The village I live in is made up of no more than a thousand people. Our homes are brittle and made of wood, or at least those of us that aren’t as wealthy as the small merchant class. Despite this, my childhood was quite wonderful. My father and mother both provided for us and I don’t recall a day we ever went hungry or wanting more. I realise now that that was unusual.
After my father’s passing it was my mother who provided for us alone but she did well. Her skills as a seamstress were renowned across town and while her prices kept us alive and comfortable, they were fair which made everyone a potential customer.
Unfortunately, another trial was dealt us when my mother got sick. We don’t know what it is because without her working we can’t afford a doctor. All we know is she’s too weak to leave the confines of her bed most of the time and so the burden of feeding us has fallen upon me.
At 20 years old such a thing isn’t really that scandalous if only my mother had taken the time to show me her craft. Business was always booming and she was always too busy to slow down and talk me through it. I managed to pick up the basics myself but never the skill that makes her so accomplished and in demand. I don’t think we ever sold a single thing my hands created.
I was not picky about what type of work I would do with this in mind. I would scrub chamber pots if it meant I could put food on our table and save for a doctor. But with a village so small, such roles are already filled with plenty lining up in reserve. A hungry beggar is a common sight in our streets and when my mother’s illness drove me there, I was just another number in the growing crowd.
Looking back now I realise how lucky I am that my father had a profession more easily self-taught. He was a hunter. As simple as that sounds, a hunter is well in demand in a village like ours. We are a superstitious group of people and the woods have always been feared with horror stories of Vampires, Wolf Men, and other Demons haunting our fireside. With this in mind, only the bravest few dare to leave the safe confines of our village and venture out into the forest. My father might have done so, but he was still a believer. I know he never wanted the same fate for me, but now I am left with no choice.
I started hunting just over a year ago. Practicing my aim with a bow and teaching myself snares took up most of the time and I’ve only just mastered the ability to feed our small home comfortably. Maybe someday I can expand again and gain the reputation and compensation my father had, but for now it’s about survival.
The morning is only just dawning as I approach the forest. The bow in my hand is cold and hard from being sat around all night and my boots expose my toes to the cold as I walk after wearing them so often for so long. I hope to make quick work of things this morning and get back to my mother as soon as possible. She’s had a bad night and I’m starting to question how long the need for a doctor can really wait.
The frost on the floor crunches underfoot until I change my path to a softer moss. I want to hide my sound while hunting for our next meal as the rabbits I tend to go for have impeccable hearing and to be honest, I don’t want to draw attention to myself. You never know what’s lurking out there, or should I say I do, if the tales they tell in chapel are true. That’s the issue.
I force the idea of demons dripping in the blood of their victims from my mind and open myself up to my hunter side. This side of myself is fierce, strong and determined. Everything I wish I could be otherwise and it helps to imagine it as an alter ego, rather than an act.
Birds are chirping high in the trees, and after distracting myself from the fear of where I am, I find that I can enjoy their call. They sound so happy up there, talking amongst themselves. I bet none of them are starving, frightened, or worried. Life would be so much easier as a bird.
The bush to my left rustles and I thank all that is good for this opportunity. A rabbit emerges as I refuse to acknowledge how beautiful and innocent it looks as I release my arrow. This can guarantee us a meal for the next 24-hours, a blessing I don’t always get when wandering out here. I pack the rabbit in the bag I hang from my belt, before going out in search of mushrooms to pair with it and wild onion for mother’s pain.
My mood is instantly lightened now that this burden has been released from my shoulders. I start to wonder if it’s worth hanging around for more so that I don’t have to come back tomorrow but no, that’s too greedy and mother needs her pain relief as soon as possible. Maybe tomorrow I will be afforded the opportunity to stock up, but not today.
The light of the rising sun starts to filter through the leaves of the trees around me and if I had the time, I’d take a second to appreciate its beauty but I don’t. I straighten up with the loot of my bounty weighing nicely against my belt and make my way back from which I came.
The breaking of branches isn’t an unusual sound, but this feeling on the back of my neck is. I can always tell when someone is watching me and the hairs on my arms rise in anticipation. Knowing the rough schedules of the other hunters, I’m shocked at this. I usually travel early to avoid such encounters, I’m not a shy woman by any means but I’m don't have the time to go out of my way for conversation either. It scares off game and my father always said the early bird gets the worm.
Who could this be? Usually, they’d have greeted me by now, no matter how unwelcome the prospect may be in my mind. A young woman hunting in the woods is a rarity at the best of times and those that have found me make the most of watching me in action.
Another creaking of a branch sounds and I don’t know when the birds stopped singing but the deafening silence is chilling my bones. I pivot around on my heel, trying to make anything out through the rays of sun in my eyes. A shadow moves, faster than I would have thought possible and before I can turn again to run, a face emerges between the trees.
It’s a man. One I’ve never seen before.