Following the relatively simple pointers within the guild directory, Ash followed the uphill path up north and west. Off in the distance, she could see the tall mountains that made the pathways take such a sharp angle, but instead of the bare, rocky cliff faces of the Church of First Light, Ash found herself looking at a verdant mountainside illuminated beautifully in morning light. Around her, classy brick-and-mortar buildings stood out, and the smell of both cooked meat and butchered meat left a strong iron taste in the roof of her mouth: this was doubtlessly the district for meat processing, and it made the thin soup she had at daybreak feel wholly insufficient.
Before Ash could think too deeply about the grumblings of her stomach, however, the short-haired girl arrived at the small, one-story building that made up the headquarters of the Ranger’s Guild. Unlike the other major guilds, the Rangers only had one permanent building to their name, with other outposts set up wherever the eccentric upper echelon desired. It was apparently from these temporary outposts that most of the training was done, but for the time being, the short-haired girl had an appointment to make. Pushing aside the cloth curtain that served as a rudimentary door for this rudimentary hut, Ash found herself in a dimly lit room with no windows. The smell of blood and firewood was strong here, and the balding man sitting on a box crate looked vaguely familiar, but other than that, nothing looked particularly threatening or impressive.
The firepit in the center of the room, from which a couple kebabs were being cooked at, did look comfy though. Perhaps she had gotten the wrong place completely, and had simply stumbled into someone’s mud-shanty?
“Would this be the hunter’s guild?” Ash asked the balding man. While he looked familiar, things that she didn’t remember ever seeing often did. Not to mention, balding wasn’t the most unique trait one could have. While the building was less than impressive, the term hunter evoked the word transience. It would make sense that their main quarters would be unimpressive. That’s what felt right, at least in Ash’s mind.
The man looked at her, before grunting in a vaguely affirmative manner.
“So would you be the person I see about joining?” Ash said, feeling more as though she was talking to herself. The man seemed to be less than a stellar conversationalist. But to each their own, Ash thought, perhaps he was more of a stoic. A balding stoic.
Another affirmative grunt. From a rucksack, the stoic pulled out a copper pan, placing it down on the dirt.
Befuddled by this action, Ash spent a moment staring at the pan. It took a brief moment to realize that stoic was asking for payment. That or he was just moving around a pan. More likely the former, Ash reached into her bloated coin bag and pulled out the registration fee—seven and some odd coins—and placed it down onto the pan. She kneeled and nodded to man. “I’ll be in your care.”
The bald man nodded once, but did not pick up the pan. Rising from his spot on the ground, he strode out from the mud hut. Hazel eyes scanned the horizon for a speck of something, before he pinched two fingers together and placed it in his mouth. A shrill whistle spiked upwards, and moments later, the cry of a hawk answered in return.
With a golden beak and magnificently long feathers, the hawk swooped down from the skies, perching on top of the man’s bare arm. The talons, razor sharp and wickedly curved, drew some blood as it sat there, but the man cared not. His free hand preened its neck gently, before moving to tie a green band on the predatory bird’s ankle. The man nodded to himself, before raising his hand upwards, sending the bird flying up towards the wooded mountain again.
A slight smile had overcome Ash. Not intentionally. Without even realizing it, feelings of nostalgia flooded Ash’s mind. Any known reason—anecdotal or logical—wasn’t needed. Even though the bird had clawed the man’s arm, no worry or sympathy came. Instead, memories of nostalgia flowed. But she didn’t remember. Like a blocked faucet, nothing came. In this moment, all Ash could do was wait for whoever that bird was meant to summon or whatever that message meant.
Soon, the hawk was naught but a speck against the verdant background, and the man stepped back into the mud shanty, sitting down crosslegged once more. Minutes passed, and Ash asked questions, only to receive more grunts. Hours passed, and Ash built teetering towers out of the small rocks that could be dug out from the dirt. Behind her, she could feel the warmth of the sun rise and then fall, the slivers of sunlight coming from the curtain behind her shifting from a bright white to a warm yellow to a dying orange. So much time had passed, and yet, she remained where she was.
Eventually, she was offered a waterskin, filled with lukewarm water that smelled of leather.
Eventually, she was offered a kebab, the meat succulent after the slow, careful roast.
Eventually, the curtain parted, a second individual stepping in from behind, heralding the glow of the setting sun. His thick boots made a squelching sound as he dipped his head, facial features temporarily hidden by shadow. But then the fire cast light upon him, and Ash, if she craned her neck, could see that the new arrival was a very handsome one indeed. For a moment, the word ‘cowboy’ bounced in her skull meaninglessly as she beheld his short-cropped beard and moustache, his beady blue eyes, the scar above his left eyebrow, his scruffy but fashionable blond hair. The parka he wore over his other clothes was muddied, but in a ruggedly cool way, and the fragrance of smoke and spice, blood and musk, emanated from his tanned skin.
This was certainly a man’s man, but the bald man sitting before her remained passive and silent.
“Yo, Master,” the newcomer said with a drawl, “This is the new puppy?”
Ash was, at first, caught off guard by the appearance of the cowboy. The impressive pebble tower—the culmination of an entire day’s practice—had toppled, scattering the small rocks back in the dirt. With her needs sated by the generosity (or perhaps obligation) of the master, she rose to greet the cowboy. She tried to rise, at least. With a distinct wobble and strenuous effort, Ash straightened off the ground. Lazing around for most of the daylight was a poor idea, but it was a choice that she would have to live with. Thankfully, slight changes in her sitting positioned allowed for her legs to at least function.
“Yes, I’m here to join,” Ash said with a bow. She was ready to topple just like her stone tower.
“Cool, cool,” the man nodded, “Paid the fee, right?”
“Yes. I left it with,” she paused to think about her words, “the master. On the copper pan on the ground.”
“Awesome!” He clapped her on the back, grinning. “Name’s Rahere. I’ll be serving as your teacher for the next seven days, so let’s get along, ye?”
“Let’s get along...” Ash paused for a moment. Her disdain for that phrase was apparent for a brief moment as her face formed a miserable look. The reason why was hidden, but a feeling that crept out from the bottom of her heart made her glad to not remember. As quickly as her pause came, she visibly shook away the wretched expression. “I’m Ash, Rahere, and I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. I’ll be in your care for the coming week,” Ash’s lips pursed for a brief moment, “Where would we start?”
“Hm, well, it is getting pretty late,” Rahere murmured, peaking outside, “Guess we’ll just do a nice little jog to my place then, Ash. Need to warm up?”
“A jog,” Ash quietly lamented and, without so much as a word more, she lifted and stretched her legs in a way that could only be described as the exact opposite of elegant. It wouldn’t be too hard, she thought, she could carry Matteo to the church, she can do a little jogging. Even if her legs were weary from doing nothing all day, she could still easily do a small outing. At least, that’s what she believed. “I’m ready to go when you are.”
“Awesome!” The handsome ranger slapped her on the back, before setting off a light pace out towards the walls, the gates. “By the by, when it gets tough, just remember! No refunds!”