The hem of her dress hung in shreds around her bloodied legs where the thorns had grabbed and ripped. Though she could not yet see them through the dense forest, the howl of the dogs grew closer; they would overtake her at any moment. She could not outrun them; her only concern now was securing her child before it was too late.
A strength found only in the need of a mother to protect her daughter propelled her up the tree to where the trunk split three ways, forming a natural cradle where she tucked the babe and then covered her with moss for warmth. Without time to give even a last kiss, she dropped back to the ground and ran down toward the river.
She knew they would not find the child on her body and would hunt for it, so she had kept the blanket, wrapped now around a stone and clutched tight to her breast. The turbulent waters would carry her away and the sharp rocks would do the work of the dogs. She had wanted this to be a last act of defiance: let them find her body and be denied their blood-lust, but it was too late. Even as she plunged into the water, the arrow found her back.
When they approached the river, they found the blanket caught on a snag just down stream. Her body came to rest a mile down on the riverbank. They dragged her from the water and turned her over on the grass.
The leader, Brugar, a bear of a man, stepped forward and drew his axe, lining up his blow before taking off her head with a single stroke. When he lifted it by the hair and held it up, the other hunters erupted into wild shouts of victory.
“Let it be known,” Brugar cried, “Sigrithr the witch is dead; her demon-child drowned. The prophecy is powerless!”
Brugar stuck her head on a pole, holding it aloft as the troupe marched back to the village, making such a sound they did not even notice the child, nor the male figure crouched over her, in the tree above their heads. When the hunters were far past, the figure lifted the child into his arms, finding a scroll tucked in with her. He put the scroll into his pouch and held the child up to see her.
“Ah, there went your mother, little one,” he cooed, bouncing her gently in his arms. “A sad day. Now you are an orphan, but don’t fret. I will take care of you.”
She yawned and made some little whimpers. He cradled her in two arms and she settled back into sleep, closing a hand around one of his fingers on his third hand. He took his mantle off to wrap around her, for though she was covered with a rich, brown fur starting at her waist and down her hind’s legs, the top half was still bare human skin and no doubt cold.
A woman appeared out of the forest and came to stand at the base of the tree, her wolf looking up, ears perked in curiosity. “What have you found, Renir?”
He stepped off the edge of the tree, floating easily to the ground on leathery wings.
“The witch’s child,” he said. “Hidden here with-”
“Enri’s child?” she said, peering at the bundle in Renir’s arms. “Give her to me.”
“Meet your aunt, Inanna,” Renir whispered as he eased the babe into her arms. He gave her cheek a little caress and grinned as she fussed and gurgled, eyes closed. “We will have to name her.”
Inanna nodded. “I will return and seek the council’s advice.”
“You could take council with me,” Renir said, his smile fading. He had been reaching into his pouch to take out the scroll he had found with the child, but now he paused. “Or am I not to be the child’s adopted father? It was I who found her.”
“She is Enri’s heir, and my kin,” Inanna reminded him, not liking what Renir was implying. “You may have been the one to fetch her, but that hardly entitles you to further claims.”
“I can be her adopted father without being your consort,” Renir snapped, then softened his voice when the child sounded as though she might cry. “She will need a father.”
“Enri is her father,” Inanna said between clenched teeth. Her wolf growled and took a step forward.
“And he is dead by the same hands as those who slew her mother,” he said, trying to temper his anger. “I offer only to stand in his place in the care and guardianship of her, not claim her away from him. Or you.” He let that final phrase ambiguous, letting her draw from it whatever interpretation she wished, whether he was speaking of the child or of herself.
Inanna looked at the child in her arms, caressing her palm over the girl’s head barely covered with hair but already showing her two tiny horns. “I will seek the council’s advice,” she repeated at last. “If they agree with you, I will not stand in your way. But if they side with me, do not think to interfere.”
“As my Lady wishes.” Renir gave a mock bow and disappeared, deciding to keep the scroll secret for now.
Inanna stood in the growing gloom of the forest and gazed down at her niece and daughter. “We will destroy them, you and I. We will squeeze every last drop of blood from them for what they have done.”
Inspired by a discussion on how to write a “Chapter One,” and the advice to “shoot them on the first page.” No one specified that the shot had to be from a bullet 😉