The forest is quiet but for the wind and the huntress, on a knee, takes two fingers and dips them into the small puddle of blood. There’s blackness to it, a deep and reflecting blackness. Mud, unlikely, but the wound is deep. It’s carrier most likely dead.
She hears an unfamiliar voice in the back of her mind, the cold breath of late Autumn and the memories that it stirs.
They talk of the old ways.
All I see is the snow.
It comes to her then that the voice is her own.
I hear the rats in the damp cellar. See my breath turn to phantoms.
She looks up to see tall wavering trees that creak, rustle, but are otherwise impassive to her pursuit. Three days out in the overgrowth near the river. What are you looking for?
The leather of her gloves, the tail of her long gambeson, have specks of wet earth from the rain that passed on the second day and threatened the trail.
My name is Marjolaine Hausieren, they call me Little Hawk.
Long ago in Hemwick on the bank of the Rhenir in a small and gentle chapel by a lake, a wicked man raised me.
They haven’t a real name for this forest in the nearest village where the hunt was first posted; where the first child went missing. They call it y’lle, in the old tongue it means the place. Things go there to vanish, the lord-sheriff said. They never come back.
A little hawk in a cage. The smile. The screams. He’d drag them in at night, kicking and crying, then put his boot on the back of their necks as he sharpened his axe. He kept little marks on the bottom of the chopping block. He buried the bodies in the snow.
I watched with golden eyes, staring, from beneath the altar sheet. I watched and held my breath, clasping a hand over my mouth. The little hawk, alone. Blood through the cracks in the floor and the rats would dance.
Yes, they would dance. Feast and roll in the puddles of blood. The flies around them in chorus.
Where the tracks end ahead she sees the slant of a dingy shack. It’s dark inside and smoke comes out of the chimney. Something alive shifts around in there; her prey. She catches the faint impression of red prints on the door frame. Desperate drag lines. Someone pulled inside. Someone young and small.
She lowers the hood of her cloak and moves to adjacent trees where with thin string and long, sharp iron nails, she sets a primitive trap. The shadow is male, by the width of the shoulders and matches the height of the footsteps. The blood, however, is much younger. Cleaner. Another victim. She is, of course, too late to be a savior, only an avenger.
He wore the mask because it made him feel powerful. It had a word across the forehead, written in blood, the word from the old ways. Wōtan. The all-father. God. He hefted up his axe and dropped it, again and again, and each time I sat beneath the altar and watched. Far to scared to flee.
With no way to know if her prey will run or not, she has to set the trap. Losing him in the woods once more would insure another few days in y’lle. She hadn’t the supplies for an extended hunt and if she did not return to the village, her reputation in the guild…
The huntress moves to the back of the shack, her soft steps near floating on the fallen leaves, and draws one of her longswords; the one resting on her hip. She comes closer, close enough to reach out and prod the wall of the shack with the blade.
They talk of the old ways. Wōtan. Sacrifice and blood.
This is the spot, she concludes.
Flint and tinder spark the debris she piles in a small hole behind the shack, dug out with a stone. In moments there’s already flames and smoke and it slowly climbs the wall, a thousand burning tongues. She can hear a voice inside, only one, and lifts the sword she had set on the ground.
All I see is snow. He buried them in shallow graves. No smells. Wolves would dig them up. Then, at the funerals, he would administer the final rite and see their souls to the other-side. Consoling the families.
I hear the rats dancing in the cellar.
My breath turns to phantoms in the cold. Faces of the dead.
Later, by a campfire, she roasts rabbit and stares into the eyes of the severed head resting on the stump. His face is twisted in a grimace, skin covered in smoke and soot from the flames. He never saw it coming, the lithe figure through the haze, the sudden swift stroke of the blade. He looks nothing like him but she sees the same beast in his eyes. The same scared, angry animal.
I hardly remember when the hunters came, a corpse-witch among them. She was a wretched, rattan thing who spoke in unknown sounds and held the head of a victim up and when it’s eyes began to bleed she said, “Tis him. The priest is the killer.”
They strung him up. I watched, shivering in the wind, and he looked at me. He begged me to be afraid, he begged me to see the tremble in my golden eyes.
But I wasn’t. I wasn’t afraid anymore.
The little hawk was free.
At the pale sunrise she walks back toward the village, through the misty trees, a bloody head-shaped bag over her shoulder. Not a word on her lips.
They talk about the old ways. But all I see is snow.