Dana saw the woman step out of the night before any of her friends did. One moment they were alone in their small part of the forest, their sleeping bags spread out to make a comfortable carpet inside the three-walled shelter, the next moment the woman stepped into their firelight. Everyone had their back to her, except Dana, and Dana knew almost immediately that the woman was not some late night hiker.
It could have been her outfit that set her apart, decked out as she was in faded browns that melded with the shadows, despite her bare feet. It could have been the silence with which she walked. It could have even have been the bow she carried, and the quiver of arrows at her back. All these things together gave her a touch of the surreal, and for a moment Dana thought maybe she was seeing things.
Then Susanne saw her, and the petite blonde squealed in surprise, inhaled the rest of her roasted marshmallow, and proceeded to cough and gasp for breath. Giggles escaped her as she took in air, and the rest of Dana’s friends giggled as well. The surreal feeling faltered and collapsed as the woman’s somber face broke into a gentle smile.
“That’s Susanne’s way of saying ‘hi’,” Rachel said, scooting over. “Care to share our fire for a bit?”
The woman’s eyes met and held everyone’s gaze, one by one, before she said, “I could do with a rest.”
She sat between Rachel and Dana. Rachel offered her a skewer. “I’m Rachel,” she said. “This is Susanne, Alyson, Marie, and Dana.”
Dana proffered the bag of marshmallows. “We hope you weren’t looking for a quiet night here,” Dana apologized. It wouldn’t be the first time the girls ruined some overnight camper’s hopes for just that.
“No,” the woman said as she took a marshmallow. “Though I’ll admit I was surprised to find you all here. It’s a bit early in the season for camping, isn’t it?”
Dana gave the woman’s bare feet and sleeveless top a pointed look. “We’ve come prepared,” she said.
Amusement — at least, Dana hoped it was amusement — danced in the woman’s eyes.
“It’s a bit late in the night for hunting, isn’t it?” quipped Marie.
The grin didn’t leave the woman’s face, but it did take on a feral quality. “That depends on what you are hunting.”
Susanne giggled again and tossed a marshmallow at Marie. “Play nice, Marie.”
“I am,” Marie said, not looking away from the woman. “So, what are you hunting?”
Around them the night went still. Dana felt a tingle along her skin, as if the air was thrumming. Susanne’s giggle fell silent. Alyson shivered into her blanket, and even Rachel looked uncomfortable. Only Marie seemed unaffected — she sat tall, her chin lifted in defiance.
The woman regarded them all for a long while, as the air grew more and more oppressive. Dana fidgeted where she sat, uncomfortable under the weight of the night, and several of her friends did the same. At last, the woman stood up and said, “Come and find out,” and then dashed down the trail she had appeared from.
Marie was after her before Dana had a chance to stop her.
Dana let her own blanket drop away and made to follow.
“Dana, don’t!” Susanne said as Rachel made to grab her arm. “You’re going to break your ankle.”
Dana pulled her arm free. “So will Marie. She’s never been up here before; she doesn’t know these mountains.”
But Dana didn’t pay them any more attention. She jogged down the trail, her eyes spread wide to let in as much light as she could. When the cries of her friends faded into the distance she stopped and strained her ears, listening for Marie.
There was some crashing off to her right, off the trail. She turned her head, watching for movement. A pair of roughly human-shaped shadows disappeared down a hill. Dana picked her way toward them, fighting to move as quietly as she could. What was Marie getting them into?
She crested the hill and peered down in time to see the woman lead Marie around a bend. Dana scrambled down the hill, using the thin tree trunks as handholds as she went. She panted from the effort it took to remain upright and picked her way after them.
Another hill downward, which Marie was already halfway down. The woman was out of sight.
“Marie!” Dana tried to yell while whispering, but Marie was too far away to hear. Swearing to herself, she started down the second hill.
So it went, until they reached the foot of the mountain. Dana was so focused on remaining quiet that she stumbled into Marie before she saw the girl.
“Shh!” Marie looked at her crossly. “Look at her.”
Dana looked. The woman was making her way across the meadow, half crouched, her bow in her hands, and an arrow knocked. In the center of the meadow stood an elk, watching as the woman approached. Black eyes were steady. Black-fringed ears twitched. For a second, all was still, and then there was an explosion of motion as the elk raced for freedom.
The woman followed.
Marie followed the woman. Dana groaned and followed Marie. They raced across the meadow, huffing and puffing, after the huntress and her prey. The meadow became a lightly wooded terrain, and they raced across that as well. Fire ignited within Dana’s chest, and warmth burned in her muscles. After a while she forgot about the woman, forgot about the elk, forgot about Marie. She only ran, and running was all there was. Her breath came and went. Feet leaped over rocks, fallen tree trunks, without her having to tell them what to do. She navigated over the unfamiliar ground with a rolling, fluid confidence. There was night, and wind, and sweat, and freedom. Joy infused her, and she ran harder.
Dana and Marie caught up with the woman in time to see her let fly the arrow that brought down the beast. It hit its mark with eerie accuracy, and the elk fell without a cry. The woman was on her knees, her arms inside the beast, when Dana and Marie sank to the ground beside her. She removed its heart, bit savagely into the steaming meat, and then offered it to the girls. Marie took it first, sinking her teeth into the bloody offering. Her eyes never left the woman; even this was taken as a challenge that Marie had to excel at.
The woman handed it to Dana next. Her fluid confidence was gone, but the joy still held her. She took the heart with shaking hands, the heat from it a pleasant, wet sensation on her skin. Blood ran down her arms, to her elbows, and dripped into the earth. Dana lifted the meat to her mouth, chomped into it, and tore off a small piece. She swallowed it whole, afraid that her stomach would protest if she dared to chew it. As it was, she felt a bit queasy.
The woman laughed, an ecstatic sound that made Dana’s blood bubble. “There are hunters yet left in this world,” she said, and Dana had the vague impression that she wasn’t speaking just about actual hunting.
They made camp where they were, in the clothes they wore. Dana cleared some ground and made a fire pit. Marie gathered kindling for the fire. Together they built it up. When they’d finished they found the woman had the elk skinned already. She cut off a portion of meat for them to share. “Cook this,” she said and then disappeared once more into the night, the rest of the meat bundled in its skin.
Marie and Dana made no move to follow this time. They stabbed the meat and did their best to prop it over the fire. When the woman returned hours later, she carried only the empty skin. She plucked the meat out of the fire, portioned it out, and gave the girls their share.
They ate in companionable silence. When the meal was finished, Marie curled up where she was by the fire and went to sleep. Dana fought her exhaustion, but she, too, found herself on her side, dropping into sleep.
The last sound she heard was the delighted laughter of the strange woman.
She awoke first, cold and stiff but content, to find the fire nearly out and all signs of the woman gone. Dawn was yet some time away. They had time to get back to their friends before their friends would break camp. Dana stretched and nudged Marie awake. “Get up. We need to go before Rachel decides to come looking for us.”
Marie spotted the bundle first. Dana half-crawled across to where it sat, while Marie untied it. Wrapped in the hide sat two bows, smaller than the one the woman had carried, and a piece of paper. On the paper, the woman wrote “Until next year!” and nothing else. She hadn’t even signed it.
Dana and Marie exchanged a look and picked up their bows. “How are we going to explain this?”
“We aren’t,” Marie said. “I’ll drive back with you, and we’ll double back for these after they get on the road. If they were meant to know, they would have gone after her too.”
“It wasn’t safe to run out on the mountain in the dark.”
“No,” Marie agreed. “It wasn’t safe. And that’s the point, isn’t it? You don’t gain anything meaningful without taking a risk. Aren’t you glad you took the risk?”
Dana nodded. She was.
“Come on. Rachel’s going to be mad enough as it is.”
Marie rewrapped the bundle and tucked it under some brush while Dana smothered the rest of the fire. They retraced their steps with unerring accuracy and found their friends already packed up, about ready to leave.
Rachel glared at Marie. “I hope you enjoyed yourself,” she said. “You could have gotten hurt. You could have gotten Dana killed. You had us all worried. That was careless, Marie. You don’t know the mountains like Dana does. You’re lucky she went after you.”
Marie rolled her shoulders and dropped her head. Dana watched in amazement as her friend assumed the roll of the properly chastised. “I didn’t mean to worry anyone.”
“Well, you worried everyone,” Rachel snapped. She stopped herself, inhaled, and closed her eyes. “I’m just glad you’re okay. We’re about ready to leave. We need to get on the road. Your bags are already packed.”
Marie murmured her thanks as she shouldered her pack. Dana settled down by her own pack. “You guys go on and start. I need something warm before I head back down. We’ll meet you at Dottie’s.”
Rachel expression ranged from annoyed to worried. She settled for worried. “Are you all right?”
“Cold. Hungry. Cranky. It was a long night. But your brother is meeting us there, and someone needs to get there so he doesn’t worry about us.”
Rachel was reluctant, but in the end she left, taking Alyson and Susanne with her. Dana made a show of digging out her teapot and starting a small campfire. After some time, she repacked her pot, grinned at Marie, and said, “That should give us enough time. Ready?”
They retraced their steps once more, fetched their bundle, and made their way to the car. The feeling of mystery, the joy that Dana had felt during the hunt, came with her. All she had to do was look in the back seat, at the bows tucked in between their camping gear, and a stupid grin broke over her face.
Until next year. Dana couldn’t wait.
[Jolene Dawe is a polytheist devoted primarily to Poseidon and Odin. She is the author of Treasures from The Deep, a collection of Poseidon’s myths retold, and maintains a blog about Poseidon (Strip Me Back To The Bone ) on WordPress. She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her partner, a horde of cats, and one lonely dog. She can be reached viaemail.]