From her vantage point atop the fallen menhir, Olida saw the huntsman before he saw her and had known he was coming long before he tramped into the clearing, his every footstep clear from a long way off as if he were deliberately seeking twigs to step on and leaves to tread on each time he put foot to ground. Any game animal that fell to one of his arrows would probably be just as glad to be saved the trouble of dying from embarrassment.
As he stepped out of the shadows, Olida forgave him some of his incompetence. He was young, not much older than herself and too young to be out alone without an older woodsman. He needed someone to teach him how to move through the trees as silently as the animals he hunted. But, the old woodsmen were nearly all dead or gone to war.
Shifting slightly, Olida decided to make her presence known. Immediately, the young man's hand went to a knife at his belt. "Who's there?" he called. "Show yourself."
"Be easy there," called Olida, impressed at least that so small a motion had drawn his attention. "I'm no highwayman." Had he gone for his bow, she wouldn't have shown herself so easily. Seeing that he had only his knife in hand, she rose so that he could see her silhouetted against the face of the moon. She was dressed as a boy in russet tunic, braies, and a bright red cloak, kirtles not being practical for travel. Still, there was no mistaking her for a boy when seen in silhouette.
The hunter's laugh came out as a cloud of mist in the crisp air, "Clearly, you're no highwayman. You're just a girl. Come down from there."
Olida gave a harummph, "I'm not much younger than you unless I miss my guess. You have but the hint of a beard on your cheeks." She let herself down from the stone, landing in a crouch, and walked down the hill to where he stood, "'Tis very late to be hunting."
"And even later to be picnicking," the hunter replied, looking at the rough-woven basket Olida carried. "Especially alone. It isn't safe for you to be out here, certainly not alone. These woods are full of wolves... and not all of them go on four feet."
Olida felt a small frisson of fear run down her spine, but smiled at the young man, "Well, then. It is most fortunate that I am no longer alone, having found you."
As she stepped into the light, he drew back momentarily. Olida knew she must look otherworldly, her already pale skin bleached almost white by the paleness of the moon, her pale blue eyes that seemed sightless until you saw them move, the hood of her bright red shawl pulled up to protect her from the cold. When he went to cross himself, Olida caught his wrist, holding it firm, "There's no need for that. I am flesh and blood like you."
The hunter dropped his hand and Olida let it go. He stared at her face for a moment, "I know who you are. You're the daughter of Ardell, the hunter. I've seen his wife in town on faire days." Gripping her hood in one hand, he drew it back, releasing a cascade of russet-colored tresses, "She has features like yours." He looked Olida up and down, his scrutiny passing over every inch of her as she stood, trembling a little in the cold, "They say she is a witch."
Reaching up, Olida tucked in her hair and drew her hood back into place. "She is no witch," she said, her voice as cold as the surrounding air. "That is the chatter of foolish women and priests."
The hunter held up his hands in protest, "I did not say she was a witch, only that it is said. I know naught of witches."
"My mother was a midwife once," said Olida, not at all mollified. "Now, she tends her garden."
"I did not mean to give offense," said the hunter. "Please forgive me."
"I can not forgive a man whose name I do not know," said Olida. She stared at him defiantly, the challenge obvious. If he believed her a witch, he would not give her his true name. True names had power.
"I am Collis," he said. "Son of Geol."
Despite the inappropriateness of her riding clothes to such niceties, she curtsied a little to him, "I'm Olida. You already know my father's name."
Somewhere, in the distance, a wolf howled.
At first, Collis had been reluctant to walk with Olida through the woods. Witch or no, she was still a girl and he expected her to scare away the game. But, she was also a hunter's daughter and had lived in these woods all her life. She walked more silently than Collis until she caught him watching her feet to see how she did it, at which point she remembered to step on a twig now and again so as to assuage his pride.
"You still have not said why you are out in the woods so late," said Collis. "It is more than passing strange."
"I am going to see my grandmother," said Olida. "Food is scarce and she can no longer provide for herself. I'll share my breakfast with her. I must have left the house later than I thought. The sun sets early at this time of year."
At the mention of breakfast, Collis's stomach growled audibly. He sighed, "Food is scarce for the able-bodied as well as for the old and infirm. There has been a garrison outside of Traegenshire since the first frost. They demand food we do not have. If you have enough left to share, it must be because they haven't found you yet. You should be glad."
As he spoke, Collis's eyes remained fixed on the basket. Olida held it tightly. After they had walked a bit farther, he said, "Next time, you should leave earlier. A maiden of rare beauty with a basket of food is not one, but two temptations that many men would not think twice of taking by whatever means they chose."
Olida smiled broadly, having always felt that her mouth was too big for her face, "You find me beautiful?"
Collis nodded, not looking at her, "As would any man who looked upon you. Surely your betrothed must have already told you as much."
Olida shook her head, her eyes revealing a profound sadness, "I have no betrothed. My father says that I may never have one. There are too few suitable choices."
Collis nodded again, looking thoughtful, "King Canute's war has taken so many. My father and brother haven't been home since I was a boy." He took a few more steps, "Has your father had any better success in finding an apprentice than he has in finding you a betrothed?"
Olida was genuinely surprised by the question. Until Collis asked it, she hadn't realized what he was getting at. Living out in the woods, she had little experience with people outside of her own family.
"No," she said finally. "My father had an apprentice, but..." Suddenly, a motion caught her eye, a flicker of white detaching from the snow on the ground beneath the trees to one side of the path they were walking. Pointing, she called, "A rabbit!"
Collis had the bow off his shoulder and an arrow knocked in a motion that even an experienced hunter could have been proud of. The arrow flew true. The rabbit's death scream caused another to bolt in a blind panic. Collis had a second arrow ready for it. That one also flew true.
"We're being tracked," said Collis. He carried the rabbits in a sack over his shoulder, having insisted on seeing Olida to her destination.
Olida looked surprised, "By who?"
"Not who, but what" said Collis. "It's a wolf. He probably has the scent of our rabbits in his nostrils. The king's men have taken most of the game as well as our stores. It's been a hard winter. Even the wolves are going hungry."
Olida looked at Collis, "What will you do?"
Collis shrugged, "We should stop and make a fire. It's only a lone wolf, probably driven out of the pack. We'll give him a chance to go away on his own." He gave a bitter smile, "Besides, if I go home with two rabbits, the soldiers will take one anyway. We'll share one."
"You're very kind," said Olida. Again, there was a hint of sadness in her words.
Collis was already gathering wood, "You spotted them. It's only fair that you get some of the meat."
Olida helped Collis gather wood once he showed her how to find the dry spots on the leeward sides of trees or in the canopies of the big evergreens. He set a pit that looked big enough to cook a whole pig. When he put flint and steel to it, the flames caught quickly. By the time he had skinned and dressed the rabbits, the fire had melted a wide circle of snow around itself and dried the ground beneath. Even five paces away, it was warm like a midsummer day.
"We don't need such a big fire to cook," Collis admitted. "But, it will help warn the wolf away. And, truth be told, it would be nice to feel warm for once. My bones tell me that this winter has lasted a hundred years."
Olida smiled and stepped closer to the fire until it was almost too hot to bear. Reaching up, she undid the leather thong that kept her cloak fastened around her neck and let it fall to the ground, "I will admit. I miss the sun."
Collis looked up from spitting the rabbit, "In the firelight, you look much less like a witch... Except..."
"Yes?" asked Olida, kneeling on the cloak in front of the fire.
"You wear your hair down... in the old style," Collis said. "The priest says it is unseemly for a woman to do so, even an unmarried one."
Olida looked thoughtful, "My mother says that priests have no truck with women. It's no wonder they have such foolish notions about women's fashion."
Collis gave an uncomfortable laugh, "Are you certain that your mother is no witch?"
Olida turned to face him, sitting back on her haunches, "What if she were, Collis, Son of Geol? Would you try to slay me or leave me to my own devices and refuse to break bread with me?"
Collis shook his head, but it seemed like his mind was already elsewhere, "You have bread?"