Herne dismounted his steed and stamped his feet upon the ground just before the forest. It was unsafe for a hunter to prowl such a thick forest so close to sundown, but Herne wasn’t like most hunters. He was the best in his village, the county, and as his fellow hunters said, the best in all of England, good enough to hunt alongside the king himself. Although Herne knew this, as he could not deny his skill, he had a recurring doubt that swallowed all his attention. And that was why he was here, at sundown.

Herne had talent for archery, which revealed itself early on, even as a child. Even back then, just as they were now, everyone had been amazed at his prowess, because otherwise he had been a completely boring child. Just slightly less than average at everything, but hunting. He was born to shoot an arrow, and through this singular skill, he proved his worth. Once he was a man, he went on hunting expeditions, and kept his village well-fed.

Nowadays he often hunted alone, or with one other partner. On his return, he had to walk through town to visit his home, and along the way, give his game to the people awaiting his handouts. Herne was such a master of the bow that he could hand a single piece of game to everyone that stopped him and he still had plenty to share with his own family once he reached them.

But then there was doubt. It had existed all along, but reared its ugly head once he joined the expeditions. No one had even bothered to look at or listen to him before he picked up that bow. And now everyone loved him just for that. He was the village darling now, and had been for years. But worrying thoughts prodded him.

“What if it was all a fluke? Just dumb luck leading those arrows to those targets? What if I lose my touch? What will they think of me then? What will they do? Do they love me solely for my skill? Even my own family?”

A grown man worried by such things was surely to make him a laughingstock in people’s eyes, so this was his deepest, darkest secret. Herne couldn’t allow himself to go ignored again, as much as the popularity crushed him under its immense weight. So he did the thing he did best. He hunted. If he hunted as much as possible, not only would he never lose his touch, but he would help everybody and do exactly what made them happy. It was such a large forest, it couldn’t possibly run out of animals, could it? Herne didn’t doubt that. So when the doubts arose, he hunted. To both get his mind off it, and kill the source of the doubts, like a parasitic weed.

So, that was why Herne was hunting so close to sundown. This particular bout of doubts arose when he built up the nerve to straightforwardly ask his family if they’d still like him even if he didn’t hunt. They laughed. And laughed. Not to mention they brushed his problems aside like they were nothing. Just like always. But he was so direct on this occasion, it hurt. So he grabbed his cape and bow and quiver with a white-knuckle grip and abruptly excused himself despite their protests. However, now was not the time for worrying. It was time to hunt.

That night, the forest was particularly barren. The distant calls of birds grew louder as he walked further in. This was natural, as the animals tended to dwell towards the center of the woods and not by its surface. But the amount of space between the edge and where the animals presumably were was much larger than usual, especially so close to nighttime. Finally, a few pheasants revealed themselves. Then they dropped dead from the arrows piercing their heads. Herne bent down and grabbed their carcasses by the legs and tied them together. He placed them in a sack, and then he moved on. Partridges and woodcocks flitted about further on, but were no match for Herne the Hunter’s sheer skill. And into the bag they went. From then on the fauna went scarce again and yet the hunter marched onward. Was he looking for something? Quite possibly. This bout of doubts was so intense. They burned inside his chest and threatened to take his life, and he felt as if he needed to prove himself yet again. A buck! If only he could snag a buck, or even a larger-than-average doe, would his demons dissolve. The villagers loved venison. And they would love Herne, too. But only if he slayed that buck.

After a solid half-hour (by then the sun was long gone), Herne heard hoofbeats upon trees. Some scraping on tree bark, too. Does don’t make those noises. It was the buck he’d been searching for. He quietly slid his arrow into the bow and sidestepped his way around. Any chirping of birds and bugs had ceased and all that could be heard were the footsteps of the hunter and the hunted. Due to the forest’s natural echo, it was hard to discern exactly where it was, so Herne did a few 360s around the small clearing he was in, cringing ever so slightly at his louder footsteps. He eventually relaxed and let the arrow sway away from the bowstring. This particular stag was either the most elusive Herne had seen, or it had simply walked away. Disappointed, he looked lazily to his side for one last check, and there it was. The buck, staring straight at him.

For once, Herne hesitated. The buck had an intense, yet cold gleam in its eye, as if it knew exactly what he was here for. Then it entered a charging stance and the hunter just gawked at it. The buck sprinted forward as Herne finally armed himself. He managed to launch a good two or three arrows in the few seconds before the buck caught him and smacked him against a tree. The last arrow had pierced its chest, and so it died right after the collision. Herne breathed heavily, but stopped once some blood worked its way out of his mouth. Herne looked downwards and found the buck’s antlers had impaled him clean through his abdomen, and even into the tree behind it. Shock and adrenaline had completely numbed the injury, but it was already wearing him thin.

Herne let out shrieking, shuddering cries as he attempted to work the buck off of him, but he could feel his insides suffering as he shook the deer’s head. It was nearly impossible, for the buck was the largest Herne had ever seen and certainly the heaviest. With the antlers lodged in the tree behind him, he was completely pinned. Herne started to bend forward to dislodge them, but blood began rushing and viscera started oozing out of his wounds, making him give out an agonized cry. More futile attempts and everything started to feel cold. In the moonlight, Herne’s skin was paper white. His fingers were raw and numb from endless scraping. Each now labored breath caused more blood to gush out. Herne was desperate to escape, but he was so tired now, his mouth was dry, he couldn’t even keep his head nor his eyelids up. A few more gasps choked with blood, then ignoring the pain, he slumped over the deer with a sickening groan. Then his arms let go of the antlers and hung by his side. He didn’t move again after that.

But this was not the end. In the forest, with any end met there is just another beginning. Any bird or squirrel or boar or human that dies will begin a new life by feeding the trees and plants and flies and any hungry creature out there. But Herne’s new beginning was different from these.

While Herne himself did not move after dying, a certain someone of the forest dragged his body away. The wise man of the forest unpinned him from the tree, unstuck the deer from Herne, and carried both the man and the deer to their dwelling. There, he did the work he was so famous for. Though, objectively, it was quite simple, it was magic. Right after he finished, he took something of Herne’s, something precious. Then, with his fist, he firmly knocked on Herne’s chest three times, as if it were a door. Herne’s body jerked a bit, then sat up slightly as he inhaled deeply and started to cough. It almost hurt to breathe, especially after a day or two of not breathing, and having a blood-coated throat. He also had a pounding headache which felt like a massive pressure on his forehead. Examining his waist revealed quite sloppy-looking stitchwork, yet it was impressively well-healed. It seemed to be afternoon, judging by the warmth and light peeking out of the porous roof above him.

The wise man waiting in the corner stepped forward and accepted the revived hunter’s thanks. He cocked his head with a nonchalant smile. “Well, before you’re off, there are a few conditions that are to be explained,” he started.

Herne figured out the condition when he placed his hand on his head to ease the pressure, but instead felt the strange structures embedded in it, and traced them all the way up, till he could barely reach their pointed ends.

“Wh-what sort of—” he stammered. “I-is this…?!”

The wise man beamed a wicked smile, and the sunrays made his teeth shine with a sinister gleam. “Do you like them? I tried awfully hard to make the connection as smooth as possible.”

Herne threw his head upward in a futile attempt to observe his new features, gripping them like handles to peel them off, then turned a naked, betrayed look to the figure, who let a cackle slip. “I thought it was so fitting that you, who have slaughtered forest life so zealously, was finally killed by one of its own,” he said with satisfaction. “And I found it fit that you could keep the stag’s horns as a trophy upon your crown. You already have, but no need to thank me.”

Burying his face in his hands, Herne agonized over his now monstrous appearance, lamenting that he could never confront his family or any other human again. The wise man’s smile widened, which he half-heartedly hid behind his hand. They he snickered at Herne, “You have lost something in return for your life, hunter.”

Herne looked up at the wizard in confusion. The wise man held up his hand, pinching the air as if it held something, but nothing could be seen. “Why, I’ve taken your hunting prowess.”

Herne immediately scrambled off the table, attempting to snatch the air away from the man’s hand. Failing, he instead prayed on his knees to the forest mage, shaking his clasped fists at him, at the sky, begging for his prowess. “I could live with horns, I can trim them short enough to hide, but I cannot live without my livelihood! Not without the only reason that anyone has ever cared about me!”

The wizard sneered at Herne with disgust. “You shall be cursed until the day you die.”

The forlorn hunter crumpled to the ground and sobbed. The mage looked down at him, and complained that a grown man crying like this was undignified and demanded he be grateful he was even alive at all. He grabbed his bag of game birds and threw it in front of him. Herne was then told to get out. “Don’t forget to savor the last prey you’ll ever have the satisfaction of slaughtering, you beast,” the wizard hissed through a forced smile, adding insult to injury.

Herne closely hugged the bag as he staggered out of the hovel and stumbled about the rocks and tree trunks. He fumbled about aimlessly for a few minutes, gasping for air between teary sighs, before tripping over the roots of a great oak tree.

Herne spent a great deal of the day sobbing and tracking back and forth around this oak tree, pondering on what to do. He even tried shooting arrows but they all went astray; some didn’t even pierce anything, simply bouncing against the target with their shafts or nocks and falling uselessly to the ground. If he ever showed himself to the public, they’d surely mistake him for a great monstrous beast and kill him on the spot. If not, then they’d think he contracted with the Devil and hang him. Or maybe they’d join together and chase him through the forest and out of town with pitchforks and torches. Even if they could assimilate such a pitiful freak back into their society, he would be absolutely useless without his skill. No one would ever want to deal with such an ugly mediocre creature. He’d just be a leech on the community. He could do nothing but wallow in misery in the forest forever, unable to even entertain himself with archery, forever haunted by the wise man feeding upon his misfortune. Nothing at all— Wait, go backwards. Hang. Herne finally had an answer. Not the answer he wanted, but the most favorable out of the others.

But before this, he calmly sat down and let out a few more tears and gasps, later grabbing his bag. He retrieved the rope keeping the bag and its contents sealed up. Then he went to work. The noose he made was not as good as the kind used in professional executions, since he was mediocre at knot tying, but as long as it got the job done, he didn’t care. Using his newly acquired horns, he propped and looped the rope around the thickest branch he could reach. He tied the other end to a boulder. Carrying it, Herne shimmied up the tree and struggled to fit his head through the loop. He gave the sky and the trees framing it one last teary look. Then he dropped the stone and closed his eyes.

The wise man, looking unimpressed, watched Herne’s feet sway back and forth. Although he had hoped for a lifetime of misery for a murderer like Herne, the mage knew an early outcome was expected. Nonetheless, a promise was a promise. Herne’s skill would be in the wizard’s hands for the rest of his life. And Herne made it so the rest of his life would be but a few hours. The wizard flicked his hand towards the base of the tree directly under Herne. He smiled once again, because the lifetime of misery had become an eternity.

Herne opened his eyes for the second time. He was staring up at a pair of boots. He rose up from the ground and examined them. They led up to white pant-clad legs, a brown leathery belt and top, a forest green cape cinched by the collarbones, and above that, a plum-purple bruised neck. And if Herne had a stomach at this time, it would have dropped when he got to his pained, blotchy, veiny face. Herne was dead. Yet again. But he wasn’t alive now like last time. His spirit had manifested itself as his monstrous horned form, even taller this time. Other than the natural weightlessness of spirituality, something else was different. He drew an arrow from his quiver and strung it across his bowstring. He aimed at a tree forty feet away. The arrow pierced its fruit exactly how Herne wanted it to. His skill was back but it was far too late. It meant nothing but personal satisfaction to a problem that no longer existed, pleasure from animal slaughter, and a source of mild entertainment for the oncoming eon of boredom. That’s just how it would go for the ensuing centuries; he would angrily shoot trespassers for daring to bother him and defile the tree his poor battered body hung upon, unleashing shrieks of pure malevolence that rattled the nighttime forest to disturb the people who ignored him, who dared to sleep while he could not.

One day, a horned owl perched upon a branch near the oak tree. Herne instinctively aimed towards it. It cocked its head and began to watch him. What was a nocturnal creature like an owl doing out and about in the afternoon like this? Herne didn’t really care. He didn’t care enough to shoot it either. He just sighed, dropped his weapon, and kneeled, idly ripping up the grass. The owl softly darted from the branch in exchange for Herne’s horns (which caused his head to tilt). Herne lifted his hand up to the bird, which shifted over onto his wrist. When Herne brought it to eye level, it screeched and spat a stuttered hoot in his face but otherwise acted like a perfectly tamed owl. It seemed to enjoy little brushes under its chin and pats upon its downy belly. It didn’t seem to want to leave, so Herne named it Harold. Harold puffed out and ruffled its plumage at its new name. If Herne couldn’t have normal human contact, the accompanying intelligence of an owl would suffice. Even if generally unhealthy habits like yelling at a bird as you pretend to have an argument with it were frowned upon, it helped alleviate his antisocial outlook.

The forest seemed more alive at that moment. It had been dead silent all this time but now the natural ambience had returned, and so had the forest populace. Silhouettes of deer, squirrels, foxes, and even a few stallions seemed to surround the clearing. Any ordinary hunter would feel threatened, but the sensation they gave off felt more like a warm reception. Harold must have been a test. And Herne, by giving up hunting for sport, passed it and earned the fauna’s respect. He didn’t have to swear off archery, just the killing of animals. And he was just fine with that.

Like most people, Herne hadn’t equated animals with humans, but in terms of companionship, animals were even greater. They did not glare, they did not gossip, they did not judge, but only gave silent support from the sidelines, which—Herne knew—was genuine. Animals were incapable of the deception humans were so well known for. They were too pure for emotional cruelty, in stark contrast to their home, Nature, who was purely merciless. It was therapeutic, really.

The dark, depressing forest, which had once been the site of death by ghostly arrows, is, nowadays, the tragic—if not bittersweet—foliaged home to a phantasmic keeper. He’ll only watch you from afar, and shy from your line of sight, but keep your distance from Herne’s Oak.

 

Kayla Rodriguez hails from Ronkonkoma, Long Island, but moved to Long Beach four years ago. She is a freshman majoring in Cartooning at SVA.