Kleo sat down beside Morra again and used a small water skin to wet a piece of cloth. She attended to Morra's arm with a smile. "I'm Kleo, from the Grottan clan. And that is Minn, a Dousan from the Crystal Sea."
"I've never met either of your kind before," Morra said as Kleo pulled a small bone needle from a pouch at her side. She threaded the needle with a bit of string and started patching up the tears in Morra's sleeve. All the while, Minn was busy in a rucksack, pulling out supplies that he could spare and setting them on a blanket.
"Well, we don't usually leave the caverns," Kleo said. "A week ago, I'd never met a Dousan before, either. I found him wandering on his own while I was gathering herbs. He told me he's the eldest son of his village's matriarch, but got separated from his party when they entered the Maze of Many. I took him out of the maze by a shortcut and decided to help him until he found his clan."
Prril, as if upset that she had been left out of the introductions, jumped into Morra's lap and pressed her head against the gelfling's chin, lifting her pointed forelegs to do so. She yawned, revealing a mouth of very sharp teeth and two tongues side-by-side. "And what is this little one's name?" Morra asked and began to pet her.
"Prril. She is my bond-kin," Minn said. He took his hands from his work to gesture over his chest as he spoke.
"And how did you all meet?" Morra asked.
"We only met this morning," Tyrin said as he walked around the clearing with Jag-Ben. "The Dark Wood has only a few trails through it, and our paths crossed. It is better to travel together, is it not?"
Morra nodded. "Yes. It is. I used to travel with my younger brother often, but now he is… missing. My mother's body returned to Thra long ago. So now I travel with my father. We were heading to The Gathering with some traders and nobles. Before we knew it, one of the traders was gone. No one knew anything had happened until three of them had disappeared. We split up to look for them, but didn't get very far. One by one we disappeared. When I heard my father cry out, I ran to him. He was hanging upside down by a tree and there was a white figure with him. I hid. I could see my father right through him. It was the Hunter, I'm sure of it.
"I must have made a noise because he turned and looked right at me. I ran, but he cut me off. Everywhere I went, he was there. It was like he was herding me." She trembled again.
"When was this?" Jag-Ben asked.
"An hour, maybe two. Maybe I lost him. I- I just don't know!" Morra said. Kleo put an arm around her and let them lean together. "Father is the only family I have left," Morra murmured, looking away.
"Well, for tonight, we are your family," Kleo said.
A loud crack echoed through the woods. Everyone jumped. When they saw Tyrin cutting down a long branch of blackwood from a nearby tree, they breathed a collective sigh of relief. The rest of the tree had recoiled from the cut, bringing the wounded stump close to its trunk quickly and up out of the gelfling's reach. Tyrin tested the branch's strength by pushing his knee against the makeshift staff and pressing his full weight into it. He looked satisfied and pulled a small knife out of his rucksack to whittle away at the tip. Only the sounds of the woods' denizens accompanied him. He had only just begun when he realized the others were staring at him. "What?"
Jag-Ben picked up what he thought was a small round rock covered in moss. Instead, it quivered in his hand and made a squealing noise when he threw it at Tyrin. The small woodland creature bounced off his chest, gave a grunt of displeasure, and scurried away into the underbrush. "Don't ya go scaring th' others like that. If there's someone out there, and I'm not saying there is, we're in danger enough by having a fire. We don't need ta be attracting any more attention."
"I want to go look for her father," Tyrin announced. He continued to whittle away until the tip of the staff ended in a long, quill-like point of white. "If the Hunter followed her out here, then he may still be alive. Is anyone with me?"
The gravitas of the announcement struck the group. Several moments passed with only the light growl of the fire before Jag-Ben spoke up. "I'm in. Ya'll need the company. Besides, I've dealt with th' Spriton before."
Minn shook his head and indicated the surrounding camp with his hands. "I will stay. Guard."
"No!" Morra pulled herself to her feet. "You don't know me, you don't know my father! I can't let you risk yourselves!"
"Shall I make you a weapon?" Tyrin asked Jag-Ben, despite Morra's insistence. She pulled on his spear in protest. The two found themselves struggling over it. Kleo was trying to calm them down, and even Jag-Ben started getting involved.
"Why are you being so stubborn?" Morra complained.
"Why won't you let us help you?" Tyrin countered.
Minn waved his hands in urgent fashion. "Quiet!" he commanded, but his soft voice was overwhelmed by the others. No matter how loud he tried to be, he could not garner their attention. It was Prril's piercing cry as her tail was pulled that brought the group to silence. "Sorry, girl," Minn apologized as he straightened out her tail and petted her along the back in recompense. Prril did not look happy with him. She padded towards the fire to recover her wounded pride, her head high and her tail swaying indignantly. But as she lowered herself to the ground, Prril stopped short and swiveled her ears forward in alarm.
"What is wrong, Minn?" Kleo asked.
"Listen." The group was quiet, expecting him to speak, but instead he motioned to the trees.
"I don't hear anything," Tyrin said, then widened his eyes in fear. "The woods are silent." He tried to recall just when the sounds of life had ceased, but couldn't. Everyone was on high alert. Morra wrested the spear from Tyrin's grip and brandished it towards the woods.
They all moved back towards the fire to gather their things quietly. "Hahhhh." No one could tell where the sound came from, but it sent shivers through them. "Hahhhh… hahhhh…" It sounded excited, like someone was on the verge of laughter. Morra 's wings fanned out and she pushed her back against Tyrin.
[ Link to Part 3 ] -- [ Link to Part 5 ]
[ Link to Part 3 ] -- [ Link to Part 5 ]