"You're lost," her sister's imaginary voice whispered.
"You have to have a destination to be considered lost.”
And Eva had no destination. That was a luxury for someone else, someone who hadn’t fled their home in fear for their life.
Branches creaked in the slight breeze. The forest below their canopy cool and dark, full of shadows and mystery.
The place she’d chosen as her new home was called the Hags’ Forest because of the trees which really did look like hags, their forms hunched and misshapen, gray silk-like hair spiraling from their crowns to brush against the forest floor in places.
Walking beneath them left you with the feeling of eyes on your back. A silent presence that lasted until you felt the sun on your face again.
Eva had never feared the forest or the hags as so many in her village had. To her, they were old and dear friends. They'd been a source of comfort, a place she could retreat to when the village became stifling. The hags had taken her pain and loneliness, giving only silent acceptance back.
They were her friends, watching over her while she uncovered the hidden bounties under their canopy, guiding her to the best mushrooms and berries the wildlife might have overlooked.
Hunger had struck deep this winter. The harvest in fall had been lackluster. Her family had only avoided starvation because of Eva's foraging. A mistake on her part. She should have been less efficient. Made more mistakes. Let them feel hunger. People always feared what was different, and she'd always been the oddball, almost from her first steps.
It wasn't natural to know what was wrong with an animal simply from looking at them. No one else felt their pain or happiness. Only Eva.
Turning down a proposal of marriage from the most powerful man in the village hadn't helped. It had only served to highlight her differences.
Her mother always told her that things that stuck out too much were eliminated. Turns out she was right. Eva was the nail and they the hammer. She could either get in line or be crushed.
She'd chosen a third option. To be her own person. She was now paying for that hubris.
Because with hunger, came desperation. With desperation, madness.
Good people put aside their conscience when survival was on the line. They abandoned their scruples. They threw them away like they were yesterday's trash while telling themselves it was for the best. It was the only way.
In the end, Eva had faced a decision—go, or be the sacrifice they needed for their crops. They'd intended to water the ground with her blood in the hopes of a more fertile growing season. An old practice that hadn't been followed since Eva's grandmother was a child.
She'd chosen life.
Now, looking into the deep, dark interior of the forest, she feared she'd only prolonged the inevitable. The hags she'd once cherished might now be witnesses to her death.
People were not meant to survive for long on their own. Eleven days Eva had wandered beneath the hags’ watchful eyes.
She did not hunger. The forest provided plenty of food. But it was only a matter of time before she made a mistake.
While the hags might not intend her harm, the beasts roving at their feet would not be so kind. Already she had evaded two using the whispers of the trees to escape before danger drew too close.
Eventually, she would tire.
Armed with only a bread knife she'd swiped from her mother's dinner table; Eva didn't like her chances if she encountered one of the dangerous creatures that even the men in her village feared to face on their own.
Eva tilted her face up to catch a glimpse of the sun peeking through the leaves. Ah, well, at least she’d tried. Better to die while fighting for her next breath than to go meekly to the slaughter.
"Besides, you're not dead yet," she told herself.
And until she was, she'd do what she could to survive.
There she went. Talking to herself again. She could practically hear her younger sister's voice in her ear, saying, "Don't let them see your crazy."
Of course, her sister would never be caught dead out here. She preferred the soft comforts of the village and had never understood Eva's fascination.
"Perhaps that's why you're here, and she's there," Eva muttered as she continued down one of the game trails she'd found that morning. She hoped eventually it would lead her to water. Something she was in desperate need of.
Her breath plumed in front of her. Spring had already touched the land, but you couldn't tell it from the frost coating the branches and leaves.
Eva unhooked the water bladder from its spot on her small pack and held it to her lips. She hesitated. "Elis, I miss you."
Elis's voice was silent now. Not even a hint of criticism to keep Eva company.
Left with nothing else, she tilted the water bladder up, only the thinnest stream of liquid reaching her lips. Squeezing it did little good. It was flat and empty.
Eva hooked the bladder back on her pack, containing the rest of her pitifully small belongings. She hadn't had much time to grab things before she fled. A change of clothes, the water bladder, and a few other odds and ends were the extent of her belongings.
She'd never had much, and now she had less.
That wasn't a bad thing. Fewer belongings meant less to carry.
The only regret she had was leaving behind the small treasures she'd collected from the forest, a pearl tailed falcon feather, a rock the exact same shade as her faded green eyes, a piece of white bark from the hags. Things that had no meaning to anyone but her. All gone now.
Eva set off again, trying to out walk her dark thoughts. She needed to focus on the here and now. The past was gone; it wasn't coming back.
Yes, she might die out here. She also might not. She'd prefer she didn't.
That meant her next task was to find water and a place to stay for the night.
Preferably somewhere away from the game path.
As much as it made her travel easier, it would also be prime hunting ground for predators.
Hours later Eva lifted her head and sniffed. The smell of damp earth and crisp air greeted her. A stream was nearby.
The thought gave her tired legs a dose of energy.
Evening had set in, stealing the faint hint of warmth the sun had brought with it. Night came fast and early in the forest, the shadows lengthening as if they had a mind and will of their own.
It wouldn't be long before Eva was forced to stop for the night, to find a place to hole up. It would be too dangerous to travel once it fell.
Nighttime was when the predatory beasts were most active.
The trickle of water reached Eva as she hurried forward. She stepped into view of a small creek, the water flowing over rocks. Good. Moving water was better than stagnant water. There'd be less chance of it making her sick.
Eva fell to her knees beside the creek, dipping her cupped palms into its shallow depths before bringing them to her lips.
The crisp taste of the liquid was blissful after hours of walking.
She took several sips before she unhooked her water bladder and plunged it into the water. It filled slowly and she eyed the water, thinking how nice it would be if she could rinse off some of the dirt coating her—if she could bear the cold.
The faint crackling of branches breaking underfoot reached her. Leaves rustled as something moved through the underbrush.
Eva stiffened, her hand still on the bladder under water. With the instincts of one who'd spent countless hours roaming the forest, she knew she was no longer alone.
Why hadn’t the forest warned her? Or maybe it had, and she’d been too preoccupied with her thirst to listen.
A dozen different scenarios played out in her mind in the blink of an eye. None of them good.
She stood, fumbling for the short bread knife.
She faced the underbrush, her hands shaking as she held the knife in front of her. Whatever it was, she wasn't going to lay down and let death take her. She'd fight to survive. Just like she'd been doing all her life.
Eva remained quiet, hoping she'd imagined the sounds. She didn't dare draw its notice if it was a beast. Doubly so if it was a man.
A long, equine nose pushed through the bushes and a pair of deep brown eyes regarded her with the same level of surprise she felt. The horse snorted, staying where it was as the two observed each other.
Eva blinked at the unexpected sight of the horse's head appearing over the bushes. Its ears pricked forward as it stayed motionless.
She realized abruptly the horse was waiting. Its gaze somehow arrogant now that it realized how little threat she presented. Wordlessly, she stepped aside, the knife falling to her side as the mare picked her way forward, pushing through the bushes, uncaring as they left small burs in her coat.
She headed toward the stream, dipping her long, elegant neck so she could drink the water.
She was all elegant lines, a dapple grey with a mane and tail that looked like it couldn’t decide between white and grayish black. She was a beauty with more white than gray in her coat, different from the horses Eva was used to. This was a majestic creature, nothing like the stocky workhorses, accustomed to a lifetime of pulling plows.
A leather halter looped around the mare’s nose and behind her ears. There was no bridle Eva could see.
"Are you lost, pretty girl?" she asked.
Eva looked around uneasily. There was no way the mare had come to be here on her own. Where was her owner?
The horse's ear closest to Eva flicked at the sound of her voice, but she didn't lift her head.
"Thirsty, huh? I know that feeling."
The mare was well cared for, if the sheen of her coat was anything to judge by. The halter on her was high quality too. Whoever her owner was must have cared for her.
Beyond the burrs and leaves caught in her coat and mane, Eva couldn't see any signs of abuse or neglect. Nor could she find any suggestion of malnutrition. She was a healthy weight, her muscles lean and developed.
The mare couldn't have been lost long.
Which meant Eva needed to leave her. If her owner was looking for her, Eva didn't want the man to find her as well.
Her fingers itched to touch and stroke, an urge she stifled. There was no point in getting attached when the mare wasn't hers.
Eva hesitated, knowing she should leave but unable to. This might be the only time in her life she was this close to such a magnificent creature, and she couldn't quite bring herself to pass up the opportunity.
She stepped closer, making soothing noises as she paid attention to the mare's posture. Horses, despite what her father and the other men from the village seemed to think, had extremely expressive body language.
The horse remained relaxed as Eva neared, her ears upright and her tail still.
Eva reached out and set her palm against her coat, working out a few of the burs where she encountered them.
"Such a beautiful girl," Eva crooned.
After getting out all the burs she could reach, Eva stepped back.
"I have to go now. I hope your owner finds you soon."
She moved through the trees, surprised when the underbrush snapped and crackled as the mare plodded after her.
Eva held out a hand. "No, no, you have to stay."
The horse snorted and lipped her fingers, continuing forward until her head loomed over Eva's.
Left with no choice, Eva took a step back only for the horse to follow.
They repeated the odd dance several times before Eva gave in. There was no way to force the horse to stay put short of tying her off somewhere, which Eva refused to do. There were too many predators in the hag’s forest to chance leaving the mare defenseless.
"Lonely, huh? Me too."
She rubbed the mare's neck, chuckling when the mare dipped her head to lip at the end of Eva's blond braid where it had slipped forward over her shoulder.
"Have it your way, but I'll warn you. No funny business. We have to find a place to sleep if we want to survive the night."
The horse snorted before stamping a foot.
Eva took that as agreement and set out, feeling much less alone than she had minutes before. It would be nice not to face the coming night on her own.
A stamp and soft snort reached Eva where she was curled around her pack, waking her. She lifted her head and peered into the semi darkness shrouding her shelter. She'd sought sanctuary the night before in a small depression at the base of a large tree which could be a grandmother to the smaller ones around it. Its roots framed the depression, creating a small cave for someone small enough. It was just Eva's luck that she could slide through.
Dawn was barely a thought in the sky.
She sat up, listening to the quiet rustling that had brought her out of sleep. There were no signs of unease in the mare's movements. Eva took that to mean it was safe to leave her temporary burrow.
She was halfway out when movement in the bushes froze her in place. The horse flicked its tail but otherwise didn't seem particularly bothered by their guest.
Eva silently cursed. There was likely only one person or being who wouldn't alarm the horse. Her owner.
Eva shifted back toward her burrow. Maybe she hadn't been spotted yet. She could try to hide and hope they passed her by.
Before she could act, a tall, thin man pushed out of the trees. His face was like a horse's, long and thin with wise eyes. His clothes were strange, not like those of the men of her village. His hair was long, and bound back from his face in a complicated tail. He was young, not much older than Eva. His forearms were muscular.
Stories of the barbarians had been pouring in all winter. They seemed intent on conquering the surrounding lands and already had a monstrous reputation.
Eva sucked in a harsh breath, wishing she could turn invisible. She'd heard what they could do to people and it wasn't pleasant. Better to have died by beast than to have happened across one of these men.
Why couldn't she have left the mare behind?
"Caia, I've been looking for you all night, you daft horse." Despite the anger those words should suggest, there was none of the emotion in his voice.
"Come on, let's go. The warriors want to get moving."
The mare squealed a challenge and paced in a circle.
"None of that now. Hardwick would have my head if anything happened to you."
The man frowned, finally noticing Eva where she still crouched. Surprise and shock chased across his face as his mouth dropped open and he looked from her to the horse and back again.
Eva's grip tightened on the knife as she braced for attack. She moved slowly out of the burrow, not wanting to be trapped with it at her back.
"You took care of Caia last night, I take it," the man said in a tone not unlike the one he'd used on the horse.
Eva didn't answer, watching him carefully, poised to run. She doubted she'd be able to outrun him, especially if he rode the horse. She might be able to lose him in the underbrush though.
"Are you lost?" he asked, concern in his expression.
The question pierced the haze of panic.
"I can help you if you let me." He was careful to remain where he was, his movements slow. The same way Eva would have approached an easily spooked animal. "Where is your village? I can take you there."
"I'm not going back," Eva snarled. "I won't let you take me back."
He made a calming motion, chancing a step forward. "Alright. That's fine. I won't force you to do anything you don't want."
Eva ducked her chin slightly as she considered whether she could trust that statement. People, not just men, lied all the time. Sometimes they thought it was for your own good. Sometimes they did it so they could hurt you. It was rarer when they told the truth.
Which category did he fall into?
"Ollie, have you found her yet? The warband leader is getting impatient," a man called as he stepped into view. He was different than the first one, his bearing dangerous. A sword was attached to his belt and he carried a bow in his hands. A warrior where the first man wasn't.
He froze upon catching sight of Eva. "That's a woman."
"I can see that," Ollie said, irritation coloring his tone.
"What's she doing out here?"
"I was getting to that before you interrupted like a tender footed daisy."
The second man blinked dumbly at Eva before giving Ollie a befuddled look. Strangely, the interchange calmed Eva somewhat.
"We should probably return her to her village." The second man leaned toward Ollie, his voice dropping to a semi whisper.
"She doesn't want to go."
The second man arched an eyebrow and glanced at Eva. "You want to come with us instead?"
Eva considered the two before regarding the horse standing placidly at her side, one ear flicking. The gray wasn't alarmed. She trusted these men. Animals, in Eva’s experience, were excellent judges of character.
"Alright, I will," she said, straightening.
Surprise filled both men's expressions as they glanced at each other.
"You're explaining this to the warband leader," Ollie said. "Right after you explain how Caia managed to escape in the first place."
The second man sighed and rubbed his neck. He beckoned Eva with his fingers. "Alright, you, let's go. Our camp isn't far but we should get back before our leader gets any more upset with us."
Eva hesitated for one last second. Had she made the right choice?
"We won't hurt you. I promise." Ollie shot her look of encouragement as he took hold of the gray's halter.
"And a Trateri is only as good as his word," the second man said, his face serious.
Eva took a deep breath and nodded before ducking into her small burrow for the backpack. It wasn't much, but it was all she had left of her former life.
She hoped this new one was better than the last.Type your paragraph here.