Chapter Six: Fenella
Late summer, before the attack on Bai-Coille
When the day of her first hunt finally arrived, Freya was up before the sun. It was still dark outside, and she had no idea how much longer it would be, but she could not sleep. Freya stood up in the small hut that she had secured when she left her parents’ house three months prior. It contained a single room with a straw bed, a few baskets where she kept her essentials, and a small metal bath that was barely large enough to sit in. There was no place for a fire, which meant that she needed to go outside if she wanted to cook or heat her bath water, but at least she was on the side of the village near the river.
Freya pulled on her leggings and thin summer dress. She would not wear a dress to hunt, but sadly, tutoring had to come first. She reached into another basket to take out a small loaf of bread and a fruit and headed outside. The sun still showed no sign of approach, and the sky was alight with stars. She went back into her hut to grab an empty skin, then made her way down to the river to fill it.
By the time she returned with a full skin of water, she could see the faint light of the approaching sun. The field north of the village was the best place to see the sunrise, so she headed that direction. Freya sat down in the middle of the field, eating her bread and fruit and drinking her water, as she watched the sun come up over the horizon. This was her first time waking before sunrise since she moved out on her own.
Living with her parents, it was rare that they would allow her to leave the house that early. “It is too dangerous,” her father would say. “All manner of beasts stalk these woods at night.” It made no difference that she had no plans to go to the woods or that she felt capable of defending herself. All that ever mattered was her father’s whim. But the thousand sunrises he had denied her would not bring Freya down. Today, she was enjoying her breakfast in a field, impatiently awaiting the evening to come, and watching as night turned to shadow until the world was bright once again.
As the sun pulled itself away from the horizon, she headed back to the village to await her first tutor’s daily wake up call.
“Freya,” a voice called to her as she approached her hut. It was her tutor’s. “You are already awake, I see.” He was a short, pudgy man, only around fifteen hands tall, and he always wore a blue robe with green designs that was somehow never dirty.
“I couldn’t sleep. Not with my first hunt today.”
“You could not sleep.” Her language tutor often corrected her speech. It was not that she did not know how to speak properly. It was just that she often felt it sounded ridiculous to do so.
“I apologize, Tutor.”
“It is ok. If you would prefer, we may begin your lessons now. Perhaps, if your other tutor will grant you the same favor, you may get to your master a little earlier today.”
She liked the sound of that. She threw the half-empty water skin into her hut and followed her tutor to his house. At this point, much of her language tutoring was just rehashing rules and complex words that she had learned in previous years. They spent the rest of the time reciting various stories and poems that had been passed down for many generations.
Her second tutor, whose lesson about the history of the Korrs was much longer, was also willing to start early. She had heard his lesson about the Great Droughts a dozen times, but now, it contained details she was certain were not there before.
The First Great Drought happened around a thousand years earlier, though the exact time-frame was a matter of debate. Since the beginning of time, the Korrs had lived in Alba, the land where aBhith first created life. But after a hundred years of drought, the Korrs were forced to leave their home to find a new one. They traveled east until they came to Lochlann and settled in its frozen but fruitful land.
Around forty years ago, the Second Great Drought began, pushing the Korrs to begin the search for their homeland. Sailing west, they found Innis Tìle and settled it, but Alba, an unfrozen island, warm and covered in lush green, was still lost to them.
The drought still continued, and stories reached them from time to time about the capital city becoming a barren wasteland and the drought’s slow but constant march westward. The latest reports said that the drought had covered the entire mainland, and the Ard Rí had relocated to the far western shore.
Innis Tìle remained unaffected, and they held on to hope that, being on an island, isolated from Lochlann, they would not have to suffer it there.
Her tutor gave her the courtesy of a quick lesson. As soon as they finished, she rushed to Fenella’s house, foregoing the typical break for lunch. Fenella gave a short laugh when she saw the eager child’s face, which made no effort to hide her excitement or impatience to get to the hunt.
“I’m sorry Freya, but I am not quite ready yet.”
Disappointment covered her face, and Fenella continued, “But I should be ready soon. I assume you haven’t eaten lunch yet.”
Freya shook her head.
“You should. We will probably be out late, and you’ll need the strength. Besides, you don’t want to scare away the prey with the roaring of an empty stomach. Go eat, and I will come get you when I am ready.”
Freya plodded off to her hut, grabbed a bit of food and laid on her bed while she waited for Fenella.
“Freya, are you ready?”
Freya sat up quickly as Fenella entered her hut. She had dozed off after eating lunch. She jumped to her feet, hoping to appear alert, but sleep was still on her face.
“Ah. Would you like to sleep a little longer?” Fenella teased, a slight laughter in her voice. “I can come back later.”
“No, no. Let’s go.” There was urgency in her voice as she moved her hands to motion for them to leave the hut.
“You should grab a skin. We’ll fill them up at the river. We will be hunting in that direction today. Oh, and you will want to wear something else.”
She had forgotten to change into her hunting clothes. Fenella shut the door as Freya quickly threw off her dress and searched for the shirt she had intended to wear that day. She was already wearing appropriate leggings for the hunt. When she found her shirt, hidden under the dress she had worn the day before, she slipped it on, grabbed the skin from that morning, and followed her master outside.
Fenella picked up a bow and handed it to Freya. Another leaned against the hut, and Fenella took it for herself. Her bow was tall, sitting on the ground and reaching a couple hands above Freya’s head. It was the same bow that she practiced with, and she was confident that she would not struggle to use it. There were two quivers which they tied around their waists before making their way to the river.
Neither Freya nor Fenella said a word until they were there, filling up their skins.
Fenella finally broke the silence. “We will head across the river to hunt in the area just on the other side.” She pointed with one hand while the other remained submerged with the skin.
“What will I be hunting today?”
Freya was surprised. “Really? Should I not start with a small animal, easier to kill?”
“Easier to kill, maybe, but harder to hit as well. It’s best to start with a larger target that moves more slowly and is less prone to getting scared and running off before you attack.”
They headed downstream to a place where a small wooden bridge stretched across the river. The floors creaked underfoot as they crossed. From there, it was only a hundred feet to a group of bushes that would allow them to hide as they waited for a reindeer to come for a drink.
They sat quietly for a long time, scanning the surrounding area before a deer finally revealed itself. Fenella tapped Freya on the shoulder, which nearly made her jump. The deer was alerted but not startled. Its head raised, and it remained still. They held their breath and did not move, waiting for the animal to determine there was no threat and continue to the water.
“Silent and still.” It was a message that had been drilled into Freya from the beginning, long before she had begun her apprenticeship, when her old tutors had taught her tirelessly of the history and techniques of hunting and stalking prey. She was tempted to take a shot at the animal as it stood there, motionless, but she knew that drawing her bow could startle it. It would be much easier to get a shot when it was less alert. She needed the time to plan as she had previously only fired on stationary things at fixed distances from her and without obstructions.
The deer finally lowered its head and began walking again toward the river, where it immediately began to drink. Now was the time. Freya stood up slowly and quietly. She slid an arrow from her quiver and readied her bow. As she locked her aim, the animal’s head came up. Afraid that it was about to run, she loosed the arrow, which sank into the creature’s shoulder. She quickly drew another arrow and shot, but this time it missed entirely, flying right over the reindeer’s back as it ran away.
“There’s no use in that,” Fenella scolded, standing up and climbing out of the bushes. “The animal is hurt. We need to go after it.”
Fenella held her bow in one hand as she ran in the direction the deer had gone. Freya tried frantically to exit the bushes and follow, scratching her leg as a branch tore through her pants. She tripped and caught herself with her hands. A sharp rock dug into her right palm, which began bleeding as she pulled it out.
She could not see Fenella, but she knew the general direction in which she was running and headed that way. Her leg burned from the scratches, intensifying every time she put weight on it, and it was difficult to run. She limped as quickly as she could through the trees, holding her hand up and out to reduce blood flow.
Carrying the bow proved awkward and difficult. Her right hand was bleeding, and she needed her left hand free in case she had to grab a tree branch or catch herself again. She tried to carry the bow on her left shoulder, but it banged against her scrapes, making the pain and discomfort much worse. When she switched to the right shoulder, getting blood on the bow as she threaded her arm through it, the position caused it to continually slide off. Finally, she pulled it over her head, running diagonally across her chest. It still dragged the ground and slipped from her shoulder some, but it was at least manageable.
By the time she saw Fenella, she was heading back, an arrow in her hand with a bloodstained tip. Freya ran to her.
“What happened? Did you get it?”
Fenella shook her head. “I’m sorry, dear.” She held up the arrow. “I found this on the ground right around here. I tracked it a little back that way before it’s trail went dead.”
Fenella wrapped her arms around Freya, who had allowed the bow to fall from her shoulder and slide down her body to the ground. Freya dropped her arm to her side. Blood dripped from her palm, down her fingers and onto her leggings, her boots and the ground. She buried her face in Fenella’s shoulder, and she cried.
Freya and Fenella would return to the village empty-handed. On the way, Fenella had them stop to clean and bandage Freya’s wounds at the river.
“You know,” Fenella said as she finished wrapping a cloth around Freya’s hand, “my first hunt went badly as well.”
Freya’s sadness had shifted from distraught to melancholic, and the slight surprise at hearing that her very capable mentor had struggled was, to say the least, intriguing.
“I was about your age when I went on my first hunt. My master took me to the woods on the other side of the village, and we tracked a deer for a couple hours. When we finally found it, there were two others with it. I was so excited to get my first kill. I pulled back my bow, and the deer was perfectly unaware of my presence. But I was so nervous that I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. I loosed the arrow, and it completely missed my unmoving target. Of course, that was all it took to startle the entire group. I shot three more arrows, and none of them hit anything. We ran after those deer and never found them, and my master kept me out until after dark trying to find another prey.
“I was broken up about it for weeks and refused to go on another hunt. I even tried to tell the Ceannard and my master I was unfit to be a hunter. They didn’t believe me, and I eventually got out there and started hunting again. You see, many people tell stories about my natural talent, that I was born with a bow in one hand and a sionnach pelt in the other, but it took time to learn, to build confidence. I made mistakes and almost gave up on the whole thing.”
Freya threw her arms around Fenella and squeezed tight. “Thank you. I have no desire to give up. It’s just… I was just looking forward to today so much. I imagined over and over making that walk to the butcher and wrapping myself up in a new skin. Instead, here I am, no kill, no butcher, wrapping myself in bandages.”
“I understand, dear. Why don’t you come home with me tonight? I’ll introduce you to my family, and we can have some dinner.”
Fenella had intended to eat reindeer that evening, but they both decided that might not be a good idea and agreed on goose instead. As they entered the house, they were greeted by Fenella’s husband. He kissed her, and then she held out her hand, guiding Freya into the house.
“Freya, I would like you to meet my husband, Ros.”
“Hi.” Freya held out her arm which Ros grabbed and pulled her in to a hug. “You’re a woodworker, right?”
“Ros is actually the one who made your bow,” Fenella interjected.
“Yes, and I guess that makes you Freya. I have heard so many wonderful things about Fenella’s new, highly skilled archer apprentice.”
Disappointment covered Freya’s face. “Well, that observation is currently up for debate.”
“Oh. I’m sorry. Did things…”
Fenella shook her head.
“I see. Well, come in. It is wonderful to officially meet you.”
As she made her way to the chair where he told her to sit, something rammed into her bandaged leg. She yelped, a little from pain, a little from surprise.
“Catriona!” Fenella came in and pulled the child from her leg.
“What, mommy? I love this person, don’t I?”
Fenella laughed. “Well, she’s hurt on that leg.”
The little girl’s expression immediately switched to shame. “I’m sorry.”
Freya knelt down, putting her undamaged leg forward. “It’s ok, dear. I understand. Did I hear that your name is Catriona?”
Catriona’s expression shifted again to excitement. “Yes! And I love you.” She wrapped her arms around Freya’s other leg.
“You’ll have to forgive her. We’ve been discussing love with her lately, and she apparently feels like she loves everyone who enters our house now.”
“It’s ok. I understand. She’s quite adorable.” Freya couldn’t help but laugh at the intensity of everything the little girl did.
Fenella turned to her daughter. “Do you know who this is?”
“Do I need to know who she is to love her?” She turned to Freya. “Can you tell me who you are, so I can continue to love you?”
“No, no, no. You can love whoever you want, whether you know who they are or not. But would you like to know who she is?”
“Well, Daddy said her name was Freya, and I think she’s my sister. I heard you talk about her before, and the only other person I hear you talk to Daddy about with so many happy and angry faces is me.” The logic was irrefutable.
“Well, you can call me your sister if you like. Your mommy and I are good friends, but in many ways she’s like my new mommy, too.”
“Your new mommy? What happened to your old mommy?”
Freya looked at Fenella, unsure what to say. Fenella offered an explanation. “Well, Freya’s mother raised her until she was sixteen years old. At that time, she was, as all children are, given the choice to leave her house and dedicate herself to a master or stay in her home and study under one of her parents. She chose to study under me, and now I am responsible for her, in some ways much like I am responsible for you, until she goes out on her own.”
“So she lives with us now? She can sleep in my bed.”
“No, no. She lives in one of the huts on the edge of the village. She has to learn to be on her own now. When her apprenticeship is over in a few years, she will be allowed to get a better place and perhaps start a family of her own.”
Fenella and Freya stood up, and Catriona ran away into another room.
“For now,” Fenella said, pointing toward the seat where Freya had intended to sit, “enjoy the only time in my house that you will get to sit down while we prepare dinner.” Fenella turned and walked to the kitchen area, where Ros was already hanging the goose in the fireplace.