A loud sneeze sounded, cutting across the rustling of the leaves as the wind blew through them.
Thirteen-year-old Rayla Wright shivered as she wrapped her arms around herself, rubbing them to keep herself warm. Struggling to put one foot in front of the other, she kept moving ahead even though she was starting to lose the feeling in her toes. The icy embrace of the night was seeping across the forest floor as the sun dipped further below the horizon. The sky streaked with pink, yellow and orange was quickly fading into black as the stars started dotting the heavens above. It was going to be another long, cold night.
Fire… I need fire.
Hastily assembling a small bramble of twigs and leaves, she got a small flicker of fire going, one that wavered every time a gust of wind blew past. Sitting as close as she possibly could she closed her eyes and curled up into a ball, trying and failing to ignore the loud protests her empty stomach was making.
If the cold does not kill me, hunger definitely will.
It had been a week since she ran away from home and so far, the world had not been kind to her. Her bright red hair that used to be her mother's pride was reduced to a rat's nest. Her amber eyes had sunk deep into to her skull as if they were trying to hide themselves from the world outside. She was sickly thin, her cheekbones sticking out sharply from her face; the next gust of wind could probably blow her away.
How much longer will I have to keep running?
Sighing, she buried her face in her knees and closed her eyes, praying that she would not freeze to death in her sleep. The stress of the past few days came crashing down on her and she found herself slowly drifting off.
Home… a bowl of soup sat innocently on the floor. A dead cat lay next to it… Familiar faces glanced at her in fear, their gazes never lasting more than a few seconds. She felt her heart constrict in her chest as they slowly backed away in terror… She turned and ran… As fast as she could, as far away as she could… A sea of pitchforks and torches swarmed behind her… The ground disappeared beneath her feet and she felt herself falling…
She startled awake, her hands grasping at the grass beneath her to reassure herself that she was not falling. After a few moments, she relaxed visibly, finally understanding that it was just a dream.
Well, maybe a little more than a dream.
It was early in the morning. Rayla got up and stretched, greeting the morning with a rumbling stomach. The fire she had made the night before had flickered out at some point during the night. Letting out a long yawn she set off to find breakfast. She soon found her salvation in the form of a pear tree standing tall with its tantalizing fruit hung like bait for hungry passers. With whatever strength she had left, she clumsily climbed the tree and plucked the biggest pear she could reach, stuffing it into her mouth before reaching for another one.
'Could toss a few of those down here as well?' a voice interrupted her pear picking.
Rayla looked down to see the most suspicious figure she had ever laid eyes on. The man was dressed in black from head to toe with the hood of his cloak pulled over his head hiding his face and had enough weapons on him for an armoury. Tied to his belt was a long sword and a small dagger. A pair of throwing knives were strapped to his thighs and a quiver filled with arrows was slung across his back along with a bow.
He looks like a mercenary, Rayla thought. Best to do what he says.
She reached up, plucked a pear and tossed it down to him. The man easily caught it and took a huge bite.
'Thank you,' he said.
'You are welcome.'
'Toss me a couple more please.'
Rayla did as he asked. He managed to catch each one perfectly with ease. The man still had not lowered his hood, which made her wary. The man however seemed to have no such feelings of doubt, looking as carefree as ever.
'Will you not join me?' he asked.
'I am fine where I am.'
Silence settled between them as they chewed away on their food. From her perch up in the tree Rayla kept her eyes on the man, not trusting him enough to turn away for even a second. The man on the other hand was visibly relaxed. He sat cross-legged on the ground, his eyes wandering about focusing on nothing in particular.
'My name is Peri,' he said suddenly. 'What is yours?'
'Well thank you for the food Rayla.' He got up and dusted himself off. 'I hope we meet again.'
He walked away casually and it was not until he was out of her sight did Rayla feel it was safe to come down. As soon as her bare feet touched the ground, she took off running in the opposite direction. Something told her that man was not normal and the last thing she needed was more trouble.
For all I know he could be…
It had been a couple of days since her encounter with the strange man. Rayla was still wandering aimlessly in forest, lost on where to go and what to do. She had managed to survive by hunting small animals and eating the fruits she had gathered. However, the nights were getting colder. Winter was fast approaching and the rags she wore would not be enough to make it through it.
Suddenly a rustle in the undergrowth nearby caught her attention. Expecting it to be a squirrel or if she was lucky a rabbit, she stepped forward hoping to catch it for breakfast. She parted the long grass to see a small, black cat that was fast asleep.
I wonder if I can eat it, she thought.
The cat suddenly shot up and yowled at her, as if it could hear what she was thinking. It launched itself at her face, digging its claws in and hissing in anger. Rayla let out a startled yell and scrambled backwards trying to rip the cat off her face. The two of them rolled about on the ground, neither one willing to give into the other.
That is until a distant voice interrupted them. The two of them immediately stilled. She overheard a conversation between two men and what she heard made her eyes widen with fear.
'Where is that damn cat? It was such a good find, a very rare mystic creature. If we don't find it, the master is going to have our heads.'
'It could not have gotten far. Let us split up and search. We have to find it before the auction next week.'
Not even thinking about what she should do, Rayla took off running and for some reason she had grabbed the cat as well.
Rare mystic creature, auction… there is no doubt about it… they are Hunters.
The cat yowled loudly in her ear from its perch on her shoulder. Rayla looked ahead to see that she was headed directly towards a cliff. Skidding to a stop, she managed to avoid falling off. She bend over and wheezed, her heart pounding in her chest. Curious about the feline, she plucked it off her shoulder and took a closer look at it. That is when she noticed the three long tails swishing around lazily. A glass ring gleamed on each of the tails.
A cat with three tails… definitely not normal… if I stick with it, it will only bring me trouble.
She tossed the cat on the ground. The black feline twisted itself in mid-air and landed on its feet, hissing at the one who had thrown it down. Rayla walked away from it, hoping to put as much distance between herself and the cat as possible. The creature itself on the other hand had other plans. Without a single sound, it started to follow her. Rayla picked up her pace and the cat followed suit. Annoyed, she picked up a small rock and threw it at the feline. It easily dodged it and continued following her, looking at her with wide, yellow eyes.
'Go away,' she said. 'I don't want any trouble and that is exactly what you are right now.'
The cat stared at her silently for a moment before turning away and sauntering off. Rayla sighed with relief as the three black tails disappeared into the undergrowth. She continued on her way, looking forward to another day of aimless wandering.
Rayla knew she was wandering deeper and deeper into the woods. Sunlight barely reached down to where she was now. All she knew was that the sun would set soon and she would freeze to death if she did not find some form of shelter. Her deliverance appeared in the form of a small tree cave, its roots spread out wide enough for her to squeeze in. Once inside she found out that it was quite cosy, the warmth of the tree seeping into her bones. Though the chilly wind howled away outside she snuggled into the warm earth beneath and went to sleep.
It was sometime around midnight that she found herself awakening to some rustling nearby. She heard a twig snap and realised that someone or something was nearby. She leaned back as much as she could while trying to quiet her breathing. The murmurs of a conversation reached her ears.
Who could be out here so late at night?
'I know that it is here somewhere.' Rayla recognized the voice as one of the men who was chasing the cat the other day.
Are they still looking for it?
Suddenly, something black slipped into the hollow where she was currently hiding. Rayla managed to keep herself from screaming. It was the cat from before. It let out a small mrow before jumping into her arms, seeking safety from the men outside. Afraid that the cat would make a ruckus if she threw it away, Rayla wrapped her arms around it and held it close. She could still hear the rustling from outside. After a few minutes of bated breath it stopped.
'Let us look somewhere else,' the other man said. 'It is not here.'
Rayla waited until the footsteps were gone and the night was quiet before peeking out of the tree cave. There was no one in sight. Relieved, she sank back into her little hollow, finally letting go of the cat. The cat stretched, yawned, curled itself up on her lap and immediately went to sleep.
'You could at least look grateful,' she muttered. 'You are nothing but trouble. Also, how did you fall asleep so fast? It is annoying. I should just throw you out.'
However, for some reason she could not find it in herself to throw the cat out. So following its example she soon found herself falling back to sleep too.
The cat was gone the next morning.
Good riddance, Rayla thought as she stretched. I hope I never run into it again. Nothing but trouble.
Casting a sad glance at the tree cave that had sheltered her the previous night, Rayla once again set off. Her growling stomach and parched throat ordered her to search for food and water. Food was found easily in the form of an unsuspecting pigeon. Following her sharp ears, she found a small stream springing out of some boulders. The water was cool and fresh, soothing her throat on the way down.
'Ah we meet again,' a familiar voice said.
Rayla spat out the water like a water spout, some of it making it into places where water was not meant to go. She hacked as she tried to get the liquid out of her windpipe.
'My, that is quite the response.' The comment was accompanied by a low chuckle. 'Are you that excited to see me again?'
She looked up to see the man in black she met before.
I think his name is Peri.
He gave her a small smile as she stared at him. He had a waterskin dipped into the stream, which made his reason for being there quite obvious. Rayla stood up and backed away slowly. Her instincts were telling her that this man was nothing but trouble.
'It is nice to see you again, but I have to leave,' Rayla said trying to end the encounter as soon as possible.
'Where are you going?'
'That is none of your business.'
He shrugged. 'Just being curious. What would a child be doing alone out in the middle of nowhere?'
'Like I said before none of your business,' Rayla replied tersely.
'Would you like some company?'
'As you wish.' Peri stood up. 'Though you should know that these woods are quite dangerous. One should avoid travelling through it alone.'
'You are alone.'
'Yes but I am quite capable of taking care of myself.' He looked at Rayla. 'You however look like the next gust of wind could carry you away.'
'Well you are wrong,' Rayla replied, a bit irritated at being called weak. 'I have survived here on my own for more than three weeks now and I can keep doing it on my own.'
'Well, looks like you are quite tough… but sometimes being tough is not enough.'
His voice had turned ominous towards the end and Rayla found herself taking another step back. The man however seemed ignorant of this as he took a swig out of his waterskin. He leaned down once again to fill up what he had drank. He glanced at her before reaching behind and pulling out something and tossing it to her. She fumbled a bit but managed to catch it. It was a simple dagger with a leather grip and sheath, and a foot long blade.
'What is this?'
'A gift,' he replied simply. 'You might find it useful.'
'I cannot accept this from you. We just met.'
'Too late. A gift once given cannot be taken back. It is yours now. It will be useful for hunting small animals.'
Rayla stared at the dagger. What he said is right. This would make it easier for me to hunt, but I wonder if I should accept it from a complete stranger… No, best not to. I might be asking for trouble.
'Thank you for your kindn-'
The man had already disappeared. Rayla swivelled around; hoping to catch a glimpse of him but it was as if the man had just vanished into thin air.
Why did I not even hear him leave? My senses are quite sharp. I should have heard him move… Who is that man?
She looked down at the dagger clasped in her hand. Deciding to keep it for the time being she tucked it away in her boot. She knelt down to splash some water on her face. The sound of the stream cascading over the rocks drowned out all other small noises, which made her unaware of a pair of unfriendly eyes that were watching her. It wasn't until the man was standing right behind her did she notice his presence. A sharp pain shot through her head as she was hit with something hard and she felt herself slipping into unconsciousness.