The silence as the mist enveloped me was unnerving. Thin slivers of sunlight tried valiantly to burn through the grey gloom around me. It was a black and white morning.
Icy condensation formed on the back of the camera as my breath quickened. I could see the shadowy form approaching. A roar echoed out ahead of him, and my finger inched down to trip the shutter.
He appeared through the mist, head slowly swaying under the weight of the polished antlers. Purposefully placing one hoof in front of the other, he crunched through the frost covered bracken. An old warrior of several ruts and carrying the scars of battle on his face, he lusted after the next encounter. Genetics demanded he wins.
With slow hoof falls, the beautiful animal walked down the path towards me, oblivious to my camouflaged presence. My heart stopped when I realised that he would be next to me before noticing I was there. Surprise could be a dangerous thing in this line of work.
Indecision wrenched my head away from the camera, and I looked over the lens at the approaching animal. Anything I did would alert him to my presence, and the chance to capture that unperturbed natural image of him would be gone.
I had no choice. I stepped off the path in a slick movement and stopped him in his tracks. His glare bored into me, and calmness turned to anxiety. His head lowered as he sniffed the ground, picking up my scent and I panicked that the tripod resembled the inverted antlers of slain opponents long gone. I caught my breath again as he lifted his head, sniffing the air again. The rapier-like branch of horns silhouetted against the white mist.
Long seconds passed, and he continued his approach. He threw his head back and roared in my direction, enquiring my reply. I could barely breathe as he stopped just meters from me.
He was an old stag with deep scars from years of lust driven battles, his thick neck drenched in briny urine and the overpowering musk smell stung my nostrils. Glassy eyes looked me over before focussing on the distant trees at a rival who roared somewhere behind me. He was past his prime and would be the underdog in any fight. I liked him already.
The instinct to rut overpowered all his senses and he strode off towards his rival to be met with another roar from the much younger male who strutted to meet the older challenger, his head towering over the frosted bracken.
In slow motion, they turned to walk alongside one another, like two street fighters circling each other in the mist. Risks were high as stags often perished in these encounters.
For several minutes they walked together like hostile prison inmates pacing up and down an invisible fence. Neither would back down. Only conflict could resolve this. My head dropped behind the camera again.
The stags moved in amongst the trees and suddenly their heads turned slightly to one another. I blinked, and they launched at each other, the antlers clashing like the clatter of wooden swords. They tussled, pushed and thrust like two old medieval knights vying for the hand of a group of maidens. The sound of the camera shutter in my ears drowned out another ferocious smash of heads and so it continued. The old male appeared to have weakened, his eyes focussed on the ground in front of him as he shoved. Was he finished or was it his experience of several years of rutting, luring the younger male into a false sense of strength.
They pirouetted around with locked antlers and the old male thrust once more, sending his opponent stumbling back against an Oak tree. The younger disengaged as he panicked and turned away. Sensing his chance, the old veteran drew on more reserves of strength and lunged at the deposed stag, piercing the flank as the loser fled.
He chased his vanquished opponent for a few more strides before pulling up, knowing that he had to conserve his energy – the young stag would be back in a few days. The vanquished would become the challenger again, just as he had done. He was the master of the stand, the king of the harem.
With his ribcage expanding to draw in much-needed air, his warm breath exploded as he roared into the icy morning. The shutter fired again. That was my photo.
Roaring his triumph again, he walked over to his prize.