Summers hold so many secrets, hidden in the deep shadows under the trees and in the verdant undergrowth that grows and spreads to cover the bare ground left by the cruel cold of winter. Helda knew there were places to go where food lay hidden. She knew which of the berries, which of the mushrooms, which of the other plants and flower were safe to eat. She had learnt that much. She knew which streams to drink from and where. She knew enough about hunting to capture, kill, clean and cook small animals.
What Helda did not know, though, was how to be alone.
She was glad it was summer, though; food was available, if not plentiful. The nights were warm enough to sleep in the open and – most of all – there were plenty of places to hide.
When she was young, there had been tales of the Northmen, told to scare the children from running too far from the village and to make them huddle close at night. But they were tales of long ago, before the shaman, Herrick, and the wise woman, Sheena, were born. A time so long ago, Helda struggled to think of it.
Somehow, the Northmen – or some like them – had come again. Now her village was no more than a smouldering blood-soaked stain on the summer ground and Helda was alone. She had been out in the woods when the Northmen – if they were Northmen – had rampaged through the village.
She was there, waiting for Shen, her heart fluttering as she saw him sneak away from the field he was supposedly clearing. She saw him drop the scythe he was using to cut the tall green grass down. Helda saw him glancing back over his shoulder as he scurried towards the woods where she waited for him.
Helda and Shen were promised to each other. They would become man and wife – as tradition demanded it – once the harvest was brought in.
But like so many betrothed couples, neither of them could wait any longer. The rest of the village knew this, remembered their young days, and pretended to look away when the youngsters snuck off into the woods together, or lingered behind in the barns and livestock sheds. No-one was ever surprised when some girl was heavy with child by the time of the marriage rites.
In fact, as Sheena had told Helda one night as they made potions together, it was regarded as good luck, as a blessed marriage, if the girl was already with child by the time she was married.
Now, Helda was alone in the world, alone in the woods, diving deep into the undergrowth every time she heard a sound. Every night she woke shivering and crying from her dreams of seeing Shen scurrying through the fields. The Northmen riding him down and his blood against the bright summer sky as his head flew from his body and his headless corpse fell into the long grass.
It was summer, full of life and promise. But Helda was alone, struggling to stay alive in the woods.
And now, she could feel her stomach swelling slightly more each day, feel the life growing there, knowing that soon she would be alone no more and that was even scarier.