This is a story I’ve embellished from an old British tale of the Cailleach. I’ve taken liberties in setting (Ireland instead of Britain), in time (nowhere does it indicate that it was at the time of Samhain, but this is Samhain in our time, so seems a good time to share a Cailleach story) and in details (there are no named characters in the original tale that I am aware of). The photo of the stag is courtesy of Pixabay.
Once upon an autumn day near Samhain, two brothers, Aodhán and Aonghas, were out hunting a great stag in the forest near the great fortress on the rock. They’d tracked the beast’s huge hoof print through a carpet of leaves, across a stream into a thicket of hazel and thorn trees, where the prints vanished and the trail was lost. They stood befuddled as to where the stag had gone.
While they debated which direction to take, a gloomy mist settled over the forest, out of which an old woman appeared. Bent and slow to move, she made her way towards them, holding gnarly hands to an Elder staff.
Up close, the lads were taken aback at the woman’s aged appearance. Older than the stones of the castle, perhaps. Eyes like winter peered out from her wrinkled face, set deep into a mass of straggly silver hair. A large owl perched on her shoulder.
“Ye lads lookin’ for the Stag?” she asked in a creaky voice.
“Aye,” said Aonghas, attempting to sound braver than he felt staring at the ancient hag.
The crone looked to the west and pointed a crooked finger in the same direction. “Follow the stream to where the ridge rises above the plains. Ye’ll find yer beast. But now, heed me well or pay a price, once ye’ve felled the stag, have a care to say a prayer and bless the offering of the land. Ye’ll regret it if you don’t.”
Both boys nodded enthusiastically and promised the blessing. Anything to appease the old woman. The wind rose, bringing with it a curtain of mist and when the gray settled, the crone was disappeared.
As is often the case with young boys, she was soon forgotten in their zealous pursuit of the stag. Heading west along the stream, they headed far from their home.
Eventually, they reached the ridgeline and not long later, caught sight of the stag, browsing in a shadowy glen at twilight. He was grand. Larger than any deer they’d ever seen. Twelve tines arched from his magnificent antlers. And being downwind of him, the boys scent never alerted him.
Aodhán, being the better with the arrow, took the shot. With not more than a loud snort to break the silence of the glen, the stag fell backward and then lay still, his lifeblood draining out of him, staining the grass beneath his massive body.
In the fading light of day, the brothers quickly dressed the deer for travel, but darkness was full upon them when they finished and they stayed the night in a grove nearby.
The journey home was arduous. They took turns dragging the carcass. Smoke curled from the chimney of their cottage when they arrived home late in the day. Leaving the stag outside, they went inside to a warm bowl of stew and told their father the story. Aonghas remembered the old woman and asked if his father knew her.
“Aye, she might be The Cailleach, Lady of Beasts. She is said to be the most ancient…”
Aodhán had no patience for stories and stopped his father in the telling, to have him come and see their prize.
To the shock and dismay of the brothers, the tree from which they’d hung the stag’s dead body was empty! Only the rope remained, swinging in the breeze.
After much head-scratching and cursing, the boys turned to their father.
“Someone has stolen our stag!” they concluded.
The father shrugged and stared at them with shrewd eyes. “Well, boys, did ye give the blessin’ to the stag and the land as The Cailleach asked ye to?”
Aodhán turned away with a wave of his hand, not believing for a moment in the old story and the consequences of his disbelief. Aonghas looked sheepishly down at his feet, wishing he’d remembered the hag’s advice.
Father shrugged again and turned toward the warmth of the cottage. But both boys heard him say as he walked away, “Well lads, perhaps you’ve learned a lesson. If you don’t bless the animal ye kill, then the faeries have a right to take their share. That’s what The Cailleach was tryin’ to teach ye.”