Although the vale, with its many woodland visitors, is a wonder during the day, its the cave interior which takes center stage at night. With a crackling fire at the center of the cave floor, the flickering shadows play across the wide expanse of wall; seeming to give life to the many primitive paintings there. Most are of simple stick-figure men and animals painted in earthen tones of burnt umber or the solid blacks and greys of soot.
The only sound is that of Xene's own breathing, the crackling of the fire and the echoing sounds of the nighttime forest; the wind in the branches and the distant howling of wolves.
Having stoked the fire with deadfall hickory and wild herbs, the air is heady with calming fragrance. Having spent some time listening to her father and Sir Thierry, Xene is aware of the insights they gained while meditating in the cave. Studying the ancient paintings there, she tries to imagine the illiterate painters of old, once having sat here like her painting their stories onto the walls for those who might follow.
Here, the stalking of a herd of elk by men with spears. There, a ravenous wolf ambushing and slaying a lone hunter. Another, showing a pregnant woman leading a handful of diminutive figures behind her while a bird-like figure watches from a nearby tree. These were tales worth committing to the cave walls by those ancient painters.
Growing light-headed from smoke-filled air and sleeplessness, Xene watches as the figures seem to run and dance along the wall in the flickering firelight. One scene appears to carry on into the next in a timeless narrative. It's the plight of men as they strive to survive in the natural world. Sometimes the animal figures oppose them in battle, and other times they are the prey of the people; being caught and eaten as sustenance. But the latter are not forgotten. They are immortalized on this very wall; their sacrifice being honored throughout the ages.
Other animals are neither predator nor prey; they are drawn in corners on the periphery of a scene and yet tied to the narrative. Are they guides? Allies? Tricksters? Perhaps all three.
At a mid point in the narrative, higher up the wall than the earlier paintings, new mysterious figures emerge. They combine elements of both men and animals; some with snouts and claws, others with tails and still others with wings instead of arms.
Those painted with soot seem to harry the figures of men. Cunning ambushes, savage battles and bloody slaughters follow in their wake. But, eventually, a burnt umber deer with a great rack of antlers appears meets a man carrying a bow. Then, in the flicker of shadow they are one; a antlered man in umber tones which stand between the defenseless men and the soot-colored animal-men who would devour them. Soon, other animal figures comes forth from the periphery of the scene to guide the men to safety as the great antlered archer battles to allow their escape.
But not all men flee. Some seem to turn, with spears in hand, to stand by the antlered archer along with some of the guide animals. And then, in another flicker of shadow, they emerge once more into the firelight with animal features of their own to battle the soot-skinned monsters at the side of the antlered protector.
As the hours pass, Xene comes to understand how those who would stand in defense of their fellows came to blessed by the great Stag Lord.
Light-headed and bleary-eyed, Xene rises to get some fresh air outside.
On trembling legs, she descends the broken stairs towards the Vale's pool; its mirror-smooth surface reflecting the starlit sky above the Old Margreve. A few steps carries her to the water's edge. Leaning down to cup some of the water in her hands, the priestess stumbles awkwardly; her arms feeling oddly leaden. That's when she catches sight of her doe-eyed reflection in the water's surface.
Spread out above her head is a mighty rank of antlers; her arms unable to rise as they are supporting the full weight of her forequarters on cloven hooves. Xene has become a stag. She must have fallen asleep in the cave and now be dreaming.
Xene dips her head into the pool, then tries to shake the water from her eyes as she raises her head out. Anxious for the water to calm, she waits only until her rough outline is visible before trying to stumble backwards. Her hooves strike stone and she finds herself falling between her overwide stance before she's able to jump away, and back to more solid footing.
She lets out a startled bleat and glances wide-eyed around the clearing.
At the periphery stands another stag. Not an unusual sight in the Vale.
It seems unperturbed by this other stag's unease. It calmly walks towards the pool, it's hooves clacking on the ancient paving stones. The great animal passes next to Xene; turning its head to regard her as it approaches the pool. It pauses on the edge of the pool to regard her, and then turns to touch its nose to the water's surface; sending a ripple across the pool. It gently laps up water with seeming disregards for its companion.
Xene watches for a moment, before dipping her head as he passes. She watches him drink and tries to mimic his grace as she too dips her head to drink. She misses the edge of the water and dips her head too deep on the first try, raising her head and snorting her nose clear, before she's able to try again.
"This is harder than it looks."
The other stag raises its antlered head and regards Xene again. Then, with a flicker of its short white-tuffed tail, the other deer turns and sprints away towards the forests' edge.
Xene takes a quick step in the same direction, before stopping briefly to glance around. She'll then try to follow without tripping over her own hooves.
And so begins a nighttime run through the woods; following in the wake of the other stag. Come morning, Xene awakens in the cave once more; sweaty but whole and once more in her familiar human body.
Over the next few days Xene will continue to mediate in the cave while helping with the care and upkeep of the cave and the clearing. She'll also try to discuss her experiences with her father.