Annabelle was eleven when she lost her mother. The villagers said it was the worst time for a girl’s mother to die: when she was right on the edge of womanhood, when a girl needed the love and advice only a mother could give her. They whispered that living alone with her father, a hunter, in a cottage at the edge of the village, Annabelle could never truly grow into a woman. They feared that she would become something wild, something that could not be tamed.
Annabelle did not understand their worries because she loved going into the woods with her father so much more than she had enjoyed staying home with her mother as a child. Annabelle had always known she was made for the outdoors, made to run through the forest for days, until she forgot where she ended, and nature began.
The rest of the village disagreed. They saw Annabelle, in trousers and a dark green hunting cloak, and said that the only thing that could save the girl was a mother. They thought she needed someone who would teach her to be a lady instead of a beast, little did they know how wrong they were.
Six years after the death of Annabelle’s mother, her father was invited to a gathering of hunters from all over the country, in a town about two day’s travel away. The invitation was clear on the subject of bringing family along: Please leave any women and children at home. No matter how much Annabelle begged, her father would not let her come with him, since she was both a woman and a child. He knew the others would laugh at him if he brought his daughter along, knew they would joke that all these years without a son had made him grow as weak as they assumed Annabelle was.
After days of arguing, her father sighed. “Annabelle, my dear, tell me what you want, and I will bring it back for you from the gathering. I will give you anything, as long as you stop asking me to bring you along.”
Annabelle crossed her arms. “Fine,” she said. “Bring me a supple branch of fig wood, that you have cut from a tree yourself, so I can make a new bow.”
Her father frowned. There were no fig trees in the area where they lived, since it was too far to the North, and Annabelle knew that just as well as he did. However, he was also a man of his word, and therefore said to his stubborn daughter: “Alright, Annabelle, I will bring you what you ask for.”
Annabelle’s father set out for the hunters’ gathering the next day. He laughed and drank and bragged so much, that he forgot about Annabelle’s wish until he was already on his way back home. He started thinking of an excuse to explain to his daughter why he had not found what she had asked for when he passed by a gate. The gate was gilded, as high as three tall men, and decorated with a forest scene, with trees and shrubbery, and animals peeking through the foliage. Behind the gate was the most beautiful garden he had ever seen, with grass fields, lined by every type of tree he could imagine. He spotted oaks, cherries, the white bark of birches, and, at the back of one of the lanes, a fig tree. Behind the neatly kept grass, a dense forest loomed over the beauty of the garden, nature threatening what had been made by human hands.
A smile appeared on the father’s face. If he sneaked into the garden, he would be able to get Annabelle the wood for her bow. Whoever owned the trees had so many, they would probably not miss one fig branch. He pushed open the unlocked gate, but his horse refused to follow him into the garden. He left it behind at the entrance and walked down the lane by himself, marvelling at the fresh, green grass, and the impossibly high trees. When he reached the fig tree, he spotted a small cottage at the end of the lane. He assumed it belonged to the gardener, and, hoping the gardener was out at this time of day, he turned to the tree.
The father took a sharp hunting knife from his belt and cut off a long branch from the fig tree. He tested its suppleness between his hands and decided it would make a fine bow for Annabelle. However, before he could turn around to exit the garden, he felt a sharp pain on the back of his neck. Someone was holding a knife there, piercing his skin just enough to draw blood. He had not heard anyone approach, despite having trained his ears for years in order to be able to hear the slightest shift of an animal in the forest. He raised his hands, still holding the branch.
“Where do you think you’re going with that?” a voice purred from behind him. The voice was smooth and soft like honey, and most definitely female.
“It’s for my daughter,” the father said, his voice wavering slightly as he tried very hard to hold still. “I promised her a new bow.”
The woman sounded amused when she said: “And it was absolutely necessary to cut the wood from my tree, instead of from one of the many in the forest?”
“She wanted fig wood,” he answered. “Because she knows figs don’t grow here.”
The woman cackled. “A good reason to ask for it. Too bad you decided to steal it from my garden.”
The knife entered the father’s neck deeper, and he heard the woman speak a few words in a language he did not understand. His entire body screamed with pain, as if his muscles were both collapsing and being elongated, and his bones were being twisted into all the wrong directions.
Seconds later his horse was startled by a stag that ran across the lawn towards the gate, a stag that seemed to have appeared out of thin air. The horse whinnied in fear and turned away towards home.
Annabelle did not worry when her father did not come back from the gathering at the time he had said he would. She assumed he had too much fun drinking with the men there and had forgotten that he had a daughter at home. Her father loved her deeply but only when he did not dwell on the fact that she could have been a son. She did, however, worry when the horse came back without him. Her father was an expert horseman, and there was no way he had simply fallen off.
So, Annabelle gathered her bow and some other supplies, and mounted the horse, tracking its hoofprints back to the gate her father had come to less than a day earlier. It was still open, and Annabelle dismounted and walked into the garden.
“Father?” she said. And, when no answer came, louder: “Father!” There was no sign of human life, only a couple of forest animals that hurried into the woods beyond when they heard her voice. Annabelle walked down the lane, drinking in the sight of the garden, and knocked on the cottage door, hoping the inhabitant would be able to help her.
The door opened before she had lowered her hand, “Yes?” a voice said. It was a woman, Annabelle realised, and the voice was pleasant enough, but had a hint of violence in it that made her skin crawl.
“I’m looking for my father,” Annabelle said, making her voice sound as strong as possible.
The woman chuckled. “You must be the daughter who demanded a bow made from fig wood.” When Annabelle nodded, the woman continued: “Your father decided to take the wood for your bow from my tree. He’s a thief, and he’s therefore staying with me forever.”
Annabelle’s jaw dropped. “It was only a branch!” she exclaimed. “And it was not even for him, it was for me!”
“Well,” the woman said. “There is one way for you to see your father again.”
“Hunt with me.” The woman opened the door fully and stepped out into the sunlight.
Annabelle took a step back when she saw the woman, who was not a woman at all, but a monster, in the truest sense of the word. She was a horrible combination of beast and human, with a lion’s face, thick, golden brown fur that covered her entire body, claws sharper than Annabelle’s hunting knives, and a long tail that flicked from side to side behind her back. Her eyes, however, were human, so dark brown it was impossible to determine where the pupil ended, and the iris began. They were like beautiful black pits, shimmering in the sunlight. Annabelle swallowed thickly.
“Hunt with me,” the woman repeated. “If you make the kill before I do, I will admit you are the better hunter, you will see your father again, and you will be free to go. If I kill first… you will suffer the same fate as him.”
Annabelle nodded, aware of how limited her options were. “What are we hunting?” she asked.
The woman pulled her lips into a sly, feline smile. “A beautiful stag resides somewhere in the woods beyond my garden,” she said. “He is a recent acquisition. I think he will be a challenge for us both, since he is quite… experienced when it comes to hunting.”
Annabelle’s breathing evened when the woman mentioned the stag. Hunting stags was her expertise, and there was only one person who was better at it than she was: her father.