"Over there! It's a gelfling!" Kleo cried and quickly rose to her feet. No sooner had she reached the edge of the clearing than a girl with long, braided hair of silver broke out of the darkness and into the warm light. Her beautiful white and green garments had been soiled by mud and torn by the underbrush. The intricate braiding in her hair was falling into chaos as a tangle of loose strands fell around her face and shoulders. Behind her, a pair of gossamer wings clung tightly to her back. She fell into Kleo's arms, trembling. "Shhh, it's all right. You're safe here. Come, sit by the cookfire with us."
The girl looked up. Her hazel eyes darted around the clearing nervously. They could see that her pale face was beset with fear. The closer she got to the fire, however, the more its light and warmth calmed her.
"What happened? Are you all right?" Tyrin asked worriedly when the girl was seated near the fire. He pulled a water skin off his shoulder and knelt down beside her to offer it. Likewise, Kleo took the blanket off her shoulders and wrapped it around the girl. Kleo's small, dark wings fluttered for a moment when they were freed.
"Th-they're all gone," the stranger said. She clutched the water skin with both hands, but did not drink from it. "It was so fast."
"Who's gone, girl?" Jag-Ben asked while looking around the woods in worry.
Minn put another log on the fire and stoked it into a lively, dancing flame. In the bright light, they could see red, swollen scratches ran along her left arm where her sleeve was left in tatters. She also had a small, light blue tattoo of an inverted triangle on her cheek. Kleo sat behind her and worked at the braid in her hair, unraveling it.
"My convoy. I can't believe they're gone." As the girl spoke, Prril jumped off Minn's shoulder and walked up to her to sniff at her hand with blunted snout. It didn't take long for Prril to steal a scratch or two.
"Convoy?" Tyrin asked. "Are you lost?" She shook her head. "Who are you? Where are you from? Are you also heading towards The Gathering?" Kleo gave him a stern glance, wordlessly telling him to not hound their guest with questions.
Regardless, the girl nodded. "I'm Morra. I was supposed to represent the Vapra Clan at the Gathering, but now I don't think I'll make it. It's after me, I'm sure it is." The fear in her eyes returned. "I shouldn't be here. We're not safe. It's still out there." Her gaze darted about as if she could hear things in the woods the others could not.
Jag-Ben picked up a stick and waved it about in front of him. "Hmm. 'It' was probably some o' the Spriton Clan. We're in their woods, and they dunna take kindly to visitors," he said, stamping his thick, green boots on the ground defiantly.
"It wasn't a gelfling. We're all in danger here," Morra said and stood up to leave. Tyrin took her by the hand.
"What's out there? If you're too scared to say it, then show me through dreamfast," he said. She jerked her hand out of his roughly and looked at him with abject horror.
"It was The Hunter."
"Bah! He's just a myth!" Jag-Ben grunted. "The Spriton are known for their scare tactics. I'm sure what you saw was a just ruse meant to frighten. If they mistook your people for their rivals, the Woodland–"
"No! I saw him with my own eyes! No gelfling is that tall, that fast. He had four arms, a bent back, and holes, holes for eyes!" Morra declared.
"It had to be a trick!" Jag-Ben turned away with a grunt. Kleo walked up to him and put her dark hand on his shoulder.
"It's all right, Jag-Ben," she said and smiled. "I know it can be hard to hear what you believe isn't true, but I'm sure she saw something out there. Whatever it was, maybe we can help."
Morra drew her arms around herself. "It was no trick! He saw me. Those eyes, they didn't look at me, they looked into me, through me. And the way he wheezed. It wasn't like he was tired, but excited."
"Here, sit down, warm yourself. You shouldn't go back out cold and hungry," Tyrin said, leading her to a seat by the fire. Prril cried piteously at Morra and rubbed against her legs, prompting a brief smile from the girl. Minn pulled the charred piece of meat from the spit over the fire, then wrapped it in a leaf and handed it to her.
"Thank you," she said and brushed a strand of white hair from her face before eating.
"All we have is given to us by Thra; it would be wrong for us to keep things for ourselves. I am Tyrin. I've traveled from the Silver Sea in the North to see the land and its people. When I heard of the Gathering, I had to come see it for myself. To think the Arbitrator herself has called for all the clans to congregate. I've heard nothing on what it is all about."
"The Silver Sea? You've come a long way, then. Did you cross the Claw Mountain?"
He shook his head firmly. "I might love adventure, but I am not that foolhardy. No, I came through the grasslands and the Swamp of Sog. You've, uh, met Jag-Ben. That's where I ran into him. He's gruff, but has a good heart, and no one is more dependable," Tyrin said.
Morra appeared more relaxed now and nodded to Jag-Ben, who answered with a humph! of mild protest.
"Yeah, well there's still no Hunter," he retorted. "But, if there's something out there, we'll keep ya safe. I've gotten that lad out o' more than a few scrapes in the last month, haven't I?" Jag-Ben said and gave Tyrin a knowing smirk. "I've traveled with him to keep him out of trouble!"
[ Link to Part 2 ] -- [ Link to Part 4 ]
[ Link to Part 2 ] -- [ Link to Part 4 ]