The water was a little better than lukewarm, which all things considered was a surprise to Melissa. It probably shouldn’t have but she had not been impressed so far by these Men creatures’ development. Instead of drawing properly hot water out of the depth of the world they had to burn wood, trees!, to make it barely tolerable. And it not only smelled of burning, but also of human as a result. To make matters worse they did not have a proper pool either, but instead had this cramped contraption that she barely could fit in kneeling. Made of wood! Again! And not wood given freely either. These truly were barbarians. For a moment she entertained the notion that she had been brought here to punish these men, but then let go of the thought. She never had paid much attention to the lessons about men — she had always been content to understand she needed to defend the Forestheart against them — but their habit of murdering trees was mentioned, and if fact the reason the Forestheart needed so much protection to begin with. Well … not to begin with as there were much much older reasons, but it figured pretty high on the list anyway to keep men from entering the forest and cutting down trees.

Melissa ducked her head under the water, to get the mud out of hair. When she got up there was somebody else in the little room with her. It was one of the big humans. One of those, the human, not the woman one, the one who had brought her here, had been quite anxious to keep her away from his kind. He was looking at her in a way that made her believe that was for good reasons. Covetous did not begin to describe it.

“Well now little girl,” he crooned, Melissa guessed she should call the attempted sound crooning even though it was little like she was used to “Brandt thought to keep you all for himself now, did he? But Joshy here is smarter than him. And all set to give you a good time.”

“Out!” Melissa spat.

“Now now, don’t be that way to Joshy. See? Got the coin to make it worth your while”

Melissa could see he held out something that apparently was supposed to mean something to her. She also noticed that he had closed the two steps of distance and was now in grabbing distance. She got up to give herself more mobility, because she did not like the expression on the human’s face one little bit.

“That’s better. Show daddy the goods. And then we’ll have a little fun, you and I” he almost sang those last few words.

She evaded his grab for her arm and climbed — with as much grace as she could muster given the unwieldy nature of the crude artificial pond she was trapped in — over the edge. His second attempt at grabbing, she avoided by diving for her small pile of belongings that she had stashed in the far corner. And more specifically her fighting dagger that was on top of it. Melissa had not wanted to risk damaging it by taking it with her into the hot water. In hindsight she should have listened to her trepidations about this man-place. A ruined hilt wrapping could have been replaced easily and would not have left her this vulnerable in what increasingly felt like a fight to her.

Just as her hand closed over the hilt so did the human’s over her ankle, and with a grunt of effort he hauled her back towards him, scraping her painfully over the wooden floor. Before she could roll over to put her less vulnerable backside in contact with the ground, a heavy weight pushed between her shoulder blades, pinning her to the ground for the moment. Her leg and foot thudded to the ground as her ankle was released simultaneously. From the sound of his breathing directly above her, Melissa figured that he had his foot pressing down on her. She could easily throw him off, but she didn’t think she would be able to get on her feet and in a fighting stance before he could pin her down again. It took a lot of her willpower to stay limp. Had the human been armed, and this close to her in an actual fight, she would have risked moving because she would have had nothing left to lose. This human though was unarmed and while he had her somewhat pinned down under his foot there was nothing he could do now unless he first let go of her.

He made a pleased grunt at her apparent surrender and stepped back from her. As he took a breath to say something Melissa hooked one leg behind where she felt his knee should be, and used the other to propel her forward. He didn’t quite fall to the ground himself but he stumbled back against the wall while she got her feet under her and pivoted around. She was in a crouch when he pushed off with the beginning of an angry shout. Melissa simply continued her pivot, catching him in the upper chest with her right leg just as she stretched it fully. His breath left him explosively and he was thrown backwards, out the door and through the short hallway.

She followed him because she knew she had not disabled him and she was not about to let herself be surprised again. The human was just scrambling to his feet as she stepped into the larger room, and as soon as he saw her he jumped at her with an angry roar. As an attack it lacked all finesse and Melissa stepped out of the path of his uncontrolled charge with contemptuous ease. She even gave him a little push that send him crashing head first into the wall.

Her eyes widened a bit at seeing him shake off that collision, then narrowed again as he put his hands on a length of wood. His next attack was a straight-out attempt to kill her, based on the force he put in the swing of his improvised staff. Before he had a chance to try again, she stepped into his reach and killed him quickly. He was slow as resin so it took no particular skill to do that. From the gasps of the others in the room they did not see it as such. Keeping her knife in a defensive position she looked at them, trying to gauge if she needed to defend herself against further attacks. The other men in the bigger, and much warmer, room looked at her with expressions in various degrees of surprise and alarm.

Except for the four humans who were on the wrong side of the overturned table that was blocking the door. Those looked like they wanted to finish the job that the dead human had attempted to start. They did not look too coordinated either but four of them would be a bigger problem than she could handle if they rushed her. Cautiously she retreated two steps till she was just before the door to her small room with the fake pool. If they were going to attack her she only had to take one step back and they would have to come one at a time. She would still be at a disadvantage against their long knives, no, that was not the word for it. Anyway, it would be seven against one, but four of them seemed slow and uncoordinated, and the other three did not have much in the way of weapons.

Worse yet was that the hallway and small room at its end did not have a second exit. She was trapped unless she could fight her way out, and she was not about to leave without her bow. That was literally a part of her that she could not live without. The rest of her gear she could sacrifice if she had to, though it would likely kill her to try to survive in that twisted forest without it, but she would be dead before she could give up her bow.

To her surprise one of the humans, the one who had brought her here, moved to block the four others, preventing them from attacking her. The other two men at her side of the table held back from the conflict near the opposite door to hers. They did not seem inclined to get involved in the fight, and to Melissa’s critical eye appeared too small and too untrained to be either a danger or of use. She ignored them for the time being and focussed her attention on the stand-off between the five humans.

That stand-off did not last long though, as, howling like moose in autumn, the biggest human she had ever seen pushed the barricade aside, and stepped into the room, followed by two more, smaller but still big and imposing, and dressed in incredible amounts of metal. The four that had been intent on attacking her melted back into the group that was blocking the door through which she had initially entered this food room.

Melissa did step back into the door opening, because the biggest human — the one who was even wetter than she had been when she first entered this world of men — dragged a metal knife, no, sword, that was the word for it, longer than the broomstick she held. She tensed and tightened her grip on her improvised weapons. She had some training with staves, but they were not her favourite weapon, and rarely of much use in the defence of the Forestheart. She knew the basic grips and stances, but nothing that would keep her alive against a heavy edged metal weapon with a longer reach than hers.

To her surprise the humans paid no attention to her at all. The biggest of them was focussed entirely on her protector, she decided to think of him like that, much as it galled, because at the moment she could not remember his name, nor if he had told her what it was.

The two engaged in a deadly dance in which strength and metal that whistled as it cut the air was pitted against speed and agility. It would take only one hit and the battle would be over, but it reminded Melissa of a fight she had once seen between a green snake, as poisonous as it was fast, and a spotted cervet. The catlike creature had used its speed in the same way to draw out the snake into overextending itself, needing every bit of its speed because the slightest mistake from its part would have given the snake its dinner.

The battle between the two humans had a lot in common with that fight. The lightning fast attacks by both, and the equally fast retreats to a defensive pose before their opponent could take advantage of them being out of position.

And it was over just as quickly as that uneven fight between the animals had been. One moment the biggest of the humans had driven his slightly smaller opponent around the room, towards his metal wrapped companions. The next moment something, no someone, fought its way through the door, dropping several of the humans where they stood. One of the metal dressed humans — the one who had readied his own sword to stab the cervet human in the back — sagged to the ground, dead with a knife in its eye, while the other was pulled against the wall to shield whatever had just entered the room. The big sword wielding human was for a moment distracted by what had happened, and that was all it took for his opponent to defeat him. In less than a second at least one, but probably two, more humans were dead, one was helpless and the rest was still trying to figure out what had just happened.

Melissa did not quite understand what that was either, but she recognised her opportunity. For a moment everybody was too busy staring at the survivors and seemed to have forgotten her. She took another step back into the hallway so she was no longer directly visible from most men, and humans, and turned around to make a dash for her kit. She stuffed her filthy evening tunic in her pack and hoisted it over her shoulder. Her belt and quiver were next. They really should have been her first priority but she was more shaken by the display of fighting prowess she had just witnessed than she cared to admit to herself even.

The last thing she grabbed was her bow, and she sighed at relief as the rightness of having it in her hand filled her. It was hers in a way no other weapon could possibly be, grown and assembled especially for her, and bound to her by blood and hair and spirit. It wasn’t stringed, but a bow was a terrible weapon for indoor fighting anyway. She was not going to use it, she just needed it at hand so she could make a run for it.

When she returned to the warm room again a lot had changed there. Two of the doors had been closed, and the one through which all the humans had entered was barricaded. The one opposite hers was open, and from the strong scent of animals coming from it Melissa decided that she could escape through it. She also figured that the human had the same idea in leaving it open. The two dead humans had been dragged aside and left in a corner. The two smaller men — who had sensibly stayed out of the fighting entirely — were binding the arms and legs of the other two attackers, the biggest human and the surviving metal wrapped one. Apparently neither had been killed.

The human was speaking to the latest arrival, who, to Melissa’s admittedly inexpert eye, seemed to be another man creature. The same slight size, perhaps even a bit smaller, as the other two. The same breasts as well. She looked more sharply and realised that one of the men did not, actually, have breasts after all, just the slight stature that he had in common with the other two. Shaking her head to dismiss the anomaly for the moment, she focussed on the bigger confusing issue. She had not paid much attention to the lessons about men and their many sub species, but she was almost certain they were not supposed to be at all like the Daughters of the Forest, beyond having two arms, two legs and a head. And she had shot arrows in enough of them over the years to have noticed any deviation from that lesson. What strange land had the Goddess led her to? she wondered, and What if these were not men after all, but only mimicries from the afterlife?

The human looked at her and did that strange wide-eyes-open-mouth greeting thing again. Melissa ignored it as it gave her the chance to look more closely at the man who had moved like a shadow in the dark, and who had killed so quickly and easily. There seemed to be a darkness surrounding him, but as she looked that broke like ground mist and was absorbed into the dark green and brown clothes he was wearing. It was all so quick and subtle that she doubted it had been anything but a trick of the poor lighting in the room, and the slight glimmer in the clothes.

Those clothes unnerved her. In her pack Melissa had something similar in shape and material. And similar in purpose as well, she suspected. Clothes to hunt and stalk silently through a forest. Men were not supposed to own them, not to know the secret of their making. And she could tell it was not something that was stolen from the People. The colour was wrong, and the cut of it both tailored to the man and slightly different from hers.

“Melissa” she said, deciding to keep close to this man, if she could and the Goddess allowed it “Is name of me. Means honey.”

She looked at the man’s expression sharply for any sign that he was familiar with the language she was using, but there was nothing but the same guarded look. Not a movement of even the smallest muscle around the mouth or eyes though.

“Nachtgren Talya” was the reply, and Melissa was the recipient of the same kind of intense stare at her face “but you can call me Talya.”

Name nor word meant anything to her, though she had not the illusion that she had managed to keep her face from reacting at all. She was disappointed that the name meant nothing to her, and the other had almost certainly picked up that much at least.

She looked expectantly at the human, who had stopped his weird greeting ritual and might be able to introduce himself again. It took him a while to realise what she wanted of him, though.

“Oh, for Mercy’s sake, the name is Brandt, I already told you that. And over there is Keri. I don’t know who the young man is who is helping her tie up my captain, well, ex-captain I suppose. I do not think he’s too keen on getting more acquainted with us any longer.”

Melissa nodded to herself. He had confirmed her suspicion about the species and young age of the breast-less one. It was useful to know that she was not so far away from the Forestheart that everything was different, though apparently still far enough away that certain details about these humans had never made it as far as her teachers. If she ever got back home she would take great pleasure in correcting the pompous old hags.

“Now what?” she asked, practically, of nobody in particular.

The question took the human Brandt by surprise, but after a moment spent casting a quick glance at Talya, Keri and finally her, the answered, in a heavily accented language of the rare traders that were allowed into the outer borders of the Forestheart “For now my fellows are cowed and they think I’m holding their captain hostage. They probably will behave themselves all night, trying to think of a way to free him and punish me.”

Melissa nodded. She did not understand all of his words, but enough of them to get the gist of what he was saying.

He frowned at her, not angry but with concern. “I planned to bring you to Glivenr, where they can hopefully find a way to get you back home across the Green Mountains. But I’m not sure now how safe we will be on the forest path and the mountain roads beyond.” He looked at the men and sighed “I am sorry about that. I did not mean to get you involved in my problems with the company. I don’t know how to get you out of it though.”

Looking back at her he continued as if he had not just spoken to the others “For now I think it best if you finish your bath and get dressed.”

Melissa shook her head “Bath dangerous is. Was surprised. Will not again be.”

“You can use that broom of yours to block the door. Anybody breaking through that will warn you long before.”

She considered it. Getting back into that fake pond with its not hot enough smelly water she considered much more briefly than the idea of being able to keep away from the others. And now that the rush of the fight was over she was beginning to feel the cold. Even here in the room with the burning wood there was a cold draft coming from the animal shelter and if she was staying here too much longer she would start to shiver. Showing weakness in front of all these strange beings did not seem a good idea to her, even if she had understood the human correctly and they would have to travel together for safety.

Without a further word she backed away into the narrow hall. Trying not to come across as weak did not extend to her turning her back at these two, who so far outstripped her fighting ability. When she entered the little room she closed the door and found that, indeed, there was a construction on it that allowed her to stick the broom handle through it to prevent the door from being pushed open.

Looking around she decided that the room was chilly and the fake pond, inadequate as it was, was still the least cold place in it. She also was far from as clean as she should have been, seeing that she had somehow gotten lost on the way from her tree to the nearest hot spring, and had since slogged through mud and snow and a forest that had left some darkness clinging to her. Gingerly stepping into the water again she decided that it also was long past time for her evening prayers and meditation. She might as well combine the three in less discomfort.

As a half-blood here prayers were simple enough. She was not expected to be able to maintain a true connection to the Goddess. Instead they were more of a silent affirmation that she had performed the duties assigned to her to the degree that could be expected. It was not that the Goddess, or Melissa’s connection to her was presumed to be unreal. It was simply that her duties did not require any closer contact and attempting to do or be more was considered presumptuous given her lack of purity. Or so she had been told and she did not care enough to challenge the statusquo. Praying and the Goddess were for the Sisters. She was content with hunting and meditation to get close to Her.

After the perfunctory prayer she made herself as comfortable in the fake pond as she could. There was no rule that said meditation required specific poses or discomfort, just tradition and cranky old teachers. She simply made sure her bow was within easy reach, as was her dagger, and briefly closed her eyes. Letting go of the here and now came with long practice, leaving the events of the evening and night clear in her mind. The moment that she left the Forestheart remained stubbornly vague, but then the rare occasion that the Goddess of the Tree directly interfered in their lives were always like that. She was not a Goddess of flash and miracles and followers. Hers was the quiet faith of things that happened when you were not paying attention. Melissa examined the moments between leaving her tree to head for the hot spring and the moment she realised she was in a different forest entirely, and let them go. The events were ephemeral to her situation and she needn’t dwell on them any longer.

That left … the forest, and this human domain that was not off it. She meditated on the strangeness of it some more. The path she had Felt like a scar in the fabric of the forest, this circular clearing with this building taking up much of it. A realisation dawned, or returned, that her awareness of the forest was utterly gone. That should be impossible. She was one of the lesser Daughters of the Forest. Even a clearing should be part of the forest as much as she was. Instead it was as if something had severed the relationship between the two, three if she counted herself, and severed it. The clearing and path were inside the forest, but in all ways that mattered they weren’t. And something in and of the forest was broken, as a result or causing it. She could not tell which it was. Perhaps the Sisters could have, but none of them was near enough to ask for help.

The forest bothered her, Melissa decided. It had been hostile and twisted, and only because she was off it, had it been unable to find her. Letting herself sink deeper into meditation she Felt again what she had when she made her confused way through the forest earlier that evening. Only this time she had shed the distractions of cold and rain and mud, and she could examine her impressions closely as she renewed them.

Something had been searching for her, she decided, and it was at the same time part of the forest and outside of it. She had a fleeting impression of unimaginable age, as if it and the broken forest had been since the world began, and would continue to be until the world ended. Threaded through that awareness, brief as it was, was a sense of unravelling.

This then Melissa decided was why she was brought here. To understand what was unravelling, and how she could stop it. If the Goddess could bring her to these darkened trees, then they were connected to the Forestheart, and anything that was freed could take those same roads and invade the heart of the Great Forest she called her home, perhaps even twist the First Oaks the way it had twisted the trees here. That would certainly be a disaster greater than any human army straying too close to their borders.

She heard the sound of a smile and felt the warmth of a praising word as she shook off her meditation.

“Very well,” she said to herself, just to hear her own proper language “I am called here for a Hunt.”

With that she got out of the wooden pond and its cooling water and got dressed in her hunting clothes. Densely woven web silk, dyed in mottled greens and browns, with medallions of soft leather sown in to offer some protection to her vital organs and vulnerable spots like tendons and arteries. It would be interesting to see if the pale Talya could control his expression as well when confronted with an outfit that was in all but details the same as his own.

Melissa glanced at the knife. As she already had begun to suspect the blood on it had neither been absorbed by the blade, nor been rejected by it and turned to powder. It was as wet with that human’s life blood as it had been the moment she had stabbed his lung with it.

Grabbing it in her right hand, her left always carrying her bow, she made her way back to the big room. There was only one thing to do for her now, and that by tradition required witnesses. Of course those witnesses were supposed to be Sisters and half-bloods like her, but the human at least had tried to help her, and would have to stand in for sister-at-arms in these barbaric lands.

Talya, to her disappointment, remained expressionless as she entered, but Brandt the human noticed the similarities. His look bounced between Talya and her several times before finally settling on her. Melissa mentally cursed the fact that the only language the two of them apparently spoke was so strange to them that only a few words could be shared without sounding like gibberish to the other.

“Witness!” she ordered him curtly and drew two of her fingers through the wet blood on her blade. With the sticky liquid on her fingertips she drew a line just over her left brow, and a forking one on her right cheek starting at the inner corner of her eye. It was only the second time ever she had done this, but she could feel the magic burn her skin as the binding vow it represented settled itself in her. Looking intently at the blade, and by that intensity forcing Brandt to do the same, she waited till suddenly the metal flared up. The blood on it dried up instantly and fell away like powder.

Melissa sheathed the now clean dagger and nodded to herself. Her Hunting Vow had been accepted, and the Goddess had rejected the blood of these humans. Whatever the subject of her Hunt was, humans were not it.