The Fortune woods were not a place to find yourself stranded, I mean, there is a reason people don't normally go wondering up here. There has always been rumours of Other things lingering here from times long passed and the woods have never been an inviting place. Wood is a bit of an understatement, forest would be way more accurate but Fortune Forest sounds silly, even in my mind. I'd heard the rumours that all manner of creature lived out here from large packs of wolves to lone roaming Thruls; large humanoids with grey skin and dead eyes. Not a good place for a girl like me to find herself with only a hunting knife. I'm not exactly good with it either so for most of the things inhabiting this particular wood, I was easy prey. Not that I had a lot of choice, it was forage in the woods or die of starvation.
The bright pale sun had begun to sink past it's zenith and I knew I should be heading back but I hadn't been able to find anything edible. The winter had come early this year destroying most of our crops and if I didn't find anything to use as a food source then we'd go hungry again. My family may not have much but we are a proud people and will not take charity from our neighbours. My father always says doing so is the fastest way to ruin friendships. However, the sun was rapidly descending and as I looked around I discovered I couldn't remember the way back, the warmth was draining from me and that wasn't all to do with the setting sun. I took a deep breath and picked a direction to start walking, it was better than standing still and panicking at the very least.
I tried to follow the path I had already cut through the undergrowth but the fading light did nothing to help me. I stumbled more than once and fell over at one point, tearing a gash through my soft hide leggings. I cursed as I felt the wound, there was a sticky dampness growing but I knew instinctively that it was nothing serious. I hauled myself back to my feet, pulling twigs out my thick dark hair. That was the first time I heard the Call. I ducked back down to the undergrowth and tried to make myself as small as possible. I'd not smelt anything approach but then, that call sounded very far away and I was walking into the bitter wind. I shivered again before steeling myself. "Pull yourself together Freyja" I said to myself, "It might not even be after you." but this did little to reassure me. We were not the only ones going hungry this winter.
I stood up and tried to make my way through the undergrowth as silently as I could. The light had nearly completely faded by now, slowing my movement. I heard another howl, closer this time and I knew I had to get out of the woods as soon as I could. The howl was joined by another, off to my left so I swung my direction away from the noise and broke into a jog. A prayer to the Eleven was on my lips as I moved through the forest, thankfully, the ground here wasn't too uneven. The howls, stronger now they had been joined by others, seemed to reverberate around the forest until I wasn't sure I was running away from them any more. I swallowed hard and forced my legs into a run.
I reached a clearing and legged it as fast as I could to the other side. The moon was slowly rising, giving me enough light to see by. As I turned, I thought I saw a light through the trees and prayed I was nearly home. I hadn't recognised any of the forest, but then, I hadn't been concentrating on the scenery much. I knew I had to reach the light and turned to run as one of the creatures entered the other side of the clearing. Dire-wolves. Bigger than normal wolves and twice as aggressive. I swallowed hard as its glowing red eyes spotted me, I needed no further encouragement, it was that light or death. I ran like I had never ran before. I forced my legs to keep up a hard pace, willing them to push faster as I heard the crashing through the undergrowth behind me.
My legs began to ache as I ran but I could see the light growing as I pelted towards it as fast as I could. The noise behind me was closing faster than I could go and I swallowed hard, willing myself to make it. My burning lungs pulled in each breath like a chore but I wasn't going to give up, not with that shining light of life just in front of me. I reached out with my arms, willing myself to go faster, to make it, I was so close. The next thing I knew I was on the ground with a wrenching pain coming from my ankle. I let out a cry of surprise and looked about, seeing the offending tree root, I cursed loudly and pulled out the hunting knife I still had with me. If this was how I was to die, then I could at least take one of them with me. I rolled onto my back and braced myself against the tree that owned the root I had tripped on. It may as well make itself useful. I held the knife in front of me and awaited the oncoming Dire-wolves. I watched as one approached, the moonlight tinted against its matted fur and its eyes glowed a sinister red. I could smell the animal's foul breath as it approached, its teeth looked whiter in the moonlight and a wave of fear passed through me. I tried to hold my hand steady as the creature curled its lips back in a sinister grin. It's breath was unbearable and I couldn't help letting out a scream. I slashed the knife wildly in front of me and screwed my eyes shut. I felt the knife bite into flesh and the creature let out an angry yowl. The next thing I felt was a blow to the side of me head and a heavy weight forced me sideways. I tried to let out a scream but the blow had knocked the air from me. I let out a wet cough, tasting blood I tried to move but the weight of the creature pinned me to the floor. I braced myself for the bite that would follow the blow and wasn't disappointed, I felt teeth sink into my shoulder and I screamed again. The pain sent fire shooting up my arm and a wave of nausea followed.
Another set of teeth grabbed my leg followed by another on my left arm. I knew this was it for me, I never expected to die at the fangs of Dire-wolves. Another wave of nausea passed through me and I knew I was loosing consciousness, at least I wouldn't be conscious while they began eating me. I became vaguely aware of a weight being lifted from me but that was the last thing I can recall.
When I awoke, I was surprised I wasn't dead. I should be. I tried to move but found I didn't have the strength to, I was sore all over and my body didn't seem to want to co-operate with my mind. I must have bruises and cuts all over my body by the way I felt when I tried to move. I could hear a few voices in another room and tried to listen in to what they were saying. It sounded like someone was unhappy by the tone that was being carried.
"I cannot believe you disobeyed me..." This didn't sound good. "Why did you bring her here?" Ah-ha, so they were discussing me!
"Being eaten by Dire-wolves is no fate for anyone, even a human." came another voice, the tone was apologetic more than anything.
"But to heal her partially too and then asking me to finish the job. You know what will happen now and I don't want that!" returned the first. "What were you thinking?"
"You may well have endangered us all!" came a third female voice.
"She'd just a young woman who was lost in the woods. What can she do to us? Am I to believe you are all scared of a human woman? Besides I couldn't bare it. She was in so much pain, you could all feel it as much as I could."
"God's be damned!" a loud thunk punctuated this statement and I felt fear creeping into me all over again. I squeezed my eyes shut and tried to block out the shouting. I hate it when people shout.
"Calm down Leif, done is done, we'll deal with this."
"Yes, we will Chena." So, the angry one was Leif, despite my fear I was also curious about who had rescued me. If it was indeed a rescue, he sounded so angry. "I need time to think about this." his voice dropped and all I could hear was the murmur of speech rather than any specific words. I felt my eyes rolling again and snuggled further into the blanket someone had thrown over me. Sleep came quicker than I thought possible.
It was still dark when I awoke again but found I was feeling a little better. I could sit up at least, which was an improvement. I looked around the room I had been dumped in and found I was in a wooden cabin of some sorts. No surprise there considering I was in the middle of a forest. There was a light coming from the room next to mine where the argument had taken place earlier and I was curious to see who or what my rescuers were. There was the sound of voices coming from the room and it took me a while to pluck up the courage to stand. My wounds had indeed been healed by some miracle but they still felt very stiff and more than a bit sore. I gasped as I put weight on my ankle and the noise in the other room died instantly.
I became aware that I was no longer in my own clothes. In fact, I wasn't in any clothes at all, just my underwear, small as it was.
"We know your awake so you may as well come out."
I hauled the blanket around myself for modesty, not wanting to be examined by a room of strangers was high on my list, although at least one of them must have already seen me. Still. I wanted to save some ounce of dignity. I pushed the door open and was peered at by five sets of eyes. I suddenly thought I would have been more comfortable with the Dire-wolves...scratch that, I could get through this. "Hello." I said in a small voice. I scanned the room and found myself looking at five very different people. The woman nearest me looked like she was from Karana originally, she had the pale skin and dark hair that was typical of the people found there. There was a young man next to her with inky black eyes and olive skin, pegging him as Swari in origin. Opposite these two sat another, slightly older man, whose skin was ruddy, he looked as though he came from Quillaan stock, his hair had that reddish tinge to it that most the locals carry. Next to him was a tall slender woman, her skin was well tanned and she wore a ceremonial veil around her head as they did in Nebatia.
I then turned my attention to the being on the final chair in the room. Now he was something to behold, his blond hair hung loose to his shoulders and there was evidence of real strength underneath the woven tunic he was wearing. I would have examined him further if his luminous blue eyes weren't boring into me making me feel like I was something he stepped in. "What were you doing in the forest human?" he asked, his voice was deep and filled with menace. The way he spat the word human made me feel like I was an ant beneath his boot.
"I was searching for food." I replied, it was the God's honest truth, "I got lost" I added, feeling I needed to explain when his eyes didn't leave me. "And then I couldn't find my way back. I got chased by those animals when I saw this light. I thought..."
"That if you got here you'd be safe?" he finished. I let my eyes fall to the floor and shifted my weight from foot to foot while trying to keep a firm grip on my blanket. "You were wrong."
"I gathered that from the argument you all were having earlier." I retorted, "And if I knew the way I'd leave right now. I don't know who you are but its clear you don't want or need me here."
"That was yesterday." said another of the creatures that I was beginning to suspect were not quite human.
"I slept all day?" I asked.
"Yes." The blond said. "Where would you go?"
"I don't know." I shrugged, "but you've made it clear I am not welcome here."
"You wouldn't last five minutes out there." said a voice I recognised, Chena was it?
"Maybe not but I'm beginning to think I'll take my chances." I replied. "If you would be kind enough to point me in the right direction."
"You can't leave." blondie chirped in.
"Name of the Eleven; what do you want?" I snapped, "First you loudly proclaim you don't want me here, then you tell me I can't leave. What is going on?" I asked, surprised at my own daring.
"You are in the house of Night-walkers now." I knew my eyes went wide as he spoke, Night-walkers were rumoured to live in these forests but I had never ever dreamt I would be caught by them. I had heard from my mother that they captured people, forced them to drink their blood and become one of them as well as doing other unspeakable acts with them. Maybe that's how I had been healed. I shuddered despite myself.
"Leif!" snapped Chena. The blond turned to glare at the female, "Look honey," she said, her voice softening as she turning to me, "What Leif says is true, you can't leave for the time being. The weather turned while we all slept during the day and the forest took the brunt of that." I glanced out the window as she spoke and noticed the pale moonlight shining off a generous layer of snow. To my dismay, the sky was liberally sprinkling more snow on the ground. "The clearings and all the pathways will be blocked until the snow thaws and that could be weeks." I nodded, knowing this to be true but not really wanting to accept it.
"So you'll have to stay here for the time being." Leif said, his voice softening a little although the sentence was anything but friendly.
"What happened to my clothes?" I asked, shivering inside the blanket not yet ready to face the idea I had to stay.
"Of course." one of the others said, "They're cut up pretty badly but you're a similar size to Loretta over there so she'll loan you some clothes."
"Thank you." I said with a small smile, "Who are you all?"
"My name is Chena," started the woman, "And the cantankerous blond who is doing a good impression of an ass is Leif." he nodded his head at me and I tried to raise a smile at him but his eyes were so tumultuous I couldn't manage one. "This is my mate Francis." she said indicating the Swari man, "That's Loretta and her mate Talon is next to her. You're turn."
"My name is Freyja. I live in the farm about three miles from the edge of the forest." I shrugged, "I am what you see." I became aware of Leif starring at me once again but this time it seemed less hostile.
"No." he said, "You're not."
"Pardon me?" he asked
"There is something about you that's different but I don't know what it is yet."
"Don't be silly." I snorted but the look he gave me told me he was being serious."Well. I don't know anything about it." I shrugged feeling uncomfortable under his piercing scrutiny again.
"Give me some time and we'll find out." he growled.
"The room there shall be yours until you decide to leave us." Chena said. I got the feeling I was being dismissed but there were some things I needed to know first.
"Thank you." I smiled, "But, where is the bathroom?"
"There is a bathroom behind the room where you'll be staying." she replied.
"What about food?"
"There is a small kitchen down the hall, help yourself to what's there."
"Thanks again." I said with a weak smile. "I think I'll go get dressed." Chena gave me a nod as I scuttled back into the room. I found the clothes that had been left for me and wriggled into them. They were tighter than I was used to but were made of a comfortable soft material I couldn't identify. I sat on the bed and thought about nothing for a while, trying to absorb what I had been told. There was a knock on the door and I called that it was OK to enter. Leif stood in the doorway and he gave me a wan smile. He entered the room with a lit candle and shut the door behind him.
"What do you want?" I asked more tartly that I wanted to. This guy had made me feel like I was something he had stepped in so I felt more than a little justified.
"I came to apologise." he said, placing the candle on a shelf. He took one from the shelf and lit it before returning it to the holder it had been in. "I am not used to... visitors." he said turning to face me. The soft light bounced off his golden locks and his eyes were softer too. Now he was standing I could see exactly how tall Leif was, everything about him was huge; his arms were well formed and I could sense the power coming from him somehow. He moved with confidence and grace, then I noticed his hands. They too were huge, there was a small scar on his right hand. I found myself starring at them and had to force eyes back up to his face. I felt a blush rise in my cheeks but did my best to not look flustered. I had no right to admire such a harsh man, even if he was gorgeous; and Leif was.
"I can tell." I said drily, I spotted a small glimmer in his eye and I turned away from him.
"I want to tell you that you're welcome to stay as long as you wish." he said, folding his arms across his chest. "If you decide you want to leave, I can arrange for you to be taken home, as soon as the snow clears if that is what you desire. I have behaved poorly towards you and that was ill done of me."
Despite myself, I felt a lump forming in my throat and my eyes filled with tears. I was so sore and tired and confused. This man had shouted at me and said some unkind things and here he was now telling me exactly the opposite. I let the tears fall and he looked on uncomfortably. "Please don't cry Freyja." he said. There was no real emotion in the voice but his eyes looked distressed.
"What did you expect?" I asked.
"I am sorry." he said with an aspect of finality in his voice indicating the subject was over. He strode over to the end of the bed and patted me on the shoulder. I sniffed and looked up into those cool blue pools of his and managed a smile. "We don't often have human's here and we are a little out of touch with your kind." he explained
"What are you, exactly?" I asked sniffing and wiping my tears away with a hand.
"Night-walkers." he replied, "We are a race of long lived creatures who dwell mainly in the forests." he replied.
"You don't kidnap people and eat them?" I asked, I felt silly doing so but had to make sure these were only rumours.
"Of course not!" he replied, his surprise showed on his face. "Why would you think so?"
"Tales they tell us as children." I replied with a shrug.
"And you don't force human's to drink your blood?"
"You've had mine." he replied, my eyes went wide and I feared I would cry all over again, "Our blood has healing qualities to it and you were gravely injured." he said by way of explanation.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
"I'll know what your feeling and always know where you are." he replied. I blushed slightly as he spoke, remembering my thoughts about his hands, but managed to keep it hidden in the warm light of the room. "Right now, you're a little embarrassed because you were wondering about my hands." he said, the smile creeping onto his face again.
"Talon rescued you and gave you enough to stop you dying but he is bound by oath to not allow others to drink of him." I gave a frown but Leif said no more and I knew he would remain silent on the subject.
"I see." I nodded, "Well, I'm still aching and sore, so if you don't mind I'll get some sleep." I said, wanting a bit of time to think on it, besides, I was tired and the sore wasn't a lie.
"We'll talk more tomorrow." Leif said, turning his back and leaving the room before I could say anything else. I looked at the wooden door for a moment before shucking off my clothes again. I knew I'd only just put them on but I couldn't bare the thought of sleeping in them, after all, they weren't mine.
I awoke about mid morning and found I was ravenous. After using the bathroom attached to the room that was now mine, I decided to explore the rest of the house. I walked to the kitchen and discovered that although it was small, it was also functional. I grabbed a slice of bread and some cold meat and washed it down with some water. I noticed there was a fine layer of dust on the surfaces in the room so decided to clean it, seeing as there was very little else to do. I'd cleaned the whole kitchen and living area by mid afternoon and began looking around for something else to do. I'd located the back door and on opening it discovered there was a thick layer of snow. It would make travelling the forest even more dangerous than it already was. I sighed to myself and said a small prayer to the Eleven, hoping my family found food and didn't worry too much about me. I shivered and shut the door, turning back inside, where it was marginally warmer.