Taral was crouching amidst the underbrush, his gaze darting from tree to bush to shadow as he listened to the forest. He was trying to pick out the noise of his quarry from the myriads background sounds of the woods.
The brute had passed by here, heading northwest. Trampled shrubbery and broken branches made it easy to follow the creature, but it would be reckless to go blindly rushing after it when he didn’t know how close it was.
At least it was far enough off that he couldn’t smell it; unlike the earthy scent of his companion.
Nyx chirped happily on his shoulder, its lone eyeball swiveling around to look for potential clues. It was not particularly adept at any of the skills of a hunter, but it more than made up for that by being a good friend. No, that was not quite true; Nyx was great at sneaking and hiding in the forest. Looking like a lump of wood had that advantage.
Taral set off again, moving at a brisk pace but pausing every so often to examine the trail and listen for any indications that his prey was near. His grip tightened around his spear when he heard the sounds of branches being snapped somewhere to the side, not too distant. They had almost caught up with the beast.
Nyx chittered excitedly, bobbing giddily on his shoulder as Taral stalked through the undergrowth. He could hear it breathing loudly in short gasps, almost like it was sobbing. His heart was pounding in his chest, the heady rush of anticipation driving him forward. Slowly he parted the branches of a bush, peering at his prey.
Sitting at the base of a tree, tightly hugging his knees with head hung low, was a small humanoid figure. His dark, reddish hair was cut in a lopsided fashion, with a long braid on one side. He wore a simple white gown, covered in dirt and small tears, some with the twigs that made them still attached. His hands and arms were covered in small cuts and bruises.
Taral hadn’t seen too many humans, but he could tell it was a child. He wondered what one would be doing this deep in the forest. It was a day’s rushed hike, maybe two, even for someone like Taral, used to traversing the wilds, to reach the human-
Nyx squealed in Taral’s ear. At the same time a large boar, his forgotten quarry, burst from the bushes nearby. The boy let out a high-pitched scream, looking up at the beast in terror. Nyx squealed again, bouncing excitedly on Taral’s shoulder, while the boar snorted and scraped angrily at the ground as it lowered its tusks.
“What? No.” Taral threw an annoyed glance at his companion. He had no intention of risking his life to save a lost human, especially one who was bound to end up eaten before the day was over.
Nyx leapt off Taral and rushed over toward the boar, chittering wildly and attempting to block its path. Taral scowled even as he began to react. He gripped his spear with both hands and charged, at the same time as the enraged brute.
The boar crushed poor Nyx into the ground, trampling the tiny creature without ever noticing it was there. Taral did his best to brace for the impact, hoping he would be able to at least force the beast to swerve away from the child.
He felt a jolt as his spear stopped abruptly, the head buried in the squealing animal’s neck. His hands slid along the haft as he continued to push, his body carried by momentum until it slammed into the creature’s side a heartbeat later.
There was a loud crack and the sound of splintering wood as the boar smashed into a tree. It thrashed and bucked, sending Taral flying away. He crashed to the ground in a daze and lay there, panting heavily as he stared up at the canopy above. The pounding of his heart loud in his ears. The boar’s cries had pain and fury had ended.
The clouds were gray and heavy; it would rain soon.
A face, caked in dirt mixed with tears, entered his field of view, staring down at him with wide-eyed wonder. Taral gazed back in silence for a few moments before pushing himself into a sitting position. The boar lay dead on the ground.
Taral crawled over to where Nyx had been stomped. Embedded in the soft, mossy ground was an intact eyeball, tracking his movements with its dark pupil. He let out a sigh of relief, then rose to his feet and turned to inspect the catch.
“Well, Nyx, we’ve downed ourselves a pretty nice-” Taral looked down at the boy, who was still right next to him, staring up at him and mewling something in a language he did not understand. “Go on then.” Taral motioned in the general direction of the human colony. “Go home.” The boy just stared up at him and smiled, fresh tears running down his cheeks.
Taral sighed. The boy wouldn’t understand him any better than he understood the boy. He needed to bring the boar back to camp anyway, and Lyara would be there. She spoke human, so if the kid ended up following him all the way there then she could deal with this mess.
He threw a glance over at the dead brute. That assumed he could manage to move so large a quarry all the way back to camp on his own. There had been a bamboo grove not too far back. Maybe he could make a stretcher for it? It might be faster to just go get help, though.
A cooing sound drew his attention back to Nyx, wanting to be carried. “Oh no, you made a big mess of everything. You’re on your own this time,” Taral replied. “Besides, I have more than enough work just figuring out how to get this prize back to camp. Or keep scavengers off it until I can get back with the others.”
Nyx chirped cheerfully.
“Oh, now you’re volunteering to stand guard, huh? Going to hold off scavengers on your own? That worked out real well with the boar, didn’t it?” Taral looked back at Nyx, who chittered in response. He shrugged, then went over to it and dug up the eyeball from the ground. “All right, you stay here and I’ll bring the boy to camp, then come back with some help while Lyara deals with him.”
He made a small pedestal by jamming a few pieces of the broken shaft of his spear into the ground and topped it with a leaf. After making sure Nyx was comfortable atop it, Taral set off toward the camp. He found it took him some effort to find a pace, a very slow pace, the boy could match.
The camp was bustling with activity as everyone sought to take advantage of the light while the sun was still up. Some were returning with the supplies they had gathered during the day, others were busily packing up those things which would last while setting aside for dinner those which would not, and others still were mending equipment broken during the day.
All around them people were talking, their anxiety showing in their constant chattering, the noise blending with the activity to form a cacophony which Lyara didn’t like at all. To top it off, the entire camp was filled with a mixture of smells from roasted fruits, cooked berries, and the disgusting stench of meat and hides.
Every so often a gust of wind would waft through the glade, scattering the odor for just a moment to replace it with the sweet scents of the forest.
In front of her stood Taral, looking as dour as ever. Behind him, hugging one of his legs for dear life, was a small human child, peeking out cautiously to stare at Lyara with wide-eyed wonder. Humans were funny creatures.
“The boy’s been clamped on my leg practically since I found him,” Taral explained, motioning at the child.
“It’s not a boy, it’s a girl.” Lyara giggled. To think Taral couldn’t tell the difference between a boy and a girl human!
“Whichever! Just get it off me already!”
Taral’s scowl deepened as he motioned at the girl in a mixture of frustration and helplessness. Lyara ignored him and fluttered down to the girl, beaming her friendliest smile.
“Hi there! I’m Lyara, who are you?”
There was no reply, the girl timidly retreating further behind Taral’s legs. The man grumbled under his breath.
“Don’t worry, he’s just grumpy. Want something to eat?”
Lyara didn’t bother waiting for a reply, instead flying off to go grab a fruit and lugging it back.
The girl hesitated a bit before finally reaching out with one hand to grab the juicy treat, hungrily devouring it and making even more of a mess of her face in the process.
“What’s your name, little lady?”
“I’m- I’m Anna…”
“Hi, Anna! Why are you in the forest?”
“I’m lost… I just want to go home…” The girl began sniffling, tears welling up in her eyes. “I want my Mommy!” The girl let out a heart wrenching cry that made Lyara want to cry, and caused the entire camp to pause what they were doing to look over in surprise.
“Eugh, now what?” Taral looked irately at Lyara, who was covering her ears to block out the wail.
“It’s not my fault!”
“I don’t care, just fix this before we go deaf!”
Lyara threw him a grimace, then flew closer to the girl, gently rubbing her arm.
“It’s okay, calm down.”
The girl quieted down but she kept crying, and Lyara started to feel frustrated. Why wouldn’t Anna just calm down and tell her what had happened so they could help her?
“Calm down, Anna! Please!” Lyara pleaded, completely at a loss at how to deal with this crisis.
The girl stopped sobbing and looked at her with surprise. Lyara stared back in equal surprise for a few moments, before realizing she should take this chance.
“Tell me what happened, and we’ll help you find Mommy. How did you get lost?”
The girl sniffed, wiping her tears away with Taral’s pants. Luckily, the man was busy talking to a fellow hunter about some boar and didn’t seem to notice.
“I had a nightmare… Everything was black. And I cuddn’t see. And I cuddn’t breathe. And the white told me to run, so I ran. And then I woke up in the forest. And I kept running. And I fell. And then-” Anna choked up, looking to be on the verge of crying again.
“And then Tar-lagh found you and brought you here,” Lyara finished for her, eager to move on. “And now we’re going to help you find your way home. Where did you sleep?”
“In my bed.”
Lyara giggled, and then the girl giggled too, though apparently without knowing why.
“Silly! I meant where was your bed?”
“In our house?” The girl seemed a bit confused, which just amused Lyara all the more.
“And where is your house?”
“In the village, silly!”
“And is Mommy in the village, too?”
“Uh-huh, ‘cept when she’s taking food to dad and the others in the fields.”
“What about your mother and father, are they in the village too?”
Anna stared at her like she was an idiot. “I just said, stupid.”
“Huh? Oooohh! Mommy is your mother!”
Both of them giggled. Taral looked annoyed.
“Hey, Anna, hold on real tight, okay? We’re going to play a prank on Tar-lagh.”
Lyara suppressed a grin and looked up at him. “I’m sorry, but you’re stuck with her. She’ll never let go. It’s a human thing. When you save someone’s life you’re stuck with them until death parts your ways or something.”
Taral looked absolutely horrified and was so taken aback that Lyara had almost finished laughing before he caught on.
“Eeep!” He tried to grab her, but she nimbly flew out of his reach. “Okay, okay. She’s from the village, so we’ll just bring her when we go and everything’ll be fine. She seems fond of you, so you’ll just have to-” Lyara laughed and darted away from the scowling Taral as he did his best to follow her, despite the girl hanging onto his leg.
It really was too much fun to mess with that man.