Still, in spite of all our differences, I found her to be quite an alluring creature, fierce, yet gentle. I hoped that our paths would cross again so that I could see her again-

A wagon drew near, drawn by a pair of oxen, wheels clattering over the uneven ground. I stood, pleasantly surprised, and the wagon came to a halt next to me. A burly, heavily-bearded dwarf sat in the driver's seat, smoking a deep-bowled pipe.

"Be still," the dwarf warned, "Or yer next breath be yer last."

I stood still, my bow still shouldered, "Be easy, I mean no harm. I wish to barter."

"Perhaps, or perhaps there be more of ye at the ready. Sput! What do ye see?"

A small imp clambered on board, clothed in dark hide garments, its head disproportionately small for its body, "Alone, none else."

"Well, ye may yet live another day. Sput here be quite skilled with poison darts, and he be sharp with his aim, so he be. What have ye to trade? I intend to be on me way swiftly, so I be."

I brought my cart, showed the dwarf the hides, and then the carvings.

"Ye make these little animals? That be impressive, I say! There be those who pay a pretty price for such things, know ye?"

"Above all, I require food, if you can spare it."

The dwarf gave the hides a quick examination, "Not the greatest lot be they, but I take them still, so I do. But these animals ye carved, they be first rate. Sput, behold these animals!"

Sput leaned close, peering at the carvings with keen interest, "Like real, but wood! Owl and fish, hare and... and..."

"And turtle, ye simple turnip! That be a turtle, what with its shell on its back! Yes, we have food we may give in trade for yer wares!"

For my hides, the dwarf traded five small loaves of brown breads, but for the carvings, he added a wheel of golden cheese as large as my head and some salted pork.

"I be back in a few months' time, and I gladly take more of yer animals for trade when next I see ye. Sput, scout ahead, brigands haunt these lands, and I'd be ready to make a few less, so I be. Take care, carver, they be a mean lot."

I thanked the dwarf for his generosity and his warning, and hurried back with my cart, resisting the urge to gorge my fill right there where I stood.

Back at my cabin, I unloaded the cart and put it away. Once I was inside, I threw off my cloak, sat down at my table, and forced myself to eat sparingly, a few thin slices from the wheel of cheese, a small chunk of salted pork, and a small portion of bread. But even that little was enough to sate me. I put the food in the store room. With such small portions, I could most likely make it last a month. I added a few more logs to the fire, keeping it going strong, and then sat down at the workbench. I still had scraps left from the hummingbird carving, but no wood large enough to start a new one. I looked up at the hummingbird as it sat on the shelf, lying on its side. If I was planning on keeping it, I would either need to hang it by a string from the ceiling, or create a stand for it to pose on. I used one of the larger scraps, creating a base with a concave bottom, almost like the lip of a bell. On the top portion, I began carving three narrow arms, and adjusted the hummingbird on it, repeatedly shaving down the ends of the arms until the hummingbird was posed upon it properly. Then I treated both the stand and the bird with a very thin, watery wax to seal and protect it. I cleaned the eyes off, and then set it back up on the shelf. It was shinier now, a little darker, and still a fetching piece, even if I did say so myself.

I sat by the fire, letting the heat chase away my chills, and I realized that the emptiness I suddenly began to feel wasn't emptiness, but loneliness. For a night, I had someone to talk to, someone I found that I liked talking to, and now I was alone again. I wanted to know more about her, wanted to enjoy her company. I tried to imagine what it was like to be surrounded by family, friends, neighbors, children... and I could not. I could not even imagine people in my own cabin, sitting at the table, or clustered around the fire, conversations, laughter, arguments aplenty. It must be unbearably noisy. I also attempted to imagine what Raina would be doing, but I knew terribly little about her. Perhaps she was a healer; she had done a fine job with my wound. I imagined her knelt over someone, applying a powder to the elf's broken arm, or a child's scrapes, tending the brittle bones of the elderly. Still, I supposed, I had no idea for sure. Feeling weary, I dragged myself to my bed, expecting to be asleep in a matter of minutes. Instead, I pictured Raina in my head as she had smiled at me, and also as she had been, so keen of hearing that she could have a dagger at my throat as I had offered my cloak for her comfort.

The next few weeks, my injury healed to a thin, puckered scar, and I regained full range of motion of my shoulder. Also, after the first week of my return, it finally stopped raining. I began repairing my roof, patching holes that had formed, and then gathering firewood, setting it in the sun beside the cabin to fully dry. Most of the vegetables and fruits in my garden had been drowned, the stalks crushed, but, among them were survivors. I rotated the soil around them, not removing the plants that had been killed, as they would fertilize the soil, and the seeds would grow new plants eventually. I roamed the woods around the cabin, checking my traps, many of which were empty. In two of them, I found rabbits that had investigated the red berries I had placed inside for bait. The rabbits were skinny, but meat was meat. In another, a snare, I found a small doe, which began thrashing as I neared. I ended it with a well-placed arrow that pierced the heart. I reset the traps, brought back my catch, and began skinning the deer, draining it of blood while I did so. Once I had removed the pelt, I scraped the layer of fat from it, set it aside, and removed its organs, many of which I could eat, while others had their own uses. While I let the carcass continue to drain, I took care of the rabbits.

After cleaning up the mess I'd made, I went in and bathed, using rainwater I had collected using a device I had created. It employed a long, hollow, wooden tube that went through the ceiling and roof before belling out at its end. The tube went down to a large, wooden bowl that sat on the floor. It was simple, and very useful, though I had needed to dump it out while it had been raining nonstop. I gathered water from it using a smaller bowl about the size of my head, carried it outside, and began to strip my bloody clothes off. I rinsed off, scrubbed with a small piece of linen, and then rinsed again. Next, I began scrubbing my clothes, trying to remove the stains from the animal blood, not quite removing all of them. I dumped the bloody water, went back inside and re-clothed in fresh garments. I picked up my bow and arrows, went outside, grabbed a small hatchet, and went into the woods to collect more wood for my carvings. It was late in the day by the time I had found, cut, and possessed an armload of the wood I needed, and I began heading back when I heard some shouting deeper in the woods. I set the wood down, prepared my bow, and moved closer to see what was amiss.

As I neared, a man cried out in agony, and the sounds of battle ensued. Another man bellowed in pain, and then someone came running at me. As it was getting darker, it was not easy to see who it was, but when I could, I gaped dumbly.

"Cuthbert," Raina was bloody and gasping in pain, "Please..."

"Come with me," I urged grimly, and she began to follow, but fell, so I picked her up and carried her to my cabin. I could hear her adversaries somewhere behind us, searching for her. Finally we reached the cabin. I let her in, and closed the door, barring it after me. She collapsed to the floor, and I knelt beside her.

"What has happened?" I asked, helping her remove her cloak.

She moved stiffly, painfully, wincing, "Brigands... came upon me while... I rested from the journey."

I helped her to a chair, and she fell into it, crying out softly.

"They took my spear," she pressed her hand to her right side, flinching, "But they knew not of my dagger. I fell one of them with a deep slice of the throat, but left my blade in the chest of a second. Quickly after, disarmed, I ran."

"How many were they?" I put a pot of water to boil in the hearth, and set aside a linen cloth, almost the only one I had that was still clean.

"They numbered five, big brutes, all of them. There may only be three now."

I tended the cut on her brow, using the hot water and linen cloth to gently clean around it. All other injuries being bruises, some expansive, including the one on her right side, I could not do much more.

"I have my medicines, and they will tend to the worst of my injuries," she opened her ruckah.

I let her tend the bruises, turning to give her privacy. I rinsed her blood from the cloth, boiled it in the water in the pot, and hung it nearby to dry. I was about to remove the pot from the hearth when someone pounded angrily on my door. I turned to Raina, who had gained her feet, fear plain on her face.

"You must hide," I whispered, "I will turn them away."

"You may need help," she hissed, "I can help!"

"No, please, I will handle it. Also, you are unarmed. Just hide in the store room."

She hurried into the store room, out of sight, and I went to the door, grabbing my bow and nocking an arrow. Thus armed, I removed the bar and threw the door open hard, causing it to crash against the wall. The sudden noise and motion startled a very brutish man, clad in rough furs and wielding a battle axe. The man bore old scars on his face, and was bearded in dark hair.

"Woodsman," growled the man in an equally large voice, "We seek a filthy little dark elf. Has the diseased little beast come this way?"

"I have seen no elf," I spoke evenly, "Why do you seek one?"

"The abomination attacked my brothers and me, killed two of them, it did! I will crush the beast under my feet, and its head I will mount on my wall!"

"If your brothers are as large as you, I fail to see how such as a dark elf could fell one of you, let alone two," I replied.

"The abomination was quick, a dagger it used, hidden in its cloak, 'fore fleeing like the dirty little coward it be. Have you seen it, 'haps felt pity and now hide it? Speak true, woodsman, or you will share its misery, for find it we will!"

My heart pounded, but I spoke calmly, for fear might betray me, "I hide no elf within. I believe you have been misled to have ended up at my door."

"We tracked the cursed beast this direction, woodsman! I say again, speak true, or your head be mounted next to the diseased beast's 'fore the night be over!"

"And I say again that you are misled, Now threaten me not, or your brothers will mourn you this night at your resting place."

Taken aback, the brute scowled darkly, prepared to threaten me once more, but halted as I drew back my arrow, prepared to loose it at his face.

"Pray your path never again crosses mine, woodman," his voice was low, venomous.

"I will do so. I am loathe to waste even a single arrow on such as you."

The man bared his teeth, and then stalked away. I waited, my arrow still drawn back and ready to fly, until he joined with two other slightly smaller, yet dangerous men in the woods. They disappeared from sight soon after, and I relaxed my arms, returning the arrow to my quiver. I closed and barred the door. My legs suddenly weak, I sank into a chair at the table, setting my bow next to me.

Raina appeared from the store room, her eyes widened in surprise as she gazed at me.

"What sort of man might you be to speak thus to a human who equals two of you in size?" she asked.

"You must be hungry," I got up, feeling a little weak still, but recovering, "Pardon my manners; I will provide some food and drink."

"He called you woodsman," she recalled, "How does a woodsman stand to a brute like him and succeed in causing fear?"

I went into the store room, cut small pieces of cheese, pork, and bread, bringing them to the table and setting them before her.

"And why do you evade my questions?" she regarded me with suspicion.

"Please, you should eat, and I will fetch you some water," I indicated the food.

"Tell me at once," she insisted in frustration.

I brought her a mug filled with water, setting it next to the plate with the food on it.

"I will not touch crumb nor drop until I know why," she warned.

"He may be two of me in size, but half of me in mind," I sighed, "He feared my arrow, and rightly he should. Brigands such as he rely on their size to cause fear. He saw no fear in me, so he had no advantage."

"You must be quite mad to not fear such a beast!" she exclaimed wonderingly.

"Oh, I feared greatly. I only showed none."

"Then how were you able to stand and feel great fear, yet show none?"

"You gave me strength, that if you could defend against five, I could stand against one."

"I hardly escaped with my life!"

I nodded, "Yet you did, and fell two of them as well."

"If he had attacked, I may not have been much help in a fight," she admitted, "I am much weakened."

"Perhaps, but I would have defended you all the same."

"You owe me not your life, and I would not ask it!" she declared, "I had expected that you would turn me over once you beheld their size."

"How low you must have thought of me," I frowned, "To think I would betray you to them."

She lowered her eyes in shame, "Please forgive me, I beg. I meant no offense with my words."

"I may be human, but I am not like them."

"I beg of you, please forgive me," she said again, her hands before her clasped together.

"Be easy," I took her hands, "You are already forgiven."

"And I now owe you my own life, as I had faced death before you saved me."

I blinked, and then shook my head, "You owe me no such thing."

"If they had caught me, my head would be a trophy. If not for you, it would be so."

"And you have saved mine, as I would have died in the rain. We are quite even."

"You seem to forget once again that it was my dagger that wounded you," she argued.

"I insist, you owe me nothing, but I would happily accept your friendship, as I have been long without a friend."

"Then I give my friendship and loyalty," she agreed readily.

"I am well pleased," I smiled, "Now, please eat. You will need to regain your strength."

She ate most of what I had put on the plate, and all of the water from the mug, and would eat no more, "I cannot eat more for fear that you have little else."

"Be easy, I was fortunate to happen upon a trader soon after returning here, and I have plenty. Also, after the rains stopped, I happened upon a doe and two rabbits, which have been added to my stores. Eat as much as you require, I happily offer it."

"The elders would never believe me if I ever spoke of your great kindness to me," she smiled, "They would insist that I was spinning tales to fool them."

"You must have grown with endless accounts of horrible misdeeds wrought by my kind, if any act of kindness would be so unbelievable!"

"My father alone has recounted countless encounters," she emphasized.

"Then our friendship should continue without his knowledge, or they will disallow it."

"I swore my friendship to you, and I would not end it at their insistence. They would have you killed for it, no doubt, and I, and possibly my entire clan, would be banished."

I paled, worried, "Would you so readily accept such harsh consequences on my account?"

"It shall not come to pass, as we are to continue our friendship without the knowledge of the elders," she assured me.

She huddled before the fire, and I draped my bear pelt across her shoulders. She glanced up at me gratefully, her eyes reflecting the firelight. Then she looked past me and spotted the hummingbird as it perched upon the stand.

"Is that..." she stood with some difficulty and went to the shelf to look closer, "This is a hummingbird. Where did you come upon such a treasure? It is beautiful!"

I stood next to her, smiling, "It is one of my creations."

"You? You carved this?"

"I did. You seem surprised."

"Surprised? I'm astounded! Such attention to detail... I have seen no rival, save for the true creature itself."

"I am pleased to hear so. I traded my other works, but felt compelled to keep this one."

"You possess quite a talent. Its eyes..."

"Those are black pebbles from a river, polished and placed."

She gazed up at the hummingbird still, entranced, "Once again, you have surprised me, Cuthbert. I would not have thought it of you, I confess."

"I carved it soon after my return from the rocky hills where I met you... perhaps I kept it from the others because it reminded me of you."

Raina blinked, confused, "Of me? The black eyes, you mean?"

I thought for a few seconds, and then explained, "The hummingbird may appear frail, vulnerable, you see. However, I have witnessed occasions where it has bravely chased away blood-hawks, which are so much larger. Hummingbirds are quick, their wings flitting so that they are difficult to see, so graceful and elegant, and I am constantly stunned with awe of their beauty."

I glanced beside me, and was startled to see tears glimmering in her eyes, which were now upon me.

Thinking I had crossed a line of which I had no business crossing, I stumbled over my next words, "Please, forgive me if I have spoken out of line, I meant nothing by-"

"No!" she stopped me, "Do not say that, I beg, not if you truly meant your words."

I closed my mouth, not sure what I could say next, and she pressed her lips to mine, one eternity, another, and then done in only a few seconds. She seemed as surprised as me of her boldness.

For an awkward moment, she said nothing, searching for the right words, and I was less sure of my words.

"I-I... " she faltered.

"Yes..." I tried, my heart pounding with nervous excitement.

"I... should... I should... lie down... I feel weak... " she lowered her eyes.

I felt a wave of disappointment, but quelled it. She had, after all, just recently survived an attack by a group of vicious brigands. She had more than earned some rest and recovery. I nodded, managing a smile.

"Yes, it has been quite a dangerous day, has it not? You should rest."

I led her toward my bed, and, as she lay down, I covered her once more with the bear pelt.

"This does not mean that..." she looked up at me, "Please... tell me that you meant what you said."

I leaned down a little closer and answered, "You are as the hummingbird, Raina. I mean every word."

She smiled radiantly, her eyes bright, "Say it once more, that I may take it to heart."

"You, dear Raina, are as the hummingbird."

I held her hand, sitting on the side of the bed, until she was asleep, and then I held her hand still, feeling the warmth that radiated softly from it. When I finally released her, it was with great reluctance, but I contented myself with watching over her. I brought a chair over and set it down softly next to her bed. I sat down in it, wondering what was happening to me. Being always alone, I had only spoken to traders, and once to a man who had showed up at my door, asking for assistance. The man had turned out to be a foe, intending on ending me and taking everything of value. Luckily for me, he had underestimated me greatly. With an arrow in his stomach, bleeding and crying out in agony, he had made great bait for the bear under whose pelt Raina slept now. With such limited conversations in my lifetime, one might expect I would be more akin to an animal, responding with grunts and howls. However, my father had taught me to read, using the books he owned as tools for the task. As well as everything else he had left me, his books became mine, and I had read them several times since, as well as other books that I bartered for when the trader I met happened to have a few.

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