Fernis awoke on her back with a dull ache somewhere behind her eyes. The pale gloom in the forest above her told her that daylight hours had returned. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught the brightness of a campfire and winced. She shut her eyes and sat up, instantly regretting it when sharp lancelets of pain shot up her thighs. Her legs felt like lead and her arms felt no better.
â€œFinally awake, are we?â€ said a womanâ€™s voice from across the fire. The voice was relaxed but rough, almost like a purr. Fenris groaned and nodded. The fire crackled as a stick poked it and the young woman opened her eyes a crack, slowly getting used to the brightness and the headache. As her vision cleared, she noticed the womanâ€™s eyes, green as the most vibrant leaves in the canopy above. Then she saw the tousled hair, as black as pitch and kept short, following along the curves of the base of the womanâ€™s neck where it ended. The woman tilted her head to one side as she asked, â€œYou feeling okay?â€
â€œMy head hurts,â€ Fenris replied and rubbed her temple, her eyes following the other woman as she gracefully stood in one smooth motion. She wore a brown leather vest over a ruffled white overshirt. A pair of forest green leggings clothed her long, muscular legs, which ended in a pair of well-worn boots. The raven-haired woman squatted down when she came to treeskimmerâ€™s side. She started to say something but stopped short when the woman in the vest tipped Fenrisâ€™ chin upwards with a tanned thumb and index finger.
Fenris felt her cheeks begin to redden at the sudden contact when the taller woman took a step back with a satisfied nod. â€œThe bruises are healing nicely. The marks should be gone by tomorrow,â€ the green-eyed woman said with a kind smile that Fenris could not help but return. â€œMy nameâ€™s Vala. You got a name? Or will I have to call you â€˜girlieâ€™ or â€˜you thereâ€™ or something?â€
Fenris furrowed her brow slightly, but she hid it by staring at the bleached tree bark that made up the ground. The womanâ€™s rude address surprised her. â€œMy name is Fenrisâ€¦of clan Valâ€™Cera,â€ she said, feeling fresh pangs of heartbreak in her chest.
â€œValâ€™Cera eh?â€ came the reply. Though Valaâ€™s speech was coarse, her tone was kind and carried a touch of sympathy, â€œIâ€™ve heard of it. You got a good name.â€
â€œTheyâ€™re gone,â€ Fenris whispered, more quickly than was proper. It sounded more like a quiet realization than anything else. â€œThe soul-drinker killed everyoneâ€¦because of me.â€ Her fingers balled into fists on her lap and a lump settled in her throat, but she shed no tears. It would not do to weep in front of others. She heard the rustle of cloth as Vala shifted her weight.
â€œI looked for survivors but there wasnâ€™t much left,â€ Vala said and looked away at something a ways from the camp. The pause drew the treeskimmerâ€™s attention and she looked up then followed the taller womanâ€™s gaze to Hakonâ€™s body on a small funeral pyre. The sight weakened her resolve but she held fast against humiliating herself further. Vala stood and dusted herself off, â€œFound him nearby. Looked like somebody worked on him, but it didnâ€™t take. Figured youâ€™d be a better person to give him a send off than me though, so I left him alone after I set things up.â€
The memory of his body disintegrating before her eyes sprang up in her mind. She shook her head. â€œI thought heâ€¦,â€ she started to say then paused as though searching for the right words.
â€œThe one choking you last night was a fake. An illusion,â€ Vala said simply as she offered the young woman a hand, which Fenris took. Her rescuerâ€™s hand held hers with a steely grip and she managed to stand. Painful tingles ran up and down her legs and it took a few moments for the feeling to subside. Her legs still felt like logs but she managed to stand without help after that.
â€œAn illusion,â€ Fenris repeated and rubbed her neck gingerly. It hurt. â€œIt did not feel like an illusion,â€ she said as she traced the bruises, the coolness of her fingers soothed the ache somewhat.
â€œFae glamour,â€ Vala explained offhandedly and removed a stick from the campfire. When the only response from Fenris was a look of confusion, she hummed thoughtfully a moment as the makeshift torch crackled softly, â€œFaeries, they prefer Raksha but who wants to give them any respect I say. Anyway, Faeries can work these things called glamour. Itâ€™s like an illusion, but itâ€™s real enough so that if you believe it, itâ€™ll work on you. Like what happened with you.â€
â€œSo the soul-drinker was a Faerie?â€ Fenris wondered how this woman knew so much about them when the glint of metal caught her eye. The light was reflected by Valaâ€™s spear, which leaned against a small bundle not far from the fire. The shaft was almost six feet tall and made of bright silver with leather straps wrapped tightly around the bottom two thirds with a blunt spike crowning the end. At the top was a single edged blade with a tapered point three feet long and as wide as Fenrisâ€™ hand was long.
Vala raised an eyebrow then made a sound of understanding, â€œThatâ€™s your name for them I take. The name fits. Itâ€™s actually what they do more or less.â€ She glanced at the young woman with a measuring look, â€œYour clan ever find people that got ravished before?â€
Fenris shook her head, â€œWe only have our legends and stories from the other clans. They speak of people found that were both alive and dead, like shells that continued to breathe.â€ She suddenly felt cold and shivered, remembering Princeâ€™s insane laughter. She hugged herself to ward off the chill and followed Vala to the pyre.
Hakonâ€™s body was laid on a bed of sticks and smaller branches. An outer ring of sticks gave the bed a sense of evenness. Under the pyre was a thick layer of bright moss. The moss was extremely fire resistant and would keep the flames from spreading to the dry bark underneath. â€œYou certainly know our customs,â€ Fenris softly noted and accepted the torch when the taller woman offered it to her.
â€œComes with the territoryâ€¦so to speak,â€ Vala replied in the same offhanded manner as before and shrugged. She saw that the younger womanâ€™s knuckles around the torch had gone white, her body tense. The dark-haired woman suppressed the urged to shuffle on her feet, suddenly feeling awkward. Instead, she rested a hand on Fenrisâ€™ shoulder. She felt the blond womanâ€™s muscles tighten up at her touch and let the hand drop. â€œIâ€™ll give you your time. He was important to you,â€ she said as gently as she could manage and started back towards the camp.
â€œWe were cousins,â€ Fenris said abruptly. She did not turn away from the pyre when she spoke and her voice was steady but barely above a whisper. If Valaâ€™s ears could twitch they would have, instead she stopped and looked back towards the clanswoman, who looked very small in the torchlight. â€œHe taught me how to climb and how to hunt. He showed me that something existed beyond the trees,â€ she went on as she lowered the torch onto the outer ring of the pyre.
The flames quickly spread and engulfed the body while the moss kept the tree from harm. From Valaâ€™s point of view, it looked as though Fenris was wreathed in fire, her hair fluttering in the gusts the flames created. Thick tongues of flame roared skyward and for a long time Vala watched Fenris, just as Fenris watched Hakonâ€™s body disappear one final time. The younger woman did not speak again until the fire began to wane, â€œHe treated me like a friend, and not an obligation or an object placed upon a pedestal like everyone else.â€
She turned around towards Vala then, and the warrior woman saw the wet sheen in the otherâ€™s eyes. â€œYou did not know him,â€ Fenris said solemnly, â€œYet you honored him. I do not know your reasons, butâ€¦thank you. Iâ€¦I do not know how I can repay you for this favor.â€
Vala rubbed the back of her neck and looked away. â€œItâ€™s nothing really,â€ she half-said, half-mumbled. â€œI had time to kill while you were out is all. Not really something to be grateful over.â€
Fenris shook her head, her brows furrowed in disagreement, â€œWhatever your motives, you have my thanks. Without you, I would be dead along with everyone else and my clan would have remained unavenged,â€ she said almost enthusiastically. Then in a more somber tone, â€œThough it shames me to have been unable to have done so on my own.â€
â€œHey, taking help wherever you can find it is never something to be ashamed of,â€ Vala chided with a wag of her finger. â€œTrust me, coming from me, thatâ€™s saying a lot. People who rant and rave that getting help is a sign of weakness have no friends. Or got egos big enough to build a warstrider. Allies pull your ass out of the fire and more importantly give you someone to celebrate with afterwards,â€ she explained with an easy grin and a tone that spoke of experience.
â€œErmâ€¦nevermind. Sufficed to say there is nothing wrong with getting a helping hand. We all hit bottom at some point,â€ Vala waved away any immediate response and returned to the camp where she hunkered down besides her bundled pack and glaive. She took a leather sheathe from the pack and inspected it for damage. It was made of two sheets of rugged leather as long as the blade of her polearm and held together by a pair of adjustable straps. Her calloused fingers found a few new nicks that marred the surface, but was satisfied with the damage being only superficial and temporary and cradled her weapon across her lap to securely fit the sheathe. The straps were designed to loosen quickly and easily with a quick tug during times of haste, while keeping the blade snugly bound at all other times. Chores finished, Vala fed the last of the twigs she had collected earlier to the fire and leaned back, intent on enjoying a quick cat nap. The campfire burned with its usual cheerfulness as the Sun moved unseen across the sky.
Fenris looked thoughtful when she at last made her way back to the camp and saw that the fire had died down to glowing embers. The sound of her steps woke Vala, who cracked an eye to watch the clanswomanâ€™s approach. â€œDone here?â€ the warrior woman asked and stretched lazily.
â€œYesâ€¦,â€ Fenris replied softly, then more firmly, â€œYes, there is nothing left for me here.â€
â€œWhat are you planning on doing now?â€ Vala asked her, both eyes now open and watching the younger woman intently. One of the embers cracked, sending sparks into the air. It gave Fenris something to look at while she weighed her answer.
â€œAnother clan may accept me into their lodge if I present myself to them,â€ she reasoned, â€œMy clan has done so on occasion in the past. But I...do not think my place is here anymore. I want to leave this place.â€ She looked to Vala who was rummaging through her pack. Fenris did not like being ignored and opened her mouth to speak when a bundle of cloth sailed over the fire towards her from Valaâ€™s direction. She caught the bundle, which turned out to be a cloak, oiled to protect its wearer from getting wet. It made her wonder if Vala had expected to swim with it.
â€œWeâ€™ll get you some real clothes later,â€ Vala said as she stood and secured the pack next to her hip. She then put out the campfire with a few stomps of her boot and a patch of moss before she picked up her glaive with one hand and rested it comfortably over a shoulder. She glanced back to look at Fenris with a welcoming smile. â€œCome on then, I donâ€™t like camping out in the same place two nights in a row,â€ she said and started towards the clearingâ€™s edge.
Fenris could find no words and took a few tentative steps behind the raven-haired woman, the cloak still in a bundle in her hands. She saw Vala wave lazily without slowing or turning, â€œBetter hurry or Iâ€™m gonna leave you behind,â€ she called teasingly and Fenris felt a glimmer of a smile on her lips. She threw the cloak over her slender shoulders and fastened the laces. Because of their height difference, the edges dragged on the ground somewhat. After taking one last look at the pyre, now a smoldering mound of ash, she followed Vala out of the clearing and to whatever destiny awaited them.