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Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Fantasy  ➡  Adventure

White Ghost and the Poison Arrow

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Chapter 1

Silver moonlight dances on the surface of the lake, bouncing off the ripples caused by the spring breeze. The scent of blossom blows across the water from the forest on the other side. The forest stretches almost as far as the eye can see. A sea of green and pink, all ghostlike under the full moon. Snow topped mountains can be seen in the distance. The snow will remain here long into summer. Remnants from the harsh winter just been. On the other side of the lake, a great expanse of plains lie, stretching as far as the eye can see. The grass is long and green, fresh from the spring rain and bountiful sunshine over the last few weeks. The grunts and snores of a herd of sleeping bison can be heard not far from the lake. A great oak tree sites a short distance from the lake, its wide branches filling the sky and bright green leaves, surrounded by pink blossom, grow like hair. The roots sprawl in all directions, twisting and turning in the ground. This tree is old, and has been standing by the lake since long before people walked these lands. Dark brown branches stretch out like fingers, the bark cracked and rough like dry skin.

Under the lone tree sits a girl of fourteen. Skin flawless and white as snow, hair as silver as the moon its-self. The breeze catches a wisp of hair, blowing it in front of her eyes. She takes her hair into her hand and pulls it all to her right, tying it into a loose braid. Using the water of the lake to see her reflection, she replaces the onyx coloured feathers she removed from her hair just a few hours ago, then secures it all with a leather strap at the bottom. She pulls her doe skin cloak tight around her shoulders. The breeze is nice, fresh and sweet, but still has the winter chill. The fabric of her trousers is soft but warm, made from the skin of a paloa fox, abundant in the grasslands. Many of the people in her tribe wear paloa skins, and they have been passed down through the generations.

In the distance a wolf howls, a long and lonely howl. She is soon joined by others, a beautiful but sad and haunting chorus. Arella sighs. How she wishes she was free as those wolves. She closes her violet eyes and leans back against the rough bark of the oak tree. This is the only place where she can be herself, out in the wilderness away from the tribe. Dream her own dreams and follow her own rules. Arella’s tribe have strict rules on how a girl should behave, what she should look like and how she should talk… or not talk as the case may be. Arella has never been one to follow the rules, right from the day she was born. When Arella was born, her mother got into difficulty. The words on her final breath were “My sweet baby Arella”. She was born without a father, the product of an invasion from an outside tribe, and with no other family to look after her. As a result Arella was given to another mother who had recently lost her child. Nayleen cared for Arella until she was 10, before she was killed on a hunting trip. Nayleen was a kind lady, but very set in her ways. Arella has been looking after herself since then, and as a result is more independent than the tribe leader would like her to be.

Arella is not well liked in her tribe, and for more than just her unwelcome outspokenness. She looks different from the others. Her pale skin and bright hair make her strange from the rest of the girls in her tribe. They are all dark skinned, tanned and black haired while she is pale. They do not let her be part of any of the rituals. Many in Arella’s tribe believe that she is a curse on them, and that one day she will bring them bad luck. Arella’s paleness is beautiful but unusual, and unusual things are not welcome in her tribe. Unusual things are something to be feared and rejected. If you do not know how something works, it might be dangerous. This is the way they think of Arella. They do not see her as unique, just something to be feared. If it weren’t for the fact that everyone in the tribe believed in the spirits doing things for a reason, Arella thinks they would have gotten rid of her a long time ago. They have not chased her off, or run her out of the tribe, but they do not treat her with respect either.

In the distance, sounds of music and laughter can be heard. The tribe are celebrating the birth of the chief’s new son. He was born earlier that day, and is a healthy addition to the tribe. The chief already has three sons and two daughters, to carry on his name. His eldest son will most likely take over the tribe when his father passes. Arella sits under the oak tree, out of the way of the celebrations that she would not be welcome to even if she wanted to attend. All of the chief’s children are model tribesmen. The boys are growing strong, and learning to hunt and fight. The eldest has broad shoulders and big arms, only fifteen but has the body of an older man, and his younger brothers going the same way. While the two girls are beautiful and courteous. They are learning to cook and clean and will make good wives for the warriors of the tribe. The eldest will soon be able to marry, she is fourteen now, and already has an intended husband. Arella would not make a good wife. She is not obedient enough. Why should she do what someone tells her to do, to cook for them, and clean for them and do everything they ask just because they are a man? But the tribe do not see it this way. They have lived like this since the elders can remember. Why change a system that does not need changing.

Arella longs to learn how to fight, and how to hunt. She practices in the fields near the lake, where the rest of the tribe cannot see her, but she could benefit from someone teaching her properly. She is fast and agile, can climb any tree, is flexible and agile, but has no strength to go behind it. She can throw a dagger well, and hit a target from thirty feet away, but her skills with a spear are lacking. At the very least she can run fast and hide, but Arella dreams of being able to join a hunting party and be part of something bigger. As it is, she is not part of anything. The men will not let her join them because she is a girl, and the women will not let her join them because she is different. Arella is stuck between a rock and a hard place.

A thought crosses Arella’s mind while she listens to the sounds of the night. Why doesn’t she just leave the tribe? Make her own life in the wilderness where she can be as free as the wolves she longs to follow. This thought has come to her many times, and the answer is always the same. She is scared. Arella has never been outside of her tribe, and however uncomfortable she feels in their presence, there is a certain comfort in knowing there are people around you. Arella knows she is not ready to live on her own. She knows the basics of hunting, and she can make a fire, but actually doing things in practice may not be so easy. She is determined to do it though, and she needs it to be soon. Even though Arella is only fourteen, she feels mature, and she knows what she wants. Freedom. More than anything, Arella wants to be free and have no worries.

Arella looks at the position of the moon. It is still early in the night. She shivers as a cool breeze blows across the lake once again. “I think I need to walk, otherwise I might freeze to this tree.” she says to herself. Arella often talks to herself. She is the only company she has most of the time, and the company could be a lot worse she would tell herself. The gods can hear her too she tells herself in times of loneliness. They would not have made her this way unless it was for a good reason. This brings her some comfort, but Arella can’t help wondering why she was made so pale, and whether her father was a pale man or if she was unique. Arella often though about her father, and wondered who he was. Nayleen had said that all they knew of Arella’s father is that her mother started showing signs of carrying a child not long after the village was raided by a passing tribe. This happens all to often, but there is nothing anyone can do about it.

A great owl flies overhead, almost as if it is encouraging Arella to follow it. His big yellow eyes staring back at her as he flies silently through the night sky, his big wings beat once as he glides along. His white belly is the main thing Arella sees, but as he looks at her, the dark brown surrounding his facial features becomes clear, spotted with a lighter brown. This pattern continues down the rest of the owls body, all the way to his tail, fanned out for balance and steering as he flies. He calls out as he goes, and somewhere in the distance his mate calls back. He flies in the direction of the woods on the other side of the lake, calling as he goes.

Arella stands up and realises her feet are cold. She had taken her boots off while sat under the tree and forgotten. She slides her feet into her boots and laces them tight again. “Warmer already.” She says. Arella has always preferred to go barefoot, but when walking on unknown land this is not always possible. Last thing she would want would be to hurt her feet and be unable to do the things she loves best. Arella shakes her legs to wake them from the cold and starts walking by the edge of the lake.

The moon lights up the area with great ease, not a cloud in the sky. The stars creating patterns and stories in the blackness. Arella likes night time best. She can see better in the dark then she can in the daylight. You could say she has night vision to a certain extent. During the day, Arella has to wear dark cloaks to shield her eyes, and paints her cheeks with charcoal to reduce the glare. By doing this she can see, even in bright sunlight, but without this she is almost blind. She can see well in cloudy conditions, and almost as good as daylight at night when the moon is out. This is another unique factor about Arella that the other tribe members do not like, but it is a feature that she has grown to love. She can hide in the dark of the forest and watch the wildlife at night, when no other person could do so.

The further from the village she walks, the quieter the sounds of the celebrating tribe get. The crunch of gravel underfoot is a soothing sound. It reminds her that she is alone, at one with nature. She can breathe out here, and she feels at home. Maybe leaving the tribe might not be so difficult after all. They would look at her as a bad omen, and if anything were to happen to the new baby, she would get the blame. This happened a couple of years ago. People die, it’s a fact of life, but in the summer last year, at the birthday of one of the chief’s daughters, a young member of the tribe got sick. She was laid up in bed for days before finally dying. Arella got blamed for this because she sat next to the young woman at the feast. Arella will not risk that happening again.

Wind from across the lake blows smells of fresh blossom and spring towards Arella. She breaths in deep, taking in the scent of freedom. It fills her lungs and makes her smile. The rustle of the long grass in the breeze is like a quiet whisper, telling the secrets of the land in a language she cannot understand. Somewhere in the grasslands a young bison stirs, awoken from a bad dream, and soon quietened by its mother. Crickets play music in the grass and birds in the trees, they have not yet gone to sleep, the night still young.

The crunch of the gravel under Arella’s feet stays at a steady pace. She is in no rush on her walk. In fact, she needs this walk to take as long as possible. Arella does not feel like she would be able to go back to her tribe while there are still people in the partying mood. Her presence may dampen the mood, and that would not be welcome at all.

As she walks past the reeds at the side of the lake, a great white swan flies out from the bank, clearly startled by the girl walking close to her nest. she glides back down onto the water a few meters away, shakes her tail feathers and fans out her wings. She looks beautiful and majestic. The swan floats on the top of the water with great ease, the ripples her movements cause are slight. Arella does not know any other creature that is as graceful as the swan, but then she hasn’t travelled far enough to know of creatures that do not live close to her homeland.

A mother paloa fox hunts at the side of the lake. Arella crouches in one of the bushes by the water’s edge. She loves watching other animals hunt. The fox gets down low, almost so low her belly is scraping the floor. Her dark brown coat blending in with the ground around her. She crawls forwards, ears pointing forwards, eyes clear and sharp, directed right at the malo duck grooming himself on the bank of the lake. His bright green plumage shining from the water dripping off his bill. He ruffles his feathers, causing the gravel under his feet to shift. The paloa fox takes this as her chance and springs at the duck. He catches sight of the fox at the last minute, but she is too quick for him and catches his left wing. Dust flies into the air as the two battle it out. The fox wins in the end, as they usually do, and she takes her prize back to the three cubs waiting in the bushes just a few meters away. The cubs are the same dark brown as their mother, but they have speckles of lighter orangey brown in the top of their fur. They fight amongst each other for the best bit of the duck, but soon settle into eating it out of sight of Arella, deep in the bushes where they cannot be seen.

The land around Arella begins to change, become for green and full of foliage. There are bushes to her left, and trees beginning to come clearly into view in front of her. It is darker here. Shadows from the trees and interlocking branches are cast onto the ground. Birds now sleep almost soundlessly in the trees. The faint cooing of pigeons can be heard as they snore in their dreams. The leaves dance and move in the breeze, blossom falling like dust. Arella sneezes. She is not normally allergic to flowers, but the pollen just caught in her nose.

Arella can hear the faint buzz of bees, sleeping in their hive. An abundance of colourful flowers line the ground under the trees, a colourful blanket and a paradise for bees. The smell of the honey in their hive is tantalising, but the pain of a bee sting is not something Arella would like to feel twice. She was stung by a bee when she was little, eating a sweet fig and it wanted some as well. However, the bee did not take kindly to Arella shooing it off. It stung her hand and caused it to swell. She will never forget that pain, and would not risk it happening again in a hurry.

The mossy ground of the forest feels strange on her feet after the hard gravel of the lakeside. The sponginess of the lycan makes every step feel like she is walking on air. It’s a strange but welcome feeling. The cool smooth stones beneath the lycan give Arella a solid footing. The forest grows thicker, and the trees stronger the further Arella walks. Roots twist and turn, interlocking under the grass and moss covering the floor, their solid foundations rooted deep in the fertile earth, strong and never failing. There is life in this forest. It feels as though the forest its self is alive and beating.

Arella walks for quite some time in the moonlight. She follows a path made through the trees by the animals that live here, breathing in the smells of the wild, taking in its beauty. She looks behind her, but cannot see the plains from which she came. Arella knows she will be able to follow her own tracks back to the edge of the forest, and so walks on deeper into the woods.

A noise stops Arella in her tracks. The sound of a man shouting, the laughter. This intrigues Arella. All of the men in her tribe are at the gathering for the chiefs new son, so who are these men in the woods? They sound different, voices she cannot recall, and in words she cannot quite make out. They are too far away to hear what they are saying. Arella moves off the footpath and through the trees towards the strange voices.

Arella stops by the edge of a clearing, hidden by the bushes and trees that line it, but with a perfect sight on the men in the glade. There are five of them, all tall and fairly well built. They must all be warriors or hunters, but she does not recognise any of them. They do not belong to her tribe and she did not know there were any others close by here. Arella has been walking through the forest for quite some time though, perhaps she has travelled further than she thought she had.

The men are all dressed in dark coloured furs, some with tattoo’s on their arms, and others on their legs. The dark black rings and patterns showing up on their red brown skin. All of the men have long dark hair, some of them have it tied back loosely, and others let it flow freely past their shoulders. They’re all young, a similar age to Arella, if not a few years older.

“Who’s crazy idea was it to do a training session in the dark anyway?” A young man with bright red feathers in his hair asks.

“Old Man Ujarak.” Replies the one with the darkest skin and broad shoulders. “He thinks we need to learn how to fight at night as well as during the day. I don’t know what difference it makes myself, but who am I to judge.”

“Well I think it will do us good Nootau. You’re as blind as a bat in the day, maybe you will be able to hit me in the dark.” One of the red skinned men laughs. His eyes seem to shine when he does so. They are a bright shade of green and stand out from the others as they all have varying shades of brown eyes.

“Oh very funny Nashoba. You know I can kick your arse any day of the week.” Nootau retaliates. With that the red feathered man lunges at green eyes and they tumble to the floor laughing and pinning each other down.

“All right boys, enough fooling around” Says a bigger man, with a deep voice. “Let’s get on to what we are meant to be doing.”

“You’re no fun Mato.” Says the smallest man in the group. “I was enjoying watching Nootau and Nashoba fight.” He laughs. “If you can call that fighting anyway.”

“I’d like to see you do better!” Nashoba spits back, a wink in his green eyes. “Bring it on Doahte” Both men unsheathe long sharp weapons Arella has not seen before. Swords, with long, slightly curved blades of shiny sharp stone and dark strong handles. Arella has heard stories of weapons like this, but never seen one. High pitched sounds ring out as the stone of the two blades clash together.

The two men fight each other for a while, each dipping and diving and never touching skin with blade, but getting close on several occasions. This is fascinating for Arella. She is never allowed to watch the men in her tribe practice combat. “It is a secret affair which women do not need to witness.” Everyone would tell her when she asked if she could watch. But this is much better. They do not know she is there, and they will not chase her away and tell her not to watch. Arella may be able to learn how to fight properly by watching these men. She wonders to herself “do they come here every day? Or is this a one off and I will not get this opportunity again?” Either way she was not going to leave the forest until they did.

Arella takes advantage of the loud noises coming from the contact of stone on stone and the grunts of exertion coming from the men to hide the noise she makes climbing into a nearby tree. A low branch holds strong as she uses it to climb into the bow, giving her a higher perspective and less likelihood of one of the men discovering her by falling into the bush she was hiding in. She is well hidden by the leaves, but her white hair might give her away if one of the men were to look in her direction. She carefully tucks her braid behind her ear, and pulls her hood further around her face.

The men’s fighting continues for a good hour or so, and they all look really tired by the end. Faces all red, well redder than usual, and sweat dripping off all of their heads. Beads of sweat glisten on the shoulders of the green eyed man. He had taken his shirt off at one point during the fight, revealing a well sculpted body beneath. All of the men look as though they are well toned, although some more than others, but it was Nashoba who caught Arella’s eye.

“We’d better head back to the village.” Mato says. “I think we are done for the night.” Arella’s heart sinks a little. Will they come back, or will she just go back to the way things were, with nothing interesting happening in her life?

“I like this place.” Nashoba says. Hope brews in Arella’s chest. “It’s much quieter than our usual training grounds.”

Mato laughs. “You only like this place better because you have somewhere soft to land when you fall.”

“Not fair Mato, you caught me off guard earlier. But I mean it, I do like this place. I will come back here.”

“No you’re right though. It does seem like a good place to practice. Aren’t you worried about that tribe on the other side of the woodland though? They don’t live far from the edge.”

“They do not dare come this deep into the forest, you know that as well as I. They rear it, and prefer to live in the open on the plains. Plus they are weak. They do not teach their young how to fight early enough, and many die from exposure and lack of food.” Nashoba says. With that the men pick up their belongings and begin to leave the clearing. Arella waits in the tree for a few minutes more before climbing down, to be sure they do not hear her. She lands on the floor with a soft thud.

As Arella walks back towards her village, she begins thinking about what green eyes had said. “They are weak.” Is that really what people thought of her tribe. She had always seen them as strong men with no fear, but clearly they are not so strong when compared to others. She knew that the people of her tribe did not enter the forest, but always believed it was just because they had no need to.

The walk back seems to take forever. Arella must have really walked far. By the time she reaches the old tree by the side of the lake, the faint orange glow of the sun can be seen on the horizon. No more noise can be heard coming from her village, and it will be hours before anyone wakes up from their long night partying. Arella rubs her sleepy eyes, makes her way to her tent and crawls into bed. Her feet sore and tired from walking so far. It feels nice to take her boots off and lie on a bed of furs, warm and comfortable underneath her tired body. She drifts off into a deep sleep, dreaming of the moon and stars with wolves surrounding her, howling and calling her to join them.

Chapter 2

The smell of cooking meat fills Arella nostrils as she awakens from her deep sleep. She breaths in deeply. “Mmm, I love that smell.” She says to herself. Just at that moment, her stomach grumbles. Arella realises she hasn’t eaten since breakfast yesterday, and is famished. When she crawls from her tent, the sun is bright and high in the sky. She lifts her hood up onto her head, shielding her eyes from the sunlight, and using the bucket of water next to her tent as a mirror, reapplies the black charcoal to under her eyes. “Much better.” she says as the glare dies down and her vision becomes clear again. The sun is already high in the sky, but no one seems to mind that they are all late up today. No one will be hunting after the celebration last night, and nothing else really needs doing urgently. Today will be a day for Arella’s tribe to relax and eat but not for Arella. She has lots to do today, and she would like to go back to the clearing in the forest again, see if the men are there. Arella has decided that she will use them as guides, and will learn to fight by watching them.

Arella puts on her boots, then pulls her hood up over her head before moving away from her small tent at the edge of the village. She makes her way to the fire pit at the centre. Over the fire, roasting on a spit, is a large and meaty looking hog, his tusks slightly charred from the fire. An older woman sits tending the fire, keeping it alight while the meat cooks. A few feet away, hanging from the branch of a dead tree is the boars skin, drying in the sun. Beautiful stripes and spots of black cover its pale brown skin. This boar was big, and will feed the entire tribe, all thirty four of them. The Apaloa tribe are small in comparison to other tribes in the area, but this is how the chief likes it. “A big tribe is harder to feed, harder to protect and too many children are a nuisance.” He would say when anyone questioned him. You see, only certain members of the tribe are allowed to have children. The chief, although he can take as many wives as he sees fit, and there are two other men in the tribe with this right. Both are members of the hunting team, and have two children each. By doing it this way, it ensures that the numbers in the tribe never get more than the chief can handle. All children born to women that were not with one of these men are killed at birth. Arella was one of the lucky ones. Nayleen was the wife of one of the tribesmen aloud to have children, and when she took Arella in, this made her safe.

Arella breaths in deep. It’s going to be another hour till that boar is cooked, then she will have to wait her turn to eat. She is at the bottom of the pecking order, so won’t be getting food any time soon. Arella walks past the fire pit and the cooking boar, through the village to the small stream that runs down the back of the site. The water still flows strong, fuelled by melting snow high in the mountains. This stream runs down to the lake Arella was sitting by just the day before. A group of young children play together by the stream on the other side, they are laughing and chasing each other around. They are watched by their mothers, both the wives of hunters. These women are strong and bigger built than Arella. In fact, all of the women in the Apaloa tribe are bigger built than Arella… Joys of being at the bottom of the pecking order, you get the last and usually smallest portion of food.

Being the bottom of the pecking order also has its advantages. Because of the small amount of food Arella has access to, she has learnt to forage for her own fruit and vegetables. Her growling stomach drives her on, she must eat something soon, there won’t be much of that boar left once the men have had their fill, and she will be left with the grisly bits that no one likes anyway.

Arella followed the stream down to a small area surrounded by plants, weeds and rushed. She picked up a large sharp stone and used it to dig up one of the reeds from the shallow water. It came loose and when she pulled it out, a large brown bulb hung from the bottom of the bright green reeds. Arella washes off the grue bulb in the stream, uses the sharp stone to cut into its flesh, loosening the skin, and peels it. Inside the skin of the gure bulb, purple flesh can be seen. Arella takes a bite out of the bulb and smiles. It tastes like earthy apples, with a hint of spice. She has learnt from many years of foraging which plants are safe to eat. Arella has spent the last few years watching the animals that inhabit her homeland dig up food and pluck it from trees. By doing this, and watching each animals reactions, she has learnt what is good to eat, and which plants she should avoid. The grue bulbs are by far Arella’s favourites, and they do a good job of filling her up. Just one bulb and she no longer feels the hunger pangs she did before.

Before too long, Arella can feel the heat and power of the sun beating down on her. If she does not move out of its gaze soon, she will begin to burn. This is a major disadvantage of her pale skin, and the main reason she prefers the night. She moves to sit in the shadow of a bank of rocks, leaning against them with the village to her left. She can hear the children laughing and playing still, and can still smell the cooking boar, but is far enough away from them to be able to relax.

Far above in the clear blue sky, Arella watches a couple of eagles play in the thermals. They weave and dance, not moving their wings at all, just effortlessly floating yet never coming down. The gradually move out of Arella’s view and drift off over the forest calling to each other as they go. The sounds from the village have quietened down, a sure sign that the boar is cooked and everyone is tucking in. “Give it a minute and I will go get some myself.” Arella sighs to herself as she watches the world around her. A small green lizard runs along the ground next to her, chasing a cricket that hops away eagerly. The lizards green legs moving as fast as they can carry its scaly body, kicking up small colours of dust as he goes. He finally catches the cricket, and eats it with a crunch. Arella has always loved watching nature at work, and the relationship between predator and prey.

Arella is startled awake as a group of riders from her tribe gallop past her at speed, causing dust and stones to fly everywhere, catching the delicate skin on Arella’s legs as them and their horses go past. Arella gets up from her resting place, the sun now on its way down. “Hmm, must have fallen asleep. I’d better go see if there’s any food left.” She says to herself, doubting that there will be anything left eating on the carcass anyway. “Wonder where they were going anyway?” She thinks. “Must be going for an evening ride.” She stops, realising what it must have been. “An initiation of course. When a new male member of the tribe is born, another is promoted to hunter. That must be it. Now it makes sense. Can’t believe I didn’t see it before. Come on Arella, use your brain.”

There is still a little meat on the left flank of the boar, now a little tough and cool from over cooking then being left, but it still tastes good. Arella can taste the mud the boar rolled in, the fruits that he ate and the fresh are he breathed and she chews the meat. It is just heavenly. The village is now all but empty, all the men gone off for the initiation, and the women and children gathered to tell stories. The sun is beginning to set, and now sits low in the sky.

“I think another long walk might be in order.” Arella thinks to herself. “Maybe some target practice too.” She heads back to her small tent, climbs inside and retrieves her dagger. Arella then hooks in inside her right boot, in the special leather compartment she sowed to them, hidden from sight but easily accessible. It belonged to her mother, one of the few things she has from her. The blade is sharp and cold, Arella can feel its presence close to her skin, even though the leather, the ornate handle only just visible at the top of her boot. You wouldn’t see it there unless you were looking for it.

Arella follows the stream down to the lake, and skirts along its edge, just the same way as she had done the night before. As she gets to the forest, she begins to feel her spirits lifting again. It is an addictive feeling, being free and able to do what she wants without others looking at her. To even exist without anyone judging her feels amazing. Arella makes a pact with herself as she walks through the forest. “I will learn how to live without my tribe. I will teach myself how to hunt, and how to protect myself. Then I can feel free all the time, not just when I leave the tribe on a night. I can wake up knowing that I will not be stared at, or whispered about behind my back. I will finally be free, and now is the time to do it. If I stay away from other people, no one will be able to tell me what to do, or hurt me ever again.” The more Arella thought about it, the better the idea became. The practicalities of it however were not quite the same. Once she got thinking, Arella realised just how much she had to learn, but then again, others do it. She was sure that she would be able to learn to hunt, and set traps. She just had to watch others do it, then have a go herself.

The orange glow of the sun can be seen through the trees and bushes of the forest, and creatures of the night are beginning to stir, just as those with dominion of the day are settling in for the night to sleep. Birds are beginning to roost, while a nearby owl hoots a wake up call. “The forest is always so alive, no matter where I go.” Arella thinks to herself. “I wonder why my tribe are so afraid of the trees. There is nothing evil here, nothing that will harm anyone, and it is madness to think that there is.”

Arella walks until she finds a small clearing in the trees, far away from the area she saw the other tribe in last night, and sets up the targets. She uses brightly coloured leaves and pins them to trees with the sharp needles of the boroana plant. Arella sets up a dozen targets, all at different heights and of different sizes then begins her practice. She takes the sharp blade from her boot, pulls back and throws it at the first target. It hits, dead on the mark. Arella smiles. She knows she has good aim, and never fails to miss a target. She retrieves the blade and goes again, and again until all targets have been hit. “I need to find a way to do moving targets.” She thinks to herself. Although how she will be able to do this escapes her.

She sets up her targets again, a dozen of them all in the trees. When pinning the last brightly coloured leaf to a tree, Arella pricks her finger with a boroana spine. She winces at the pain, but does not make a sound. She heard something. Just a small noise, a crack of a branch in the distance and a quiet thumping sound, but something doesn’t feel right. Arella takes this feeling and does the only thing she can think to do, she sheaths her knife and climbs up the nearest tree with low branches, hiding herself in the foliage.

High up in the safety of the tree Arella listens, and surely enough the sound comes closer to her. A small herd of fawn brown motto deer stampede through, clearly spooked by something. They hit the clearing and scatter slightly, a few go off to the left but most head under the tree Arella is hiding in and keep on going. One of the males gets his moss green antlers caught on a tree branch and panics slightly, freeing himself in the struggle and shaking free leaves and blossom, causing it to rain down on the ground.

Once they can no longer be heard anymore, Arella begins to think about leaving the sanctuary of her tree, believing that the deer were the sound that she heard. She was wrong. Just ask she was about to climb down, he came into view. A large beast with long black fur, highlighted with a deep purple that shined and caught the still orange glow in the air. Her eyes as yellow as the sun its self, looked up at Arella in the tree. Her big paw padding along on the mossy ground, making no sounds as she prowled, the end of her bushy tail flicking as he smelled the air. The big cat was beautiful, and the biggest creature Arella had ever seen on four legs. It was bigger than a wolf by a foot in height, and looked powerful and strong. Arella’s breath caught as she realised she was staring right at her. The big cat just watched on under her, under the tree, never moving its eyes from her gaze. This cat was distinctive. It had a large scar covering most of its face, and a white patch of fur behind its left ear. Then quick as a flash she was gone again. Arella has heard stories of cats such as this, ancient auron cats, but thought they were all but extinct in her lands. No one has seen one for over one hundred years, or so her tribal elders have said.

“He could have easily climbed up this tree and taken me.” Arella thinks to herself, still clinging to the branch she was holding onto for balance just a minute ago. “Why did she leave me here? He saw me for sure. Those beautiful yellow eyes were looking right at me.” She pauses. “Perhaps he was not hungry. Although if that were the case he would not have been following the motto. And I wonder where he came from, I thought they were all gone now.” These questions will stay on Arella’s mind for quite some time. There is no logical explanation why a creature with as much power as an auron cat would leave something that was as easy prey as Arella was just then, but he did.

Arella finally climbed down from her tree, careful not to lose her footing and fall. She took down all of her targets from the trees, put her dagger away in her boot again and hid the target leaves away in a bush where no one would find them. She then continued her walk through the forest towards the clearing she saw the men from the other tribe in just the night before. Arella has a pretty good sense of direction, aided by the ability to follow the stars. This is only the second time Arella has visited this forest, but she feels as though she knows it well.

After another couple of minutes of walking, Arella finds the clearing. She expected to see the men already there, practising their fighting, but the clearing is empty. The sun has now gone down, and the moon lights up the clearing with a bright silver night. Another cloudless sky with moonlight and stars her only source of light. She crouches at the edge of the clearing, listening for signs of life, for the voices of the strange men, but she hears nothing. “I thought they said that they would be back tonight.” Arella thinks to herself. “This is very strange.” Arella knew it was a bad idea to get her hopes up on this. There was no way these men would return. Now she would not be able to learn how to fight. “Maybe I should go to their village, and watch them from there? It can’t be too hard to find, nor too far away. I’d bet anything it will be on the other side of this forest. I would be able to hide in the treeline and watch them from afar.” Arella thinks to herself.

Just as Arella is about to walk through the clearing towards the other side, she begins to hear voices in the distance. The men are coming. She uses the time she has spare to get herself to a good vantage point, high in the same tree she was hiding in the night before. Once in the tree, Arella made sure she was hiding in the shadows, and lifted her hood up over her head, covering as much skin and hair as she could, and attempting to blend into the dark. “As long as none of the men look directly up here and focus on where I am, I should be able to stay hidden from them… I hope.”

An old man enters the clearing first, followed by the four younger men. He has long grey hair and a small scruffy looking beard, with a belly slightly too large for his skinny legs to carry. His skin is withered and old, the wrinkles plain to see on his red face. Arella has not seen a man look this old, yet so far from death. He looks remarkably healthy for one his age. “What more can you have to teach us Ujarak?” Red Feathered man asks. He seems to Arella to be quite full of himself most of the time. Almost like he already knows everything, and nothing can be taught to him.

“Oh my child.” Ujarak says. “You know nothing of real life Nootau.” He then fishes around in a big bulky bag he carries over his left shoulder. “Tonight we practice with these.” He says as he pulls a strong looking bow out of the bag. He then proceeds to pull another four out and hands them to the young men.

“Bows and arrows are very primitive weapons Ujarak.” Says the smaller one. Arella thinks his name is Doahte. “How do you expect us to defend ourselves with these flimsy things?” He spits. He seems very grumpy and shallow minded. Arella is starting to like this tribe less and less. But if they can teach her to fight, it doesn’t matter what they are like. With that though, Ujarak pulls back the bow string, knocks an arrow and fires it at Doahte, narrowly missing the top of his head and sticking in a knot on an old tree just behind him.

“Young one, you must learn. Not all fighting has to be done with your hands. You must learn to use other means, and stay away from battle if you can.” He laughs. “How do you think I stayed alive this long? By being safe.” The others all howl with laughter at this. It is nice to hear people laugh. Arella has missed that sound greatly. The people of her tribe are far too serious to laugh at anything other than her. “Okay then Ujarak, show us how to use these bows.” Green eyed Nashoba says.

The old man proceeds to teach each of the young men how to knock an arrow, then how to aim, then finally how to release the arrow. They seem to be getting the hang of it, although their aim is a little off. Arella has to stifle a laugh when Mato misfires an arrow and nearly pierces his own foot. “I can throw a dagger and hit anything in my sight.” Arella thinks. “I wonder if I would be able to use a bow and arrow? Where would I get one from though. I don’t think anyone in my tribe uses one. Hmm… Maybe I could make one.”

Arella spends the next hour of the men’s training studying the bows, how they move, how the pieces fit together and what they are made of. “They don’t seem too hard to make. Just a simple balance and having the right materials. I think I should be able to make on. The arrows however might be a little harder. I would be able to make them, but setting the feathers right for balance might be harder.”

Arella watches the muscles on the men’s shoulders tense as they draw back and release the bows, each of them shooting bare chested in the heat of the night. Each arrow is fired with power, and each shot getting closer and closer to the makeshift targets, not all that different from the ones Arella was practising her throwing skills with. The moonlight glints off the sharp stones on the ends of long sticks, and feathers on the end bristle slightly in the breeze, helping the arrow to hold its balance as it is fired across the grove towards the targets on the other side.

From what Arella can see, Nashoba seems to have the best aim, although Mato has the most power behind his draws. Ujarak works hard to help the young men to focus their bows and aim as close as they can get. Demonstrating every now and again to show them how to do it, moving their elbows into the right position and correcting them when they make mistakes. He seems like a good teacher. Strict but fair. Arella would like to learn from him, or someone like him at the very least.

All of these men seems strong, over the smallest one. Much stronger then then men in her own tribe. Arella begins to wonder if what the men had said about her tribe the day before was true. Were they really all that weaker than others, and if so why were they like that? Before Arella could think on this anymore, the men began packing up their bows, arrows and picking up the rest of their belongings. “Before you leave, I want to give you some homework.” Ujarak says to them. “I want you to study your bow. Really look at it, and think about how it works. Then I want you to make your own.” This is met my moans and groans from all of the young men. “I will hear no more of that negativeness. The mark of a true warrior is how well they can make their own weapons. No point being able to hit a squirrels eye from 100 feet if you don’t know how your weapon is made, and therefore its strengths and weaknesses.” This makes sense to Arella. You can’t expect to be able to do anything without first learning something’s strengths, weaknesses and characteristics. It would be like trying to light a fire without knowing that fire needs fuel to burn, water will put it out and that the flames are hot.

Arella waits for them to have left the clearing, then slowly climbs down out of her tree. She sees that one of the men has left an arrow behind and picks it up. “This will help me make my own, if I have an example of what they are meant to look like.” She then looks around her, listening out for any signs of the men returning. Once she is sure she can no longer hear them, she begins to follow the trail they leave, leading them back towards to village they came from. Arella is curious to know what the other tribes village looks like, and how many people there are. She has only ever seen members of her own village, and has nothing to compare them with.

Arella walked for what seemed like another hour, which would make her about two hours away from her village. The trees suddenly come to a stop and lush green grassland takes over where it finishes. Just beyond the treeline, only a few feet away, a few tents can be seen. These tents sit on the edge of a village, bigger than Arella’s but not all that different. The tents are all brown and black, made from the skin of hunted animals, but bigger than the ones Arella has seen. A big fire pit can be seen at the centre of the village, but smaller ones sit outside some of the tents, with food cooking on them. Small black tailed rabbits roast on the open flames of some, while others look to have some kind of vegetables or roots boiling in large pots.

Arella scouts out the treeline to find the best place to hide herself away where she can see what is going on. She climbs into a tree nearby, with low branches and lots of leaves. Its bow is strong, and supports her weight well. The thick branches make it comfortable to sit on, and Arella nestles herself in the crook where the branch meets the trunk. From up here she can see the vastness of this other village, surrounded by woodland, with a stream running down the top right hand side, plants and bushes grow around it, and some kind of domesticated cattle are kept in a large pen to the left of her, settling down for the night with their young.

A group of children, there must be about twenty of them, gather around one of the smaller fires. An older looking woman looks to be telling them a story. The animated looks on their faces tell Arella that it is a good one. She always loved being told stories when she was a child. The scary ones were always the best. These children look so happy and carefree, like nothing can harm them. A group of young men, including the ones she had been watching in the clearing, are gathered around another fire, laughing and telling stories also. Although from the way they look at each other, these stories would not be suitable for the children to hear.

Arella is drawn in by the sounds and smells of this village. Everything is so nice, and everyone seems to get along. There is no bullying, or name calling or any nastiness at all. The women seem more relaxed than in her village, and some of them even join in with the men’s stories. Arella can clearly see the chief, sitting with his wife and who he assumes to be his two children, but he is also sitting with the other men and women, all swapping stories and laughing as they eat their meals of black tailed rabbit and roots. Everyone in this tribe seem more equal, if that were even possible. The moon grown higher in the sky, and soon everyone in the tribe seem to be drifting off into their own tents to bed down for the night. “I will stay here the night.” Arella thinks to herself as she nestles down into the bow of the tree, bringing her cloak round to use as a makeshift blanket, while still being careful to keep her hair and face covered. “Then head back home tomorrow during the day when the tribe are too busy to notice me moving.” With that, Arella closes her eyes and drifts off to sleep. The sounds and smells of this pleasant tribe her lullaby for the night. Somewhere in the village, a mother sings her children to sleep, sending Arella deep into unconsciousness.

Chapter 3

The sky was still dark when Arella woke up. She groaned slightly and shifted her position. “Turns out a tree is not exactly the most comfortable place to sleep.” She thought, with a numb bum and sharp pins and needles in her feet, she promises herself not to sleep in such an uncomfortable place in a long time. She sits there for a couple of minutes, letting the feeling come back to her lower half. The air around her was still, and the sky clear and bright. The moon was waning, but the light still shone bright, illuminating the village below her. Everyone in this village were sleeping, even the cattle in the pen were quiet. There is a sense of calm here, safety too. While the village sleeps, they do not worry about the terrors of the night. Arella feels at ease with them. Relaxed and happy.

Climbing down from her hiding place in the tree, Arella notices one of the young men sitting by the dying embers of the fire. It is Nashoba, the green eyed boy. He just stares into the embers, his shoulders moving up and down smoothly as he breaths, silent as the night its self. He moves slightly to the side and Arella notices an object in his hand. It’s his bow he is studying. He stares at it with real intent and focus. “What is it he wants me to look at?” Nashoba asks himself. “I know that the wood is strong and bendy, and I know that the  string is also strong. I know where the arrows need to go, and how to fire an arrow.” He looks puzzled. A big man with big shoulders and dark skin steps out of a large tent close to the fire and walks over to the boy. “A bow should be an extension of your arm my boy. Not just a weapon. You need to feel the life that was once inside the wood, feel what the arrow must feel when she flies through the air. That is what Ujarak wants you to know.” He pauses. “What’s bothering you Nashoba?”

“I just can’t sleep Dad.” He says back to the big man.

“Have you slept at all my son?”

“A couple of hours or so yes. I just can’t seem to stay asleep, and I’m not even tired.”

“The sun will be coming up soon. A walk might do you some good. It will be your sisters birthday when she wakes, go find her some flowers from the meadow. You know how much she loves meadow flowers.”

“Okay Dad, thanks.” Nashoba says with a smile. Arella knows she cannot follow the green eyed boy into the meadow, it is far too open and with the sun coming up soon, she needs to keep herself hidden. She knows what happens when one tribe meets another, and it isn’t always pretty. If they spotted her in their village, they would most likely kill her. “I’d better head back through the woods and leave this village behind for now. I need to make myself a bow and some arrows.”  Arella thought to herself. She had spent a long time analysing how a bow looks, and how the wood bends. She now feels confident that she will be able to make one that will work well. She watches as the Nashoba walks on into the meadow, and the big man goes back into the large tent he came from. “He must be the chief.” Arella thinks. The size and positioning of the tent give it away. It is the biggest one there, and right in the centre of the camp. Arella watches the green eyed boy walk into the meadow. She watches until the brightly coloured flowers and long meadow grass have consumed him.

Arella stands up from her crouched position in the bushes below the tree that was her bed that night and moves into the woodland. It is dark in the shade of the trees still, but the sun is just beginning to rise on the horizon. Arella is stiff from sleeping in the tree, but the more she walks the looser her body becomes. She is following the same track she used to get to the village, and soon finds herself back at the clearing she saw the young men practising in the day before. They seemed so much older than her when they were fighting. Arella being fourteen, was only maybe two or three years younger than them, but so much smaller and weaker. She has a lot to learn before she can go anywhere on her own she realises.

“Now to find the perfect branch for making my bow.” Arella thinks. The forest is full of wood, but none of it looks like it will work. The wood for this bow needs to be bendy, but strong. The wood of the Looba tree is perfect, but there aren’t many of them around. Walking around with her eyes focused on the branches above her, Arella doesn’t see the tangle of roots at her feet and trips. She falls to the ground with a thump, knocking her head on the stump of an oak tree. “Gods damn that hurts!” She says as she touches the spot where the pain is coming from. She feels heat on her hands and instantly knows it is blood. “Oh great!” Arella sighs. “Just what I need. A head injury.” She brings herself to her feet, and instantly feels dizzy. “Maybe sitting down for a couple of minutes might be a good idea.”

As Arella sits on the mossy ground massaging her head and looking at the roots the tripped her, she notices something. The wood of the root that tripped her is a dark colour, almost black. She moves forwards to investigate it further. “This root is bendy, but strong enough to not break when I fell over it.” She wonders. She takes out her dagger and begins cutting at the root as close to the base of the tree as she can get. As she hacks at the root, she notices that the flesh within is a deep purple colour. “An anamoa tree!” She exclaims aloud. Anamoa trees are extremely rare, but the wood is the best for making weapons. The Looma tree is good, and the wood is strong and bendy, but nothing beats an anamoa tree for strength.

After what seemed like hours, Arella finally freed the root from the base of the tree, she begins pulling it from the ground. It lies over a meter long above ground, and is thicker than any root she has seen on a normal tree. As she pulls, the root seems to just come away from the ground and soon she is holding a two meter long piece of root thicker than her arm at its thickest. The root has a slight natural curve which will make it easier to carve into the right shape, and it is strong enough not to bend under pressure. “This is perfect!” Arella looks down at herself, covered in mud with dried blood on her arms and in her hair from her fall. “I must look a right mess.” She laughs to herself.

Arella continues to walk out of the forest, careful where to put her feet and towards the lake near her village. It is now nearly lunch time and everyone in her village will be wide awake. Arella knows she must go back to the village to get fresh clothes, but she cannot take her anamoa root with her. She stashes it in a bush with white flowers and makes a mental note of where she left it.

The walk back to the village from here takes her a while, but it is a nice day. The clouds are covering the sun, meaning she is not finding it too hard to see from the light. “I have to put some coal dust under my eyes when I get back to the village.” Arella thinks.

Once back at the village, Arella quickly goes to her small tent, picks up a fresh pair of leggings and cloak. Arella’s stomach growls at the smell of meat coking over the fire. “Nope. Can’t stop to eat. I have to get myself clean and make this bow.” Arella is determined to do this by the time the sun goes down. Before leaving her tent, Arella takes some flint, for sharpening her dagger and making a fire. She puts the flint in her boot next to the dagger for safe keeping. It scratches against her skin a little. She moves her sock up her leg to stop the rubbing. On her way out of the tent she sees an old fire that has long since burnt out. She puts her fingers into the ashes and rubs it under her eyes. “This will make seeing much easier.” Arella leaves the village with strange looks and whispers from the others, but no more than usual.

Once she has collected the anamoa wood, she comes to the edge of the forest, where the trees meet the water, she decided to follow it round. Walking between the trees and the water is tricky, but it means she can get to a place where she will be able to bathe and make her bow in peace. After a short walk, Arella comes to an area where the lake is shallow and clear, surrounded by trees and completely hidden from view. She looks at her reflection in the water and sees a sight that makes her laugh. A skinny fourteen year old girl, with dried mud and blood in her hair, dirty but smiling. “This is what the others in the village must have seen. No wonder they were looking at me like I was strange.” She takes off her clothes, upbraids her hair and slinks into the clean water. It is a little cooler than she would have liked it, but refreshing all the same. The sun has now come out and Arella can’t help thinking that if the sun was out earlier, the lake might be warmer than it is, but it is clean all the same.

Fish swim in the water under her feet, sometimes catching her toes and making her laugh. Arella dips her head under the water, washing away the dirt and blood from the days trials. She feels a sharp pain in her head as she does this from the cut caused by falling on the root. “Nothing that won’t heal.” She thinks to herself. Arella is used to scratches a bruises, clumsy as she is, she hardly goes a week without getting some kind of injury.

Once she is clean, Arella pulls her clothes into the water from the rock they were resting on a begins scrubbing the dirt out of them too. She steps out of the water and climbs onto the slippy rocks at the side of the lake.

Arella’s skin dries quickly in the warm sun, and she is soon dry enough to put her new clean clothes back on. Her hair is still dripping wet. Arella wrings it out, getting as much of the water out of it as she can, and sits running her finders through it, un-knotting it as she goes, until it is silky smooth. She takes the wet hair, pulls it all to one side and braids it once again to keep it out of her eyes while she works.

Arella lays her wet clothes out on one of the black rocks, these are the hottest and will help to dry her clothes quicker, and puts her boots close to them too. “I love the feeling of bare feet on warm rocks.” She thinks as she walks around. As she looks around her, she has a sudden realisation; the land here is perfect. There is a clearing behind her, surrounded by a thick growth of trees and bushes, the lake to her front, and only a narrow passage between the two to her left, and no way in without going in the water from any other way. This would be perfect to make a small camp for herself, the first step in moving away from her tribe. Three of the trees at the edge of the clearing grow close together, their branches spreading far to the sides rather than up, Minora trees. Their pale white wood spotted with dark green moss is strong, and low hanging branches make for perfect climbing. If Arella could gather enough materials, she could make those trees into a house, away from the ground, nice and safe. Perfect!

Arella is suddenly no longer tired as excitement washes over her. She knows this will take a few days at the lest to do, but the thought of having her own home fills her with joy and energy. “Let’s not get ahead of yourself Arella. We said we were building the bow first, so this is what we will do.” Arella takes the anamoa wood in her hand and begins to carve away the bark from the root. The dark purple wood underneath shines wet. She carves and carves for hours, trying to create the perfect shape.

The sun is setting by the time Arella has finished carving her masterpiece. The root has made the perfect bow shape, and is still strong even without the protective bark. “Almost like it was meant to be.” Arella smiles. Next Arella searches the bank of the lake for the reeds that line most banks. They are plentiful, and useful for more than just the delicious roots at the bottom. With this though Arella’s stomach growls loudly. “I need to stop neglecting my stomach.” She laughs to herself. It growls again. “So before making the string, I think I need to make a fire and cook some food. Sure bulbs are nice raw, but they taste much better cooked.”

Arella takes her flint out of her boots and the dagger too. She gathers dried reeds from the dying plants around her and some twigs from the ground in the clearing. By the time she has gathered all of her fire materials, the sun has all but gone. She piles the dried reeds up on top of one of the rocks, and strikes the flint off the dagger, creating sparks. After only four strikes, the sparks take root in the reeds and a small fire starts. Arella adds a few of the smaller twigs to the fire first to get it going, the adds bigger and bigger ones as the fire comes to life.

She takes the grue bulbs from the ground near the lake, removes the reeds and places them on the black rock, weighed down by a few flat stones to stop them drifting away, ready to be dried out and used to make her bow string. Arella then pokes sharp sticks through the three fleshy bulbs and holds them over the fire to cook. The moon is now high in the sky, a clear night full of stars and only wisps of clouds floating effortlessly across the blackness. The moon half full, but the wolves still howl into the night from across in the forest on the other side of the lake. “Soon I will be as free and independent as those wolves.” Arella thinks to herself.

Arella eats her cooked bulbs whilst listening to the sounds of the night. Crickets chirp happy songs and jump around in the bushes and grass; the wolves howl at the moon, declaring territory; an owl hoots in the distance, answered by a screech from closer to where Arella sits; fish swim in the lake, the light of the moon reflected off their silvery scales. Beauty is all around, and Arella could not be happier to be sat out in it, feeling free and at peace.

Once Arella has satisfies her hungry, she takes the drying reeds from under the rocks. They have dried out quickly on the black stones, and are ready to thread into her bow using the light of the moon and glow from the fire. She makes holes in the bow at the top ready for the string part of the reed. She then takes the reed in her hand and feels along its width for the string. Inside she feels a hard lump and uses her fingernail to cut into the reed to reveal the string. Once the white string like material is revealed, Arella hooks her thumb and finger round it and begins to pull it gently out of the reed. This takes her some time, but when she is finished, a long section of unbroken and very strong string is in her hands. She wraps it around both her hands a couple of times and gives it a tug to test its strength. The satisfying twang the string makes when it does not break tells her that it will be worthy of her bow. She then begins to thread the string through the holes in the top and bottom of the bow, tying them at both ends, although loosely at one end so she can test the tensile strength before tying tight for the finishing product.

After a while of testing with small stones and pulling on the string, Arella is happy with how the bow feels in her hand, almost like an extension of her own arm, and she sets it to the side. Happy that she has made it to the best of her ability. “Next I have to build the arrows.” She says to herself. She knows that getting the balance on the arrow right won’t be easy, but to be able to use a ranged weapon for defence and hunting would make Arella the happiest girl alive. She takes out the arrow she found on the ground after the young men left the clearing and examines it. The feathers on the end are damaged, and Arella dies not think it will fly very well. She sets it along with the bow.

With a full stomach, Arella begins to feel the tiredness setting in. She knows she cannot sleep on the floor, too many predators around that might take advantage of her there, so she must make her way into a tree again. Luckily, the white trees she will make her home are covered in moss. This will make sleeping there much more comfortable. She climbs into the tree, sits back against the trunk and watches as a shooting star flits across the sky above her. “A shooting star is the gods way of telling you something big is coming.” Nayleen used to say to Arella. This worried her a little, but gave her excitement at the same time. Something big could be good, or it could be bad. The gods would never tell you this, only that it would happen, and it would be soon. Arella looks at the positions of the stars in the sky. “Today would have been Nayleen’s birthday.” She thinks to herself. Nayleen died three weeks after her birthday, and Arella remembers the day well. She’d been taken on a hunting trip, to help the men remove the bison horns before returning, an ancient tradition to help ward off evil spirits, although Arella cannot see how that would keep spirits away. When she returned, she had a puncture in her ribs on the left hand side where one of the bison had gored her. She died after four days later, consumed by fever as an infection set in. Arella was beside herself for weeks after. She would not eat, did not sleep, and it was then that she developed her talent for knife throwing. She vowed that she would never be as vulnerable as Nayleen was without a weapon to defend herself. Sleep soon took over and Arella drifted off into a peaceful and welcome sleep.

Arella’s dreams are full of stars and bright lights, and the feeling of happiness is all she can remember when the morning comes. A pleasant night’s sleep, compared to last night anyhow.

The sun was just coming up as Arella opened her eyes, light streaming through the thin cover of leaves above her head. The orange sky made her feel warm, but opened her eyes to the first problem. No roof. Arella needs to make a roof before anything else. Stop the rain from getting in when it does rain, then she can work on a base and walls. She stretches out her arms and legs before using the low hanging branches to climb down from the tree. She leaves her bow in the tree, resting on one of the small branches, hooked on with the string to keep from falling off, makes sure her dagger is tucked safely into her boot and sets off into the forest to look for the branches she needs to make the roof.

After a couple of hours of collecting fallen branches, Arella had a decent sized pile of them by the base of her soon to be tree house. They were all different sizes and types of wood, and it had been hard work collecting some of them. Luckily in a forest as dense as this one, there are plenty of fallen branches. While eating one of the grue bulbs she cooked last night, Arella begins cutting the sprouting branches away from the main branch to make them smooth and straight. She then piles them up on her other side. “I wonder how many branches it will take to make a roof.” She wonders to herself. Her pile of branches is quite large, but she is not sure if it will be enough.

Arella needs more reeds for binding the branches to each other and the tree. She gets herself up off the ground, brushes the bits of bark and moss off herself, pulls her hood up over her head and begins walking along the edge of the lake, further into the forest in search of a bountiful supply of reeds.

Arella sees a large bank of reeds just up ahead on the other side of a small sandy beach area by the lake. The black sand glitters with gold and white. It looks beautiful and Arella is mesmerised by this. She heard familiar laughter coming from the trees in her direction and quickly hides herself in the bushes closest to her. Just as she hides herself from view, the young men from the tribe she has been watching emerge from the forest.

All of the young men are smiling, and are in high spirits. From the looks of things, Arella thinks they are planning on doing combat training today. They all start by stretching out. Sweat gleans on the arms and heads of the young men, hot from walking through the forest. “Why have you chosen here for training today Nashoba?” Nootau asks.

“So when I knock you on your arse you don’t get too badly hurt.” He quips back.

“It will be you who lands on his…”

“Enough children.” Mato says. “Let’s just begin the training already, words will mean nothing when my fist makes contact with your face.” This brings about more laughter from the others, but the training begins then.

Each move is calculated and looks well practised. Every strike is met with a block and a counterstrike, which is in turn met with another block and so on. Doahte and Mato fight with each other, a strange mix to Arella’s eyes as Mato is so much bigger than Doahte, although not as quick. While Mato has the clear strength, and looks like he could life a full-grown bull without breaking a sweat, Doahte is very quick on his feet and gets around Mato without much of an issue. However entertaining watching these two is, Arella cannot seem to take her eyes of Nashoba and Nootau. They are evenly matched in size, strength and ability. There is a seriousness about how they fight, but also playful. These two clearly know each other well, anticipating moves before the other has even thought about it.

Having a good memory will serve Arella well here. As she watches closely, she learns which moves to use against which others; different blocking techniques; different attacks; and how to escape holds. She watches for hours as the men practice their fighting. It’s a shame Arella does not have anyone she could practice this with, but she will make do and learn as much as she can solo.

Arella is so engrossed in watching Nashoba and Nootau fight she does not realise they are getting closer to her. The sun catches in Nashoba’s eyes, causing his to lose sight of Nootau. He catches the green eyed boy under the chin with an upper cut, causing him to fall backwards, hitting his head on the ground beneath him. As he falls, almost in slow motion, He catches Arella’s eyes in the bushes, seeing her pale face and hair. She notes this and quickly pulls herself backwards into the forest. “I know I should have been in a tree from the start, not on the ground where they might have seen me. Now he saw me.” Arella curses in her mind. She retreats to one of the bushier trees for cover, knowing she would not have time to hide further into the forest. “I need to hear what they say, in case they come looking for me or something.” Arella tells herself, although she really just wants to find out if Nashoba is okay.

After a few seconds Nashoba opens his eyes. Nootau, Mato and Doahte are gathered around him with slight concern. Nootau extends a hand to help Nashoba up. “Looks like you took quite a knock there my friend.” Nootau says. “Told you you’d be the one on his arse.”

“A white ghost!” Nashoba exclaims. Everyone looks at him puzzled and Arella’s heart drops.

“What on earth are you blabbering about?” Mato asks and Nashoba takes Nootau’s hand and gets up.

“Did you hit your head on a rock?” Nootau asks. “Must have hit you harder than I thought.”

“No really I saw a white ghost.” Nashoba insists. “What else could it have been. It had a white face, white hair and like, purple eyes.” All but Nashoba burst into laughter. “I mean it guys, I know what I saw.” He sighs as the others laugh, getting agitated now. “It was there.” Nashoba points towards the bush Arella was hiding in. “In that bush staring at me.”

“Ooohhhh.” Nootau mocks with ghostly noises. “The spirits will get you Nashoba.”

Arella’s fear lifts slightly. “Well at least the others don’t think he saw anything. Maybe he’ll forget he saw me and put it down to a bump on the head.” She thinks hopefully.

I know what I saw. And it wasn’t because I hit my head. I swear to the gods no one ever listens to me.” Nashoba thinks. “We’d better get going back then. I think training’s over for today.” He says out loud, defeated.

“Yeah, and there’s roast hog tonight.” Mato breaths in. “I can almost smell it cooking from here.” With that the men collect their belongings and leave the black beach in the direction of their village.

Once Arella’s heart has stopped beating out of her chest, and she is sure none of the young men will come back, she makes her way back down the tree to the ground. “That was a close call.” She thinks, and she was right. Arella is lucky that only Nashoba saw her and not the others. She gathers her nerves again and once she is stable in her mind, she walks out onto the black sand and towards the reeds on the other side of the beautiful beach. The reeds that grow here grow very tall and thick. She uproots a dozen of them and bunches them together. “This should be enough for now. And I can use the sproutlings to plant in the muddy banks next to the lake near my new home, then I can grow my own grue roots and bulbs.”

Arella heads back through the edge of the forest, a little way in from the lake. Still keeping the lake on her left hand side so she knows where she is going, Arella is surveying the land around her, memorising the different plants and trees that fill the new lands she calls her home. Now Arella knows it is not far from the village she grew up in, but this forest is home to her, and she feels happy living her. She does not miss the sneers she gets from the other villagers, or the looks they give her on a day to day basis. Nor does she miss being last to eat anything when they cook food. Arella is at home in the forest, and that is where she will stay as long as she can.

Arella gets back to the clutch of trees she calls home. The branches she has stripped of their stray twigs are still piled up nicely by the base of the tree, and nothing much here has changed. She takes the reeds over to the black rocks she was sat on just the day before, and using her nails, strips the reeds away from the strong string inside. Because these reeds are larger than the one she used to make her bow, they contain more strings. Each string is around two meters long, and Arella can cut them smaller for binding the branches together.

The task of turning a bunch of branches and reed strings into a roof to cover her turns out to be a lot harder than Arella first anticipated. First, she tried making a roof shaped board of wood with the twigs and carrying it up into the tree, but the shape did not fit. Then she tried taking a few of the branches up with her, but they were not stable enough when fastened to the tree. It is getting late by the time Arella realises what she needs to do “I need to make the supports from thicker branches before trying to add them to the top.” She almost slaps herself. “Why did I not think of this earlier?” For this Arella will need larger branches, as thick as her arm or bigger to hold the weight of the roof structure she will build.

A few thick branches lie on the ground close to the clearing next to Arella’s trees. She gathers them up. “These branches are heavier than they look.” She thinks to herself. “Better make sure they’re secure before I add anything to them. Wouldn’t want this dropping on my head.” Arella’s arms and back hurt by the time she had lugged one of the branches up the tree. She rests it in the bow of the tree and descends again to gather reed strings.

Arella props the branches she will use for structure against bows of other branches attached to the tree for stability and one by one tires them off with the strings. It is hard work but by the time the sun begins to set, Arella has a structure ready for adding roofing to. She climbs down from the tree, steps back and admires her work. “That should work just fine.” She says to herself out loud. Arella tilts her head back to look at the sky, her neck cracking as she does so. “Please don’t rain though until I have a waterproof layer on top.” For this Arella knows she will need dried animal skins. Luckily there are plenty of these in the tent she used in the village. No one else will use her tent. The tribe will believe that this is cursed as well as her, so she will be free to take it, under the cover of night of course.

Under the cover of darkness, Arella walks along the edge of the lake, skirts around to the stream that joins the lake and follows it to the village she used to call home. Everyone is sound asleep, and snoring can be heard coming from some of the tents. The fire pit in the centre of the village has all but burnt out, the embers still glowing but the heat almost gone. The carcass of a deer sits over the fire, the meat left on its bones now burnt and inedible. This makes Arella hungry. “I can’t live on roots all my life.” She thinks to herself. “I will have to learn how to hunt game and catch fish soon or I will waste away.” She looks down at her slowly shrinking frame.

On the far side of the village her small tent sits, untouched by any of the other tribe members, just how she hoped it would be. Arella moves towards it, careful not to make any noise or cause shadows to shift across the other tents.

Inside the tent are items Arella has never really paid much attention to. They belonged to Nayleen, then her father before her. Arella takes the deer skin bag from the back of the tent with these items in it then wraps her fur bedding around it. There isn’t much inside the tent, but that means it should be easier to take it all in one go rather than having to come back for things. Arella then begins removing the sticks and branches that hold the structure up and sets them aside. She then folds up the outer bit of the tent and puts it together with the bedding and deer skin bag. It is a rather large pile of things, but not too heavy thankfully. Arella picks up the pile of skins and her belongings and leave her old life behind.

Wispy clouds float through the sky above Arella, the moonlight reflecting off them lighting the ground under her feet. The walk back to her white tree home seems to take longer than normal due to the heavy weight under her arms. Arella stops by the side of the lake for a few minutes to rest. She drops her belongings on the floor, and inside the deerskin bag, a strange metallic ‘ting’ as it hits the floor. Arella’s interest is peaked. She has never looked inside this bag, never had a reason to. It did not belong to her, and even though all of Nayleen’s belongings became hers when she died, Arella had never thought to look inside the bag.

Arella unfolds the deerskin, untying the strings that told it together, revealing the contents within. Strange pinkish red glass like objects fill the bag, all tied with black bindings to straight black branches. “Weapons!” Arella exclaims as she examines them further. There is a long dagger, the blade shines almost like soft blood. She touches the edge and cuts her finger. She winces with the pain but makes no noise. There is also a spear in this bag. The head small and pointed. The last item in this bag is strange. It is almost like a dagger, but has a long stick, then another blade on the other side. “A double ended grathon?” Arella asks no one in particular. This is an old weapon, not seen for hundreds of years. No on uses these anymore as the balance is hard to get, and stone is too heavy. Realisation grabs Arella. She gasps then catches her breath. “It’s blood glass!” Blood glass is an ancient material, made when a dragon dies and his body turns to ash under the light of a red moon. It is hard as obsidian and sharp as the sharpest thing you will ever touch, but lighter than a feather in comparison to other weapon materials. Happiness comes over Arella as she realises she now has everything she needs to learn how to hunt and fight. With the spear she can hunt fish, and with the grathon she will be able to fight and protect herself… Once she learns how to use it that is. “Why had I not looked in that bag earlier?” She asks herself.

With this a new energy washes over Arella and she picks up her belongings again, setting out once again for her home. Following the lake around the sides of the trees is not so easy with heavy items under her arm, but Arella is keen to get back to her trees to have a good night’s rest. Tomorrow will be spent finishing off the roof of her house and making it water and wind proof. Just as she rounds the corner to come to her little clearing by the lake, a mighty gust of wind catches her off guard. She looks up at the sky, clouds thickening. “Looks like we might need that roof sooner than I’d thought.”

Arella puts down the pile of items she had been carrying on the floor beneath the tree, unfolds the tent covering. She then climbs up the tree with it and roughly places it on top of the scaffolding branches. It will not be totally waterproof, as it is not spread tight or tied down, but at least if it does rain, Arella won’t get too wet. She then climbs down the tree and collects the rest of the items, then takes them up into the tree with her. She unrolls her skin bed and climbs inside it. It is warm and comfortable. Arella falls asleep listening to the wind blow through the trees, and the sounds of the crickets as the chirp in the bushes below her.

Chapter 4

The next few days are spent completing her house in the tree. Arella starts by taking the skins off the scaffolding from her old tent and spends a long time strapping the other branches and sticks to it with the reed strings, trying to make sure there are only small gaps and that everything is tight. She has created a large area, using the natural branches as support as well as her scaffolding branches, and has made a structure that looks like a roof. This is now covered with the skins from Arella’s tent, which have been stretched out straight over the roofing and tied down to the main branches of the tree, creating a night watertight roof.

Next Arella worked on the flooring of her house. However comfortable the moss covered bow of the tree where all of the branches met was, it wasn’t a very big area. She had to collect more branches for this, and shape them once again. This time Arella collected much thicker branches, and used the blood glass dagger to split the wood, making a smooth surface. She then laid the branches out one by one in the tree, fitting them around the existing branches and tying them down and to each other. She fell from the tree a few times doing this, losing her footing and slipping on branches that were not tied down correctly. The rain began to fall while she was on this stage of the build, however the roof held up and Arella’s tree house stayed dry.

The rain did not last for long, and by the next day it was all but gone. The clouds has dissipated, and the skies were once again blue. Arella’s stomach growled as she rolled over in her fur bed. She was growing sick of eating grue roots, and decided that this was the day she would learn to hunt fish. Her house was nearly finished, she only had to put up some basic walls to stop her falling out and to shield her from the wind, then perhaps add a layer of moss or animal skins to the floor of the house for comfort.

With the spear in her hand, Arella climbs down from her tree house and moves towards the lake. The sun shines off the backs of the silver fish in the water, making Arella’s stomach growl even more. She removes her boots and rolls her trousers up to her knees and steps into the water. As she does so the fish scatter. Arella remembers something Nayleen used to tell her. “Be patient my child. People may run from you know, but wait and see, they will flock to you if you just wait long enough.” Perhaps this was the same with fish. Maybe if she waited still in the water for long enough, they would come close to her. So this is what she did. Arella waited and waited until the sun was high in the sky. Slowly the fish began to gather once again in the water by her feet. She watched them for a couple of minutes, not wanting to scare them off with any sudden movements. Arella raises her spear slightly higher, aims at one of the bigger slow moving fish and brings the weapon down. The blade cuts into the fish’s scaly body and she putts it out of the water. It is a triumphant feeling, but strange to know she has taken the life on an animal. The other fish scatter as Arella moves her feet and walks out of the water, the fish still on the end of her spear, wriggling and wiggling, the life slowly leaving its scaly body.

Arella builds a fire using some wood she had stored in the tree house to keep it from getting wet, and begins preparing her fish. She pulls its body from the end of the spear and takes out her dagger. Holding the slippery fish hard in her hand so it doesn’t slip, she takes the dagger and drives it into the fish’s belly, cutting just deep enough to break the skin, but not so deep as to slice into its guts. She the loops her finger around its innards and pulls them out, throwing them into the water out of the way. Arella then places the fish on a black rock and cute off its hear. She doesn’t like looking at its sad dead eyes, and it will make it much easier to eat this way. She tosses the head into the water too.

Using a long sharp stick, Arella cooks the fish over the fire until its flesh it white and flaky, and the skin crispy and dark. The meat tastes so sweet and mouth-watering. Arella had almost forgotten what good meat tasted like. All the food she had ever eaten before had either been burnt from being the last on the fire or the nasty parts no one wanted to eat. Eating this fish tasted like heaven, and Arella never wanted it to stop. All too soon though the fish was finished, and Arella was full.

Now fuelled and full on food, Arella once again set out on finishing her house. She wandered into the forest to gather more long branches, having to travel further and further away to fine ones of decent quality. With the deer skin bag now empty, Arella can use if for carrying useful items, and it works well for holding the branches she gathers. They sick out of both ends, but it holds them together and makes them a little easier to carry. She tucks her blood glass dagger into the holder in her boot, straps the deer skin bag to her back and sets off into the forest towards the other village. She had not been this way since before she was spotted by Nashoba, not wanting to be seen again near their village, but her need for materials was drawing her there. Besides, Arella knew she could be quiet and stay hidden. She would not be foolish enough to be seen by anyone she didn’t want to see her again.

In the distance she can head the sound of the young men training again. The sound is a familiar one, and she recognizes the different noises they make, and can match them up with the movements they would be making. She stops and closes her eyes for a minute, imagining what moves the men are making, smiling at the thought of watching them again, before continuing to walk towards the sound. Arella comes to the edge of the trees lining the clearing in which they practice, and finds a nice bushy tree to climb where she will be well hidden. From up there she watches the young men, listens to the noises they make, studies the way they move. This makes her happy, to be able to watch.

“Are you sure the ghosts aren’t going to get you Nashoba?” Nootau mocks.

“You know what…?” Nashoba spits with anger. “I’ve had just about enough of you. He launches himself at Nootau at full pelt knocking him off his feet.

“You two are like a couple of children.” Mato says as he pulls them apart. We are here to train, not to bicker like little girls.” He pushes them both away from each other and stands with his arms crossed. “How can we expect to be called men if we cannot act life men?”

“You’re right Mato.” Nashoba puts his hands down and steps back. “Just tell him to stop it please? I know what I saw, and I’m not crazy!”

“I beg to differ.”

“I SAID ENOUGH!” Mato bellows. An awkward silence follows but the bickering stops. Arella can’t help but laugh softly to herself. This is all because she was silly enough to let Nashoba see her in the tree. It’s nice seeing people fight like this. However strange that sounds. Its friendly fighting, like brothers arguing. It’s nice to see such closeness. With that the training continues again. Sparring with each other. Arella watches closely. She watches the way the men move, and how the others counter it. Doahte changes subject to something a little more serious and the faces of all of the young men change, become darker and more worried.

“So how long is this trial we are going on then?” Doahte asked.

“As long as it takes I guess. Most men are away for years. You know that.” Mato answers. “My brother only just got back a couple of weeks ago remember, and he was gone for a little over two years.” He pauses. “At least all four of us are going at the same time, rather than separately. It could have been worse… You could have been going on your own Doahte.”

“So we walk all the way to the snowy mountains, through the black wood on the other side, visit the elders and they test whether we are ready to become men or not, then we come home? Is that right?” Nashoba asks.

“Well I’ll be coming back… But I don’t know about you ghost boy.” Nootau quips.

“I swear to the gods Nootau. One more time. Go on I dare you!”

“Oooohhhhhh. You dare me do you?” With this Nashoba moves to strike Nootau again. Mato catches his fist in mid-air and squeezes it till Nashoba falls to his knees.

“I think training is over for now boys. Back home before these two knuckle heads kill each other.” Mato lets go of Nashoba’s hand. “Come on lets go.” As the men walk away, Arella can still hear their conversation.

“It doesn’t sound too hard Mato. Are you sure your brother wasn’t exaggerating when he said it was hard?” Nootau asks.

“And when was the last time my brother exaggerated about anything?”

“When was the last time he didn’t exaggerate?”

“Name one time?” Mato is getting agitated now, but the sound is moving away and getting harder to hear.

“He is always exaggerating about how many girls follow him around and the size of his…” Arella can’t hear anymore, but she can guess what they were saying. She laughs to herself. A slight sadness reaches Arella, knowing the young men will be leaving soon, but she will see them again before they go. She will make sure of this.

So the men will be leaving soon to go on a quest to become men. All the men in her village had to do was start to grow hair on their faces, and they were considered men. Arella must remember that she is no longer a member of her old village, she is now technically a lone wolf, living and hunting on her own. She has learnt a lot from the men in the village, and she will continue to learn as she practices things herself. The men leave and Arella climbs down from the tree once again. “Soon I’ll have been in so many trees that I actually become one of them.” Arella thinks.

Arella then continues what she set out to do and collects the larger branches and loads them into her deer skin bag. On her way back to her home, with a deer skin bag getting heavier and heavier, Arella starts thinking about the trail the young men in the tribe have to do, and what kind of things it must entail. Obviously the walk through the snowy mountains is to test endurance, the ability to climb and withstand the cold temperatures. This must also mean things like making a fire, shelter and hunting. Can’t be too hard. These are skills the men are taught from birth. The endurance might be a little harder however. Even Arella knows how far away the snowy mountains are, and they cover a vase expanse themselves. She also knows of the animals that live in those mountains. Big black bears bigger than two men stood on top of each other, and strong enough to lift a tree from the ground if they wanted, and Lyron cats, much like the auron cats but with white fur and a little bigger. They are much more vicious, and will not hesitate to kill a man if they come across them. Arella has no doubt the men would be able to protect themselves against such creatures ordinarily, but when they have not eaten or slept in weeks, would this be quite so easy? Then there’s the shelter making. This isn’t too hard when you have the materials. Even Arella manages to get a house made from wood erected in less than a week, or nearly finished anyway, but in the mountains with no materials, how would they fend? But then why should she care? What had these men, or any men at all done for her to make her care for them? Perhaps she is too soft, letting her emotions get to her. But what harm could it do? She asked herself. Nothing. Nothing was her answer.

The next obstacle would be the black woods with their dense canopy and minimal light. Arella heard stories of this forest, none of them good. The bears from the snowy mountains make this their winter home, and auron cats prowl these woodland, in number much greater than the ones that live in the forest she inhabits. Even the herbivores in the black wood are dangerous. The deer have great spiked horns, capable of impaling a man and killing him outright, and a lot of the food that looks edible isn’t. Arella’s elders used to tell the children stories of men who, in the distant past, went into this forest in search of wisdom and never returned. The only man who ever made it back came back half-mad. Talking of giant bears and auron cats hunting in packs and food that tastes nice but makes you temporarily blind or paralyses you. He spoke often of watching his friends get torn apart, or eaten, or starving to death from not knowing what to eat, from watching others go insane and kill themselves. Come to think of it, he was insane himself. How can Arella believe any of what the elders told her. Maybe those lands aren’t that bad. I mean, the forest isn’t anywhere near as bad as the elders of her old tribe made it out to be. She is still living there, and nothing has tried to kill her yet.

The next part of the young men’s trial is to visit the elders and gain their blessing to go back men. Arella has no idea what this might involve. Then the final trial is to make it back to the village alive. Arella would love to be able to go with the young men. To taste adventure up close. What she would give to have been born a man in that tribe, and to be given the opportunity to prove herself. “Don’t run before you can walk Arella.” She thinks. “First I must finish my house and make sure I can live there myself before I think about anything else.”

The deer skin bag is beginning to get very heavy by the time she makes it back to her tree house. She drags them up into the tree and is exhausted. She sits on the floor of her tree house and looks at the tree around her. She was lucky to find three trees so close together to make her home, and with the branches flat and spread out beneath her, there is loads of room. It is tall enough for her to walk, and big enough that she can lie sideways and not touch the sides, while she could lie three times on her head from one end of the platform to the other. When she thinks about it that way, it is no wonder it took so long to get it this far.

Arella looks around herself. “Something’s not right. I can see the floor around myself. That must mean that others would be able to see me up here too.” She thinks for a moment. Even if she puts up basic walls around her house, she will still be seen. “Maybe I can train the branches of the tree and the ivy to grow over the edges of the house?” It is a good idea, and while it might take a few weeks for the branches to grow in the right direction, being spring things grow quickly.

As the sky begins to turn a bright shade of orange, Arella starts to add the finishing touches to her tree house by placing the thicker branches in crosses along the edges of the platform, joining them from the floor to the roof, leaving a gap big enough for her to comfortably climb through. “Now all I need to do is train the ivy and branches.” She thinks to herself as she crosses branches over each other, tying them as tight as she can with the reed strings. She gives each one a hard push once it is in place, and has to re-do a few of them as they are not stable enough to take her weight. Once she is happy all branches are secure, Arella sits back and relaxes. “Now I just need to add a few more branches here and there to bridge the gaps, then train the leaves and ivy to cover my home and I will be done.” Arella thinks to herself. She yawns and stretches, bringing tears to her eyes. “But that is a job for tomorrow. I think I should go to sleep now.” She yawns, stretches out her muscles, joints popping as she does so and climbs into her furry bed. Tiredness comes over her quickly and she falls asleep within seconds of lying down, listening to the soothing sounds of the world around her, stars in the sky watching over her as she sleeps.

Chapter 5

Arella is awoken in the night by a terrible sound. She sits bolt upright, silence all around her. Was she just dreaming? Then she heard it again. A piercing cry, and a growl, then another piercing cry. Arella has never heard anything like it. What could it be? The sound seems to be all around her and she cannot work out where is it coming from or what it is. Arella cannot hear any other noises, no other animals of the night, not the sound of the wind rushing through the trees. The darkness is disorientating, and Arella is confused. She wonders if she might still be dreaming and that this is part of a nightmare. Arella pinches her arm. “Ouch, nope not dreaming.” Then she heard the sound again, this time closer. There are no other noises. No owls hooting, or crickets chirping. Even the wind seems to have stopped rustling the trees. All she can hear is the piercing cry of an animal in pain. It is not any noise she recognises. Not the sound or a motto deer, or a paloa fox a bison… What could it be?

The bushes near the back of her clearing rustle and the growling comes closer. Arella feels her heart beating faster, fast enough to beat out of her chest. She wants to know what it is that is making the noise but is scared. What if the growling is coming from a different animal, the one that made the other in pain? What if it’s now coming for her? Is she high enough in her tree that whatever it is won’t get her? With this though Arella taker her grathon in hand, shaking with fear she holds it tight, the bloodglass shining in the pale moonlight, ready for whatever foul beast emerges from the bushes, intent on killing her as well as making her its meal.

Out of the darkness a shape appears, black as night itself. Its bright yellow eyes looking directly at Arella, but something is wrong. It does not look at her with hunger, but with pain. There is a strange smell in the air… Blood! Arella realises what is wrong. The auron cat is injured, and from the strength of the blood smell, she would say it was serious. The auron cat walks through her clearing, limping on its left front leg. Arella recognises the cat instantly. This was the auron cat that passed her by in the forest just last week. She knows this because it has the same white patch behind its left ear. It moans in pain again as it limps on. “Poor thing.” Arella thinks. “I wonder what’s wrong with it.” Because of the way it is facing, Arella cannot see why the auron cat is limping and what must be causing it so much pain.

Arella watches as the cat limps out of her view of sight, still making pained noises as it goes, calling to something that is not calling back to her. Arella is torn. On the one hand she knows that auron cats can be dangerous and it could kill her without thinking twice, even as injured as it is, but on the other hand, she does not want to see it suffer. She would not forgive herself if the auron cat was in pain and slowly dying for the next week but she did nothing about it. Arella looks to the stars for an answer. “What do I do? Do I follow the auron cat and take away her pain? Or do I stay here and keep myself safe?” As if to answer her question, a shooting star darts across the sky, burning blue as it goes. Arella takes this as a sign that she needs to do something, and she climbs down from her tree house. She takes her grathon with her, and tucks her bloodglass dagger into her boot. She starts her feet moving before she has the chance to have a second thought, refusing to turn back, determined to follow the auron cat to end her pain.

Following the trail made by the auron cat is easy. Her paw marks in the still damp mus are clear but sometimes smudged, grass is flattened on either side of the paw prints and there are cracked and broken twigs all over the area where the cat has been walking. Although the way it swerves back and forth is a little unsettling. It must be really hurt for it to be struggling to walk in a straight line. Arella passes a bush that looks as though something fell into it on her left hand side, and she sees something dark and sticky on the leaves. She touches it. Blood. Still warm. She’s not far behind the cat. Arella can hear its pitiful moans and calls ahead of her. It brings a lump to her throat. She knows that auron cat is a predator and would likely kill her, but in the same way, this was the same cat that spared her life last week when she could have easily climbed into the tree Arella was hiding in and eaten her.

Arella pushes further on into the forest, coming to parts she does not recognise, walking for miles. The woodland becomes less dense, and more and more clearings start to appear. Wild flowers and bushes filled with berries and nuts fill these clearings, but the trail of flattened grasses, broken branches and blood on leaves continues. The auron cat is clearly determined to get somewhere. This worries Arella. There is only one thing she could think of that would make anything so determined to get anywhere when they were in such a bad conditions. Babies. The auron cat must have kittens. This brings a whole new sadness to Arella. It is bad enough for one animal to lose its life for nothing, but for its kittens as well… Arella hopes that her theory is wrong, but she knows deep down that she will be right.

The ground beneath Arella’s feet becomes more stony, and the grasses grow in clumps rather than one long bed. The sun is beginning to rise and a red glow covers the morning sky by the time Arella catches sight of the auron cat. The trees are all but gone, and the landscape is fairly flat. Small rocky outcrops cover the land, and Arella loses sight of the auron cat behind them every now and then. She keeps walking in a straight line, following the footprints and blood drips left by the injured cat. Her mournful calls can still be heard, but her pace looks to have slowed. Arella can see from the trails on the ground, the cat is now dragging her left front paw on the ground. Arella’s heart aches for the auron cat. She picks up her pace in order to catch up with her but her legs are beginning to ache. The sounds of the auron cat is making could be attracting predators too, which means wolves. Arella knows she would not be able to handle a pack of wolves. She must get to the auron cat soon. Arella knows she could not watch the cat be torn apart by a wolf pack. Arella has no idea how long she has walked for, but it might have been most of the night.

Arella’s hand is beginning to cramp. She did not realise she was holding the grathon so tightly. Arella feels a little exposed in the open land like this, and pulls her hood up to shield herself from the coming sunlight, but she still feels exposed. After spending the last week hiding, it feels strange to be willingly walking through open land. The sun beats down on Arella’s back, heating her skin and making her sweat. A headache has started to form in Arella’s head, dehydration setting in after the long walk following the cat, but she must push on.

Arella keeps her eyes on the ground, following the weakening footsteps of the auron cat. The sun is too bright for her to watch the auron cat directly, the sun bouncing off the dry stony ground, reflecting into her eyes, making it hard to see. Black shadows flit across the ground. Arella looks up into the brightening sky to see what they are. As she squints up at the sky she sees great black vultures circle in the skies above, not far ahead of where Arella is standing. A dark feeling fills the pit of Arella’s stomach. Vultures are dark signs, and death usually follows, although Arella hopes it will not be her death. The fate of the auron cat is already sealed, she just hopes she can end it for her quicker and with less pain than slowly bleeding to death.

Arella is gaining on the auron cat, and she begins to get closer to her back. A gust of wind blows from behind Arella, pushing her scent forwards. The auron cat catches this scent and lifts its head. She turns to the side, wincing as she does do and looks directly at Arella. It is now when Arella can see what has caused the cat so much pain. An arrow juts from her left shoulder, broken off close to the skin but clearly visible. She doesn’t recognise the make of the arrow. The auron cat must have gotten too close to a villages livestock. ”Poor thing. She was only looking for food.” Arella thinks. “Humans can be so cruel. There was no way the auron cat was going to hurt one of the villagers, just take one of the young bison for her tea. There was no need to attack her.” Arella is filled with anger, but there is nothing she can do to change this.

Arella is close enough to see the severity of the wound, and the auron cat stays perfectly still, judging Arella in silence, her big yellow eyes watching her intently. The fur around the arrow is dark with blood, and looks matted. The cat holds her left front poor off the ground, seeming to not be able to put any weight on it. Arella takes a step forwards and the auron cat growls softly. She turns her back on Arella then continues to walk. Arella follows cautiously, not sure what to do next.

The auron cat veers off to the left and towards one of the rocky outcrops. She calls out and huffs as she gets close. A higher pitched call comes from inside the rocks, and Arella’s worst fears are confirmed. The cat has kittens. She slinks down into a large opening under one of the larger rocks with a massive effort. The pain is clear to see, even from where Arella is. She stays well back from the opening of the den respecting the personal space of the injured auron cat, trying to think what she should do next. Going into the den with the cat and her kitten would be dangerous, so she must wait until the cat comes out.

Arella can hear purring, but it is high pitched and sounds like it is only coming from one source. “She only has one kitten?” This is unusual. auron cats usually have large litters. Perhaps the others were eaten by other predators. Either way, Arella fears for its life now its mother is sure to die. Doubt begins to form in Arella’s mind. She is not sure she could kill the cat. It would leave the kittens without a mother, and they would surely die.

As the sun grows higher in the sky, Arella finds shade under one of the larger rocks about thirty feet away from the opening of the den. She can hear the moans and whines coming from the mother, and the tormented cries of the kitten for its injured mother. Arella’s heart is breaking and she knows she must do something soon. Just as she is about to get up to go over to the den, yellow eyes peer at her from the darkness. They blink once, twice then move in the darkness. The great black auron cat hauls herself out of her den and walks towards Arella. Her heart beating hard, Arella stands up, hands shaking and sweat dripping off her brow. As the cat pads closer to her, Arella relaxes slightly. It does not look at her with the intent to kill her, only with sadness in its eyes. Arella loosens the grip she has on the grathon, dropping it to the ground as the cat moves slowly towards her.

The auron cat stands in front of Arella, big yellow eyes looking up at her and huffs. She is within touching distance, yet Arella no longer fears her. Arella drops to her knees and the auron cat is now taller than her. She looks the great cat in the eyes, and the cat stares back at her. Arella extends her right hand towards to cat. She pulls back slightly, looking at the hand, the presses her face into it, closes her eyes and relaxes. A flood of feeling pass through Arella. Her first though is that this is amazing. The power this cat possess is immense, and Arella can feel all of her strength and power in that one touch, but she is saddened by the knowledge the she will need to end the life of the beautiful creature. The cat seems to know this fact, and her eyes fix of the hilt of the dagger in Arella’s boot, then looks Arella in the eyes again. “You know I don’t want to do this right?” Arella says to the great cat. She just stares at Arella and purrs. Her purr is broken and stuttered. Tears begin to form in Arella’s eyes. “But what about your kitten?” Arella asks. The auron cat presses her face into Arella’s hand and something strange happens. Arella closes her eyes and an image appears in the blackness. Arella is holding the kitten in her arms and walking back through the forest towards her tree house. The image then changes and Arella is walking through the woods with that same kitten, except now the kitten is not a kitten but a full grown auron. When Arella comes out of the semi-dream the cat inflicted on her, she is breathless and dizzy. “You want me to look after him? Help him grow up?” Arella is confused. “But why me?” The cat does not answer, she only looks at the dagger with intent. A tear falls from Arella’s eye, wetting her cheek and falling to the ground. “I don’t know how to do this.” Arella’s voice breaks as she talks. The great auron cat seems to answer this question for her. She lies herself on the ground on her side and purrs softly.

Arella takes the bloodglass dagger in her shaking hand, aims it at the auron cats chest and pauses. She takes one last look into the eyes of the cat and with tears clouding her vision, drives it into her heart. The cat winces with the pain, takes one last breath then passes away. Arella pulls the dagger from her dead body, drops it on the floor and weeps for the life she has just took.

Chapter 6

Through teary eyes and broken sobs Arella looks at the body of the creature she just killed. Her beautiful black fur matted with blood, the wound from the arrow raw and painful. She looks smaller now somehow, like death has made her shrink. Sadness washes over Arella and she feels like it will never lift. She disappears once again into a flood of tears and prays for mercy from the gods for taking a life when it was not hers to take. Arella looks at her hand, covered in blood. She recoils from it, horrified at the sight. Her body is once again racked with loud cries of pain. Arella clutches her chest, her heart breaking. She has never taken the life of something she was not intending to use. Arella feels like a murdered, a stone cold killer.

After a while of crying, the tears dry up and Arella composes herself. She now has a kitten to look after, to help grow up. Arella picks herself up from the resting place of the great auron cat, uses a lake close by to wash away the blood from her hand and the dagger and cleans her face. She is beginning to come to terms with what she has done. The auron cat was going to die eventually, Arella just made it quicker and less painful. The auron cat seemed to be asking for it too, which was strange. There is nothing wrong with what Arella did, and she knows, however hard I was the end the life of the auron cat, it was the right thing to do.

A whimpering cry breaks Arella’s trail of thought and she is instantly reminded of the kitten. The sound came from inside the black den under the rocks. Arella’s first thought is to go straight to the kitten, then she remembers the body of the mother. “If the kitten sees this it might distress it. I should probably bury her or something.” With this thought Arella begins to look around for an area of ground soft enough to dig up to bury her. She comes up short. The only thing she can think of is to put the mother under rocks, and bury her that way.

The body of the auron cat is heavy, but Arella manages to drag her behind the rock she was using as shelter. It dips down lower than the rest of the ground here, and will be easier to bury her there. “I can’t bury her with this arrow in her. She should be buried how nature intended her to die, without human weapons.” With deft fingers, Arella grips the arrow as close the auron cats skin as she can and gently pulls until it comes free. The arrow grips at he auron cats cooling flesh, difficult to pull out from between the matted fur of the cats body. The tip of the arrow is black stone but there is something different about it. It looks like there is some kind of sticky green on the end. “What is that” She touches the green substance on the end of the arrow. It’s sticky and burns a little. She then smells it. It smells sweet and sickly. “Poison? I didn’t know we were using poison now. That’s ridiculous. Where is the need for that. The arrow would have killed her anyway.” Arella is seething with anger now more than ever but she must finish her job. She gathers rocks and builds them up in a small wall around the mother cats body. She then finds larger rocks to place over the top, finally sealing her in a tomb where she can rest in peace, free from the vultures that circle the skies above. By the time Arella is finished with this she is sweaty and dirty, her muscles all ache and she is tired, but there is a little kitten that needs her attention. She just hopes it is old enough to be eating meat rather than suckling milk, otherwise she will not be able to raise it, and the kitten will die also. Arella takes one long look at the rocky tomb the mother cat rests in, clumsily built, but to will do the job intended. Another tear falls from Arella’s purple eyes, falling onto the dusty ground below.

A screech from above startles Arella. She looks up to see the vultures diving to the ground, towards the entrance to the auron den. Arella takes her grathon in hand and runs for the den entrance. Her quick movements frighten the vultures away, all but one of them fly off into the sky, screeching as they go. One of the birds seems more determined that the others and stays on the ground. It’s head inside the den, snapping at the kitten within. Arella reaches the bird and instinctively hits it on the back with the flat of the grathon. This shocks the vulture and it turns on Arella, snapping its great white beak at her. Its black feathers look dirty, and its body covered in scars. This vulture is clearly the more dominant of the flock, and he does not look like he is backing down. He pulls his wings back and stretches them out wide, making himself look big in an attempt to frighten Arella. He then lets out a piercing screech aimed directly at her. Arella thinks for a second then mimics what the bird did to her. She takes hold of the edges of her black cloak, throws her hood back, pulls her arms out to the side and shouts “Away” at the vulture. It looks like it’s working. The vulture looks unsure, so Arella moves her arms in the same motion as flapping wings and shouts louder “AWAY!” This works and the vulture flies away, clearly not impressed at the idea of losing its meal. The vultures don’t move far away, resting and squabbling on the branch of a nearby tree.

The kitten inside the den cries out again. Arella peers into the hole and looks at the animal within. Inside the den is dark, but Arella can feel the warmth on her face. She can see furs of animals on the floor of the den, as well as lots of dead leaves and plants to make the floor soft to sleep on. Bright eyes peer at Arella from the back of the den. Those eyes blink at Arella. One of them bright green, the other an orangey yellow. “Hello little one.” Arella says in a soft voice. She climbs inside the den, the little kitten backing away from her. She holds up a hand. “I won’t hurt you.” The kitten seems unsure of her. Arella moves to the side of the den and leans against the wall.

After a while sitting there, Arella starts to get tired. Her eyes start to close as she stares at the wall in front of her. She jumps a little as she begins to fall asleep, catching herself.

The next thing Arella remembers is the feel of soft warm fur against her leg, and the sound of purring close to her. She wakes up, a little shocked that the kitten actually came close to her. The sunshine is shining through the opening to the den, lighting up the kitten so Arella can see it. Arella can tell from looking at the shape and build of the kitten that it is male. His fur is black as the night, long, fluffy and warm. She runs her fingers through the fur on his back. The kitten purrs louder and nudges closer to her. The kitten is quite small, but looks like he would be old enough to eat meat. At least Arella hopes he is. “Don’t think I could bear it if you died too.” She whispers softly to the kitten.

Arella sits and lets the kitten sleep for a while before she decides they need to go back to her tree house. “Okay little one…” She says. The auron kitten stirs and looks at her with his odd eyes. “We need to go now. It’s a long walk back to your new home, and I’m going to have to carry you all the way back.” The kitten just stares at her and yawns, hid pink tongue and bright white teeth viable as he does so. This makes Arella yawn too. The kitten stands up and stretches. He then puts his front paws on Arella’s shoulder and licks her cheek with a rough tongue. She giggles as he does this. She stands up and the kitten stays close to her feet. Arella watches him. As she steps forwards, he moves forwards with her. “Interesting.”

Pulling herself out of the den isn’t so easy. Arella feels like she has pulled almost every muscle in her body. She turns around to help the kitten out. He is sitting just by the entrance, unable to climb out. Arella extends her arms down to the kitten and he moves willingly towards them. She picks him up and pulls him out of the hole. He blinks his eyes at the bright sunlight. “Yeah I know how you feel.” Arella opens up her cloak and wraps the kitten in it. He snuggles into her side and begins to purr once again. Arella picks up her weapons, puts the dagger back in her boot and carries her grathon in her left hand, using her right arm to hold the kitten in her cloak.

Once back in the woodland Arella feels a little more at ease. She still does not like being out in the open, but it was all worth it for the little guy under her arm. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this you know. I’ve only just learned how to catch fish for myself. Now I’m going to have to learn how to catch other types of game, and enough for two rather than just one.” Arella continues to talk to the kitten, although she is sure he is not really listening to her. His head pokes out from the cloak, watching the landscape pass around him in silence. “How am I going to stop you from running away as well. I mean, I don’t want to keep you if you do not want to stay with me. You are a wild animal after all, but I would feel so guilty if I lost you.” The sun is starting to go down as they walk, but the night time doesn’t bother Arella, it never has. “So what do we call you then? I mean, you have to have a name.” Arella looks down at the kitten, who is staring at her with his odd eyes. “Hmm, let’s think… Seke? What do you think? Or Koko? No maybe not. Sucki? No that doesn’t work either. This is hard. I know. I will call you Maska. How about that?” She asks the kitten. He huffs at her then purrs. “I’ll take that as a yes then should I?”

“You’re heavier than you look you know Maska.” She says, testing out the name as she does so. “Yeah I like the way that sounds. But seriously, I’m going to have to put you down for a couple of minutes, my arms hurt and we’re nowhere near back home yet.” Arella stops, kneels on the ground and lets Maska free from her cloak. “Please don’t run off little one.” She begs him.  This is not needed however. Maska simply sits in front of her, the end of his bushy tail flicking slightly. “Well that’s interesting. Will you really just sit there until I move?” Maska tilts his head to the side, flicks his ear, sneezes and blinks, but does not move from where he is. Arella sits down on the ground leaning against a mossy tree. “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry.” Arella says to the kitten. He moves closer to her and nudges her hand until she strokes his head. “Aww sweet boy. I hope I can do well by you.”

As the two of them sit under the tree in the forest, the creatures around them sing a soft night-time song. The cricket chirp to each other, telling stories and laughing at jokes, the owls hoot and screech from miles away and bats flit through the trees above them, catching moths and other bugs as they fly. Maska can hear them chirping, and he cocks his head to listen, but Arella’s ears are not sensitive to pick this up. In the distance a wolf howls. Maska buries himself  into Arella’s side, shaking a little as he does so. “Are you frightened of wolves little one?” She asks him. “Well don’t worry. Arella is here to protect you.

So the fourteen year old girl with white skin, silver hair and purple eyes, carries an auron kitten with obsidian black fur speckled with purple, his eyes different colours through the woodland and back to the tree house they will both learn to call home.  As she walks, Arella thinks. “Maska doesn’t seem to be all that bothered that I am taking him away from the only home he has ever known, and that he no longer has his mother. This is strange, but in some ways it might be good. I was getting lonely, and I guess I’m not going to be lonely with this little bundle of fur with me all the time.” Arella looks down at the kitten in her arms with admiration. “No I really won’t get bored with him around. I will need to learn how to hunt bigger game though. I don’t think Maska will be happy to eat grue bulbs at all, and I’m not sure if he will be happy just eating fish either. I think rabbits shouldn’t be too hard. I can make traps to catch them, and I’ve seen them be caught and skinned before. It can’t be that hard. Then I guess when Maska gets bigger we will have to hunt wild pigs, and motto dear. That’s a point. When Maska gets bigger he will be able to help me hunt, and then we can protect each other. Come to think of it. Maybe the shooting star was signifying this moment. It must have been. This is huge, and a lot more comforting knowing that the gods want me to look after Maska.” Arella smiles to herself. She now feels completely at ease with the whole situation, although a little unsure about how she is going to manage it.

The entire time back to the tree house, Maska just sits in Arella’s cloak, looking out at the trees as they pass, purring as they go. He is happy to be with Arella, although he is not entirely sure why. He buries himself into Arella’s side every time he hears a wolf. Howling terrifies him. It is such an awful noise and sends shivers down his spine, making him shiver.

The sky is starting to turn by the time they reach the clearing by the lake where Arella’s tree house sits and every single muscle in Arella’s body ache. Her feet hurt, and Arella feels as though she has walked thousands of miles, but the sight of the tree house nestled in the clearing is a very welcome sight. “Here we are Maska. Your new home.”

Chapter 7

Putting Maska down on the floor, Arella looks around. “Okay so it’s not much, but this is your new home. What do you think?” Maska just stares at her with his odd eyes, blinking and purring. “I have never met anyone as quiet as you Maska. Should I show you around?” The kitten gets up from his seated position and walks towards Arella’s feet. She giggles at him. “Okay so over here is the lake where we can catch fish, wash clothes, not that you need to, and get our drinking water. Then if you look over there at that group of white trees with the branches attached to it… Gods it looks awful at the moment… Is the house we will be living in.” She looks down at Maska who blinks at her. “I know it doesn’t looks like much now, but I have big plans for that tree house, trust me.” Maska simply purrs at her and blinks his big bright eyes. Arella is excited to be telling someone else about her home. “So over there by the lake I have planted grue bulbs.” Maska pulls a face that could almost be disgust. Arella laughs. “Yeah I know you don’t eat plants, but I do, and I can’t survive on fish alone. Plus, what do you think I am going to use to make traps to catch rabbits for you?” Maska blinks. “Didn’t think of that did you?” She looks over at the big clearing in front of the house. “I want to plant some bushes here, you know, ones with nuts and berries.” Maska pulls that face again. “Oh please don’t look at me like that. I won’t make you eat any of it. It’s for me Maska.”

Arella walks towards the tree house and turns around to ask Maska to follow, which he is already doing, his little legs going ten to the dozen to keep up with her fast pace. “Do you want to go up into the tree house while I catch us some fish for breakfast? You can sleep up there safely.” Maska purrs and huffs at her. At the base of the tree, Maska does a small rough roaring noise. Just a short burst of noise. “Come here then and I’ll carry you up.” Arella says to the kitten. He pads to her feet and she picks him up, wraps her cloak around him once more to secure him and climbs the tree. It is hard going with the auron kitten under her arm, and harder still with the sore muscles she has.

Although the house isn’t very high up the tree, about double the height of Arella, and there are plenty of hand and foot holes for her to climb with, it is difficult and she is tired by the time she reaches the top. Once she gets to the base of the house, Arella realises that it might not be so easy to get Maska into the house. “Okay little one. If I hold you up, can you climb into the house so I can pull myself in?” She asks the kitten, knowing he will not answer. She does it anyway, taking him from under her arm, holding onto the tree with one hand, and lifts him above her head so he is close to the platform. Maska instinctively grabs at the platform with his claws and pulls himself onto it. “Good boy Maska!” Arella says to him. When she hauls herself up onto the platform, the first thing she sees is his big black face, yellow and green eyes staring straight at her. He licks her nose, then steps back so she can climb up.

“Careful you don’t’ fall through the gaps at the side Maska. I’m going to fill them in, but I don’t want you getting hurt before I do so. I will start on that when we have eaten though. How do you feel about fish?” Maska looks at her confused, tilting his head to the side. One of his ears flops over, making Arella laugh. “Let me guess. You’ve never eaten fish before? Well trust me, you’re going to love it.” Arella promises. “You just get yourself comfortable up here Maska, you can sleep on my bed if you want.” She points at the pile of furs in the centre of the platform. “I will be just down there by the lake. Just call out if you need me okay?” Maska purrs at her then moves over to the furs. He bites one of the furs. “Maska that’s not food, what are you doing?” He tugs on the furs and pulls them towards the opening in the house then drops them again, walks around on them a couple of times then sits down. “Oh I see. You were moving it so you can see me from where you’re laid. Clever Maska, very clever.” Arella steps over the kitten, patting his soft head as she does and climbs down the tree again. She picks up the grathon she left at the bottom and heads for the lake to catch her and Maska some breakfast.

Arella takes off her boots, rolls her trousers up to her knees, and wades into the water. The fish briefly swim away from her when she walks into the water, but return quickly and continue to swim around in the reeds close to Arella’s feet. Fishing soon becomes second nature to Arella, and it is like she has been fishing for years. Arella hopes that everything she does comes with such ease. She spots a nice big fish with dark blue scales spotted through the silver ones. Pulling the grathon high into the air, Arella takes aim and brings the weapon down on the fish, spearing him through the side, killing it outright. She pulls the big fish out of the water, pleased with her catch. Arella takes one of the reed strings she keeps as spares out of her pocket and pulls the grathon out of the fish. She uses the hole the weapon made and ties the string through it, then hooks it over a low hanging branch close to the water, tying it off on a nearby branch so it doesn’t fall back into the water. The fish around her feet have scattered and the water is now cloudy from the mud and sand that was thrown up when Arella brought her weapon down. The sun is now beating down or Arella, and she is thankful that the water is so cool. She pulls her hood up higher, making sure the shadow it casts covers her face so she does not get burnt.

The reeds on the bank of the lake, and the shadows caused by the trees mean that fishing here is very productive. Fish like to gather in these sheltered area’s and Arella knows this. After a while of standing in the water, the fish start to swim close to her again. “They must like this area on the lake. I think it’s got something to do with the reeds. Fish always seem to gather in the reed. Makes things much easier for me though. The more fish that gather in the reeds, the more dinner I can catch for me and Maska.” She repeats the process a few more times, missing fish every now and then, although her aim is very good. By the time she is finished she has three big fat fish all tied to the tree. Her stomach growls and Maska roars gently, indicating that he is also hungry. Arella grabs the three fish from the tree and picks a grue root out of the ground also. She then wades back out of the water, collects her shoes and heads to the bottom of the tree. She then ties two of the fish to a branch on a nearby tree in the clearing so she can prepare hers without Maska’s getting dirty. She then places her grathon in the hollow of the tree where she has been keeping her weapons, safe so no one can see them.

With some spare branches left under the tree, and some of the drier reeds, Arella builds a fire in the pit she made for her food to be cooked on. She prepares the grue bulb with her dagger and guts one of the fish, leaving the other two hole. She then takes a long stick with a sharp end and threads the bulb and fish onto it, placing them over the fire in the contraption she made last time she cooked fish. While that is cooking, she climbs up the tree to retrieve Maska so he can eat his fish. When she gets to the top of the tree, he is sitting waiting for her, hunger and excitement in his eyes. She holds him with one hand, tucks him under her arm and descends the tree. “Coming down with you is a lot easier than going up that’s for sure. The sooner you get big enough to climb up here on your own the better little one.”

Once Maska is on the floor, he runs over towards the fire where Arella’s food is cooking. “Maska stop!” Arella shouts after him as she follows. “That’s my food. Yours is still hanging in this tree. Let me just sort it out for you.” She walks over to the lake where the black rocks are and picks up one of the large flat stones, about the size of her head. She carries it over to the fire and places it close. “If I put your fish on there do you promise not to drag them off? I want to keep this area safe and that means no blood on the grass.” Maska purrs in response. “Good, now here you go. Enjoy.” Arella pulls both fish down from the tree she temporarily hung them in while she prepared hers and puts them on the black rock. He looks at them a little confused, but after one bite, demolishes that faster than you can say ‘Wow Maska that was fast’. “So I take it you like fish then?” Arella asks Maska as he sits cleaning his face and paws, purring loudly. Arella eats her fish and grue root a lot slower than Maska, but she enjoys them just the same.

After eating, Arella feels a little sleepy. “I’m going to have to get up and do something Maska, or I’m going to fall asleep.” The auron kitten yawns. “Looks like you’re already falling asleep.” She pauses. “I tell you what little one. You go to sleep and I will put the finishing touches on the house.” Maska looks at her with his big eyes. Arella takes off her cloak. “I don’t need this if I’m working in the shade.” She places it on the ground. Maska climbs on top of it and curls up facing Arella so he can watch her. “Just call me if you need me.” Arella says to him as she walks back towards the lake to gather more reed strings. The job of collecting branches and reeds, bringing them back to the house and fitting them it becoming monotonous and boring for Arella. She knows however that when the job is done, it will be well worth it, and her and Maska will have a safe and protected place to call their home. This makes all of the sore muscles, blistered hands, blood, sweat and tears worth it.

Arella gathers the reed strings she will use to tie the leafy branches to the sides of her house then makes her way back over to the tree house She puts her boots back on, making sure her dagger is secured to her ankle, then climbs the tree. Once up in the tree she starts on weaving some of the hanging vines through the crosses on the house. “These will now grow through here, helping to camouflage the wood.” This takes her about an hour to do all over the house. Arella then moves on to tying branches with leaves still living to the outside of the house. This is a little harder to do. She has to lean through the gaps and pull in the branches, before securing them to the outside of the house. She cuts her arms several times, and by the end of the day she is covered in bright purple bruises, blood, scratches and sore muscles. She climbs down from the tree and admires her work. “Well… It’s not quite invisible, but in a few months it won’t be far off.” She looks at Maska curled up comfortable on her cloak. “Well I think it looks pretty good even if you’re too sleepy to look.” Then she laughs.

Arella thinks that she can use the time Maska is sleeping to practice making traps to catch rabbits. She’s seen it being done before. It’s just a simple noose knot hung from a branch over a run. She gathers reeds and practices the knots and nooses. After an hour of practising and getting herself tied in knots, Arella thinks she has made the perfect noose. “It’s harder than you’d think Maska.” She’d say to the auron kitten who was ignoring her, sound asleep and dreaming.

Upon getting up from her seated position on the ground tying knots and nooses, Arella’s back clicks, then so do her knees. She is sore and achy all over. “I think a bath might help me loosen up.” She says to herself, walking over towards to lake to bathe. She removes her clothes, unties her hair and slinks into the water, letting the cool lake wash away the dirt and blood from her skin. She ducks her head under the water and washes out her hair. After a few minutes relaxing in the water, Arella feels as though she is clean again, and the pain in her muscles seems to have all but gone away. She hauls herself out of the water again, her body feeling heavy and tired. Once dry, Arella puts on some clean clothes and washes her dirty ones in the water before hanging them on a low hanging tree by the lake to dry.

Rabbits are forever running around in the woodland close to where Arella has made her home, and she knows exactly where to put the traps to have the best chance at catching them. She knows she needs to go into the forest to plant the noose she has made, but she also knows she cannot leave Maska on his own. If he wakes up and Arella is not there he might panic. “He has had a good four hours sleep, so maybe he will be awake enough to walk with me if I get him up.” Arella says as she moves over to him. She strokes his head gently to wake him. “Maska, wake up little one. I need you to come for a walk with me into the forest.” The little kitten begins to stir and stretch. “We need to find the right place to plant this trap so I can catch us rabbits to eat. I don’t think I could live on fish all day, and I want to see if we can find the bushes close to us for picking fruit. Then maybe I can take some cuttings so we can grow our own.” Maska yawns. “Look. The berries aren’t only good for eating. You can make medicine out of them too, so we can keep ourselves from getting ill and treat wounds.” Arella knows Maska probably doesn’t understand half of what she says, but it doesn’t matter. He is someone to talk to, and the company is nice. Arella picks up her deer skin bags and walks into the forest. The auron kitten follows her as she walks into the woodland, close to her heels and purring the whole way.

After walking for a few minutes, Arella comes across a barrow berry bush. It has big broad pale green leaves, doesn’t sit very high off the grounds and is covered in berries. Strange for a bush to have fruit at this time of year, but it is one of the few that seeds in spring rather than autumn. The bright red berries look tasty. “I’ve seen deer eating these berries before, so they’re safe to eat.” Arella says as she plucks one from a branch. She pops it in her mouth, the skin exploding with sweet tangy juice as she chews. “I will have to take a cutting of this back with me.” Arella takes out her dagger and cuts a few growing stems from the bush. She places them inside the deer skin bag on her back. She takes a few handfuls of the berries from the bush and eats them as she walks.

In a clearing just beyond the barrow berry bush, Arella spots a warren of rabbits. There are dozens of them hopping around in the grasses. Baby rabbits chase each other around, while the adults either graze on the grass and sweet flowers, or stand guard keeping watch on the rest of their troop. Careful not to disturb the rabbits or alert them to her presence, Arella scouts out the area, looking for places the rabbits use to get through the thick undergrowth. She spots what looks to be a well-used run and decides she should put the noose. She sets it up then backs away. Arella sets up three of these snares in the area. She whispers to Maska. “We will have to come back to check them in the morning little one.”

Maska and Arella continue on their walk through the forest, Arella collecting cuttings from an orash bush, with white green leaves and pale berries when they are in fruit, and also cuttings from the mosa tree. This tree grows short, but the fruit that grow on it are very large and full of nutrients. With a bag full of bush clippings, and three rabbit traps set, Arella feels like her walk into the forest with Maska has been a success.

Chapter 8

“I swear this walk isn’t usually this long.” Nootau says.

“Stop complaining. The walk to the elders next week will be much longer and you know it.” Mato replies.

“So why are we out here again today if we’re going for out trail starting in five days? Shouldn’t we be resting for the long walk?”

“Because you still need practice. Your bow skills are terrible Nootau. You can’t even hit the wide side of a bison with your aim.” Doahte quips.

“I can shoot better than you and you know it.” Nootau retaliates.

“Well when we get to the training grounds, you can get your bow out and we’ll see who is a better shot.” Nashoba says. Arella spots the young men through the trees. She looks down at Maska who looks a little unsure.

“Let’s follow them. This should be interesting.” She whispers at the auron kitten. He blinks his odd eyes at her then purrs, almost like he is agreeing with her. Maska’s fluffy tail wags slightly as they walk, the purring continues and he has his eyes half closed as he trots along beside Arella. He is happy, although the tail wagging is slightly out of character for an auron cat. Arella smiles down at him, keeping low to the ground so the young men do not see her.

Nashoba comes to a clearing, and Mato, Doahte and Nootau follow him in. Arella and Maska stop at the side on the clearing. A large tree with a low hanging branch sits close to the edge of the glade. Arella picks Maska up and lifts him onto the branch. She then climbs up herself, and repeats this another three times until they are high enough in the tree to be covered by foliage and invisible. Maska purrs softly, not loud enough for anyone but Arella to hear. He snuggles into her side and closes his eyes. Arella places one hand on his soft fluffy back to keep him safe on the branch and watches the men practice.

Mato goes around setting up targets made from wooden sticks with painted animal skins attached He sets four of them up, lining them a few meters away from each other. As he forces the targets in the grounds, the muscles on his shoulders and arms flex and the veins on his arms stick out a little. All of the men are wearing sleeveless vests, much easier for firing a bow. Mato’s hair has been pulled back into a long braid down his back. It has wooden beads threaded through it, and comes to an end just below his massive shoulder blades. The sweat on Mato’s back is causing his shirt to stick to his muscles as he moves. His large powerful frame reminds Arella of a bear, although his personality is the most un-bearlike thing she has ever seen. He seems to be the voice of reason, and the one to calm any situation rising with the other young men.

Nootau is looking around the glade, checking that there is nothing that could trip them up, and moving stones and rocks to the side so to not cause anyone injury. Nootau still has bright red feathers in his hair, although there seem to be more of them now, joined by black ones too. A tattoo on his left ankle stands out. It is a bird, a raven Arella thinks. This is used to signalise that the man with the tattoo brings bad things. It is a war cry as it were, just on his leg. It still looks a little red, like it was fresh. “He is the strangest one of the bunch.” Arella thinks to herself, shifting her position in the tree as her bum goes a little numb. There is something likeable about Nootau, although Arella thinks his cockiness would start to grate on her after a while. He never fails to get a rise out of the others though, and from the smile on his face when someone bites at his comments, this is exactly what he intends to happen. Arella has to stifle a laugh as Nootau nearly trips on a root. He tried kicking it away, thinking it was a branch, only to find out it was a little more solid than that.

Doahte checks the bows to make sure they are still working okay. He flexes the strings, pulling them tight then letting them go. It makes a satisfying ‘twang’ noise which he giggles at. “He is definitely the more childish of the four.” The muscles on his skinny arms tensing as he tests the bows, he three rings tattooed onto his arm bending and stretching as he does so. He has a strange face, thin with cheekbones that stick out a little, eyes a bit too small for his face. Doahte seems to just enjoy watching the others argue, and seems a little bit like the odd one out of the group, but then Arella only knows of them what she has briefly seen while they practice.

Nashoba is the last one Arella looks at, taking her time to examine his features. She has never really been able to get a good look at his face. The green eyes are obvious, but Arella has never really taken much notice of the rest of him. She’s always been more interested in the way the men move, and how they fight than what they look like. As well as the green eyes, Nashoba has a slight red tinge to his hair, making it lighter than the others who have black hair. He is fairly well built, with muscles on his arms, chest and legs, but he doesn’t look too large. He has tattoos on both his arms. On one arm he has a wolf howling at the moon, and on the other he has an eagle in flight. One is a symbol of solitude and longing, while the other is power and freedom. A strange mix for someone to have, but they suit him. His hair is also long, but tied back in a loose bun at the back of his head. He is sitting on the floor checking the arrows, making sure they are weighted right and that the flint on the end is sharp. He splits the arrows into four sets and places them in the ground opposite each of the targets.

“Okay boys, I think we might be ready.” Nashoba says. “Well my part of the job is done anyway. Arrows sharp and ready for firing.” Doahte joins him.

“The bows are all okay too.” He says as he hands Nashoba one and puts the remaining two on the ground by their sets of arrows. Nootau joins them too, all rocks and branches he was moving out of the way. Nashoba looks over at Mato.

“Mato, are the targets ready or are we still waiting for you?”

“No I’m all done Nashoba.” He says as he walks back to the group.

“Okay so the plan for this session is to all manage to fire at least three arrows at the centre of the target in one round. Now for today, a round is six arrows.” Nashoba explains.

“How come its only six. Normally a round is twelve.” Doahte asks.

“We’re running low on arrows that aren’t broken after my sister’s birthday celebrations. Far too many arrows got broken in those competitions.” He pauses. “Anyway that’s beside the point. My father always tells me that a good warrior should be able to hit a paloa fox between the eyes from fifty feet away with one arrow. Now I know none of us are that good, but we have to be able to shoot on target at least half the time right?” The others all agree with him and take up their stances behind their sets of arrows.

The young men all bring their bows up to their shoulders, knock an arrow in the string, pull back and fire. Although they all fire in different ways, the arrows hit similar places on the target boards. Not one of the men hits the centre, but they’re not far off. They repeat this process a few dozen times, getting close to the centre on most, and a few times each they hit the centre mark. Their self-criticism is easy to see though. Every time one of them misses the target, or doesn’t hit the centre, he mentally kicks himself. Arella can’t see what is wrong with their shooting… It is a hell of a lot better than she could do, but then she still hasn’t made any arrows yet. She cannot think how she would make them, and feels that making the bow was a waste of time. 

After a few round of archery, the men are all starting to look tired. They have sweat on their brows and backs, and the muscles in their arms are beginning to shake as they fire. “Can we have a break now?” Nootau asks, putting his bow down on the floor as he does so.

“There will be no resting next week Nootau and you know it.” Mato says as he fires off another arrow, missing the target completely.

“Well at least I hit the target on my last shot.”

“I’ll hit you if you don’t shut up.”

“Enough both of you.” Nashoba finishes the argument. I think we’re all tired. So let’s sit down and eat something before Mato kills Nashoba.

“He couldn’t kill a fly if it landed on his arm.” Nootau starts.

“I said enough. By the gods you two are acting like a pair of seven year olds. What is wrong with you?” Nashoba asks.

“Nerves is my guess.” Doahte answers. “We’re all a little nervous about going on the trip to the elders next week, and I think it’s getting to Mato and Nootau.”

“I think you’re right Doahte.” Nashoba agrees. “But we will be fine. We have each other.” They all agree on this. “Put your bow with your arrows then, and we will have something to eat.” Nashoba goes over to the bag he was carrying and begins emptying food out of it. “Okay so we have; barrow berries mixed with marrow tree sap; pieces of cooked rabbit from tea last night and roasted grue bulbs. Who wants what?” Everyone rushes for the food, taking equal shares of pretty much everything. They all sit down and eat the food, savouring every bite.

“So what do you think it will be like then next week?” Doahte asks.

“Pretty much like now I guess. We will end up sitting around like this on the evenings eating food and relaxing.” Nootau answers.

“I don’t think it will be easy.” Nashoba says. “But we have each other so we will get through it. I think it might be fun though. I mean, think about it. The four of us, on the road, walking through the wilderness, righting off monsters and hunting for food. What more could you want?”

“A comfortable bed?” Mato answers. They all laugh at this.

“Yeah I think you’re right.” Nashoba laughs.

“What do you think the elders are like?” Doahte asks.

“Old.” They chorus. Doahte laughs, as do the others.

“Well I gathered that, but I mean what will they be like? Do you think they will be nice, or mean and strict.”

“I’m hoping nice.” Nashoba answers. “I don’t want to be the only one who doesn’t come back having passed his tests. That would be awful.”

“You’d be exhaled.” Mato says.

Conversation continues, but Arella’s attention is broken. Maska shifts his position and growls lightly. She whispers to him. “What’s wrong Maska?” The kitten pushes himself into Arella’s side and growls again. Arella follows the direction of Maska’s eyes, a dark space in the trees on the far side of the clearing. Two eyes stare at the men in the glad. Its eyes are bright yellow, but a white scar covers the skin around its right eye. Its mouth is pulled into a snarl, and big white teeth fill its jaws, dripping with saliva and salivating at the thought of eating the men. Arella looks at the men in the clearing, they haven’t seen the beast.

The beast steps forwards, big paws hit the ground, sharp claws scrape the dirt beneath them and he steps forwards, saliva dripping from his mouth and splashing on the ground at his feet. A coat of dark grey on his back, a little matted and covered in war wounds. With intent in his eyes, the wolf stalks the men, while they continue to eat, no realisation of what is stalking them.

The beast steps forwards, revealing himself from the bushes. Nootau is the first to notice, but he is too lost for words to say anything. He jumps to his feet and steps backwards wide eyed. The creature takes another silent step forwards, saliva still dripping from its open jaws. “What is wrong with you Nootau?” Nashoba asks? “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He looks at the others who all have similar looks on their faces. “Okay, is this another joke about the white ghost I saw, because I’m telling you it was real.” Nashoba stops talking when the look on his friends faces does not change. Arella is in shock. Is she really going to witness a wolf kill these men? Surely not. They are fighters, and they must know how to take down an animal such as this because she sure as hell doesn’t.

Nashoba feels hot breath on his head, and the stench of death fills his nostrils. The hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, and a shiver runs down his spine. A trickle of saliva lands on his left shoulder and Nashoba’s heart beats faster. He turns slowly and it met with the yellow eyes of a great wolf. He panics and falls backwards. The wolf lunges at his and bites for Nashoba’s throat. He catches it and forces it away from his throat, his hands on the wolfs neck. As Nashoba continues to hold the wolf away from himself, the others just stand in shock. None of them know what to do. “Don’t just stand there you idiots, do something!” Nashoba yells from the ground.

“What do we do?” Nootau asks. Mato picks up one of the bows and aims an arrow at the wolf. He fires but his shaky aim misses completely. He takes aim and re-fires. This time the arrow hits its mark, however, it bounces off the wolfs shoulder. The wolf releases Nashoba, looks up at Mato and growls. “You just made it angry.” Nootau yells.

“Well I don’t see you trying to do anything.” Mato yells back.

This is useless.” Arella thinks. “I will have to do something otherwise they will all die.” Maska looks up at her, fear in his eyes. Arella whispers to him to comfort him. “It’s okay little one. I will be back for you soon. Just wait here in the tree. You will be safe, and the wolf won’t get you. Just keep your eyes on me and you will be okay.” This seems to comfort him a little, and his heart rate slows. Arella’s heart rate has never been so high.

Arella looks around herself. The sky starting to darken, the air growing colder, the wolf below her attacking the men and them keeping it at arm’s length, barely managing to keep from harm. She is looking for anything she can use to get the wolf away from them, but nothing comes to mind. There is no way she could fight the wolf herself, she has no strength in her body, and distracting it is out of the window. A low buzzing is keeping Arella from thinking straight, and a bee flies into her chest, bumping into her the flying away in the opposite direction. It is heading back to its nest. Arella’s eyes follows the direction in which the bee travelled. “Perfect. The nest it just above the wolf.” Arella notices. If Arella is going to do something about saving the men on the ground below, she must overcome her fear of bees and move quickly. She doesn’t have much time to act before the wolf inflicts some serious damage on someone.

She shifts herself from the tree she is currently in, and moves through the canopy slowly towards the bees nest. It is a difficult climb, and Arella has to jump from one tree to another at one point, nearly falling at one point. She finally makes it over to the bee hive tree and looks down at the ground. “If I smash open the nest the bees are going to attack them men below too. I have to warn them out of the way.” Arella thinks. With the low hum of the bees in the hive next to her, uses her dagger and reaches for the nest. Although Arella has a fear of being stung, it would be worth it if she could save the lives of the young men below her.

“Move out of the way, bee’s coming from above!” Arella shouts down. Nashoba looks up, looking directly at Arella with the nest.

“Move boys move!” He echoes. Nootau, Mato and Doahte all move out of the way, leaving Nashoba standing in the clearing with the wolf staring directly at him. The wolfs eyes dart to the others, deciding who he should chase. “Look at me.” Nashoba says to it. The wolfs eyes focus on his and it snarls. “That’s right, keep looking at me.” Nashoba’s eyes dart up to Arella in the tree above him. She thrusts her dagger into the top of the nest, dislodging it from the branch it rests on causing it to fall.

“Now!” She shouts, as the nest falls from the tree towards the ground. Nashoba dives to the side the other men ran to and hide in the bushes. As the hive hits the ground it explodes. A cloud of orange and black fill the clearing. The wolf howls as the bees attack and sting him, causing him to run for cover in the opposite direction.

Arella uses the distraction of the bees to move back to the tree where Maska was still hiding. He meows as she gets close and starts purring again when she reaches him. “See Maska, I told you everything would be okay if you watched me” Maska meows again. “We have to be quiet for a bit again little one.” She whispers. Maska stops purring and nuzzles close to her. “Then we will go back home soon.” Bees surround Arella in the tree too, but do not sting her. Arella uses her cloak to shield herself and Maska until the humming of bees becomes more and more distant.

After a while, the air clears and the bees all dissipate. They will all move on to find another nest somewhere far from here. The broken nest lies on the ground. The men come out of their hiding place in the bushes and walk into the clearing. “What on earth happened there?” Mato asks. “A rouge wolf trying to eat us, then a strange voice shouting and bees falling from the sky.”

“It was the white ghost Mato.” Nashoba insists. “I was her again. And this time you all heard her too.”

“I head someone shouting Nashoba. I didn’t know who it was though.” Nootau says.

“I’m telling you she was here again. It’s like she’s following me.”

“Oh come on Nashoba. Why would anyone want to follow you” Nootau says. Arella giggles to herself. “It’s those green eyes” She thinks to herself. There is something mesmerising about those eyes.

“We’d better get back anyway before that wolf comes looking for us again.” Doahte says.

“Collect up the bows arrows and targets then. Then we can go.” Mato instructs. They all begin the clear up of the glade while keeping one eye on the forest around them, not relaxing with the threat that the wolf might come back to finish the job that it started.

“These arrows are broken.” Doahte says as he holds up seven arrows with broken shafts. “What do we do with them?”

“No point keeping them. We can just get some more made when we go back home.” Nashoba answers. “I just want to get out of here quickly.” He says with one last glance at the tree where Arella cut the hive down to save them, then they leave. Arella watches them go as they walk through the woodland back towards their village, all looking over their shoulders for a sign of the wolf returning.

Chapter 9

Once the men are long gone, Arella and Maska climb down from their tree and to the clearing. “I can use these broken Arrows Maska. I can take the heads and tails and replace the shafts.” She goes around picking up the broken arrows, all seven in total. “Then that way I can study them better and make new ones too.” Maska just stares at her and yawns. “Okay I get it, I’m boring you again. Should we go back before that wolf comes back again?” Maska nudges her leg as if to say “Yes let’s go now.” Arella adds the arrows to her deer skin bag and her and Maska walk back towards their tree house.

The woodland around them has grown darker, and the sky above them is a bright orange. As the sun sets in the sky, Arella and Maska come to the area where they set the rabbit traps. Arella looks at them but finds that they have caught nothing. Not one of the snares has been set off. She takes a small handful of berries out of her bag and places a few of them in the snare. “That might help us catch the rabbits.” She says. Arella turns around to look for Maska but he isn’t behind her. She stands up and searches for him. “Maska? Where are you?” She starts to panic. “What if he’s run away, or if something’s taken him.”

A rustle in the bushes draws Arella’s attention. She moves over to it. Just as she gets there a noise she could only describe as a scream comes from the bush. Arella drops to her knees and moves the branches of the bush apart, her heart pounding. What she reveals is not what she expected. Inside the bush sits an auron kitten, purring and wagging his tail, a fully grown rabbit not much smaller than he is himself hanging limply in his jaws. “Looks like you don’t need snares to catch food.” Arella laughs, a sigh of relief escapes her. “But I think I will still need them.” Maska pulls the rabbit towards Arella with great effort and drops it at her feet. He then sits on his haunches, tilts his head to the side and meows at her. “Is that for me? Maska you shouldn’t have.” He just blinks. “I tell you what. We will share it when we get back to the tree house How does that sound.” The auron kitten seems to smile at this idea. Which makes Arella laugh. She has never met a creature as animated and human-like as this kitten.

Once back at the tree house, Arella and Maska sit down with a fire to cook and share the rabbit Maska caught. Arella watches the stars cross the sky as they eat, thinking about how big the world out there must be. A wolf in the distance howls, and suddenly this isn’t such a pleasant sound to Arella. “Let’s go up to bed little one. We can plant the bushes tomorrow.” Maska agrees with this and moves to Arella’s arm. She picks him up and helps him up into the tree before climbing up herself. Arella takes off her boots and sets them to the side of the house and climbs inside her fur bedding. Maska snuggles up close to her and purrs again. With full bellies and tired bones, both Arella and Maska fall into a deep sleep.

As Arella and Maska sleep, the forest is alive beneath them. Rabbits and foxes come out of their holes to play, eat and hunt, the wolves in the distance howl, the stars and the moon shine bright in the sky, the crickets sing songs, the owls hoot and fly high in the sky and the bats flit around eating bugs and chirping. Maska bats his paws in his sleep, chasing something that runs from him, a big smile on his face as he does so. He sleeps soundly through the night. Arella’s dreams are not so sweet. Her mind is filled with the jaws of the wolf from earlier. His snapping jaws eating everything in sight. He kills the rabbits in the field close by, attacks deer and tears them apart, he even kills Maska and the men from the other tribe, and with Nashoba’s arm with the wolf tattoo in his jaws steps towards Arella. Upon dropping the arm, the wolf lunges at Arella, red saliva dripping from his teeth.

Maska is already awake when Arella opens her eyes. The kitten is chasing butterflies around the tree house Arella laughs at the sight. He seems to be growing quickly, even though she has only had him a couple of days. His confidence is growing, and he’s coming out of himself more. “I wonder how big Maska will get.” Arella thinks to herself. “I’ve heard that male auron cats are bigger than the females, and Maska’s mother was up to my belly button, so he must get bigger than that.” She just lies and watches Maska for a couple of minutes, enjoying watching him do what he should be doing as a kitten and having fun. “I feel bad for him not having a mum, but maybe I can treat him right and he will grow up to be big and strong.” Arella then has a sudden worrying thought. “But what if he grows up to be big and strong, decides he doesn’t need me anymore and that I’d be better off as food?” She looks at him again, chasing the butterflies. “Well I’ll have to make sure that doesn’t happen and treat him right.” She stretches out, alerting Maska to the idea that she is now awake. He comes over to her and jumps on her chest, knocking the air out of her. “You weigh quite a lot you know Maska.” She says through broken breaths. He rubs his face on Arella’s cheek, licks her nose with a rough tongue and purrs. “I guess it’s time to get up then.” She says to him.

Arella climbs out of her fur bed, puts on her boots and starts to climb down the tree. She gets about half way down then calls for Maska to come to her so she can lift him down. He comes to the edge of the house and Arella grabs him with her right hand. She pulls him to her side and takes another step down. Maska jumps from here and lands safely on the floor. “It won’t be long before you’re jumping all the way down will it?” Arella says to him. Maska simply sits at the bottom of the tree and purrs. Once at the bottom, Arella takes the clothes she left drying on a branch over to the water’s edge, strips off the clothes she was wearing and climbs into the lake. She takes her clothes in with her and washes them in the water. Once all of the dirt is scrubbed off of them, she lays them over a low hanging branch to dry and proceeds to wash herself. Maska sits at the side of the lake, watching her and looking intently at the water. Arella looks back to him, fully submerged in the cool water. “You can come in you know Maska. I’m sure you’ll like the water.” He puts a paw in the water, pulling it out and flicking the water off, not sure if he likes it. He then looks up at Arella with his odd eyes. “No, you have to get all the way in to find out if you like it.” She says to him. Maska takes her advice and steps into the water. He is waste deep and looking unimpressed. A fish nips at his toes and Maska decides he’s had enough. Arella roars with laughter at this. “Okay so maybe you don’t like water all that much.” She stifles another laugh at the sight of the wet auron cat. “I won’t be a minute Maska, then I will get out again.” As Arella continues to get washed, Maska licks the water off himself. His fur puffs up a little with the humidity, making him look fat and inflated. This again makes Arella laugh. Maska is deeply unimpressed by Arella’s reaction to his reaction to water, and turns so his back is facing her, periodically looking over his shoulder to see if she is still laughing at him, which she is… Every time.

With all her troubles and worries washed away, Arella climbs back out of the lake and dresses herself in her clean clothes. She doesn’t bother putting her cloak back on, the sun is well hidden behind cloud and they are under the shelter of the trees anyway. Arella walks over to the deerskin bag she left hanging on one of the branches of her tree house and takes it down. She pulls out all of the different cuttings from the bushes and small trees and begins planting them on the far side of the clearing. She plants them a few feet away from each other, giving them room to grow. When left alone, these bushes mature very quickly into big bushes, and should all have fruit on them come autumn.

Arella stretches out her arms. They crack as she does so, and so do her shoulders. “I think I need a stretch and some exercise Maska.” She says to the kitten. He is playing with butterflies again, chasing them through the long grass, never catching them but still as determined as when he started hours ago. “How about a run?” She asks him. Maska stops chasing butterflies and looks at Arella. “Just a light job to warm me up, then I want to do some balance exercises and combat training.” The look on Maska’s face suggests he was laughing at Arella. “Yeah I know right. Look at me. Tiny little me wanting to learn to fight. I’ve heard it so many times Maska. ‘Why should a girl learn to fight?’ And I’ve had enough. I have as much right to learn to fight as anyone else, and I’m going to learn to do it.” She folds her arms. Maska purrs at her, softening her cold expression. “You’re right. I shouldn’t be taking it out on you. You’ve never said anything to say I can’t fight.” Arella pauses. “What am I saying? You’ve never said anything. Am I going insane Maska?” Ask asks, not really expecting to get an answer. Maska just blinks his odd eyes at her and tilts his head to the side. “Well, what does it matter if I’m insane. It’s just you and me in this world, and one of us has to be the nuts one.” Maska takes another swat at a butterfly. “Although I’m beginning to think it might be you who’s nuts.” Maska scowls at Arella for this comment. She simply laughs at him.

Arella stretches out her arms, then her legs, being careful not to over stretch and pull a muscle. She then slowly twists to her side and then touches the ground. Once she feels like all of her muscles are stretched out, she sets off at a gentle jogging pace into the forest. Maska is hot on her heels and runs along beside her.

Running is very relaxing for Arella, but it’s been a long time since she has been able to do it properly. She used to use it as an escape from everything, and an excuse to get away and think about things, but recently she has had far too much to think about and do to need that time away. Fitness is key however, and Arella quickly realises she has let her fitness slip. After only a few minutes of running she is beginning to feel out of breath. “Let’s stop just up here Maska.” She pants at him. He meows back at her in agreement. Arella realises that they are not far from where she planted the snares to catch the rabbits and veers off in that direction. “We can check the snares while we rest for a minute.” Arella says hopefully. Masks stalks over to the closest snare, sniffing the air as he goes. Arella is close behind him and sees a rabbit caught in the snare. It has its back leg caught in it, and is struggling to get free. Arella walks over to the frightened rabbit. She takes her dagger out of her boot and quickly plunges it into the rabbits skull from above. “I’m sorry little rabbit, but you will feed us well tonight.” She says to the furry creature. She uses the snare to tie around all four of the rabbits legs and ties it high in a tree where no other animal can get at it. Her and Maska check the other snares and find another rabbit. Arella does the same thing with this one, and also hangs it in the tree. “We will collect these on our way back to the house later tonight.” Arella tells Maska. Although Maska is not pleased by the idea of having to wait to eat the meat, he does not argue with Arella’s decision.

Arella and Maska then continue their run, and they stop when they reach the black beach by the lake. Arella stops on the sand, and Maska stops with her. He looks tired, and so does she, but Arella feels good.  Maska stretches out and yawns a little. “I guess you’re tired after that run. How about you go to sleep on that warm sand Maska, and I will carry on working out. Then when I am done, we can go back to the tree house and rest?” Maska seems to like the idea of that and finds himself a comfortable place to rest on the black sand. If it weren’t for Maska’s bright green and orangey-yellow eyes looking at her, Arella would not know Maska was laid on the sand. He blends in beautifully.

As she stretches out her arms, reaching up to the sky as high as they can go, Arella feels more of the tension she has been feeling release from her body. She them reaches down to her toes, stretching her back as well as her arms, grabbing her ankles to hold her in place. Next Arella stretches out her legs, pulling the muscles tight as she does so. She then does the splits to stretch them out further. Arella has always been flexible, but she can feel in her muscles that they are not used to the stretching recently. She touches her toes on the right hand side, bending her chest to her knee. This is difficult, but she can just about reach. She then does that same on her left hand side, this time not quite being able to touch her chest to her knee.

Once fully stretched out, Arella begins her fight training. Watching the young men fight has given her the knowledge she needs, but the theory behind it is not so easy to learn. She starts with a punch. Should be simple enough. She knows that when clenching her fist, she should not tuck her thumb into her hand, and not fully extend her arm or it could cause her more pain than the person she was punching, however when she tries to punch, she seems to flail her arm around more than anything else. There is no power behind her punch. Arella’s thin arms wobble as she punches the air, aiming at an imaginary target. She continues to punch with vigour, but imagines she looks ridiculous. She briefly looks down at Maska who looks like he is almost laughing at her. “Oh you have no room to talk.” She says to the kitten. “It’s not like you could do any better.” She then laughs. “It’s not like I’m doing any good at it either.”

Arella then moves on to practising her kicks. She aims for stomach height, and although she hits her mark, there is again no power and Arella is wobbly on her feet. She tries kicking again, this time losing her balance and falling on her feet. “Gods damn it!” She says in anger. “It can’t be that hard to kick. My balance is normally quite good.” She says to Maska. Arella is too wrapped up in her practice that she does not hear the voices in the bushes until they are right at the clearing. The first thing she hears in the booming laughter of Mato. “Crap!” She spits under her breath, grabbing Maska up and running for the bushes, praying to the gods that they did not see her and that they were just laughing at come insanely funny joke.

“So that is your ‘White Ghost’ Nashoba. What a disappointment.” Nootau laughs. “Just a strange looking white girl who can’t seem to keep her balance and talks to herself.” Nashoba looks hurt, and Arella feels it.

“She did save our lives with that wolf yesterday.” Nashoba says.

“I call flook. There is no way that skinny little white child meant to do that. She probably did it by accident.” Nootau mocks.

“At least you know who your stalker is Nashoba.” Mato laughs at him. This will be a story to tell the others back at the village.”

Arella cannot listen to anymore. She has been found out, and she is scared. She quickly scoops Maska up off the ground and heads into the forest in the same way she came. Once she is sure she is out of earshot of the men she starts talking again to Maska. “Oh Gods they saw me Maska!” Arella panics, Maska now on the ground following her fast paced footsteps. “What if they come looking for me? What if they think the same as my old village and decided that I am a bad omen? What if they take it too far and decide I should be dead?” Arella’s breathing becomes heavy, her heart beats too fast and she feels sick. Maska moves in front of her to stop her. “What are you doing Maska, we have to keep moving!” But Maska does not move from in front of Arella. He lifts up and puts his paws on Arella’s thighs, applies pressure stays there, as if urging her to sit down. Arella gets the hint and sits on the ground. Once on the ground Arella’s breathing begins to slow again, and her heart rate drops. “Thank you Maska.” She says to the auron kitten. “How did you know to do that?” But he just purrs in answer, mysterious as ever. “Do you think they will follow us?” Maska flicks his ear and shakes his head. “Yeah you’re right. They’ve got better things to do with their day, and they’re going away soon anyway.” She pauses. “So we won’t have to worry about them. My fighting skills however we do have to worry about.” Arella laughs as she gets to her feet. “I think I will practice in the comfort of our little clearing though, rather than going to places where I know they might be.” With that Arella and Maska continue back to the tree house, collecting the rabbits they caught in the snares earlier that day on their way back.

Chapter 10

Arella once again skins the rabbits, and puts the skins to the side while she prepares and cooks them. It turns our Maska really likes the heads, which if fine with Arella because she wouldn’t really like to eat them. While they both sit and munch on roasted rabbit, Arella starts thinking about the tree house. “I’ve been thinking Maska.” She says through mouthfuls of food. “The sides of the house aren’t waterproof. I could use the skins from the rabbits we catch to make it so.” She takes another bite from the rabbit leg, and Maska chews on a bone from another. “It needs doing before winter when the rains come and it gets cold, but we should have caught enough food by then to make it work.” She pauses a little. “And when you get bigger, which won’t be long I’m guessing, we will have to catch larger food like hogs then deer too.” Maska licks his lips then continues eating.

It is early afternoon by the time Maska and Arella have finished eating, and they both feel satisfied and full. While Maska sits and cleans his fur, Arella sits back and relaxes. She knows her muscles will be sore later, but at the moment she feels quite good, despite being seen by the very people she did not want to see her. She knows she overreacted earlier when they saw her. All those young men saw Arella as was a silly little girl pretending to be something she is not, not someone who is a threat to them, therefore they will not come get her, and they will not want her gone. Arella laughs at herself for being so silly.

After a while of sitting, Arella grows bored. She moves over to her deerskin bag and takes out the broken arrows. She then gathers some sticks from below her tree. Arella keeps the sticks there as firewood, but some of the straighter ones will do nicely as shafts for the arrows. She moves over to the reeds by the side of the lake and collects a few of them to gather strings from. While she is there Arella notices that the sprouting she planted in the bank have started to grow. Arella takes all of these items, and the dagger from her boot and begins remaking the arrows. The sun is once again setting by the time she has finished this, and Maska is now wide awake. He chases glowing bugs that have started to appear in the dying daylight. Arella sits and laughs at Maska playing with the bugs. “You like chasing things don’t you Maska?” She says to him. He ignores her and continues to play. “Tomorrow when the sun comes up I will practice firing these arrows with my bow Maska. I need to learn so we can hunt and defend ourselves.” Arella knows the auron kitten doesn’t really understand her, but his company is nice all the same.

Arella’s thoughts turn to the men that saw her. She wonders again if they will care that she watched them, or if they will follow her. But with everything else they have going on, and with that wolf that attacked them the other day, Arella highly doubts it. She then starts thinking about the wolf. What was it doing on its own, this far from the mountains across the lake where the other wolves live? Something must have driven it over here. Her mind then wanders to the auron cat who’s life she had to end. Could it be the same people who shot her? It’s possible. Arella couldn’t think of any other explanation for a lone wolf to be that for from its home. “I’ll have to look into this. We can’t have any more animals getting hurt or running scared because of people.” Arella thinks to herself. She looks down at Maska. “Especially now I have him in my life. I need to protect Maska with my life. I was entrusted with him, so I have to do right by him.” A new wave of determination washes over Arella and she knows what she has to do. First thing will be to get herself fitter and learn to fight, and she will have to learn to use her bow, and how to fight with the grathon properly, then she will investigate the strange happenings that have been going on and find out who has been killing and scaring the animals in her home.

The next morning when Arella awakes, she is full of energy and excitement. “Today is the day I fire a bow for the first time Maska.” She says gleefully at the sleeping kitten. He rolls over lazily. “Okay you sleep up here a while longer. I’m going to get some breakfast before the long day ahead.” Arella says as she picks up her boots and climbs down the tree. She gathers the grathon from the hollow of the tree where it stays and moves towards the water’s edge. A rustle in the bushes startles Arella, but she is relieved when it is nothing more than a malo duck. She laughs at her own fear. The duck runs along the ground quacking, and heads for the lake where she then swims away into its centre to join the other malo ducks disturbing the water as she goes, making patterns that glisten in the morning sun.

Arella spends a good hour in the water catching fish for breakfast, the malo duck must have scared them off. When Arella finally steps out of the water, two fish in her hand, Maska is already waiting for her by the bank. He licks his lips and jumps up a little at Arella. “Now if you carry on like that Maska you won’t get anything,” He stops instantly and sits patiently by her feet, following every footstep she takes just far enough away to not trip her over. Arella makes them a breakfast of fish and grue bulbs, although Maska simply eats his fish raw. Arella guts and cooks hers, as well as cooking the bulb, but enjoys it just the same.

After breakfast, Arella moves over to the hollow in the tree and recovers the bow and arrows. She then sets up a target using one of the rabbit skins fixed to a tree and practices her shooting. After a short time it becomes clear that Arella is rather good with a bow. She hits the target most of the time, although not in the centre, and her arrows bury themselves fairly deep in the bark of the tree behind the target. She practices this for a long time, and is tired and sweaty after a while. Her shoulders become sore from repeatedly pulling the string taught and letting it loose, but it is satisfying to fire the arrows and hit the targets with very little practice.

The whole time Arella is firing the bow, Maska is either sleeping or chasing butterflies around. He is content in this. Arella sits back and watches his play with the butterflies, chasing them around but never catching them. She realises as she watches that Maska is practising too. He is practising his hunting skills. “Let’s go for a walk Maska.” Arella shouts to the kitten. “We need to re-set the snares in the woods, and I’d like to collect some nuts for tea.” Maska stops chasing butterflies and pads over to Arella. He purrs loudly in her ear and licks her cheek. “Stop it Maska.” Arella laughs. “That tickles.” She gently pushes him away and they start walking the short distance to the snares they placed.

Arella takes her bow and adds the arrows to her deerskin bag on her back. “Maybe we will see something we can hunt with this, make ourselves a nice big meal for tonight.” She says hopefully, although she is not entirely sure she would be able to hit a moving target. Maska however is excited by this prospect.

Once they get to the area where they set the snares, Arella begins work re-setting them and moving them into different positions. She figures that the rabbits might figure out where the traps are and not go near them, so if she moves them then she will still be able to catch them. Or that’s the theory anyway. Maska plays lazily with fallen leaves that blow in the breeze. The breeze seems to be getting stronger. Arella looks up at the sky, a large black cloud forming above the treeline, moving quickly across the sky. The air grows cold and thick. “I think we’d better get home before the rain hits.” Just as she says this, a large drop of rain hits her on the nose. She looks down at Maska, who does not look happy at the thought of rain and laughs. “Looks like we’re too late.” They quickly turn and leave the rabbit snares, moving swiftly back to their home. The rain clouds however are quicker than Arella and Maska, and it soon catches up with them. Arella is laughing in the rain. She has always loved the feel of rain on her skin. She looks down at Maska, both of them now running through the rain. His tail is high in the air, his ears pricked up and a spring in his step. Maska purposely jumps into one of the puddles forming in front of them, joy on his wet furry face. “So you do like water then Maska.” Arella laughs. They then both jump in puddles all the way home, laughing as they do so.

When they get back to the tree house, Arella notices a flaw in her house. Her and Maska are wet, and they need a fire to dry off and warm up, but they cannot have a fire in the tree house because it is made of wood, but they cannot have one on the ground as it is wet. Arella knows she will have to fix this once the rain dries up, although she is not sure just how she will do this.

Arella takes Maska into her arms and they climb into the tree house Arella quickly takes off her wet clothes and dries herself off with her cloak. She left it at the house because they were under the cover of trees, and now she is glad she did. Once she is dry, Arella puts on some clean dry clothes, while Maska sits and licks the water off his fur, looking a little unhappy to say the least. Arella laughs and grabs Maska with her cloak. “Come here soggy moggy. Let’s get you dried off.” She rubs at his fur until most of the water is off, then hangs the cloak off a branch to dry. It’s warmer now, so it should be dry by morning.

“Well, the roof is holing water out at least Maska.” Arella says looking up. “We won’t get wet in here.” She looks down at the ground below her, trying to think of a way to make fire in the rain for the future. “What if we extend the floor of the house, only a little lower and make an extra room on the ground.” She says to herself. “We could do the same thing we have done up here, only on the floor. That way when the rain comes, we can have a fire and sit down there.” She pauses. “Although then we might get wet from sitting on the ground.” A thought then pops into Arella’s head. “What if I lay stones on the ground, to lift it up higher, then we can build the roof over it, and it will stay dry.” Maska just blinks at her, but Arella knows it is a good idea. She begins planning in her head, looking around for the rocks she can use. “I don’t even have to cover the entire ground with rocks, just around the edges and seal it will sticky moss so it doesn’t leak.” She pauses again. “The only place I have seen sticky moss was by the village those men belong to. We will start on that when the rain clears Maska.”

A little more thought brings another idea into Arella’s head. “I think we should make a chicken coop too.” Maska’s eyes light up. “No, not so we can eat the chickens.” Disappointment clouds Maska’s eyes. “We can use them for laying eggs, and yes we can eat a few of them too. We will breed them so we have eggs and meat here at the house. We can make them a coop with vinewood, and feed them grue bulbs, nuts and berries.” Arella laughs at herself. “Although I think getting a place for a fire to keep dry might be a better idea. What do you think?” Maska shivers and shakes off some of the rain from his fur. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

A loud crack of thunder makes Arella and Maska jump. Arella had not seen the flash that should have come with it. Maska huddles into Arella’s side for comfort, and she gives him it. Another flash comes and the clap to follow. Maska jumps again. “It’s okay Maska. It’s just thunder and lightning. I promise it won’t hurt us.” She looks down at his odd coloured eyes. “Do you want me to tell you a story about the thunder?” She asks. “There is a great bird that lives in the sky. He is called the Thunderbird, and he is a strong and powerful spirit. Now the Thunderbird isn’t like any other bird, he is dark, grey like the clouds up there, and when he beats his great wings together, thunder sounds loud and clear. When he beats his wings, the feathers on his body let out a bright light, and that is the lightning. So you see Maska, the thunder and lightning isn’t scary, just the Thunderbird spirit letting us know he is still watching over us.” This seems to calm Maska a little, and his eyes start to close, opening with the claps of thunder, but not making him jump anymore.

It is still mid-afternoon, but with the sky so dark, and Arella and Maska so tired, they both begin to drift off to sleep. Arella dreams of the great Thunderbird clapping his wings and making everything bright. He flies down from the sky above, takes her and Maska onto his back and flies away with them, high in the sky above the rain and the clouds and across the lands. Suddenly, the great Thunderbird rolls, causing Arella to fall through the sky. She is hurtling towards the ground at an alarming rate, panicking as she falls. She jumps awake just as she is about to hit the ground, her breathing heavy and heart beating. She looks to her side in the darkness and sees him sleeping soundly.

The rain around her has stopped, and the birds in the trees are beginning to sing. It must be close to morning. Arella decided it is time she got up and started on her plans. She walks over to the branch she hung her cloak on, it is almost dry. Arella decides to leave it there rather than moving it to another branch, and puts on her boots before climbing down the tree to the ground.

Careful not to move out of eye-shot of the tree, Arella begins collecting the large rocks she will use to make her ground shelter. She gathers as many rocks from the side of the lake as she can find, and piles them up close to the tree. It is hard work, but Arella knows that once her home is finished, it will be worth it. When picking up one of the flat stones, Arella reveals a toad, sleeping soundly under the rock. It looks up at her with its bulging eyes and croaks. “Sorry.” Arella says to the toad and places the rock carefully back where she found it, recovering the toad.

The sun is beginning to peak over the horizon, lighting up the lake and making it a bright orange colour. Arella looks out over the water to the woodland on the other side, and the mountains beyond that. When you think about it, she is in a valley. There are mountains on either side of her, distant as they may be, they surround her. This makes Arella feel a little claustrophobic, however strange that sounds. She pushes the thought from her mind and continues on with positioning the rocks.

Once the rocks are all places in a large square shape, Arella takes a stand back. It is positioned close to the tree on the left hand side as Arella looks at it, the side that is closest to the lake, although it is far enough away to not matter if the lake swells. Luckily the trees Arella calls home are atop a mound of dirt, and it stretches quite far, meaning water will not run into it from anywhere else. Part of the ground shelter-to-be is covered by the tree house above, but not all of it. For this, Arella must collect more branches, then animal skins to make it waterproof. She will then surround it with bushes that grow tall and wild, concealing it from outsiders. She can see it all in her mind, just as she did with the house, and that turned out perfect. Arella has no doubts that she will be able to build this extra part of her house.

Chapter 11

Maska wakes up shortly after the sun has begun to rise. When he opens his eyes he finds that Arella is not in the tree with him. He panics a little and looks around for her. When he sees her, he finds that she is stood knee deep in the lake catching them fish. Her hair is already wet, like she has been swimming, and there are the wet clothes she was wearing from the night before hanging in a tree. There is a mist over the lake, and everything looks bright in the morning light. Maska stretches and moves to the edge of the tree house He looks down and spots a branch half way down the trunk. Arella uses this as a foothold when she climbs, maybe Maska could do the same thing. He takes a leap of faith and lands on the branch. It is then just a short jump down to the ground. Maska does this, proud of himself for having such courage.

When Arella turns around, juicy fish in her hand, she spots Maska padding his way over to her, a giant grin on his face, tail high in the air, looking a little windswept from sleeping on wet fur. She can’t help but smile at him. “Well done for getting down Maska.” She praises. “Now how about some breakfast? We have a big day ahead of us.” Maska purrs at this and wags his tail a little. He then follows Arella over to the small fire bit she has built inside her square of rocks.  “See, this was my idea Maska. Although it will need a roof and some basic walls. Do you think it’s big enough?” Maska walks around the edge, then blinks his approval at Arella. He then sits patiently on the ground next to her as she prepares the two fish.

Maska begins to lick his lips as Arella guts the fish. She looks at him puzzled. “Don’t tell me you like the insides Maska.” He then looks confused at her. As if to say “Well why not? It’s perfectly good food.”

“Well you can have them if you want?” She puts the insides on Maska’s black stone and then cooks one of the other fish over the fire, leaving the other one raw for Maska to eat. He munches on the insides happily, then starts on the fish Arella left him. “If you keep eating at this pace you’re going to get too big for me to feed.” She laughs. Maska just continues to munch away on his food. He is well finished by the time Arella’s fish is cooked, and spends the time Arella takes to eat her food cleaning his face and paws. There is something mesmerising about watching the growing auron cat clean himself.

They relax for a couple of minutes, then Arella decides it is time to get up and go. They need to get more sticks and stickymoss. Arella takes out her deerskin bag, puts the arrows inside it, attaches the bow to the back, places her dagger in her boot and then her and Maska leave their home once again to search for items for their home.

The forest is much fresher and brighter after the short storm. Water still drips from the leaves of trees above, and Maska finds plenty of puddles to jump in. Most of the animals that live in the forest are still hiding away, but the birds are out in full force, collecting the worms brought to the surface by the rain last night. Maska tries to catch them as they land on the ground. He manages to catch one, killing it instantly and eating it quickly, feathers and all. “Maska, that’s disgusting.” Arella laughs. Maska looks up at her, feathers in his teeth and purrs, licking his lips. Arella just laughs at him again. “You’re learning fast Maska.” She says to him. “Soon I won’t have to catch you any food at all.” They continue walking and eventually reach the spot where Arella saw the stickymoss.

Stickymoss really is sticky, and Arella’s hands are covered in it by the time she has finished collecting. She has piled it all up in a mound, trying to think of a way to get it into her deerskin bag without making that sticky too. She notices some big leave on one of the bushes. Arella moves over to the bushes and inspects the leaves. They feel waxy, strong and look to be waterproof. If she lines the inside of the bag with these, she will be able to take the sticky moss home without ruining the skin. This takes a lot of fiddling around with, and Arella is getting frustrated at it. She finally gives in and decides to wrap the stickymoss in the leaves instead, rather than coating the bag with them. This way she can put them into the bag in neat parcels.

When Arella has finished doing this, she gets up from the floor and lifts the bag onto her back. Maska sniffs the air, smelling for something Arella cannot see or hear. Just then a twig cracks on the ground close to them. Arella drops to the ground and stalks towards the noise to find out what it is. Arella has grown in confidence. She would not have dreamed of doing this a few months ago, moving towards possible danger, but having Maska at her side is helping greatly. He also stalks along the ground, copying Arella’s movements. The first though to cross Arella’s mind is that it might be the lone wolf again. This makes her pause. Another crack of a twig tells Arella that the animal is smaller than the wolf. Arella moves forwards towards the noise, looking for signs of what the animal might be.

An animal with long legs with short fawn fur and spots of while, followed by a slim round body with a short tail and long neck with a small neat head and big ears, topped off with small antlers stands grazing on the sweet grass. Arella’s heart begins to beat. “That’s a deer. A small one, possibly one of this year’s young. He looks to be alone, no other deer around.” Arella looks down at Maska, silently watching the deer feed. He looks up at her, his yellow eye blinks once. Arella knows that this is the perfect opportunity for her to practice her bow skills in person, but she is nervous. She does not know whether she will be able to hit the deer at all, let alone kill it. She takes the bow from her back and loads it with an arrow. Her hands are a little shaky. Arella takes a deep breath to steady herself. It works. She pulls the arrow back, knocking it into place, takes aim at the deer and fires. The young buck calls out at the arrow hits him square in the chest, just where Arella intended it to hit. He falls to the floor, struggling to breath, soon to die if left alone. Arella emerges from the trees and moves quickly to the buck. She kneels beside him, takes out her dagger and quickly drives it into the side of the deer’s head through the soft fleshy part of his skull.  Once all of the breath has gone from his body, Arella pulls the dagger from his head. Maska moves close to her, sniffing the dead deer. It is not big, but Arella knows it will feed her and Maska for three days easy, although with the amount Maska is eating she is beginning to doubt it.

Arella hauls the deer up onto her shoulder and begins the walk back to the tree house It is heavier than it looks, and Arella has to stop half way home for a rest. His antlers digging into Arella’s back, sure to cause bruises. She must remember to shift its position when she picks it up again. Maska looks a little impatient with her. “Please don’t look at me like that Maska. This thing is heavy you know.” He moves to sit next to Arella, who has sat herself down on a mossy rock. “The skin will do good though. We will be able to use it to cover the rest of the roof for the downstairs of our house.” Arella says to him, voicing her own thoughts rather than keeping them to herself. Arella thinks to herself that if people didn’t see Maska sat there with her, which would be likely because he is so dark, they would think she was talking to herself. “The first sign on madness.” She would tell herself.

Catching the deer has scuppered Arella’s plans to collect more branches for their downstairs fire pit, but she can go back out and do that when the deer is back home. She picks it up once again and continues on home, careful to position the deer so it doesn’t cause more bruising on her shoulder.

By the time Arella, Maska and the deer are back at the tree house, Arella is exhausted. She puts the deer down on the ground and stretches her arms up to the sky. He back clicks as she does this. “That thing is heavy.” She says. Maska just sits and licks his paws. “If I get it into the house, then we can go collect the branches we need.” Then I will cook us some food and sort out that deer, what do you think?” Maska yawns, all the walking has made the muddy auron kitten tired. “You can stay here if you want Maska.” She pauses. “As long as you promise not to touch the deer.” Maska walks over to Arella and purrs. “I’ll take that as your promise then little one.” Although Maska is not so little now. He is growing every day, and where he was just below her knee when she took him on, he is now just above the knee, and growing fast.

With great effort, Arella hauls the deer’s caucus up to the tree house, and places it at the back. She turns around to help Maska up the tree to find him already there behind her. “When did you learn to do that?” She asks, but gets only a blink in reply. “Never mind. Now you stay here, and please don’t touch the deer.” She leans down and kisses Maska on the top of his head and collects her cloak before climbing back down out of the tree. Arella then places the deerskin bag in the hollow of the tree and leaves the camp site in search of branches. As she walks away, Maska curls up on the fur bedding and falls fast asleep.

After a quick fifteen minute walk, Arella has started finding long branches again. She still has a few left at the tree house, but they are all shorted and good for firewood. Arella begins to pile all of the branches she finds up, moving the pile as she moves through the forest. The sun is hiding behind the clouds, and Arella feels she will be safe to take her cloak off without risk of burning. She then uses her cloak to wrap around the branches, making it easier to keep them together. After an hour or searching and walking, Arella feels that she has enough branches to be able to make the structure of the ground home, then she can weave vines through it to create walls. She picks up her bundle and starts walking back towards her camp. Something catches Arella’s eye as she walks through the forest, something shining on the floor. As she moves close to it, Arella realises it is just a clear puddle on the ground. She is just about to walk in the other direction when her own reflection stops her. She sees a skinny figure, mud covered clothes, dirty hair with mud and leaves in it. Sweat has made her hair knotty, and as Arella moves her cloak to the side, she can see the bright purple bruises already forming on her shoulder. “Wow. I really do look a mess.” Arella thinks. “Good job no one cares what I looks like.”

On her way back to camp, Arella spots a vine tree growing by the side of the path she has made by walking. There are several of these trees on her way home, and she needs the vines from them. Vine trees grow very quickly, and if not seen to, can quickly grow out of hand. The one at the side of her seems to be doing just this. Arella places the bundle of branches on the ground and takes out her dagger. She then begins cutting down the vines and tying them around the branches and cloak. By the time she has finished doing this, the bag is a deep green colour, rather than the fawn brown of the fur. She picks it up and hauls it onto her back, which is now starting to hurt and starts her short walk home.

Arella’s finally gets back to the tree house, and finds Maska still fast asleep in the tree, true to his purr he has not touched the deer. “Maska I’m home.” She says as she drops the bag on the ground. It is very heavy, and Arella is now in a lot of pain. “I tell you what Maska, I could do with someone to do all of this for me.” She laughs. “I’m too old for this.” Arella thinks for a minute, looking up at the sky and the emerging stars. She studies their positions carefully. “Actually, tomorrow is my birthday judging by the stars. I’m going to be fourteen tomorrow.” Maska just yawns and blinks.

Arella places the vines and branches on the ground under the tree and climbs up to get the deer down. When she gets to the top, Maska licks her nose. She laughs at him. “Happy to see me then?” He steps back to let her up, then trots over to the dead deer, keen to show off that he did not touch it. Arella is proud of Maska. It must have been hard for him to not touch it, but he did so for her. With much effort, Arella manages to lift the deer down onto the ground. It really is a dead weight.

Darkness has fallen by the time Arella has skinned and gutted the deer. She had cut it into sections, taking the legs and hanging them in a the tree house, wrapping them in aboa leaves from a plant nearby to keep the meats freshness. She then began to cut the flanks of the deer into chunks and wrap that in the aboa leaves too. Arella cannot quite believe how much meat the is off such a small deer. This will last her and Maska all week, without fail. She leaves one of the chunks of meat unwrapped. She takes the deer’s insides and separates them out. She knows that the heart, liver, kidneys and lungs are good to eat, so saves those to the side for Maska’s tea. She then takes the rest of the insides and tosses them deep into the lake. There are predatory fish in that water, and they will eat it up without a second thought.

Arella takes the heart, liver and kidneys, leaving the wrapped up lungs with the rest of the meat for another day, as well as a chunk of the venison to the area she intends to be the downstairs of the house. She places them on the black rocks at the side and begins building up a fire. Once this is done, Arella places her meat on a spit over the flames and lets Maska tuck into his organs. He really looks to be enjoying them, eating greedily. The sight of him tucking into the raw meat makes Arella feel a little ill. However natural it must be for him to gorge on fresh meat, Arella much prefers her food cooked.

While Arella’s meat is cooking, she starts on using the sticky moss to fill in the gaps in the rocks to make them watertight. Once in place, the moss will begin to grow, and will also grow up the sides of the hut a little too… Once the sides have been built that is. The venison steak is just about cooked by the time Arella has finished with the sticky moss. She takes it away from the flame to rest and washes her hands in the lake, getting rid of the sticky residue from the moss and blood from the deer.

As she bites into the meat, Arella’s mouth if filled with juice. The meat is still pink in the middle, just how venison is meant to be cooked. All Arella remembers of venison is eating the burnt bits no one else wanted to eat, but this is sublime. Maska licks his paws when he has finished his meal, and Arella greedily licks her fingers too, savouring the taste of the fresh meat. She feels a slight pang of guilt as she does so, but this is quickly replaced with satisfaction that she has eaten a decent meal. Not one piece of the deer will go to waste, not even the bones. Because the meat is still attached to the bones, Arella cannot do anything with it, however, when the meat has been removed from the bones, she plans to use it for more structure in her house. She will use it to make framing for the house. It will be stronger than wood, and means she won’t have to keep replacing parts of walls.

Chapter 12

Over the next three months, Arella and Maska grow, both in size and confidence. Arella has grown stronger and is no longer just skin on bone, she now has toned arms legs and a strong core. All of the lifting and building she has had to do to get her home perfect has been a struggle, but now it is finished, Arella is proud. The tree house at the top of the three white trees is standing strong and still waterproof. The branches she shaped around it have grown into place and now hide it amazingly from view. The inside of the tree house is coated with the skins of various deer and rabbits that Arella and Maska have caught over the last three months, all dried out.

The downstairs part of the home has also been finished, and comprises of a space big enough for Arella and Maska, plus a few more people if she wanted to sit comfortably. Arella built the platform out from the floor above and then built the walls down from there. Arella then wove the vines she collected through this structure. The vines took to this very well and have now grown more, also taking over part of the house above, aiding in the camouflage of that. Arella than created a small doorway from the house upstairs onto the extended platform, and made some fencing around it to create a small balcony. While the vines took well to the structure, they need upkeep to stop them growing out of control, but Arella is managing this well.

As well as the house being finished, Arella’s garden of berry bushes has grown extensively. She started planting them around the back of the tree house in the small clear area behind, and has now fleshed it out and created a thick wall of bushes both for cover and food. With both berries that ripen in autumn and spring, Arella has plenty to eat. She also planted more grue bulbs close to the shore or the lake, which have also grown quickly. The land that she has made her home on appears to be very fertile indeed.

The final thing Arella built was a small willow hut and pen for chickens. It site at the edge of the clearing. Arella has used the natural growing trees as markers for the side edges, and has weaved willow between the trees for about 10 foot across. She then came out about 5 foot on either side and then finished it off with a rounded edge. Arella then built a small hut inside for the chickens shelter, planted a few small bushes and grasses then once they had taken root, went out catching chickens. That was a fun job. Arella quickly found out that chicken catching was not as easy as she thought. Even though they do not fly, they are not exactly the cumbersome slow creatures Arella thought they would be, and it hurts when they peck you. So after a good few days attempting to catch them, Arella has bleeding and bruised fingers and forearms, five chickens and a cockerel. All of the chickens are brown in colour, with fluffy feet, and the cockerel is black, much bigger than the females but also has the same fluffy feet. It was worth the pain though, because the eggs are delicious. At the moment, Arella has one of the chicken sitting on a clutch of six eggs, they are due to hatch in a few days, then they will have little chicks running around in the pen. Maska is particularly interested in the chickens. He often just sits next to the pen watching them. Never touching, never attempting to get inside then pen and chase them, just watching.

Maska is the next thing that has changed. He is no longer the little kitten Arella started to raise. He has grown taller, a lot taller. He now stands with his back just above Arella’s hip, his paws as big as Arella’s hand when she stretches her fingers, which suggests that he has a lot of room still left for growing. His fur has grown longer, and is now a beautiful obsidian black, flecked with deep purple visible in bright sunlight. Maska kept his odd coloured eyes, yellow and green, always as if he can see into the soul. His tail has grown particularly bushy, and Maska has a nasty habit of wagging it and flicking Arella in the face. Sometimes she wonders whether he does it on purpose. Maska has grown in confidence, and his agility is unparalleled. He can jump in and out of the tree house without thinking twice, can run faster than Arella, although she is getting faster, and he can catch almost any animal you ask him to… Except bison, they haven’t been that ambitious yet. Maska’s recent growth is half the reason the tree house has so much fur in it. Maska has been catching a deer every two for the last two months, sometimes with the help of Arella. They have gone further and further from home to catch these, and luckily there are plenty of them passing through on migration. The deer in these parts breed very quickly, and most have two young, some have even more. There are also several breeds of deer, some of which are quite large. Maska and Arella have also been catching wild boar. This is not an easy task, as they both found out, but again there are plenty of those, and their hides dry out very quickly in the hot sun, even quicker than the deer hide.

The only other thing that has changed in the last three months is Arella. Arella herself has grown stronger and more agile. Her arms now have defined muscle rather than just skin on bone, her legs are strong enough to carry her for miles and miles without faltering, her back is strong enough to lift deer and boar across uneven ground without complaint. Arella has grown into a strong individual, and she has grown up too. Maska and Arella have had hard times, times when they thought they would not eat for days, times when the rain did not stop for days on end, but they have had good times too. Arella has perfected using her bow, and can now hit a moving target. She aimed an arrow at a pigeon flying through the camp just the night before, hit it in the eye and killed it outright as it flew past. She has also been practising how to fight, and although she is not perfect, there is now at least some power behind her kicks and punches. Not enough to knock someone over, but maybe at least enough to defend herself.

Over the last three months, more animal have been turning up in the forest with arrows embedded in their bodies, arrows with the same poison on that Arella found in Maska’s mother. She knows she must do something about this, it cannot continue. The animals are suffering with this, and no one is tracking them down and finishing the job, leaving Arella to do that. She has lost count of the bodies she has had to bury over the last few months. It is a waste to kill animals in this way. The poison rots away the flesh and fur; making them useless once they are dead, and causing nothing but pain until then. Arella remembers vowing that she would find the person who was doing this and put an end to it, and she intends to stick to this. The time for Arella and Maska to leave the safety of their camp has come. Arella feels that she and Maska have grown strong enough for the task at hand. They leave the next morning, at first light, in search of the poison killers.

Knowing that she will be away for a few days at the least on this mission, Arella must make sure the chickens she has recently caught will be okay to live without her feeding them. This is half of the reason she made their pen so big. They have plenty of room to forage for food, and plenty of places where the food might come from, although they will need an extra hand. The bushes in their pen will help a little, producing berries and seeds that they can eat, and attracting bugs too, but they may need a little more than that. Arella picks several of the grue bulbs and cuts them up into small pieces. These bulbs do not rot, so they will take well over a week before they go off. The chickens will be able to eat these, and they have plenty of starch and protein in them, so they will be very filling for the little chickens. The rain should keep their little pool topped up over the next week or so. It has been raining a little every few days, and will continue to do so for a while. When it rains, the worms come up to the surface. This will again feed the chickens. Arella has no doubt in her mind that they will be safe from starvation, but predators are another matter. At the moment, no predators will come near the clearing because Maska’s scent is so strong in the area, but after a few days this will start to go away, meaning that paloa fox’s might decide that the chickens in the pen are an easy meal.

Setting up traps around the area might work, although that would make her as bad as the people with the poison arrows, leaving the animal to suffer in a trap where she will not get to it to end its life for days. Or she could put a roof on the pen, but this would stop rain and sunlight getting in. No that wouldn’t work. Arella turns to Maska. “What do we do about them?” She points at the coop. Maska just looks at her with those odd coloured eye. Maska stands up and walks over to the edge of the clearing. He then does something that shocks Arella a little. He pees on a tree. Just a short burst of pee, then proceeds to follow around the edge of the perimeter doing this. “Maska what are you…”Arella pauses to think. “Oh I get it. You’re scent marking. Clever idea. I guess that will stop anything wanting to come in here.” She stops again. “Why didn’t I think of that? Will it last for a long time though?” She wonders. Arella then remembers. Any foxes that live in the area will know that Maska lives here, and the ones that don’t won’t chance it in case he comes back. Maska has thought of a fool proof plan to keep the chickens safe.

“How about one last good meal while we’re here Maska, then in the morning we set out to find the thoughtless idiots who have been killing animals needlessly.” She moves over to the tree house and climbs up, collecting some of the hanging meat from inside. There are still two legs left from a deer they caught the other day. “We will need to cook all of this tonight Maska, then take whatever we don’t eat with us. It will go off otherwise.” Arella lights a fire in the downstairs of her hut, and begins cooking the meat on a spit, turning it every now and then so it cooks evenly. She starts with the smallest leg, thinking she would be able to eat that tonight, then she can take the other with her. Maska however is not so fussed about eating the cooked meat. He instead jumps up to the tree house himself, fishing around up there for something. “What are you looking for Maska. I thought this was the only meat we had left.” When he emerges from the house, he is carrying half a boar. Arella laughs. “Now where were you stashing that away?” Maska jumps down, brings the boar into the little hut and begins munching away on it.

While the meat is cooking, Arella uses the time to sharpen her weapons. The grathon and dagger made from bloodglass are still sharp. They always will be, but the arrow heads have started to blunt. They wouldn’t be much good for shooting as they are. She uses a flint stone to sharpen the heads, making them as sharp as she possibly can. Arella had attempted to make more arrows of her own, but none of them seemed to fly straight. She gave  up after a few days of endless trying, and conceded that she would only be able to use the arrows she currently has. Arella knows that one day these arrows will be useless, but she is intending on gaining a few more by then, even if this means stealing them from the nearby village. Needs must, and they do not need them all. Plus, she remembers one of the men saying that they could just make more when they got back to the village. Arella often thinks of the young men she saw in the woods all those months ago. She wonders where they are now, if they ran into any danger yet, and if any of them have died. She shudders at the thought, then turns her attention back to the cooking venison.

While Arella eats, she thinks about how they will track the poachers. She knows that a deer was taken down the other day, and which direction it came from. It came from the other side of the lake, and it seems as though all of the other animals came from that direction too, so that is the way they will go tomorrow. They will head for the other side of the lake, and hope to pick up on a trail. Arella is quite good at picking up trails, and humans are easy to track. They are cumbersome and clumsy, so if she picks up that trail it will be easy. Injured animals are also easy to track. They do not pay attention nor do they care about where they are going, so their tracks are all over the place. If Arella finds an injured animal she can follow that trail back to the poachers too. The only think Arella is worried about, and the more she thinks the more worried she gets, is what she will do when she finds them. Arella is not strong enough to fight full grown men, nor does she think she would have the guts to kill anyone, but this needs to stop. “I guess I will cross that bridge when it comes to it” Arella thinks, although the thought terrifies her.

Maska has once again finished eating before Arella has even started. He licks his pawn happily, purring as he does so. His purr is now a lot louder than it used to be, and if you’re close enough to him, the sound of it rattles your ribcage. Arella has cooked the venison to perfection, but is struggling to finish it off. “Do you want to finish Maska?” She asks the auron cat, knowing what his answer will be. He sits up excited and blinks at her. Arella tosses the bone and remaining meat over to Maska who crunches away at it happily. “I’m going to go take a bath.” Arella says as she gets up from her seat by the fire. The moon is now high and full in the sky, and the stars are shining bright. No sign of rain tonight. Arella breaths in a deep lung full of the cool summer air, strips off her clothes and boots and climbs into the water. A few of the trees have started displaying orange leaves, signalling that autumn will soon be on its way. Arella has always liked autumn, so many bright and beautiful colours.

The cool water laps at Arella’s chest as she bobs in the lake. It is relaxing, swimming under the moon. The moonlight dances off the backs of the fish in the water, reflecting it and making the water brighter. On the odd occasion, small fish nibble at Arella’s toes. It tickles, but nothing more than that. Arella kind of likes the feeling, but it is strange to be nibbled by the very thing you eat for breakfast most days. Arella tips her head back, wetting her hair. She washes out all of the bits of leaves, mud, dirt and twigs that have got caught in it over the last day or so. When she leaves the water, Arella puts on a clean set of clothes and ties her hair in two braids, one at each side of her head. She starts with a smaller braid at the top, then joins it to a bigger one underneath, then secures it half way down her hair, leaving the other half hanging loose, then repeats on the other side. Using the still water as a mirror, Arella makes sure she gets her silvery hair symmetrical. As she stares into the lake, her purple eyes staring back at her, Arella spots the reflection of an owl flying high above her. She turns to look for it but it has already gone.

Pulling her trousers up to just above her knees, Arella descends back into the water again, taking her clothes with her to wash. Maska follows her in and goes for a little swim himself. It turns out that he really really likes water, and will happily swim and splash in it whenever he can.

Once Arella’s clothes are washed, she gets out of the lake, rolls her trousers back down, puts on her boots and hangs her clothes up. Arella then takes the larger piece of venison leg and starts to cook that over the spit too. This takes quite some time, but it gives her hair and Maska’s fur chance to dry. They both sit by the fire until the meat is cooked, then Arella takes fresh leaves and wraps the meat. The heat of the still warm embers will help to dry Arella’s spare change of clothes before the morning. Arella then takes the meat back up to the tree house for safe keeping, and climbs up there with Maska for sleep.

Chapter 13

The sun lights the sky, casting pink and yellow across the clouds. A light mist sits over the lake, and there is dew on the grass and bushes around. Arella opens her misty eyes and blinks at the brightness. As she rolls over, she finds Maska just a little too close and jumps. He wakes with a start and yowls at Arella. “Hey, you were the one who made me jump.” She laughs as she pats his head. He licks her hand then yawns. “Gods, your breath stinks Maska.” She holds her nose. They both get up and stretch simultaneously.

There are butterflies in Arella’s stomach as she starts to collect her things for the long walk ahead. First she gets dressed and puts on her boots, tying her hair in the same way as she did the day before, with the two braids on each side over the top of each other. Then Arella collects the food she has cooked off and takes the furs for her bed. She turns the bedding inside out and wraps the ready wrapped meat in it for safekeeping. She knows the leaves will stop it from leaking into the bedding, so she will not have to sleep in a dirty bed.  Arella then puts on her cloak and uses the ashes from the fire to shield her eyes. After collecting her deerskin bag, putting her bedding and food inside it, tying the bow and arrows to the back of it and slinging it on her back, the next thing Arella does is tuck her dagger into her boot. She then collects the grathon and is nearly ready. The last thing Arella needs to do is to feed the chickens the grue bulbs and make sure they are okay.

“Okay Maska. Ready when you are.” She says to the auron cat. He pounces down from the tree house where he was watching Arella get ready and bounds over to her, excited for the adventure ahead. He does not seem the slightest bit nervous, unlike Arella who is terrified of what they might find but then Maska has always been a lot braver than Arella, and she thinks he always will be.

With one last look at their home, Arella and Maska turn to leave the tree house in search of the poachers with the arrows.

The lake is calm and the mist has started to lift. The gravel shifts underfoot as Arella walks on it. It is an uneven feeling, but one she has grown used to. As she moves on the gravel, tiny bugs that call it home begin to scurry away. Little bugs creep Arella out, but watching these ones run is fairly entertaining. She forwards to Maska who is leading the way. He keeps jerking his paws upwards as if something is biting him. “Do you want to walk further in, away from the stones Maska?” Arella asks. He nods at her and starts walking towards the forest, only a few feet away. Arella had intended to walk along the shoreline so she could follow the river around, but she can do the same from inside the trees. She follows Maska into the woodland and they continue to follow the lake around, Maska much happier at not having sharp stones under his feet.

Arella lets Maska set the pace for walking, and it is a fast walk. His long legs move quickly, with determination, and they make quick progress. Maska was just as upset, if not more than Arella about the death of the animals, possibly because one of them was his mother, although Arella is not sure he was old enough to remember that. They walk past the black sand beach and carry on walking. The landscape starts to change and less trees grown. More rocks are jutting up from the ground, and the grass becomes thinner underfoot. This is the way the Arella came when she followed Maska’s mother, although they will not be going that far along the same path. Keeping one eye on the lake at the side of her, Arella notices that it is getting further away from her. “Maska, we need to be heading this way.” She says as she adjusts her position. Maska does the same, looking like he is almost in a day dream. Arella stops him. “Are you okay? You don’t seem to be concentrating.” Maska was day dreaming, tired from an interrupted sleep last night. The wolves were howling again, and Maska hates the wolves. Arella is not so keen on them since their encounter with that lone wolf a few months back. She does not recall seeing it again sine then, but has no doubt it still prowls in the forest somewhere.

A herd of motto deer run in front of Arella and Maska. Each of them catching their eyes and staring at them for a second as they go. Neither Maska nor Arella make a move towards the deer, and they carry on going as is they were not even there. Arella wonders for a second why the deer were running, but seen as though they did not seem frightened, she concludes that they must have just been running for run. She can’t be the only person that does this surely.

A bunch of blue grapes hang from a tree close to the edge of the lake. Arella takes out her dagger and cuts one of the vines down. “These berries are really nice you know Maska.” She says as she pops one in her mouth. “When I was living in the village they used to eat these. You know, on special occasions.” Maska looks at her blankly. “Birthdays, weddings, when children were born, things like that.” She puts another grape in her mouth. “I never got to eat them, but they really are nice.” Maska just keeps walking, purring as he does. Arella knows how Maska feels, she was even boring herself with that conversation. Arella decides she is going to sing to pass the time as they walk. She has a beautiful singing voice, but doesn’t use it very often. The song she sings is one Nayleen taught her when she way young, to help her get off to sleep and to keep the nightmares away.

While Owls fly through the sky,

Stars shine bright and watch over me,

In the distance wolves do cry,

For on this night darkness shall flee,

The moon chases dark spirits away,

And in the Pamola shall play.

 

You my child with dance all night,

Safe and sound where spirits touch,

Under the moon and in the light,

Far away from darkness’ clutch,

Into the night they’ll keep you from harm,

and darkness light shall disarm.

 

Never fear the dark my sweet,

Light will watch you when you sleep,

So close your eyes and dream away,

And with Pamola you will play.”

It’s really more of a poem than a song, but Arella sings is beautifully. Nayleen would sing that to get every night before Arella went to sleep. She used to have a fear of the dark, and think that the evil spirits would come for her when darkness fell, but that was quickly taken away by Nayleen’s song. Maska rubs his head on Arella’s hip to comfort her. It is only then that she realises there is a tear on her cheek. She quickly wipes it away and continues eating the blue grapes. “I’m fine Maska, just remembering is all.” She smiles to comfort him. They walk in silence for a little while, both just taking in the landscape around them. Nayleen was as close to a mother as Arella had ever knows, and losing her was a big deal. She still feels pain when she thinks about it. When Arella gets sad, she just looks up into the night sky, knowing that Nayleen is still watching over her, keeping her safe.

A flock of small brown birds with green bellies fly around above Arella and Maska, picking bugs out of the sky and munching them as they go. Maska is watching them with intent. He would love to be able to chase them, but knows they are on a mission and must keep going. He also knows Arella is not particularly keen on him catching animals that are not even worth eating. He keeps walking, keeping one eye on the birds and the other on the path ahead.

The lake is a lot bigger than it first appears to be. Arella looks up at the sky, clearly viable now most of the trees have gone, replaced by low bushes and dry scrub. “We should find somewhere to camp soon Maska.” She says as she looks at the position of the sun. It is on its way down, and they have maybe two hours before dark. She spots a small rocky outcrop. “I think there would be good. We will have shelter at our backs and one side, and we can make a quick roof over us for the night. Arella walks over to one of the many fern bushes in the area and begins picking the leaves from it. Each leaf is almost as tall as she is, and will make great roofing once interlocked inside each other. Arella does this, then once the structure is complete, she places it on top of the rocky outcrop, creating a makeshift shelter. She turns around to look for Maska, who has gotten bored waiting and is hunting his own food. “Maska?” Arella shouts, unable to see him. He pops his head up from behind a fern bush, a hare in his mouth. “Well I see you’re sorted for food anyway.” She laughs.

Making a fire is the next thing Arella needs to do. While the moon and stars will be out tonight, and the reflection of these on the water will create light, the temperature at night is a little nippy without a fire, close to autumn as it is,and a fire will help protect Maska and Arella from any predators that think trying their luck on an adolescent auron cat would be a good idea. Arella has grown very quick at making a fire, and with all the dry grass and bushes around, it is extremely easy tonight. Arella’s fire quickly crackles into life, instantly making her aware of the dropping temperature in the air. It is not so bad when moving, but sleeping in the cold may not be so easy.

Arella lays out her fur bed, sits down on it and takes off her boots, allowing her feet to breath and her toes to stretch. “It feels nice to not be wearing my boots now.” She says as she wiggles her toes. Maska stretches out his feet and yawns as if to say “I can always wiggle mine.”

“Alright show off. I get it.” She laughs at him, tucking into her leg of venison. It still tastes good cold, although nowhere near as good as hot. “So do you think we will find those people Maska?” She asks him honestly. He looks at her with his odd coloured eyes.

“Well I hope we do.” His eyes tell her.

“Yeah me too Maska.” She takes another bite out of the venison. “Makes me sick to think someone could just kill like that, with no regard for the life of the animal.” She eats for a minute more before talking again. “How many of them do you think there are? I mean… Do you think it’s just one person, or a group of them?” Maska blinks. “Because I don’t know how many people I can handle. I mean, I’ve gotten stronger…” She flexes her arm muscles. “But I’m still only little old me. I’m sure you could do some damage though. You’ve grown up a lot, and there’s a lot of power behind your muscles.” Maska bristles with pride and holds his head up high. “Okay, let’s not get too big headed. You’re still quite clumsy Maska.” She laughs, eating more of the venison leg. “You still hungry?” She asks as she hears Maska’s stomach growl. He licks his lips to confirm this. She tosses him the remainder of the venison. “You can finish this off. I still have some of those grapes left.” Maska tucks into the venison, happy for more food. “I swear you eat more than ten people put together some days.” Arella laughs as Maska chomps down on the bone, crunching it between his sharp white teeth. This sound used to make Arella cringe, but she has grown used to it recently, just as she has grown used to the sight of Maska catching and eating food raw and bleeding. It is now normal.

Lying back staring at the stars through the gaps in the fern roof, Arella watches the night go by without sleep. With Maska snoring lightly beside her, and the embers of the fire keeping the chill off, Arella lies on her fur bedding failing to fall asleep. The stars and constellations move across the sky, the moon rises and travels through the sky, but dreamland does not take hold of Arella. After lying there for what seems like hours, Arella decides she should get up and go for a short walk, maybe practice some fighting, anything to make her tired again. She gets up from the bed, careful not to disturb Maska and steps over the dying fire.

The lands around her look strange in the night light. The rocky ground an eerie silver, like everything around, and the dry grass and lack of plant life make it feel like the dead lands. It is strange that land this close to a lake would be this dry and lifeless, but that is the way it is. Such a difference from the forest only a short walk from here.

Arella walks on the floor without boots on, the feeling of the rough stones on her feet soothing. She has always found different textures underfoot nice, and walking barefoot is the nicest of all. Arella lets her cloak fall back from her head, taking in the moonlight on her face. It feels nice. She has always felt at ease during the night, ever since Nayleen taught her about the spirits the protect her at night. She feels invincible in the moonlight, like it gives her power. Nayleen once told Arella that the reason she is as white as the moon, and her hair is so pale, is because the moon gave her its power. She said that Arella is the daughter of the moon, and that the moon spirits have blessed her with the paleness of the moon because she was meant for great things. Arella likes this story, but isn’t sure how true it is.

A chirp in a tuft of dead grass by Arella’s feet catches her attention. She squats down on the ground to find where the noise is coming from. To her surprise, in this land where everything is dead, Arella finds a pale green cricket, bigger than the crickets she has seen before. It sits on a blade of grass, rubbing its legs together and singing. Arella sits down on the ground to watch the cricket. As she does so, more and more crickets begin to sing their song. As others join in with the chorus, the cricket in front of Arella begins to glow a bright blue. Arella is a little taken aback by this, but it is beautiful to watch. All around her, other crickets begin to glow, hundreds of them all surrounding her. The dead lands around her now look like the night sky, beautiful and eerie. Arella cannot take her eyes away from the glowing crickets around her. The sight is truly mesmerising.

Joining the chorus of crickets soon comes frogs. Arella hears them before she sees them, loud deep croaking sounds full the air, in harmony with the light chirp of the crickets. There aren’t as many of them, but the sound matches the crickets in volume. Arella turns around to see the frogs, some sat on Lillie pads, others on the bank of the lake, all croaking, catching flying bugs with sticky tongues. The frogs are eating the crickets, smaller ones that Arella did not see until the frogs appeared. One lands on her arm, making her jump, tiny black cricket no bigger than the nail on her thumb. A frog jumps next to Arella, picking the cricket off her arm and munching it, making her laugh. The frog croaks at her before hopping off again in search of more crickets to eat. Arella realises what she is watching. This must be a cricket making ritual. The big crickets with the glowing abdomen and the males trying to attract mates, and the much smaller but greater in number black crickets are the females.

Soon a great owl joins the parts, swooping in and taking a frog from the ground where it sat. Its big white wings beating soundlessly as it flies. It catches the frog in its talons and lifts it high into the air, flying it back to a tall dead tree not far away. Arella looks up into that tree and sees the owl feeding the freshly caught frog to a young owlet. She marvels at the beauty of the lands around her, the land she thought was dead and lifeless. “You really shouldn’t judge something before you know it.” She thinks to herself. This got her thinking. “What if the people who are killing the animals are doing it for a reason? What if they are not just doing it needlessly?” It is a valid question, but Arella cannot think of an answer for killing without taking the meat of the fur from the animal. Arella continues to watch the event for a while, just enjoying nature at its best, watching the circle of life pass on. “Maybe there is life even in the most unlikely places.” Arella watches as the cricket in front of her is met by a female. The males abdomen is brighter than the others and he is attracting the most attention. “Looks like being different is good in some species.”

Chapter 14

On the horizon, daylight is breaking. The yellow glow of the sun has started to peer over the edge and cast dim shadows on the ground. A few clouds move through the sky, coloured gold on the edges, lit up by the sun. The crickets all retreat in the light, soon followed by the frogs. The last thing to go to bed is the great owl. She was joined by her mate late in the night, who brought back a field vole. They both now sit guarding their nest with the owlets in, on in the nest, the other on a branch close by. The day time creatures take over from the night, with birds tweeting at each other from the dead trees, and a paloa fox crosses her path some distance away in search of food. Harsh calling can be heard from a black clawed rook, deep and rasping in the early morning light. 

Maska roars a yawning growl and stretches not far from Arella. He does not panic anymore if he wakes up an she is not there. Arella often gets up in the night and walks. She does not sleep so well, and a walk in the night is the best thing to get her off to sleep. It did not work last night however, Arella is still not tired. She stand up, moving over to join Maska as he stretches. “Sleep well?” She asks, leaning down to rub the sleep from his eyes. He purrs at her touch and rubs his face in her hand. “Shall we go then, or do you need a minute to wake up?” Maska answers by padding over to the makeshift camp and picking up the deerskin back with most of their supplies attaches to it and shoving it at Arella. “You’re ready then.” She says. “Just let me pack everything away then we can go.”

Once the bedding is packed away, and the bow and arrows safely attached to the bag, Arella puts on her boots, attaches the dagger to the inside of them and picks up the grathon. “Okay let’s go!” She says with enthusiasm. After watching the events that took place last night, and witnessing the beauty of nature, Arella is madder than ever, but in complete awe of what nature has in store, and the miracles it can perform. Nayleen used to tell her that everything in life was a miracle, and that the earth spirit kept balance of life. Arella is finding this hard to believe when there is someone going around needlessly killing animals then leaving them to die. How can this be balance? How can this be fair?

The ground underfoot is hard and dry, though not rough like the gravel from the yesterday. It makes for quick walking, without having to think about where you put your feet, just being able to walk fast. The ground to the right of Arella, away from the lake, seems to be the hard, red ground for quite some distance before again filling out into grasses and forest behind that. It is strange that this place exists. Arella stares off into the distance, thinking. “Somewhere in that desert land is Maska’s mother’s body, buried in a tomb.” This makes Arella sad. She turns to Maska and catches him looking the same way. Maybe he remembers too, although how could he, he was so young. She quickly finds something to take their minds off the morbid thought. “So if you could be any type of plant what would you be?” Maska blinks at her, not quite sure what she means. “It’s a serious question. Should I tell you what I would be?” She pauses to think for a second. “I’d be a willow tree. They’re tall and pretty and strong.” Maska still just stares at her. “Yeah okay, bad topic to talk about. Seriously though, we need something to lighten the mood.” Just at that moment, Arella hears a loud splash at the side of her. She looks over, and so does Maska, but neither of them see anything. “What was that?” She asks. Her and Maska then move over to the edge of the lake to investigate the sound. Maska leans his face close to the water, trying to see what made the noise, but he can’t see anything. Arella sees it before Maska does. He doesn’t notice until he is already wet. A big fish with purple scales pops its head out of the water and spits a mouthful into Maska’s face, making his sneeze as it goes up his nose. Arella roars with laughter, but Maska does not look please by the exchange with the fish. He swats at the water in an attempt to catch it, but fails, only to have more water from another fish spat in his face. “Come on Maska.” Arella says through shorts laughing breaths. “We’d best leave the fish along and keep walking.” She laughs again, but an evil stare from Maska stops her momentarily. The look of wet fur and disappointment on his face just make Arella laugh more, bringing more death stares from Maska. Water drips from his whiskers and he shakes his head, splashing Arella with it. She shields her face with her hands and laughs. “Come on Maska. We have work to be getting on with.” She says as she wipes droplets of water from her cheek.

The lake slowly starts to veer off now, meaning that Maska and Arella have come to the top of it. She didn’t realise the lake was so big. No wonder she never had any issues catching fish in it, with all this room to swim in there must be millions of them. “Do you think there are bigger fish in this lake Maska?” She asks him, his face still a little damp from earlier. “Because if the lake is so big, there must be some really big fish in there right? I wonder how deep down they are, and if anyone’s ever seen them.” Arella’s mind often wonders off onto odd subjects, she has a habit of going off on a tangent. Maska rolls his eyes. He has grown used to Arella’s strange ways.

Across the planes, Arella can see a herd of bison grazing on the dry grass. As she watches, she notices that they have young. The babies are much cuter than the adults, their whole bodies covered with a thick layer of fur, tiny little legs holding their already huge bodies up. She watches as a few of them play, chasing each other and pretending to fight with horns not yet grown. The adults watch on, keeping one eye on Maska as he prowls in front of Arella, not really paying attention to the bison. Arella spots a male in the mix, his body mass twice that of the females, and horns much bigger. He huffs and breaths heavy through his nose, scratching his hoof on the floor creating dust, all while staring at Arella and Maska. A clear threat, just saying “Keep away from my herd of I will charge at you.” Arella is not going to argue with a fully grown male bison, she wouldn’t even argue with a baby, so the male has no reason to fear them. Maska and Arella just walk on by, keeping their distance from the grazing animals, continuing on in a straight line, towards the trees on the other side of the lake.

As Arella and Maska walk along the edge of the lake now walking towards the treeline and mountains on the other side, Arella hears something strange, something she has never heard before. It sounds like thunder, continuous thunder. She looks up at the sky, then down at Maska who is doing the same thing. “Do you hear what I hear?” She asks him, but it is clear from his reaction that he does. “There are no clouds, and no rain, so it cannot be thunder.” She looks on puzzled, following the sound to find out what it is.

Trees have started growing again, meaning that Arella cannot see the thing that is making noise, even though she is sure it is in front of her somewhere. She picks up the pace, eager to see what is making the strange noise. “Maska, run ahead and see what it is?” She asks him. He does this without question, also eager to find out what the noise it. Maska has a curious nature, and it usually gets him into trouble. As Arella watches Maska shrink into the distance, hidden by the trees and bushes that are all around, she wonders what they will find.

Maska disappears through the trees and when he does not come back, Arella picks up her pace to go to him. When she gets there, she is shocked. “So the lake we thought was a lake isn’t a lake… It’s a river.” She says. “Not a very strong one from the looks of it, but still, the water is not still.” She laughs. “Well that’s odd, but explains the noise.” Maska looks a little confused at Arella. “Look over there Maska, it’s a waterfall.” She points to the left. The water seems to be cascading down a deep hole at quite a rate, draining out of the lake. White heads form on the water as it tumbles into the hole, which looks to be large enough for Arella to fit down if she wanted, causing water to flow faster close to it. “Water must feed it from other streams on the other side of the lake… river… whatever it is. I have never seen anything like this.” Arella moves closer to the hole. “I wonder where the water goes.” She asks no one in particular. “That would explain the feeling of water moving, even back at our house. It’s because the water is flowing, slowly yes, but it is still flowing.” The area where the water begins to flow faster looks to be fairly deep, but luckily, Arella and Maska can just walk around it. So around the strange waterfall Maska and Arella go, keeping their distance so they don’t fall in, and they continue walking, the sound of the crashing water falling further and further behind them.

Arella’s mind had begun to wander. Her growling stomach brings her back into the present. “What are we going to have for tea tonight Maska? We need to keep our energy up by eating still, and we don’t have any food left for tonight.” Arella says as they walk towards the trees on the other side of the lake. The trees are dead ahead of them, with the lake on their right. More grass has started growing underfoot, and the ground has less rocks jutting out of it. Maska just looks at the water, then at Arella’s grathon. “Oh, so you think I’m going to catch you fish again?” She asks. “What do you think I am, your servant?” She laughs. Maska nudges into her, nearly knocking her off balance. “careful Maska, you’re stronger than you used to be.” She giggles. He nudges her again, this time knocking her onto the floor. Maska then pounces on Arella and starts licking her face. “Get off me you silly cat!” She shouts through laughter. He gets up and sits down on the ground in front of her, wagging his tail happily. “Fish tonight it is then.” She pauses, laughing before she has even said anything. “Although, are you sure you want fish, after what happened earlier. I’d have thought you’d have had enough by now.” She cracks up at the end, but Maska is too fast for her. He jumps on her again, this time Arella catches him, knocking him off guard and they both tumble to the floor. Once Arella has caught her breath again, they get up and continue walking, smiles on both their faces. In the uncertainty that is to come, they still have high spirits, keeping each other going, even with tired feet and sore legs, they push each other on.

Arella is starting to get tired, and the sun is only mid-way through the sky. It seems like the lack of sleep is starting to catch up with her, but she knows she must keep going until nightfall. If they keep walking at the pace they are going at, Maska and Arella will reach the dense woodland on the other side of the lake in a couple of hours, but Arella’s legs are hurting. “Maska, can we rest for a couple of minutes?” She asks. Maska, who was walking just a little way ahead turns and walks back to Arella. “We should go and sit over there, under the shade of that tree for a little while.” She wipes her forehead, now covered in sweat from the hot summer heat. “Get out of this sun for a bit.” As they move to sit under the shade of a small oak tree, Arella notices that Maska is panting slightly. “Must be hot under that black fur coat.” She notes. “We will sit under here for a little while, then go for a swim, cool off a bit before we continue again. How does that sound?” Maska stretches himself out on the ground under the tree. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

Arella looks up at the sky. “Look Maska. There are grey clouds in the sky over there. Once they come over, we will be a lot cooler, and the sun won’t be able to get us. They look a couple of hours away, so we will stay here until they are almost here. Give ourselves a break.” She looks down at Maska who is completely relaxed and decides that she should do the same.

Once all of her belongings are resting on the floor by Maska, Arella goes in search of something to put water in so they can drink in the shade. She looks around at the sparse trees  behind her. One of those trees has big broad leaves. She walks over to it. The leaf feels rubbery and waterproof, is thick and curved. “I could use this for collecting water.” She pulls once of the leaves from a branch and takes it over to the lake. Dipping it into the water, Arella’s suspicions are confirmed, the leaf will hold water well. She lifts it to her lips, drinking greedily. It Is cool and refreshing. She hadn’t realised her lips were cracked until the water touched them, making them sore. She refills the leaf with water and takes another drink, before taking a full leaf over to Maska who is on his side under the tree, still panting in the heat. When he is given the water, Maska drinks it just as quickly as Arella does, clearly too hot. “We’re not used to the sun are we boy?” She says as she strokes his head, the last of the water from the leaf being lapped up. “Maska, go and get in the water, just dip yourself in then come back here under the tree. That way you will cool off a lot quicker.” He picks himself up off the hot ground and does as Arella asks. Maska slinks his obsidian body into the cool clear lake, fully submerging himself for a few seconds, before walking back out of the water.

Once he is on dry land again, Maska shakes out his fur, catching Arella with some of the spray, then lays down under the tree again, visibly cooler. Arella goes to the lakeside and gets more water to bring back, then rests under the tree with Maska. “We will just wait out here until it cools down a little bit, then we will go again.” Maska is relaxed, and Arella thinks he might be falling asleep. She could fall asleep too, if she didn’t have to keep watch. High in the sky, Arella can see vultures circling. A common sight where she lives, but a funny one at that. The normally circle dead or dying things, but Maska and Arella are neither. She places a hand on Maska’s chest, feeling him breath as she does so. As her touch, Maska begins to purr loudly, welcoming the affection. Arella watches as the wet paw prints Maska left on the hot ground dry up in front of her eyes.

Arella opens her eyes. She only closed them for a second, to stop the glaring light from attacking them, but she must have closed them for longer. Light grey clouds now cover the sky, and the air is chilled. “We’ve overslept Maska.” She says as she nudges the great auron cat. He grumbles a little at being woken but gets up reluctantly. “We should get moving.” Arella says. With this she flings her deerskin bag back onto her back and picks up the grathon. Judging by where the clouds are, they must have slept for about three hours. “I can’t believe I overslept.” Arella says. “That never happens.” Maska just looks at her. “Yeah I know I was tired and didn’t sleep last night, but I was meant to be keeping watch.” Maska just rolls his eyes. Arella pauses. “I’m over reacting aren’t I?” Maska just nods. “Okay, I’ll be quiet.”

Maska stops Arella just before she is about to walk away from their tree. “”What’s up Maska?” She asks, but before he can answer she knows what he wants. “You think we should catch some fish now, then we don’t have to worry about getting anything later. Smart Maska, very smart.” Arella puts down her bag and starts catching fish. The whole time she is stood in the shallows of the water, knee high in the cool clear lake, the temperature of the air surrounding her is getting colder, and the wind is starting to pick up. Maska yowls at her. “I just need to catch one more then we can…” With that Arella plunges the grathon into the lake for a third time and comes up trumps with a big fat fish. She quickly guts the fish, leaving the entrails in the lake for others to eat then climbs out of the lake and onto the hard ground on the bank. “Okay let’s go.” She takes the big leaf she was using for a drinking cup and wraps the fish in it, then places them in the deerskin bag.

It doesn’t take them long to get to the woodland by the other bank of the lake. It was much longer than it is wide, and the trees are a welcome cover. The grey clouds above have started to leak water, and slow steady drizzle falls from the sky. The trees give some cover, although Arella and Maska are getting a little wet. “We need to find shelter.” Arella says, but Maska is way ahead of her. He is in front scouting out the area looking for somewhere they can hide from the impending downpour. He spots a group of willow trees and turns to look at Arella. “Yes, good idea Maska.” Willow trees have low hanging vines of leaves that stretch out quite far. They do not get wet underneath, and this tree has a natural hollow all the way through the middle. It has a very wide base, and almost seems like two trees that have grown together and intertwined at the top. Upon closer inspection, Arella finds that this is exactly what has happened. The branches above are all intertwined, pulling on each other for strength, and the roots on the ground spread out in many directions. The bases of both trees are large enough as it is, but combines they make the tree seem enormous.

Under the willow tree, vines hanging all around them, watching the rain get heavier and heavier, Arella attempts to light a fire with damp wood. She has been trying for the last twenty minutes, and is still not able to light it. She is getting frustrated, and the air is now very cold. “Why won’t you light?!” She shouts at the damp wood. Maska, seeing her frustration, looks around for anything dry that could help start the fire. He spots old man’s beard moss in the willow above. He jumps up into the branches, knocking leaves onto Arella’s head. She does not seem to notice, and is too preoccupied with the fire that will not light. Maska swipes at the moss, knocking it loose from the branches and onto the floor. He then chuffs at Arella, getting her attention. She looks up at him. “Maska, this is no time to be playing. We need to light this fire.” She says, a little irritated by Maska being up in the tree. Maska swipes at more of the moss, causing it to fall to the ground near Arella, the chuffs again. “What is this?” Arella says as she leans over to pick it up. “Old Man’s beard. Good spot Maska.” She thanks him.  Within no time at all, with the help of Maska and the old man’s beard, Arella has the fire roaring into life.

Arella tosses tow of the fish to Maska, and begins cooking the third over the fire. It has a strange smell to it. Wet wood always does when burning. She is thankful for the food though, and thankful that Maska was thinking ahead when they were still by the lake. Arella thinks herself lucky. If it weren’t for the auron cat sat next to her, she would not have a fire tonight, and they would not be eating fresh fish. She hugs him tight, and he purrs loudly. They must be getting close now to the poachers, and Arella is feeling butterflies in her stomach again. Good job she has finished eating, because she has completely lost her appetite.

With the rain pouring, it is hard to hear the noises of the forest. Arella and Maska sit, staring into the flames of their fire as the sun goes down, huddled together as the winds rise and the air cools. A flash of light and crack of thunder sound, and Maska jumps a little. “You remember that story I told you of the Thunderbird right?” She asks him. “Well just remember that. It is nothing more than the spirit of a great bird.” Arella pats Maska’s head. Maska relaxes at her touch. “I think the Thunderbird is angry Maska. It has been thundering a lot recently, more and more since we’re been finding those animals dead and dying. It can’t be a coincidence can it?” She asks, knowing that it is probably just the time of year. Maska just purrs and closes his eyes, urging Arella to do the same.

Tiredness takes over and Arella’s eyes begin to close. As they flicker and darkness takes over, Arella spots something glowing, something looking at her. Eyes. She opens her eyes quickly, but they are gone. Was there something, someone there? Watching her? Arella can’t tell. The rain is blurring the landscape around her, making it hard to see anything in the darkness. She decides that it must have been a figment of her imagination and closes her eyes, leaning into Maska, taking in his warmth and falls asleep, covered with her furs.

Chapter 15

Darkness still surrounds her when Arella awakes. She feels dizzy and tired still. She is cold now, perhaps that is what woke her it. She has shoved her furs off in the night, and the fire has died. Rain still pours outside the safety of the willow tree, and thunder still sounds all around her, and flashes of lightening light up the area, although still distorted through the rain. Arella takes her furs and pulls them up closer to her neck, then leans her head against the tree again so she can go to sleep. She stretches her hand out to find Maska’s warm fur, but her hand doesn’t find him. She opens her eyes and sits up in alarm. With the darkness surrounding, Arella cannot see anything. A flash of lightening provides light, but Arella does not see Maska. She begins to panic. “Maska?!” She shouts, hoping he has just moved away to use natures bathroom, but he does not answer her. Her calls become more desperate. Although masked by the thunder, she can barely hear herself shout. “Maska, where are you?” Still no answer. This is worrying. Maska never leaves Arella, not like this, not in a strange place in the rain. Something must be wrong. Arella’s mind goes into overdrive and she starts thinking, and none of her thoughts are good. “He was taken by the poachers!” She gets up quickly, puts her boots on and picks up her weapons. She must find him fast, before they will him. But how? How is she supposed to find Maska when she does not know where the people are who took him. She looks around for clues, but comes up short. “It’s too bloody dark to see anything!” She shouts frustrated, the flashes of light from the storm not helping. Each time her eyes begin to adjust to the dark, the lightening makes her blind again.

As Arella paces back and forth on the same spot under the tree, the rain begins to slow. Arella’s eyes are slowly adjusting to the dark, but she still cannot see where Maska went. There is nothing, no evidence to say he has gone. It’s like he just vanished into thin air, like he never was. Arella begins to wonder if he was ever real, or if she was just imagining him. Just as this thought begins to cling to Arella’s mind, she notices something on the floor. There is an indent in the ground, and it is the same shape and size as Maska. In one way this is a relief, he was real and Arella is not crazy, but in another it strikes fear directly into Arella’s heart. Following off from the patch of ground where Maska was sleeping, there is a further indent in the ground. A long and narrow one, leading out of the area under the willow. On the ground next to this indent are five marks, gouged deeply into the ground. Claw Marks. Arella’s heart sinks as she sees this. Maska was dragged away by something, someone. But what could have done this to him without Arella noticing. Maska is strong, he can fight his own. So how did someone take him without her knowing. It just doesn’t make any sense. Surely she would have heard him calling, They can’t have taken him without Maska making some kind of noise. Although the more she thinks about it, the clearer it becomes. The thunder will have masked any sounds of a scuffle, and the roars of Maska will have sounded similar to the claps of thunder.

Following the trail out into the rain, Arella feels dread as it continues. The claw marks in the sides of the tracks get more and more shallow, like Maska was losing the fight. Looking to the side of the tracks, Arella can see footprints. Human footprint, and they look to be men’s feet. They are big, with long toes from the looks from the prints. The people that took Maska are walking around barefoot. This is strange. Most of the tribes around here are now wearing shoes, so these men must not be from here.

Soon Maska’s struggles are no more, and he is just a body being drug through the mud. A tear forms in Arella’s eye. She quickly brushes it away. “He won’t be dead. I’m going to find him and then kill the pigs that took him from me.” Arella spits with determination. She follows the trail even quicker, stopping to make sure she is still following the right trail every now and then.

The footprints seem to be getting closer together, like the people are slowing. They must be struggling to drag Maska’s heavy body. If she speeds up, Arella might be able to catch up with them, or so she hopes anyway. A little further up the way, Arella notices more claw marks on the ground. This brings momentary hope. It looks like Maska woke up. There are signs of a struggle on the ground, broken branches and scattered footprints, both human and feline. Arella follows the erratic movements for a while, but they soon stop. There is another big indent in the ground, the shape and size of Maska’s body, then more dragged marks follow it. They soon too disappear, but the footprints of the men do not. Arella bends down to look at the ground where Maska’s tracks disappear. She spots something in the mud and pulls it free. It is rope. They must have tied Maska up, and seen as though his footprints have gone, that must mean they are now carrying him. There are footprints facing the opposite direction to the others, coming towards Arella, where the struggle was. It looks like the men were joined by another. That makes three sets of footprints. This is not good. Arella is heavily outnumbered, and she does not have Maska for help. She spots something else on the ground. It looks like a rock, but there is something on it. Something red and wet. She bends down to pick it up, but quickly drops it. “Blood?” She feels sick. “Oh no.” Arella comes across dizzy and faint. She quickly shakes it off. “Come on Arella. You can’t flake out on me now. Maska needs you.” She grits her teeth, clenches her grathon tighter and moves on again, following the tracks that will lead her to Maska, praying to the spirits the he is still alive.

The footsteps in the wet mud are getting deeper and closer together. The people are clearly struggling to carry Maska’s heavy body. She follows them for what seems like hours.

A black wisp of smoke rises above the trees, clearly visible on the slowly lighting sky above. It is in the same direction that Arella is following. She moves quicker towards the smoke, knowing that that is where Maska will be. The smoke seems to be far away, but she hears them before she sees them. Gruff men’s voices laughing loudly. She can hear them clearly through the trees that shroud them. “So what do we do with this one then?” One of them asks. Arella assumes they are talking about Maska.

“I don’t know. Myla just told us to bring this one in rather than killing it.” Another one says

“What makes it so special? From what I can see it is still young, a bit dirty and small. Why would she want this thing.” Arella hears a thud which she assumes is the man kicking the creature they’re talking about.

“She said it was something about its eyes.” Says a third man. “That they were the windows into the spirit world and that it would make a good sacrifice. It’s not right in my eyes though, having two different coloured eyes. It’s not natural.” Arella’s heart sinks. They are talking about Maska. She has to do something, get him away from them. But how does she do that? Tears start to form in her eyes, but she pushes them away. “Come on Arella. You have to be grown up here. Maska is not going to get out if you start crying like a baby.” She tells herself.

Creeping closer to the men who abducted Maska, Arella comes to a small clearing in the treeline. In the middle there is a small fire, the source of the smoke Arella followed. Three skinny looking men surround it. They are naked except for a small area of fabric covering their private parts, front and back, and the things on their heads. Each one of them is wearing an animal skull. One wears the skull of a young bison, one of the horns broken but the other still intact. The second, the skull of a large goat, both twirling horns still complete, but the left eye socket is smashed in. The third wears what looks to be two paloa fox skulls attached to each other, both with parts missing. They are strange looking men. On their bodies, Arella can see as she gets a little closer, still hidden from sight, are the ribs of the animals, using them as armour to cover their own ribs. They tangle as they move, the bones touching each other as they do so.

Arella watches as the men take a pot from the ground with some thick red substance in it, and start paining it in patterns on each other’s bodies. She breaths in, a strange metallic smell in the air. Blood. Looking around the compound more, Arella sees more bones, skulls, skins and remnants of animals. They litter the place, strewn all around without a care. The smell of death here is so strong, and Arella can hear flies buzzing around close to her. She looks down to her left and jumps back in horror, holding her hand over her mouth to keep from screaming. On the ground at her feet is the corpse of a paloa fox, long dead and rotting. It has been mutilated almost beyond recognition, only identifiable by the pattern on the fur Arella can see. She feels sick, and moves away from the poor animal, trying not to attract attention. Too late. Out of nowhere, a hand grabs her and pulls Arella from the bushes she was hiding in. “Look what we have here. A little girl.” Goat man says.

“Oh let me. Please let me. I like killing children.” Fox man says, excitement and menace in his eyes.

“Myla will want to see this.” Bison man reasons. “A strange looking child like this might make a good sacrifice too.” The others start to argue with him. “I said we were going to show her to Myla. So that is what we’re going to do.” Bison snatches Arella from Goat without a second thought, moving her around like she were only a baby, no effort at all. You wouldn’t think someone as skinny as him would be able to move Arella around with such ease. She kicks her legs in an attempt to get free, but Bison holds on tight. He throws her to the floor, away from Maska, and ties her to a tree using rope. “You’d better make sure that cat is tied up properly too, don’t want it running away in the day while we wait for Myla to get here.” Bison orders. Goat and Fox do as he says and check Maska’s bonds to make sure they are tight, strapping his mouth closed also so he cannot break them with his teeth. Goat gives Maska one last kick.

“Get off him you… you…” Arella starts.

“What’s wrong little girl?” Bison mocks. “You lost for words?”

“I just can’t think of a word nasty enough to call you.” Arella scowls at him, then looks at Goat. “You think you’re so big, kicking an auron cat while he’s unconscious. I’d like to see you in a fair fight with him. You wouldn’t last two seconds…” Arella is stopped quickly as Bison kicks her in the ribs, knocking the breath out of her.

“Shut up girl before I decide to kill you before Myla gets here. It would be a better fate for you anyway.” With that, Bison, Goat and Fox all depart, leaving Arella staring at Maska through teary eyes, watching him breath and praying that they both make it through this. The laughter and bickering of the strange men fades into the distance, leaving silence in their wake.

Chapter 16

Hours pass before Arella see’s anyone else. She sits in the same spot, unable to move from the tree, watching Maska breath. His chest moves up and down, but it is slow and uneven. She can see a gash on his head from where one of the men hit him with a rock. The wound it covered with his blood, now dark and sticky, still bleeding a little and dripping down his face. Arella tries waking him. “Come on Maska, wake up.” She prays, looking up at the sky, asking the spirits to help her. As she looks around at the bodies on the floor. She notices that there is one animal in the mix that is not dead. A small porcupine it tied up, one of its back legs tied to a tree. This must be another sacrifice. “Why is this happening? What have we done to deserve this?” She asked the sky.

“Shall I tell you what you did child?” A woman’s voice asks from the shadows behind her, hiding from view. “You messed up the balance. The mother auron cat you found a few months ago, she was meant for death, which means that the cub in return was meant for death. You saved that cub, taking it on as your own. That was a silly mistake my child. The spirits are not happy, you took a life from them, and for that, the life must be taken back, and yours too for interfering.” The woman steps out from behind the tree, revealing herself. She also wears almost no clothing, just a short skirt and small piece of fabric covering her breasts, with ribs over the top and a sharp tooth necklace around her neck. Long black hair cascades down her red skinned body, and dark red marking of blood cover the remainder of her skin. She also wears a skull atop her head, the skull of a wolf. The teeth on her necklace must also be from a wolf, as they match those in the skull. She has a pretty face, tarnished by a deep scar over her right eye and falling down to her mouth. It stretches in a funny shape when she smiles. “Were you looking at my scar?” She asks Arella, catching her off guard. “Do you want to know how I got it? It’s an interesting story.” Arella looks away, but the wolf woman grabs her face with sharp nails and turns it to look at her. Arella tries to move her face away, but the woman only digs her nails in further, drawing blood. “Am I making you uncomfortable? Good!” Now listen, and listen close, to the story of how I got this scar.”

“I was only a little girl, living in a small tribe with my family. We were close to nature, lived in harmony with bison and foxes and even the wolves did not bother us. We lived in peace, only killing when we needed food, and returning the bones of the animal to the earth in sacrifice to the spirits. This kept them appeased, and they let us live. On my fifteenth birthday, we were celebrating. I was finally old enough to marry, and they had a young man in my tribe they were going to marry me off to.  He was tall, and strong and beautiful. He had been married before, but his wife died in childbirth. I was lucky to have the opportunity to be married to him.” The wolf woman was now walking around the clearing, kicking at the bones of the animals on the floor as she did so. Arella noticed that her feet were bare, dirty and her toenails long and sharp. “On the night of our wedding, we were walking through the woods. It was cold, so he held me closer, to keep me warm. We heard a wolf howl, like they always did, except this time was different. The wolf sounded sick, in pain. We rushed to it, hoping we could save it. And we did. It was trapped under a log, a fallen tree. Mt new husband lifted the tree from the wolf and set it free. The wolf in return lunged at my new husband, mauling him and ripping his throat out before it turned on me. It looked me right in the eye, then sprung for me, catching my face with its claw as it jumped over my head, causing this scar you see now.” She point at her face. “The wolf killed my husband because its life was meant to have been lost. One spirit must take the place of another, and his life was in turn for the wolf.” The wolf woman walks over to Maska. “So you see, I have to kill this cat here, because he should have dies anyway, and your life can be taken too, in exchange for the baby I am soon to carry.” Arella looks on is shock. “You see, I have never been able to conceive a child, and the spirits told me last night that if I kill a girl, I will be given a boy.” She starts to laugh. “So it is destiny that you are her now.”

“But how can you justify killing all of those animals in the first place. Who’s lives were they replacing?” Arella asks, confused.

“The spirits told me to kill them. They said that if I took the life of an animal, my own baby could be born. The creatures life could be traded for that of my child.”

“But to poison them, then just leave them to die a slow and painful death… How is that fair?” Arella asks.

“It is the easiest and safest way of doing it.” She answers confidently. “Better that than risking the lives of my brothers and new husband.” Arella is surprised by how matter of fact this woman is. She truly believes what she is saying, and that she can hear the spirits talking to her about killing these animals.

“You’re insane.” Arella’s anger is rising. “What makes you think that you are special enough for the spirits to talk to you, and you alone, and tell you to take the lives of animals that have done nothing to you?”

“I bet you’re the one who has been going around putting the animals we have poisoned to rest.” She storms over to Arella, still tied up on the floor. “How dare you interfere with the work of the spirits!” She shouts, striking Arella across the face, leaving a burning sensation on her cheek. “For this you will pay, and you will pay with your life.”

“I thought I was already paying with my life.” Arella says through gritted teeth, confidence rising up in her. She has nothing to lose after all. This woman plans to kill her and Maska anyway. She might as well go down fighting. Bison, Goat and Fox have all joined the wolf woman now,

“You stupid child.” Bison says. “We were going to just leave you under that tree, take the cat and have done with it.” He laughs. “If you’d just left well alone, you would still have your life.” Goat interjects, laughing and sneering.

“We’re been watching you little girl.” He says creepily. “We saw you come from the woods on the other side of the lake, through the dead lands, past the place where the water vanishes, and finally come to rest under the death willow.”

“Why do you call is the death willow?” Arella asks.

“It is where we get our poison. There are lots of them over here, and they really do make the best poison for slow deaths.” The wolf woman starts to laugh. Bison also begins to chuckle when he looks at Arella’s face.

“You didn’t?” He says through laughter.

“Oh I did.” She answers, cunning in her lopsided smile. Bison takes her face in his hands and kisses her roughly.

“My beautiful devious wife.” He praises. Arella is confused, and this is clear in her expression. Why were they laughing when they looked at her face. Then she realises what is happening.

The wolf woman looks down at her fingers, examining them closely. Arella looks at them too. They are green. Her eyes widen as she realises what has happened. “Do you need me to explain child, or do you know what I have done to you?” The wolf woman laughs. “I have coated my nails with death willow poison, and now it is in your bloodstream, it won’t be long until you die.”

“Why would you do that?” Arella asks, tears in her eyes, knowing that she only has a couple more days of living left with the poison in her system. She looks over at Maska, still unconscious on the floor.

“Oh don’t worry. He will die soon too.” She walks over to him, stroking the blood matted fur on his head. Maska growls in his unconscious state, clearly knowing that something is not right. “I have big plans for him. And you will watch.” She says, looking again at Arella. “For now though, you two stay here and watch them. Make sure she doesn’t try anything silly while me and my husband are away.” She takes Bison’s hand and looks him in the eye. “We must make a baby, for we have a life to trade for it.” Bison’s eyes light up, and he eagerly follows the wolf woman away into the forest. She shouts back just as she is leaving. “I no longer have need for the porcupine. You can kill it now if you want.” Then she leaves, laughing as she goes.

Goat and Fox sit on the ground by the dying fire. Goat pokes at it a few times, adding small twigs to it, bringing it back to life again. It is only when they are sat down that Arella notices that Fox is carrying three rabbits. They still have the skins on them, and have arrows sticking out of their sides. “I hope you made sure you used the un-poisoned arrows to catch those.” Goat says to him.

“I’m not stupid. I know which arrows have the poison on them.” Fox says. “It’s the ones with the white feathers.” He looks at the arrows in the rabbits, white feathers. “Oh.”

“Good job you’re stupid. It’s the arrows with black feathers that have poison.” Goat snatches them from his brother. “Why anyone would put you in charge of hunting when you don’t even know which arrows you should be using, I don’t know.” He pulls the arrows from the bodies then tosses them back at his brother. “Make yourself useful and skin these. I’m going to go find some more.” With that, Goat picks up the bow his brother had dropped on the floor and walks off into the forest, in the opposite direction to Bison and Wolf. Just before he goes, he takes one of the arrows from the floor where he dropped them, moves over to the porcupine and drives it into its skull. With a scream of pain, the porcupine dies. Arella cannot believe what she has seen. There is no need for that. No reason, and no remorse from Goat at all.

“They all say I’m stupid.” Fox spits as he clumsily skins the rabbits. “No one ever believes that I’m smart. They all hate me. Always give me the rubbish jobs. Why do I have to skin the rabbits? Horrible smelly job.” Arella sees an opportunity here.

“If you cut under the arms of the rabbit the skin should pretty much peel off.” Arella tries her luck. Fox tries this.

“I knew that. I was just seeing if there was another way to do it.” He spits, unhappy that the prisoner has told him how to do something.

“I don’t think you’re stupid.” She says to him. Fox looks up at her. “They don’t understand what it’s like do they, being the younger one?” Arella is really pushing her luck now. This could get her a beating, or it just might work. “They think that because they’re older than you, that they are better than you. But that’s not right is it?” She winces, waiting for his answer.

“They don’t trust me to do any of the big jobs.” He finally says. “And they never listen to me either.”

“What don’t they listen to you about?” She asks.

“They think that this is the only way to kill, with poison. But I think they’re wrong.” Arella’s hopes fall. Maybe she will not be able to get through to him in the way she would like to. “There are so many other ways to kill.” Fox’s eyes light up. “You can beat someone to death, stab them in the chest, cut open their throat and watch them bleed. So many options.”

“So you would like to kill in a different way to your brothers and Myla?” She asks, hoping she will be able to find some way of talking him around.

“Yes, exactly.” He says, pleased that someone is listening to him. “And I’d start with Myla herself. I’m sick of her bossing me around, and then my brother. Why does he get a wife before I do. It’s unfair, and it needs to change.” Arella has a small amount of hope again. Maybe she can turn him against his own family. Devious yes, but if it will get her and Maska away from harm, and eliminate the problem of them too, why not.

“So you need to change it.” Arella says to him. As she talks, she notices Maska moving slightly. He catches her eye, and she mouths to him “Quiet Maska. Don’t Move.” He stays very still, not alerting Fox to the fact that he is once again awake. “You need to take charge and knock her off her high horse. Teach her a lesson.”

“You’re right!” He says. Now getting to his feet. “But how do I do that?”

“Do you want to annoy her, get her really mad?” Arella asks him.

“Yes, but how do I do that.”

“You let me and the cat go.” Arella suggests. “That will make her more mad than anything else.”

“Do you think that would work?”

“Of course it would.” Arella pleads. “The thing she wants most is a baby, and without me to sacrifice, she cannot have that baby. Don’t you think that would make her mad?”

“Well yes, but why let the cat go? I could kill it myself.” Fox turns on Maska, evil in his eyes.

“But she wants to kill him too. So by taking that away from her, you would be in control again right?” Arella is trying to make it sound like it was Fox’s idea, and luckily it is working. Fox takes a dagger from the ground and walks over to Maska. Arella holds her breath. He cuts the bonds holding his paws together, then the ones on his mouth. He then moves over to Arella and cuts her free.

“Are you sure this will work?” He asks.

“Sure as I can be.” She answers.

Arella walks over to Maska, rubbing her sore hands together. She touches him gently, reassuring him that he is okay to get up now. He does so slowly, clearly in pain. Arella then collects her belongings, the ones that were taken from her when the skull people attacked her, and she and Maska leave the foul smelling camp, heading back towards the lake where they came from, always looking over their shoulders, not sure whether Fox let them go on purpose or if he was setting a trap.

The forest floor is muddy and slippery from the downpour the night before. The rain gave out at some point early morning, but the mud still bares evidence of it. This makes walking hard, and with Arella and Maska injured, progress is slow. They keep walking though, through the mud. Arella trips on a hidden root, and Maska comes to her aid to pick her up. As she puts her hands in the mud, lifting herself off the ground, she notices she leaves prints in the mud. She turns and looks behind her. “Maska, where leaving a trail to follow. We need to get somewhere where they cannot follow us.” She walks on a little further, heading directly for the water’s edge not far away. It turns out, although Arella had been following the trail leading her to Maska for a while, they had not taken the most direct route, for she seems to get to the lake within no time at all, considering the fact that she is poisoned and beaten, and Maska is badly beaten.

Once at the water’s edge, Arella climbs in. The water is colder than she would like, but Maska follows her in too. “If we swim over to the rocky area, they will not be able to follow tracks. Then we can escape into the woodland on the other side.” This is a good idea, and assuming the Wolf, Bison and Goat do not get back to the camp soon, they will be able to reach the red bank in time to find somewhere to hide.

Arella is finding it hard to swim. The poison quickly working its way into her bloodstream, making her tired and lethargic, she pushes on, Maska right beside her, his aching muscles easy to see. The swells in the lake caused by the extra water flowing in from the streams is making it harder to swim, and by the time they reach the red bank, both Arella and Maska are exhausted. They haul themselves out of the lake, bodies feeling twice as heavy as normal, and pull themselves away from the lapping edge. The sun is still high in the sky, and the heat will quickly dry them off, but for now, the extra weight of the water in clothes and fur is dragging them down. The pulls themselves up from the ground, and start walking towards the treeline, desperate for somewhere to hide.

A dark cloud comes over Arella and she can feel a deep burning pain in her cheeks where Wolf scratched her. This heat is making her sweat, and there is now pain in her head, causing her vision to blur.

Arella drags her feet as she walks, head hanging low and arms hanging limp. Maska walks beside her, helping her stay upright as they move. He knows that they must find cover soon, but the trees on the other side are so far away, and Arella is getting weaker and weaker by the hour. He looks around for something, anything that can help her. He spots a large rock on the ground and leads Arella over towards it. Remembering it from when they came past it the day before, Maska knows that on the other side of this rock, there is a sheltered area that goes underground slightly. Once there, his theory is confirmed. Maska stops next to it, then nibbles on Arella’s hand to get her attention. “Wha’ is i’ M’ska.” She says, too weak to speak properly. He nudges her towards the underground cave. “You wan’ m’ to go ‘n there?” She asks. Maska just nudges her again. Arella is too tired to argue and does as the cat tells her to do.

Arella curls up inside the cave, cold taking hold of her and making her shiver. She unravels the furs in her deerskin back and pulls them over her, although they fail to keep the cold away. She watches as Maska leaves her in the cave, clearly abandoning her, running away while he still can. She doesn’t blame him. She’s doing to die in here, and she knows it. He vision starts to blur, and she gets a terrible sickness feeling in her stomach. She closes her eyes, giving up on life and lets the darkness take her, tears rolling down her cheeks, the salt burning her cheeks as it goes.

Chapter 17

Maska is running as fast as his bruised legs will carry him. He knows where he is going, but he must get there quickly. Maska remembers Arella telling him something when he was a kitten. When he was disgusted at the thought of eating berries, she once told him that berries are good for healing too. Maska thinks that maybe if he brings Arella berries, she can heal herself with them. He knows it’s a long shot, but it’s the only one he’s got. He couldn’t possibly lose her. Arella is all Maska has, and he does not know what he would do without her.

His legs are aching as he charges across the red ground, the sun has quickly dried it here, and Maska is kicking up a dust cloud as he runs. The herd of bison the passed just yesterday see him coming and scatter in different direction, convinced he is after them. The male stands his ground, right in Maska’s path. Maska keeps running, heading straight for the bull. It lowers its head, aiming its horns directly for Maska and shakes his head, pushing air quickly out of his nose, making as many noises and threatening actions as he can to try and scare off the auron cat without a fight. It does not work, Maska keeps running. The bull finally charges for Maska, but when it gets to him, Maska simply darts to the side and runs around it. This confuses the bull, and confuses him even more When Maska does not turn on the calf who was hiding behind him. He just stares on bemused and lets Maska pass. The rest of the herd step to the side, letting him go. Maybe they realise there is some urgency in the way Maska is running.

Swirls and patterns of green fill the emptiness. The patterns are shaped like little motto dear, being chased by wolves. They run and run, through the red patterned trees and into a white lake. A bit yellow frog jumps out of the lake and eats the wolves, saving the green dear from being eaten, then it eats the deer too. Arella laughs at this, pointing at the shapes in the darkness. Delirium is taking over and she is seeing all kinds of things. She has broken out into a cold sweat, and shivers in the cave Maska left her in. Pain grips at her heart, and Arella doubles over, screaming into the darkness for all the world to hear, but she does not care. She is dying, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it. Soon she will join the spirits in the sky, she will finally be at peace.

The forest is just in sight, but the sun is now on its way down. Maska has been running for hours and is starting to tire, but he must get the berries and take them back to Arella. Suddenly Maska hears a scream. He knows it is Arella, but does not dare himself to look back. If he looks back, he will slow, or even worse, he will want to go to her. No. Maska must keep going and find those berries. He hears another scream, yet more painful to listen to than the last. He just hopes no predators can hear it, or the people that attacked them. His feline hearing helped him hear her, but if they are close, they would hear her too. Then she would be dead by the time she got to him. He must be quick. The sun has almost gone, and Maska has been away for far too long.

Maska searches and searches but cannot see the berries. He is beginning to lose hope when the moon shows him the way. A beam of light, focused by the clouds in the sky, shows him the way. He follows the light, which leads him to a small bush on the ground. In that bush is a small clutch of boa berries. Maska takes the thin branch the berries are growing from, snaps it and pulls it away. He then tightens his grip on the berries in his jaw and starts running back towards Arella.

Exhausted though he is, Maska pushes on at full pelt towards Arella. He must get to her quickly, or else she might die. As he runs, her screaming becomes fainter, although it is still there, she is becoming weaker and weaker. He pushes on even faster, as fast as his legs will carry him. Fear and adrenalin pushing him onwards. The pain from his own injuries unimportant. All that matters in this moment is getting to Arella, saving the life of his only friend

By the time he gets back to the cave, Maska’s paws are raw and bleeding. He carefully climbs inside the cave with Arella, who is barely conscious. He purrs at her, shoving the berries at her. “Maska I don’t want to eat.” She says to him. He judges them at her again. It isn’t working. Arella is too out of it to know what is going on. Maska is getting desperate now. He has to take matters into his own hands, paws.

Maska puts the berries on the floor and does what he hopes will help Arella. He shakes his head, knowing it probably won’t work and that he will have lost her forever. He smushed the berries with his paw, then places it on Arella’s face, covering the area that the wolf woman cut her with poison nails. He then does this again and again until nearly all of the berries have gone, hoping and praying that it will work. Now all he can do is wait. Maska curls up next to Arella, keeping close to her to keep her warm. Her shivering body lies next to him, shallow breathing and jerky movements keep him from sleep, as well as the sharp pain in his head. Maybe if he stays close, willing her to live, it might work. She just might pull through. A small tear escapes Maska’s eye, drops onto Arella’s cold hand and rolls onto the dusty floor.

Arella has drifted into unconsciousness, and soon too does Maska. Not knowing whether he will be alone when he wakes.

Chapter 18

When Maska wakes up, he is not quite sure what he will find. They day before is mainly a blur, but he does remember Arella nearly dying, and him running for miles and miles to bring her berries he thought might save her life. He does not yet know if it worked, but Arella’s body still seems to be warm, which means she cannot yet be dead. He moves gingerly, his aching muscles now hurting more, and not wanting to hurt Arella. He turns to look at her in the dim morning light. Her cheeks are pale, but then the usually are. They were pink last night, bright red even you might call it, but now the colour has gone. Does that mean the berries worked? Maska hopes so.

He licks at the berry juice and blood on her face, hoping to give her some comfort. She begins to stir. Arella’s eyes flicker, and when she opens them, they are bright and purple. Maska is so happy to see her alive, he purrs loudly, causing him pain in his chest where he was kicked just the day before. Arella laughs at him. “What are you doing Maska? You know I don’t like you licking my face.” She laughs, but her bruised ribs keep her from enjoying the laughter. It is then that Arella remembers what happened the day before. She brings her hand up to her chin to feel for the marks, but there is nothing there but a few small scratches. The day before, her face had started to swell, and it felt like it was burning, now there is hardly any evidence at all. “Maska, how did you…?” Arella starts to ask, before she sees the crushed berries on the ground. “Well don’t for remembering.” She says to him hugging him tight, causing both of them pain. “How did you get them though. We are miles away from the forest.” Arella takes Maska’s injured paw into her hand. “You ran all that way? Maska we need to fix you up right away.” She says. “More of those berries should do just that.” Luckily Maska didn’t crush all of the berries, and there are still some on the ground. Arella takes them into her hands, crushes them and rubs them into Maska’s feet. “You will need to keep pressure off them for an hour or so, let the juice settle in, but after that, your paws should be as good as new.”

Maska and Arella sit in the dimly lit cave for the next hour, both silently listening to the world outside. They both drift off into a half sleep again, although both listening still for sound of anyone approaching.

Arella wakes up first. She examines her own wounds in the light streaming into the cave. She can feel the scratches on her chin, and looks down at her ribs. Her right hand side is bright purple, sore and slightly swollen. She touches the purple and flinches. Maska sturrs but does not wake. She checks Maska’s paws while he still sleeps. They are now fully healed, and the flesh on them is a bright fresh pink rather than the black they were before. Arella wakes him up. “Maska, we have to get up for. We need to get moving before they find us.” But just as she says this Arella hears footsteps outside the cave. She signals to Maska to keep quiet. He does so, but it doesn’t make any difference. The first thing they see is bison’s great skull staring at them in their cave. “I found them!” He shouts back. Two more sets of footsteps rush towards them, and Goat and Wolf appear in the mouth of the cave, Wolf looks terrifying. She is covered in blood, and it looks fresh. Deep red blood drips from Wolf’s hair and lands on the floor. As she smiles, Arella can see her teeth are stained with red too. Arella feels a little sick at the sight of her, and Maska growls low.

“Pull them out!” She shouts. “I will have my revenge.” Bison grabs hold of Maska’s scruff and starts pulling him from the mouth of the cave. He growls at him, but at the angle he is caught, he cannot get a claw in. Arella takes the bloodglass dagger from her boot and jabs it into Bison’s arm, making him let go, but not before he has pulled Mask all the way out. Goat then quickly takes a hold of Arella and pulls her out too. Blood drips from Bison’s arm, but he holds on tight to Maska.

“Let him go!” Arella yells. But they do not listen. Goat is holding tight to Arella, keeping her arms pinned back painfully, preventing her from moving. Wolf just takes Arella’s face in her hands again. Arella knows what it coming, and spits in Wolf’s face, knowing it is the only thing that will get her off. Wolf recoils, but Goat punches Arella in the face, just above her left eye. The vibrations ring through her skull, and Arella knows she will feel that in the morning. Hot liquid drips down the side of her face and onto the floor, staining it a bright fresh red.

Wolf takes out a dagger, and with Goat holding Arella back, her arms behind her back, she places the blade against Arella’s throat. “You were meant to die by poison.” She spits through gritted teeth. “Now I’m going to have to get my hands dirty.” She laughs. “Although you already saw to that didn’t you? I had to kill my own brother in law because of you. Can’t have traitors in the family.” She laughs manically. No sign of remorse or sadness in her black eyes, nor in the eyes of Fox’s brothers. “Well never mind, I never liked him anyway.” She starts laughing, a manic and insane laugh. “Well now you are going to pay, and pay with your life.” Just as Wolf intends to slit open Arella’s throat, she brings her leg up high and kicks her in the gut, causing Wolf to fall backwards. Arella uses the momentum of the kick she just used and swings it back, landing her booted foot on Goat’s bare one, causing him to shout and let her go. She then takes her grathon from where it lies on the ground and throws it at Bison. She misses, but it was not her intention to hit him. He dodges the grathon, but in the process, he drops Maska. He quickly turns on Bison, leaping at him, his sharp white teeth aiming for Bison’s throat. Bison catching Maska around the neck and pushes him, but Maska is too strong and too determined. He forces Bison down onto the ground and Arella has to look away. She turns back to Wolf who is staring at Maska and Bison, fear in her eyes. Arella looks at Goat. In the background behind her, Arella can dear the dying gurgles of Bison as Maska tears at his throat. The sounds of struggle become quieter, and Maska moves next to Arella. She feels him close to her, but keeps her eyes trained on Goat and Wolf.

“I told you none of you would last two minutes in a fair fight with Maska.” She smiles just a little as she hears gurgled blood sounds coming from behind her. “Now you have two choices. You can leave now and never bother us again, or you can stay and both die too.” Arella pauses. “You’re choice.” It feels like an age passes. Wolf and Goat do not answer. They just stare at Bison’s body, lying cols and bloody on the floor.

Rain starts to fall from the sky again, light but cold. The blood on Wolf’s body begins to drip onto the floor, causing streaks of clean skin to be viable underneath the blood.

“No!” Wolf screams suddenly. “He can’t be… Not now.” She stutters. Her eyes move from Bison’s body, to Arella’s face, and hatred fills her eyes. “You little bitch!” She shouts. “You will pay for this.” She lunges a Arella but it stopped in her tracks. She looks beyond Arella, her eyes widening. Arella can hear growling behind her, and turns to see what it is. When she turns, Arella is faces with five very big wolves. They are all snarling, saliva dripping from their mouths. Each of the wolves has a different coloured coat, different shades of grey. The biggest, a male at the front is the lightest. He looks at Arella and bows his head slightly. As they walk past Maska, his face dripping with blood, one of them looks and him and nods. Maska nods back, then sits down on his haunches and cleans his face. The wolves pass straight by Arella, all looking at her as they go, and move onto Goat and Wolf. Most of them are staring at her. She turns to run in the opposite direction, but the wolves cut her off. One of the smaller, faster wolves darts in front of Wolf, stopping her from going any further. Goat tries to get to Wolf but he is caught in his tracks too. Within a flash they are on her. Arella turns away from the scene, not wanting to see the woman torn apart. She can hear it, and that is enough for her. As Arella turns away, she hears Goat start to scream as well. The wolves have them both, and nature is being restored. Arella picks up her bag and her and Maska leaves the wolves to their prey. The last thing she hears as she walks away are the dying screams of the woman who tried to murder her.


White Ghost and the Poison Arrow

Arella is an outcast in her tribe, white skinned and silver haired, bright purple eyes and a strong will, while the others are dark skinned and passive. She longs to be free of the chains of society, but does not realize the dangers of this. Arella will soon come to find that the real world is not so easy to live with... When she starts finding animals in the forest poisoned by arrows, she knows she must do something, but what? Will she find who is doing it? And will she be able to stop them without losing her own life? Under the lone tree sits a girl of fourteen. Skin flawless and white as snow, hair as silver as the moon its-self. The breeze catches a wisp of hair, blowing it in front of her eyes. She takes her hair into her hand and pulls it all to her right, tying it into a loose braid. Using the water of the lake to see her reflection, she replaces the onyx coloured feathers she removed from her hair just a few hours ago, then secures it all with a leather strap at the bottom. She pulls her doe skin cloak tight around her shoulders. The breeze is nice, fresh and sweet, but still has the winter chill. The fabric of her trousers is soft but warm, made from the skin of a paloa fox, abundant in the grasslands. Many of the people in her tribe wear paloa skins, and they have been passed down through the generations.

  • ISBN: 9781310072635
  • Author: Kellie Steele
  • Published: 2015-12-28 11:50:18
  • Words: 57223
White Ghost and the Poison Arrow White Ghost and the Poison Arrow