The Favourite Dish
A bead of sweat wove through Rowan’s eyebrow, and she wiped it with her forearm. The entire afternoon had passed while she chopped and sliced ingredients for Poppy’s favourite dish. A perfect, hearty meal for the cold days ahead. She glanced through the window while dicing sweet red peppers. A smile tugged at her mouth as she watched red and orange leaves hurry by, blown by the crisp autumn wind outside the tiny cabin she shared with her child. Rowan’s gaze grew distant as she recalled past autumns with her daughter. She blinked suddenly, realizing just how dark it had become. Poppy should have been home by now. Earlier this afternoon, Rowan had sent her to the mining village to collect the last few ingredients for their meal; a task that she should have completed by now.
Something moved through the ancient tree-trunks, drawing Rowan’s eyes. From behind one of the wych-elms appeared Poppy, striding towards the cabin, her sack of ingredients over one shoulder. She looked out of breath, and panicked. Rowan wiped her hands on her apron and went outside to meet her. Poppy let her sack fall to the earth as her mother emerged.
“They almost got me, Ma!” Poppy cried, gasping for breath. Rowan opened her arms, and the girl ran into her embrace.
“I’m here, sweetling. You’re in your safe place now.” She stroked her trembling daughter’s head, fingers smoothing down the wild tangles of fiery-red hair that had once matched her own, before it had faded to grey. They enjoyed the closeness of each other’s embrace, until Poppy pulled away, looking the older woman in the eye. “What is it, baby?” Rowan asked, caressing Poppy’s arm.
“Ma… I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? For what, sweetling?”
“I… they followed me here.” Poppy replied. Rowan reared as if struck in the gut. She covered her mouth, holding back the moan that threatened to bubble out. Seeing her mother’s reaction, Poppy’s face crumpled and she began to cry anew, shoulders heaving in time with her sobs
“It’s alright, Poppy – don’t cry.” Rowan embraced her girl again. _It’s my fault,_ Rowan thought, _I shouldn’t have sent her alone. I knew they’d started to get suspicious…_
“What will we do, Ma?”
“We’ll do like we’ve always done, my sweetling: hide away. Get your travelling cloak, then meet me by the old oak tree behind the cabin. Go, now!” Poppy wiped her eyes and nodded – the flush of her face matching the red of her hair. She gave her mother one last hug, then disappeared inside the cabin.
They’d hide again. But not too far away. They needed the village for food and supplies. And Flynn – Poppy’s father – still worked the copper mine. Flynn – the only man Rowan had ever loved. Flynn loved Rowan too – in his own way. But he would never allow them to live under his roof, for the village was also their greatest threat. Only a certain kind of woman could live safely alongside those men, up the mountain, next to the mine. Rowan was not that kind of woman.
Even down here in the valley, she and Poppy were not safe. It never took long for the men to track them down. A cracking branch from among the trees tore her from her reverie. Rowan climbed to her feet, stepped over Poppy’s forgotten sack, and ducked into the cabin. “Poppy?” She called softly, her voice cracking. _Maybe she already made it to the tree,_ Rowan prayed. A rustling from outside the open door set her to trembling. _must keep moving,_ she thought, as an icy knot tightened in her belly. She darted back into the kitchen, and stuffed a canvas sack with enough items to see them through several days. She lifted the latch on the rear door, and ducked through the narrow opening with some difficulty – the past occupants had been much smaller than her. She had taken two steps towards the woods when a cry sounded out, stopping her in her tracks. It was Poppy, and it had come from the front of the cabin. Rowan’s mouth went dry, and she turned back.
“Rowan Flanagan! We have your girl; come out where we can see you,” came a deep voice. Rounding the cabin, she saw a band of village men surrounding her daughter. Poppy stood over her forgotten sack, which still lay on the ground. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she faced the men, towering over all but the tallest of them. The men backed away as Rowan approached, brandishing picks and shovels.
“We’ve got you now, fiend. Your evil stops here,” the man with the deep voice said. She looked down at him, and her heart sank. Standing next to the man was Flynn, tears staining his face.
“Flynn,” Rowan began, reaching out for him. He shook his head mutely, and took a step backwards.
“The bag – open it girl!” The man ordered. Poppy sobbed, but complied, and gasps arose from the men. There lay the ingredients that her daughter had fetched: onions, potatoes, and man flesh. It was Poppy’s favourite dish. And Rowan’s too, truth be told. The mining village had always been an excellent source of meat. Rowan turned back to the little men arrayed about her and barred her pointed teeth.