The days prior to her 13th birthday were days she would never forget. She didn't understand why but her mother had taken her to meet various litters of small animals: kittens, rabbits and even a couple of raven hatchlings. With her birthday swiftly approaching, she suspected that her mother intended to buy her a playmate. Grace adored animals having grown up with her mother's cat Athena as a constant companion. She'd always found the feline's presence to be soothing. If Athena wasn't by her side, she was to be found curled up on her mother's lap. Grace was excited at the prospect of a new member in the household. It was often lonely just her and mother. However, each time they went to meet the various animals, they left empty handed, followed by strange looks and her mother's continuous sigh of what Grace could only assume was frustration deepening with each failed visit.
It wasn't until the day before her 13th birthday that her mother's frustration appeared to resolve itself. Grace had been reading up in her room when she felt her stomach grumble with the pangs of hunger. She made her way downstairs, surprised that her mother had not called her for lunch; it was almost 2 o'clock. Grace peeked around the doorframe into the kitchen, hoping to find her mother engrossed in wrapping her gifts for tomorrow's festivities, but instead she found her hovering above an old book that was propped open in the middle of the round kitchen table. She couldn't hear the exact words, but she knew her mother was muttering to herself. Eager to hear what she was saying, Grace stepped into the room.
Her mother continued muttering to herself as Grace crept her way toward the kitchen table, hoping not to distract her mother in her obviously important thoughts. As she got closer, she took more notice of the book rather than the words her mother muttered. She sounded like she was whispering what Grace could only assume were made up words. She'd never seen the large book before. It looked old. The parchment pages were thick and dense and despite their obvious age appeared to have been taken care of. The book was enclosed in a large thick leather binding. Perhaps this had protected the pages within over the years. Whatever the book contained was of interest to her mother who continued to be distracted by the seamless scrawl of the writing on the page to see her enter the room. It was at this moment that Grace swore she saw the page turn of its own accord and her mother muttered the words "That's it."
She hadn't seen her mother touch the book but didn't have time to give it any more thought as her mother, accomplished in her goal, turned to find her daughter standing almost next to her. She didn't say a word to Grace, merely closed the book and placed it out of sight.
"Grace put your cloak on we are going out." Her mother ordered as if the scene before her had not just taken place.
"Mama" Grace tried to muster, but with one look from her mother she thought better of it.
As they left the small cottage and ventured out Grace could sense her mother's growing worry subsiding. She didn't know why and knew well enough not to ask. The thoughts of her mother hovering over the large book earlier that day were soon set aside when they approached a large old house, miles from where they lived.
As quickly as they arrived, they were ushered inside and presented with four black German Shepherd puppies. The dogs climbed all over Grace, licking and nipping her with their wet tongues and sharp little teeth. She looked up at her mother hopeful that she'd be taking one of these delights home.
As she looked up however, she noticed a tight frown on her mother's face and a returning look of worry that had been present in the days before.
"Are there no others?" Her mother asked the petite and oddly dressed lady who had greeted them at the door. Grace hadn't caught her name; she'd been too engrossed in her surroundings to pay attention.
The odd-looking lady began to shake her head slowly for a moment until a look of dawning realisation hit her. She walked away from Grace's mother and exited the room. Grace stood expecting this to be their cue to leave. She patted each of the puppies on their heads to say goodbye.
As she lifted her gaze towards her mother she felt something inside of her shift. She couldn't describe the sensation; it was like nothing she had ever felt before. A small whine drew her attention back to the doorway from where the odd woman had just left. She had returned carrying another dog. A German Shepherd like the others. But it was different. Smaller than it's litter mates and pure white.
The dog was placed on the floor and Grace sighed wishing she could take such a fine creature home with her. The dog looked towards her and met her gaze, almost as if it knew it was looking her dead in the eye. In that moment, the sensation she had felt earlier shifted towards the dog, almost as if her soul were being bound to it.
"Alexis" Grace muttered and with that the dog trotted to her and sat at her heels waiting to be picked up.
As she bent down to pick up the small animal, she felt her mother's presence calm and out of the corner of her eye saw a reassured smile. The look of worry wiped completely from her face.
The day Grace met her familiar was a day she'd never forget. She didn't understand what a familiar was, her mother made sure of that, but she'd go to hell and back to make sure her daughter found the part of her soul that completed her. Although her daughter may never know who she truly was she would never allow her to live without her whole self.
I knew my route by heart, having ran through Thorn Valley hundreds of times before, almost daily in recent months. The summer had been a particularly enjoyable time to run through the valley. With the sun shining and the heat ever present, I had taken note that many found Thorn Valley to be a place to spend time with family and friends. I had enjoyed the company in the usually quiet and dreary countryside and although I had never spoken to any of the visitors, I had enjoyed watching as I ran, absorbing their laughing faces, easy going attitudes and endless smiles, things that were not all too familiar in my own life.
As the seasons had changed and the longer nights had crept in, I'd realised that fewer and fewer people found solace in Thorn Valley. Although beautiful in the summer months, come winter the place would be regarded as sinister and considered a place to avoid. I shuddered at the thought. Winter had never been my favourite time of year. I continued on my journey despite my bleak thoughts of the looming winter ahead of me. My feet carried themselves without need of instruction.
Although fast approaching, winter was not yet upon us and I took the opportunity to observe the beauty of my favourite season. The trees surrounding the valley still bore the signs of autumn. Each year summer came and went with an almost passing glance and the longer nights made headway for the more seasonal and festive time of year. Autumn this year had made itself known with a fierceness I'd never seen before. The trees were a mix of brilliant yellow, bright orange and subtle reds and browns. On a few occasions I could have sworn that the trees had been alight, the bold and brilliant hues of the autumn creating this effect in the wind.
As the month of October had slowly passed the bright colours that had lit the trees began to slowly fall, and now on October 31st, I noticed that only a few leaves clung to the branches, whilst most now lay buried amongst each other on the ground beneath. It was a disheartening sight that such beauty could be destroyed with a mere gust of wind.
My trainers hit the ground, one after the other. The squelching sound beneath me reminded me of the heavy rainfall earlier that day. The ground was slippery, but despite this I didn't trip or falter in my gait. Running came to me, almost as second nature. It had been the only thing I had ever taken to naturally. A sigh of contentedness hit me as the dry, crisp air filled my lungs. I felt calm and at peace with myself, a feeling that unfortunately did not occur often. It seemed most of the time I was at odds with myself and my place in the world.
I'd been taking in the beauty of my surroundings and had failed to notice how dark it had become. I swore to myself as I had realised my mistake. Despite our earlier argument, as I'd left the house for my run, my mother had made a simple request, that I return home before nightfall. She had been making the same request since I had been a child, and until today, I had always complied. I had never understood my mother's fear of the dark, but it had always felt best to avoid as much conflict with my mother as possible. I never ran alone, and my mother knew that. Alexis kept me safe. A constant companion at my heel. But this didn't seem to reassure her.
I stopped running upon the realisation of my error and considered turning back. Alexis whipped at my feet, her large white paw tapping my leg questioning why we had stopped. It occurred to me that I had never stopped mid-run. I looked down at her.
'Sorry' I muttered meeting her large brown eyes, staring up at me.
She continued to look up at me with what I could only assume was confusion, given my unusual actions.
I knew if I turned around now, it would take me longer to reach home, but I became increasingly conscious of the fact that I knew what lay behind me but did not know what lay ahead in the dark amongst the trees. Alexis had begun pacing at my hesitance to continue forward, her nose sniffed the soggy ground. There were no lights for another half a mile, but Alexis nudged me, pressing me forward.
I could feel an uneasiness around me as I set off. Alexis ran beside me; I could almost feel her fur caress the side of my leg. She ran closer to me than usual. Perhaps because it was so dark, or perhaps she could sense the uneasiness in me. As we ran, a low growl left her lips, as if she sensed someone that I hadn't, I was sure of it.
With this knowledge sitting inside my head, I urged myself to run faster. My casual jog had turned into a sprint in a matter of minutes. I didn't know if I was imagining things, but Alexis' reaction had put the thought in my head that I was being followed. Moments after Alexis' initial growl my suspicions were confirmed when a branch snapped mere steps behind me.
My heart began beating out of my chest and I could feel electricity in the air. I willed myself to continue running when a sudden realisation stopped me in my tracks. Alexis was no longer running beside me. It took me only a second to reach my decision as I ran back towards where I had been standing only moments before. I heard her before I saw her, still growling, her stance was low and aggressive, her white fur stood up on her back as if she'd been shocked. Alexis's hackles were raised, alerted her to danger, but I couldn't see whatever Alexis sensed in the darkness within the trees.
Seconds felt like an eternity and my heart continued to pound. I could hear blood filling my ears. It was only when a small chirp that I knew all too well sounded from the darkness and relief flooded my body. Out from beneath the shrubbery trotted a small ginger cat.
'Athena' I scolded as she rubbed her head against Alexis in greeting and then proceeded to do the same to my leg. Before she had a chance to escape, I scooped her up into my arms, cradling her as if she were a baby. I cooed at her and she swiped at me, as if scolding me for treating her like a baby. Seeing Athena, my mother's cat, had calmed my nerves and I continued back on my journey home. Alexis hesitated, but came immediately to my heel once called. Although the darkness had been off putting my companions' company kept my fears at bay and it wasn't long before I reached the small cottage that I shared with my mother.