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Hunter Wilde huddled by his fire in the drafty hovel he shared with the meat he’d brought down. The lord of Winterhold, Murchadh, had enjoyed his singing and playing, been amused by his stories, but in the end he was a most practical man. More than mirth he needed meat. So, instead of a warm place by the communal fire, he got a cold bed alone in the wood.
At least he’d not starve. He had been a fair hunter, finding meat on the way as he travelled, but he was better than fair at it now that he put his mind to it. Witness the carcasses hanging about, leaving little enough room for him.
Like as not the sleigh would be out in a day or so. But he’d be off. Hunter had learned by now that at first you think you’d be happy for any human contact, but the same old small talk and news about folk you don’t know makes one feel all the lonelier. He’d let them take his work back to the warm fires and leave him the things they always did. Best sleep for the long walk on the morrow. . .
. . . The days were much longer, but Winter showed no sign of flagging. He travelled game trails in the thick wood, a world he was learning well. He was the alpha hunter and now he stalked a huge sow. What he would do if he cornered her, he had not thought. Perhaps he was over-confident, or perhaps a bit mad. He had ranged ever wider to find game so that his hovel saw him less than once in four days and, as often, not at all in ten. Wandering in pursuit of game, he only had himself and his thoughts which did carry him away at times.
The brush exploded ahead. He fumbled with his weapons dropping unstrung bow and spear. Hunter glanced up in terror at a huge bristle boar, tiny eyes fixed on her tormentor. Wilde gathered himself as she charged. He flung himself out of her way and tumbled into the scrub beside the trail.
The sow crashed on, preferring escape to violence. Not so wise the man. Hunter gathered his things, taking time to string his bow. Then, heedless of anything but the pursuit, he sprinted after her.
Her passage was obvious, she tore through the undergrowth heedless of path or briar patch. Hunter followed as fast as he could and much faster than he should. Then, when he might have turned back, he came out into a stream and again he saw her scrabbling up into the verdant fern and bough of the opposite bank.
Only then did it strike him as strange that he had pursued the sow into Spring. The stream was not ice rimed. There was neither snow nor frost on the green slope to the North. The great pig thrashed off to the East.
Hunter splashed across the rivulet and charged after the sow. The man followed into a tightening gorge by sound as a mist bespoke the falls he heard as well as the pig. Then he saw her at bay, head low, staring at him as he approached. She pawed the gravel, he drew, expecting her charge, but she turned in a spray of brook water and rock and pounded up into the green. Hunter Wilde followed.
“Hunter!” beautiful and strong, he heard a woman’s voice, “leave off!”
Hunter stopped, looking after the boar. Then among the fern and the mist, from behind a birch tree, stepped a lady more lovely than legend. Her golden hair fell to her waist, her raiment was soft doe skin embroidered with gold and silver and emerald. There was a golden torc around her long creamy white throat. Her eyes were smoldering amber hued.
“Why do you pursue the mother of generations?”
He stood dumb, gazing at her, wondering how to speak to such a creature, wondering how she knew his name.
“Go back Hunter, this is not your place, you have strayed into the lands of the Ui Uilsen of the Elves.”
“You know my name?”
Her laughter was music. Her smile was radiance. “I think this mother of generations is not to be meat for you. . . . . . Hunter. Go!”
He turned to obey without thought so commanding was her presence, but following the moment of compulsion, Hunter succumbed to curiosity. He turned back, “My name, you know it, but I do not know yours.”
“It is not I who came unbidden, nor do you have need of my name. You must go from here!” The woman’s anger was clear to see. In her long fingered hand she held up a bronze dart of lethal aspect. “Flee Hunter, South into Winter from whence you came.”
He stumbled back, feet slipping in wet rock so that he fell to one knee. He looked up fearing the dart would take him or perhaps to see her, but she was gone.
Hunter did as he was told, though he did not run much after he left the stream. When snow began to fall again he slowed to a walk.
He had time to think as he walked back to his hovel. As he went, he hunted. He brought down a beautiful stag and he thought, “I really am a fine hunter,” and suddenly he knew that the beautiful woman had not truly known his name, only his vocation.
He pursued a doe into a bush and, as he approached, three wood hens exploded from the branches, flapping and squawking and he thought “The sow ran past the woman, but the sow was not the woman.”
Still, when by happenstance the sleigh and Hunter were both at the hunter’s cabin, the men could tell him that he was relieved to come back to the warm halls. Hunter the singer, Hunter the poet, Hunter the bard had a tale to tell. In it the shape-shifting fairy woman knew his name. . .
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