poles, leaving the Shaman to recover in his own way; he picked up the Deer skull gazing into its eyes, for a moment his journey returned and he whispered words to it once more, then he blinked and reached for his Deer skin; he smiled as he did so, even after all his seasons it could still surprise him how far he could travel while barely moving an arms length. He looked up and saw the others respectfully waiting; so he rose to his feet and draped the skin over one shoulder, cradling the skull in the crook of an arm; the others had also removed their disguises since there was no need for them now.
Seeing he was ready, they turned and disappeared back into the forest.
Alone for a moment, the Shaman paused and looked back across the glade; deep in among the trees, vague and cautious shapes were moving; the Deer would return to this favoured feeding place before long. He smiled again and sent a silent blessing; all was as it should be.