Melissa

Melissa carefully picked her way around the trees of the forest she had found herself in. Normally she loved trees but she felt uncomfortable around these, for some reason. She possibly would have paused to investigate when she first encountered one of the darkened trees, but probably not, they were that unpleasant to be near. The weather had taken a turn for the extremely bad at the same time as she found a tree that did not belong in her forest.

It was only looking back that she had realised there must have been a moment that started this transition, and she was only presuming that the two were related. Since that presumed first moment the weather had only grown worse and now she was slogging through a dark forest in an icy cold rain being driven by an equally freezing gusty wind that had her chilled to the bone. She was not in immediate danger of perishing from exposure, but getting out of the open and into some form of shelter had been becoming more urgent for some time now.

Normally back at home that would not have been a problem, but she was not in the Forestheart anymore, that much was abundantly clear by now, and shelter was an issue. Shying instinctively away from the trees themselves she headed for the only anomaly she could sense, dimly. There was a large break in the fabric of the forest not too far away. It was not a wound for she could not sense any pain or bleeding from the trees, and the size of the break was such that she should have if it were. She hoped this meant that it was an old clearing in the forest that somebody was keeping open. Preferably by having build something in it. That was the theory anyway.

Hitching her bow, string removed and carefully put away in a belt pocket to keep it dry, in her hand again she hurried through the last couple of dozens of meters of uncomfortable and unwelcoming forest. Her hand was so numb with cold that the heavy and unwieldy bow kept trying to slip out. The same numbness was true for her feet. They were caked with mud and kept tripping her up over invisible tree roots. The hurrying was a bad idea as she found herself hands and knees in the freezing mud without having any recollection how she got there.

After muttering a few choice phrases that would had her have her ears boxed back home, if she were lucky, she got up and fished her bow out of the mud. Her short, white and entirely too thin tunic was plastered to her body by the rain. Its indecent short length meant that it had only a few spots of mud splattered on it, but it had picked up quite a bit more black smears after she had used its hem to wipe away the worst of the slippery stuff from between the mechanisms at both ends of the bow. It was far too dark to do anything but finding by touch as well as she could where to clean and she knew that her precious bow would need extensive cleaning first thing after she found shelter and a bit of light.

The building when she finally laid eyes on it was a surprise. That there would be a building was not unexpected even if it was only hoped for and not a certainty. That it was so big and so full of life that she had been unable to find in the whole creepy forest was. In fact, taking an experimental step back out off the clearing made the warmth of living disappear completely. It was as if the forest had completely separated itself from the clearing. As if something prevented it from simply reclaiming it. The feeling that there was something off with this forest intensified. Melissa’s metaphorical fur stood on end.

She also found herself between two choices that both were unpalatable in their own way. The forest clearly condoned her, and that mostly because it had little awareness of her presence. The longer she stayed the more likely it was that it would take notice and then she would find out just how badly it wanted her gone. On the other hand, the clearing and its building were something that not only was forced into the forest, but kept themselves utterly separated from it. The very notion of damaging a forest that way was as anathema to her as was the notion of cutting down vast swathes of trees and burning the wood.

Standing indecisive on the border was not a good idea either. She could feel the back of her neck prickling more and more with each second she considered her option. Forest of humans. Humans or forest where she belonged. The sense of hostility kept building up and just before it became an actual sense of acute alarm she stepped forward, across the border where the forest could notice her.

Melissa did not know where she was, nor how she had arrived in this place. It was clearly not her forest and there was really only one way she could have arrived in this forest that seemed to resent all intruders, even the likes of her. Unless of course she was dead and this was the afterlife, but she figured she would remember dying and crossing over. That seemed like a really big thing to just forget.

If she was in this strange place in this strange forest there had to be a reason for it, and humans were most likely the cause of it, not the solution. They always were.

Melissa studied the large building in the middle of the clearing. It did not give her any happy feelings anymore than the forest had. As if both despised each other but were forced to stay together and did their best to utterly ignore not just each other, but also anything that arrived through the border that marked the edge of their respective influences. She shuddered a little, as much from the cold as from the discomfort of being unwanted here. Even after staring at the dark mass for several minutes she found nothing helpful. From all appearances it was just an ordinary, if incredibly big, human house. She had of course seen human dwellings from a distance, though she had never been one sent to deliver a warning to encroaching humans to stop encroaching and back off again. It had not happened in her lifetime, which meant it probably was overdue. She’d not been close to the humans who were allowed into the forest either, that was the province of the full Sisters, and she would never be that. She did not care though. Her life was fulfilling as it was, and there was no point in demanding more if she already had plenty of everything she could wish for.

She took a few steps forward, to see how the house would react. After all, if it was going to be as hostile as the forest then she would have a problem. Melissa was not sure if she could run into the forest quickly enough that she would clear the part where the forest was actually aware of intrusion, or if that was even possible.

The house though did not become noticeably more unwelcoming. Another step forward made no difference either. Nor did the next.

Melissa paused again to ponder what situation she had found herself in. The house itself offered her no clues, and it was full dark, with thick black clouds obscuring the moon. She could normally see quite well in the dark, but this was challenging even her eyes. Some small amounts of light leaked out through cracks in the facade, which she realised was mostly made of stone, but with wooden details, like the panels through which the faint light leaked. It was not really enough to get anything but the most basic impression of the shape and size of the building. However, whatever sense of unwelcome she had felt seemed to concentrate on the outside of the clearing, not emanating so much from the building itself.

That left the choice of staying out here in the cold, or getting inside and brave the world of humans. Melissa thought that she might survive the first, but was not so sanguine about the second option. That uncertainty was increased when she noticed a man in front of what she presumed was the entrance. He seemed to be sleeping, or at least unconscious. In this weather it seemed equally likely that he would be dead soon if he did not get up and get inside.

She knelt by him and studied him as much as the faint light allowed her. This was after all the first time she had been close enough to one to touch. Her encounters were rare enough and typically involved putting an arrow through one of the fatal spots of their fragile bodies. The corpse and arrow were left for the scavengers as a warning for anybody trying to invade the forest. Close up the man. Human? Their language was as incomprehensible as their behaviour. They did not even know what to call themselves. Or maybe human was a special case of man? She thought there was a woman too somehow. Shaking her head to clear her mind from distractions she leaned closer to the man, that was probably the safest thing to call him, by his generic name.

‘Hairy thing’ she thought when she finally leaned close enough to see the hair on the lower end of his face. It made her think a bit of a bear only without a maw or claws. So, maybe not a bear after all. She recoiled as the smell of the man hit her nose, or it penetrated her concentration.

“ewww”

If humans smelled like ash and something unpleasantly sour then going into one of their buildings was going to be profoundly unpleasant. The notion of staying outside was suddenly a lot more attractive and she started to look around for some kind of shelter that she could use to hide from the weather. Before she got anywhere with that though the sky really opened up and hailstones began to fall down. The man in the mud grunted as the ice pellets hit him and Melissa cried out too. She dashed to the nearest and most obvious bit of shelter she could find, the door of the building.

At the other side of the door was a tiny, box-like room that did not appear to have any feature or use. It was so small that she could not stretch out her arms without hitting the walls, and it was pitch black once the door to the clearing fell close again. Moving by touch she tested the size and confines of the room and was surprised to find another door knob opposite to the one she had entered through.

This second door opened into a gloomy, smelly and noisy room. Most of the sound, and scent, of men came from her left, and the warmth of a fire came from the right. As she was cold that was the direction she turned in first. She was not, as a rule, fond of fire, but even in the Forestheart on cold winter nights dead wood was gathered and burned to keep warm. Melissa had no idea where the wood from this fire was coming from because she could not imagine anybody from this building venturing in the forest surrounding it. And if she was honest to herself, right now for once she did not care about the wood that was being burned. She was too cold for such petty concerns.

Near the fire sat another man. At least she assumed he was a man too, but he looked so different from the one outside that she thought maybe he was one of those called human. Or maybe not. She really did not know enough about these men, their language or their ways. If the Goddess had really brought her here as seemed likely then She had chosen a servant who was poorly suited to ensure Her will.

The man, sticking to the generic term for the race seemed the safest bet for the time being, was apparently as surprised by her appearance as she was by the way these men looked. His mouth fell open and his eyes got so wide that she was thinking for a moment he just might lose them. She had never seen anybody with an expression so comically surprised, Not even Maya when she discovered that she had put her sleeping roll in the brook without noticing, and had put all her clothes inside that roll for keeping them dry.

After recovering from his surprise he got up and hurried over to — do what exactly? It was not as if she needed help with taking the dozen or so small steps to the fire. He did not seem to think she did but he did sit between her and the other side of the room.

“Please” he said “Just go to the fire and sit down for Mercy’s sake.”

Since that had been the plan Melissa saw no reason to do anything else. She did not understand his concern either, but apparently his distress was genuine for he moved his seat as soon as she knelt down in front of fire so that he would still be between her and the source of the noise.

It was done so obviously that Melissa frowned. Apparently he thought she needed protection. And specifically protection from the noisy men at the other side of the room. Her first reaction was being insulted by the implication that she would need protection. Then common sense caught up with her pride and suggested that he knew this place a lot better than she did and there just might be good reasons why he felt the need to protect her.

Instantly her knife was out of its sheath and she tried to peer around his bulk for the threat that apparently was lurking in the gloom. This clearly was the wrong reaction because he instantly grew alarmed and gestured to put the knife away. Or perhaps it was her trying to look around him as that would equally expose her to the threat she now assumed. For the moment she subsided trying to look for the danger and put the knife on her lap.

Looking up at the man in front of her she quietly asked “What danger?”

“What do you think coming in, dressed like that?” was his unhelpful answer “are you trying to start a fight?”

“No?” She did not bother to look down at her clothes. She knew she was dressed for a warm evening in the Forestheart, not for patrolling its borders. “How cloth do cause fight?”

Momentarily left speechless the man stared at her, eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then his expression cleared a little and he whispered urgently “Where are you from? How did you get here?”

Melissa paused at that. Where was she? And did she want to tell this barbarian where exactly she was from? The Forestheart had enough enemies as it was, she decided. No need to make somebody who did not recognise her a potential new enemy. Even if he did not seem hostile at the moment.

Temporising she answered “I not do know where am I. Walked around wrong tree. Arrived in cold forest. Need warm and food.” She cursed her limited and fragmented understanding of the language of man. If she really was brought here by the Goddess then she was woefully unprepared for whatever task was ahead of her.

Before the man could ask the next question that he was carefully composing, another entered the room from a door Melissa had not previously seen, saw her and turned a deathly pale skin colour. His eyes did the same little thing too with threatening to pop out that the big man’s had first time he looked at her. Maybe it was some kind of man greeting ritual, she thought, but if it was she was not going to be able to replicate it ever. She had not that much control over her facial expression. Not by a long shot. And her arrow range was impressive even compared to the other border guards.

When the man finally had his breathing under control again he hurried over and she could get a better look of him. Melissa noticed that he looked quite different again from the other two men she had encountered so far. No wonder their language was so convoluted and they needed so many words for themselves if they were all this different from each other. Maybe this was one of the woman subspecies, Melissa reasoned. Though now she had seen this one she figured that the man outside and the one near the fire were more of a type than she had initially thought. Those two would be trouble in a fight. This new one — not so much. He looked much weaker and frailer than the other two, which matched which what she thought she remembered of largely ignored lessons about men and their different sub-species like human and woman.

“You got to get out of her right away!” the woman man hissed when he got in range to speak to her without being heard by the rest of the room. His expression made it clear he much prefered to have shouted at her. “Your kind is not allowed in here. And certainly not today.”

Melissa narrowed her eyes and tighten the grip on her knife
“My kind?” She asked icily. It seemed her first impressions had been correct. These were enemies of the Forestheart after all, even if the fireside man had not recognised where she was from.

“You can’t toss her out innkeeper,” the man said “She got lost in the forest and clearly has not everything together in her head. Barely speaks Common in fact. You toss her out she dies in the cold. Or the slavers take her again.”

“Sss … slavers?”

“Accent she has makes me think she speaks Eastern Compact.” He paused to see if the coin dropped. When it did not he continued with a hint of exasperation “That’s out-Kingdom. Far out-Kingdom. Ever heard of anybody from beyond the Eastern Wasteland coming here? Voluntarily?”

Melissa’s eyes darted between the man and the woman. She could not follow most of what they were saying, their speech was too rapid and too accented. It seemed to her, though, that the man wanted her to stay and the other wanted to send her away.

“Don’t want anything to do with slavers. We’re law-abiding folk here.”

“Don’t think slavers will be a problem with us here.” He frowned “She might cause a riot though, with them drunk as they are.”

Turning to Melissa he asked her “Do you want a bath?”

“Bath, hot water? Yes. Do.”

Remembering another tidbit of mostly forgotten lessons in man culture she fished a bit of metal out of her belt that she was told they placed great value on “Exchange have I.”

The man-made a strange strangled sound at the sight of the metal disk. The woman did that weird eye and mouth thing again.

“Never mind innkeeper. I don’t want to know where she got that gold either. I will pay for her bath and see her to the magistrate in Glivenr. Then he can worry about getting her home again. Or whatever he wants to do about an escaped slave, some pissed off slavers and a stolen gold piece.”

“I know the law mercenary. I will have to report this to the law man next time he comes around.”

“Yes yes. I promise you I will not steal her gold, and I will deliver her safe and sound and unmolested to the magistrate. Unless you want to keep her around until the law man pays a visit in spring and explain that you kept a slave for five moons?”

No? Then I propose you distract those drunk fools with a round of drink and I see if I can get her to the back room without anybody noticing.”

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