Chapter IV: "Fake cover"

"Cole, you can't tell me that you, the great slayer of hunters, are afraid of Midosa?"

The great slayer didn't even want to know how much sarcasm and mockery was put into that sentence. Shivering of the cold and enduring a painful backside because of the horse riding, Cole would much rather be in a nice, warm inn, on a nice, warm bed than where he was now. There were unexplainable sounds coming from everywhere, usual for a forest, but they made this one all the more dangerous. The tall man glared over his should to the girl who sat behind him on the tired horse.

"Shut up, Madoline."

The very large bear growled at this and Cole led the horse a bit away from the snouted animal with its short tail and round ears. "I'm not scared, it's just not safe. You've only just been bonded, and for all we know, Thom and Joann have already passed through long ago. I say we go around this thing."

"And lose days? I've been send to Horse and Raven for a reason, Cole, and no stupid forest is going to stop me from delivering the message. Hunters or not."

Giving up, the tall man sighed heavily. "Get off, then we'll eat something first." He felt like he was repeating himself; for the second time in a short time, he was this close to Midosa, which was already more often than most witches were in a lifetime. The weasel, who had first slept on Madoline's lap, jumped off and looked very excited by the prospect of food. "It's not much, but it's all I have left, so don't even bother to complain." Cole looked at everyone when he said this, but seemed to focus his attention on the weasel.

Some bread, a little bit of cheese, a flagon with water, and a handful of mice came out of the saddlebag. The tall man's gaze went from the weasel to the mice to the bear, and finally settled on the weasel. "You will share, unless he won't take it, understood?"

Madoline snorted at this. "You sound like a teacher. But don't worry, he'll take it."

Teeth flashed when the weasel realised he had to share his food. The small mammal looked at the bear as though he seriously considered to attack the much larger animal, but under Cole's strict gaze he settled, grudgingly, for what he got.

The rest was divided between the two humans and each drunk some water. Cole's eyes kept returning to the forest, to the threatening cover that the trees gave and the confusing, natural sounds that came from it. Why did those wretched siblings had to go in there? He cursed them inside his head with the foulest curses he could made up, but soon enough the tall made bored himself with his own complains and he stood up. "We're going."

"Already?" the redhead slightly whined, completely forgetting her earlier haste.

Cole sighed impatiently. "Yes, already." Once again, his eyes averted to the forest, which hadn't changed one bit during the meal. That unsafe feeling still radiated from it, and it gave the tall man the creeps. And he wasn't one to be scared that easily.

While he made the horse ready, Cole saw how Madoline softly talked to the bear while stroking his fur which, even Cole had to admit, was beautiful. Short and shiny, the question sneakily entered the tall man's mind; How did it feel? Then he noticed the weasel standing next to him, looking more disapproving than usual. Cole grinned and bent down to stroke the small mammal over the head, which the animal didn't mind – or at least didn't mind as much as everything else.

This time, the weasel didn't sat on Madoline's lap but sped ahead together with the bear through the trees. The latter never went far away unlike the former, but it made both humans feel a lot safer, and it also allowed them to travel faster than most would do in Midosa. The biggest delays came from low branches and slippery grounds, or when one of the two animals came back with a warning. Sometimes a loud scream echoed through the forest and the bear would return with blood-stained teeth and fur. Cole couldn't help thinking that his way was a lot more pleasant for the victim than the bear's, and wondered why that was comforting.

Finally, they paused by a small brook, clattering modestly with clean, drinkable water. Almost immediately the weasel appeared by their side, quickly followed by the bear. Gratefully, Cole drank from the water, but never let his guard down. He'd never trust this forest, and jumped a feet in the air when the bear suddenly started fishing.

Next to him, Madoline did the same, wetting the ends of her red hair as she bent down deeply. Cole waited until she was finished before asking her the question that had been bugging him all morning. They hadn't talked much while travelling, except for the sneered remarks Madoline made when Cole looked strangely at her when she swiftly hugged the bear after he had killed someone. And she had criticised him!

"So, Madol, what was that message that the Circle gave you? Or did someone else give it?"

The redhead glared at Cole – she took every chance to do that, even the unjustified ones. "It was the Circle, and it's none of your business, so keep your nose out of it."

Holding up his hands in defeat, the tall man walked away with the flagon and filled it with fresh water. Meanwhile, the bear had collected a small amount of fish. Despite the fact that a warm meal appealed to Cole, he decided it wasn't worth the risk of getting detected by their fire, and raw fish had no appeal whatsoever. So the food was only for the animals, although the weasel made clear with plenty of snarls, that the fish didn't have his interest.

Soon the group left the brook and continued their travel through Midosa in the same manner as before. Quite often, Cole found himself drowsing away because of the warmth and the sultriness around him, indulging him...

The tall man quickly shook his head and tried to ignore the feeling of hidden eyes looking at them, trailing for their movements.. waiting for the right moment to strike...

A sleeveless and deep red vest over a clashing orange shirt, both with the most beautiful decorations imaginable. Silky pants with trousers just past the knees and very practical, thick shoes. The owner of this outfit looked down in disdain at the body, specifically the neck which was tainted with red.

"Wonderful, Andreas, you did a marvellous job," the hunter mumbled, and a soft chuckle escaped him. Those overconfident new people, they never lasted. Eustace had known it the moment he first met Andreas; this one was not a stayer. "You can't even handle the silly little bond of a Mouse."

Eustace bent down next to the corps and slid his fingers over the top of Andreas' mace, careful not to cut himself. There was no blood on the weapon, did he not even manage to harm the boy? Foul curses slipped from the hunter's lips; his sense was not strong enough to smell the witches through a forest so invested with the cursed bondings that were stored here through the centuries. Yet... Mouse couldn't possibly be that far away...

Straightening up, Eustace smoothed his vest and touched his broadsword for a moment, as though to check if it was still there. He inhaled deeply, smelling the deep stench of witches and their bonds. 'He is in here somewhere.. one day he won't escape...'

The hunter stepped over the body and followed the faint trail that he picked up. 'And he is not alone. I can't wait to see you again, Mouse.'

"Don't fret any further, we're getting near the edge!" Quin said, grinning at the sigh of relief that Joann gave after he gave the message. After nearly (and not so nearly) tripping a thousand times, she was more tired of this forest than the girl ever thought she could be. The roots were laughing at her, just like that pesky wind, and every animal the girl saw seemed to look at her with this mocking expression. Which was just too annoying for words. As if all the precautions for avoiding hunters weren't bad enough!

Every ten minutes the mouse would drop by, report to Quin and leave again. Sometimes the humans hid after such a visit, which more often than not made the female witch wonder why they were even listening to that white rodent.

But every now and then, their hiding wasn't so useless and someone passed by. Joann had never seen so many hunters on one day, even though they saw some two or three times – it wasn't hard to remember their clothing of flashing colours and rash combinations. Soon she had realised how lucky she and her brother had been earlier that day, and the girl was very grateful for Quin's presence.

Obviously, Thom felt differently about that. It was written all over his grim face, though Quin didn't seem to be bothered by it. In fact, the boy appeared to enjoy annoying Thom and kept pressing the point of what they should do with all the hunters. Joann had heard the most gruesome suggestions in the most cheerful voices and was surprised that her brother managed to stay so calm. Well, at least calm for his doing. Clenched teeth and balled fists that were quite eager to come in contact with someone's chin.

Once again, the mouse appeared, this time from underneath a flowery bush. Quin lowered to the ground to pick up the white rodent. Naturally, Joann didn't understand a word of their conversation and glanced at her brother while stroking the chestnut mare. Thom's face consisted out of frowns only and his arms were crossed. The raven seemed to have permanently settled on the youth's shoulder after Quin had arrived, making the pair of them look quite ridiculous.

The mouse took off and since Quin simply walked on, Joann assumed there was no danger. The process repeated itself again and again, driving the siblings to the brink of insanity. Wait... Hide... Walk... Wait... Hide... Walk... Continuing to laugh and giggle, the wind forced itself through Joann's hair and the mess was indescribable. Although not exactly vain, Horse cared about her appearance and would've cursed the wind straight into the pits of the depth if she could. Her brother didn't seem to care about it and kept his blue eyes on Quin.

Around them, the forest started to lighten slowly. The air grew less thick and more sunlight fought its way through. Together with the trees, the tension that Joann had collected in her body dispatched and her shoulders were no longer slumped forwards.

Time seemed to gain speed and it felt like mere moments before the trio stood at the edge of Midosa. Joann heaved a sigh and quickly leaned on the mare for support. Her body was trembling; it had let all the remaining tension go in one heavy blow. However, Thom seemed to be bothered by the open plains in front of them. In fact, he looked worried.

"What's wrong, bro?" Joann finally asked. Quin was looking at them with a rather expectant look, as though the siblings had piles of treasure waiting for him as a payment for his guidance.

"Nothing," Raven replied a bit too quickly, while his mind was racing. Where could they go next? They could hardly turn around and enter Midosa again, but Thom was running out of ideas. Ideas about how to get people from leaving 'witches' along. He wasn't even sure why he had wanted to go inside Midosa in the first place, save for finding more of their kind, more of those willing to help. Even now he felt the forest pull to him, whispering, begging to come back to the fake shelter of the trees.

Glancing sideways, it was obvious to Thom that his sister didn't feel the same pull. She looked to relieved of being out in the open.

Snapping Thom out of his thoughts, the raven suddenly flapped its wings, making everyone save the horse jump. The bird flew up and shrieked loudly, its black eyes directed to the forest. Quickly, Thom turned around to see what was going on, drawing his knife in the same movement. Quin did the same with his bow and arrows, while Joann followed more slowly, incapable of following the swift course of events.

A loud curse escaped Thom when he lowered his knife and motioned Quin to do the same. Mouse frowned at the unspoken command and only the curiosity for the group in front of him stopped the boy from making an irritated comment.

Joann almost laughed of relief when she recognised the grey-eyed, tall man. As always, a weasel was by his side, although this time they had company. A rare thing, and questions begged to be answered in Horse's mind.

Red-haired with a glaring face, Joann had no idea who that girl was. And she was bonded to... a bear? Horse's eyes widened; bondings with a bear had become rare over the centuries and she hadn't seen one in a long time. Everyone tried to deny that the bondings, that witches were dying out, but the persistence of hunters and their expertise had thinned a former solid wall of ignorance and denial. The dogs had already disappeared and there was only a single cat left. More exotic and unusual bondings were so easy to trace that those bonds were forced to live inside the Circle, and it started to crowd there.

"So, here we are again," Cole said sharply, and the tall man seemed to rather be anywhere else than here. On the other hand, Weasel was known to do some acting around Thom, unknown to the victim himself. The redhead behind him jumped off the horse and walked towards the trio.

Frowning, she stopped to look at Quin. For a full minute Madoline stared at him, trying to place his face. Wrinkling her nose, she said, "I don't know you," and seemed to find that a personal insult.

"Could be," Quin shrugged while his eyes went from the redhead to the other newcomer, Cole. "I don't hang out around the Circle that much. They don't like me, I don't like them."

"I wonder why that is," Thom muttered, and his sister stomped him.

While Raven had spoken and scolded at his sister, Madoline snapped her head towards the siblings. "Raven and Horse." It was not a question.

"Yeah.." Joann said slowly, not sure what to do with this girl. Who was she, anyway? "But who are you?"

"Well, I'm Madoline, but that's not very important. The Circle wants as many witches as possible to go to Ferron. Cat.. Cat is dying."

The last sentence brought a flood of shock over the group. Cole seemed to choke on something and broke into a fit of coughs, while Thom's sharp eyes nearly popped out of his head. Grabbing the manes of the mare, Joann had trouble with standing up straight, and Quin was the only one not affected by the newest information.

"The Circle is nuts," Cole said with a strained voice, tears in his eyes from the coughing. "There are hunters who can actually sense in Ferron, instead of those who just drown the people they don't like."

Joann sighed. Although she saw logic in the decision, it was madness. The mare neighed and tried to stagger, but Horse quickly soothed the animal. At times, she forgot how closely they were connected and how badly they could influence each others' moods.

Meanwhile, Thom realised that he actually agreed with Cole. "How can they ask this?" he growled. "It'll be a massacre. Can't Zoe just leave Ferron?"

Snorting at Raven's question, Madoline shook her head. "They say that she can't, and the Circle doesn't want to lose the bonding of the Cat entire. Everyone knows that Zoe is the last."

"So, what are we going to do? Just walk into Ferron and hope for the best?" Cole snapped, and the weasel snarled at the bear, who stood next to Madoline on his hind legs, ready to defend the redhead against all this hostility.

Madoline rolled with her eyes. "Look, don't complain to me, okay? It's not like I had a say into this. This is what the Circle asks, and you'll have to see whether you do it or not. Oh, that only count for Weasel, 'cause Cat asked for you two." She looked straight at the siblings, but a chuckle distracted them from asking further.

Still snickering softly, Quin didn't care that everyone looked at him in annoyance. "Well, you guys are screwed," he said, still chuckling, "asking equals ordering when the Circle is involved. I'd almost go there for fun, just to see all those witches with broken bondings because their partner would stand out too much in a city."

"You're a cruel person, Quin," Joann said softly, shaking her head while she let go of the mare.

Quin raised his shoulders and shrugged. "You guys just go have fun in Ferron, I'll do my usual here. Maybe we'll see each other again, but I doubt it. If you're sane, you just go tell the Circle that they're wacko's and stay away from both Ferron and Midosa."

"Maybe we just won't listen to you and do as we're told," Cole snarled with a voice that would've made the weasel proud. Alright, maybe the tall man wasn't the most conventional witch, but he was loyal to the Circle. He turned to Madoline. "But you can't go, Madol. Your bonding is too now, what if it breaks?"

The redhead nodded. "I know – I'm going back after this," she said matter-of-factly. "They wanted me to find Raven and Horse, it seems that Cat wants to talk to them."

"Great. Just great," Thom muttered. They had to go risk their lives to talk to a crazy old witch inside a hunter-invested city.

Sighing heavily, Joann figured this conversation had gone on long enough. If Cat was really dying, there wasn't much time and Ferron was at least half-a-day away. She did some maths in her head and hoped they'd reach the city by the late afternoon, but only if they right now. "We should go, then. Cole, are you coming with us, or would you rather go by yourself?"

The tall man shrugged. "No use in splitting up. I'll stick around."

Quin turned to Madoline. "So, you need a guide back through the forest? It's the quickest road."

Growling, the bear took a stop forward, but a swift gesture from the redhead stopped him from going any further. "Thanks, but no thanks. I'm taking the long road. No use in risking my neck by putting it in the hands of a selfish little kid."

For a moment, Mouse actually looked hurt but then he burst out in laughter. "If you say so, Bear." The last word came out rather sarcastic, but Madoline either ignored or didn't hear it.

Soon enough they had split up in three groups. Cole and the siblings went to the east, towards Ferron and a nice amount of danger. Quin stayed at the edge until the mouse would come back to tell him everything was safe and clear, and in the meanwhile he saw how Madoline and her large, furry companion went southwards, where she should get around Midosa fastest. After that she'd go further to the west until she'd reach the Circle and bring out her report.

Quin chuckled. He wouldn't be surprised if someone stopped by after her talk to try and get him inside the Circle, to change his ways of life. It had happened before, it would happen again. Sitting down on the ground, Mouse tried to make himself comfortable. Madoline was a small dot now and Quin realised with a pang that he had to get used to being alone. He closed his green eyes and steadied his breathing, preparing himself to find out how far away the mouse was. It was a skill the pair had developed a long time ago, and it was very useful in their lives.

Breathing slowly and completely focusing on his bonding, Quin forgot all around him. The mouse was far away... White flowers smelling like fresh rain. Their senses joined. Quicken your heartbeat and feel the grass under your toes. So green...

A loud noise broke the joining. It took the boy a while to realise that the sound came from his side. Quickly, he stood up and turned around, but it was too late.

Vaguely Quin registered the sight of flashy colours before a sharp pain entered his stomach. When he coughed, the boy tasted blood in his mouth and felt it trickling down his chin. A familiar face smirked cruelly at him.

"No..." Quin tried to speak, but no sound came from his mouth. His hands went to his stomach and soon found steel embedded in the flesh. When he grabbed the broad blade of the sword he cut his hands, but that didn't stop the boy from a weak attempt of pulling it out.

Continuing to smirk, Eustace pushed the sword a little further and looked contently how Mouse spat up more blood.

"And? Do you see it now, rodent?" the hunter whispered, leaning in closer. "You can't escape me." Quin felt the man's breath on his pale face and tried to move away. His breath quickened and with each inhale, another shot of pain went through his stomach and it was moving upwards. Acid burned away his insides and the boy fell down on the ground.

Eustace had quickly retreated his broadsword when he noticed that the witch was about to fall. Arrogantly he looked down. Their game of hide-and-seek and finally ended; the prey had been caught and lost the game.

He tried to get up.. it burned.. pain... Coughing, Quin smelled his own blood in the grass... filthy.. burning.. too.. much... When would the hunter end the game? The boy knew when he had lost, and the acid eating through his stomach told him that this game had ended. 'Just get it over with...'

Looking down on Mouse, Eustace regretted that he couldn't stretch out the witch's pain. But the hunter had finally recognised the strange smell of his former companions – it fit the description, and this was a prize he couldn't resist. Siblings... Eustace grinned widely. Soon their bondings would join the lost ones in the forest of Midosa. Cursed bondings, lost and incapable to return to a living soul. Those witches would be drowned, the water trapping their bondings until they were rotten and discarded by the earth itself. Yes, Eustace was one of the few hunters who actually knew why witches had to be drowned instead of just killed. Almost forgotten knowledge, but incredible useful...

The hunter planted his sword unemotionally in the fallen body of Mouse and heard contently how a last breath left the witch. Of course, he'd rather have drowned the boy but there was no time. Carefully, he swiped the blood of the blade and put it back in its shed. After all that, Eustace left in the direction where he had smelled the witches for the last time. 'They won't escape, either.'

Meanwhile, deep inside Midosa, a white mouse passed away, and another bond awaited to be reborn.

A general note: I updated my other chapters and put the answers to reviews where they belong. I don't know why I bothered to update the actual chapters, because I still see many things wrong... (meaning you should not bother to go back and read them)

Another general note that you might find whiny but I don't and I don't care if you do: There are some.. issues in my personal life right now. Let's just keep it at that. No need to go all drama-y on you people. All this stuff takes my time and mostly my energy. You already see it coming, but I'm saying it anyway. I won't get around to writing and reviewing for a while, and when I do, and usually need those periods of time for myself. No, I'm going to take them for myself. So, I'm not leaving or anything, I'm just taking a forced break – I'm not even completely leaving the internet.

A note that can't possibly be considered as whiny as the previous: I lovy-dovy all my reviewers! :D

Yes, that was it. I had to get it out of my system ::glomps all of you::

A note that actually has to do with the story: If you don't understand something, I'm sorry. Some of the recent reviews made me realise some things aren't very clear, and I can't even guaranty they'll be clear by the end of the story. This story will probably be begging for a rewrite when it's finished, and if that's true, it'll get one. And a little apology for actually having four author-notes after complaining in the previous chapter that I ramble too much and should cut it down. Damn good resolutions!

Aladailey: ::Sings Hakuna Matata very loudly:: Aik! I have that Cole-thing too! The creepy thing is that I named my Cole Cole before I saw Cole in Charmed, and I refuse to change his name just because he reminds me of a crazy and rather love-sick man :D

rrmehta364: ::cough:: If I answer the action-question in a way that sounds best for my qualities as a writer, I'd say I cut it off like that because almost the entire cast of the story was cut out of the moment as well. To answer it so honest that I want to die and that makes me sound very unprofessional: I didn't know what to do with it, so tried some things out and believe it or not, this was one of the better writings O.O

Black Hellebore: Oh dear, one sentence a character trips over a tree-root, the next she's got complete issues with them O.O I feel so embarrassed. Usually I'm one of those bitchy writers who pounces on others when they don't write out numbers (you're only allowed not to do it if the number in question is 29083240).