The Hunter and The Horrid: Part 2

Annabelle spent the next few days exploring the forest around the cottage, searching for tracks of the stag. She saw many animals in the woods, whom the woman had explicitly told her not to touch, but no trace of the stag. She was relieved every evening when she saw that the woman returned from the forest empty-pawed.

Annabelle spent her evenings with the woman in the cottage. It was surprisingly cosy inside, with wooden floors and walls of exposed natural stone. Furs covered the floor, the two arm chairs in the living room, and the bed Annabelle slept in. Underneath the thick layer of furs, the sheets were decorated with delicate flowers, and Annabelle wondered what use a beast had for such lovely sheets. The woman, too large for the bed, curled up on the fur spread out in front of the fireplace. Watching her, Annabelle thought that this was what it must be like to have a pet. A giant, violent pet that walked on two feet and spoke in a voice smooth and sweet as honey.

It turned out that the woman loved conversation. Annabelle, used to her father's stoic silence, was surprised the first night when the woman started talking and didn’t stop until the girl closed her eyes that night. She was even more surprised when she felt two paws tuck her in in a surprisingly gentle way. The woman told Annabelle tales of kings and queens, of stupid princes and clever orphans, of animals, and of monsters. The tales stopped when Annabelle and the woman sat down in the two arm chairs in front of the fireplace, each cradling a steaming mug in their hands. That is when the woman asked questions. Annabelle had always thought she was a thinker and not a talker, quiet and sturdy, like her father. Now, she discovered that, given the opportunity, she loved voicing her thoughts and problems, her hopes and fears.

The woman was also an excellent listener. She would tilt her head to the side and peer at Annabelle with those soft eyes, that looked so very human. She listened as Annabelle recounted her daily life in the village, as she voiced every single question she had ever had, about where the wind came from, and why sea water was salty, but river water was fresh. She listened to Annabelle's fears of the future, to the things she wanted out of life, and the whispers in the village that made her insecure. Annabelle had never realised how nice it would be to get another person's advice on those things, even if that person looked like a monster.

One night, after several weeks of hunting the stag in vain, the woman asked: "What do you think about your father?"

Annabelle shrugged. "He wishes I were a boy, but he still loves me, and I love him. In fact, he is the only person I love, the only person I ever wanted to be around." She looked at the woman, unconsciously tilting her head in the exact same way the woman always did. "Or, at least, he was."

The woman's smile was sad. "Trust me, you don't want to be around me, Annabelle. I'm not a good person. I wouldn't look like this if I was."

Annabelle hesitated, but still decided to ask the question that had been burning in the back of her throat ever since she had first laid eyes on the woman: "Why do you look like this?"

The woman sighed, and Annabelle could see the exact moment when she made the decision to tell the story. When she spoke, it sounded like every word was a shard of glass cutting into her lips as she forced it out.

"I had a daughter, once. Her name was Fawn. There were only two things I loved more than I loved Fawn: myself, and my honour. I was a hunter's daughter, like you, and, like you, I ignored the fact that everyone around me believed women should not hunt. I was always trying to prove myself, trying to show the men that I was just as good as them, if not better. One day, the other hunters challenged me to a blind hunt. They blindfolded me, and I had to shoot bunnies relying on my hearing only. I waited and waited, until I heard something move in the bushes. I shot, and heard a yelp. It was a human sound and when I pulled my blindfold off, I saw Fawn lying in the grass. She had been playing in the woods, unaware of the challenge. She died right there in my arms. I was punished for what I did, for killing the person I gave life to. That is why I look like this, like the monster I am inside, forced to challenge others to a hunt, until I find someone who can beat me. Until then I am forced to put my pride aside and acknowledge that I am not the best hunter. I always thought that person did not exist but then you came along." The woman looked up, her soft eyes searching Annabelle's face. "You remind me of her, of Fawn. The same fierce spirit and the same dark hair. Like her, you're better than me. And then I don't just mean a better hunter, I mean a better person."

Annabelle nodded, not knowing what to say. "But I haven't beaten you yet," she whispered eventually. "How do you know I'm better?"

The woman shrugged. "I just know. And that's why I'm calling off the hunt. Tomorrow, you're going home."

For some reason, it stung that the woman wanted to get rid of her. Still, Annabelle had one hope: "And my father?"

"He's gone, Annabelle," she said. "I'm sorry, but that's the only part of the story I will not tell you."

The next morning, the woman packed a basket with food for Annabelle to eat on the journey home. She evaded all questions about Annabelle's father despite the girl's best efforts to find out what had happened to him. When the basket was packed, the woman and Annabelle exited the cottage. Annabelle could not help the feeling of dread that crept over her, not only because she would never see her father again, but also because she had to leave the woman behind. Without either of them, she would truly be alone in the world.

The woman was standing with her back to the forest, and that is why Annabelle saw him first: the largest stag Annabelle had ever seen. His golden fur rippled in the sunlight, and his antlers stood on his head like a crown.

When Annabelle saw the stag, a plan shot through her head. If she killed the stag, the woman would be back to normal, and might let Annabelle stay. Without her father waiting at home, Annabelle saw no reason to go back to the cottage she had grown up in.

Before the woman turned around to notice the stag, Annabelle took an arrow from the quiver on her back. She put the arrow on her bow, her eyes focusing on the stag's shoulder. If she hit the muscle in the right place, the stag would go down, and it would be easy to slit his throat and end his life. She breathed out and released before the woman realized what she was doing. The arrow flew towards its target. The stag tried to jump away, but it was too late, and the arrow hit him in exactly the right place.

The woman turned around to see the stag drop to the ground, and the soft thump of the animal hitting the grass was drowned out by her scream. "Annabelle, NO!"

Annabelle and the woman ran towards the stag and dropped to their knees next to it. "I'm the better hunter," Annabelle breathed. "You'll be free."

The woman nodded, her tall frame towering over Annabelle despite her crouched position. There were tears in her eyes. "But at what price."

Annabelle was about to ask what she meant, when she remembered the stag, dying painfully on the grass. She took her knife out of the sheath at her hip and cut the vein at the stag's throat in one practiced movement. His blood spilled over her trousers, soaking them.

A satisfied look was on Annabelle's face, but it morphed into horror when the stag changed in front of her eyes. His fur disappeared and became smooth, bare skin, his front legs became arms, his back legs grew feet, and his face became a set of features Annabelle knew so well, green eyes staring lifelessly at the sky. A choked sound escaped her throat: "Father."

Annabelle tore her gaze from her father's face, eyes piercing the woman next to her with a poisonous gaze. "You made me hunt my father?" she yelled. "The one family member I had left?"

The woman did not try to deny it. "I'm sorry, Annabelle, I tried to send you away before you could kill him. It was all part of the rules: I turned people into animals and challenged their loved ones to hunt them. Seeing the horror on someone's face as the animal whose throat I had just ripped out turned out to be their family member, friend, or lover, gave me a wicked sort of satisfaction. It was… nice to see them go through the same thing I had gone through when I lost Fawn. But you, you didn't deserve this. It's why I wanted to send you home."

Annabelle looked down at her father, holding his hand between hers. When she looked back at the woman, the monstrous features had disappeared. Annabelle saw the same dark brown eyes, now set into a human face that was the same age as Annabelle's father had been. The woman stood, tall and muscular, and clad in the same hunter's garb as Annabelle: loose clothing in the colours of the forest.

 "You can stay here, if you would like," the woman said softly, hopefully. But all Annabelle could see was a murderer, cruel to the bone, despite the kind eyes looking at her.

Annabelle closed her father's eyes, kissed his forehead, and stood up. "Never," she hissed, and ran to the gate, disappearing into the forest forever. The woman was left knowing that, although human once more, she would always be empty of love.