The forest is always so peaceful. I walk through the brush like I do every day, picking herbs, flowers and digging up roots as I go. Being the town healer is a job with no rest. So is being the town monster, but that’s just a side venture. I’ve been out here for hours, just strolling pleasantly and gathering what I need, when I hear voices. I follow, expecting to find people who have maybe gotten lost or are out collecting herbs like I am, but what I find has me standing perfectly still and silent. A group of armoured men is no more than four metres away. The leader looks around at his men, referring to a map.
“We should start here,” he says. “There is a river that runs through this part of the forest and would be the best place to spot the boar. One will eventually come to drink and we can follow it back to the rest.”
“The report says that they are extremely aggressive, what’s our battle plan?”
“We will stay spread out so that we can surround them. They are said to be as large as houses, so we need to kill them one by one. To take on more than one at a time would be foolish.”
The group of hunters agree and the leader rolls up the map. He turns in my direction and I freeze. His eyes are captivating. A blue so vivid they look like lakes. I realise too late that he is still staring at me. Me, not my direction. He motions for his men to turn around. Realising that it would be foolish to run or try to hide, I part the brush and step into the clearing.
“What is your name,” he demands.
“Well, Maia, you seem familiar with these woods. You will lead us to the giant boar.”
My hackles rise at the command. I was already infuriated by their desire to murder the boar.
A collective gasp rocks the hunting party and the mans’ eyes seem to thunder.
“Do you know who I am?”
“No,” I say again. “But I won’t help you murder the boar.”
“According to our reports, they are monsters who terrify this land and they must be exterminated. Lead us. Now.”
“Did those reports happen to come from villagers of Boar Creek?”
“Yes,” I seem to have confused him.
“Hmm. They are lying. No one has been frightened by a giant boar in my village. The wild boar are gentle, even sharing berries if you meet them in the forest. You have been misled.”
He snorts, mocking me, but I stand my ground.
“And why, peasant, would they lie?”
I put down my basket and raise my hand for him shake.
“Hello, I’m Maia, the most hated person in the village, and I’m friends with the boar.”
He shakes my hand, openly amused at this point, as are the others in the hunting party.
“Well, Maia, it’s…interesting to meet you.”
“Likewise. Now, I’m not going to show you to the boar, and the reports you’ve received are false. What is your next move?”
“I’m going to need proof. We can’t just accept your word that they are peaceful now, can we?”
“Yet you can accept words written on parchment, can you?”
His eyes flash, somewhere between irritation and amusement now, but he remains calm. I expected to be screamed at or flogged by now.
“Who are you, Maia? Why do you say the villagers hate you? Why would that make them give false accounts of violence?”
It’s my turn to snort now.
“I’m just Maia, I have no family name. And the villagers hate me because of my abilities. Well, they hate me until they get sick, and then they all clamour at my door for remedies and healing. They hate me, because I’m alone and I am different and because they can. Which is precisely the reason they have made false accusations toward the boar. The villagers are aware of my friendships with the boar and they don’t like it. They would take that from me by having me watch you slaughter them, and they would enjoy that.”
He looks taken aback, the whole hunting party does, but there is no animosity. Surprising. Any noble, which I’m assuming they are, who has come through here has been a right prick.
“They hate you so much.”
“People will always seek to destroy that which they do not understand. I am beneficial when they need me, but I’m dirt beneath their feet once I am done being useful.”
“You are quite honest, Maia,” says the man.
“There is no point in lying, ever really. You always get found out,” I pause, thinking of a way to prove my point. “Look, all you have to do is stand at the edge of the forest and watch the other villages when I walk back to my home. You’ll see the truth then.”
He looks thoughtful for a moment before glancing at his men.
“Alright then, we shall do that. I will question the villagers about the boar as well.”
“Do as you wish, but I will not lead you to the boar, and I will do what I can to stop you if you happen to find one on your own.”
“Understood,” he smirks, clearly underestimating me, which is to my advantage.
I pick up my basket and turn, to be met by a solid wall of breast plated man chest.
“I don’t know if you’re aware of how walking works, but you can’t actually walk through solid objects,” I say, staring at the rude men who are blocking my path.
I hear stifled laughter behind me as the men part and let me through. I don’t look back as I walk toward my home. I don’t need to. My magic is telling me exactly where they are, even if their footsteps are silent.
It takes nearly two hours to hike back through the woods, but the men don’t complain and I do this so often that I no longer even break a sweat. I’m at home here.
The familiar sense of unease washes over me as I near the forests edge. I signal the men to stop, the offended huffs telling me it isn’t appreciated, and I walk back to them.
“The edge of the woods is two metres in front of you and there is a drop off of about a metre to the ground. You can be in the brush and watch as I walk through the village and no one will be able to see you. The brush is too thick.”
The leader nods at me and I start walking again. I stop at the base of the small ledge.
“Can you see?” I whisper.
A murmured ‘yes’ is all I need to carry on.
The reaction is immediate. Mrs Erikson picks up her children and takes them into her home. The baker hides his fresh goods beneath some cloth to ensure that, should I wish to make a purchase, I can only have what was left of yesterday’s breads. The smith blows coal in my direction, warning me to stay away. Fathers spit on me if I happen to walk by their children. And, low and behold, upon my doorstep is a family holding a baby so pale she looks to be already dead. They flinch when I get near, but thrust their baby at me anyway.
“What happened?” I ask, ignoring their ridiculous reaction to me. Honestly though, this is my home, surely seeing me here isn’t a surprise?
“We found her this way this morning,” the mother whispers, clinging to her husband as if he is a human shield. “I could not get her to feed and she was so pale.”
“By the Gods, where have you been, woman!” Blusters the man, his moustache so large he looks like he has a snake living on his upper lip. “We have been here all morning! Heal my child, now!”
I glare at him, satisfied by the flinch and subtle step back.
“If she were not an innocent I would send her away for your attitude alone. Never again come to my home and make demands of me. Your child is ill, she has not been warm enough at night and has now come down with a fever. She has been like this for days, not just this morning. Your unwarranted fear of me has nearly murdered your daughter. You should have come to me days ago.”
Finally, some sense of maternal concern shines through, and the mother steps out from behind her husband.
“Can she be saved?”
“Yes, but let me make this clear, you will not come to me again. If you cannot properly care for your child then you simply do not deserve to have one.”
I am lying, of course, but they don’t know that. If this child becomes sick again, I will of course heal her, just without the parents’ knowledge.
I move into my home and lay the child on the bed. She is breathing, but barely.
As quickly as I can, I mix the right herbs and roots in my mortar, adding certain amounts of my own healing magic to speed up the process, then jar it and give it to the mother. I place a liberal amount on the child’s forehead and send them away with instructions to wipe it off once it has dried and then reapply.
I have just finished shelving the herbs I collected this morning when there is a knock at my back door. I’m not surprised. My back door exits directly into the forest. It’s usually how I get back to my home, but I needed to make a point today by walking through the village centre.
I open the door to the angry faces of the hunting party I met a few hours ago.
“Tea, anyone?” I ask and leave the door open for them all to march in.
I make up a revitalising tea mix, since they’ve been hiking and marching for who knows how long, and gesture for them all to sit on whatever surfaces they can find.
There are murmurs of enjoyment and thanks as the men sip their tea and grunts as they get the chance to sit down. My house is covered top to bottom with hunters. Everywhere you look there is an armoured man perched on the corner of some furniture. But they all still look furious.
“Why the long faces, gentlemen?” I ask, kicking off the conversation after everyone has a chance to get some tea into them and relax a bit.
A chorus erupts!
“You were spat on!”
“The blacksmith blew hot coals at your face!”
And around it goes until a quiet voice at the table says “Enough.”
Silence falls again, but there is still a very thick air of outrage.
Me, well, I’m in a mild state of shock.
“Wait, your mad at the villagers?”
“Yes. We’re quite mad at your villagers,” the leader says.
“Where we come from, to show such disrespect toward a woman would be grounds for flogging,” adds one of the men.
I snort, which seems to lighten the mood a little.
“Don’t get all worked up on my behalf. This is what I have lived with all my life and it isn’t about to change. What I need to know is whether you’ve seen enough to cast doubt on their claims about the boar.”
“Why haven’t you left?” Asks their leader, his genuine curiosity surprising me, which he sees. “Your surprised that I would ask about you.”
“Yes, I’m not really used to anything but scalding hatred and demands for healing. And I haven’t left because I have no money or any idea where the next village even is. My services aren’t bought. To pay me is to respect what I do and the villagers can’t go around acting as though I deserve respect. Not that I would leave. No matter the attitude of the parents, the children are innocent. I heal the children when they need me, but the adults know better than to ask for help.”
“So you stay here to help the children?”
“They don’t deserve to die from horrific illnesses because their parents are pricks.”
A man spits his tea out across the floor as I swear. Several men laugh, some just stare at me like I’ve sprouted a third eye.
The leader is a lot more unnerving. He simply stares at me. I can tell he is assessing me, sizing me up, but he still hasn’t answered my question.
“What are you going to do about the boar?” I ask, well, kind of demand.
“You have my word that we will not harm them, but I would like to meet one. If they are as kind as you say then it would be quite the experience.”
I’m a little sceptical.
“Your word in writing, there is parchment in the draw to your left, that no one will harm them. Whether it be this hunting party or another from wherever it is you are from. Unless I have that, then you will see nothing.”
“Yes Ma’am,” he replies with an amused smirk across his face as he reaches into the draw and pulls out parchment and some ink.
Half an hour later and I’m leading them all back out my door and into the forest.
“So, how far away are the boar?”
I laugh openly now, shocking the party so much that everyone stops moving. Which is fine, we don’t have to walk any further. I lift my fingers to my mouth and whistle. As I suspected, there are already a few here. The massive brown boar slowly put their noses through the brush and sniff. The men form a defensive circle, which makes me laugh again as one of the boar sticks his massive head and tusks fully through the trees. He chuffs excitedly when he sees me and that’s the signal for the rest to move into the clearing. A boar the size of a horse comes barrelling toward me from the other side of the clearing and one of the men steps forward to intercept.
“Step to the side, Hunter, this is just a baby,” I say.
He reluctantly steps away as the baby boar slides to a stop and rolls onto it’s back, waiting for me to scratch its belly.
I do so with pleasure and wait for its siblings and mother to come over. The mother is the size of a large house. She towers over all of us, but she just lays down at the edge of the clearing and watches her babies play. The hunters start to loosen up a bit and the leader is the first to come over to me, braving the group of playful, horse-sized, baby boar. He steps up beside me and looks down at the baby on its back. I reach over, impatient, and grab his hand, placing it on the snout of the baby next to him. His men follow suit, finding a baby to play with as I go over to the mother and put my basket in front of her. She chuffs happily and starts eating the fruit and veg in the basket, nudging my hand with her massive head to encourage me to climb onto her so I can scratch her ears.
The men all come to a simultaneous stand still as they watch me climb onto the mothers back, crawl up her neck, lay across the top of her head and start to scratch at her ears.
“What, never seen a peasant girl riding a giant boar before?”
I smirk as they stare at me, shocked all over again.
“You can ride them?” Asks the leader.
“Well, I can, but don’t get any ideas, Hunter. These creatures are not war horses and will not be treated as such. They are peaceful. They will flee at the first sign of violence.”
He puts his hands up in surrender.
“Can’t blame me for thinking about it,” he says as he pets the mothers’ snout.
Men, always thinking about war, I think to myself, laughing at the image of these massive, clearly warrior men, rolling around with baby giant boar.
Funnily enough, I think this might actually be one of the best days I’ve ever had in my life.
“Alright,” says the leader and the men all come to attention. “It’s time we go and discuss this issue with the villagers, I think.”
I climb down off of Mamma and whistle again. The boar give me little licks of affection and I feed them all berries as they walk back into the forest, leaving the clearing empty but for me and the hunters.
“Will you lead us back please, Maia?”
I nod, pick up my basket and start heading back to my home, gathering any herbs I see on the way.