Patterns of light trickled past the leaves, dappling AsaHi’s face. The speckles seeped through her closed eye lids, tugging her from depths of the calm sleep. She woke to the instant knowledge that the events from the night before were not a dream.
More like a nightmare.
Her tattered clothes were covered in mud. Her whole body ached from the fall and her hands throbbed, rubbed raw from scrabbling along rock. On top of that, her pack was nowhere to be found.
AsaHi pushed herself weakly to her feet, carefully taking one stiff step. Then another. And another. The sound of the nearby water called to her — at least there, she could wash the remnants of the night from her face and hands. A tiny silver stream stretched out before her, winding peacefully through the hollowed rocks. Moss sprung up in patches over the flat stone faces and a few stunted trees embedded themselves into the banks on either side.
Leaning forward, the girl tried to catch a glimpse of her face in the water, but it was moving too quickly to see anything more than a blur of distorted color. Dipping her fingers in, she cupped the cool liquid between her hands, then began to splash it all over her face and arms, rubbing vigorously.
Where am I supposed to go now?
The girl crouched at the waterside, shivering as the chill moisture began to soak into her travel-stained clothes.
I don’t have my pack. I don’t have my supplies. I don’t have my map. And even if I did, I don’t know which way to go to get back to the path…
As if on cue, something heavy landed next to her with a flump. AsaHi turned quickly. There, on the flat stone next to her, was her pack.
What? It can’t be!
Instantly, she began to grapple with the clips, throwing the top open. Everything inside was just as she had left it. The little paper map sat primly atop the food and various items of clothing she packed away the night of her departure.
It’s all here! I don’t believe it!
The girl’s eyes lit brilliant. Seeing this was like sunshine breaking through the darkest clouds. Her mind was already calculating, trying to figure out which direction she had run the night before and which way the road might be.
AsaHi froze, a new thought shifting within her mind. She was so glad to see her supplies that she had not stopped to wonder how they returned to her. The last time she remembered seeing the pack, it was in XaNi’s hand.
The girl lifted her head and looked up the length of the rock wall that ran alongside the stream. Her heart stopped short as her gaze was met by that of another — a man crouching on the top of the stone. He observed her in complete silence, a strange expression on his face.
AsaHi rose to her feet, demanding, “How long have you been watching me?”
“Kaaa…” a strange sound was the only reply.
Before she could blink, he cast himself over the ridge and landed lithely on the next ledge down. An intense curiosity was written on his face.
As he crept closer, AsaHi could see him more clearly. He looked as if he had spent far more than just one night in the backwoods. His white hair was wild and extremely long, catching and reflecting the sunlight in a dazzling array of many colors. He wore only a pair of battered Apprentice trousers, which appeared to be too small for him.
Maybe he’s one of the men from last night!
“Stay back!” she took a step away.
“Kaha!” he gave an odd sound, something like laughter. The man seemed to have found her reaction amusing.
“If you’re still trying to take me back to Nefol, I’m not coming! After your run-in with that monster last night, I’d think you’d be smart enough to leave!” she told him sharply.
Her mind worked quickly, thinking if she had anything in the pack that might aid in another escape. Then all thoughts were cut short as the hollow was filled with a low rumbling sound. AsaHi froze – it what she heard from the creature who attacked last night. As she met the man’s gaze, her face grew very pale.
The growl was not coming from a beast, but from him. For the first time, she could see his sharp pointed fangs glinting in the sunlight. He crept closer to the edge of the rock, his slitted teal eyes focused on her intently. The same eyes that watched her last night until she fell into the strange, inevitable sleep.
“It was you!” AsaHi backpedaled rapidly, her voice broken with fright.
He dropped down into the glade with an effortless motion, then rose, standing far taller that her. The girl scrabbled away, her back pressed against nearest rock and her pack clutched in both shaky hands. Her breath came in pained gasps, wide eyes never leaving the strange man’s face.
He drew closer, never speaking, just watching her with intense interest. Before she could stop him, he took one of her hands in his and gently splayed her fingers out. Then the man crouched in front of her, inspecting her palm. He held out his own hand in a similar position, looking back and forth, as if comparing.
What’s he doing?
Noticing she was watching him, the man turned his teal eyes upon her. The girl could feel a vastness swelling behind them, as if she was looking into the flow of the universe. A strange calmness settled on her shoulders, a feeling induced by his gaze. She knew that she should be alarmed, that she should try to run away, but she couldn’t muster the will to move.
“Kaaa?” he said, fangs glittering like dagger-points.
AsaHi swallowed, her whole body becoming tense with fear.
The man’s face fell with disappointment at her reaction. He held up his hand. Then he held up her hand. When he placed them palm to palm, she noticed that his hand was more than twice the size of hers.
Still, within the motion she could sense it, as if he was trying to tell her: See! I am just like you!
That’s when she realized the man was smiling at her. Or… at least as close as he could come to a smile with the fangs.
AsaHi stared into his smile, a dull numbness rising in her chest. She felt the jittery words pouring out of her mouth, “Are you going to hurt me?”
Instantly, his face crinkled into a pitiful frown.
She realized that he could understand her, even though he didn’t seem to speak. If he had known how to shake his head, he probably would have.
“No?” the girl asked, shaking her head for him.
The man blinked in return, studying the motion. Then ever so slowly, he shook his head, too. When she stopped, he stopped.
“Then why did you attack those men last night?”
There was a puzzled expression on his face, as if he didn’t quite know what she meant.
“The men,” she pointed towards the pants that he wore, and then made a motion like a hood over her head. “From Nefol.”
When he scowled darkly, AsaHi realized he understood.
“Did you kill them?”
“Kaaa?” his brow wrinkled.
“Kill…” she made stabbing motions towards her own chest.
The man shook his head back and forth vehemently.
“Then,” she managed to stammer, “Why did you attack them?”
He gave a snort that sounded like disgust. Then he took his own hand and imitated the stabbing motion that AsaHi had shown him earlier, indicating her this time.
“Kaaa..!” he repeated the motion, indicating her again.
“You thought they were going to hurt me?” she translated.
His eyes lit up, a wide smile breaking across his face. It seemed as if he was pondering what the opposite motion of shaking one’s head no was.
“Yes?” AsaHi nodded, demonstrating.
The man watched her for a moment. Then he began to nod, too.
She gave a weak little smile. Then she shook her head, “No. They weren’t going to hurt me. They were just going to take me somewhere.”
He nodded again as if to indicate their intentions were more dangerous than just that. It was something that the girl didn’t want to believe, though her instincts told her it was true.
“Still, even if you wanted to help me, you didn’t have to scare us! We thought you were some sort of… of…” She blanched as his eyes narrowed into serpent slits, “Exactly.”
He gave another snort which slid gently into something that sounded like a purr. His face showed an open fondness as he reached out his hand and placed it on her head.
“I,” AsaHi swallowed, suddenly uncomfortable at the gesture. “I thank you… for your concern…”
The man paused, blinking hopefully at her.
Why did he protect me?
She lifted her pack to show him, “If I lost the map in my bag, I wouldn’t be able to keep traveling.”
A rather pleased grin spread across his face, “Kaaa!”
AsaHi looked at him, then scratched her forehead.
He scratched his forehead too.
“You… can’t talk can you?” she tilted her head at him.
He tilted his head back.
“Talk. You know, like this,” she pointed to her lips, then to her ears. “Talk?”
He touched his own lips. Then with a furrowed brow that expressed his frustration, he shook his head.
“I see,” AsaHi frowned too. She pondered for a moment, then found herself saying, “I suppose the least I could do is get you something to wear and something to eat.”
The girl didn’t know exactly why she made the offer to the strange man in the forest — it was just the way of her people. Life outside of Nefol was a difficult one. When a stranger extended help, the Gatherings knew to gift food and a place by the fire in return. Thinking back on the night before, AsaHi realized that this man had protected her, watched over her during while she slept and found her packs for her that morning.
I owe him a lot.
The man arched his eyebrow at her with a peculiar expression. It was almost as if he knew her thoughts and was waiting patiently for her to come to a decision.
“Do you have a name?” she asked, surprising herself with the question.
His face brightened and he nodded vigorously.
“Can you tell me what it is?”
The man gave a rather intense frown. Then he ran his tongue over his lips and took a deep breath, “Kaaaaz…”
“Kaz…” she nodded trying to sound encouraging.
The way he struggled, it seemed as if he had never attempted to utter a word in his life. It took all his concentration to shape his lips in the manner he desired. He took another breath and tried again, “Kaaazzeeee…”
“Kaazzz… kaazeeem…. kaaazeeemiii.”
“KaZeMi?” she echoed, automatically placing the sounds into a format that matched the clan names of her people.
A strange look crossed his face as he nodded. Then, he wrinkled his brow and shook his head, as if confused.
He looked so pitiful that she offered him a smile, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Why don’t I just call you Kaze?”
The man gave a reserved sigh. Then, he nodded.
“It’s nice to meet you, Kaze. My name is AsaHi,” she told him.