I've shared this story before, a long time ago and I have new followers now, plus I'm working on the story to edit it. If you've read the story and have no interest in reading it again - with or without the improvements and commentary - please feel free to move on and ignore it.
If you've not read the story or you feel you'd like to re-read it and are perhaps curious about the comments and adjustments I'm making, please, grab a cuppa or a glass of wine, sit down, and enjoy the journey.
The cover image for Deadlier Beginnings as seen on Amazon.com Link
"I am curious, what were you doing so far into the wood in the dark?" Luke asked as Hazel entered the tiny cottage.
"I was looking for Mika, he's not been home all day, and no one has seen him. I thought I saw him on the edge of the forest and followed him. I didn't realise how far I'd gone or how late it had got." Hazel was staring at her feet; her eyes were filling with tears.
"He will come back when he's hungry, Hazel. He probably found a lady friend and went courting."
"I suppose so, but I don't like him not being here with me at night." Hazel looked up and wiped away a tear.
"He is a large dog, Hazel. He can look after himself, you know that." Luke wiped away another tear with the back of his fingers.
"It's not him I'm worried about, it's me. After tonight I am scared that whatever was chasing me will track me here." Hazel wiped again at her eyes.
"I can take you to my lodging house if you would prefer company, or even to Katherine's house, she would not mind an overnight guest whilst Darius is away." Luke said and smiled at her.
"I think I shall stay here. Mika may come back during the night. Thank you for your kindness." Hazel stepped forward as though to kiss Luke on his cheek, but instead she blushed, lowered her gaze and turned to push the door shut. It made a horrible scraping noise as she forced it closed. She did not see him smiling as he turned to leave.
Hazel's sleep was fretful and disturbed. She woke herself more than once during the night. Before dawn broke she was on the floor by the fire, swathed in blankets from the pallet she used as a bed. The fire hadn't had time to burn out when she awoke so she put more logs on, wrapped the blankets around herself and tried to sleep where she lay.
She awoke with a fright to realise Mika was scratching and whining at the door. At first she was horrified at the noise and shrank back from it. As she realised what it was, she scrambled out of her blankets to the door. It was as stiff as it had been the previous evening but she remembered to lift as she pulled, and again, it opened smoothly.
Mika was soaked. He trudged in, trailing a rope from his neck. His tongue lolled to the side of his mouth and his ears were down. The rope was strangling him. Hazel got a knife from the fireside and with a lot of effort, cut through the rope. The knot was tied so that the more Mika pulled, the tighter the noose became. Lucky for him, the old rope had snapped before he had strangled himself. He was cold and dirty and he stumbled over to the fire, trying to lie on Hazel's blankets. She yanked the blankets away before he got his muddy paws all over them and got them as wet as he was.
"You can lie on the rug. I'll get something to dry you with," she said.
Mika seemed to understand what she said to him; he was looking at her as she spoke.
At the back of the room there was a pile of neatly folded, threadbare blankets that was used for extra warmth in the winter. Fetching one of the thicker ones, she rubbed Mika till he was fluffy; then he lay down in front of the fire. His massive head resting on his feet and as he drifted deeper into slumber, he curled his back towards the fire and started snoring.
Hazel watched him sleep for a little while, smiling at the way his feet twitched.
She left him and went outside to the back of the house where the hencoop and woodpile were. Dawn was just breaking and the light was enough to see by and she stepped back in shock at the sight of her tiny back yard.
The fencing that enclosed the hen-run was reduced to matchwood; not a stick was left standing. There were feathers strewn everywhere, something had rampaged through. The carnage was total and there wasn’t a single chicken left alive. The blood was not congealed, it dripped from the wreckage of the coop and was sprayed dark and wet along the wall of her cottage; she saw one headless chicken on her roof.
The blood on the lime-washed wall was smeared as if something had moved along, touching it. The smears were high up and as tall as a man.
Whatever had done it could be close; she backed off round the corner of the cottage and ran for her nearest neighbour.
Hazel collided with William as he rounded the corner of his cottage. The force of impact knocked Hazel off her feet and the wind from her lungs. William did not seem to be affected as he pulled her upright and she dusted herself off, trying to catch her breath.
"Steady lass, you'll do someone an injury," William grumbled, his broad Derbyshire accent shortening some of the words.
"I'm... sorry William." She was panting with shock.
“Here, what's wrong lass?" William was concerned at the state she was in.
"Something killed all of my chickens!" she blurted, half-turning to look behind her.
Suddenly, Hazel couldn't hold her emotions in check any more. Not only the chickens’ slaughter and Mika being almost strangled, but after her narrow escape in the wood the previous night and the disturbed sleep she had had, her nerves were frayed beyond measure and she broke down, sobbing.
William gently led Hazel by the hand into his cottage. Ruth, William's wife, took one look at Hazel and made her sit by the fire whilst William poured a cup of ale.
William walked out of the door, muttering about hysterical women and chickens.
"Sit quietly and sip that, dear, don't gulp it," Ruth said.
She left Hazel to calm down a little, pottering about the one-roomed cottage she and her husband shared. She was concerned and attentive and as Hazel started crying Ruth came to her to put her arms around the girl. Hazel put her head on Ruth's shoulder and her arms around her and sobbed.
"This isn't just about a few chickens is it now?" Ruth coaxed.
“No, it’s not just the chickens, it’s, it’s everything!” she wailed. “I can’t keep the cottage on because of the rent. I can’t work the land my father had because there’s only me left and I can’t find anyone to help me work it. Then, yesterday, someone stole Mika,”
“Stole Mika? Oh come now, who would do such a thing?”
“It’s true! He came back just now with a rope around his neck. I was looking for him last night when something chased me through the woods,” she clutched Ruth’s arms trying to convince her.
“Something chased you?” Ruth’s voice took on a more serious tone and she held Hazel’s hand tighter than before.
Image 1 From Google
I pictured a young girl that had lost her parents and lived alone in the home she had shared. None of this explained how she managed to keep under the radar so to speak, with regards to a young, single girl living alone, unmarried, in a home owned by a lord or laird who would expect at least two people's work in exchange for the home. I have a lot to think about when I re-write this.
Image 2 From Google