Book 1 Chapter 14

AsaHi stood knee-deep in the cool flow of the mountain stream, holding the heavy wet cloth of an apron-turned-fish-net. Her green eyes watched the darting flashes of silver fish under the surface of the clear water as they scattered away from her shadow.

The girl lunged forward, sweeping out with the makeshift net. For a moment, she felt contact. The fishy squirm of a struggle between her hands. The splash of fins and water on her face. Suddenly, she slipped, the bottom of her feet sliding over the slick-moss stones. Then, she was on her hands and knees, her face down in the cold stream’s flow.

That wasn’t the first time that day. And just as before, when she opened her net, nothing was inside.

A soggy sigh escaped her lips, “Almost…”

Not that I really need a fish. But having fresh meat would be nice.

It had been a while since she had anything other than the stale food in her pack, and those supplies were slowly growing thin.

There’s plenty to make do with out here, if I could just catch it.

AsaHi lost track of the time they spent traveling. The hills, mountains and forests had a way of making concepts born of civilization melt out of sight and mind. Her only means of measurement were the marks on the map. The sun. The stars.

And Kaze’s extremely good sense of direction.

More than once, he stopped her in protest, only to show her a better way to travel or avoid a potential danger. More and more, she trusted his insight, especially since more and more, he was able to communicate what he wanted to express.

AsaHi found him to be a charming travel companion as his vocabulary grew. Kaze always had an observation to make, usually in good humor and warm spirits. There was never a time when AsaHi wasn’t glad to have him with her.

Pushing the long wet strands of hair out of her face, she pulled herself up out of the stream. Darting silver bodies sped away from her motion, the fish mocking her defeat. The girl blew out a frustrated breath and decided to take a break. Walking in wet clothes for the rest of the day wouldn’t be much fun, and it wouldn’t be long before they needed to move on again.

We’ll be going just as soon as Kaze gets back.

More often of late, Kaze wandered off when they stopped to rest. He never left for very long and he never came back carrying anything. When AsaHi asked where he had been, he replied in the vaguest way possible that he was out “looking.”

Though I have no idea what he’s looking for.

Maybe he was scouting ahead or making sure they weren’t being followed by people from Nefol. He never told her more than that, though, and the evasive light in his eyes made her curious.

Maybe next time I should tell him to bring back some food. I wonder how good he is at hunting, seeing that he doesn’t seem to eat.

The girl wrung out the apron and spread it on the top of a rock to dry. The large, flat stone was warm to the touch, so she hoisted herself up on it and sat in the quiet sunlight, waiting.

If all the bad things hadn’t happened back at home. I could almost imagine this was just a trip for fun. Almost…

Laying her head back, AsaHi began to doze. The soft babble of the stream was lulling. The breeze whispered softly through the trees, swaying the branches over her head and sending patterns of light dancing over the ground below.

In time, the sound of insects began to fade and fall silent. Where the shadows draped over her bare legs, her skin felt chilled. The girl opened her eyes at the distant hiss of moving grass, watching expectantly for Kaze to appear. But he didn’t. Instead, the brush parted with the scrabbly sound of little claws and hissing breath. Curious, AsaHi leaned forward over the back of the stone to get a better look.

She could make out dun-colored fur, patterned with darker stripes and lighter underbelly. The longish snout. Wide flat feet. The stocky, shuffling motion as it moved.

Oh, it’s just a broch.

A small, harmless, burrowing animal of the hills, it made its meals from the insects of the soil and forest floor. Though they were very common everywhere, they were elusive, people-shy and usually nocturnal.

“Well you’re a brave one, coming out in the day, aren’t you?” AsaHi asked it, sliding forward on her palms to watch its comical, bumbling gait.

She laughed as the creature snuffle-hissed its way straight into a log, bumping its snout against the unmoving bark. It paused at the sound, tiny ears twisting to capture her laugh. The bulky head lifted straight up, nose in the air. Deep black eyes turned its attention on her.

“Someone put a tree in the way, didn’t they?” the girl asked sympathetically.

The broch turned and began to shuffle through the grass in her general direction. The black eyes focused with an intense sense of intelligence as it approached.

AsaHi leaned closer, watching with curiosity, “I’d give you some fish, only I wasn’t able to catch any. Sorry.”

Her voice broke off as the creature came closer. For the first time, she could see it up close, and something about it felt terribly wrong. The way it moved was jerky, more than just the trundle of a short-legged animal. Here and there, she could see patches of fur were missing in large clumps, the skin underneath pale and grey. The dark eyes were watery and unnatural, a stream of black dripping down one side of its face.

“Uhnn….” the girl scrabbled back with an instant revulsion as an overwhelming smell of decay struck her senses. “Are you… sick?”

The broch suddenly bristled all over, tiny mouth opening to show pitted, needle-sharp teeth. With an aggressive, bow-legged bound forward, the hiss turned into a blood-curdling screech. To her horror, it had no trouble leaping up the face of the tall rock.

AsaHi screamed as she jumped down from the stone, rushing towards the last embers of their camp fire. Her hand closed around the strong walking stick that she had picked up during their travels. Rounding, she held the stick ready.

The broch was faster than she could have imagined, bounding after her with rabid intensity. The sound was chilling and unnatural. The smell was overpowering, enough to make her vision blurry with watery eyes. And though it was small, that meant that she had less of a target to strike.

She had to make it count.

AsaHi closed her fists tightly around the stick as the broch leapt fearlessly over the pit of embers. Though her gaze remained focused, staring straight into the black pits of the creature’s eyes, her swing never came.

A large shape dropped down from a nearby tree, intercepting the creature’s attack. Far larger and more vicious, the girl could only make out a blur of red and white. There was a cracking sound, followed by the broch’s chilling screech. A short moment of struggle. Then silence.

It took a moment before she recognized the form before her. When she did, her voice caught in her throat with relief, “Kaze!”

He turned towards her slowly, a strange expression on his face. His fangs were bared, lips curled back in a silent snarl. His hands were tense, almost clawlike where they gripped the limp form of the broch. Black ooze streamed out of the creature’s mouth and nose, leaving the ground smoking and eating away the plantlife where the drops fell.

A sick feeling welled up in AsaHi’s chest at the sight. She didn’t know whether it was because of the broch’s disfigured illness or because Kaze had so easily crushed the creature between his hands.

“Kaze… what…”

“Come,” he spoke with an urgent sound, dropping the limp form where it puddled on the ground.

“Wait, what’s going on?” she pressed with a frown, still gripping the stick. “Was the broch sick? Is that why it attacked me?”

“Yes. Sick,” Kaze echoed quickly with a grim nod. Then he reached his hand out, instructing again, “Come.”

She was already putting things in her pack with a frown, “I’ve been waiting on you to come back this whole time, you know.”

“I know,” he answered, grimly.

The girl paused, peering up at his face. “Did you find something, Kaze?”

“No,” he answered quickly. She could tell by the way that he turned his head that he wasn’t telling the whole truth.

“Is there something out there?” she persisted.

Kaze paused with a deep and knowing look. It was a certain profound expression that stole over his face every now and then.

AsaHi walked to the big man, standing in front of him with crossed arms. Her voice was steady as she asked, “What’s the truth? Is there something dangerous out there?”

He rubbed the side of his face, a nervous motion he had picked up from watching the girl. Then, with a quiet croon, he answered, “Maybe. AsaHi… come?”

She sighed quietly, wondering if she was being too harsh on him. After all, he really seemed to be concerned for her safety. “Alright, Kaze. I’m coming. Don’t worry.”

Kaze echoed her sigh in return. Then with a comforting motion, he patted the girl on the head. “You’re safe.”

“I know,” she answered, catching his hand in hers with a little squeeze. “Thank you for coming back and protecting me.”

His face brightened at once, washing away all the grave concern that had been there just a moment before. Something like a purr rose in the back of his throat, “Welcome.”

AsaHi gathered the last of her belongings as Kaze scouted around the perimeter of their camp. After throwing a dry cloak around her shoulders, the girl paused to glance back at the clearing one last time. Instantly she wished that she hadn’t. There was nothing left of the broch except a black oily puddle, flaking away as the breeze brushed through the grass. A shiver rushed over her body, the glade feeling somehow darker. AsaHi pulled the collar of her cloak closed in response.

“AsaHi,” one of Kaze’s large hands captured her shoulder, turning her away from the clearing. Insistently, he began to lead her away, “Come.”

Letting out a tense breath, the girl walked with him. Her feet dragged as she moved, exhaustion from fear settling over her. It was only the sound of his throaty purr that made her realize that she had propped her head against his arm.

Kaze peered down with an eyebrow arched in concern, “AsaHi sick? Yes, no?”

“No,” she told him. “Not sick. I’m just tired.”

Normally, this wasn’t the sort of thing she would do. But then, nothing that was happening in her life was anywhere near normal. After the scare she just had, something about Kaze felt safe. So, she decided it wouldn’t hurt to lean on him. Just for a little while.