Autho’s Note: I’ve set myself a goal of writing 4 short stories this year. All will take place in a shared world labeled as Hidden Icons. You can find all the links on my stories page.
The robin hopped with excitement. Its chirping cut through the eerie silence in the forest. The silence which made Ben feel nervous. It felt oppressive, like he wasn’t welcome. He’d thought about turning back but the little songbird stopped him. It circled his head a few times before landing on a low branch. At first glance there was nothing special about this bird. When observed closer, the tiny golden streak in its red-colored chest told Ben that she had sent it. The mistress of the forest.
“Alright,” he sighed. “Lead the way.” The bird chirped with excitement and flew off to a side path which Ben didn’t remember seeing earlier. Trees moved their branches and the underbrush cleared to make his trek into the forest easier. Behind him, the forest exhaled and came to life.
The path led him to a familiar place. Like always, the clearing appeared out of nowhere. Lush green grass surrounded bushes and patches of flowers and herbs. Ben stepped onto the grass and looked at the sky. While it was technically not dark, he could already see the stars. They shone as bright as he remembered. In fact, everything looked exactly as it had fifteen years ago. Or as he remembered it. He approached the wooden cabin where the robin sat on the porch and sang a cheerful song. Ben looked around and took a deep breath, cherishing the moment. It was nice here. Trees filled with singing birds and dogs who chased rabbits through the bushes. He’d missed this place.
Ben opened the door and stepped into the main room. He expected busyness and noise from animals and children, but found it empty. Windows were closed and furniture moved to the side. The room was sparsely lit by the golden arrow which adorned the chimney mantle. It illuminated the reason why no one else was in the cabin. The white fawn which dangled on the ceiling. The carcass was cut open. Blood dripped in a bucket. Ben stepped closer. The fawn had a nasty bite mark on its neck. One he didn’t recognise. A professional curiosity overcame him and his fingers reached to feel the gash. He froze when he noticed movement from the corner of his eye.
“Still haven’t lost your curiosity?” she asked.
“It’s my job,” said Ben while he straightened himself. “I’ve seen worse.”
She came from the adjacent room, wearing a leather apron stained with blood. Her braided red hair hung loosely on her back. Practical, like he knew her. With a knife in hand she silently walked to the carcass. Ben stepped back so she could continue her work.
“So you finally caught it,” said Ben. “You were after this one for like twenty years, right?”
The hunter remained silent while she worked, making cuts so she could pull the hide of the flesh and to strip the animal of its skin.
Ben let out a frustrated sigh. He always knew when she wanted to lecture him. “Why am I here?!” he asked.
“You broke our agreement,” she said. She did not look at him.
“I am not sure which part you are referring to,” said Ben.
“On the table.” Her voice was cold, even more so than during lectures.
Ben approached the table. He had noticed the hunter’s bow, quiver and dog whistle earlier but missed the small pouch on top of an envelope behind it. He moved the pouch, weighing it in his hand. Still heavier than expected. Even if it contained the responsibility of the woods, he expected it to feel lighter now that he was older. He dismissed the urge to ask for it and opened the envelope to read the card inside.
“Summoned for inquiry by the Elders?” he asked. “For what?”
The hunter stepped back from the fawn to examine her cuts. She still did not face him. “You summoned the Pack,” she said. Her disappointment was evident.
“If this is about your mother….”
“It is not about my mother,” she interrupted him. She mumbled a curse in a strange language, rested the knife on a nearby stool and went into the adjacent room. Ben followed her movements with his eyes. She would not harm him physically, but he was careful when she was like this. She rummaged through her tools, picked a short saw blade and returned. She glanced in his direction.
“What was I supposed to do?” He asked. “People’s lives were at stake.”
“You were supposed to do nothing,” she said coldly. “But you listened to the Whispers and broke our agreement,”. She sawed through one of the front legs until it snapped. A chill went over Ben’s spine. Some sounds he would never get used to.
“I see others on a regular basis,” he said. “Why is this different?”
She paused her work. “If others choose to appear to you, that’s on them. They are already present and you know they have ulterior motives when they appear.”
“I know Dealmaking is in their nature. But I don’t see why asking for help from those that appear to me is different from summoning them to ask for help.”
She dropped the saw blade on the ground and wiped her hands with a cloth: “Did you even once think about the cost, Ben?! In any of your deals?”
Ben looked to the ground, avoiding her eyes. “They did not ask anything from me. Not once.”
“And from those that they ‘helped’?”
“I.. I don’t know.”
She walked to the chimney and took the golden arrow from the mantle, blocking its light with her imposing stature. “The last time the Pack was summoned there was a great hunt across the continent. Many died then.” She turned to face him. “Do you want to be responsible for the death of millions?”
“No, I do not.” He felt conflicted. “And I didn’t know. I wanted to prevent innocent deaths!”
“Admirable as it may sound, you crossed a threshold. A terrible one, I will add.”
Ben looked at her with pleading eyes: “They were trying to summon something. What if they had succeeded? If their sacrifice was enough?”
“Did you sense other summoners?” she asked.
He slumped his shoulders. “I… I didn’t check.”
“Ben! You are one of the few humans in the world that know what to look for and you didn’t check?!”
She sighed and put the arrow back on the mantle. She dipped her finger in the fawn’s blood before she approached him. “Give me your arm.”
“Give me your arm!”
He unrolled his sleeve and held out his arm. She carefully drew a symbol on his wrist. When her finger left his skin the symbol glowed and sizzled.
“Auch!” He rubbed the painful spot but found that the symbol had burned into his skin. “What is this?”
“You are now marked for the inquiry or the Summoning as we call it. It means that we are more likely to leave you alone. Only a few will be brave enough to approach you. Let alone help you prepare for it.”
Ben slowly traced his finger over the symbol. “Is this permanent?”
“No,” she said. “it will vanish when the Summoning starts. You’ll receive a new one then.”
Ben took a deep breath to collect his thoughts. “So what is this Summoning; when will it take place? And where?”
Artemis cleaned her finger with the cloth. “It will start eleven moons from now. I am not sure where it will take place. Locations on previous occasions differed.”
“About a year. That sounds doable.”
“It is not a regular trial like you know it. Think of it as an Inquisition.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“It isn’t. It shows how displeased the Elders are. That’s also the reason why you’re marked. You cannot run or hide. They will always find you and deliver you to the Summoning.”
“And who are they? The Elders?”
“They’ll probably send a Steward of the House to collect you. But you should worry more about the Summoning itself.”
“Can’t you help me?” Ben asked. He knew he was going into an uncertain future.
She looked away, avoiding his eyes.
“I am forbidden,” she said. “And I have taught you everything you need to know.”
She turned and stepped towards to the carcass. Ben could not see her face but imagined it conflicted.
“632 years,” she said.
“What?” Ben asked, not understanding.
Artemis kneeled at the fawn’s head and caressed the skin that was still on the beast.
“How long it took me to catch her. Though I never thought it would end this way.”
It took a moment before he understood. Artemis lived for the hunt but never killed unnecessarily. She was the matron of the forest. Balance was important in everything she did.
“You taught me long ago that it is sometimes better to give up a prey in favor of another,” said Ben. “You never thought about giving up the hunt for this one?”
Artemis thought a while before she answered. “Sometimes a target is too important. Even when the opponent seems smarter or powerful, unexpected events can change the power dynamic. This little one showed me that appearance can be deceiving. That there is even the choice of hunting the hunter.” She pulled up her shirt, revealing an old scar at her thigh.
Ben squinted his eyes. He recognised the bite marks. “That looks the same,” he said.
Artemis nodded. “Hellbeasts. Yet this time her deal was insufficient.”
“And she paid a heavy price,” said Ben.
Artemis turned her head, gave Ben a faint smile and picked up the saw blade. “Now child. If you’ll excuse me. I have more work to do.”
She put the blade to the other front leg and started working again.
Ben watched her work in silence. She never let any of her apprentices stay when she was working the beasts, but he was older and had seen enough gruesome work at the morgue. He appreciated the care she put in her work. Something he tried to implement as well.
She paused. “Don’t you have an appointment?”
Ben looked at his watch. “Shit.”
He turned to the door yet paused before he opened it. “Wait, how did you know?”
“I have my ways. You should know by now.”
Ben smiled: “Thank you, Artemis. You’ve always been like a mother to me.”
He opened the door and rushed to the path he came. If he ran fast enough, he wouldn’t be late for his date.
Back in the cabin Artemis sighed, relieved her job was done. “Best of luck, child. You will need it.”