Kaselyn looked back at the town, her eyes trailing not to the two people still watching her, making sure she actually left the gates, but to the small gray and white cat that sat nearby. She nodded at it, and sent it one last message. Keep them safe. It was all she could manage. Unshed tears hung in her eyes, and she turned her head back, looking down at the rutted path that entered into the city. It would likely be the last time she set foot here, in Marguay, the last time she would hear the cats which had been her only company through the years. She'd never felt sadness this powerful in her life; never had the taunts and insults directed at her bothered her in the least, but losing the comforting voices of her feline friends would hurt her for the rest of her life. Barely sixteen years old and she was on her own, to survive or not in the harsh world.
As she passed the small guard tower that marked one of three entrances to the town, the guard stood silently, his eyes passing over her once before returning to gaze out into the countryside. The guard should have stopped her, or at least warned her about the dangers of the surrounding lands, especially during nightfall. Her exile had stripped even that privilege from her. It was common knowledge that the lands were not very safe, though, and she needed no reminder. Her only protection from the wild animals that ran rampant in these lands was the small walking stick she carried in her left hand, something she'd carved herself and the village hadn't bothered to take from her. Truth, the small knapsack with one set of clothes, a couple days' worth of food and a few small but useful tools were her only other possessions, now. She looked up into the haze, trying to spot the sun. It appeared to be a few hours from setting still—time enough perhaps to get to the edge of the forest and make some semblance of a camp for the night. Still, she was slightly worried. She'd been outside the walls before, but never after sunset, and cries from the animals had kept her awake many nights in her childhood.
The sound of movement behind her caused her ears to twitch slightly, and her sensitive hearing picked up a soft sigh coming from that direction as well. She didn't turn to look, though; she knew it was only her parents, turning to go inside to get out of the chill that even the noon sun hadn't been able to break, hidden as it was behind a screen of clouds. Winter was coming soon, which also worried Kaselyn. She would need to find somewhere soon to make a more permanent shelter. She reached her right hand up to touch her right ear, the tip of it poking through her shoulder length hair. It had been her ears that had first given away that she wasn't normal. They had been the object of many of the ridiculing remarks she'd had directed at her in school. She didn't hate them, though; they were part of who she was. Ironically, it had been the cats of the village who had taught her that. She smiled, slightly. They hadn't seen anything wrong with her ears at all. They were like their own, they had said. She supposed it was true. Her hands, as well, partially resembled those of a cat. Though her fingers were normal, she had small claws that could retract, which is how she kept them most of the time. She unsheathed her claws slowly, wincing. It hurt to move them when she hadn't for so long.
Once she was a few hundred paces away from the town wall she started jogging, picking an easy pace that would hopefully get her to the forest in time. She knew that it would be dangerous there, but certainly less so than in the plains. Things hunted in these plains—things not altogether natural—and she didn't want to be anywhere near here when nightfall came. She knew she could keep the pace she set up for hours if she had to. Her staff bobbed in her hand beside her. She had gone to great lengths to keep it with her, and it was the only thing she had ever made that they would let her take into exile, and likely the only thing that would be of any use out here. It had taken her nearly two months to carve the subtle leaf pattern out of the wood, too, and it was her greatest accomplishment. Leaving it behind would have felt wrong to her. She would have found a way to take it even if the village elders hadn't let her. At least she'd no longer have to deal with them. Never again would she have to see Elder Scillis's scowling face, or feel Elder Yewin's cold gaze on her back, or hear Elder Proder yelling at her. She leapt into the air at that, a small bit of happiness in an otherwise miserable day. She continued moving across the fields, toward the forest, toward her new home.
"Your daughter can not be allowed to distract the rest of the students!" It was Elder Proder again, standing in the doorway of their house, yelling at her parents. She was in her room, working on her writing, but she could easily hear him from through the window. She stopped her pen, looking in the direction of the door as though trying to see him through the wall. "I don't much like the look of the girl myself, but the other children have a field day with her! I don't blame them, honestly. Not at all. Can't you do anything to make her more..." he paused for a second, "normal?" She winced, and then remembered the pen in her hand. She cursed when she looked down and saw where it blotted. Tossing the pen back into the bottle, she grabbed the sand box and dumped it carefully over the paper. It was already ruined, but at least she could keep it from spreading. She turned her attention back to the conversation.
"...you blame the other students? They're the ones picking on her. It's not her fault she is the way she is, and you know it." Kaselyn smiled. Her mother at least stood up for her, most of the time.
"You know I can't do that. Their parents would have me stoned for accusing them! You know how much they hate the fact that she's even in the same class as them. They think she's dangerous." Kaselyn bit back a laugh. She knew where that had come from; she'd clawed Thom once when he had tried to push her down. She had felt sorry for him, but knew he deserved it. Even if it had been because she was trying to keep her balance. Of course, the story he'd told about how she had attacked him had gotten her switched. Thom left her alone, though. There were many easy targets for him to bully around who wouldn't fight back. She kept her claws sheathed, now, though. "Perhaps Kaselyn should be taught somewhere else, away from the other children. It would be best for her," Elder Proder continued.
"No. It would be best for her if the other children learned to accept someone who was different than them. She will continue going to class as normal," her mother said defiantly. Sometimes Kaselyn wished she would let her stay home, learn on her own. It would be better for everyone. It wasn't her place to say, though.
"So be it. Know that I will not be responsible for anything that happens to her." It was almost a threat. She could hear him turn in the doorway and walk off, mumbling to himself. She could hear her parents walking toward her room. She hastily pulled out another sheet of parchment and began writing on it, recopying what she'd started on the first one.
Kaselyn woke up sharply, nearly hitting her head on the ceiling of her small lean-to. Another dream of her past. That had been the day everything had started going downhill. Elder Proder hadn't been suggesting that something would happen to her—he had been planning it. He was the one that brought up the notion of exile in the other Elders. She was reasonably sure that he was the one who had planted the idea in their heads that she was responsible for the creatures that roamed the plains at night. She had heard others repeat a rumor that they were hunting her. She found it completely ridiculous, but the story was easily believed by those that already were afraid of her. The classmates became more and more hostile toward her, and at several occasions she had had to run away to avoid a conflict. It only provoked them. The story she heard though, of how the demon-dogs were hunting for her, to take her back to their realm where she'd escaped from, frightened her. At times she almost believed it could be true.
It was the cats that convinced her otherwise. They gave her confidence, kept her company when no one else would. Cerri, the small gray and white cat that had been the only creature present for her exile that she truly cared about, would always keep her company, sometimes sitting outside Kaselyn's window for hours talking to her.
She remembered the first time she'd heard them, too. At eight years old, she had been frightened out of her wits to hear someone talking to her in her mind. Her parents thought she was delusional, and had called the herbalist to look at her. She found nothing wrong, though, and so her parents merely watched her. Eventually, she had found enough courage to try talking to them. Only Cerri had responded, at first. It had been a wonderful discovery for Kaselyn. Cerri was someone she could actually talk to, and not feel worried about being yelled at or tormented. Eventually more of the village felines began speaking to her, mostly due to Cerri reassuring them that she was friendly. She helped them, too, when she could. A "lost" fish here or there went a long way toward making friends with the cats. She had to be careful not to do it often, though, or someone would have figured it out.
She brought her thoughts back to the present, tears clouding her vision again. She missed Cerri. Cerri had said that she would stay with Kaselyn after it had been decided that she would be exiled; Kaselyn had told ordered her to stay in the village. She would end up getting killed out here, with no way to defend herself. Kaselyn herself was in danger now, and she had little more to protect her than a carved stick. If she was going to die out here, she didn't want to take her friends with her.
She looked outside the lean-to. It was still long before dawn, though the sky was beginning to brighten a little. The moon overhead cast a soft glow on the area. She wasn't far in the forest, still able to see the into the plains easily. She couldn't see or hear any movement, though. She rested her head against her knapsack and closed her eyes again. A few more hours of sleep wouldn't hurt. She would need it in the coming days.
She opened her eyes again to see sunlight filtering through the cracks in the wood overhead. Sighing, she crawled out of the lean-to and stretched, breathing in the morning air deeply. It would be a better day, she thought. Warmer, too.
Pulling her knapsack and staff out from under the lean-to, she tipped the rickety structure over. She would not be returning here. Her best option was to continue traveling until she found someplace where she could build a more permanent shelter. A cave would work better, but she knew of none in the area. She did know of a stream though, and she was thirsty. She set out for it, moving deeper into the forest. Her food she hadn't touched, yet. She needed to ration it as long as possible, and she wasn't very hungry.
The stream burbled gently as it wound through the forest toward the sea, and she heard it long before she found it. When she arrived at its bank she kneeled down at the water's edge and immediately dunked her head in to the water. With a gasp she pulled it back out, shaking water everywhere. "Cold!" she exclaimed, rubbing her slightly numb cheeks. It had served its purpose, though; the last remnants of sleep disappeared from her eyes. She put her head back down to the water and drank, feeling the cool water flow all the way down to her stomach. The water was clean and refreshing, and she drank for some time. She knew that water wasn't always going to be easy to come by, and she didn't want to dehydrate. She wished she had some sort of container, but that would have to wait until she could make one. For now, she would follow the water westward.
She contemplated her next move as she stared at her reflection in the water. She knew there were other towns within a few days' journey by foot, but she had long since decided against seeking one out. They would be no more accepting of her than Marguay had been. Perhaps, if she needed some supplies, she could cover her ears and enter one of the larger cities that lie weeks away, but she had nothing to barter with anyway. For now, she would have to live off the land. She stood slowly and started walking along the river, picking her way around the bushes that had grown along the bank. The flora, well-fed from the stream's rich soil and plentiful water, made keeping close to the river's edge almost impossible, and she frequently had to wander a ways from it to continue.
Her first good stroke of luck came a few hours later while still walking along the river. She spotted a small pool of water that had formed when the water level dropped, and upon closer examination discovered a number of fish trapped in the pool. With nowhere to go, the fish had grown to a good size, and would be easy to catch. Kaselyn shrugged her knapsack off and placed it next to her staff against a tree. Then, after walking back to the pool's edge, she rolled up her pants to her knees and waded in. She hissed through her teeth at the near frozen temperature of the water, realizing that she was going to have to be quick. The fish, with very little room to go, had moved as far away from her as they could, but most were still within arms' reach. Rolling up the sleeves on her shirt as well, she struck quickly into the water, but the fish she was aiming for squirmed out of her grip and darted off around her. The water clouded instantly. Sighing, she sat still and waited for the water to clear.
It was a good fifteen minutes before she managed to catch two of them, throwing them on the bank to flop around. She was getting better at catching them, learning from her mistakes. She figured three fish would be enough for now, and was moving slowly toward one of the biggest fish left when her foot stepped on something underwater that moved. Caught off balance, she had nothing to grab on to and splashed into the water. Instantly she scrambled back to her feet and out of the water, dripping wet and already shivering profusely. Picking up the two fish, she spared only a moment's notice to look at the now muddy water before she moved quickly back to the tree where her sack was. She dropped the fish beside the sack as soon as she got there. Then, she stripped out of her water-soaked clothes quickly, reaching into the sack to pull out her others. Putting them on just as quickly, she then sat down for a second, trying to get as much water out of her hair as she could.
Every small gust of wind made her shiver. She had to make a fire, to cook the fish and warm her up. Grudgingly, she got back to her feet, ignoring her still damp hair. The ground was littered with twigs, but she needed some dry grass to start the fire. She at least had flint and steel in her sack, or she would never manage to get a fire started. She moved farther away from the river and toward the trees.
She found a conifer nearby and scooped up a large handful of dry needles. They would work well enough. She found a patch of relatively clear ground and set the pine needles in a stack, breaking apart few small twigs and setting two small pieces on top of the needles. She brought out the flint and steel and struck them against each other, trying to catch the needles with the sparks. Her hands shook from the coldness. After the third time one of the needles caught fire, barely. She set down the flint and cupped the needles, blowing on them softly, trying to provoke the flames to ignite. Slowly, almost in defiance, they did, catching the small twigs on fire as well. she breathed a sigh of relief and quickly placed a few more small pieces of the dry twigs on top, allowing the fire to build.
Once she was sure the fire would remain lit, she placed some slightly larger pieces of deadwood on top of the fire and then went back to get the fish and her staff. Her legs were stiff, but she had some feeling in them again, at least. She still felt very cold, and the disappearing sun meant it would get worse, soon. Eating warm food would help, but she had to get it cooked, first.
After picking up her other supplies and returning to the fire, she found that it was already low, although there were plenty of embers. She put a larger piece of deadwood on top of them, poking the coals with a thick stick until they became more active. Then she set to work gutting the fish. Her claws were sharp enough to go through the soft flesh easily, and soon she had them roasting on a stick over the flames. Her mouth salivated at the thought of eating them. Her clothes she lay out near the fire to dry. She hummed while she worked, a song she'd heard many times while working near the other women in Marguay. She didn't know most of the words, but she remembered the tune well.
The fish went down well. She also ate part of the bread she had in her pack. After that, warmer from the food and being near the fire, she banked the fire and lay down near it, curling up on the ground. She felt too tired to make another shelter, her strength sapped from her bath in the frigid water earlier. She closed her eyes and was very quickly asleep.
A burning sensation brought her awake quickly, afraid that maybe she'd moved too close to the fire. Sunlight again barraged her eyes, and she realized that it was nearly noon. The fire was barely alive and she was not near it, but she felt as though she was standing in the middle of an inferno. Standing brought a wave of dizziness, and she had to stand still for a moment to collect her bearings. She picked up her walking stick and stumbled toward the river slowly to get a drink.
The cool water in her mouth tasted absolutely wonderful, but did nothing to abate the heat she felt. Neither did splashing some on her face. Concerned, she knew she had to get moving. Perhaps she would be visiting a town quicker than she thought. shaking the dirt out of her mostly dry clothes, she stuffed them in her sack along with the flint and steel, and set out following the river again, still heading easterly.
By evening, she was nearly delirious. She was vaguely aware that she had gotten a fever, but now she struggled just to remain moving, concentrating only on putting one foot in front of the other. She had thought she'd heard noises several times in the past hour, but each turn of her head found nothing. She was worried that she wouldn't be able to find anyplace to stay, much less make it through the night.
When she spotted another pine tree to her right, she immediately veered toward it, falling on her knees when she arrived. Scooping up some pine needles, she moved them a bit away from the tree and then fumbled around in her pack for the flint and steel. It took her several minutes to find it in her clothes, and several more attempts to hold on to it properly. Twice, she dropped it while trying to strike them together. Cursing each time, she picked them back up, forcing herself to concentrate on it. When the needles finally caught fire, she exclaimed loudly and dropped the two on the ground, blowing on the needles almost too harshly. She groped around on the ground while she was blowing, her hands searching for small twigs. Any she found she broke and set beside the fire. A couple she actually placed on the fledgling flames, coercing them to spring higher. That done, she tried to stand again—and couldn't. Her legs felt weak, and her head pounded. She had to get something for the fire to last, though. Crawling around on her hands and knees, she found a large piece of half-rotted wood only a few paces away. She dragged it back, gasping after each tug. She practically rolled it onto the fire, where it immediately began to billow smoke, as some of the wood was wet from resting on the ground for so long. She didn't care. She curled up barely out of reach of the fire, resting her head on her knapsack, and was instantly asleep.
Her dreams were chaotic and troubling, many of them brief flashes of her past when she'd been teased. One particularly painful one caused her to awaken. Her eyes focused slowly on two pairs of glowing red dots floating not too far from her. At first she thought she was still dreaming, but the pounding in her head bore witness to the contrary. The dots resolved themselves into large dogs, their glowing eyes giving them away as unnatural. She felt around, trying to find her staff. It was at least something she could use to defend herself. She was unable to find it, though. Panicking, she wondered what the dogs were doing. Perhaps they had smelled the fire and come to see what had made it. She couldn't be sure, but they were circling her warily. She closed her eyes, the pain in her skull almost unbearable. Help! she cried, in her mind. She knew it was foolish. There were no cats that would help her out here. She started whimpering softly, knowing that she was going to die. Her consciousness nearly faded, until she heard a loud yowling noise, followed by three others. She forced her eyes open, and in the haze she saw another animal bound into view. She struggled to make out anything, but everything was moving too fast for her. The red eyes darted around. The noise was deafening to her ears. She shook her head once and closed her eyes again, slipping into a sleep.
She awoke again to the feeling of warmth all around her, though it wasn't caused by her fever. A soft fur rubbed against her skin as she shifted her position to avoid a small rock that was digging into her side. She felt safe, and that feeling lulled her back to sleep. Curling up against the warm wall of fur, she drifted off.
It was almost noon again when she awoke, but as she opened her eyes the only thing she could see was a cloudy sky through the thick foliage. It was then that she remembered her troubled night, of the demonic dogs, of her protector. She looked around. Nothing. A bird flew through the treetops; a raven perhaps, or a crow, she couldn't tell. But nothing furry. Her head felt much more clear, and the throbbing had diminished to a dull ache. She stood, looking at the remnants of the fire that had long since gone cold. "Perhaps it was a dream," she said quietly, gazing into the ashes.
'Twas no dream, m'lady, a voice spoke to her. A cat voice, in her mind. She turned around to see the large animal padding up to her from down by the stream. Large wasn't the word to describe it—him, though. Dark golden furred with a mottled black spot pattern, the cat stood nearly as tall as she on all fours, and he moved with a grace that spoke of a hidden deadliness. She was frightened of him, of how easily he could likely kill her. And yet... there was another side of him she saw, too. A childish side, but yet one who knew his place in life. The cat continued. What I thought a dream, was when a girl called out to me for help. Called out to me in a tongue we barely even remember. 'Who is this Thaerian speaker?' I asked myself. I had to know, and so I came. The Kraon dogs thought you a small snack, they did. I made them think otherwise. The sound of laughter echoed in her mind, and the cat stopped in front of her, barely having to raise its head to stare at her in the eyes. She stood, frozen, returning the gaze, her mind reeling. So now I must ask myself, 'Who is this Thaerian speaker who attracts Kraon dogs?' The cat finished, sitting back on its haunches, still looking straight into her eyes.
"I'm... I'm Kaselyn," she responded slowly, trying to collect her scattered wits. "I'm an outcast trying to make my way through the forest."
The cat stood, moving forward again, rubbing against the left side of her body as he passed her, turning back toward her front on the other side. Well, Kaselyn the Outcast, my name is Rhen. I'm your savior, your pillow... he looked back up from at her from her right side ...and your guide, should you wish it. He sat back down again, glancing over his shoulder at her. She stared back, in disbelief.
"You'll... guide me?" she said quizzically.
Guide you, feed you, warm you. Anything these paws and fangs can do to help. Rhen turned and lay down in front of her, rolling on his side. Kaselyn relaxed at this, as he was no longer quite so tall in her eyes, but then she went on the defensive again.
"Why would you want to help me? I've done nothing for you." She narrowed her eyes slightly, watching him.
You're interesting. Kraon dogs don't come this far into the forest for no reason, and humans don't speak Thaerian. Not since the days of Indrene Lightstrider. I need to watch you, as well. If you are attracting the dogs, you're dangerous to us. We can take on a few, but too many of them would prove to be a formidable fight. One we don't want to start. He paused for a moment, looking her up and down. My instinct said to kill you last night, when I found the Kraon hunting you. But, I didn't hear wrong. You spoke Thaerian, there's no mistaking it. How, I don't know, but I intend to find out. Kaselyn took a step away from Rhen at that. She had no idea what he was talking about. She had yelled for help, but nothing had seemed different. She'd never heard of a language called Thaerian.
"And what will you with me once you've found your answers?" She gripped her staff firmly in both hands. She could probably get one solid hit on the cat's head if she was quick enough. She hoped it would give her enough time to get away. She doubted it though; Rhen would likely have no trouble tracking her down again, wherever she went, and he wouldn't be happy with a lump on his head.
As long as you aren't a threat to us, we'll let you continue on your way. I don't kill for sport. If I did, I certainly wouldn't be talking with you now. He said it calmly, casually, as though it was an everyday thing, but she knew that she would be dead if he had chosen it. If he still chose it.
"What if I choose not go with you? What if I travel alone?"
Then your travels must take you out of this forest. We do not want trouble. Kaselyn sighed. She was still a long way from any village, and sleeping out in the open would definitely invite problems. The dogs would certainly find her then.
It took her several moments to decide, staring at Rhen the whole time. He seemed oblivious to everything, though his ears swiveled back and forth as he listened for any movement nearby. Finally, she spoke. "Alright, I would like you to guide me through this forest, east to Ardale."
Rhen bounded to his feet, his mood reverting back to a more childlike state. Right. Let's be off, then. The day is already halfway gone, and if I'm to get back to my den by nightfall we'll have to hurry. He started padding back toward where she had set up camp. She followed, but more worry entered her mind.
"Your den? Why would we need to go there?"
Don't expect me to sleep outside if I don't have to. It's much warmer inside a cave. Besides, my mate would want to know where I'm off to. And she'll definitely want to meet you, oh Thaerian speaker.
"I don't speak Thaerian!" she exclaimed, furrowing her brow. Then she stopped. "Your mate?"
Of course. Did you expect me to live alone? The tone of his voice carried through in her head. You really don't know anything about us, do you?
"You're the first cat taller than my knee that I've spoken to. And the housecats don't travel much. Most of their idle chatter consists of where the largest rodent population is hiding in town. I doubt even Cerri has seen one of you." They reached the camp and she picked up her knapsack, collecting her flint and steel from where she'd dropped them near the fire the night before. Her head still ached, more so every time she bent over. Rhen sat down, watching her intently.
You don't look very good, either, he said sarcastically.
"I doubt you would either if you were dunked in freezing cold water," she said, slightly irritated.
Rhen turned and looked toward the stream. I suppose you have a point. Will you be able to walk far? I don't relish having to carry you.
"I'll be fine, Rhen." She slung the sack over her shoulder. "Now, where is your den?"
Follow me, he said simply, and padded off, heading southeast, along the river. She followed him obediently, wondering what she was getting herself into.