Aya woke up from the strangest dream.
However, as strange as the dream was, it wasn’t any stranger to the reality she woke up to.
She was camped outside under the protective eaves of branches of the trees that surrounded them. Aya and her mother had left the city in which she grew up once before, to visit the nearby village where her mother had grown up. But that trip had them camp along the road when there wasn’t an inn to stay at, and they had only traveled for three days.
Her new traveling companions had expressly avoided the road, and they’d been climbing through hills and mountains and through forests for close to a week now. The supplies they’d packed had only lasted them a few days, but her companions had already planned for that. They were both used to this sort of hard travel.
Aya was not.
Jessay and Kriofft were strangers to her, at least they were a week ago. Now… however, she supposed they were friends.
“We need to get you out of here. Now!” The gruff-looking woman named Jessay had shouted at her.
Jessay was clothed in furs and roughspun linens made to withstand the rigors of travel. She was shorter than Aya, stocky in build, with chin-length brown hair that was tied back in a messy bun. Her brown eyes felt cold. Not in a sinister way, but Aya knew when she met them that Jessay’s eyes had seen things, things Aya could only imagine.
“But my mom…” Aya replied pathetically, she knew there was no chance.
“She’s gone.” The blonde-haired man with the woman had said his name was Kriofft. His voice was gentler, but no less firm.
He was considerably better dressed in leather armor with a traveler’s cloak and tailored felt garments fitted over the armor. His blue eyes were also sad, but they were warm as well and he offered her a smile.
“I know, it’s hard. But it’s going to get harder, and the longer we stay, the harder it will get. We need to go.” He said.
Aya chewed on her lip, “where?”
Talvale. Or, as it was better known, the Mountain City.
Aya knew of it, but not how to get there. It was on the western edge of the continent. Surrounded by the Fangtooth range, it had enough natural protection to remain its own city-state, outside of the authority of the Empire. It was supposedly an outlaw city, filled to the brim with criminals and other unsavory elements. Which, apparently, was what Aya was now.
Jessay and Kriofft surely looked the part of a couple of rogues. If it wasn’t for what Aya had found when she returned home that day, well… honestly, at first she blamed them. It wasn’t easy for them to gain her trust. That had taken a conversation with Thrum downstairs. He was the landlord for the little loft that Aya shared with her mother, and the owner of the grocers that was the primary purpose for the building.
As soon as he heard about what happened, Thrum, Aya called him Mer Vakson, had closed his shop. Meanwhile, her new companions explained why they were there for her–and more importantly, what happened to her mother.
Church investigators, Inquisitors, had shown up earlier that day. Mer Vakson recalled, because they had specifically interrogated him about his only tenants. While they had been intense and rude by her landlord’s recollection, they hadn’t seemed murderous. After that Jasay and Kriofft had arrived and were asking after Aya’s mother as well.
That had caught Mer Vakson’s attention. While Aya’s mother was a busy woman, she didn’t have many visitors and two groups of visitors who weren’t familiar with her was altogether unheard of. They hadn’t been there all of five minutes according to the shopkeep, before they had come back down and dragged him upstairs to see what was up there.
Aya felt as though she should have asked Thrum what he’d seen. When she returned to find his shop closed and two strangers there comforting him, she knew something was wrong, but she never would have been able to imagine what she saw up there.
After that it had been a frenzy of half explanations and packing. Her landlord gave them what supplies they could carry and promised he would say nothing of where they went. Aya’s new companions had convinced him that if he was pressed, he could paint the scene, them as villains kidnapping Aya, they even tossed a few things about the shop to make the story more convincing.
“Good morning.” Jessay popped into view over Aya.
“Is it good?” Aya rolled over and pushed herself up.
Her bedroll and blanket were easy enough to pack up once she brushed off the leaves, and she had become adept at getting all that done in a minute or less.
“We’re alive. No Inquisitors in sight. I’d say that counts as good.” Kriofft responded.
“Do you think Mer Vakson is okay?” Aya asked as she took some of the bread that Kriofft had fried up. The ground flour her landlord, or, rather, former landlord, had given them was going to last a lot longer than other supplies.
“That Thrum fellow?” Jessay responded as she helped Aya finish breaking down camp. “I’m sure he’s fine. A lot more people would miss him than yer mum.”
I miss my mum. Aya thought, but she didn’t give voice to it. The truth was, there were likely going to be a fair amount of callers to Thrum’s Grocery trying to find out why their laundry wasn’t getting picked up and cleaned. However, those callers would quickly move on. However, if the grocery closed because of Mer Vakson’s untimely end, there would be far more outrage. And outrage led to investigation.
Aya chewed on the flat bread in silence as they finished packing for the day. She grabbed her bow and quiver and slung them across her body.
Her own outfit was sort of an eclectic grab of items she was able to grab in their mad dash from her home. A coat for traveling over a laced vest, underneath which was a favorite dress of hers, a light green in color, completed by leggings made of leather which, like the coat, would hold up better to travel.
The leggings were an add as they fled the city, they were lovely shade of brown with expert stitching and a comfortable fleece lining on the inside. Aya had admired them from the other side of a shop window for some time, but they were too expensive, and only women who spent a lot of time on the road would typically wear them.
Aya ran her hands down her leggings and over the boots they got at the same shop. The boots were put together by some cobbler and sold to the shop most likely. Like the leggings, they were quality made and the two items used up much of the meager budget that her companions had. But, as Jessay put it, ‘you tramp across the country in what you got on, you’ll be half naked by the end of the week, if ya don’t die of the exposure first.’
After breakfast, they set out once more. Aya had often dreamed of the world outside Rathuma. Though she did have that one trip to her name before, the road still tied her in to civilization. True, they passed through some forest, but much of their time was spent traveling past farms and through villages. It was a far different experience than the city, but not even quite a half-step compared to the wilderness.
They were surrounded by oaks and maples. Basswood trees towered over those, with only the tallest of oaks to rival their size. Beech trees and elms crowded in as well. All of the trees were beginning to turn with the season, with the oaks being the most stubborn of the bunch. The elm trees mostly were shedding leaves, but between the beautiful tans of the beech trees, the yellow leaves of the basswoods, and the red foliage of the maples, the world around her was magical to look at, if one had the time to stand and gawk.
Kriofft passed the time by telling her stories of fights he had been in and, when an opportunity presented itself, he was teaching her how to properly shoot a bow. But it was Jessay who was the woodsman… woodswoman, rather. Aya loved her companion’s passion for nature and the little ways she had found to describe such details. Such as White Oak leaves which she called big frog feet for their distinctive rounded lobes.
Jessay showed Aya how to forage as well, which nuts were edible, such as beechnuts, though they were so strongly bitter that Aya was certain she would need to be desperate to actually gather them.
“So… how long will it take us to get there?” Aya asked as they began to descend from the hill they had camped on.
Kriofft snorted and kept walking.
“Oh, sweetie.” Jessay said with a sardonic smile, “we’re a bit closer, but if you keep asking every day, the answer isn’t going to change much. We been traveling about a week, that be about ten days. It’ll take us ‘tween seventy to a hundred days to get through to the mountains and find the city in them. We still got a lot longer to go. Couple months at least, maybe half again or a third month in total.”
Jessay reached out and squeezed Aya’s shoulder in her best attempt at comfort. “I get it, lass. Going to get harder before it gets easier too, but ya got us. Aye?”
The rest of the day was mostly silent as they climbed and descended hills and took a twisting, curving path through the woods. They were fortunate to have already crossed the largest river on their journey, which was the Pliney River draining out of Crystal Lake. However, there were enough streams and occasional ponds for them to refresh their water as needed.
Aya’s legs burned, but she found that even though she woke up sore in the mornings, she was becoming more and more tolerant of the distances as her legs hardened into muscle. She did a fair amount of walking around Rathuma when delivering the laundry her mother had cleaned, but walking through the wilderness almost seemed to use different parts of her body–it was a fairly novel experience.
In addition to her legs, the condition of her arms was improving as well, thanks to her practice with a bow. Her arms remained slender, but the muscles were hardening and she was finding it less and less difficult to pull back the string. Her fingertips were forming callouses which helped against the string digging into her fingers. She had also almost eliminated any jumping from the thwang of the string when she released an arrow.
Follow-through was as important as the placement of the feet and practicing her aim, she had learned. One had to not only sight a target, they had to position their body for a target as well.
As they made camp that night she managed to bring down a buck. It was exhilarating, but also exhausting. When she collapsed on her bedroll, she slept better than she’d slept since they fled the city.
Most days it felt like they were just running. Running, running, running. It was endless, and no matter how much she got used to it, it didn’t change the bone-numbing weariness of it all.
By the end of the second week, Aya could start a fire as well as anyone. Some evenings she set up camp all by herself, and some mornings she broke up camp all by herself. She found herself becoming surprisingly self-sufficient.
“What led you to… all this?” Aya asked Kriofft one afternoon that found them sheltering in a cave as rain washed out the rest of the world.
“Who says I wasn’t born to it?” He did his best to flash one of his more charming grins, but it was countered by the mess of wet hair plastered to his forehead and cheek.
“No one-” Aya began.
“Some are.” Kriofft insisted. “I wasn’t though. Was actually born well to-do if you can believe it.”
“I don’t.” Aya said flatly, leaning back and placing her hands behind to support her weight.
Kriofft twitched his nose and grinned, “brat.”
“I grew up in a stately manor in Ashtung.” Kriofft spread his arms wide, “it was on several acres with beautifully cultivated gardens, shaped hedges, and glorious fountains. The building was three stories tall, I had servants for my bathing, servants for my tutoring, servants for my every need. Oh, I was spoiled. But then Rath Arula was overthrown and many of the nobles were sacked, including my own family.”
Kriofft shrugged as he brought his arms back down. “My father died shortly after. I help keep my mother in Talvale, but it’s a bit of a comedown from what she was used to for most of her life.”
Aya looked at Kriofft more closely, tried to envision him in a nobles outfit. He was certainly a man built for lace and silk. His features were fine and delicate. He was handsome, but in a way that was awfully beautiful. Stately was another word for it.
“Does it, um, pay well?” Aya asked.
Kriofft turned to gaze at Aya, his expression unreadable. It occurred to her that it was a practiced gaze, though perhaps not one he was actively controlling. Aya wanted to learn how to do that. Her mother had always said that Aya’s face was an open book, something anyone could learn to read.
“I suppose I do make it look fabulous,” Kriofft responded, tugging at his lapels. “But, no. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly get by, but it’s nothing like what I grew up into.”
He stood up and stretched, “ironically enough, it’s a more honest living though. My family’s wealth came off the backs of other workers, it was ancestral. My father, and even his father, did little to actually earn it.”
Aya realized she didn’t actually know what Kriofft did. It was clearly somewhat criminal in nature, she figured, giving the locale and his utter lack of denying it. However, her belief of that was largely an assumption with no actual evidence supporting it.
“You’re wondering what we do,” Kriofft said after a moment, as though the question were written across her forehead. “I take from those who have more than enough to give. People, in fact, much like my father was.”
“I live off of the land,” Jessay added in, coming back to join them. “I keep an eye out for Talvale. Just because the Empire has realized the futility of trying to send an invading army through the Fang Passes doesn’t stop them from trying to infiltrate by other means.”
The Empire. It wasn’t actually the Empire that was after Aya, according to her companions. However, Rathuma’s Empire was virtually indistinguishable from the Church in most regards. It was actually the Church that funded schooling for children in the cities and well-established towns. Though the laws were enforced by the Empire, there were actually two separate law systems that were enforced: Empire Law and Church Law.
So the Empire wasn’t after her, but it effectively was.
The Inquisitors were part of the smallest branch of the Church which was dedicated to enforcement. Along with the Inquisitors were the Templar and, finally, the Judges. Every child learned about them. It was incredibly rare that one should run into them, as the Church only sent an Inquisitor or Templar after someone who committed High Crimes against the Church.
Aya couldn’t imagine what she had done, what her mother had done, that could be considered a High Crime.
Jessay and Kriofft were mum about it all, though. From the beginning of their quest they had only told her that they had been sent to retrieve her and her mother because their employer had learned that the Church planned to move on them. They were too late for her mother and insisted it wasn’t their place to tell her what she was involved in.
Perhaps she could try a different tack.
“How did you find out that the Church was after us?”
Jessay clucked her tongue, “it was actually me. Might be why the boss selected me for this job as well. Happened on a Templar who was passing near the Fangs.”
Jessay used her hands as she talked, making a smoothing arc, “he was trying to make his way to a small, out-of-the-way village. He didn’t talk, but he was carrying sealed orders to an Inquisitor stationed there. Apparently there were duplicate orders to a number of Inquisitors, and we didn’t make it before the ones nearest you had received their orders.”
“We are sorry,” Kriofft said again. They said it plenty, pretty much every time Aya brought up her mother. “We practically killed our horses riding to the city.”
“You rode here? Why aren’t we riding back?”
“A few reasons, actually.” It was Jessay that responded, “first, we came by the road, which is what allowed us to make use of the horses. But we weren’t pursued on the road, we’re being pursued now, which is why we’re avoiding the road. Second, the horses we had were lathered, we couldn’t urge them on further, but we also couldn’t afford three new horses, especially after we finished getting what we needed to make the trip back.
“So not getting horses on the way back was more of a practical decision, they wouldn’t have done us much good anyways.”
Kriofft shrugged, “besides, can you really ride?”
“I mean- I’ve ridden a horse before.” Aya folded her arms, feeling a bit defensive.
The chuckle that came from Kriofft only irritated her more, “it’s one thing to ride a horse that’s plodding along and quite another to ride a horse at breakneck speed trying to outrace pursuers.”
Aya let the matter drop. The rain kept them penned up for a couple of days in the cave. Jessay say they would normally ride through the rain, but trying to ride through such a heavy storm was dangerous at best, and of course it was miserable also. Fortunately, the deer that Aya had netted them had left them with a bit of food to get through their days in the cave.
When they finally emerged, everything was wet and muddy and travel was slow for the next couple of days.
They were nearly a month in when Aya thought to ask them about their families. It wasn’t actually the first time she’d thought about it, but it was the first time she thought they might feel close enough to answer her.
It turned out that Jessay had a sister and two brothers. Her sister had married a sailor, but her brothers were woodsmen like her. She was a wealth of stories about adventures that her brothers and her had while doing their work scouting for Talvale.
Kriofft was an only child, like Aya was. He didn’t seem to mind it, which fit with his ‘former-rich-spoiled-kid’ image that he honestly seemed to encourage. On the other hand, Aya had always felt like there was something missing from her life. She’d often asked her mother about a sister or a brother, but her mother didn’t seem interested in being with anyone else, always said she was too busy. However, there were times when Aya could have sworn that her mother seemed sad about it.
Her mother didn’t talk about Aya’s father, all Aya knew was that he left them behind. Mostly, Aya wanted to hate her father for leaving them, but a small part of her wanted to meet him still, to find out why he left, and why his family wasn’t important enough to stick around.
Even though she was an only child, there were times when Aya wondered if that were really true. There was no reason for her to believe otherwise, but it did often feel like a part of her was missing. It was the strangest thing, and nothing in her life could explain it, but the feeling remained, all the same.
Another day she asked about friends. Both Kriofft and Jessay seemed like loner types and their answers didn’t suggest anything to the contrary. For her part, Aya missed her friend Liyla, but while she spent time with other kids her age back home, it was only Liyla that she truly considered her friend.
Aya missed sitting on Spanner’s Bridge, legs dangling over the edge as she and Liyla discussed school, dreams, and everything else in between. She wondered what Liyla would think of all that happened. Aya was certain her friend would be excited that Aya was going on an adventure, just like she had always dreamed of, but she would also understand how bittersweet it was, losing her mother didn’t feel even remotely close to worth it. Liyla would have been there for her, holding Aya as she cried, and letting her know that she was still cared for and loved.
Missing Liyla just reminded Aya more of how much she missed her mother. In many ways, Aya’s mother was her best friend. A lot of kids were embarrassed by their parents, put them on a pedestal, or weren’t close in the slightest. However, Aya told her mother everything. Perhaps the absence of her father drew her closer, but, either way, she and her mother were close and the ache of her loss hadn’t lessened since the first day. If time healed old wounds, then this wound would need a lot more time.
Aya looked at Jessay and Kriofft and wondered if they’d lost anyone that close in their life. Kriofft mentioned losing his father, but, by the sounds of things, they weren’t terribly close. He did seem to care for his mother, but she was still around. How would he deal with that loss when it happened? How would that wound heal?
Jessay said little of her family unless asked direct questions, and even then she was often silent. Family was clearly a difficult topic for her, but was it difficult because of loss? Or was she distant from them?
It occurred to her that hard times made for hard people. As fabulous as Kriofft was, he was just as hard as Jessay, if not more so. Jessay, at least, had reached out to her emotionally, comforted her. Kriofft was easy smiles and playful japes, but his gray eyes were so cold, so flat, almost… dead. He was charming, but there was no warmth from him. And for all of the comfort she provided, Jessay was hardened too.
Aya specifically avoided asking about Jessay’s scars. The furs and armor she wore covered almost every inch of her body, but there were times when she had to change out of them, and they couldn’t hide the scars on her face.
One scar cut across Jessay’s left brow in a slash toward her nose. There were three furrows gouged through her right cheek as well, an animal’s claws most likely. As Aya watched the other woman, she realized that Jessay had definitely lost something, perhaps a close someone, but maybe something else. She wanted to reach out and comfort Jessay as Jessay had done for her, but somehow Aya didn’t think a woman who had seen as much as Jessay would be easy to comfort, and certainly not by some teenager like Aya.
After a month and a half, a new problem arose.
They were camping atop a hill. The hills had begun to increase in frequency as well as height, a sign that they were drawing ever closer to the Fangs. Aya was watching the sun set across the eastern horizon when she noticed a plume of smoke rising up from the trees at least a couple miles away.
She pointed the smoke out to Kriofft who glanced at Jessay. Without a word, she disappeared up a tree. Aya had only seen this behavior two or three times, but each time she marveled at how quickly the woodswoman moved up and between trees. According to Jessay, her brother called her Squirrel, but Aya didn’t feel their relationship was quite intimate enough for her to start using it.
“It doesn’t mean… does it?” Aya asked Kriofft about ten minutes after Jessay had departed.
“Could be, that’s why she’s checking. Would be rather ridiculous for them to have found us after all this time, but not impossible. I guess… we’ll see.”
Aya brooded the rest of the couple of hours it took for Jessay to scout it out. They’d been doing their best to make good time, but they weren’t rushed. If they were indeed finally being pursued actively, they would definitely need to pick up their pace.
A rustling in the trees as she descended alerted them to Jessay’s return.
“I saw two Templars and an Inquisitor.” Jessay said quietly to Kriofft, but Aya was able to overhear it.
“And are they after us?” Kriofft asked, staring intently at her.
“I didn’t stick around long enough to find out, but I think we have to assume they are. Why else wouldn’t they be on the road?”
“Damn, how did they find us?”
“One of the Templars seems to be a woodsman himself, we haven’t exactly been hiding our trail.”
“We’ll need to do that from now on then.” Kriofft looked around nervously.
“I’ll see to it.”
“And I think we’d best push through the night to gain some distance on them.” Kriofft added, sighing as he lifted his shoulders then dropped them and set to the task of breaking down camp.
Within the half hour they were away once more, but this time with far more purposeful strides. Jessay had already been coaching Aya a little on how to move through the woods so as to obscure one’s trail, but before had been practice and review. The present moment felt more like an exam. Jessay pointed out every error and mistake, every careless step. If Aya hadn’t already begun to grow fond of her companions, she might have found herself hating the woman.
After a couple of days with only brief rests between movements, Jessay was finally beginning to find Aya’s movements satisfactory. The preliminary training accomplished, she began to disappear into the trees, going back and forth between Aya and Kriofft and their pursuers behind.
During a short rest where Aya was encouraged to nap, she updated Kriofft.
“We’ve gained a little on them, but not enough. One bad break or a poor day could have them almost on top of us. I say we set up an ambush.”
“Three against two. I’m not fond of those odds.” Kriofft replied.
“Three against three. The girl’s gotten quite good with the bow. Besides, the Inquisitor may have some skills, but he definitely seems more of a bookish type. With the surprise, we should be able to knock one of them out pretty quick and then use our numbers advantage to subdue the other two.”
Aya watched as Jessay gestured, giving rough descriptions of their three pursuers to Kriofft. It seemed the Inquisitor was sort of squat, while the woodsman was tall and lanky, the other Templar was somewhere in between, but built like a blacksmith.
An hour of pretending to be asleep later, they woke Aya up. She was exhausted, they all were, but they caught her up on the plan.
“I hate to put you in danger,” Kriofft said after.
Aya shook her head, “I want to help. Besides, I need to see whether or not I can defend myself. If people are going to come after me, I need to be able to stop them, right?”
Kriofft stared at her for several long moments, then smiled. It was a smile which actually seemed to light up in his eyes, a true smile.
“Atta girl.” He said, cuffing Aya on the shoulder.
Aya strung her bow and knocked an arrow, hiding herself in some brush at the base of an oak tree and waited.
This is such a great way to start a character arc! I’m so curious to see where this is going