In the heat of battle, Kai spun to face each aggressor, her short blade flashing amid flesh and steel. One of them lay at her feet, safely dispatched, but she bled herself, and still the others pressed in on her from all sides. Her eyes were an icy mask of death as she battled her foes. In the distance she heard the barking of a dog, drawing ever closer, but she had no time to consider it as a sweeping blade cut the air before her eyes.
She dodged it barely, but there was already another slicing up towards her. Her ears rang with the sound of clashing blades and grunts, her nostrils assaulted with the scent of sweating brutes and the unmistakable tang of blood.
Then, in the next instant, the motion stopped. The tornado of movement was cut short as first one assailant, then the other gurgled unpleasantly and slid to the ground, dead before they landed, the ground quickly soaking with the blood from their mortal wounds.
Breathing heavily, and still very much on guard, Kai found herself looking at a tall black silhouette with cool grey eyes. Her rescuer flicked the blood from the blade with a quick motion that made it whistle, then withdrew a white cloth and wiped it clean before tossing it on the ground along side the bodies.
"You are wounded." The figure spoke with a strange accent as it stepped towards her, sheathing the sword smoothly.
Kai made to disagree, to resist, her own blade held threateningly, but she stayed her hand as the figure knelt, and withdrew a length of bandage from its robes. Quickly and firmly, Kai's wounds were dressed, the blood flow staunched. There was a nasty gash on her thigh, and several more superficial cuts along her legs. She felt herself waver where she stood, the battle had almost finished the last reserves of her strength.
"Thank you, you don't have to..." she mumbled as she fainted dead away and was caught by mysterious hands.
Awaking in a cool cave, on a soft bed, Kai groaned softly. Her entire body ached from the blows, and she was dizzy and weak, presumably from the blood loss.
"Welcome back." That voice again. Kai's head jerked up and she caught sight of that same figure, now clad in a light black robe, with its back to her. The voice was hard to place, somewhere between masculine and feminine, with a pleasant depth to it, and an accent she had not heard before.
"H..hello," Kai replied faintly.
The figure turned, and Kai gasped. It was a woman, a woman with deep grey eyes, full crimson lips, and judging by the way the robe fell ever so slightly open, a full bosom. Kai blushed a deep red at being in such an undignified position with this lady, whose eyes alone magnetized her helplessly. She squirmed in the little bed involuntarily, hiding behind her long straight black hair, her blue eyes shining through the veil at her rescuer.
"How do you feel?" The woman asked her with a kind smile, taking a step towards her carrying a cup of, what at that moment, seemed to be the most delicious smelling chicken soup she had ever smelled before. She helped Kai sit up and handed her the cup, which Kai drank down ravenously, not bothering to reply, so great was her hunger.
The woman smiled and took the cup from her, refilling it with more soup before returning it to her once more. Once again, Kai drank it down with great hunger, and the process was repeated several times before Kai began to slow down a little.
"You fight very well." The woman commented, as she poured herself some soup.
Kai blushed. "Thank you," she mumbled. She had never been much for talk, and this woman made her nervous.
"I am Rael," The woman said, draining her own cup, and settling down amongst some pillows to regard Kai in a friendly fashion.
Kai nodded and chewed on the edge of her cup. Rael smiled and chuckled a little. "So you do not wish to introduce yourself in kind?" Kai blushed and shook her head quickly. Rael chuckled more, evidently bemused. "Well then, judging by the state of you, and the fact that you had attracted the attention of the King's Brigands, I shall hazard a guess that you are one of these mischievous urchins one hears about, wandering hither and thither and getting themselves into trouble."
Kai bristled and blushed at the same time. "Who says I am an urchin?"
Rael's lips curled up into a smile. "You bear no marks, dear. Not to mention the fact that you travel alone."
Kai shrugged and gave Rael her best cold look. "Thank you for your help. I really must go," she said, beginning to struggle out of the bed.
Rael nodded politely. "Of course. You will find your possessions packed by your side."
Kai swung her legs over the side of the bed and reached down, picking up her bag, and finding it not only filled with all her things, but packed with clean clothes and stocked with dry meats, biscuits, and water.
In spite of herself, Kai burst into tears at the kindness.
"Are you alright?" Rael asked, her brow furrowed with concern.
Kai nodded and wiped her eyes. "Yes, sorry, I must be tired still. Thank you for the supplies."
Rael smiled understandingly. "You are welcome to stay if you wish."
Kai shook her head. "I must go.. I must.. I.." Reminded of her mission, she felt tears prick at her eyes once more.
"You lost a lot of blood. An extra day's rest will help you make better time." Rael said firmly, taking the bag out of her hand and placing it beside the bed.
Kai nodded tearfully, abandoning her fight easily. She laid back on the bed, closing her eyes, and was startled by a movement near her knee that quickly traveled up her thigh. Squealing, she sat up, her arm reaching for the blade that was no longer at her side as her fearsome attacker leapt at a strand of her hair and dangled from it, a grey bundle of furry fury.
Kai giggled with relief, and cradled the little grey kitten in her hands, gently disentangling it from her hair. It purred and licked her skin, its unfocused blue eyes staring fuzzily up into her face. Rael smiled.
"That is one of the kittens, there are two more about the place somewhere."
"He is cute." Kai said, nuzzling the little kitten, forgetting the battle and her wounds as the little creature vibrated in her hands with pure joy.
Rael smiled, happy to see her guest enjoying the kitten. It was clear from the young lady's demeanor that she had not had much enjoyment in her life up until this moment.
"I think he will be a fearsome hunter when he is grown." Rael commented, watching the little kitten bat at the strands of Kai's hair that fell over her face.
Kai nodded enthusiastically, sending the kitten into spasms as it tried to catch the hair it bobbing up and down before it. "He will be the best hunter." She said, smiling at the little thing, so frail in her hands. She could feel its tiny bones moving against her palm, and marveled at how such a small thing could be so feisty.
The light of the day was beginning to fade, and Kai played with the kitten as Rael moved about the cave, lighting candles. Once they were lit, she went to the entrance of the cave and with no little effort, rolled a large stone across the door. She caught Kai looking at her with a touch of claustrophobic panic in her gaze and winked. "Better to keep the brigands out than fight and kill them all."
Kai shook her head "I would rather kill them all," she said fiercely.
Rael laughed, a low laugh. "A life in blood is little of a life at all." She settled back on the cushions with a scroll. As she laid back, two more kittens, both as black as the night appeared from the shadows and walked across the cushions with unsteady gaits, both stiff legged like little soldiers.
They were so cute, and as Rael unrolled her scroll and began to read, Kai fell asleep watching the kittens pull at Rael's robe, the little grey kitten curled up at her own neck.
Morning found her much improved. Kai awoke to streaming morning light. Blinking in its glare, she stretched and found that semi miraculously, her pains were dull compared to how badly she had been hurt. Whatever had been in that soup must have worked as she slept.
Sitting up in bed, Kai swung her legs over the edge, and shouldered her bag. There was no sign of Rael, but Kai's feet were itching to get back on the road, so she quickly slid out of the cave with a pat to the little grey kitten who remained curled up in the warm sheets.
"Leaving so soon?" Rael's voice cut through her movements as she began her descent down the mountain. Kai froze, her tummy flip flopping for some unknown reason. She turned and gave a weak smile as Rael stepped out from behind a cluster of trees and walked over to her. As Rael drew close, Kai realized just how tall the woman was compared to her, she had her by at least a foot.
There was a hint of censure in her gaze, and Kai had a second realization, this one of just how rude she was being. This woman had saved Kai's life and shared her home, and in return, Kai was simply sneaking out like a burglar. Rael said nothing however, simply giving Kai a smile.
"Be safe on your journey." She said with a courteous bow.
"I will, thank you, thank you for everything," Kai replied, bowing back.
Rael's eyes twinkled with merriment as Kai bowed once more and practically fled down the mountain, not stopping until she was sure she was out of sight. After an hour or so of quick marching, she dropped down for a rest. Her leg was beginning to ache, and she could feel that the bandage needed to be changed. Rifling thorough her bag, she found more of the soup, stored up in a flask, as well as some clean bandages. The woman, the stranger, had certainly gone out of her way to ensure that Kai was well prepared for her journey.
As Kai peeled the old bandage away, she blushed with embarrassment. She had behaved so badly, but why? She knew better than that. She resolved to return from the city with a gift for Rael. The resolution assuaged her conscience a little, and she set about changing the bandage. Drinking the soup refreshed her further, and as the sun shone down pleasantly on her skin, Kai felt a glow of contentment. She closed her eyes, and raised her face up to the sun, relaxing in the sweet morning breeze.
It was not even five minutes before a shadow fell across her face, and she frowned. How very like life, for a cloud to come just as one learns to enjoy the sun's rays.
A rough voice roused her from her philosophical reverie.
"Look at this little bitch." it laughed, masculine and uncouth. Kai's eyes snapped open and she gave the speaker a cold glare. Yet another one of the mountain brigands, would she never be rid of them? Behind him, a band of five men waited, each of them looking at her in lecherous fashion. A shiver ran through Kai as she registered their intent, and almost immediately she was on her feet, her blade slashing up towards the brigand's throat, slicing it through with deadly precision before he could utter so much as a single cry.
It was safe to say that this reaction had not been anticipated, as their comrade fell, blood pumping from his wound, three of the men rushed her as the fifth one, a smaller male, perhaps not even a man, fled the scene. Kai had no time to stop him, the others were upon her, fueled by rage and testosterone, they pressed her hard, attacking from every side, every quarter. She drew her second blade, using the two deadly edges to clear her space, taking advantage of their clumsy openings as they lunged at her. One lost his arm, and staggered away, howling and clutching at his elbow stump. That left three, which quickly became two as one of the brigands vomited at the sight of the dismembered limb and was quickly skewered through.
The two remaining brigands were made of sterner stuff, and they circled around her, trying to take her front and her back at the same time, trying to out maneuver her. Their attacks came in a strangely synchronized fashion, one blade slicing towards her neck whilst another aimed at the back of her knees. These were no ordinary brigands, these people knew how to wield their blades.
But knowing how to wield a blade alone was not enough, and Kai desired to end this quickly. It was time for the coup de grace. Stepping back, and up onto a stone Kai launched herself into the air, her body arcing like a reed as her swords cut the wind, lopping the head of one of the brigands neatly from his shoulders, and severing the other's blade as he attempted to block her movement. She landed kneeling, facing away from her assailant, but with a quick upwards thrust behind her, without even so much as looking, cut him from navel to breast, spinning aside as he fell forward, and mercifully beheading him as he landed on the ground.
Finishing the movement, she flicked her swords clean of blood, and sheathed them. There was no time to gloat, to feel nauseous in, or to lose. She could hear the wails of the man who had lost his arm in the distance, and the younger one had escaped, he could be back with reinforcements at any moment.
Shouldering her pack quickly, Kai made use of an old technique she had learned when she was young, and quickly climbed a tree. Fortunately, the brigands had come upon her at the edge of a wooded glen, and she quickly moved through the trees, stepping from branch to branch as she may have stepped along a road, leaving no tracks to follow or scent to be found.
Once she had cleared the area, she began to ascend the tallest of the trees. Looking out over the valleys, she could see the brigand encampment nestled in a little nook not 5 miles hence. It was buzzing with activity, they would soon be on the hunt, and she was sure that she the quarry. Frowning to herself, she winced as once again her leg reminded her that not only was she wounded, she had not helped matters by engaging in such vigorous exercise. The wound had reopened, and was threatening to bleed through the bandage again.
It was all too much. Hunted, wounded, alone. Curled up against the branches, Kai began to cry to herself, overwhelmed with the events of the past day, remembering the soft bed she had left, the sweet kitten, half wishing that she had stayed with the lady, what was her name? Rael.
She allowed herself that outburst of emotion, but she also needed to move on, and quickly. They were sure to be after her in short order, she could already see bands leaving the camp and beginning to scour the hills.
The next hours consisted of dashing through trees and splashing through streams between trees as she tried to put as much distance as possible between herself and the brigands. A few of the bands were traveling by horseback, and she could hear them across the mountain, yelling to one another.
The trees grew higher and more dense in the mountain crevices, and she headed for one of these areas, staying in the treetops, barely noticing how much ground she was covering, or how very remote the terrain was becoming. In another hour or two, she could no longer hear those tracking her, and looking around her, she realized that she had absolutely no idea where she was.
Kai had a fair knowledge of the terrains of her homeland, she had traveled them many times since she was a child. From coast to coast she prized herself on never being lost, knowing where she was simply by the type of trees which grew in a particular region, or the kind of earth that crunched beneath her feet.
These trees were different from ones she had seen before, and there was a scent in the air that was unfamiliar. Few people knew that regions could be identified by scent alone, but Kai was almost like an animal in that regard. This new place was strange and aroused her curiosity, as well as her fear. She shimmied down the tree to investigate the territory further, and found herself in a verdant paradise, soft grass bent underfoot, and ferns adorned the lower reaches of the trees. It was a big change from the hard rocky reaches of most of the mountains, yet if anything she had reached a higher altitude than before.
"You do fight very well young lady, but your diplomacy leaves a certain something to be desired." A familiar voice set her heart leaping wildly, and as she spun around to see Rael, a surge of relief flowed through her, and a smile set itself uncharacteristically on her face. She even giggled a little. "What.. what are you doing here?" she asked, feeling herself blush.
"When an unexpected storm is unleashed upon the mountain, I seek the source of the trouble." Rael replied, the tone of censure back in her voice, as her eyes held Kai's gaze firmly.
"It wasn't my fault.. they were going to attack me." Kai replied, sounding petulant. Rael's only response was to quirk an eyebrow slightly, an act which inexplicably caused Kai to fall silent. In the silence, a little mewl could be heard, and Kai suddenly saw that Rael had the kittens with her. Riding in a sling across Rael's chest, three little heads, two black and one grey regarded Kai with varying levels of interest.
"What.. where are you going?" Kai blurted the question.
Rael smiled that patient smile once more. "As I said, when trouble comes to the mountain, I seek the source. I also seek the protection of my second home when the lawless begin to swarm around my usual dwelling."
Kai's head spun. "You live here too?"
Rael nodded. "I am sure you would have stumbled across it sooner or later, you do seem to have a talent for seeking things out," she said mysteriously, turning, and motioning for Kai to follow. This time there was no request, or gentle suggestion. It was an order to follow, and Kai found herself obeying it, following Rael's footsteps.
They walked for another hour, and Rael spoke little along the way. Kai snuck up along side her and peeked at the kittens, they were all asleep and contented, their little faces pictures of relaxed security. At a glance from Rael, Kai fell back behind her. Something in the woman's demeanor had changed since they had first met. Perhaps it was because she was now leaving her home to seek shelter from the brigands on the mountain, or perhaps it was simply the concentration required to successfully navigate the dense bush, but Kai couldn't help but feel as if she were somehow in trouble.
The light was beginning to fade when Rael suddenly stopped and simply said "Here."
Kai looked around. There was nothing but bushes and ferns and more bushes, were they going to spend the night out in the cold?
She opened her mouth to ask the question, but before she could, she saw Rael unpack a rope ladder from her bag, and a grappling hook. With a practiced ease, she swung the hook several times before sending it up through the branches. Kai stood well back, expecting it to come crashing down again, but it seemed to have caught well enough.
Tugging at the ladder to make sure it was secure, Rael turned to Kai. "Come." She said, indicating that Kai should climb the ladder. Kai did so obediently, partly out of curiosity, partly out of fear, and partly out of a strange desire to please the woman. As she climbed it seemed that the ladder went on and on and on into forever. She passed branch after branch, loosing sight of the ground.
It was several minutes before a platform came into view, a platform with a hole in it which Kai found herself climbing up through. As she climbed through to the other side, she gasped in surprise and delight. It was a tree house, and no mere box on a platform either. It seemed to have at least two levels, a larger lower level, which she could see into and contained little tables, cooking equipment, as well as a bed or two and a large pile of silk cushions. The upper level remained a mystery, and Kai simply stood and stared as Rael ascended after her and stood next to her on the platform.
"This is amazing!" Kai exclaimed, looking up at Rael, who smiled a small smile.