pathfinder: beyond the vale

Part 2: The Burning House

Cirice awoke early, dressed, and washed her face and hands in the rain barrel. The cold water raised goosebumps all over her body and she shivered. In a nearby clearing she picked berries and collected fallen fruits in a basket while Trick, the black and red fox, lazed nearby. She carried them back to the little house to eat them.

She swept out the little house with her broom and dusted The Books with reverence placing each one back on the shelf with great care. The odd collection of old books were in a variety of scripts and she could read them all. Some contained formulas for changing the nature of the world and “making things happen”. These tomes must be cared for with special reverence as they seemed almost to have a life of their own and could misbehave if not properly cared for. Some books contained descriptions of woodland plants and animals. Some told stories of faraway places and strange and heroic deeds. They were a window on a wider world that she only dimly knew existed.

Most of the day was spent poring over the esoteric lore of “other places” and finally as twilight fell she lit the fire in the hearth and made a meagre supper from dried ingredients and weird misshapen vegetables grown in a little patch in her “garden” which was little more than a couple of feet of earth dug by hand in which she had planted seeds carefully harvested from wild plants in the woods.

As she stood by the window, she suddenly heard a collection of high-pitched voices conversing. One voice, metallic and cruel, stood out above the others. She listened with growing dread.

“… we should kill her before she pin us to a tree!”

A less malevolent voice piped up in reply “We shouldn’t be doing this! She is not like the others. She has always been here and has never been a harm. The Queen told us to watch over her!”

“The mistress wants them all gone, and what better way to send a message then by starting with the queen’s filthy pet!” Came the coldly intoned reply.

“Follow them!” the voice hissed. The dissenter had apparently departed, and the metallic voiced presence had sent a companion after them with fell intent.

Cirice picked up her wooden staff and went outside with the fox slinking after her. Tremulously she spoke to what she now saw were three tiny, winged figures in conference as they fluttered above the ground.

“Go away! I’ve done nothing to you! Leave me alone!”

“There she is! All humans in these woods must be destroyed! Kill her now!” Screeched the metallic voiced one, its wings were a pale blue, as if carved from glowing ice in contrast to the moth like wings of the other two. It raised its hand and a cone of blinding multicoloured luminescence exuded from its tiny palm. Cirice screamed and tried to protect her eyes with her arm but was temporarily blinded. Flashing spots of colour boiled across her vision as she reeled, sickened. She tried to lean against the wall of the little house, but it was further away than she had realised, causing her to stumble heavily into it. Her face was wet: she hoped it was only with tears.

The flying creatures closed in to press their advantage. Despite her impaired vision she pushed her back against the wall, took one hand off her staff and whispered the esoteric words under her breath. A hissing globule of acid formed in the air in front of her hand and accelerated towards the blue winged creature like a bullet from a catapult.

It splashed on the small creature and immediately began the grizzly work of eating away the creature’s flesh. A stomach churning, bubbling, scream quickly trailed off as the dissolving creature landed heavily in the loam. She gritted her teeth and followed up with an intricate wave of her hand which sent an arc of blue electricity towards one of the creatures. Hitting it produced a shower of sparks before the electric bolt arced across the gap of air to strike the other creature. Both chorused their surprise and pain.

Her sight was clearing, and she realised with growing horror that her house was on fire. Not waiting for retaliation, she staggered towards one of the other creatures. Swinging her staff with both hands, crying out with the effort, she bashed the thing into the trunk of a nearby tree. Its moth like wings were detached from its ruined body and it fell like a crushed insect into Cirice’s vegetable patch. The wooden staff vibrated painfully in her hands from its collision with the bole of the tree.

She turned on the surviving creature and thundered, “Must I kill you too?!” she tightened her grip on the staff with numb fingers.

The creature seemed to consider this for a second but rushed at her regardless. Her overhead blow with the staff fatally crushed the creature into the ground.

Finally, she was alone in the darkness, looking at her house, which was now thoroughly ablaze. Choking sobs escaping her throat as she dropped the staff and fell to her knees.

In a sudden panic of realisation, she leapt up and crashed through the door into the burning house, trying to pick up whatever she could for her survival. She picked up her backpack which had a tent and other equipment tightly packed inside and eyed the books guiltily, knowing she could never carry them. She stuffed a coin purse, the importance of which she didn’t really understand, into the top of the backpack. She grabbed her catapult and bullet bag, a dagger, and a wooden crossbow that she had never fired, and she was just about to grab the quiver of bolts when she heard the creaking of the ceiling. She dove for the doorway and only just got through it before the ceiling of the little house collapsed showering sparks on her. 

With growing despair, she turned around looking at the edges of the clearing, not knowing which way to go, when she saw a horned man with the legs and tail of a horse standing calmly by. She gasped in her surprise and nearly threw her staff with a spasm of shock.

“Thank goodness I’m not too late! Do not be afraid little one. I mean you no harm” He said in a deep reassuring voice. “We must get you out of here. It is no longer safe.” She nodded slowly, but her face was vacant.

“My name is Gorvo…” He said, “come, we must move” Seeing that she was shaken beyond the capacity for decisiveness, she took her hand and began to gently lead her away. To his great relief, she didn’t resist.

They walked through the woods away from the burning building for a few minutes but much to Gorvo’s confusion they emerged into a clearing in which stood the same burning building which he had put at their backs some minutes before.

He narrowed his eyes and inspected his charge more closely.

“Have you ever left here before, little one?” He asked.

“No.” She said quietly “There isn’t anywhere else. Wherever I walk, I seem to end up back here.”

His eyes were drawn to a thong about her neck. “What’s that?”

“Granny gave it to me. She said I must never take it off.” She realised she had forgotten all about it. She had NEVER taken it off because she had forgotten she was even wearing it… for years.

Gorvo reached for the necklace which looked like some kind of fetish, made of small animal bones and feathers, but as his fingers brushed it his hand twitched back as if he had touched a hot cauldron.

“Can you take it off?”

She dutifully lifted it over her head and stood holding it for a few seconds in a hand that had dropped loosely to her side. She took a deep breath and, seemingly with great effort of will, allowed it to slip through her fingers into the grass of the clearing.

She began to look more awake and the glazed look went out of her eyes. Muscles around her eyes and jaw seemed to tighten and her eyebrows descended slightly, immediately giving her a more mature and intelligent look. Her nose wrinkled for a second and then she looked hard at Gorvo. “Let’s go.”

They walked for what seemed like many hours and although to start with she struggled to keep up and then got a painful stitch in her side, eventually she found that her body was capable of the greater exertion, perhaps she even enjoyed it.

They came, at last, to the edge of the woods where she realised it had started to rain.

Before them was an enormous cart loaded with cut wood. Off to one side was a circle of canvas tents around a campfire and many tree stumps where tall trees had been cut down.

A second later she gasped as she noticed the stench of blood and death and saw the… men? Lying broken on the ground between the tents. 

She immediately started to back away as if to re-enter the woods but Gorvo stopped her. “You can’t stay here, little one. They will kill you! You must go and be with your own kind.”

“But I don’t know who my own kind are!” she exclaimed.

“Humans. Like these creatures here. They must have been attacked like you were. There are many fey in this forest that want all the Humans out. It’s not safe here. Follow the path and you will find one of their settlements.” He raised a muscular arm and pointed out the roughly hewn path heading to the southwest.

“Goodbye, little one” She turned to look but he was already gone.

With great trepidation, she started walking…