It took three hours until Feral’s keen hearing picked up something blundering into his snare – and when it did, he found himself rather wishing it hadn’t. The rabbit was small, and soft, and fluffy, and the choking wire around its neck was entirely Feral’s fault. Even as its eyes bulged in the throes of suffocation, it scratched and bit at him as he got near. A vague idea of freeing it in his head, he tried several times to get at the knotted wire, but each time was beaten back by frantic teeth and nails. There was only one thing he could do.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, biting his lip as he drew his hunting knife. His next action was swift and mercifully accurate, burying the knife in the rabbit’s skull. It stopped moving.
“Oh, dammit,” he murmured, looking at the small corpse. “Oh dammit, I’m sorry.” He felt thoroughly sick as he removed the wire from the animal’s neck.
It took about an hour before he plucked up courage enough to try to skin his catch, the slippery feeling of its innards leaving him nauseated. Eventually however, he managed to get most of the good meat into the small cooking pot he had scavenged before he left home, and brought it to the boil. Rabbit a la Guilt, he decided, watching the pot gloomily.
While it cooked, he decided to take an inventory of his supplies. Two of his mother's pasties remained – he wasn't sure whether to eat them while still fresh, or try to keep them for as long as possible. Eat one, save one, perhaps. Some tough trail bread, purchased before he left Westwheat, half a bag of oats, and a single apple completed the brief list of supplies. Feral sighed and eyed the woodland around, wondering if there were any more rabbits watching him.
“I'm sorry, but it's you or me,” he said to the shadows under the nearby bushes, just in case. “If that's not ok, you'd better not follow me tomorrow. Just so you know, next place I camp I'm going to set up more snares, so you've only yourselves to blame if I catch you.” The bushes remained silent. Feral wondered if that meant the other rabbits accepted his terms.
Whether the bushes had or not, the sky apparently found him lacking in regret, and over the course of the night deposited a light, penetrating drizzle upon him that made its way through the leaves of the beech tree overhead to sneak underneath his tent, leaving him damp, cold, and unhappily listening to all the small shuffling noises of the forest in the dark hours. Rabbits maybe.
By the time he woke from a fitful sleep, the clouds had passed, the air was warm, and the sun high in the sky. He breakfasted on some wild gooseberries that he found growing in a thick clump nearby. Whilst this meal carried less guilt than yesterday's stew, it was hardly sustaining, and he found himself digging into his pack for some of the trail bread he had bought before leaving Westwheat. This wouldn't work, he thought, taking inventory of his supplies. Either he supplement what he was carrying regularly, or he was going to eat his way through the contents of his backpack in four days.
Setting up snares every night didn't seem like much of an option, not if it was going to take hours to prepare each catch – not to mention he didn't really relish the idea of so many dead animals on his conscience. No, he needed to find a way of making small amounts of money as he went.
As afternoon rolled into evening, the road rounded a hill it had been outlining, bringing an inn into view a few hundred yards ahead, surrounded by a little ring of silver birch. That, Feral decided, was probably a good place to start. At this point, anything was better than walking another mile.
The vulpani woman looked at him appraisingly as she stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on her apron. She was about Feral's height, rather plump, and remarkably smiley.
“Well you’s a mite diffren’ to us usual back door knocker,” she piped cheerfully. “Plenny folks as’d just beg fer scraps, makes a change ‘ave summum off’r work a bit. Noice hat!” she added, and Feral realised he had quite forgotten to abandon it preference for his hood – although under the circumstances, that may have worked in his favour.
“Yus, I reckons we might find a li'l use for yer,” she went on. “Nuttin too grand oim 'fraid, but our usual lad ain't 'ere today so's if'n you fancy takin' on a few o' his jobs maybe gaffer can find 'is way to sparin' yous a meal and a couple o' coin to boot,” she paused, eyeing his ears with interest. Score two for vulpani solidarity.
“Well come on wi' yer then,” she scolded gently, as if the hiatus had been in some way his fault. Stepping to one side she ushered him in through the doorway. The whitewashed hall was full of brooms, buckets, mops and brushes, further narrowed by shelves on either side which were crammed with wooden and mugs and horn goblets. On the highest shelf, a single glass twinkled rather mournfully, as if lamenting the absence of long smashed brethren. From the far end of the hallway, a number of voices seemed to be arguing loudly.
“Oh don’t mind them now,” the vulpani woman told him. “Few ales and ever’body thinks they’m be knowin’ ‘ow to run the world. There's allus a pile o' crock'ry to be done 'fore ev'ning rush, so we'll start y'off with that. You get that done 'fore yon church rings out seven and we'll stoke y'up with a few vittles, zound fair?”
“Thank you,” Feral said softly as she showed him into the kitchen at the back of the inn. He took a deep breath as he looked at the mounds of mugs and tableware.
“Heat yersel water as needud,” the vulpani said, pointing to a huge kettle hanging in the fireplace. “Pump's jus’ out back.” Having apparently instructed him enough, she turned to a table at the other side of the kitchen, rolled up her sleeves, and started peeling the first of a large sack of potatoes.
Feral turned to the sink. Well, he thought, at least it wasn't legwork. This he could handle, and it seemed a reasonable trade for a solid meal. At least he thought that was the deal, if he was interpreting the vulpani’s broad country accent correctly.
“And what in the deeps you s'pposed to be?”
Feral paused, pitchfork poised to jab into a pile of hay, feeling the hair on the back of his neck bristle. Not that it was the first time someone had asked such a question of him – it tended to come with the territory of mixed parentage, though that didn’t necessarily take the sting out of it.
“Just what you see,” he said quietly, heaping a quantity of straw into a wheelbarrow, glancing briefly at the leonin leaning against a wooden upright that supported the stable roof. With arms folded across his solid chest, illuminated only by torchlight as evening deepened into night, as was to be expected the leonin was both tall and broad, but somewhat unkempt. Several unrepaired rips adorned his clothing, a light slash running up the left side of his leather vest, revealing a light pattern of stripes across his tawny fur.
Feral felt the leonin’s eyes on him for a moment longer, then the tall feline grunted, shrugged, and turned to leave. It might have ended there, quietly and simply, with Feral never knowing what the leonin had been looking for. Might have – if only he hadn’t just jabbed the fork into the next pile of hay with the vigour of the recently offended.
With a roar, the pile shook, then slipped to one side to reveal red eyes, sharp teeth, and massive hands that made a grab for Feral. Before he quite knew what was happening, Feral found himself pinned up against a beam, nose to nose with a very angry, very large leonin.
“What the hell!” it exclaimed, the tone suggesting that there wasn't really a question involved despite the words. “You think you gon' attack me, boy?” the leonin growled.
“I was... just...” Feral wasn't sure whether to drop the pitchfork. The leonin solved the problem for him, keeping him pinned with one hand while wresting the implement from him with the other.
Thunderous laughter sounded from the doorway, and the leonin's eyes narrowed to slits, glancing over without turning his head so much as a degree. The first leonin was leaning, propped against the doorway, doubled up with mirth.
“Dere you are, bruddah!” he managed to fight out between guffaws. “We t'ought da ale had killed ya!”
“Ain't no drink slay Boswell!” the hay-covered leonin shouted into Feral's face. His breath smelled like it had been a close fight. “Nor some liddle whelp like dis!”
“Aww come on, man, he hardly scratch you!”
The leonin named Boswell exhibited a stripy forearm, where two neat red holes dripped blood into his fur. It did look painful, but Feral felt reasonably sure it wasn't his fault. Apparently the leonin felt otherwise however.
“You pay for dat one, whelp!” And so saying, he threw Feral from the stables. The brother dodged just in time to allow Feral to hurtle past him, landing in the muddy yard. From an open window, he could see the vulpani barmaid, an expression of shock on her face as she watched. Probably better not to get her involved...
“You want advice, boy?” The first leonin asked, then continued before Feral had time to respond. “Run. I can't stop him when he like this, but he get bored if he don't catch you quick. You lead him good chase now, boy!”
Catching sight of the enraged looking leonin advancing on him from the stables, Feral decided it was good advice. As he turned, he could hear Boswell roaring names, perhaps calling friends out of the inn to join him.
Don't freeze. Don't freeze! Run!
Fear brought an extra surge of speed to Feral's legs as a cold dread settled over him.
Out of the gate, across the road, and straight into the trees, instinct telling him that a race on the open road wasn't going to go his way, but here in the undergrowth, twigs and leaves slapping at him as he fled past... An incoherent roar of anger and a thud from behind suggested that Boswell had just found the protruding roots Feral had just jumped. Good, that should buy a few more seconds.
“I'm gon-” the leonin swore “-kill you, whelp! You hear me!”
Quite possibly, Feral thought wildly, his heart hammering against his ribs. With the mood and apparent alcohol content of the big leonin, there was a very real chance of being quite literally taken apart should he be caught. Got to move, got to run, got to outpace him... and hope his saner brother hadn't lied!
A harsh laugh and some choice words from the right told him that Boswell had gained at least one to his hunting party. Even has he ran, Feral thought this was this extremely unfair – but there wasn't time to think of much else. The darkness was rapidly coming down around him, only the moon lighting his path, shining off a light mist that was starting to rise. Tearing past bush, under branch and over root, he knew that if he could keep out of range for another few minutes he might stand a chance of evading pursuit... if only he hadn't just tripped on a rock.
He went down in a crash amid a thick growth of bracken. From a whoop somewhere behind him, he judged that the noise had just given away his bearing. Moments later, a leonin crashed into the clearing. Not Boswell, this one a smaller, lighter framed feline than either of the brothers, he nevertheless advanced on Feral. As the half race scrambled to his feet, the leonin planted a foot hard on his backside, propelling him roughly forward.
“Gerd on an' run, lad!” he growled.
Feral wasn't going to question the instruction. Whether for sport or for aid, he was away again, the undergrowth clutching at him as he sped past. Ahead, he could see starlight between the trees, a clearing, a road, or – an embankment, he discovered, the ground disappearing from under his feet. With a yell, he plunged head first over the edge.
“What?” Balthor asked, looking at her.
“I’m sorry,” she told him, grinning. “I still can’t believe you stole the uniform!”
“Only half of it,” the lupari protested, indicating his black trousers. “The vest’s mine…”
“Even so,” Cassanya giggled again.
“Well its not like I intend to go back there,” Balthor stuck his tongue out at her, something he couldn’t remember doing to anyone for at least ten years. There was something about being with his friend again that suddenly made him feel a lot younger. Cheerful, exuberant, almost giddy...
“You’re lucky they didn’t send anyone out to get them back,” the leonin told him. “I would have enjoyed watching you trying to buy clothes while down to the fur.”
“I wouldn’t,” Balthor shrugged. “I’d have asked you to get them while I hid somewhere.”
“Bah,” Cassanya snorted. “That’s no fun.”
“You’d have done it, for me,” he pointed out.
“Well, yes,” she sighed, tapping the pointer charm as it wobbled on its pivot, her feline eyes having no trouble making out the movement even in the poor light. She glanced around. On one side of the road, thick woodland with nary a path nor track to be found, on the other a steep rise, overhung at the top by a few slender aspen, a trail of ivy and undergrowth hanging down like a leafy beard.
“Anything interesting?” Balthor asked.
“Not sure, this thing's been mighty twitchy the last hour or so...”
“Might be close by then?”
Cassanya eyed their surroundings meaningfully. “Not unless he can fl-”
If he hadn't been so busy being curled up into a small agonised ball, Feral might have said something along the lines of “Ouch!” - although probably rather less politely. As it was however, he was too busy assessing whether anything had actually broken in the fall, while simultaneously thinking that the road underneath him was remarkably rocky and really very painful. Got to get up, can't lie here!Feet... moved, legs, arms, back... right. Eyes?
“Whoa!” the leonin flinched back, apparently as surprised at his reaction as he was shocked to find her so close, although she managed to rise to her feet with rather more grace than Feral's panicked scramble. Whether it was the madness of the moment, or that her face was hidden by the evening shadows, in that instant Feral's mind connected her with another leonin woman he had encountered not so very long ago. Run!
Feral didn't. Turning, he fled into the undergrowth on the far side of the road.
“Feran Foxwood, wait!”
Feeling like someone had just thrown cold water in his face, Feral dodged behind a broad beech tree, planting his back against it, ears alert to any sound of pursuit. For a breathless moment, he speculated how amazing it is that the sound of one's own name can cut through any amount of background noise – or blind panic. Think...back then, did he ever tell that woman his name? No. Which meant that if thisone knew him, then they weren't the same. No, of course, it did seem unlikely, what with the one being in heavy armour and on dragon back, and this one apparently just being on the road at the wrong time.
But if that was the case, how did she know him? His line of thought was interrupted by a roar of anger from somewhere behind.
Balthor might actually have been amused by the timing, had the plummeting young man not just sent Cassanya sprawling in the dust. Instead he watched with concerned bafflement as the two picked themselves up, looked at each other, and recoiled with shouts of shock. And then the young man was gone, leaving Cassanya calling after him.
“Uh...” Balthor suggested, before whirling as someone else apparently fell from the sky behind him. This one was a lot bigger than the first, but landed with a natural feline grace, huge boots thudding down with remarkable softness onto the road. The massive, scruffy leonin shook a shaggy head as he straightened. Bloodshot eyes stared at Balthor for a moment, glanced at Cassanya, darted each way along the road – then focussed on a movement in the bushes. With a roar, he charged towards it.
Cassanya needn't have worried. Balthor had already connected the young man's headlong flight with the leonin pursuer and had no intention of allowing the latter to continue the chase. With immaculate timing, the lupari spun on the spot, delivering a solid reverse kick into the centre of the leonin's broad chest. Brute strength tested itself against the precise movements of a trained soldier, and lost.
For a moment, the momentum of the feline's charge carried his legs forward even as his upper body was sent backwards, and a moment later he was flat on his back in the road blinking groggily up at the twilit sky. He staggered to his feet, weaving unsteadily as Balthor's hand strayed to his sword hilt, bracing his feet as he readied for a likely attack. Cassanya laid a restraining hand on his shoulder, and stepped forward. Balthor understood.
“The boy?” she asked, striding right up to the tall leonin.
“He–” Boswell didn't get to finish his statement, instead shocked into silence by the stinging open handed blow that Cassanya delivered to his cheek.
“Look at the size of him!” she shouted into his face, one hand pointing into the forest into which Feral had recently vanished. “What are you doing chasing down some poor kid who doesn't have the faintest chance against you? You think your mother will be making a feast when you tell her that story? Or would she kick you out for the shame of it?”
Watching cautiously from the shadows under the beech tree, Feral held his breath as the massive leonin lifted a hand. For a moment, Boswell looked as though he might strike Feral's unexpected defender – but he had reckoned without leonin honour.
“Now, tell me what he did that gives you a right to take him apart,” Cassanya said, as the tall leonin's huge arm fell back to his side.
From somewhere up on the ridge above the road, amused laughter rang out. “Never be wakin' our Boswell, misses! 'Specially not after a few drinks!”
“That's it?” Cassanya sighed, glancing up and shaking her head as Boswell hung his, looking thoroughly deflated. “Look at you,” she prodded his chest. “Tall and strong, hale and hearty. Should be a credit to your family, not chasing down some youngster half your size. That boy wouldn't be stupid enough to do you any harm by intent, and you're clearly fit enough to run. You're better than this. Go sort yourself out and find a decent fight.”
Boswell eyed her, breathing heavily, but all the aggression gone from his eyes. Shaking his head, he laughed. “You're a bloody tough one, huntress. What's the boy to you, anyway?”
“A job,” Cassanya told him coolly. Hidden in the shadows, Feral wondered what that meant.
“Aye, well...” Boswell nodded slowly. “Maybe I did overreact. Though you,” he pointed a finger at Balthor. “Try that again, and I'll not let it slide.”
Returning his gaze levelly, Balthor remained expressionless. Boswell grunted, then turned, eyes scanning the embankment for a moment before locating a path up it some way along the road.
“Nicely done,” Balthor said quietly, moving up beside his friend.
“I'm so glad that worked,” Cassanya admitted, and the lupari covered his eyes with one hand a pained expression visible along the length of his canine muzzle.
“One day it won't,” he sighed. “Then we'll be back to fighting our way out of it.”
“Not today,” Cassanya grinned at him. “Now then, where's our boy gotten to...?”
Feral watched as the leonin took something from her pocket. Keeping her eyes on it, she took several paces left, then right again.
Feral held his breath. Could she see him in the shadows? He knew leonin night vision was good, but he was hidden deep enough he couldn't see his own hand on the ground in front of him.
“I know you're still there.” Apparently she couldn't. “It's all right, boy, I won't hurt you. I'm here to help. You can come out now.”
“Prove it!” Feral called out, not quite ready to trust her. He shuffled backwards and to the side to avoid her lupari friend's keen hearing locating him.
“Uh... your uncle is Fellirion Forester?”
Is he?Feral wondered. Bloody hell! “Great uncle!” he corrected.
“Whatever. You've got something on you that's... a bit magical... looking.” Cassanya rather wished she knew what exactly it was that her pointer was tracking.
Without really thinking, Feral's hand rose to the pendant around his neck.
“Y-” Magical things tended to be valuable, Feral thought belatedly. Valuable enough to track someone for. ”No...”
“Fair enough,” Shrugging, the leonin turned and took several strides along the road. “Guess you're not the right person. Oh well, I'll keep looking, Master Forester wanted to speak with him.”
Hang on, she was leaving just like that? Which probably meant that she wasn't after his pendant. Which meant that she was probably legitimate. Which meant that she probably did actually work for the only member of his family wasn't dead or missing and who might just be able to help...
Cassanya kept walking.
Grinning and winking at Balthor, she hesitated as the urgent call sounded behind them.
Ow!Feral thought, realising that somewhere in the last few minutes he had really hurt his right knee. He leaned against a tree, eyeing the leonin woman and her companion.
“Who are you?” he asked.
Turning, Cassanya smiled. “Friends. We won'thurt you,” she emphasised, realising he did look a bit worse for wear. “Really.”
“How do I know that?” Feral asked.
“Well for one I doubt you can run much further on that leg,” the lupari pointed out. “You're limping like you're about to drop. If we wished you harm, we'd easily have done it by now.”
That was true, Feral thought. Both parts. He stayed still, leaning against the tree as the leonin and her friend approached, feeling rather dizzy. Pressing a hand to a painful lump on the side of his head, Feral's fingers came away bloodied.
“Little help?” the leonin asked gently.
Feral took a breath. “Please...”
“Hot,” the lupari warned as he passed the plate to Feral.
Don't care, said Feral's stomach. Fortunately his head intercepted the call and make him wait a few moments, slicing off a small portion of the meat and blowing on it until it was sensible to eat it.
He watched the lupari, Balthor, quietly across the camp fire. Sturdy and confident, he moved with an ease that hinted at significant muscle power to spare. His voice was a little rough, his clothes a little rougher, but he had proven kind hearted in the half hour since Cassanya – after wrapping a bandage around Feral's head – had headed off to collect his possessions from the inn. And the lupari was quite a good cook, Feral discovered, finding the meat flavoursome and prepared just right, with a subtle blend of herbs.
A few minutes later, as Feral hesitantly asked if there might be another portion available, the tall canine just smiled. Of course there was.
“Think she's ok?” Feral asked quietly, looking up at the now dark sky.
The lupari grinned, canine ears pricked forward. “I wouldn't worry. Cassy can handle herself, she's probably just instilling a few leonin ethics into your big friend.”
“I still don't really get that...”
Balthor laughed, the sound a mellow rumble in his broad chest. “No, nor do I. Odd people, sometimes. Truth is, nobody really knows how to handle a leonin, except another leonin.”
Stepping forward from the shadows behind him, Cassanya cuffed him sharply around his left ear.
“Here,” she placed Feral's backpack on the ground at his feet before jamming his hat roughly onto his head.
“Thank you,” Feral said, wincing, but setting his plate aside and hunting urgently through his possessions as the leonin placed his folded cloak on the log beside him, setting a handful of copper coins on top.
“Bar maid said she owed you something, since you hadn't had chance to eat. Everything there?”
“Think so...” he sighed. There was the little painting of Shara, and indeed, nobody had been rifling through his things. “Yes.”
“Good,” Cassanya smiled, accepting a plate from Balthor and sitting on the other end of Feral's log. “So, Feran–“
“Feral,” he corrected.
“Feral. Only person calls me Feran is... was... my mother.” He looked at the ground, not wanting to look at either of his new companions. Finding his hands shaking, he put Shara's picture back in his pack and closed it quickly. Suddenly his meal didn't seem to be sitting quite right in his stomach.
“All right, Feral it is then,” Cassanya nodded. “Hey, you ok?”
No,Feral thought. Not really.
It might have been because for the first time in a long time he wasn't on alert for external dangers, or maybe it was that he'd taken a few knocks today, or maybe it was the sudden realisation that he did still have family out there who he could contact, but Feral suddenly found himself fighting tears. He sniffed, rubbing his eyes with the back of his hand.
“Feral?” he felt Cassanya move closer along the log, her large hand patting his shoulder firmly. “Come on, boy, less of that, you're not hurt. You're all right!”
But Feral didn’t look all right at all.
“I’ll have t-to tell him,” he whispered, head down and ears flat back against his head. “T-tell him…”
“Tell him what?” Cassanya asked softly.
“Wrong… it’s all gone wrong…” Feral sniffed. “I couldn’t stop it… I’m sorry…”
“Sorry?” the leonin looked confused, letting her hand rest gently on his back. “Couldn’t stop it? Stop what, boy? Please tell me what’s wrong.”
“Dead?” Cassanya’s eyebrows rose. “Who?”
“Everyone… Except Shara... Sh-she was t-taken... I’m sorry… I saw it. I-I c-couldn’t stop it… I tried…”
Cassanya opened and closed her mouth a few times without speaking, not at all sure what to say.
“Feral?” she called softly, as if she were waking a small child from sleep. “Feral?” The half-race sniffed and looked up at her, tear tracks down his face, glittering orange in the firelight. “Tell me what happened,” Cassanya said gently.
It took a while, but Feral did tell her. About how the village had been attacked, about how his parents had died, about how he had tried – and failed – to protect his sister, about how he had been left with no choice but to leave his home, hoping maybe he could find a clue as to Shara's whereabouts. Several times he had to pause for breath, fighting hard to regain control as he spoke. Across the fire, Balthor’s expression was sympathetic, the lupari listening quietly to a story that should never have had to be told.
“And… then I ran, and you… you found me…” Feral concluded. “You really work for uncle Felli?” he asked, looking up anxiously at the leonin, feeling that this might just be some cruel trick.
“I do,” Cassanya smiled, patting the smaller half-race awkwardly as he leaned against her, his expression betraying his relief at her words. “Come on now, chin up. I know things look pretty bad, but Master Forester he's... pretty influential, I guess. We'll go back to him, tell him what's happened, maybe he'll know something.”
“How would he?” Feral asked.
“Well, that's the way isn't it?” Cassanya shrugged.
“Being on the council of magi, and all that.” The leonin looked down at him. “You don't know him very well, do you?” she asked.
Feral looked a little guilty. “He visited once when I would young... I haven't seen him since...”
“Ah,” Cassanya mouthed.
“He gave me this,” Feral said, withdrawing the pendant from the front of his vest, the firelight shining and running around its facets like liquid light. Cassanya's eyes widened, and Balthor whistled softly from across the fire.
“That's quite the fancy looking trinket,” he said quietly.
“It is...” the leonin mused, rummaging in her pocket for a moment, pulling out a metal disk with a glassy window on the top. She moved it back and forth in front of the pendant a few times. “Hah! Cunning old geezer!” she declared. Seeing Feral's confused expression, she smiled. “Sorry, please don't tell him I said this, but that was pretty neat planning. See, this arrow here,” she indicated with a finger, “always points towards that stone. Or whatever it is,” she frowned at the pendant as it once again defied analysis of its composition. “That's how we found you, been tracking you by this pointer.”
Feral reached out with shaking fingers to touch the small device as Cassanya held it in her palm. “I should have given it to Shara...” he whispered.
“Then I'd have found her and have no clue where you were,” the leonin pointed out. If she's not dead,she continued in her head, but didn't voice the thought. She knew it was better to have found the one of the two who was definitely alive, but that was probably not a statement Feral would appreciate.
“How am I going to find her...?” Feral's voice shook, and he wrapped an arm around Cassanya to draw her closer.
“Told you,” she said, exchanging a glance across the fire with Balthor, who tried to hide a smile. “We'll speak to Master Forester. He might actually be the best person to help you could ever find. You seem to be lucky with your family!”
Feral felt too weak to argue. He couldn't think anymore. Something about the leonin told him he could trust her. Just let Cassanya do the planning, at least for a little while. “Ok. Where are we going?”
“Over the Skystones, near a little town on the Eastwash river.”
“’Fraid so,” Cassanya nodded.
Feral was silent for a moment. “Do we have to start right now?”
The leonin laughed. “Bless you, no. First get a little rest, you've had a rough time of late, and unless you're a miracle healer you'll not move very fast for a day or two anyway,” she said, patting his knee gently.
“Mmm,” Feral agreed.
“Why don't you get some sleep?” she suggested. “Balthor and me will keep watch, you're safe now.”
Feral sniffed again, trying to ignore the prickle of fresh tears brought on by this simple statement. “Yeah, OK, I just need to, um…” he got carefully to his feet, and limped towards the trees at the edge of the clearing. He disappeared behind the largest and into the bushes beyond.
Cassanya looked after him for a moment, then turned to Balthor.
“Do you believe his story?”
Balthor looked unusually thoughtful. “I think someone killed his family and took his sister, no doubt there. He’s too upset and scared to be lying, and if he wasgoing to lie, he'd say everyone was dead so that nobody was going to go looking!” Cassanya nodded slowly. “But as for the how… Really, no. I mean a…” he paused.
“Dragon,” Cassanya supplied, looking equally sceptical. “I know, but that’s what he said.”
“I don’t believe that, no,” Balthor shook his head.
“What do you think really happened?” Cassanya inclined her head.
The lupari shrugged. “Maybe he got hit on the head. Maybe it wasa pirate raid, maybe they downed him early and he dreamed the rest. Or maybe he ismaking it up, for whatever crazy reason he's got.”
“Why would he do that?” Cassanya asked. “No, I don’t think so, he looks too honest. I think he believes what he told us, but I agree that he’s wrong about it. I guess we’re just going to have to wait a while until we find out the whole truth… We'll get him home, see what old Forester makes of it all.”
“Mmm,” the lupari shrugged.
“It’s a shame though,” Cassanya added quietly.
Balthor nodded. “Yeah, poor guy. He could use someone to look after him a bit,” he winked at the leonin.
“What? Oh no,” she wagged a finger. “Hired escort is all I do, I don’t stretch to cooking, cleaning, or babysitting.”
“Hardly a baby,” the lupari amended.
Cassanya snorted. “He’s tiny!” she folded her arms across her chest, raising an eyebrow at the lupari.
“He’s a vulpani-human half-race,” Balthor countered. “He was never going to be particularly tall you know. Early to mid teens I reckon.”
“You think? I thought he looked younger…”
“Yeah, well,” the lupari chuckled. “You always used to tell me I looked too young for my age because I was so small.”
“You aresmall, shortie,” Cassanya stuck her tongue out.
“Well pardon me for not being born a leonin,” Balthor thumbed his nose.
The leonin smiled. “It’s ok, I like you as you are. Makes you easier to pick on,” she grinned cheekily.
“Just try it,” the lupari folded his arms, and smiled confidently.
When Feral returned, feeling more comfortable and reasonably sure he wasn't going to burst into tears in front of Cassanya, it was to find his new companions apparently trying to beat each other to death.
“Oh, hello,” Balthor said, finally noticing him watching, grinning sheepishly as he sat on the leonin’s back, tickling her flanks while she pummelled the ground with her fists, laughing helplessly.
“Um, hi,” Feral said dubiously as they disengaged, the leonin wiping away tears of laughter.
She looked at him critically. “Go to sleep,” she said, frowning.
At another time, perhaps, he would have objected, but right now, Feral was dead tired. He followed Balthor's gesture as the lupari pointed to a pile of leaves near the fire, and suddenly realised why the tall canine had gathered them. Spreading his cloak across the pile, he found it made a passable mattress – or at least, it was softer than the ground underneath. He sighed quietly, laying down and turning his back to the fire, facing out into the darkness of the surrounding woodland.
Thoughts. Yes, there were a few of those to contend with. Finding Shara, and what was he going to do about the crazy leonin woman with the dragon... But he wasn't hungry tonight, and he wasn't alone. Uncle Fellirion... uncle Felli, he remembered calling him many years ago... council of magi... And there it was. Just a little spark of hope inside him. It might work out. Just maybe... just maybe he could find her...
Cassanya watched as Feral's breathing slowed, the tension of his shoulders relaxing as he slipped into sleep.
“Where do you think we should head for tomorrow?” she asked Balthor softly.
“Depends... crossing the Skystones isn't something you do on a whim.”
Cassanya nodded. “I know. I came out by ship, along the coast, but I've no money to go back that way...”
“Shank's pony it is then,” Balthor smiled. “Done worse. Let's head for the river then. It'll give us the easiest walk, and at least there's always water and fish on the way. Mountains will be rough... But we'll handle that later. Let's start with Cliffward. Little town, only about five miles up the road. Should make it that far easy enough, and the inn does a damn fine meat pie....”
Cassanya looked at him.
“Oh not for me,” the lupari added hurriedly. “But it’ll do him good,” he nodded at the sleeping half-race, and Cassanya raised her eyebrows. “Of course, if there’s enough going spare…”
Cassanya shook her head, smiling and trying to stifle a yawn and failing miserably.
“Get some rest if you like, Cassy,” the lupari said softly. “I'm good for a few hours yet.”
She nodded. “Alright, but wake me up before you turn in. I don’t want trouble finding us when we’re asleep.”
The lupari nodded, and watched as she adopted a cross-legged position, closing her eyes, her chin dropping slightly. Praying was something Balthor wasn’t really familiar with, somehow a god, or gods didn’t fit in with his world, and he never felt as if anyone were watching out for him, but it was something he knew Cassanya did regularly.
To most leonin, there were no gods, or at least, not anymore. Legend tells of how Leonan the Hunter, after defeating his mortal enemy at the battle of Blood Mountain, went on to challenge the gods who had backed his adversary and cost the lives of his entire command. Laughing at his presumptuousness, the gods allowed him to set foot upon their plain, where they sent their legions against him.
The ensuing fight, so it is told, went on for seven days and seven nights, a dark storm enveloping the land as the battle raged in the heavens. Each challenge the gods sent to Leonan, he defeated with a skill unmatched, until at last they had no choice but to face him themselves.
Tigrais, the smith and armourer of the gods. Jubata, goddess of hunting, wine, and feasting. Pantherik, the black god of the underworld. Unica of wind, lightning, and thunder. Finally, Krugerin, the god of strength, earth, and fire. One by one they were defeated, slain by a warrior whose body may not be godly, but whose skill most certainly was. All fell, except one.
Persica, goddess of light, spirit, water, and love sat by the battlefield and wept as her kinsmen fought. When she alone was left, Leonan turned to her, but could not bring himself to strike, for he saw the tears upon her face.
“Are you so afraid to die?” he asked her, his sword raised high.
She shook her head sadly. “No. You were betrayed by my brothers and sisters. They have knowingly cost the lives of those who followed the right, and I cannot condone their actions, or condemn you for yours. But when I am gone, you will be alone, and that is worse than death.”
From this point, leonin legend diverges. The most popular view is that Leonan saw through this last feeble attempt to stave off fate, a cruel cut of words by one who could not cut his flesh, and struck Persica down that he might assume his place in the heavens. Thus did Leonan the Hunter rise to godhood, proud and strong, as his children flourished beneath his gaze, a noble warrior of whom all leonin wished to prove worthy that they might rise to meet him when at last they fell in battle.
The other ending to the tale, and one that was not widely accepted, was that Leonan saw the truth in Persica’s words. Realising that to kill her was dishonourable, and to let her – and himself – live alone for eternity worse, he took her into his arms, and they wept together. With Persica at his side, Leonan looked down upon his children on the world below, ever reminding them that in their strength and pride, they must never forget kindness and love, lest they find themselves alone.
It was to this view that Cassanya subscribed.
A strange combination, Balthor thought, looking at her as she sat quietly. Strength tempered with grace and kindness. A heart of gold in a body of steel.
She opened her eyes after perhaps a minute, catching him looking at her, and flushing, a hint of pink showing beneath her fur. “Sorry,” she apologised quietly.
Balthor shook his head and smiled. “Nah, I’m glad she listens to you.”
“She would to you, if you asked…”
“I’m no leonin,” the lupari shrugged. “I doubt she cares.”
“Trust me, she does,” Cassanya corrected him gently. “Good night, Thor.”