Chapter Four

Consciousness this time did not come to her so plainly. Esma had dragged herself to the other side of the clearing and was lapping up water from the creek before her senses fully registered her actions. She did nothing more than pause, before lowering her head down again to the water. Whether or not her body was acting on auto-drive or not did not really bother her; she was too exhausted.

Bunching up her shoulders, she shook out her head, smelling the icy tang in the morning air. Food was a priority. Water was all well and good, but it could not sustain her alone. The saliva in her mouth hungered for meat. Little else seemed important.

Yawning widely, Esma surveyed the clearing again. The chattering of the morning birds was subdued by the nearness of winter, despite the soft sunlight filtering through the trees. To her right, the standing stones stood silently, their weathered surfaces rough and scoured by carved swirls and patterns. Their presence weighed heavily on Esma; with their ancient regard she felt as small and as vulnerable as a new born puppy. It unnerved her, and the lack of other visible life in the immediate area disgruntled her somewhat.

Shrugging out her fur again, Esma sat up, absentmindedly scratching an itch at her side. The rumble in her belly reminded her again of her priority. Even after a belly full of water it felt empty.

She had to move slowly; her damnable ankle was still giving her as much grief as ever. Every step felt like a white hot poker was being jammed up her leg. Trying to ignore the pain as best as possible, Esma stalked carefully along the creek bed. Surely she would find some creature creeping down to the water's edge to drink.

Her clumsiness must have frightened off the most creatures for she saw very little apart from the occasional red squirrel, and even then it was more of a fluke than any kind of stealth on her part.

The hungry beast continued to claw at her belly, making Esma growl softly when she did not expect to. Limping, she continued to pad her way softly through the undergrowth.

It happed in an instant.

As soon as she heard the soft rustle of leaves and smelt the dozy musk of fur a few feet away, Esma had drawn up her legs from their lounging, brought forward her rolling shoulders and dug her toes into the soft earth.

The moment when the small doe and her fawn had stepped out of the undergrowth onto the small stream bed, liquid blazing fire seared through Esma's blood and bones. There was no question as to her next course of action. Dirt and leaf muck spat out from under her feet as she sprung upon her unsuspecting prey with a flash of white teeth.

In a faster moment the deer had reacted, panicked and fled. Snarling, she threw herself after them, snapping at their heels as she dodged the flick of their sharp hooves. They were so fast, even the fawn danced away from her outstretched jaws, but the fire that was now in her belly was only fuelled further by the chase. Branches whipped across her face as she dodged bracken, determined not to be left behind.

Scrabbling in the upturned dirt behind the deer, Esma tore over the fallen log they had just bounded from. Soft bark splintered under her claws as she pushed off, the leverage landing her a swipe onto the spotted flank of the fawn. It bleated in anguish, but only stumbled slightly before regaining its feet and racing after its mother.

Esma raced after it, lengthening her strides to cover more ground. The fawn was the target; it was weaker, slower and less experienced than its old mother. Swamping her senses was the pungent sweat of fear that pored off its young body. Already blood was flowing from the wound she had inflicted.

It excited her.

The paced slowed, but the chase did not. Gasping in big lungfulls of air, Esma drove her wearying body onward. She would not let this prey go; she could not. Doggedly the hunter's universe narrowed to only them; burning instinct darkened all else to charcoal. The deer would tire eventually. So would she, but Esma would not stop until there was meat in her belly.

Springing down a slanted incline, she could see that the old doe was heading for open ground. Already the trees were thinning out. It did not matter; the fawn was definitely beginning to flag, bleating piteously for its mother. Ahead the doe was the battling concern for her offspring with the fear breed instinct to flee.

Esma's body was starved for air she could not suck in fast enough, her muscles strained under the brutal initiation test for endurance. If she slacked off now, she would not have the energy to regain lost ground. Then she would die. That was not to happen.

Inch by inch the hunter closed the gap.

The fawn stumbled.

The fire burned her white hot in elation as the last adrenaline kick brought her enough speed to fix slathering jaws onto its hind leg. Tiny hooves kicked viscously at her face; she bit hard into bone as they struggled in the grass and dirt. Desperation wrestled with desperation in a flurry of fur, blood and bone. For a moment she lost her grip. The hunter froze and her insides dropped as the fawn struggled to right its footing.

Then she snarled, furiously hurdled her hairy bulk over the spotted fawns back to tear its throat out. The fawn gave one last breathy wail as its limbs folded, head hitting the ground with a sickening thunk of reality.

Hot blood gushed out of the wound and the hunter lapped it up eagerly. Her own blood was pounding in her ears in utter euphoria at the kill. She buried her head further into the wound to feed. No heed was paid to the mournful barks of the doe, lingering on the fringes in vain for her offspring. The hunter feasted, tearing open the blood streaked belly flank to gorge herself on the steaming soft organs held within.

It was bliss.

With her blood lust and her belly finally sated, the hunter sat up, peacefully licking the muck and gore that covered her paws. The midday sun dried the sweat coating her fur, its warmth undermined by the chill breeze that darted over the ground. She was greatly satisfied.

The bereaved doe had long since moved along.

Licking her lips again, the hunter studied the carcass before her. Only the head was recognisable; everything below the throat had been demolished. Small chunks of meat still gripped the curled bones of the ribcage that stuck up at right angles. There were still hefty hunks of hindquarters left; even her ravenous appetite hadn't managed to consume the entire fawn.

It would be a waste to leave the remains here. Doubtless carrion creatures would be upon it as soon as she left. Gnawing fondly on a leg bone, the hunter regarded her options. She would have to take it with her and hide it some place for a later date. Winter was coming, and she would have to survive it somehow.

This meant she would have to choose a base of some sort; some place to return to hide her kills. Gazing back to the direction from whence she came, the hunter decided. There had been nothing else residing in the small enclave she had fallen into yesterday. Plus it was close to water. It was as good a place as any, she supposed.

Shaking the stiffness out if her muscles, the hunter eased herself up. It was more an effort than she anticipated; her limbs shook at simply holding her weight up. Her sore ankle could barely hold any of her weight. In the wild desperation of the hunt the pain had been swallowed by the fierce push of adrenaline. Now it protested furiously at any hint of movement.

The hunter ignored it. She would not linger so close to open ground. Who knew what would come to scavenge after her kill. Standing shakily, she seized her meal and began to drag it back to the standing stones.

Light grey clouds had faded to an inky blue as the afternoon sun fades into the evening. It had taken her far too long to return to the standing stones; her ankle had sapped all of her energy with its constant throbbing.

When she had first reached the stream the hunter had dropped to the ground and began sucking in big mouthfuls of the icy water. It numbed her tongue and chattered her teeth so she stuck her foot in to try and alleviate the pain. A groan of relief escaped from the back of her throat as the cold seeped into her inflamed skin.

Eventually, she made herself rise and follow the stream.

Now she had reached what she had now decided would be her base, the hunter wasted no time in burying the remains of her first ever next to one of the standing stones. She reasoned that any scavenger creatures coming a-hunting would be just as unnerved as her by the unnatural pillars of carved rock.

Pausing only to drink some more water and dose her ankle in the stream one more time, she plodded over to the small opening she had slept in the night before, crawled in and sank immediately into sleep.

Burnt orange sky stretches out impossibly before her, streaked by clouds stained red by the white hot sun that stands out like a stamp on an envelope. It is an unnatural colour, promising unnatural things. Crouching, she grips the dark earth with padded fingers and toes, hackles rising with each beat of her blood red heart.

For the scent of blood saturates the air around her. It is hot and fresh, like a new kill and her jaws begin salivating immediately despite the unnatural tang that accompanies it. It saturates her nose, dizzying her mind in readiness for a kill. Long, white teeth gleam and the hunter avidly sniffs the air, searching for the source.

There! But her mouth runs bone dry at the sight before her narrowed eyes. The unseelie scent underlying the smell of blood has become thicker and more potent. It makes her eyes water.

A huge beast casts its shadow over her, and though every instinct is pulling at her limbs to run, she cannot even twitch away. A deer, a wolf, a man? Every time she tries to distinguish some definite form or shape, the bulky body shifts under its own shadows into something new. She is cowered; she had to look away, but not before she sees for certain the massive pair of twelve pronged antlers and a massive gaping wound bleeding bright blood on its black flank.

Even the very sand beneath her toes seems to tremble at the guttural rumble the great beast emits. It makes her very hair stand on end.

"So, little gùþ-wine, even now you are made your first kill, and still you cannot look at me?" The deep, rock-rolling chuckle makes her teeth ache. She wants flee this unnatural thing, but the bright smell of blood and the unexplained holds her body still.

"Ah well," The beast sighs, and the hunter cringes, "Too soon, it is, I suspect. Why, you have even now forgotten your nemning. Your kind always have been fickle."

She whimpers, for she feels as if she is being ground into the very earth with the weight of his words.

"No mind. You shall remember soon enough, E-"

And she wakes.