The wind blew hard through her hair as she staggered into the shelter of the trees. It had been four days since she had run away from Eanrin and his loathsome family.
The girl sagged against a tree, the large making her appear slighter than she really was. Her blond hair spilled forward from her hood, tangled, dirty and entwined around small twigs and leaves. The rest of her was no better, caked with dirt, bruises still swollen and cuts bleeding when she did not take care to avoid straining those particular limbs.
Wincing in pain, she made her way deeper into the forest, in search of a place to rest. She came to a clearing and let herself lie down tenderly avoiding putting pressure on her more serious bruises.
In some part of her fatigued mind, she registered a rustling of branches nearby. Too exhausted to pay it much heed, she closed her eyes and fell deep into the void of sleep.
Someone was speaking. She couldn't make out the words, but the voice was not threatening, so she didn't give any effort to open her eyes.
There was an annoying tugging at her scalp and a few muttered curses. She attempted to lift a hand and swat at the tugger, but was too weak to do so.
Instead, her mind floated for an instant, before nestling back into sleep.
She drifted in and out of consciousness. Sometimes she sensed other people around her and at other times, she seemed alone. Once, she opened her eyes for a moment and saw the hovering face of a woman not much older than herself. The woman smiled a gesture which the other returned weakly before losing consciousness again.
When next she awoke, she raised herself up on her elbows. She was still in the forest, as it would seem according to the trees to her right. On her left was a crude wall-like structure of cloth stretched between two wooden staffs.
From the other side of this wall, came the sound of arguing voices.
"We can't bring her to the camp," a man said. "Firstly, Aidan would have my skin, then Bryte my head and the hounds, whatever's left."
"Nonsense," admonished a melodious female voice. "Why should they be angry? She's only a girl, and one in need, at that."
"The same was once thought of Alista of Manos – and we all know what happened because of that," said a second male voice.
"Well and good," persisted the woman, "but do you really think that a girl as bedraggled as this could cause even half as much trouble?"
"Never underestimate the amount of trouble a woman can cause," advised the second man.
At this moment, the girl behind the cloth wall found her throat itching and began to cough, though she might have liked to hear the rest of the conversation. The speakers on the other side wall of cloth ceased their talk as the woman rushed to her patient's side and poured the younger a cup of water. When the girl's coughing was sufficiently subdued, the woman smiled.
She smiled was young; perhaps twenty or so summers. She had hair that was neither blond nor brown, but a hazy combination of both. Her eyes were grey, but with small sparks of blue and purple forming halos around her pupils.
"There now," she said. "You've been sleeping for most a fortnight. We worried you might not fully wake."
"A fortnight?" the girl repeated, astonished.
"Aye, restless you were. As if you were trying to run from something."
"No doubt I was," she murmured softly.
"Nothing. Could you tell me where we are?"
"We will," a new voice interjected. "But first, you must answer our own questions."
The girl looked up to see the two men who she had heard conversing with the woman. Her shoulders grew rigid, the way they always did when she saw a man.
Both were tall and well built. One, taller than his companion by half a hand's width or so, was dark haired with a square jaw and an eagle's sharp eyes. It was he who had spoken. The other possessed dark golden hair and hazel green eyes that looked as if they could see everything and pretend they had seen nothing.
The girl nodded slowly, regarding the two men with wary eyes. She could almost see the blond haired one noting this and storing it away for future use.
"Why were you in the woods where we found you?" the dark haired man asked.
"I ran away."
"That's none of your business."
"Dag!" the woman exclaimed. "For the gods' sakes, the poor thing's frightened. She doesn't need you bothering her about things she doesn't want to speak of."
The man, Dag, looked at the woman and something in his countenance softened. He turned back to the girl. "What's your name?"
"I don't have one."
"And I don't have time to play games," he growled back. "I asked for your name, girl."
"I told you: I don't have one."
He glared at her. "Who did you run away from? Your parents or your husband?"
"I can't remember my parents and I don't have a husband. I ran away from a merchant family who took me in after…" her voice trailed into nothingness.
"After what?" Dag demanded.
He growled again and picked up something from the ground, holding it up for her to see. It was her Cornixan flag. "We found this in your pack. How did you get it and what does it mean to you?"
The girl looked around at their faces, then back at the flag. The colours gleamed dully in the light that penetrated the cloth wall from the fire on the other side. It was her only clue to the past and her only hope of a future.
"It was on the mast of the ship," she said simply.
"What ship?" the woman questioned. Dag cast her an annoyed look, but turned expectantly to the girl.
"The ship that I was on. The ship that crashed on the rocks of the Hralk River near the ruins," the girl replied, thinking of the day she had awoken. The sun had shone as if in mockery of the confusion she had felt. She remembered feeling alone; helpless; at a loss for something she felt she could not survive without…
Her three companions exchanged glances.
"When was this?" Dag's voice was softer now.
"Thirteen years ago."
"She must have been one of those who fled by ship." It was the man with the gold hair who spoke now. "But the only ruins near the Hralk are in Leon. Why would a Cornixan ship, trying to escape, go into Leon?"
Silence reigned amongst the four gathered there. Finally, Dag spoke. "This merchant family… what did they call you?"
The girl's lip curled in disgust and she threw him a withering glance before looking away. "Mlaw," she muttered.
The woman's eyes showed pity and concern and Dag frowned, but the other man showed no reaction but a slight change of light in his eyes that could have been mistaken for a reflection of the fire.
"Why?" Dag inquired.
"Because I could remember nothing after the shipwreck."
Dag's frown deepened and he looked at the other man. A silent agreement passed between them and the latter bent down beside the girl. She flinched away from him, but he caught her arm and rolled up the sleeve, examining the bruises beneath. His fingers ran over a long, neat cut that twisted around her forearm.
The man shook his head. "Not from brambles or rocks. Not something one would encounter just by wandering in the woods."
"Just spit it out, Cein," Dag said, annoyed.
Cein's eyes locked with the girl's. "It was a whip, wasn't it?"
She lifted her chin, trying to maintain whatever dignity she could before the inevitable tears came. "I don't know. I was unconscious."
He pulled her hair back, examining a scar that ran down the rim of one ear. "A knife," he stated.
She repeated the gesture to him. "An elf," she observed, mimicking his tone.
He laughed. "Aye. Does it surprise you?"
"Only that I didn't realize it sooner."
"Do you consider yourself observant, then?"
Her eyes darkened slightly, "It's a matter of survival for me."
He nodded solemnly and once again touched her hair. "Gilda," he murmured. "We shall call you Gilda."
A.N. Seems like a long chapter. I dunno. Maybe it's just me. Anyways, hope you enjoy.