It didn’t take Herring as long as she’d expected to reach her home and squirrel away her own stash of acorns after leaving the stranger to his ways. Even so, she spared little mind for him as she finished her chores for the evening beyond tilting her head consideringly when he tripped another circle of charms. He was still moving forward, impressively, but sideways too, and if he kept on, he’d miss the forest’s centre, and was reassuringly far away from the thatch-roofed cottage she called home. And he gained a scowl in the direction she’d last known when she felt the wind wind warm around her as she sat in the doorway and used the low light to sew up the hole in her old quilt. Too warm for the forest. Full of stolen heat.
Should have known. Bringing magic here… Of course, the lack of weapons made sense now. She didn’t get as many mages after glory though—like women, they didn’t feel the need to prove themselves, she supposed, or felt they already had power of their own—so she forgave herself for not seeing it right away and bent back to the slightly uneven row of stitches she’d already made. It didn’t matter that they weren’t neat, only that she could pull them tight enough without making kinks to keep the down inside. Never perfect, but she spent effort only insofar as she was required to. When it saved her from having to work harder sooner, she did her best, when it wasn’t likely she’d be saving the quilt much past the next winter, if even, she saw little use in straining her eyes or her fingers in getting everything just right.
Pulling the knot tight and biting the thread to break it, she held the piece up for her own inspection beneath the last of the light, squinting to make out a bunch of nothing and shadows and shrugged to herself. She’d finished, if it was absolutely horrible she’d fix it tomorrow. Or the day after. She had half the summer before the frosts returned. And much else to do, besides. But for now, as dusk slid into dark and the earth trembled beneath the running deer, she listened for the snuffling breaths of its hunters and slid inside, shutting the door softly behind her and forgot, entirely, that anyone else might be hiding from the shadows tonight.
The quilt went back into the trunk at the foot of her bed, which she dropped into without much fuss, and drifted off. Her sleep was heavy, dreamless, dragging down and down until morning drifted close and called her back from the void.
She rolled over, grumbling… and didn’t stir again until soft light crept beneath the door. Prompting her to sit up when she noticed and curse the temptation that kept her from rising with the dawn. It was late. Later than she usually woke up, and there were things…. Chickens! Chickens to feed, a goat to milk, Ibi would be after her behind for the wait, and still all those bloody acorns to gather!
Her preparations were somewhat scrambled then, and she finished her breakfast beside the dairy goat, Ibi, sharing her crust with the petulant creature as she milked her and laughing at a chicken perching itself on her back. But soon enough, water drawn and goat pegged to a different section of ground where she’d find fresh fodder, chickens penned up away from predators—like the owl nesting in her rafters—Herring set out again, empty basket swinging in her hands, and steps a little more animated today, still full of energy.
Until she caught the scent of blood. It lay in the still air, and crept into her conscious like creeper vines, curling around her thoughts until she paused and turned, frowning. Remembering.
Right, moonless nights and forest guests went well together. Poor lad’s rotten luck they’d found his scent. Well, best to make certain it was him. Much as he’d not bothered her thoughts all this time, it would be a solid start to the morning. One trouble gone and dealt with, and barely any effort on her part and not even a full day in Aberlynn. Might have been a record, if there hadn’t been that one fellow slipped crossing a stream, knocked his head and drowned in naught but an inch of water.
Didn’t take long to find him. Ragged and torn, bloody and nothing else made it into her observations as her hazel eyes fell on pale hair and dark skin. Pointy ears. Grey elf. She stepped back in realization. Dark elf… Herring turned her head to spit away the curse of just seeing him. Free hand drifting towards the hilt of her small knife before she paused. Dead elf?
Looked as though the night hunters had been after him. But bood still oozed sluggishly from his wounds, and, as she stared, his chest rose, stuttered with the struggle, and fell. “Well, an’ I seen worse crowbait, though still think she’s turned ‘er eye thisaway for yeh.”
She knew what he was. Understood, now, why he’d been covered head to toe. Stories told her she should leave off and let nature take its course. If he managed to survive the next night—it was always three, when the moon vanished, and he’d only missed the first—she’d be sore impressed. But he’d be that much closer to death and dying and causing no more trouble. Dark elves could drain your strength with a touch. Smiled with teeth sharp enough to slice meat from a child’s bones. Their eyes, she’d heard, glowed in the dark, like a predator. But she’d also been told that they lived in the ground, in caves so far away she’d never have to worry. So, what was one doing here?
And when would she ever get another chance to see one up close without it trying to eat her?
Moving cautiously, unable to ignore temptation now she’d had the notion, Herring set her basket down and unsheathed her knife to have it sooner to hand. Wounded beasts were the most likely to bite.
She stepped closer, following the flow of silver hair past his face. Watching his hands, his closed eyes, flickering… Wary, as she finally stood over him and looked down. Didn’t look like much from this angle. Nightshades would have him for sure.