Her breath hissed through her teeth and she stilled herself, listening. She heard the rasp of a second arrow leaving the quiver, the tap of the shaft against bow, a sigh as the notch touched bowstring. She heard the strain as the bow was drawn.
She took two silver balls from her pouch, tossed them from hand to hand, and waited.
As the balls moved faster, gaining energy, she waited.
As the balls blurred they moved so fast, she waited.
Until the man stepped into a shaft of sunlight lighting the gloom of the forest, she waited.
Then she let them fly.
She heard the crack of a rib breaking as the first struck home and the smack of the second against skull.
Then the softer sound of a body hitting the forest floor.
She watched the arrow, loosed from the bow, fly harmlessly into the sky and fall to the ground nearby.
She turned and laid her hand on the trunk of the tree behind her, asking forgiveness for the harm that had come to it because of her. The bark, where her blood had touched it, was black and brittle.
She paused a moment longer, listening for others. There were some, far off, moving away. She stood and made her way to the fallen man.
He was tall, this hunter of her kind. A strong face, brows knitted in pain over dark eyes. His hair was short, dark like his eyes, and poorly cut. Blood trickled down his face from a wound above his left eye.
She knelt smoothly and retrieved the two balls. A low groan from the man caused her to look at him. He was struggling to sit up. Her ears caught the rasp of broken bones as they scraped over one another.
She moved swiftly to his side and laid her hand on him, pressing him back. His breath caught sharply as he stifled a cry of pain.
"Foolish man," she said, the liquid sounds of her language smooth as water. "If a rib pierces your lung, you will die for want of breath."
He looked at her, confusion in his face.
"Lie still," she said, switching to their clumsy words. "I will help."
She ran her finger through the wound on her arm, coating it with blood. The man made to grab her hand as she brought it to his head. She swatted his away as she might a child's and looked at him.
"I can heal you," she said, "or you can die."
She waited, her finger poised. The man said nothing.
"My blood can heal or harm. It is a matter of intent." She held his eyes with hers. "I will heal you."
He nodded and she traced the wound on his forehead. His skin was softer than she had expected and warm to the touch. She pressed his head back so he lay on the earth and cupped the wound with her palm.
When she withdrew her hand, the wound was cleansed, the skin knitting.
"You will carry a scar to remind you of this day," she said, "to remind you of your foolishness."
He frowned at her but said nothing. She opened his doublet and saw the bruising she had caused. "This will hurt," she said and pressed her fingers hard against the bruise. He groaned again. She paid him no heed as her knowledgable fingers moved to align the broken bones.
After a while she sat back on her heels and looked at him. He lay on the ground, his breath coming in short, harsh gasps. "Why did you seek to kill me?" she asked.
He slowed his breathing, testing how his chest worked, and turned his head to face her. "If I had sought your life, you would be dead." He raised his hand to touch the healing wound over his eye. "Just as I would be, had you sought mine."
She nodded at that and turned to show the wound on her arm. "And this?"
"I am new come to this place," he said. "They told me there was a thief. They asked my help to catch this thief." He looked at her directly. "Are you a thief?"
"My people have lived in these forests from long before you, or your kind, were here," she said. "There is less forest now than before. So, who is the thief?"
He nodded his head and struggled to a sitting position. She saw the pain that crossed his face, and saw that it had lessened.
"You are strong," she said. "You will heal." She lifted her head in the direction of the forest's edge. "You live in the old cottage atop that hill?"
"No one was there," he said. "It is as good a place as any."
She held out her hand and he grasped it. His breath hissed again as she helped him to his feet.
"You can reach it on your own," she said.
"Will I see you again?"
"Perhaps." She moved away from him in the graceful manner of her kind. She did not look back but heard him as he walked out of the forest.
Some time later he returned to her mind. She went to the forest's edge. The old cottage was still there, a thin thread of smoke from a fire within. She made her way to the open door.
"I wondered when you might return," he said.
She stood in the doorway, looking at his face. The scar was still there, but his head was crowned with thin, white hair and he was stooped with age.
He looked up at her from the chair he was sitting on, a frown creasing his brow.
"You look as you did that day," he said.
"Time," she said, "flows differently for my kind. Forgive me. I should have returned sooner."
He shrugged. "I am glad to see you again. All those I grew to know are long gone. Yet I am still here. Is that because--"
She nodded. "I healed you. And so you lived long, longer than you might have." She looked around his home. "You never took a woman."
He shook his head. "No. I did not. For I never saw the woman I wanted again, until now."
She sighed. "Foolish, now as always. Joy was to be had, and you settled for longing."
"Can you heal that longing?"
She smiled sadly. "I can end it," she said, "not heal."
He nodded. "That is enough."
She drew the blade of a short knife across her left palm. The blood welled up along the cut. She moved to him and pressed her hand against his brow. He shivered, arched his back and was still.
She stepped back and regarded him.
The frown was gone; he was smiling.
She turned and left.