The room at the centre of the house was black with smoke, any signs of life choked out by the flames. Notebooks of recipes and herbs, wooden carvings and plants all served as fuel for the fire, the heat swallowing them all. A charcoal drawing pinned high on a wall was one of the final things to catch, a child’s drawing of two stick figures labelled ‘mama’ and ‘me’. Ash coated every surface that had yet to be swallowed.
In the centre of the room, a trap door had been left open. Carved out of the wooden floor and dug deep beneath, the door began to singe as slowly the flames overtook it, erasing all traces of the people who lived here.
From the riverbank beside the structure, the house was a beacon of smoke pillaring up into the sky. The black was jarring against the blue sky and the surrounding woodland. Two hunters, one a short, dark haired man, and a tall, fair woman, stood unimpressed a safe distance from the flames.
The other side of the river saw the edge of the forest, and a shadow watching from behind the trees as the building crumbled. Taking a step back with a sob, a young woman, around twenty, watched as the roof began to collapse in on itself. She was as tattered as the house, her clothing singed, and her dark curls were made even darker by the smoke. As the house collapsed further, she clutched the strap of her bag tighter where it rested against her arm.
As her grip on the bag tightened, the water of the river in front of her seemed to become wilder, the waves began crashing relentlessly against the sides, breaking the banks. The water splashed up, tapping against the leg of the female hunter. She glanced down and narrowed her eyes, a slow smirk crept across her features.
‘It got out.’ She glanced back at her partner. He finally noticed the frantic river water and stared wide-eyed. The woman rolled her eyes, fixing her bracer onto her arm tighter. ‘Go west, check the lands there. I’ll cover the forest, she won’t have gotten far.’
The hidden woman let out a panicked whimper before taking a deep steadying breath. She spared a last, frantic and forlorn glance to the house.
Cardia’s legs were aching. She was becoming keenly aware of the dull pain as she ran. She wasn’t sure where she was headed, just a blind hope in the back of her mind as she ran forward.
The image of the cottage, its mixture of stone and timber walls and frames, flashed in her mind. Her smiling mother and the people of the nearby town who would visit for help. She smiled at the memory, but the image swiftly morphed. She saw the shadow of her mother lying on the ground, the house crumbling as the fire overtook it.
Her panicked haze resurfaced. Distracted, she tripped over a tree root as it arched out of the ground. She scrambled back to her feet as a yell sounded in the distance. A male voice, panicked and screaming in what sounded like fear and pain.
The noise came from behind her and she slowed to a cautious walk backward, facing the direction of the sound. Her dark eyes scanned the trees, and she reached a hand into her bag, hovering over the small knife inside.
As alert as she was scanning the trees, it wasn’t until her ankle hit the wire that she noticed it. She spun quickly around to find its source, only to have a hastily constructed wooden cage drop from above her, knocking her to the ground and trapping her beneath it.
She tried to press up against the wooden to push it off but it’s spiked stakes had buried themselves in the ground. The cage was so small in height that she couldn’t move from her position on the ground, and could only watch wide-eyed and trembling as the female hunter that she had seen torching her house jumped down from the trees and landed a few feet away.
Cardia saw her properly now though, even in the shaded light of the forest. She was a good decade or so older than Cardia, scars littering her face and where pale skin peeked out between sections of her battered leather armor. Her arms were mostly bare, the armor covering her torso and legs mostly. Cardia’s eyes caught movement as she twisted a knife around in her fingers, a dagger considerably larger than the knife Cardia had. Cardia felt ridiculous as she thought of her own knife, what good a tiny blade she used for chopping herbs would do her now, she had no idea.
‘Would’ja look what I caught, a little witch.’ The hunter’s grin was almost feral as she squatted down in front of Cardia. She tried to shuffle back inside the cage, and hse eyes fell to her fingertips, around which the ground was starting to moisten before ever so slightly freezing over. She could feel the cool temperature against her skin, and became keenly aware of what it meant as she lifted her eyes to look up at the hunter. The woman’s grin seemed to grow as she beheld Cardia’s glowing icy blue eyes. ‘A water one! I can get a fair bit for you.’
Cardia tried to scramble back again, cringing when a piece of wood jabbed into her lower back. The older woman rolled her eyes, running her dagger’s tip against Cardia’s hand where it stuck out of the cage. She moved the piece of fabric that covered the back of her hand to show the lightly glowing sigil on the back. She let out a light chuckle and Cardia noticed the glint of a runestone on a leather bracelet on her wrist..
‘Don’t worry kid, it’ll be quick…ish.’ She lifted the dagger and Cardia closed her eyes, preparing herself.
But the blade never came.
Slowly, cautiously, Cardia opened her eyes as a choked yelp came from in front of her, followed by a dull thud to her side. The hunter stood gripping her arm, an arrow impaled on her shoulder, and her dagger dropped on the ground beside Cardia.
The witch stared wide eyed. The hunter scowled as she looked up in the direction the arrow had come from. Cardia craned her head to follow her line of sight to a red-headed elven woman, dressed in similar clothing to the woman, but closer to Cardia in age. As the sunlight hit her, parts of her armor glistened, reflecting against the metal additions on her arms and shoulders.
‘What in Neir do you think you’re playing at?’ The woman above Cardia spat out, but the elf began to knock another arrow and aim it toward her. The human scrunched up her face and turned to run. The elf groaned.
‘I’m not as good an aim with a bow.” She lowered the bow, placing the arrow back in the quiver and slinging the bow over one shoulder. The human spun on her heel and smirked.
‘Good for me.’
‘Would’ve been easier if you’d stayed still.’ The elf pulled a knife from her belt and the other hunter sneered, about to turn to hide behind some trees when the younger woman flipped the knife in her hand before tossing it toward her.
The knife lodged itself into the back of the human’s leg, causing her to scream in pain as her leg buckled. The elf approached, she squatted down in front of the other hunter. She reached around and pulled the knife out, dragging it across her leg as she did so.
The older woman suddenly pulled out a blade and swung it at the elf, catching her arm as she pulled back, it most caught the armor and the human scowled. She went to speak but the elven woman dragged the blade across her throat, slicing it open.
Cardia gagged, choking on her own scream that came out as a whimper as the redhead stood again, watching the life leaving the huntress. Once the movement had stopped, she knelt down, pulled the woman’s wrist out from beneath her, and used her knife to cut through the leather bangle Cardia had spotted earlier. She noticed a similar one on the elf’s wrist as she pocketed the bracelet into a pouch at her waist. She spotted that the small runestone that had glowed inside it had gone dull and now the mark of the hunter’s guild was clearly carved into its surface. The one on the elf’s wrist still glowed.
Cardia blinked back into the moment as the woman turned to leave. ‘Wait! Please,’ she shouted after the elf, who stopped, sighing as she turned around. Her green eyes dropped down to Cardia.
‘Y-You can’t leave me here?’ one of the redhead’s eyebrows quirked up.
‘I don’t see why not.’
‘I’ll die if I stay here.’
The woman heaved a sigh, before marching over and squatting in front of the cage. She grabbed Cardia’s hand the other hunter had exposed. She raised it to Cardia’s eyes, showcasing the deep blue tattoo-like mark sat, not a tattoo but not a brand, simply a mark manifested on her dark brown skin.
‘What is to stop me killing you? You’re a witch, Kaymar proclaims your kind dangerous.’
‘I heal people. I would never hurt them.’ Cardia’s gaze hardened slightly, dropping to the dead body behind the elf. Her mother’s warnings of the human lands outside of their home and if they found out what she was ringing in her ears. Cardia stared up at the newcomer, who seemed to have paused, her head cocking to the side slightly.
After a moment, she dropped Cardia’s wrist and scoffed. Cardia’s eyes saddened as she looked at her own hand.
There was a silence for a while longer as the elf stood above her, watching her cautiously before tearing her gaze up to the tree line. Cardia found her eyes narrowing at the woman, dissecting her earlier words and realising they held no real heat behind them.
In a sudden, swift movement, the elf pulled the other hunter’s bracelet out of her bag and held it up to a lock on a joint at the top of the cage Cardia was in. The lock clicked, and she pulled the front open, allowing Cardia to crawl out.
‘There, you’re out. Run along, I’m going home.’ She turned to leave but as Cardia stood, she noticed the blood on the elf’s leg, and her limp. She took in the sight and noticed a horse, barely visible through the trees. She looked back at the redhead.
‘Stop, you’re hurt.’ The elf paused, looking over her shoulder but not turning fully. ‘What happened?’
‘Lora’s partner was a little shit. Put up a better fight.’ She shrugged and Cardia’s jaw dropped slightly.
‘And you just ran straight into another fight without seeing to that?’ She rushed over to the elf, who stared at her in shock as Cardia knelt down in front of her, looking at her injured leg. ‘I could help with that.’
‘No.’ Her expression hardened and Cardia sighed.
‘Not with magic,’ she added quickly. ‘I couldn’t even if I wanted to. I don’t really kno- I don’t use my magic, I do know herbal medicine though, and I’d like to help.’
‘There’s healers in the Heath.’ It took Cardia a moment to place the name, finally recalling it as the name of the hunter’s base in the forest.
‘The Heath is at least two days away, even with a horse, and that could get nasty in a couple of hours.’ She stood up straight and rested her hands on her hips. ‘You will either end up losing too much blood or getting it infected. Either way you could die or lose a leg, if you take me with you, I’ll help.’
The elf blinked. ‘You’re kidding right? I’m going to the Heath. You’re a witch. We’d die before we got through the gate.’
‘I’ve been hiding for twenty years, I can manage a little longer.’ Cardia shrugged. ‘Besides, it’s not like I use magic, I can’t. Also you said you were going home, and I’m willing to bet that’s not the Heath.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Faranel, in the Freelands.’
‘They don’t hunt witches in the Freelands.’
‘No,’ the elf folded her arms, ‘but they hunt them here. Where we are now.’
‘You’re not hunting me.’
‘I didn’t take your contract.’ She glared and Cardia’s lips twitched into a smile. The elf huffed, starting to turn away. ‘I’m not taking you.’
‘You won’t make it through the forest alone,’ she grabbed her arm before she got any further. Her head snapped toward Cardia and the witch felt her breath catch. Her face was scrunched up into a glare but Cardia was close enough now to see the deep shade of green in her eyes, the freckles that dusted across her nose and cheeks, and the scar that ran above and just across her top lip. She blinked back to the moment at hand and continued. ‘Not without me.’
The elf took a step and winced, her leg buckling slightly. Cardia’s expression immediately softened, and she caught her weight before she dropped.
‘Please, let me help,’ she paused, realising she didn’t even know the woman’s name. There was a long beat of silence, and the elf just stared at her, distrust, uncertainty, and something Cardia couldn’t place, sat in her narrowed eyes. Eventually, the redhead sighed.
‘My name.’ Her eyes dropped to the ground and Cardia beamed.
‘Sooo..?’ Elari groaned, her eyes dipping down to her injured leg.
‘Fine.’ Cardia bounced on the balls of her feet and quickly grabbed her bag.
‘I’ve got a salve in here we can put on it for now, until we get somewhere less, uh,’ she motioned to the corpse as she rummaged. The redhead had turned to face her and simply watched with a blank expression. Cardia abruptly stopped rummaging and stood up. ‘O almost forgot,’ she held a hand out in front of her for the elf to take. ‘My name is Cardia.’
She beamed, and the elf just blinked for a moment. Slowly, she took Cardia’s hand. The witch noticed how rough her palms were, though she expected hers felt similar, though for very different reasons. She raised an eyebrow when the elf didn’t speak for a moment, and eventually the tension dropped from Elari’s shoulders.
‘Right, uh,’ she gave the tiniest, awkward smile. ‘Nice to meet you, Cardia.’
‘You too, Elari.’