Summer peeled open her sleep-swollen eyelids.
The emerald pendant was convulsing sharply against the base of her throat, mirroring the wild pounding of her heartbeat. Sweat beaded on her pale forehead and her vision slowly cleared the image of her tiny bedroom.
Light poured in from the small cracks in the ceiling, illuminating specks of dust and dirt floating around in the air. Summer was lying on her cot that became too small a couple years back, swathed in several layers of thin, homespun blankets. A rickety chair in a corner held the few possessions she owned in a small leather sack with a clean stack of neatly folded clothes sitting beside it. The walls of her room were darkened with browned mottling of age, the floor was of dirt and the ceiling had a fist-sized hole in one spot. It was her home.
Summer threw the patched sheets of blanket aside and shivered as the morning air raised the hairs on her legs. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation - eerie and uncomfortable. Quickly, she dressed in her full gear and slid on her worn hunting boots. There was a long day ahead of her.
She paused by the door, a hand on the knob. Her pendant had ceased the pulsing and resumed its cold, inanimate form. Picking it up, she stared into it curiously. Startling amber eyes and a waterfall of ebony hair cascading from a thin, pale face reflected back at her. Beyond that, the emerald green abyss of the pendant was obscure and unfathomable, intriguing Summer to solve its mystery. She curled the emerald into her fist and closed her amber eyes. Faint images danced behind her eyelids, forming barely visible shapes. The glimmer of the fire, a glimpse of a –
Suddenly, the door flew open and Summer yelped, the pendant slipping from her grasp. An elderly woman with bright blue eyes and elegant salt-and-pepper hair stood there, sinewy hands on her hips and looking not at all ruffled.
“Mira.” Summer shook her head and clutched her faintly beating pendant. “Mira, you scared me half-dead. You could knock next time.”
“And you could get up earlier next time,” Mira replied, calmly. “It’s nearly noontime.”
Summer groaned. “I’m sorry about that. Is there any breakfast?”
The old woman chuckled lightly. “You’re lucky I even saved you any, my dear.” Mira glanced at Summer’s clothing, and those sky-blue eyes narrowed, her wrinkled mouth opening. “You’re not –”
“Well,” said Summer loudly. “I’m starving. I think I smell cornbread.” Summer ducked out her room and into the immediate next, the kitchen. Sure enough, on the wooden dining table was a plate of freshly baked cornbread. Her stomach rumbled.
Mira was still narrowing her eyes as Summer plopped down on a hard wooden stool and chewed on a slice of bread. Avoiding it was no use; Mira would somehow nudge it into conversation before Summer left.
“Good day, hmm?” Summer said in between hungry bites. “Sunny, I think.”
Mira raised her level gaze toward Summer and leaned on a wall. There was no anger or annoyance in those honest blue eyes, just frustration.
“Summer, are you going to those woods again?”
There was no point hiding it. “Yes.”
Mira sighed. “I wish you wouldn’t go in those woods. It’s dangerous in there. You know that.”
“Somebody needs to hunt for the fresh meat for tomorrow’s feast.”
“Not you.” Mira hesitated. “Women aren’t supposed to be doing men’s work.”
“All the men in the village are chickens. None of them would dare hunt out there anyway.” Summer ripped the remaining piece of bread into pieces. “I’m the best hunter here. And you shouldn’t go discriminating women either.”
Mira looked up at the cracked ceiling. “I see I can’t convince you either way. I’m not going to force you,” she added, seeing Summer’s look, “but please, Summer. Be careful.”
A faint smile made a way onto Summer’s pale complexion, a flicker of amusement.
“When am I not?”
Mira threw her hands up. “Oh, for the love of Nature – when you walked through that doorway with half your arm missing?”
Summer rubbed her forehead, recalling. “That was only a scratch. Believe me, it could have been worse.”
If eyes could ever look more like knives, it would Mira’s blue ones right now. She turned away and stalked off to the kitchen, muttering to herself.
A wooden pot clanged loudly. “Rolfe should know better than to give you that bow.”
“It’s my bow. You gave it to him without my consent.”
“For the standard of safe-keeping, not for dancing with monsters whenever you please.”
“The only monsters alive are the Kingdom men.”
Summer had struck a pressure point. Mira’s teeth clenched.
“Don’t mention those names here, please,” Mira said, quietly. “We’ve had enough of them for a lifetime.”
It was silent a moment. Summer cursed herself inwardly.
Mira shook her silver head slowly. “Never mind. Do you want some more cornbread? There’s more here.” Her eyes were hidden as she held out the chipped plate of more cornbread.
“I’m fine.” Summer stood up. “I should be going, anyway.”
Mira set the plate back down.
“I’ll see you, then.” Summer glanced back once more.
Mira’s lined face seemed exhausted and aged, not like the Mira seven years ago. Was she eating enough? Probably. The crops were growing exceptionally well this year. But Mira had the most years in the village, after all. She should retire, Summer thought, but she would never in a million years. Mira would still be trying to help out even if both her legs were broken.
But what could Summer say? Mira acknowledged the fact that it was Summer’s duty to provide the village with meat in all seasons, yet it still seemed to ring an uneasy bell. The Thanatos Forest was dangerous enough.
Knowing the only words that could possibly be comforting to Mira, Summer muttered, “I’ll be careful, Mira,” and dashed out the door