A Tale of Hope
The Dragon Thieves
Table of Contents
Other Titles Available
About the Author
Deep inside a dark cave in the heart of the Wandering Oak Forest, lived a young Rahken, a breed of dragon, feared for their deadly acid spit.
Not too long ago, on a day much like today, the Rahken awoke and discovered her family had disappeared. No note. No signs of a struggle. Her mother, father, and sister had simply vanished. She wasn’t entirely alone, though. She shared her cave with bats, snakes, snails, and other creepy crawlies.
Since that dreadful day, life had become colorless. She never went outside and she didn’t know anyone. She spent her days hiding in her cave, afraid of what lurked beyond the entrance. And with no one to provide her with food or to even show her how to hunt, her stomach ached and growled with hunger.
One morning, an unusual noise woke her up. Thinking her family was returning, she leaped from her bed of rocks and scampered across the cave floor. I knew they’d come back, she said to herself, as she rushed to greet them.
Near the entrance, she skidded to a halt. Rahkens have enhanced eyesight in the dark, and she immediately knew the source of the noise wasn’t her family as no large dragon was there to greet her. Instead, a furry, four-legged animal was bouncing towards her cave. She spun around and scurried back to her bed of rocks, curling herself into a little ball.
A moment later, she peeked with one eye to see if it had followed her. The intruder had wandered to the back of her cave, talking to itself.
“They’ll never find me in here,” the intruder said. Its voice drew nearer and the young Rahken kept her eyes tightly shut.
But then she heard it breathing and sensed the intruder standing right next to her. Her heart pounded so loudly, she thought the creature would hear it.
Time passed slowly, and before long, not knowing if the intruder could see her became too stressful. She carefully opened one eye a little, revealing the strangest creature she had ever seen. It appeared giant-like with its four legs towering over her. Its light blue fur nearly blended into the darkness except for a small patch of white on its chest, and its tongue sagged loosely from its mouth.
What is this?
The intruder sat down, resting its furry body against the Rahken. Her heart nearly burst through her chest. She closed her eyes and held her breath. Then, her body began to shake rapidly.
What’s going on?
“Ah…” the furry intruder said. “That’s the spot. Oh yeah.”
A moment later the shaking stopped then the furry intruder collapsed next to her. She couldn’t contain her curiosity and snuck another look. The creature had stretched itself out, resting its head on its front legs. It seemed that it wasn’t leaving anytime soon.
Her hands went numb. Her head ached. Then without warning, she hiccupped.
“Who’s there?” the intruder whispered.
“Hic,” she hiccupped again, causing her eyes to unintentionally open.
The intruder sprung up on all fours. “Who…who’s there?”
The creature looked down and made eye contact with the Rahken. She quickly closed her eyes.
The Rahken held her breath and clamped her mouth shut, trying to prevent another hiccup. It didn’t help.
“What the heck?” the intruder said. The Rahken felt something spongy and wet nudge her wing. “What are you?”
The Rahken surrendered, opened her eyes, and looked up, the intruder looming over her. Slowly she uncurled herself, sat up, and pulled her wings in close.
“You’re a Rahken!” it cried out in shock.
The intruder looked around quickly. “Your family. Are they here?”
She shook her head.
“But they’ll be back soon, right?” the intruder asked.
She shook her head again.
“What’s your name?”
She lowered her eyes and shrugged. “I don’t have one.”
The intruder tilted his head to one side. “How come you don’t have a name? Everyone has a name. Mine’s Ruff.”
“Ruff,” she echoed and smiled.
“Well, you can’t go around without a name. Give me some time, and I’ll fix ya up with a good one. Okay?”
She nodded firmly.
“Can you fly?”
“A little,” she said.
“Show me what ya got.”
Not wanting to disappoint her guest, the only creature in the world she knew, she reluctantly agreed.
She unfurled her body and shook the numbness out of her arms. She bent her knees and looked up. You can do this, she encouraged herself. She counted to three and flapped her wings, then took off like a rocket towards the ceiling. Her body thumped into a stalactite, sending debris to the ground, narrowly missing Ruff. A moment later, she thudded to the ground too. She staggered to her feet and shook her head, dirt flying everywhere.
Ruff laughed hard. “I think you need to practice the takeoff.”
The Rahken’s face warmed and she lowered her eyes. “Why are you here?” she asked.
“I’m playing a game with my older brothers. They call it hide and seek.”
The Rahken’s eyes brightened. “Oh, I like that game. I played it with my sister.”
“Yeah, well not like this you haven’t. I call it bury the pup,” he said, none too happy.
“Well, you see, it goes like this. I hide, and if my brothers find me, then they bury me up to my neck.”
The Rahken crinkled her nose. “That doesn’t sound like fun.”
“It’s not, which is why I’ve gotten good at hiding.” Ruff turned and looked towards the mouth of the cave. “I don’t think they’ll find me in here.”
The Rahken shook her head. “Boys are strange.”
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” he asked.
The Rahken shied away and didn’t answer.
“Oooookay,” he said. “What about your mom and dad? You do have a family, right”
The Rahken’s eyes filled with tears, and her wings slumped. She looked away and sniffled. “I did.”
“You’re here alone?” he said, confused.
Ruff sat down and scratched behind his ear. “I’m sorry. Maybe you can come live with my family. I’ll ask my parents tonight.”
She wiped her eyes dry and straightened up. “Really?”
“Absolutely! Stick with me. There’s hope for you yet.”
She smiled and swelled with joy.
“That’s it!” Ruff cried.
She shook her head and shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t get it.”
“Hope. It’s a great name for a…” Ruff paused.
“Girl,” Hope finished.
“Yes. Don’t you think?”
“Hope,” she said, trying out her new name. “I like it.”
They laughed together. It was the first time she had laughed since her family had disappeared. She liked Ruff and tried to imagine what it would be like to live with him and his family when she suddenly realized she had no idea what he was.
“What are you?” she asked.
“No, silly. I mean, what are you? You knew I was a Rahken, but I don’t know what you are.”
Ruff chuckled. “Oh, right. I’m a wolf.”
“How did you know what I was? Have you seen my family?” She waited, brimming with anticipation.
“Sorry, I haven’t seen them. But everyone knows what a Rahken is,” Ruff explained. “Big, black, scaly-winged creatures with pointy tails. Like you. Well, except for the big part.” Ruff laughed. “I crack myself up.”
“So I’ve noticed,” Hope said rolling her eyes.
“Anyway, not many can claim to have ever seen a Rahken. Parents tell their children bedtime stories about you guys. You only come out at night and being as dark as you are, well, it’s almost impossible to spot one unless it’s a full moon.”
“So, I shouldn’t go out on a full moon?”
“Probably not. Humans hunt Rahkens, just like they hunt us wolves. We have to be extra careful. That’s why my older brothers play hide the pup, to teach me how to stay out of danger, or at least that’s what they tell me.” Ruff smirked.
“Humans?” Hope said.
“People,” he said. “They walk on two legs, they smell, and they’re nastier than a Fenrir.”
“What’s a Fenrir?” Hope felt embarrassed asking so many questions. She knew so little about the world.
“Geez, you do have a lot to learn. That’s all right, though. I got your back.”
Hope heaved a long sigh. “Thanks.”
Just then, a loud growl echoed against the cave walls. Hope and Ruff shrank into the shadows and hid.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” a thick voice taunted them.
“Oh great,” Ruff groaned. “It’s my brothers. Quick, hide. Curl up again. But this time, try not to hiccup.”
The chance to meet Ruff’s brothers filled Hope with excitement. “But why? Won’t they want me to come home too?”
“I uh…I’m not so sure about that,” Ruff stammered. “I’ll have to ask my folks first. To explain things.”
Ruff sighed. “Wolves are supposed to be afraid of Rahkens. It’ll take some time to convince them, ya know? But I’m a good judge of character, and I can tell you’re all right.”
“I-I don’t understand. Why would they be afraid of me?”
Ruff looked away, kicking dirt up off the ground. “Well, you see, Rahkens eat wolves.”
Hope gasped. “I’d never eat you!”
“I believe you,” Ruff said. Sounds of footsteps drew closer. “Hide. Quick.”
Hope laid down and curled into a ball. She replayed what Ruff had said about Rahkens. It can’t be true. Who would want to eat Ruff?
“Geez,” Ruff whispered to Hope. “If I didn’t know any better I’d mistake you for a rock. Now stay like that. And no hiccups.”
The temptation to peek was too much to bear. Hope opened one eye and saw two more wolves approaching. One was a little bigger than Ruff with black fur, and the other was huge with tawny brown fur.
“Look what we have here,” the huge wolf said.
“You’re getting sloppy, Ruff,” the other wolf said in a gruff voice. “It wasn’t hard to find you this time.”
“You’re too good at this, Moose,” Ruff admitted. “It took you a while, though. You must have stopped to eat.” Ruff laughed. His brothers did not and glared at him. Ruff gulped. “Well, I guess you’ll be burying me now. Come on, let’s get out of here.”
“What?” Moose said, shocked. “You aren’t going to try and run? Can you believe this, Chewy?”
“What a downer,” Chewy said. “You’re taking all the fun out of the game.”
“So, you’re not going to bury me this time?” Ruff asked, hopeful.
“Oh, you’re not that lucky,” Moose said.
“Fine, let’s go then,” Ruff said and started to leave.
Hope watched the three wolves walk towards the entrance, and followed from a distance. Just before Ruff left, he turned his head and winked at Hope.
“Ow!” Ruff yelped when Chewy bit his tail.
Hope stopped at the edge of the cave and felt the warm sun against her skin. She had finally made a friend. And now she had a name. “Hope,” she said out loud. She enjoyed the way it sounded. And it was certainly better than her sister’s name.
She wasn’t ready to leave her home yet and so she returned to her bed of rocks. Not long after Ruff left, the loneliness returned, and she wondered if he would ever return. His family was afraid of her kind, and she doubted they would accept her.
Hope laid her head down and sighed. Her stomach growled, reminding her another day had passed without food. Not only did she not know how to hunt, but she didn’t know where to hunt. She knew one thing for sure, though, no matter how hungry she got, she would never eat a wolf.
The next morning, Hope awoke to the all too familiar sound of her stomach growling. She stretched her wings, yawned, and smacked her lips. Her mouth was as dry as the dirt she slept on.
She shuffled to the mouth of the cave and stepped outside for the first time since her family had disappeared. The sun was bright and it felt warm. Birds chirped in the distance. She looked around, hoping to see her new friend, Ruff.
Hope’s stomach growled again. “I know already,” she whined, rubbing it. Beyond the clearing outside her cave, she saw only trees. Thick and tall. Not knowing where to find food and water, she picked a direction and began looking. No point in standing around. It’s not like food is going to come to me.
Suddenly the bushes nearby began to rattle, startling her. Hope jumped back, her heart beating rapidly. “Who’s there?”
The bushes stopped moving and everything went silent. Hope took a deep breath then crept closer for a better look, when all at once a creature sprang out and Hope fell backwards.
“Hiya Hope!” Ruff said, wagging his tail.
“Grrr! You scared the heck out of me,” she cried.
She stood back up and dusted herself off. “Well, your timing is perfect.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“I’m starving.” Her stomach grumbled loud enough for Ruff to hear it. He stepped away cautiously.
“I’m not going to eat you,” she said. “Besides, you’re too big,” she added and laughed.
“Uh-huh,” Ruff said with a weak grin.
“I’m joking. But seriously, I need food,” she smacked her lips. “And water.”
“Promise me, if you meet my parents, you won’t do that?” Ruff shuddered.
“Smack your lips. It’s a little disturbing.”
She had not realized how touchy wolves were around Rahkens. She felt bad and changed the subject.
“So, did you tell your parents about me last night?”
“I meant to.” Ruff lowered his head.
“What happened?” Hope saw the sad look on his face and regretted having asked him.
“A wolf in our pack went missing. We think hunters snatched him.”
She gasped. “Oh no, I’m so sorry.” She couldn’t help but wonder if it were hunters who had stolen her family. “What’s his name?”
Hope had many other questions she wanted to ask about these hunters. [_Where were they from? Where did they take the creatures? What did they do to them? _]But she realized now wasn’t the right time and she changed the subject. “How about you show me where to find water around here?”
Ruff’s eyes grew large. “Oh man, there’s an awesome lake nearby. Follow me.” Ruff’s paws gripped the dirt enthusiastically, propelling him forward and into the forest.
Hope flew low to the ground and struggled to keep up, occasionally bouncing off rocks and tripping over fallen branches. Soon they entered a part of the woods she had never seen before. Her parents had always brought her everything she needed, but today she was learning to do it herself, and she felt like they would be proud of her.
Hope quickly discovered the forest was full of unusual creatures. A small, furry critter with long droopy ears scurried towards her, stopping at her feet. It sniffed once then ran in the other direction. Hope gasped when she saw an eye in the back of its head. It blinked and then the animal disappeared into the bushes.
Another creature nearly went unnoticed, blending in with the leaf it squatted on. She moved in for a closer look and saw that while most of it appeared to be green, its body was transparent. She saw its muscles, organs…everything. It jumped from the leaf and landed on a piece of fallen bark, and the creature turned brown. Hope giggled.
She had fallen behind and Ruff slowed down for her to catch up. She did a somersault over a rock and landed on her back. Ruff shook his head. “So, how come you didn’t have a name?” Ruff continued at a walking pace.
Hope spat out some dirt and stayed by Ruff’s side. “Newborn Rahkens have to wait a month before they’re given a name.”
“That seems strange,” he said.
“Not really,” she defended. “You gotta show what kinda personality you have first and then you get your name.”
“We do something like that in our family too,” Ruff confessed. “We just don’t wait [_that _]long. So, what are your parent’s names? If you don’t mind talking about them.”
Hope shook her head and smiled. She had known her family for less than a month, but she missed them tremendously. She felt optimistic, though, that one day they would be reunited. Talking about them kept her feeling connected to them. “My mother’s name is Kaleth the Warm.”
“That sounds nice.”
Hope nodded and smiled. “My father’s name is Raziel the Brave.” Hope’s little chest swelled with pride.
“Cool name,” Ruff said. “You have a sister, right? I hope she wasn’t mean to you like my brothers. It took me nearly an hour to dig myself out of that hole last night. I think they were mad because I didn’t try to run.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know you did that to help me.”
Ruff stopped and smiled at her. “It’s all right. That’s what friends are for.”
Hope beamed. Nobody had called her ‘friend’ before. “I only have one sister, Tyrath the Vain,” she said and giggled.
Ruff continued walking. “The Vain?” he said, raising an eyebrow. “And I thought Chewy was an odd name.”
“Yeah, my sister is always looking at her reflection and cleaning herself. I call her Narcy behind her back.”
Ruff tilted his head to one side and asked, “Why?”
“Narcy…Narcissist.” Ruff looked at her with a blank expression. “Ugh, never mind. It’s not funny if you have to explain it.”
Ruff shrugged. “If you say so… hey, we’re here! Fathead Lake,” he added in an excited tone.
Hope had stopped paying attention to where she was going and found herself at the edge of a bluff that overlooked a large expanse of sparkling green water. Birds flew overhead and animals drank at the shore. At the far right end, a waterfall fed into it, creating heaps of white foam.
“Fathead?” she asked. “Why is it called that?”
“Supposedly,” Ruff explained, “at the bottom of the lake lives this huge creature without a body. It’s been there a hundred years! It only has a fat, slimy head with tiny feet sticking out. Or so I’ve been told. Like Rahkens, not many people have seen it.”
“It? There’s only one of them?”
“And who told you this?” she asked with a skeptical tone.
“My grandfather, Benjamin. I call him Benji,” Ruff said. “He’s full of awesome old stories about these lands.”
“If you say so,” Hope said.
Ruff shrugged. “My grandfather’s probably a little crazy but you’d like him a lot.” A fish jumped and splashed back into the water. “Lunch is ready.”
“Finally!” Hope licked her lips and rubbed her stomach.
“I’ll race you down,” Ruff said. He didn’t wait for Hope to answer and took off down a dirt path.
“You’re on,” Hope yelled. “Silly boys,” she muttered and jumped off the edge and glided safely to the shore.
“Hey, that’s cheating!” Ruff cried, still racing down the path.
Hope laughed as she splashed water on her dry skin. She had drunk several mouthfuls before Ruff caught up. “I’m not a cheater,” she said. “You never said what the rules are. And besides, you got a head start. So, who’s the real cheater?” She stuck out her tongue.
“Whatever,” Ruff said and splashed water at her.
“Oh, you wanna play that game?” She spread her wings and with one quick sweep she tossed a tiny amount of water that barely covered one of his paws.
“HA! HA!” he howled. “That’s it?”
“No,” she said, frowning. She dipped her wings in the water and flapped them with blurred movement. When she finished, he was soaked. Hope laughed so hard she lost her balance and fell backwards into the water.
When she stood up to shake herself off, she heard voices shouting nearby.
“Hunters!” Ruff cried.
Hope spotted three strangers standing at the edge of the cliff where she and Ruff were moments ago. “What do we do?”
“Follow me.” Ruff dug his paws into the ground and sped away.
Hope started to follow when a hunter’s net caught the edge of her tail. She flicked it off and sped after Ruff. She caught up to him, and eventually passed him. She was terrified and considered flying away, but she couldn’t bring herself to abandon her friend. She slowed down, giving him time to catch up.
“Through here,” Ruff said. He dove to the ground, wedged himself under a large, arched root, and disappeared beneath a tree. Hope squeezed in beside him.
After a long minute, Hope crept forward and peeked out from under the root. One of the hunters was very close. He stalked his way towards the tree, turning his head slowly from side to side. Hope thought he was too tall and wide to get at them, but his thick arms carried a long sword that could be used to hurt them. Or worse.
“I think they went over there,” he yelled to the other hunters. He inched closer to the tree and stopped a couple of feet away.
“I think they’re gone,” another hunter replied.
The hunter close to Hope spat on the ground. “They ain’t gettin’ far. Keep lookin’” He turned his back to the tree and looked around, scratching his thick beard.
Hope began to quiver. Then “HIC!”
“What was that?” The hunter swung around and pointed his sword at the tree. “What was that?”
Hope covered her mouth and held her breath. The hunter knelt and appeared to be looking right at her. “Oh no,”[_ ]she said into her hands.[ _]Ruff grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her back. He wrapped his front legs around her and held her close.
“Shh,” he whispered.
Is this how my sister felt when she was taken? Hope thought. Her heart pounded and her head spun as she wondered how it had happened to her family. What had the hunters done with them?
The bearded hunter leaned in closer to the tree. “Who’s there?”
Suddenly something fell from above and whacked the hunter on the back of his head. “Gosh dangit!”
“You find something, Harley?” a voice called out.
“Only the ground,” another voice said laughing.
“Shut yer mouth, Flint,” Harley shouted. He stood up and brushed himself off.
“They’re gone,” Flint said. “Shoulda brought the dogs. Let’s get outta here. I’m hungry.”
Harley lumbered away. “You’re always hungry,” he muttered. He raised his voice. “They were too young anyway. Wouldn’t fetch much of a price.”
The hunters’ voices drifted away.
“That was way too close,” Ruff said, letting go of Hope.
Hope’s eyes filled with tears of anger and fear. “I bet they know where my family is.”
“Probably,” Ruff said. “But there’s nothing we can do. They’re too dangerous.”
“Has anyone tried to stop them?” Hope asked.
“You mean anyone that lived to talk about it?” Ruff shook his head. “Stay away from them. You can’t take ‘em on by yourself. You’re too little.”
“Yeah, but I won’t be this small forever,” she snarled.
“I’m starting to think maybe I should have waited a month to name you.”
“Maybe you should be called Hope the Crazy,” Ruff said and his body shook with laughter.
Hope pretended to laugh. She knew Ruff couldn’t understand what it was like to wake up without a family. She didn’t blame him for wanting to protect her and decided it was best to change the subject. “What do you think they meant by fetching a price?”
“I overheard my father talking to my mother once about them selling what they catch.”
“No idea, sorry.”
It had been a week since Hope’s family had disappeared. She wondered if it was too late to rescue them. Had they been sold? [_They could be anywhere in this forest, _]she thought. She was upset with herself for losing a week moping around in her cave. It was now time to act.
“You should talk to your parents, tonight,” Hope said. “Tell them about me. I bet they’d like to have a Rahken on their side to help get rid of these hunters.”
“I say this as your friend, Hope. If those hunters are responsible for taking your family, then what can you do? I mean, they took down full-grown Rahkens.”
“Don’t underestimate me because of my size. I’m determined. And I bet those hunters snuck up on my family. I won’t let that happen. I’ll be coming after them.”
“Crazy,” Ruff said, shaking his head. “But all right. I’ll tell my parents, but I can’t promise anything.”
She smiled and wrapped her wings around Ruff’s neck. “Thank you.”
Hope understood that the ones you love could be taken away in an instant. Had she learned this before, there were things she would have said more often to her family. She wasn’t about to make that mistake with Ruff. “I like you a lot,” she whispered and held on to him a little longer.
Ruff lowered his head and rubbed his wet nose against the back of her neck. “Ditto,” he said. “Now let’s get outta here and get you home safe.”
They stuck to the dense forest, unwilling to take any chances out in the open. It took Ruff almost thirty minutes longer than it should have to get Hope home, but it was better to be safe than sorry, or as Ruff had put it, “It’s better to be safe than to be someone’s lunch.”
Ruff searched Hope’s cave to make sure it was clear before he headed out. “I gotta head back or my folks will start to worry. And I promise I’ll talk to them tonight.” Hope smiled. “I’ll bring you some food tomorrow too, as we couldn’t get you any today.”
Hope’s stomach growled as if it understood what he had said, and they both laughed.
Ruff winked and walked away. When he was gone, she shuffled back to her bed of rocks, still feeling hungry. She decided to sleep until the sun went down, and explore the forest at night, when she was less visible to hunters and other dangers.
She had almost dozed off when a snake slithered by. Her stomach growled, again. She didn’t eat it, though. She shared the cave with it and the other critter, which gave her a sense of not being so alone.
Hope slept for several hours, eager to start the search for her parents. She skipped through the cave and waited at the entrance. The sun was a dark orange ball hanging low in the distance. It wouldn’t be long before she could go out and move around, unseen.
She imagined finding her family. Flying home together, soaring through the open sky as one big happy family again. Soon, the forest was blanketed in total darkness.
Perfect, she thought and stepped out of her cave, ready to find the hunters.
Hope remembered that the hunters had gone north, and so she headed in the same direction to begin her search. Without the adrenaline of danger surging through her, she lacked the confidence to fly, and instead chose to walk through the forest. I’ll practice flying another time, she thought. Tonight was all about staying unseen.
The night was eerily quiet, but she knew it was very much alive as nothing escaped her eyes. She stepped carefully, moving from tree to tree, stopping every now and then to make sure she wasn’t being followed. Along the way, Hope discovered new creatures. And without Ruff here to teach her what they were, she decided to make up names for them.
She stumbled upon an odd-looking creature, short and thick, buried beneath a mound of hair. It had a wide, flat nose that protruded through its fur, sniffing at the ground. She called it a Snifflet.
Another animal nearly made her jump out of her skin. Its small dark body clung to the bark of a tree with its long, bony fingers. It had giant ears and big glowing eyes. Tufts of hair popped up in patches on its leather-like skin. Hope shivered, and scurried away without naming it or looking back.
Then she spotted something that made her stop and forget why she was there. Her eyes widened, fixed on a creature that moved gracefully through the forest, like a spirit, as if it were gliding across its surface. It had thick, bulging muscles ready to burst through its stark blue skin. Yellow swirls marked its shoulders and hind legs, and at its rear extended a thin but sturdy-looking tail. The only name she could come up for the creature was forest spirit. Her eyes lingered on it for a little longer, and then it disappeared. She continued carefully, unsure of what else she might find ahead.
After a while, Hope heard voices in the distance. She crept closer, her heart thudding against her chest. She had arrived at the southern edge of the hunters’ camp.
“The hunters,” she whispered.
The camp was brightly lit with torches. Crates were stacked all around, some empty and some overflowing with ropes, clothes, and food. At one end, stood two wagons with a horse attached to each. At the other end were three tents. In the middle burned a small fire.
The voices grew louder, but Hope couldn’t see anyone. She circled right, working her way around the outter edge, sticking to the shadows. She reached the north side and wedged herself between old worn crates. She recognized a voice. It was the bearded hunter named Harley.
Hope poked her head between the crates, crinkled her nose, and pulled away. “Ruff was right. Humans do stink.” She took a deep breath and looked again. Three men stood nearby wearing heavy, checkered jackets. Harley stood in the middle. He was the tallest and wore a tight knit hat.
A short bald man rubbed his fat hands together, and blowing into them said, “How much longer we gonna search these woods?”
“Till I say we’re finished,” Harley rasped. “There’s a lot of money to be made in these here woods. Be mighty stupid to leave some behind.”
The third man, who had a face that looked like a bird Hope had seen earlier that day, pushed his long, straggly hair out of his eyes and added, “Harley’s right. Just gotta have patience, Ned.”
Ned thrust his hands in his pockets, kicked at the dirt, and walked away.
“Where ya goin’?” Harley demanded. Ned didn’t answer. “Hey, I’m talkin’ to ya here. Yer goin’ deaf or somethin’?” Harley looked at the bird-faced man with disbelief in his eyes. “C’mon, Flint. Let’s go see what’s stuck up in his craw.” The two men marched away.
Hope snuck around the camp to make sure she hadn’t missed anything. When she reached the other side, she found empty crates next to animals chained to a pole. They spotted Hope and barked and thrashed at her with crazed looks on their faces.
Hope nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Shut up!” Harley yelled.
Hope crept away. The beasts ignored Harley and continued to bark. Harley stomped over and raised his voice. “I told ya to SHUT UP!”
Hope froze. Her eyes met Harley’s. She had no idea if he had spotted her. But she wasn’t eager to stick around to find out. She bolted, however she didn’t get far. She tripped over a wire and found herself trapped beneath a huge net.
An alarm sounded.
The camp erupted with noise. Hope watched helplessly as Harley gathered equipment while Ned unlocked the beasts. “Get it, boys!” The crazed beasts bared their teeth and tore after Hope.
Hope’s blood pounded so hard, she could barely think. She knew it wouldn’t take the beasts long to reach her. She needed to focus if she wanted to live another day to find her family. Then she remembered what her father had taught her about Rahken defense; the best weapon she had. She sucked in a deep breath. Her chest swelled to several times its normal size. She exhaled and belched green liquid onto the net, burning it away, creating enough space for her to squeeze through.
The beasts were almost upon her when the forest spirit slammed into them from out of nowhere, knocking them away. It turned its attention to Hope and roared, “GO!”
Now was not the time to worry about flying well. Hope spread her wings and shot upwards without looking back. She sped through the trees, dodging left and right, ducking the thick branches, and snapping a few thin ones. She heard a yelp from below and pressed on. Seconds felt like minutes, and then she burst out into the starry night and stopped, hovering above the forest.
She took a moment to catch her breath. She had never seen the forest from this view before. A sea of thick trees spread outward in every direction. She gazed at the mountains. For the first time, she could see more than only the tip. It stretched wide, filling the horizon. Then she spotted Fathead Lake and she was relieved, because in all the commotion, she had lost track of the direction of home.
Hope buzzed around the treetops for a while, getting used to flying, occasionally clipping the tree branches. Soon flying became effortless. She felt free with the wind caressing her face. Then she remembered the forest spirit. He had saved her life and she not only needed to thank him, but she had to make sure he made it out alive.
She circled her way down the trees in search of her rescuer. She returned to where she had last seen him and found nothing but the burned net that had trapped her. She flew back to the camp. It was quiet, with no hunters or beasts. She checked the cages and noticed they were still empty. She heaved a sigh of relief. The forest spirit[_ _]had escaped, but she would not be satisfied until she found him.
She flew around the camp, circling it several times, but she still found no sign of her rescuer. She decided to head home and find him another day. She was nearly home when she caught a movement to her right. She flew over and spotted the forest spirit, limping. Hope landed in front of it.
The creature stopped abruptly. It frowned at her and said, “I thought I told you to get out of here.”
“I wanted to thank you for what you did back there.”
“It was nothing. Now go on, get,” the forest spirit barked and limped past her, brushing her aside.
She zipped in front of the creature and stopped. “I’m Hope.”
“Good for you.”
The creature tried to sidestep past Hope, but this time, she moved with him. “If you won’t tell me your name then at least tell me why you helped.”
It sighed. “If I knew you were going to be this annoying, I wouldn’t have.”
Hope’s eyes narrowed. “You’re lying.”
“Am I? Shall we go find the dogs and see?”
“Oh, so that’s what those beasts are called,” Hope said. “I would have called them chompers.” They stared at each other for a moment. Her rescuer didn’t seem amused. “I bet you don’t like those hunters any more than I do. And I bet you want to get rid of them, too.” The creature stood as still as stone. Hope continued, “I bet if we work together, gather more animals in the forest like you–”
“I am one of a kind,” the creature said, annoyed.
“Yes, I’m sure you’re quite special. That’s not my point–”
“And you’re too small,” the creature interrupted. “You’re of no use to me…not that I need help.”
Doesn’t anybody understand I won’t always be this small? Hope sighed. Irritated with its insults and interruptions, she said firmly, “Listen, I can fly around and get information about these hunters a lot safer than you. I can go unseen and–”
The creature raised an eyebrow. “Like you did tonight?”
“I’m still learning what’s out here,” she defended. The forest spirit caught Hope off guard and limped past. “Wait, please,” she begged. “That won’t happen again. I promise.” The creature ignored her and continued to limp away. “You don’t understand. They took away my family. I need to get them back, but I don’t know where they were taken.”
The creature stopped, and without looking back at Hope, said, “No, you don’t understand. They’re way too dangerous.”
The creature didn’t leave though, and Hope felt she might have gotten through to it. That it cared and might really help. Unwilling to give up, she flew around it once again. “Please, I need your help. I can’t do this alone.”
“Obviously,” the creature said.
Hope smiled. “Could you at least tell me your name?”
The creature sighed. “Fine. I’m Buffasip.”
Hope fought hard not to laugh, but in the end, she couldn’t resist and blurted out through laughter, “Buffa what?”
“There’s nothing funny about my name. Among my kind, it means the Loyal One.”
Hope snorted. “I thought you were one of a kind?”
“I…I am,” he stammered, puffing his chest out and flexing his massive muscles. “I meant that there’s no other creature, not even among my kind, as good looking, strong, and as intelligent as I am.”
“You’d get along great with my sister.”
He tilted his head. “What does that mean?”
“Never mind. So, I have a friend who’s willing to help. Will you at least meet us tomorrow morning?”
Buffasip relaxed his shoulders and nodded. “At your cave?”
“How do you know where I live?”
His eyes filled with disbelief. “Are you serious?”
“Every intelligent creature around these parts knows where the Rahkens live. It’s how we survive. We stay out of your way and you don’t eat us. It’s quite simple, really.”
“Well, I’m not going to eat you.”
“Not yet. You’re too small.”
“No, never!” Hope snapped. “When I give you my word you can count on it. Okay?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
Hope clenched her fists and nearly burst with frustration. She took a deep breath and tried to relax. She knew in time, creatures like Buffasip and the wolves would stop fearing her. For now, she played along with the I’m too small to eat you strategy to get the help she needed.
“See you bright and early,” she said and flew away before he changed his mind.
Hope returned to her cave and relaxed on her bed of rocks. She stayed up late practicing his name until she could say it without laughing. It was obvious he was very proud, and she didn’t want to offend him. She needed all the help she could get.
“Buffasip,” she said through tear-filled laughter. “Ugh. One more time…”
Hope woke before the sun the next morning to work on her flying skills. “I’m tired of everyone calling me little,” she moaned as she grazed the wall. Then she did a back-flip, reversed direction, and shot across the cave. “I’ll show them what little creatures can do.”
Hope flew up near the ceiling, weaving around the stalactites, and then plunged towards the ground, leveling off inches before impact. She glided across the floor and did a few loops. “This cave is too small,” she griped and flew outside. She soared high above the trees and hovered, looking down. Everything looked so tiny, much smaller than her.
In the distance, beyond the slopes of the mountain, Hope saw several flames. [_Hunters? _]she wondered. She peered through the darkness and sighed. Even for a Rahken, it was too far away to tell. Just then the sun began to rise. She decided to worry about the flames later, and to ask Ruff and Buffasip about them.
She headed home, stopping short of the entrance to the cave when she spotted a pair of eyes inside. She shivered, fearing the worst. Hunters.
Whatever was inside Hope’s cave, disappeared to the back, out of sight. She flew in closer for a better look, and then…
“Hope?” Ruff called out. She swooped down and landed at the entrance. “There you are,” he said. “You had me worried. I thought hunters had got to you.”
“For a moment there I thought you were a hunter.”
“Me?” Ruff laughed. “You can always tell a hunter is nearby, by their smell.” He shook his body, sending bits of fur floating into the air. “They’re stinky.”
“I know. I smelled them last night.”
Ruff’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “What happened? Where were you? Are you all right?”
“Which question do you want me to answer first?” Hope gave him a small smile. “It’s not too far from here.”
“I can’t believe you went alone,” he said. “Without me. That wasn’t smart. You really are crazy.”
“I wasn’t alone. I had help. Sort of.”
Hope had practiced for this moment all night. With a straight face, she said, “Buffasip.”
She pointed behind Ruff. “Him.”
Ruff swung his head around. “You,” he growled. “You’re a–”
Buffasip marched into the cave, head held high. Hope noticed his limp was gone. [_He heals pretty fast. _]He stopped in front of Ruff, and flexed. “A Guardian of the Wandering Oak Forest,” he finished.
Ruff jumped away, his ears pinned back. Ruff glared at Hope. “Do you realize what you’ve invited here?”
Hope shook her head.
“He’s no [_Guardian. _]He’s a Fenrir! A wolf, like me, but far more dangerous.” Ruff scowled at Buffasip.
“I am [_nothing _]like you and your mangy kind. And I don’t go by that word.”
“Fenrir,” Ruff repeated, defiantly.
Buffasip sighed. “I’ve been protecting these lands for ages. And not just here, but to the south and east as well.”
“What about to the west?” Hope asked, remembering the fires she spotted earlier. “I saw fires, beyond the mountain. What’s out there?”
“Nothing,” Buffasip said. “The land ends at the ocean. Beyond that, I don’t know. It’s beyond reach.”
Ruff snorted. “Guardian, my–”
“Ruff, please,” Hope pleaded. “He helped me escape from the hunters’ dogs last night. You can trust him.”
Buffasip lifted his chin and grinned.
Ruff relaxed, but his gaze remained fixed on the Fenrir, their eyes locked onto each other. Hope flew between them, breaking their staring contest. She hovered above Ruff and said, “Someone promised to bring me food, but I don’t see any.”
Ruff lowered his head. “Sorry, my brother Moose caught me sneaking food out and took it away. Then he ate it.”
“His name fits him well,” Buffasip said.
“Whatever,” Ruff snapped. “I can get some more.”
“Well, we’re not gonna find any in here,” Hope said.
The three left the cave side-by-side with Hope in the middle, separating her friends so they wouldn’t bicker. When they reached the bluff, Hope swooped down from the edge as before. When she landed, she turned around and watched her friends race for second.
“See ya!” Ruff cried and sprinted down the path.
Buffasip snickered then stepped back out of Hope’s sight. After a few seconds, when Ruff was nearly halfway down the path, Buffasip reappeared at the edge and leaped. He soared through the air, his muscular legs extended, reaching for the ground and landing gracefully. He strolled over to Hope, sat down, and waited for Ruff.
Moments later, Ruff arrived, breathless. Hope collapsed with laughter. Ruff shot a glare her way and she covered her mouth. He brushed past Buffasip. “Show off,” he grumbled.
Hope flew above the lake then dove into the water and caught a fish. She did this a couple more times. It was her first meal in a week.
“Better?” Ruff asked with a caring smile.
Hope laughed. “Much better.”
“Yes, yes, now that you’re fed can we get on with things?” Buffasip asked impatiently.
“Well, well, well. Look what we have here,” a voice snarled from above.
Hope recognized the voice from her cave and jerked her head around. “CHEWY!” she shrieked.
“MOOSE!” Ruff added.
“I’m starting to think this lake isn’t a safe place to hang out,” Hope said.
“Oh great. More of you,” Buffasip muttered. He wandered over to the water and had a drink.
Moose and Chewy bounded down the trail. Ruff sprinted over, cutting them off.
“You have friends?” Chewy asked and raised his eyebrows.
“No way,” Moose jeered.
Ruff’s brothers tried to circle around him, but he mirrored their movements, keeping himself between them and Hope.
“Whatcha hidin’ little brother?” Moose asked curiously.
Moose and Chewy looked at each other, and nodded and dodged around Ruff. Chewy went left and Moose went right. Ruff darted side to side but he couldn’t keep his brothers away. “Enough!” Ruff barked, chasing after them.
Chewy’s eyes filled with horror. “Is that a Rahken?”
“No,” Ruff lied.
“I think it is,” Moose said. “Let’s eat it.”
“Leave her alone,” Ruff growled.
“Yeah. Nobody’s going to eat me,” Hope said annoyed.
“Oh, look at the little pup,” Chewy said.
“Sticking up for his girlfriend,” Moose taunted.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” Ruff insisted.
“She got a name?” Chewy asked.
“Hello,” Hope said waving her hand. “I’m right here. You can talk to me, you know.”
“Who cares what it’s called,” Moose said, licking his chops. “Let’s just eat it.”
“What part of [_nobody’s going to eat me _]did you not understand?” Hope said.
Moose stepped closer to her. She flew up, out of his reach.
“You idiot, Moose!” Chewy barked. “You scared it away.”
Buffasip marched over and stood a couple feet behind them, flexing his front legs. “I’d leave her alone if I were you.”
Chewy craned his neck around. “Nobody asked for…” He almost tripped over himself when he saw Buffasip. He bared his teeth and growled. Moose turned and joined his brother.
“Will you two stop acting like morons?” Ruff said.
Chewy stopped growling. “You’re gonna tell us that you’ve made friends with a Rahken [_and _]a Fenrir?”
“I wouldn’t call us friends,” Buffasip said. “And I prefer the term Guardian of the Wandering Oak Forest. Not Fenrir.”
Ruff rolled his eyes. “We’re helping Hope find her family.”
“Why would you do that?” Chewy asked. The hair on his back stood up. “Rahkens eat us. Or have you forgotten?”
“Not this one,” Ruff said.
“She will eventually,” Moose said, his voice filled with fear. “You want your friends to eat Mom and Dad?”
“No,” Ruff snapped. “You’re overreacting. Sometimes I wonder how I could be related to you two.”
“You know Joey went missing recently,” Chewy pointed out.
“That wasn’t a Rahken,” Ruff said. “And you know it.”
“It could have been.”
“I assure you it wasn’t,” Buffasip said and sat down. “There hasn’t been a Rahken sighting for over a week. Well, if you don’t count the little one. It was definitely hunters that took Joey.”
“And how would you know?” Chewy asked, but his hackles relaxed.
“I know everything that goes on around here. I’m the Guardian of–”
“Yeah, yeah, we know,” Ruff interrupted. “It’s true. Three hunters chased us yesterday. They found us right here.”
Moose gave Ruff a dirty look. “And you didn’t tell Mom and Dad?”
“I was going to, but then Joey went missing. I didn’t want to frighten them anymore than they already were.”
Chewy walked up to Ruff. “So instead, you hang out with vicious monsters that are way worse than hunters.”
“Excuse me,” Buffasip said. “I can’t speak for the little one, but I’m not vicious. Well, I could beat all of you in a fight on my worst day with my back legs tied together. But that’s not the point. I’m a Guardian. And we have a common enemy. Hunters.”
Moose walked over and stood next to Chewy, his eyes locked on to Buffasip. “I don’t trust them.”
“I do,” Ruff said. “And you trust me. Don’t you?”
“No!” Chewy and Moose said in unison.
Hope flew down and landed next to Buffasip. She felt safer by his side.
“Well, I’m telling Mom and Dad about this,” Chewy whined. “They’ll put an end to your stupidity. Let’s get out of here, Moose.”
Moose and Chewy stomped away, leaving a trail of dust.
Hope chased after them.
“What are you doing?” Ruff groaned. “Are you insane?”
She swooped around Chewy and Moose and landed in front of them. The two wolves stopped abruptly. It was the first time she had been that close to them, and she realized Moose’s head was nearly as big as her entire body.
Hope gulped. “Wait.”
“Foolish girl,” Moose said with a hungry look in his eyes.
Buffasip cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”
Moose stepped sideways, bumping into Chewy allowing Buffasip to walk by.
“Please, I need your help,” Hope pleaded. “My–”
“We’ve already been over this,” Chewy said. “Wolves and Rahkens don’t help each other. End of discussion.” Chewy tried to walk up the path, but Hope wouldn’t budge.
“Are you gonna move or do we have to make you?” Moose asked.
“That isn’t gonna happen,” Buffasip said. “Besides, the little one has it in her head that we can run the hunters off if we work together. I tried convincing her otherwise but she won’t listen to reason, so you may as well hear her out. You might learn something, which I know is unusual for wolves, but stranger things have happened.”
Moose scowled at Buffasip.
Hope coughed to get their attention. “Please,” she started again. “If you don’t want to help me for my sake then don’t–”
“Great, we won’t,” Chewy said. “Problem solved. Let’s go, Moose.”
Hope had reached the limit of her patience. She spread her wings wide to keep the wolves from passing. Suddenly, her belly grew warm and she tasted burning acid in her mouth. She looked down and saw her black scales glowing green.
“She’s gonna blow!” Moose shrieked. “RUN!”
Moose and Chewy knocked Ruff down on their way back to the shore.
Hope flapped her wings trying to cool herself down. Even Buffasip took a couple of steps back. She flapped them faster. After a moment, she relaxed. Instead of spitting deadly acid, she burped.
“Sorry,” she said then flew to the lake where the wolves stood huddled together. They took a step back. She stopped several feet away, hovering in the air, trying not to scare them off.
“I was trying to say,” Hope explained again, “if you don’t want to help for my sake then at least help to save your own family and friends. These hunters aren’t going away unless we make them. They took my family. A family of [_Rahkens. _]And they’ll take yours too.” Hope landed on the ground and paced back and forth. “You act like you don’t care about your brother, always picking on him, but I know you do. Otherwise, you wouldn’t give him such a hard time.” She stopped and let that sink in, hoping to get a reaction from them.
“Well, we don’t hate him,” Chewy admitted. “We give him a hard time to toughen him up. He’s too soft.”
Hope nodded. “And what Buffasip said is true. I do believe if we work together we’ll send these hunters away. For good.”
“Is this leading to a group hug?” Buffasip asked. “Because if it is, count me out. I don’t do hugs.”
Hope ignored him and said, “Whaddya say?”
Chewy and Moose looked at each other for a moment. Hope wondered if they could communicate without talking, but then Chewy broke the silence.
“On one condition.”
“Anything,” Hope said, oozing excitement.
“You have to convince our parents.”
“They’ll never go for it,” Ruff said.
“That’s the deal,” Chewy insisted. “Take it or leave it.”
“Take it,” Hope said.
A familiar voice echoed out of the forest. “This way, you idiot!”
“Stop yer yellin’,” shouted another. “You’ll scare away the animals, ya moron.”
“Hunters,” everyone said.
“GO!” Buffasip ordered. “I’ll lead them away.”
Hope stiffened with fear. “You have to come with us. It’s too dangerous.”
“GO!” Buffasip repeated. “I know what I’m doing.”
The wolves didn’t wait and fled across the shore. “Let’s go, Hope!” Ruff called out, and then vanished into the woods.
Hope had left Buffasip once to fight her battles and she wouldn’t do it again. “I won’t leave you,” she insisted. “I’ll be nearby. Howl if you need my help.”
Hope flew across the lake and hid behind the waterfall. Unfortunately, the water drowned out all other noises. She peered through the water and saw blurred figures running back and forth across the shore.
When she could no longer see any movement, she poked her head through the water. There was no sign of Buffasip or the hunters. She prayed Buffasip knew what he was doing and recoiled behind the waterfall, shivering. She didn’t know if it was from the cold water or the fear of the unknown. Probably a little of both.
After a while, she hadn’t heard Buffasip howl for help and decided it was safe to leave. She braced herself against a rock and shot through the raging water with only one thing on her mind.
Don’t get caught.
Hope flew around searching for Buffasip and the hunters but she found no sign of either. The thought of him being captured sent her stomach into somersaults. She wanted to believe he was stronger, smarter, and faster than the hunters but she couldn’t help but worry, especially because they were smart enough to capture her family.
With a full stomach and tired from the adrenaline wearing off, she returned to her cave for a nap before the big meeting with Ruff’s parents. If they’re anything like his brothers, this won’t be easy. Her mind raced, wondering how the meeting would go. And no matter how she argued it in her mind, it always came back to Ruff’s family being unwilling to help, and judging her for things she had never done and never planned on doing.
Exhausted, Hope rested her chin onto her arm and fell asleep.
Hope woke several hours later to the sound of a lizard skittering by. She sat up slowly, stretched, and yawned. She dragged herself across her cave and stopped at the entrance, realizing she had no idea where Ruff lived.
“How could I be so stupid and not ask?” she cried. “Not that I’d know how to get there even if he’d told me.” She knew how to find her home but only if she located Fathead Lake first. She paced back and forth, her head aching. Soon her chest began to glow green. Then suddenly something jumped out of the shadows. She hiccupped and belched acid.
“WHOA! HEY!” Ruff cried. “Watch where you shoot that stuff!”
“You shouldn’t have snuck up on me!” Hope snapped. She took a couple deep breaths and exhaled slowly. “Sorry. I was worried because I didn’t know how to find you, and then you startled me and–”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I figured that, so I snuck out to get you.”
“Should you be out alone?” she asked. “It’s dangerous. You should have come with your brothers.”
“They’re keeping Mom and Dad busy while I get you.”
“They don’t know I’m coming?”
Ruff shook his head.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Why?” Hope shook her head in disbelief. “From what you told me, a Rahken shouldn’t wander into your home unannounced. Your parents will freak! I’ll be lucky if they attack first and ask questions later… that’s if they even ask questions at all.”
“I didn’t think of that.”
“Obviously.” Hope hovered above Ruff and sighed. “It’s too late now. Lead the way. I’ll fly and keep an eye out for hunters.”
Ruff nodded and dashed into the forest, heading northeast.
Hope zipped around the trees, paying attention so she could find her way home, without having to locate Fathead Lake. Her world had expanded greatly since meeting Ruff. She had learned there was a Guardian that protected the forest; an ocean to the west, though she had no idea where it led or how to get across it; she had made two friends (four if you counted Ruff’s brothers); and now it was time to meet Ruff’s parents and possibly the rest of the pack. Hope’s heart fluttered anxiously.
She noticed Ruff stopping below. He looked up and nodded to Hope, which she took as a signal to come down. She landed next to him and said, “Are we close?”
He nodded. “Stay here,” he whispered. “Just ahead there should be two guards and–”
Hope peered around at the trees and thick bushes. “Really? I don’t see any.”
Ruff rolled his eyes. “That’s the point. Now, stay here until I come back,” he explained. “You were right. It’s probably best if I warn my parents about you first.”
Ruff trotted towards a circular opening of thick branches and vines, which looked like it had been created by years of use. Suddenly, two wolves appeared out of nowhere. Hope couldn’t hear what they were saying. The two guards knocked Ruff around, giving him a hard time like his brothers did.
Hope stayed put until Ruff disappeared into the thicket of trees and the guards retreated into the brush. Bored, Hope decided to look around. “I won’t go far,” she told herself but was stopped before she even got started.
“What do we have here?” a deep voice asked.
Hope spun around to see three wolves looming over her.
The closest of the three wolves had black fur with flecks of gray and a scar over its left eye. It was as big as Moose but more muscular and older looking.
“Where did you come from?” Hope asked, trying to control the quiver in her voice.
“You are trespassing on our land,” snarled the scar-faced wolf. “We’ll be asking the questions.”
Hope took a step back. “S-Sorry,” she stammered. “I’m here with another wolf. We’re friends.”
“Not likely,” the scar-faced wolf snickered.
One of the other wolves, with orange and white fur, laughed. “More like it, you’re lunch.”
Why does everyone always want to eat me?
Hope tried to fly away, but the scar-faced wolf was too fast and stepped on her leg, pinning her to the ground.
“You aren’t going anywhere.” The three wolves laughed. The scar-faced wolf leaned down and opened his jaws wide. Hope thought she was about to die.
“Wait!” she screamed. “Please.”
The wolf didn’t stop. He opened his mouth wider, drool dripping from his fangs, spattering onto her face.
“I’m here with Ruff,” she blurted out of desperation.
The scar-faced wolf jerked his head back. “You’re lying.”
“No. No, I’m not. I’m here to meet Ruff’s parents.” Hope found her moment, and decided to go with it. “I’m their dinner guest.” STUPID choice of words, Hope.
The three wolves grinned. “You got that right.”
“She’s a bit too small. Bony. Don’t you think?” the orange and white wolf said.
Hope pleaded, “If you don’t believe me, then take me to them. If I’m wrong, then you can…well, just take me to them. You’ll see I’m telling the truth.”
The three wolves looked at each other and then one said, “Well, Ruff is the pack leader’s son. If she’s right–”
“Fine,” the scar-faced wolf said. He bent down to pick Hope up in his jaws. She squirmed and twisted and flapped her wings without success. “I’m not going to hurt you, but you have to come with me this way or there’s no deal. We don’t trust you, and we don’t want you flying off. Now stop moving.”
Hope settled down but continued trembling and curled herself into a ball. The scar-faced wolf wrapped his jaws around her little body, lifting her off the ground, and lumbered to the entrance, stopping as the two guards appeared.
“What do you have there, Bruno?” a guard asked.
“A gift for Luther and Nissa,” Bruno mumbled, Hope stuffed inside his mouth.
“Watch it with the fangs,” Hope cried.
The guards stepped aside.
Once Hope passed through the entrance, she saw tiny golden dots in the shadows ahead. Wolves’ eyes, she figured. And lots of them. They were all focused on her. The wolves began to howl. Bruno stopped in the middle of a clearing, and he was soon surrounded by other wolves.
Ruff burst out of a moss-draped cave and skidded to a halt a few feet away. His eyes grew wide with fear. He charged at Bruno and slammed into his ribs. He bounced off, falling to the ground without moving Bruno an inch.
“Let her go!” Ruff barked, quickly standing back up.
“So, she does know you,” Bruno mumbled. He spat Hope onto the ground and quickly put his heavy paw on top of her. Hope squirmed again with the same result. She was well and truly stuck.
“What’s the meaning of this?” a wolf in the crowd asked.
The crowd of wolves separated, allowing a white wolf to walk through. Is this Ruff’s dad? This is not how she wanted to meet his father for the first time.
Hope looked the white wolf over as best she could while struggling to breathe with Bruno’s paw pressed against her ribs. Ruff’s father stood taller than the rest of the wolves. His fur was all white except for a few missing patches here and there. Battle scars, she assumed. Every animal must fight to survive. Something Hope had learned quickly in her first week outside the cave.
“I found this Rahken outside our entrance,” Bruno said. “She claims to be friends with your son, Ruff.”
“We found it, Luther, er I mean sir,” another wolf added. Bruno shot him a nasty glare.
Luther turned to Ruff and stared at him. “That isn’t possible. My son isn’t foolish enough to be friends with such a beast.” Luther took a step closer to Ruff who had retreated to a prone position next to Hope. “Rahkens are our natural enemy. My son knows this.”
Ruff looked up at his father through fear-filled eyes.
“Say something, Ruff,” Hope whispered.
“What should we do with it?” Bruno asked.
Luther’s blood-red eyes brightened. “Kill it,” he answered.
Bruno bent down to snatch Hope up when a gentle voice said, “Hold on a minute.” From behind Luther came a thin, golden-haired wolf, walking with grace and confidence as the other wolves stepped aside. She stopped next to Luther and rubbed her shoulder gently against his.
Ruff stood up and with a quiver in his voice he pleaded, “Mom, please. Don’t let them kill Hope.”
“No one said you could speak,” Luther growled. Ruff cowered back onto the ground.
“Luther, honey.” Ruff’s mother’s voice was silky smooth. She rubbed her head against Luther’s neck. “Let the boy speak.”
“Nissa, you know what this Rahken will do when it gets older.”
“For me, please,” Nissa said.
Luther pulled away. “Fine,” he snapped. “But be quick about it, before its family comes here and kills us all.”
Ruff lifted his head. “That’s it, father. She has no family. They were taken by the hunters. Like Joey.”
The wolves began to murmur, their voices rising steadily. “Quiet!” Luther commanded, cutting them off. “Continue, son.”
Ruff cleared his throat and took a deep breath. “This Rahken isn’t an it. Her name is Hope and she needs our help. Together we can run the hunters out of our home.”
“This Hope friend of yours is too small to help,” Bruno said. The other wolves nodded their agreement. Bruno leaned forward on his paw, pushing Hope deeper into the dirt. She winced in pain. “And if we let her go, one day she’ll be big enough to come back here and kill us. We have no choice, Luther.”
“You’re probably right,” Ruff said. Hope felt confused. How could her friend agree with that brute, Bruno? I’ll never kill you. I’ll never even hurt you.
Ruff continued.[_ _]“She might be too small to pose a real threat to the hunters today. But she’s fast and she can move at night without being seen. She’d be the perfect scout. And she has already escaped the hunters twice—once from their traps using her acid spit.”
Hope breathed a sigh of relief. Her friend did still believe in her.
Luther sat down and the tension seemed to disappear from his body. “That all sounds good, son. But even with a scout, we can’t take these hunters on ourselves. If we could, don’t you think we would have already?”
“I have another friend willing to help,” Hope blurted.
“Who?” Luther asked.
“Shush,” Ruff said to Hope.
“Let her speak, Ruff,” Nissa said.
Hope’s leg went numb. She wriggled and strained beneath Bruno’s paw but it was useless. He was too strong. “His name is Buffasip.”
Many of the wolves burst out laughing. Only Luther and Nissa appeared unfazed by what Hope had said. “Buffasip,” Luther echoed. “I’ve heard that name before.”
Moose and Chewy pushed their way through the circle of wolves.
“It’s a Fenrir,” Chewy spat.
Ruff shot up. “He’s a Guardian of–”
“I’ve heard enough from you,” Luther snapped. “So, you’ve made friends with two of the biggest threats to us. How did this happen? How could I have raised you to be so naïve?”
Bruno pushed his paw into Hope a little harder and snickered.
Ruff bared his teeth. “Let her go!”
Bruno smirked and pushed a little harder.
“That’s enough,” Nissa barked. “Bruno, release Hope. My son is no fool. I raised him well,” Nissa glared at Luther, “despite what his father believes.”
Bruno hesitated and looked at Luther who nodded. He released Hope and she limped away and hid behind Ruff, her leg throbbing with pain.
Nissa approached Ruff slowly. “I know why you’ve chosen to be friends with them.”
“You do?” Ruff asked.
Nissa nodded. “You have a big heart. You saw a creature in trouble and you wanted to help. It’s one reason why I’m proud you’re my son.” Hope craned her neck out from behind Ruff and caught him smiling.
“Technically I’m not friends with Buffasip,” Ruff explained. “He’s kind of a jerk.”
Nissa’s warm smile was quickly replaced with a stern look. “But you do realize how dangerous these friendships can become. Right?”
“And because of the real danger they present, I can’t allow you to remain friends with them. And we can’t work with them.”
“Hush, little one. I [will _]do you a favor, however.” Nissa backed up and circled around, eyeing the other wolves. “Hope will be allowed to leave here _unharmed, as a favor to me and my son. She has shown us no threat and maybe one day she will remember how kind we were.”
A low grumble rippled around the pack.
“Nissa!” Luther barked. “I’m in charge here and–”
Nissa walked over to Luther and whispered into his ear. When she finished, his anger appeared to wash away and he agreed with his wife.
“But know this, little Hope,” Luther cautioned. “If we cross paths again, outside of our home, I can’t guarantee your safety. Do you understand this?”
Hope nodded vigorously.
“Very well, then,” Luther said. “Please leave and never return.” He turned around and headed back to the moss-draped cave.
Nissa walked over to Hope, lowered her head, and whispered, “I’m truly sorry about what happened to your family. It’s unfortunate that we share the same pain. We’ve survived a long time in these woods, longer than you can imagine, and we’ve done so by picking our fights carefully. This is a battle you can’t win. You only endure it.”
Hope’s eyes filled with tears. She wasn’t ready to give up on her family. So what if the wolves won’t help me. She sniffled. I have Buffasip. I’ll find another way.
Hope looked at Ruff one last time. She saw disappointment in his eyes and knew he was sorry. She smiled, letting him know she understood.
It was time for Hope to leave. She jiggled her leg, shaking the numbness away. She bent her knees, flapped her wings, and shot up through the trees. She didn’t stop until she burst out the top and into the open sky. The sun was warm and shone brightly. In the distance, Hope spotted a flock of birds scattering quickly, screeching.
Hunter trouble? she wondered and flew on, skimming the treetops along the way. She slowed down when she reached where the birds had exited the woods but she saw nothing unusual.
Curious, she floated down through the branches, noticing several nests with unhatched eggs. “Something made them leave in a hurry,” she whispered and continued downward, stopping every few feet to look around. She had no idea what she was looking for. [_Hunters? Some kind of animal? _]
She descended slowly, careful not to rush. Soon she heard voices below and flew closer until she could hear what was being said.
“This one will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams,” a voice said with excitement.
She recognized the voice. It was the short, fat, baldheaded hunter, Ned.
“It’s the stuff legends are made of,” Ned said.
Hope crept closer, anxious to see what they had caught. She spotted Harley, Ned, and Flint carrying a cage draped in blankets, so it was impossible to see what was inside.
Hope followed for several minutes before the hunters stopped and put the crate down. The dogs circled around it and barked.
“This thing weighs a ton,” Flint whined.
“You’re complaining about this?” Harley said. “Have you forgotten about the dragons we hauled out of here last week? Now those were heavy.”
Hope nearly choked. “Dragons,”[_ _]she whispered. _My family. _
“We had help with them,” Flint answered. “And my back is killing me. I need a minute.” He sat down on a log and wiped sweat from his brow.
“Maybe you’re too old for this,” Harley snickered. “Now get up.”
“Whatever,” Flint said. He stood back up and kicked the cage, knocking a blanket loose.
Hope peered through the bars of the cage and her eyes grew wide with terror. “Buffasip,” she whispered.
Hope followed the hunters back to their camp where they secured the cage into the back of a wagon. The four dogs circled around, barking and snapping at it.
“Shut up!” Harley yelled. “Stupid dogs are givin’ me a headache.” He kicked one of the dogs, which yelped and retreated to the other side of the camp. Harley stomped his foot at the other three dogs, and they scattered and joined the first.
Hope perched unsteadily on a branch hanging over the wagon. She didn’t know what to do so she waited, gripped with terror.
“When are we gonna unload this beast?” Ned asked, pulling the blanket away. He picked up a fallen branch and poked it at Buffasip who bared his teeth and growled in response. Ned poked him again, and this time, Buffasip caught the stick with his jaws and snapped it in half. Ned whipped what was left of it at the cage.
Hope’s heart ached. She had never felt so small and useless.
“Leave it alone, Ned,” Flint said. “That [_beast _]is incredibly rare. We don’t want to injure it, fool.”
“We move it tonight,” Harley answered. “Another ship will arrive after sunset. With winter coming soon, it’ll be the last ship until next year.”
“So we’re going home after this deal?” Flint asked in a hopeful tone.
[_They’re leaving! _]Hope gasped for air. [_They can’t leave yet. _]She felt a tingle of fear and then grew lightheaded. She wobbled along the branch, lost her balance and fell. She caught herself just in time, making a loud rustling noise in the process.
Harley drew his sword and looked up. “Who’s there?”
Hope hung still for a moment, and closed her mouth tight, fearful she might hiccup. When the dizziness wore off, she let go and flew up through the trees, not slowing down until she broke through the top.
Hope burst into tears. “I’ll never find my family now.” Her wings felt heavy with sadness. She looked for Fathead Lake, traced a visual path to her cave, and flew home slowly. Then she returned to her bed of rocks, curled into a ball, and cried herself to sleep.
She awoke at dusk. The cave had darkened to a dull gray. The sun would soon be gone, and the hunters would be on the move with Buffasip. She walked to the cave entrance and heard quick footsteps. Then suddenly Ruff, Moose, and Chewy sprung out of the shadows.
“I can’t believe you guys are here,” Hope said, fighting back tears of joy.
“We’re friends,” Ruff said. “It’s what we do.”
Hope smiled at Ruff then looked at Moose and Chewy. “Don’t think I’m not glad you two are here. But why are you[_ _]here?”
“I know, right,” Ruff said. “I didn’t see that coming either. They caught up with me after I snuck past Bruno and his friends.”
Chewy breathed a heavy sigh. “Let’s not make a big deal about it. It’s just, we’d hate to lose our family too, and–”
“I wouldn’t miss Ruff,” Moose added with a grin and winked at Hope.
“You would too,” Ruff shot back. “Who else would you bury?”
“How can we help?” Ruff asked, getting back to business.
Hope’s heart sank. “Something else has happened.” She paused and took a deep breath. “The hunters captured Buffasip!”
“Oh, that’s all?” Moose said. Ruff whacked him in the face with his tail.
“That’s awful,” Ruff said. “I know you like him.”
“That’s not all,” Hope continued. “The hunters are leaving. Tonight. After they sell Buffasip to other humans coming on the next ship. And they won’t return until after the winter.”
“That’s great!” Chewy said.
Hope shook her head. “I’ll never find my family once they’re gone. We have to follow them. They can’t leave!”
Hope looked at her friends. She needed their help. Not only to save Buffasip but to have a chance to find her family. The wolves stood there staring, not saying a word. The silence was painful. Hope’s face drooped in sadness and she batted her eyes.
Ruff finally spoke. “All right, we’ll help. Tell us what we have to do.”
“We will?” Moose and Chewy said.
Ruff shot them a nasty glare. “Why else did we come here if not to help Hope?”
“For food?” Moose asked.
Hope rolled her eyes.
“Fine. We will,” Chewy agreed and he nudged Moose. “Right?”
“Will there be food?” Moose added.
Hope nearly burst into tears. She spread her wings, leaped up, and hugged Ruff around his neck. “Thank you,” she whispered. She looked over Ruff’s shoulder and saw that the sun had nearly set. “The hunters,” she said and pulled away. “We have to leave, now.” She flew past Ruff and stopped. “Follow me.”
The four raced through the woods. Hope was faster than her wolf friends and slowed down many times, giving them the opportunity to catch up. Moose led the way on the ground. Not because he was the fastest but because he was the biggest, smashing through branches and bushes, creating a path for his brothers.
Her friends were slowing her down. She swooped down next to them. “I’ll race ahead to make sure they’re still there. Keep going straight for a little way. You can’t miss it.” The wolves nodded. “I’ll meet you there.”
She flicked past trees and weaved through branches, leaving behind a wake of rustling leaves. Within a few minutes, she reached the edge of the hunters’ camp. The wagons were overflowing with crates and barrels. Buffasip was still locked inside a cage, stuffed between their cargo. The dogs followed Ned as he packed the last of their things. Harley placed a torch at the front of each wagon. Before they took off, Flint tossed a couple of blankets over Buffasip’s cage.
Hope looked back and saw no sign of the wolves.
The hunters mounted their wagons. Harley yelled at the horses and whipped their backs. The horses neighed and pulled the hunters out of the camp. Hope couldn’t wait any longer for her friends. She’d have to follow the hunters alone.
She was about to leave when she heard a loud noise from behind. She paused. Waiting. Listening.
She didn’t have to wait long. A large beast burst through the brush. “Moose,” she nearly squealed. Chewy and Ruff stumbled in right behind him.
“They’re leaving now,” she whispered.
“I can’t believe they’ve been here the whole time,” Ruff said, “and we never knew it.”
Moose picked twigs out of his fur. “Mom and Dad knew it. Why do you think we always played our games by the lake, away from this area of the woods?”
“Focus,” Hope ordered them. “I’ll follow them from above.”
“We’ll each take a side,” Chewy said. “If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s making ourselves invisible.” Hope didn’t doubt that, remembering how invisible the guards were at Ruff’s home.
She followed the flickering light of the hunters’ torches from above. She had two goals in mind. To save Buffasip and find her family. And she had no idea how she would accomplish either.
The hunters’ wagons rolled along at a slow pace, down a path that had been carved from months of use bringing creatures to the shore. It was bumpy, riddled with potholes, and the torches provided little light.
Hope followed from a safe distance, filled with worry. She still had no idea how to rescue Buffasip. She flinched with each pothole the wagon struck, bouncing Buffasip’s cage into the air and crashing it back down.
Bump. Thud! Bump. Thud! went the cage. She imagined it falling off and its door breaking open, setting her friend free. But there would be no such luck as it was securely packed into the wagon.
The wagon moved so slowly, it gave Hope the chance to fly above the trees and scout what lay ahead. In the distance, beyond the mountain slope, she saw a ship but the details were unclear. She flew closer and then spotted several men on the ship standing around, waiting for their next package. Waiting for Buffasip.
She counted fifteen men. “FIFTEEN!” she exclaimed in horror. She had no plan so far to rescue Buffasip from three hunters, let alone another fifteen. If the hunters reached the shore, it’d be impossible for her and her friends to rescue him.
Hope had to tell Ruff and his brothers what she had learned. She couldn’t allow them to head unaware into that kind of danger. She raced back and found Ruff following the hunters from the left side of the road. She settled in behind him. “Hey,” she whispered.
Ruff jumped like someone had tickled him. “Whoa. How did you find me?” he whispered, trying to catch his breath.
“I’m a Rahken. Remember? Night vision.” Ruff nodded. “I need to talk with you and your brothers.”
“What about?” he asked.
“I saw what’s waiting at the shore.”
“I’ll tell you after I find your brothers. Wait here. I’ll go and get them.” Hope flew away. She heard Ruff whisper for her to wait but there was no time. She zipped across the path and found Chewy and Moose prowling at a distance alongside the hunters.
Hope came in close and whispered to Moose, “Hey.” He jumped back, startled, and let loose a loud growl. “Shh. It’s only me.”
At that moment, the wagons stopped.
Chewy, Moose, and Hope huddled together and waited. Harley stood up from his seat and held out a torch as he looked around. Ned did the same from his wagon. After a couple of minutes, they sat back down, cracked the whip, and the wagons rolled onward.
“Follow me,” Hope whispered.
“Where to?” Moose asked, but Hope ignored him and flew back across the path to Ruff.
The three wolves formed a semi-circle around Hope.
Ruff spoke first. “They’re getting away. What’s going on?”
“There’s something you need to know. A ship is waiting for the hunters at the shore.”
“Yeah, so?” Ruff said. “We knew that would happen.”
“I counted fifteen men.”
“Oh,” all three wolves said in unison.
“It’s way too risky. I can’t ask you to do this.” She expected her friends to give up and turn around, especially Chewy and Moose.
“You’re part of our family now,” Ruff said. “I don’t quit on family.”
Ruff’s words surprised and comforted her. She looked at Moose and Chewy expectantly.
“Count me in,” Moose said with an air of confidence.
“Me too,” Chewy added.
“Now let’s show these hunters who owns this forest,” Ruff said.
Hope was overjoyed that her friends had agreed to stay and help. However, timing was important and she couldn’t afford to waste any more. “I have an idea,” she said. She knew the only way to rescue Buffasip was if they stopped the hunters from reaching the shore. And it would be even better if the men on the ship were driven away. She explained all this to her friends.
“But if the ship leaves, how will you find your family?” Ruff asked.
Hope knew there was no way the four of them could fight eighteen armed men and dogs. This was the only way.
“It’s all right,” she said. “We’ll figure that out another time. Right now, Buffasip needs our help.”
“What’s the plan?” Chewy asked.
“You three distract the hunters in any way you can. Slow them down.”
“They’re not moving fast to begin with,” Moose snorted.
“You know what I mean,” Hope said. “But be careful of the dogs. And whatever you do, don’t get caught.”
“What are you going to do?” Ruff’s voice was low and anxious.
“I’m going to get rid of the men at the shore.”
“I’m not sure yet. But I’ll figure it out. You just slow the hunters down.”
The wolves nodded.
Hope flew up through the trees once again and tore into the darkness. By the time she reached the shore, she still hadn’t come up with a plan. She circled the ship, sizing it up, and she spotted an additional six men who had ascended from the lower deck.
Fear pounded in her throat as she imagined twenty-one armed men. But it didn’t matter if there were a hundred. She still needed to get rid of them. She swallowed hard and pressed on.
The ship was docked at the end of a long wooden pier. Most of the men waited on the ship, relaxed, as if they had done this a hundred times before. A few men patrolled up and down the pier carrying torches. Every man had a sword strapped to his hip.
Hope perched atop the mast of the ship and gazed out at the Wandering Oak Forest. Home. But was it? She had only known it for her month-long life. “Isn’t home where my family is?” she asked herself. “I could stay right here and this ship would probably take me to them.”
She thought about what Ruff had said to her: You’re part of our family now. The thought of abandoning him and his brothers broke her heart. But she wanted to be with her mother and father and even her sister. She didn’t know what to think. Aren’t Ruff, Chewy, and Moose family too? Then it hit her like a head butt from Moose. You don’t quit on family.
Nevertheless, Hope was clueless as to how she could get rid of a ship full of men. Time was running out. Overcome with nervousness she hiccupped and spat a little acid onto the mast. The wood sizzled and smoked. Then a small flame flickered from the center. She flapped her wings and stomped it out. Then she heaved a heavy sigh. Suddenly, the solution to her problem became clear.
“It’s a new moon,” she whispered. The darkest night of the lunar cycle. The perfect time for a Rahken to fly around unseen. Hope took a deep breath and did her best to produce a frightening scream but instead only managed a squeak. Hardly intimidating. It was loud enough to catch the attention of the men below who now gathered, peering into the darkness.
Hope took a few deep breaths then unleashed a deep screech that echoed endlessly across the ocean. The men cowered and covered their ears.
“What was that?” A man yelled.
“I think it’s a dragon,” another man answered.
Hope flew to the other end of the ship and screamed again. She continued to move and scream, move and scream, from every side of the ship. The men scrambled around in panic.
But it wasn’t enough to scare them away. The men drew their swords and braced for a fight. Hope stepped up the threat and spat acid onto the lowered sails, setting them on fire.
“The sails!” the men screamed.
“How many dragons are there?” another man shouted.
Hope spat onto more sails. Then she spat several more times onto the deck. The men hauled buckets of water from the ocean and tossed it onto the fires, working frantically to save their ship. Hope didn’t want to burn the ship down and so she stopped, hovering above and waiting to see what they would do next.
“We need to get out of here, Captain,” a man yelled.
“Hoist the sails. Raise the anchor,” the captain commanded. “No cargo is worth this.”
“I thought the hunters had cleared these lands of dragons?” someone asked.
“Apparently not!” the captain lashed out. “Now stop standing around asking foolish questions and put out the rest of these fires.”
Hope laughed as the men tripped over each other in their hurry to leave. [_I did it. _]She wasn’t able to enjoy her victory for long. As the ship sailed away, so did her chances of finding her family.
Hope allowed herself a moment to feel sad and then she pulled herself together.
“One problem solved,” she said. “It’s time to rescue Buffasip.”
By the time Hope reached her friends, the situation had gotten out of control. Buffasip was still locked in his cage, and the four dogs had Ruff, Chewy, and Moose pinned against a large boulder, while the hunters were marching towards them carrying swords and nets.
One of the dogs lunged at Moose who narrowly dodged the attack. The dog stumbled, and Moose countered. He rushed at the dog, slamming into it, and sent it crashing into a tree. A large crack echoed through the forest. The dog staggered to its feet and Moose started to charge at it again, but the dog ran away yelping and disappeared into the woods. Moose returned to his brothers.
The hunters were nearly upon them when the three wolves scattered in different directions. Ruff went left, and Chewy and Moose went right.
“What are they thinking leaving Ruff on his own?” Hope gasped.
The dogs chased after Chewy and Moose while the hunters headed after Ruff. Hope’s pulse quickened. Go left after Ruff? Or right after Moose and Chewy? Hope froze, afraid to make the wrong choice.
The hunters tossed a net at Ruff, which hit his tail and slid off.
Buffasip howled. Hope felt the grave tone in his voice as it vibrated through her. She pulled herself together, realizing Buffasip was unguarded. This was her chance to rescue him.
She darted over to his cage and pulled a blanket away.
“You?” Buffasip said with a surprised look on his face.
“Who were you expecting?” Hope asked, pulling off the other blanket.
“I didn’t expect anyone to come. Least of all you.”
Hope glanced around to make sure the hunters or dogs weren’t returning. It was all clear. “Would you rather I left you here until someone more suitable comes along to rescue you?”
Hope saw the pride in his eyes. The[_ Guardian ]being rescued by such a small creature. She could tell he struggled with it. _This must be killing him after he boasted how inferior I am to him.
Hope didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s not just me risking my life to save your ungrateful hide,” she scolded. “Ruff, Moose, and Chewy are here too, and if we don’t hurry they might not survive. So, do you want my help or not?”
He swallowed hard and lowered his eyes. “Yes.”
Hope grinned. “Now, how do I open this thing?”
“You need some device that the hunters carry on them,” he said hopelessly.
“Well, that won’t work. There must be another way. What do they do with that device?”
Buffasip motioned to the front of the cage where two locks held the door securely shut. “I’ve tried to smash through, but it won’t budge. While I am grateful for you trying, there’s nothing someone of your size can do.”
“Have you forgotten, I’m a Rahken?”
“I doubt even your acid can break me free. These bars are thick and solid.”
Hope shook her head. “Move to the back of the cage and let me show you what little creatures can do.” She wanted to tell him how she had single-handedly got rid of a ship full of armed men, but there was no time for gloating.
She took a deep breath, her chest glowed green, and she spat at a lock. Nothing came out apart from a puff of smoke.
“Brilliant,” he groaned. “It’s a good thing I moved out of the way.”
“I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, embarrassed. “I must have used up my acid on the ship, if that’s even possible.”
“Maybe it’s performance issues. Nerves. It happens to the best of ‘em. Not me of course.”
“Will you shut up?” she snapped. “I need to concentrate.”
“Well, you’d better hurry, little one. I think I hear the hunters returning.”
“Argh! You aren’t helping.” Hope returned her focus to the cage taking another deep breath. Her chest swelled and turned green, and again only smoke came out. Frustrated and unable to concentrate, she flew above the wagon to see if Buffasip was right about the hunters returning. He was. And they were carrying Ruff in a net.
Panic set in and Hope’s eyes filled with terror. “Oh no,” she cried.
“Little one,” Buffasip said to her.
Hope only stared at her friend without responding.
“HOPE!” he yelled.
Hope looked at Buffasip. “What?”
“You need to focus. Everything isn’t lost. Look at me.” He moved to the front of the cage and poked his snout through the bars, his face pressed firmly against them. “Look at me. I know you can do this. Just think about whatever you care the most about. Use that to focus.”
“Um, okay, sure. My–”
“Focus,” he repeated. “Think about your family.”
Hope closed her eyes and pictured her family. Playing with her sister, Narcy. Taking naps with her mother. And learning how to spit acid from her dad.
She opened her eyes wide, took a deep breath, and her chest swelled bigger than ever before. Buffasip moved to the back of the cage and Hope unleashed a powerful scream that shook the wagon. The horses reared and neighed, and the wagons lurched forward. She didn’t care who heard the scream. The hunters would arrive at any moment. All that mattered was melting the cage’s locks and Hope had done more than that. She melted the entire door and part of the right side of the cage.
Buffasip carefully stepped over the hot liquid and leaped off the wagon. “Nicely done, little one. Now it’s time to save your friends.”
Hope stared in wonder at what she had done. It worked. Renewed with confidence, she flew to Buffasip’s side. “Let’s get ‘em,” she growled and together they went after the hunters.
Harley and Flint dragged Ruff, tangled in a net. Ruff squirmed and thrashed, but the net was too strong. Fear and rage filled her when she saw Ruff, remembering how she felt caught in their trap.
The hunters stopped dead in their tracks when they spotted Buffasip and Hope.
“The Fenrir’s loose!” Ned cried.
“What’s that little thing next to it?” Flint asked. He tightened his grip on his sword and the net.
“Looks like a bat,” Ned responded faintly.
Harley handed his side of the net to Flint, who dropped his sword and took it. “I got this,” Harley said and stepped forward gripping his sword with both hands.
“A bat?” Hope was offended.
“I’ll take this hunter,” Buffasip said. “Go rescue Ruff.”
Hope flew at Flint, trying to frighten him into dropping the net. She flew in circles as fast as she could while Ned swatted at her with his sword. He nearly struck her, so she flew up out of his reach. “Whoa that was close,” she said, panting. She looked back to check on Buffasip and watched for a moment.
Buffasip growled and circled right. Harley matched his movement with his sword held firmly out then lunged forward and swung his weapon poorly at Buffasip who easily dodged the attack. Buffasip countered and leaped at Harley so fast he was a blur, striking him in the chest and knocking him to the ground. Harley dropped his sword and it skidded across the ground, stopping under the wagon.
Hope returned to Flint. She needed a distraction. A way to throw him off balance. She flew to the wagons and spat acid at the straps hitching the horses. It burned easily through the leather and wood. The animals galloped away, disappearing into the woods.
Flint’s face turned red. “Why you little…” Then he did something Hope had not expected. “Trying to save your friend, eh?” he yelled, shaking the trapped wolf. Flint kicked Ruff in the ribs. He yelped. Flint picked up his sword and raised it high, ready to strike Ruff dead.
Hope reacted on instinct and spat a small amount of acid that hit the tip of Flint’s sword. It sizzled way down to the hilt and before Flint could react, the sword’s blade had completely melted. Flint tossed what was left of it to the ground and staggered back. Ned sheathed his own sword and held his hands up, backing away alongside Flint.
Still think I’m a bat?
Hope flew to Ruff and untangled the net.
“Thanks,” he wheezed. “Boy, am I glad to see you.”
Hope smiled with relief then turned her focus to Buffasip. He had Harley pinned to the ground, looming over him. Buffasip bared his teeth and lowered his jaw towards the hunter’s throat.
“Stop!” Hope shouted.
Buffasip flicked his tail to the side making a crack like a whip. Spit dripped off his fangs and onto Harley’s face.
“They took your family,” Buffasip said, his stare locked onto Harley’s throat. “And plenty of others. He should die!”
“We don’t kill!”
“He deserves it,” Buffasip growled, his jaw inching closer.
“Nobody deserves it. Not even him. You’re better than that. Don’t be the Fenrir everyone fears. Be the Guardian.”
Buffasip lingered for a moment longer, and then closed his jaws. His face softened as he pulled away.
Harley scrambled to his feet, wiping Buffasip’s spit off. “This place is nuts,” he cried. “Let’s get to the shore,” he ordered his men.
“Good luck with that,” Hope snickered.
Harley turned to run and Buffasip snapped at him, catching his pants. He pulled hard and tore a large chunk off, exposing Harley’s underwear.
Harley’s face turned white. “ARRGGGH!” he screamed, grabbing at his torn pants. Buffasip ripped the cloth to shreds. Harley turned and bolted down the path with the other hunters.
Hope smiled for a moment then gasped. “Moose and Chewy. I forgot about them. We have to–”
She was cut off by the return of the dogs, who raced towards Hope, Ruff, and Buffasip. She flew higher to get out of their way. Buffasip and Ruff turned and readied themselves for a fight, but the dogs didn’t care about any of them. They continued past, yelping. Then from behind them, out of the darkness, Moose and Chewy appeared.
“What happened?” Hope asked, filled with surprise and relief.
Before they could answer, Nissa, Luther, Bruno and the rest of the pack arrived and came to a stop, giving up chasing after the dogs. They strode over to Hope, stopping short when they noticed the Fenrir.
Hope sidled up to Buffasip and whispered, “Behave.”
Buffasip’s face twisted into a wry smile. “Always.”
“Ruff!” Luther barked. “Get over here!”
Ruff hung his head and walked back to his pack, his tail tucked between his legs. Luther eyed him disapprovingly until his son slipped in behind him, safely. Then Luther stared defiantly at the Fenrir.
Hope felt the tension building and flew towards Luther, stopping halfway between him and Buffasip. “He’s a friend. He won’t harm any of you.”
“I will if they start something,” Buffasip snapped.
Hope jerked her head back to Buffasip. “You aren’t helping,” she grumbled.
Nissa stepped forward. “Luther, relax, will you? Come here, Hope.”
Hope trusted Nissa and flew to her.
“I saw what you did for my son.” Nissa turned and gave Ruff a warm smile. She looked back at Hope and sat down, relaxed. “You risked your life for all my sons.”
“I only did what I had to,” Hope said modestly.
“We both know that’s not true. You could have abandoned my boys.” Nissa looked Hope over for a moment. “I was wrong about you before. I should have trusted you. Please accept my apology.”
Hope’s chest swelled at these words. “A friend told me once, you don’t quit on family.”
A smile lit up Nissa’s pretty face. “A smart friend, no doubt.” She turned her attention behind Hope and walked towards Buffasip.
“Nissa!” Luther shouted. “STOP!” Nissa ignored him. “That beast can’t be trusted.”
Nissa walked right up to Buffasip and bowed her head. “Thank you,” she said. “Perhaps we’ve been wrong about you as well.”
Buffasip raised his chin high. “I am the–”
“Guardian of the Wandering Oak Forest,” Hope interrupted. “Can’t you ever say anything else? You’re more than a Guardian.”
He cocked his head. “What else is there? It’s what I am.”
“Being a Guardian doesn’t define who you are,” Nissa said. “What’s in your heart is who you are. Tonight, I saw into your heart. You not only saved my son’s life, but you spared that hunter. At the end of our days, we’ll all be judged by our actions, and I know you’ll be rewarded, my friend.”
“Nissa, have you lost your mind?” Luther bellowed.
“Ignore my husband,” Nissa whispered to Buffasip. “I’ll smooth things over later. I’ll let him pretend he’s in charge.” She giggled quietly. “He’ll come around.”
Nissa turned to Hope. “My boys told me you went to the shore to get rid of that ship. Were you successful?”
Hope’s eyes filled with tears. The ship was gone and so too was her chance to find her family. She nodded, unable to look Nissa in the eyes.
“Look at me, child,” Nissa said gently.
Hope raised her head and fought back the tears.
“That was incredibly brave,’ Nissa started, “and someday I hope you can bring yourself to share how you managed to thwart an entire ship of men. And know this: you’re a welcome member of our family.”
“She’s lost her mind,” Luther muttered.
Ruff rushed to Hope’s side and licked away her tears. “Welcome, sis.”
Hope laughed. Ruff always knew how to make her feel better. Then Moose lumbered over with Chewy right behind him. Hope’s three brothers stood by her side.
So many thoughts flew around inside Hope’s head. [_Family. Home. Sis. _]She stared up at her new brothers and she felt at peace. She looked for Buffasip, but he was nowhere to be seen. She wasn’t surprised as he was a loner, after all. But he had come a long way in such a short time. She thought back to when she had first met him and he had repeatedly insulted her and refused to help. She smiled knowing this wouldn’t be the last time she crossed his path.
“We must be going now,” Nissa said.
Hope watched as Nissa returned to her pack along with Moose and Chewy. Ruff stayed with Hope for another moment.
“Ruff, how did your family find us?” Hope asked. “Or even know to come looking for us?”
“We’re wolves. We can find each other from miles away. You have incredible eyesight,” Ruff jutted his nose up, “and we have amazing noses.”
“But how did they know to come?”
“I didn’t want them to worry, so I told Benji to let them know if I didn’t return in a couple hours.”
“RUFF!” Luther barked. “Get over here, now.”
“Gotta go, sis.”
Hope smiled. “Later…brother,” she said as he left.
Hope’s eyes followed Ruff a moment longer then she flew back to the shore. She perched on a pole at the end of the pier and looked out to the sea. She could see the ship in the distance before it disappeared over the horizon on its way to the other side of the world.
Hope had no idea if she would ever see her real family again but in the process of trying to find them, she had found a new one. “Family isn’t just about the blood you share,” she whispered. “It’s about who’s willing to be there for you when you need it the most.”
“And those who will accept you,” Buffasip added.
Hope nearly fell off the pier. She turned and faced Buffasip, grinning from ear to ear. “Thank you for your help rescuing Ruff.”
Buffasip nodded. “So, you really did get rid of a ship all by yourself.”
“Not bad for a little thing, eh?” Hope laughed.
“Not bad at all,” he admitted. “What now?”
“I don’t know.” Hope stared out over the ocean again. “I’ll never give up looking for my family. These dragon thieves will pay.”
It was the first time she had called them that. They were more than just hunters. Hunters was too nice a name for them. Hope was a hunter when she needed food to survive, and so were Ruff and all the other animals in the forest. These men had destroyed families and tore them apart. They were the lowest of the low. They were thieves.
“I wouldn’t expect you to give up,” he said. “I’ll be around when you need my help again.”
Hope smiled. “Thanks.” Then she turned to Buffasip. “Can I ask you a question?”
He nodded a little. “If you must.”
“Can you and the wolves talk to each other without actually speaking? I could have sworn Moose and Chewy did that, and more than once.”
“We Guardians can communicate with each other but not with the wolves, even though,” Buffasip coughed, visibly struggling to finish, “we’re closely related. Every species learns to do that eventually. Some can even talk to other species, but that’s rare. You have a lot to learn, little one. There are many creatures out there. A great deal of them are good, but the ones that aren’t…” Buffasip shuddered.
“It’s a big world out there,” Hope said, staring out at the ocean, wondering what it would be like to have another Rahken to talk to. Then a smile stretched across her face. “Buffasip, how did you get captured by the hunters?” She turned to face him, but he was gone again.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Text copyright © 2016 by Jonathan Austen
Published in the United States
by Hearthstone Fairytales
Cover design 2016 by Melinda VanLone
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in whole or in part, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without written permission of the publisher.
Other Titles Available
A Tale of Hope and Adventure Book 2:
The Frost Giant
A Tale of Hope and Adventure Book 3:
The Ogre King
A Tale of Hope and Adventure Book 4:
The Fenrir (coming soon)
About the Author
JONATHAN AUSTEN was born and raised in Waltham, Massachusetts. At the age of twenty-eight, he moved to Scottsdale, Arizona where he has enjoyed the sun ever since. For the past thirty years, he has worked as an IT professional building applications for Fortune 500 companies. However, it was not enough, and his love for animated movies, fantasy books, MMOs, and a gnawing urge to entertain others led him to write books.
Jonathan loves animals and has rescued dozens in his life. He currently lives with his two cats, Mac and Tosh. Also, when he is not coming up with new adventures, he spends his free time hiking, reading, and exercising.
A Tale of Hope
The FROST GIANT
Hope raced over the ocean with the cold winter sky at her back.
She had been trying to catch lunch for an hour, but the fish were smarter and faster than those she was used to chasing at Fathead Lake.
“Hiya, Hope,” Ruff called out from the edge of the pier, his light blue fur pressed back from the wind.
Ruff was a wolf and Hope’s best friend; a natural enemy to her kind—Rahken, a breed of dragon. He had helped her scare away some hunters a couple months ago; the same hunters who had stolen her mother, father, and sister, and shipped them across the ocean. Hope had scared off the last ship to save the life of her other friend, Buffasip. And another ship wasn’t due to arrive until after winter, unfortunately.
Hope acted as if she hadn’t heard Ruff. She focused on the elusive Wahoo fish—one of only two fish Hope hadn’t been able to catch. The other was the Frigid Zebra, but nobody had ever caught one of those.
The Wahoo fish surfaced, its tail slicing through the choppy water. Hope pulled in her six-foot wings and dropped out of the sky like a missile, heading straight for it. Recently, Hope had started to hiccup when she dove. She hadn’t understood why or how to stop it, and today was no different. The Wahoo fish spotted her and submerged. Hope pressed on harder, her black scaly body tearing through the wind. Hope struck the water, the fish still in sight. She opened her mouth and stretched but the Wahoo fish was a smidgen out of her reach and it disappeared.
Hope resurfaced, gagging, then hiccupped out a mouthful of water. She flew back to the pier to see Ruff.
“You didn’t catch a Spiny Lumpsucker again, did ya?” Ruff laughed uproariously.
Once she had caught a Spiny Lumpsucker and severely regretted it, because it had stuck itself to her tongue. It had taken her three hours to get it off.
Hope glowered at Ruff. She no longer had to stare up at him. Other creatures used to call her ‘little one.’ Now she had grown to the same size as Ruff and would soon be bigger than his older brother Moose.
“Still hiccupping when you dive?” he asked.
She nodded. “I don’t get why I do that.”
“You’re probably too excited trying to catch that stupid Wazoo fish.”
“It’s a Wahoo fish, and maybe you’re right.”
“How far out did you fly today?” he asked.
Each morning, since the night she rid the forest of the hunters, Hope had searched the ocean for signs of land or another ship. She pushed herself to go further each time. And each morning she returned with the same result.
Hope sighed. “I went as far as I could, but then I started to feel tired and–”
“Still no sign of land or any other ships?” he asked, discouraged.
Hope shook her head weakly.
“Have patience,” he said. “You’re only going to get bigger and stronger. You’ll find something out there eventually.”
“I know you’re right,” she said. “But it’s been months. You and your family have been wonderful but–”
“But you miss your family,” he finished. “I get it. But hey, everyone in the forest agreed to name the hunters’ path after you. HOPE TRAIL. That’s something, eh?”
The hunters had used the trail to transport the creatures they captured. Hope’s family had made that journey. Locked in cages. Put on a ship and sent to the other side of the world. Hope shuddered every time she thought about it.
She forced a laugh. She knew Ruff was only trying to cheer her up. That was what she loved about him the most. Normally it worked, but not today. Maybe it had been the cold air or losing the Wahoo fish again. She didn’t know, but something was bothering her.
“I wonder where the hunters ran off to,” she said, wanting to change the subject.
“Last I heard, they were headed north, towards Cursed Mountain.” Ruff shuddered and Hope knew it wasn’t from the cold air. She had heard the stories about a ghost that haunted the mountain. “Not even wild Fenrirs could drag me up there. No way!”
“You know Buffasip doesn’t like the word Fenrir. Be nice to him,” she said. If you asked any creature in the forest what they feared most, you would get one of two answers: a Rahken or a Fenrir. Buffasip was a Guardian of the Wandering Oak Forest, formerly referred to as a Fenrir, a ferocious, merciless creature. But like Hope, he had worked hard at changing what people thought of him.
“But he’s not here,” Ruff said, “so I thought–”
“And so you should be nice to him even when he’s not around.”
Ruff nodded sheepishly. “Sorry…have you seen him lately?”
“No,” she said. “Not since he got poisoned when the Agra Vation beetle stung him. I think he said he was going south to find something to make the numbness go away.”
Ruff laughed. “You mean limped south. Not much use for a three-legged Guardian.” Hope laughed along with Ruff, unable to resist.
Suddenly, the sky grew darker and the air became icy and bitter. The wind picked up speed and lashed against their faces. Waves crashed over the pier, soaking them.
“What’s happening?” Hope yelled over the howling winds.
“I don’t know,” Ruff shouted, shaking his body, water spattering everywhere. “Let’s get out of here. I’ll race you back to your cave.”
“You go ahead,” she said, smiling. “I’ll give you a few minutes’ head start this time.”
Ruff frowned but agreed and sped across the shore, disappearing into the woods.
Hope flew above the trees, and looked out over the forest. In the distance, she saw a cloud of fog and watched as it crept its way through the trees, freezing everything it touched.
Hope gasped. “It’s headed for my cave!” At the speed the fog moved, she was certain it would reach her cave within minutes, and Ruff was headed straight for it.
Hope descended and darted through the forest searching for Ruff along the way, but there was no sign of him. He couldn’t have gotten that far. She continued along Hope Trail, but there was still no sign of him. She left the trail, desperately trying to find him, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Maneuvering through the trees had only slowed Hope down. She rose above them and sped home, keeping one eye on the fog as it crept nearer, and the other eye out for Ruff. She reached her cave, but still no sight of Ruff. Her heart thumped against her chest. Her eyes flicked in every direction. Nothing.
“Ruff!” she cried out, but no response came. The air had gotten colder and she spotted the fog swirling around the trees ahead, freezing everything in its path. Hope blinked rapidly. Did she see two small figures moving within it? She stumbled backwards, startled by something that sprang from the nearby bushes.
“Oh man! I lost AGAIN!” Ruff groaned.
“Thank goodness,” she cried. “I was scared you’d got caught in it.”
She pointed at the fog moving in behind Ruff. “THAT!”
He jumped, startled, and leaped into Hope’s cave. He didn’t stop until he reached the back where Hope caught up to him.
“I don’t think we’re safe in here,” she said in a worried voice.
“I think you might be right.” He nodded towards the entrance and they watched as it slowly became coated in ice.
Fog twisted its way inside, enveloping everything in its path. Icicles grew around the cave’s entrance. Hope felt as if she were trapped inside the mouth of a giant beast. Slowly, the fog crept towards them. She and Ruff backed up as far as they could go and stood on her bed of rocks, shivering.
“What now?” Ruff whispered.
Just then, a lizard skittered past. It moved so quickly it appeared not to touch the ground. It had almost made it out of the cave when two small figures blocked its escape. The fog receded, making it easier for Hope to see them. Two very short people.
One was wearing a heavy black dress lined in gold. She stood at the entrance, as if guarding it with her long blue staff with a white stone set in the top.
The other person wore an ice blue felt hat with a feather sticking out. He pulled a dagger from inside his long blue coat, wiggled his thick mustache, and said, “Spiritus glacio!” A blast of cold air shot from its tip. The lizard stopped moving, trapped inside a small block of ice.
“Good shot, Bluster,” the strange woman said in a chipper tone. She smoothed back her thick, white hair revealing icicle earrings.
“Why, thank you, Gale,” Bluster said, tipping his felt hat and taking a slight bow. “I think there’s more in here for us to play with.”
“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” Gale sang, gliding across the frozen ground.
“Don’t be afraid,” Bluster said as he tiptoed through the cave. “It won’t hurt.”
“Much,” Gale added, and they cackled.
“They’re not much bigger than us,” Ruff whispered, surprised.
“I don’t think that matters,” she whispered back. “They can do stuff we’ve never seen before.”
“I think it’s magic,” he said.
“How do you…” She cut herself off. “It doesn’t matter, though, that lizard gave me an idea how to get out of here.”
“You mean the same lizard that’s over there, frozen in ice?” Ruff whispered pointing nervously at it. “How?”
“How do you feel about flying?” she asked. Hope had never flown while carrying another creature. She worried her claws would injure them and it made her too afraid to try. But if she didn’t try now, none of that mattered, because they would share the frozen lizard’s fate.
“Um…” Ruff looked at her, wide-eyed.
“You’ll be fine,” she lied. “Just keep quiet and don’t be afraid.” She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and readied herself to launch. “Whoa boy,” she groaned.
“Are you sure you can do this?” he asked.
Hope looked back at Bluster and Gale who were now dangerously close. She gulped. “I guess we’re about to find out.” She took a deep breath and flew across the cave with Ruff dangling below her.
“There!” Bluster yelled pointing a long, bony finger.
“STOP THEM!” Gale shouted and shot icicles from her staff at them.
Hope gripped Ruff as tight as she could as she dodged the icicles.
“They’re getting away!” Gale shrieked, her powder-white face turning pink.
Bluster turned and faced the mouth of the cave, waving his dagger. A stream of cold air and ice shot out. He swirled his arm around, sealing the entrance. “Gotcha!” Bluster cried triumphantly.
When Hope's family mysteriously disappear, Hope the young dragon finds herself alone in the world. She finds friends in the unlikeliest of creatures: a wolf named Ruff, and a Fenrir beast called Buffasip. Together the trio fights back against a group of nasty hunters who have been kidnapping the creatures of the Wandering Oak Forest for far too long. Join Hope, Ruff, and Buffasip on their exciting quest to save their home. The Dragon Thieves is the first book in the series A Tale of Hope and Adventure. It's perfect for children age 7 to adult. Each story has a strong, positive message that applies to all ages.