"So what did he say?" Amy, one of the three girls, asked.
"He said I'd have to wait until we got back before the elder would answer my questions," Jenna answered. "But he didn't answer the one I wanted answered."
"What did you ask?" Jane, the other girl, asked.
"I asked what dangers there could possibly be in the forest, besides bears and snakes," Jenna said. Amy and Jane exchanged a glance, then looked at Jenna again.
"What is it, guys?" Jenna asked.
"You mean you haven't heard?" Amy asked.
"Heard what?" Jenna wondered.
"About the dragon that lives to the north," Jane answered. Jenna looked at her friend for a moment before bursting into laughter.
"That's a good one, Jane!" she said, calming down a moment later. "Dragon, indeed. Everyone knows that dragons don't exist. That story was made up to keep everyone but the hunters from going into the forest."
"Then why is it that some of the hunters that have gone into the forest have never come back?" Amy asked.
"They just got lost, is all," Jenna said, waving her hand in a dismissive manner. "They got lost or wound up injured and unable to return."
"Then how do you explain that nobody has ever found any traces of the missing hunters, despite sending out search parties?" Amy asked.
"They could have been found and taken in by another village," Jenna said. "Hunters can cover their tracks, you know."
"You girls should be more careful about what you speak of," said another voice. Startled, the three girls turned to see a young man standing there, a cocky grin on his face.
"Go away, Harper," Jenna said, and Harper grinned.
"Still trying to resist my good looks, Jenna?" he said.
"Please, the only thing that looks good about you is a face full of mud," she retorted.
"I'm hurt, Jenna," Harper said, feigning an indignant look. "How can you say that to your future husband?"
"You've got another thing coming if you think I'll agree to marry you, Harper!" Jenna said, her temper beginning to flare.
"Actually, you don't have a choice in the matter," said yet another voice. Jenna looked behind Harper to see Steve, Harper's father, standing there.
"We've already made arrangements with your mother," Steve said. "The wedding will take place this time next year. I suggest you use that time to get to know one another." He turned to leave, but Jenna's voice stopped him.
"My father would never allow this," she said. Steve turned and regarded the girl with a cold look.
"Perhaps not, if he hadn't run away all those years ago," he said, turning to leave again.
"You don't know anything about my father!" Jenna yelled. "My father was a better man than you'll ever be!"
"Watch your tongue, you insolent whelp!" Steve said, spinning to face her again. "Your father was a coward that couldn't face the fact that your mother gave him a daughter, instead of a son. He couldn't live with knowing that your mother could never bear any more children after she whelped you. So he took the first chance he got and ran. If he really wanted you, he would have stayed with you and your mother!"
Amy, Jane, and Harper, along with several other villagers that were watching the scene, were shocked that Steve would say such things, but Jenna was furious. The hunter's words about her father had scarred her deeply, and she lunged at the man's retreating form, picking up a board as she did so. Using all her strength, she swung the board at Steve's back, but the man sidestepped the swing and turned, wrenching the board from her grasp before backhanding her across the face, sending her sprawling in the dirt. Steve advanced on Jenna angrily, picking her up by the hair and making as if to strike her again. Before he could do so, however, he felt his free hand grabbed in a vice-like grip, and he turned to see a young man standing there.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were ye," the stranger said. "Put her down gently, and walk away."
"Don't tell me what to do, whelp!" Steve growled, releasing Jenna and moving to strike the stranger. Amy and Harper caught Jenna as she dropped, unconscious, from Steve's grip.
"I'll take Jenna home," Harper said, and Amy nodded. Picking Jenna up in his arms, he carried the girl to her house, where her mother instructed him to lay the girl on Jenna's bed.
"What happened, Harper?" Ellie, Jenna's mother, asked.
"She was kicked by one of the horses," Harper answered, too ashamed to admit the truth.
"Thank you for carrying her home," Ellie said, and Harper nodded, then returned to see what would happen to the young man that had stopped Steve from harming Jenna further.
The stranger in question was just fine. In fact, he now had Steve in a rather painful arm lock, thus preventing the man from striking anyone. Steve, for his part, thrust his elbow backward, but the young man evaded the blow and struck Steve in the back of one knee, causing the hunter's legs to buckle and the stranger to pin the bigger man on the ground.
"What on earth is going on here?" Elbert demanded, arriving on the scene.
"Best stay back, Elder," the stranger said. "This one's getting a lesson in manners."
"What do you think you're doing, young man?" Elbert asked. "Release Steve at once!"
"Ye don't know what's happened, Elder," the stranger said. "This man insulted a young lady and her family, then struck her unconscious when she tried to defend her family's honor. He needs a lesson in manners, and I aim to see that he gets it."
"Who was the girl Steve struck?" Elbert asked. The hunter in question spluttered a reply from his place on the ground.
"She's the worthless whelp of a coward!" he growled. "Everyone here knows the wench's father ran off because he couldn't stand the thought that his wife couldn't give him a son!"
"Quiet, ye!" the stranger said, pressing his knee into Steve's back.
"Who did you strike, Steve?" Johnny asked. Steve looked at his fellow hunter and closed his mouth, refusing to say anything.
"Jenna," Harper said, and Elbert looked at him.
"It was Jenna, Elder," Harper said. "My father told her he'd made arrangements with her mother, so that Jenna would have to marry me this time next year. When Jenna said her father would never allow that, he started insulting Jenna and her family, saying her father was a coward that ran off because he couldn't face the fact that his wife couldn't have any more children after Jenna. He also said that if Jenna's father really wanted her, he would have stayed with her and her mother."
"Steve, is this true?" Elbert asked.
"The wench had it coming!" the hunter yelled. "She's been the bane of this village for far too long, and she needs to learn to respect her elders!"
"Johnny, Brandon, shackle him," the elder said, and the two hunters moved forward, securing Steve's arms and legs with metal shackles. The stranger rose so the two hunters could lift Steve from the ground, and Johnny and Brandon dragged the struggling Steve to the center of the village.
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