(Continued from Part II)

Brita sat, a copper-haired girl of eight, on a log near a wooded camp. She was dressed in green from head to toe, except for the brown leather gloves that covered her fingers. At her feet lay her first kill: a small deer. Its white spots were speckled with the bright red evidence of a lung shot.

Brita’s mother sat cross-legged on the ground, patiently teaching her to remove the innards without spoiling the meat. Their camp was quiet: the other Huntresses had gone after game of a more dangerous nature, leaving the pair behind again.

“Mother, how did you come to the Huntresses? Jenna says you don’t belong here.”

“Jenna’s right, my little Princess.” Mother looked up at her, a small tear sparkling on the corner of her eye. She wiped it away with her shoulder. “I was supposed to marry a prince once, long ago, and you were supposed to be called ‘Princess’ by everyone, not just me.”

“So why didn’t you marry him? Was he ugly or old?  Maybe he had a big wart on his nose.” Brita giggled, imagining a face like many she had seen when the Huntresses captured rich old men and held them for ransom.

“No, Princess, we were both young and in love. But my father lost his title and his lands and we were not allowed to marry. Instead, he married a princess from another kingdom, and I came here with you.  You were just a baby…”

Mother sniffled a little, and she mumbled something, though Brita could not understand it.

“I don’t belong with the Huntresses,” Mother said. “That’s why we stay in camp and cook. But you have a gift that you inherited from me. You’re special as I was special. And someday you’ll have to decide where you belong.”

Brita looked down at her gloves. Her gift remained covered. She never took her gloves off, and mother had never let her use the gift. It was too dangerous for a little girl. Someday, she thought, someday I’ll use it.

Mother stood up and kicked some fallen leaves over the gut pile. Brita helped her drag the deer into their camp, grabbing a length of rope for her mother to toss over a branch.

Her first kill!  The girls would be so proud!  I belong here, anyway, she thought. She looked at her mother, who smiled back at her. There was something a little sad about that smile, so Brita tickled her until she laughed. They pulled the rope together, hoisting the carcass so it could age. As mother tied the rope off, Jenna’s voice burst through the quiet forest.

“We are under attack!  Flee! Flee!”

Their tethered horse stamped and snorted and the noises of battle drew near. Mother immediately sprang on its back, pulling Brita up behind her. She loosed the animal with a flick of her wrist and kicked its sides, pointing its head away from the yells that descended upon the camp. In a flash, Brita’s deer lay miles behind them. Another bivouac waited just ahead. Brita counted the girls who had escaped to their secondary hideout. She came up seven short. All of the remaining six were bleeding. Only three were conscious.

“Ignes is dead,” one girl said, biting back the pain of her wounds. “We have no leader. Even Jenna is near death.”

Brita watched her mother briefly survey the pitiful Huntresses. A frown, edged with panic, grew across Mother’s face. Without a word, she began to scurry back and forth, extracting arrows and cutting away breeches to bandage the wounds beneath them. But there were so many girls for her to work on. There was too much blood still flowing. Her face was frantic as she walked over to Brita and kissed her forehead.

“Always remember that I love you,” she said, looking into Brita’s eyes, holding her frightened cheeks between bloody hands. “My little Princess, always remember…” The words faded away as she removed her gloves.

“I want you to take care of Brita,” Mother charged the remaining girls. “She can stalk. She can shoot. She’s one of you now. Please.” Tears filled her eyes.

Mother moved from girl to girl, starting with the least wounded. As she placed her bare hands on each, their wounds closed and their pain melted away. The color drained from Mother’s face. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Her shoulders drooped as if she carried a burden too heavy for her small frame. Her breathing grew ragged and each of her jerking movements seemed to demand more effort and take more time than the one previous.

By the time Mother approached the last girl, she was crawling, pulling herself weakly across the dirt with her bare hands. Jenna lay before her in a pool of blood. The large girl’s visage had been smashed by a mace, and she wore a mask of bone, hair, and blood. Holes from three arrows leaked from her arms and shoulder. Mother collapsed into the dirt beside her, resting her bare hand on the girl’s shattered face.

After sundown, all but two of the remaining Huntresses sat silently around the small fire, listening to the darkness. Apart from their white scars and small numbers, there was no indication of the rout they had endured that day. But one lay on the ground, lifeless. And Brita knelt next to her dead mother, sobbing into her own gloved hands.

Brita cried again as she sat on an enormous bed in a strange castle. Her new friend held her close, crying along with her.

(Continued in Part IV)