Sadja did not know how to feel about coming back into the thick of the woods. That weird, too-sweet scent of almost-rotten peaches still lingered in the air and if the grey pines still cried with tears of thick crimson sap. Silence loomed over the four of them. But at the same time, there was an uncanny peace in the secluded space between trees. She could enjoy that at least.
The way she could feel her breath running through her chest and then leaving her lips, forming a thin cloud of whiteness. The way cold prickled against her skin, but she easily tolerated it even just wearing a thing white cloth (a new one the Hunter had bought for her her) and boots.
The boots were new. She did not like them very much but the Hunter had insisted.
No matter how resistant she was to cold, stepping on a sharp stone or a piece of steel would incapacitate.
She had lowered her tail to the ground in protest, but in the end she did put them on.
They did feel nice.
Not that she’d be caught dead admitting it.
To distract her mind from this kind of thoughts that now made her cheeks all prickly, she picked up a stick and began to trace letters in the snow.
Cloria was satisfied with her knowledge of the alphabet, and was now moving on to actual words and phrases, but she still found it fascinating.
“A… b…” she mouthed, tracing the arcane signs on the white surface. These did not mean anything to the animals or to the Eerie walking about, but to her and to everyone who could decipher them might be a message, a call for help, or just a way to say thanks. She felt like stepping in a secret world only she and a few others could decipher and she was all giddy about it, her ears happily straight.
Next to her, the brother watched her write. He reached the same spot and put his spear down, watching her.
Sadja felt a little self-conscious but she finished writing down the alphabet, all the way to the double-zed.
“What do you think?” She asked, hoping she did well.
“Chhannt’s saaahy,” he mused, shaking his head. “Chhaaant’s annhnymhoore.” He tapped at the side of his moth-head and Sadja frowned. Did that mean… their home had been full of books, she remembered that clearly. And yet, they opened none of them, leaving them to collect mold.
What else did the Tide rob them of, besides their human form?
Sadja shivered, thinking about the Hunter’s wife. What she had lost and what he’d been trying to salvage.
A rustle a few meters ahead made her ears turn. She pulled up the stick, suddenly tense.
Her two companions were a lot quicker. The brother jumped ahead while his sister swung from the right, their spears at the ready. They hit a snow-capped bush nearby, letting out a satisfied chuckle when their weapons skewered something and it shrieked in pain.
They pulled their spears up and each of them looked at a half of a small critter-like Eerie, the lower part of its body snapping its pincers while the upper one sprayed a few black drops onto the snow, wriggling and refusing to die.
Sadja puffed her cheeks at their elegance and confidence. They swung like dancers. She wasn’t like that.
“It’s just part of the trade,” said the Hunter, coming up from behind. All three of them started and looked at him.
Nobody heard him coming. He gave them a wink and sat on the snow, looking at the two siblings.
“You have great coordination. Experience, and strength. That’s commendable. But Sadja here does not have any of these, yet.”
“I do have some strength,” she protested flexing her arm.
“You do have remarkable muscle power for your size, that’s for sure. But it takes time to train that to become useful.”
“Am I going to be ready for Spring?”
“That’s what we’re working on. Our first lesson is going to be pretty simple, though. It’s about learning how to listen to the forest.”
Sadja tilted her head.
“Huh? I thought hunting was about throwing spears at things. And shooting. Cloria uses a gun.”
“She does. We all have our preferences. My goal is to get you ready to discover yours and to tune you in with what matters. You can be the mightiest warrior and not last a day in the woods. Look at the men following Cloria. Part of it was her fault, but none of them survived, and they were all stronger and taller than you.”
The two moth-people nodded and chirped a short exchange in their secret language. Sadja pursed her lips and sat down in front of the Hunter.
“Alright. What do we do?”
He beamed and put his hands on his thighs stretching his back.
After a moment he hissed and scratched his right eye.
“Sorry. It stings sometimes. You two, could you mount guard? If something big approaches, please let us know.”
They nodded and took their places.
“Now, I did tell you about listening to the forest. Did you ever feel some sort of presence in the woods, Sadja? Some sort of lingering will, or pressure. The same feeling of someone looking at your back.”
Her tail waggled on the snow, rising a small white cloud.
“Yes. I think. The first time I came here it was Verna’s… influence. But I did feel something like that.”
“Very well. That’s what we refer to as the heartbeat of the forest. It waxes in Winter and wanes in Spring, but it’s always present. Learning to listen to it will give you an ear to what direction the Eerie are moving, for they respond to the same beat. Feel it pound close to your ear, and you know danger is close. Feel it low and far-off and you know you can sleep that night.”
“Understood. And how do I do that?”
“You first have to train to listen. We start with your own breath and we will move on to your other senses. Bit by bit, it will come to you.”
Sadja bit her lip. It did sound pretty boring.
But then again so did reading, and the joy she felt when she first decoded words on a page had set off a burning light in her chest.
She had to trust him.
After all he was the person who had first freed her for real.
“Try to feel your breath first. How it moves through your chest. Up and down. In and out.”
Sadja frowned, but tried to do as he told. She felt air rake against her belly and up towards her throat, in cold and out warm.
“That’s it. We’ll keep at it for a while.”
“How… how long?”
He gave her a smile.
“I used to ask the same to my old teacher. It takes a bit, but less than you fear. It helps if you just focus on the movements, on how your body feels.”
“I can try…” Sadja closed her eyes (would it help? Maybe a bit) and tried to focus on her breathing, on the rush of air, on how her chest distended and contracted at its passage.
“Very well. That’s how you can then focus on your other senses, and what’s beneath. On the pressure and the voices of the forest.”
She frowned, her mind leaving her breath.
“I did feel voices.” She opened her eyes. Something inside her told her this was important. “Once. I think it was a dream.”
But now, thinking back to it, she did wonder whether it was indeed a dream.
She licked her lips and next time she took a breath the smell of rotten peaches was far stronger.
“Perhaps it was something else. What kind of dream?”
“I don’t know. It was when Cloria kidnapped me. I was in an out of sleep, I don’t…”
“Sadja.” The Hunter’s voice was now firmer. Still covered in kindness, but there was a stern light in his eyes she had not seen since he had faced off with Verna. “I think this is important. Please try to remember, if you can. What kind of voice?”
“It was a friendly voice! A-And there was the Augur there as well, Elissa, but she couldn’t see me. But I don’t think it was her, that voice sounded different. Older. Younger. I wouldn’t know.”
“… I see.” She smelled nervousness from the Hunter. And a tinge of acrid fear. “And what did this voice say? Why do you say it was friendly?”
“It told me I shouldn’t disappear! That when the moment came, I’d have to think about it and remember it. It helped me when… when Verna pushed me under with her mind. I wouldn’t be here without it. It was a good voice, I’m sure!”
He let out a long breath. Nodded, but there was no relief in it.
The two moth-people looked at her as well.
“Yes. Yes, I can see that. You did well. I’m proud of you.”
“Why are you so scared now? It was nothing. Just a dream.”
But her own heart was picking up pace now.
Had it really been just a dream?
“Spirits,” the Hunter grunted. “This much, this soon. This changes things…”
“What? Why? What was that voice?”
He took her hands and held them in his own.
“You’ve meet with a certain someone. I don’t know why, but it’s important you tell me everything about your dream, Sadja. I’ll explain everything, but I have to know what happened first.”
“W-Why? Who did I meet?”
“The Wicked Fae. The Heart of the Forest. Sadja, you have been visited by the Queen of Thorns.”
Pic by PalaslayerAuthor’s Notes: well, I liked this chapter. I liked seeing Sadja in the snow and starting to learn her trade, together with the hints about what happened and the role of the Wicked Fae in this. I hope you had fun with this chapter. Thanks for reading.