The couple’s hearts were pounding in sync from opposite ends of the room. As Nathan opened the creaky wooden door, a cold rush of air came through the house, sending a shiver down Daniella’s spine. She couldn’t quite see who or what was on the other side of the door, but she knew it couldn’t be good news. She heard her husband say with a shaky voice, “Hello?”
“Good evening, Sir, I’m terribly sorry to inconvenience you, but could you perhaps, provide a wandering old lady with a place to stay? This is the only home I’ve seen all day, and it is very late.” An old woman in a dark, hooded cloak was standing in the doorway. Even from across the room, she looked very cold and tired. Daniella was ashamed of the little they now had to offer the old lady.
Daniella breathed a heavy sigh of relief. Then she noticed her baby that she had just put to sleep had woken up and started crying. She scooped Charlotte up, and walked toward the door. She knew they had to let the woman inside, but they could barely fit the three of them in the house, and they had no way to feed her, and the old woman could accidentally rat them out to the Tiger-Bloods if they ran into her.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t think we have any room. I’m afraid we can’t offer you anything. As you can see, we already don’t have much as it is.”
“Nathan! She can stay the night! You can’t just send her out in the cold like that!” She pulled him aside.”We can kick her out in the morning. Just let her stay one night. You know what it’s like to be out there at night. She can sleep on the floor. I just don’t think it would be right to send her off.” Nathan looked at Daniella and Charlotte, then back at the old woman.
“You can stay one night, and we can’t feed you. That’s all I can offer.” Nathan said, definitively.
“Thank you, I’ll try to avoid being a nuisance. I don’t need anything to eat, and I can leave in the morning if that’s what you wish.” The old woman looked at the baby, then back at Nathan. “I apologize for upsetting your baby. I didn’t realize...” The woman trailed off, staring at the small infant in Daniella’s arms.her voice now sounded very grateful and relieved that she could sleep inside a warm home of a loving family.
“Come in and close the door.” Nathan sounded impatient. He put his arm around the old lady to push her inside. He peered outside, sword still in hand, as if his home and family were being stalked, then closed the door. The woman walked over to the corner of the room where Nathan kept his hunting supplies, which were laying neatly on the floor. Bow, closest to the wall, strung tightly, quiver full of arrows parallel with the bowstring, there was a space next to the arrows, which she assumed was for the sword Nathan was now wielding. Next to that, a small knife. It looked very sharp, it had an elegant floral pattern on the handle, that looked like it would be shiny if it weren’t so dirty. The straight blade was dirty like it had been in use, but was sharp as though it hadn’t cut anything.
The woman took off her cloak, and put it on the floor next to the hunting supplies, revealing the disgusting rags she was wearing underneath. Daniella was trying desperately to get Charlotte to stop her bawling. The woman took off the pack that was slung on her back, and sat down cross-legged next to her things and shut her eyes.Almost immediately, Charlotte went back to sleep, and Daniella and Nathan tried to get some sleep for themselves too.
Daniella awoke the next morning to the birds outside. She saw her husband equipping himself for another hunting attempt. He had a sickened and sad look on his face, as he did every morning for the past week. He put his quiver over his shoulder and walked toward the door. “Good luck.” Nathan didn’t respond. He knew he was trying his best, but trying won’t enable the survival of his family. The old lady was still sitting near the corner. Her eyes popped open just as Nathan twisted the knob to leave.
“Wait!” She shouted, waking the baby, who started crying. “I noticed you may need help with your hunting. I may be able to assist with that.” She stood up and walked toward Daniella who got out out of bed in a hurry. “I can tell by her face that she hungers. She hasn’t eaten any meat in a while, and you’re about to attempt to kill something to feed her, and through her, your child.” The old lady looked him up and down. “I think it’s very possible that your luck will change very soon.”
Nathan looked at her puzzled. “What do you mean by that?”
“You really think that after all of your failed attempts, your determination will go unrewarded? I think your thoughts on the matter are incorrect. You’re luck will change soon if you keep trying. You will try harder today, right?”
“I have to. I ran out of options. The only thing I can do now is try to survive out there and bring back something, anything that can sustain my family.” Nathan said. The tone of his voice matched the look on his face. “Miracles just don’t happen for me.”
Nathan was starting to break down and Daniella saw it. “We didn’t choose to live out here you know. We used to be a powerful family in the city of Aurabrook. The Greenhorns, my husband’s family, owned the silver mines that the town is known for.” Daniella interrupted, Nathan tried to shush her, but she went on, “Our family was a powerful ally and supporter of King Gerald when he was overthrown by a group that calls themselves the Tiger-Bloods. The Tiger-Bloods knew that and started hunting down the Greenhorns, who were very easy targets to kill, seeing as they were rich all their lives, and had little to no fighting skills or experience with manual labor. They killed the head of the family, Nathan’s dad. Nathan’s two elder brothers were also murdered by the Tiger-Bloods. Nathan and I fled town, stealing the hunting supplies which he now carries. We wandered the land, looking for a safe place to start over. Nathan built this house two weeks ago, right before our daughter was born. He hasn’t been able to kill anything, and we’ve been living off berries and fruits that we pray aren’t poisonous. Winter is approaching fast, and if we don’t have any sort of food that will keep, we won’t survive, and all this running and hiding will have been in vain.”
It was very unlike Daniella to speak out like that, revealing family secrets that put all of them in danger like that. After speaking like that, she realized she had been ignoring her maternal instinct about keeping her baby safe, and had been ignoring the fact that the baby had still been crying. She had done nothing to get her baby to stop. Her husband was completely shocked by her voice. Something about it didn’t seem normal. The mother was speaking out of desperation. She picked up her baby and tried to nurse. She watched as her husband, completely shocked, left the house.
After trying to calm Charlotte down for a few minutes with no results, Daniella heard the old lady announce, “Thank you for letting me stay, but, as promised, I will leave.” She walked out the door, and then it was silent.
Daniella wondered how she could have let herself be so careless of her own daughter. Mothers were supposed to be ever-vigilant of their children. Did her outburst make her a bad mother? Under different conditions, a minute of carelessness could have killed Charlotte. Something came over her, she couldn’t explain it. Then she felt that none of it mattered anyway, they probably weren’t going to make it through the winter. What did it matter that she had been careless for a few seconds when they were all going to die within a few more weeks? No. She had to believe. If she gave up now, they would be settling for their own doom.
After what seemed like almost no time at all, the door burst open. Nathan was in the doorway, shouting something. Daniella couldn’t quite make out what he was saying, but he sounded happy, so she couldn’t help but smile. “I did it! I did it! We’re saved!” Daniella knew what that meant. Nathan had brought down some prey. He was a hunter now. He had made his first kill.
“You did it? You killed something? What was it? Do you think it’s enough to put us through the winter?” Daniella shot off her questions quickly. She was so proud of her husband and so glad that she and Charlotte could eat something other than berries. Of course there always was the possibility that he killed a rabbit, and not anything substantial. Based on his voice, that probably wasn’t the case.
Nathan took a deep breath, then started his story, “Deer, not just one, four. I just walked a few paces away from the house,and I saw them. They were so close to me, I don’t think they noticed me, even though I practically ran into one of them. I aimed my bow at the closest one. Drew the arrow and pointed it at the deer. I missed my first few shots, but they still didn’t see me. Even after I killed the first one, the others still didn’t notice. I killed the rest, gathered all the arrows that missed. They’re still laying there dead.”
Daniella was completely astonished by the story. “Did... did you really do it? Four? Are you sure? Show me!” Nathan grabbed Daniella’s hand so fast she almost dropped Charlotte. She shifted the fragile baby into her free arm and was led outside into the forest. The light of the breezy autumn morning hurt Daniella’s eyes. Each step on the forest floor stung Daniella’s bare feet, but she couldn’t care less. She wouldn’t go hungry tonight. Nathan was shouting and celebrating. Nathan had done it. He provided for his family. They wouldn’t starve this winter.
“Here it is!” Nathan yelled, as though announcing to a large audience. There were four deer as he said. Each one dead on the ground. There was much more blood than Daniella had expected, it made her queasy. She was dancing and laughing anyway. A few months ago, she never could have pictured herself this happy over a meal. She and her family could eat again! She couldn’t wait to have a feast and eat until she was full. After their excessive celebration, Nathan instructed, “Help me drag these back to the house.”
“I’m not much help with my hands full. I’ll go get the sling and be right back.” Daniella rushed back to the small wooden house she lived in, making careful note of where the path she had taken to get back to her husband as fast as possible. It occurred to her that she did not know the first thing about preparing the deer bodies for consumption. Some of the guts are bad to eat, right? Which ones? She had to tell Nathan that she couldn’t do it. She didn’t know how to cook deer. Her cooks had always prepared her meals. She had almost no experience cooking on her own from scratch. Before she had married Nathan, she had sometimes helped her mother in the kitchen by cutting vegetables. Gutting fish had grossed her out, so she never paid attention when her mother tried to teach her. She found her sling laying neatly in her corner of the room. She put it over her shoulder, put her boots on, changed Charlotte, fastened Charlotte snugly in the sling, and headed out the door.
She found her way back to her husband, who wasn’t making much progress on his own. She helped him drag the corpses back to the small clearing in front of the house. Luckily the spot they were killed wasn’t far from the house. It was about noon by the time they got the last one to the house. “Listen Nathan, we can’t eat any of this yet. I don’t know how to make this safe to eat, but I think I know someone who can.” Daniella was trying to remain calm, even though she could hardly keep herself together. “That old lady said she had experience in the forest. I think she can help. She was too old to hunt, but I think she can help us with cleaning the meat. Hold Charlotte, I’ll go find her.” Daniella took off in the direction she saw her guest leave earlier that morning.
Nathan was left holding his child. This was the first time Daniella left him alone with the baby. He hugged it softly, and stroked her tiny, delicate forehead. He examined the baby thoroughly. She had her father’s short nose and rounded chin, but her mother’s eyes. He recalled the first time he had seen those eyes. He was walking through Aurabrook, as he used to do each morning. It was raining and there was a girl splashing around in the puddles. This wasn’t a small child with her mother, but a 22 year old girl. It was love at first sight. Nathan knew that as long he could be with her, he would be happy. It had been two years since that day, they have since gotten married and had a single child. Nathan hoisted that child on his shoulder. “Look at what daddy got you.” He showed off the deer carcasses, the irony never occurred to him. He was showing off dead bodies to his baby and was proud of it.
Daniella came crashing through the bushes with the old lady from the night before. “She agreed to help us. She said we have enough food for the four of us to last through the winter.”
“Four of us? If she can help us, then she can stay.” Nathan looked at the woman, “If there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask. I don’t think we caught your name last night, what should we call you?”
The woman looked excited for all the meat that was on the floor before her. Nathan’s words seemed to pass right through her. “We have a lot of work to do.” She turned as though she suddenly heard him. “Vira, that’s my name.”