4: An Unlikely Alliance
It had been two days since she ran away from home. Alyssa would have given anything to find her way back but deep down she knew she had to get away. She had been following the mysterious bird ever since it had appeared to her two nights past. Sadly, in her heart she knew that the bird wasn’t leading her back home. It was as the old man said. “Follow the bird.” But what did he and this bird want from her? “He was about to tell me before mother had found me in the shop.” She thought to herself, frowning.
The morning after Alyssa had run away, she woke curled up with her back against a tree with the bird sitting on her knees, lightly pecking her forehead. When her eyes saw the bird, Alyssa got a scare and the bird hopped back, flapped its wings and land on a branch in front of her. It stared at her with its tiny black eyes cocking its head back and forth. Alyssa wasn’t afraid. She understood now that this bird wouldn’t harm her. To her surprise, Alyssa felt safe around the bird. “Hello.” She said to it.
The bird cocked its head to the right. “Quaw... Good morning!” it said in a raspy voice.
Alyssa jumped again, pushing back against the tree she had slept against. Then, she slowly leaned forward in amazement. “You do speak.” Her eyes twinkled with wonder.
The bird nodded. “Qu-yes... quaw! Quaw! It is difficult…”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Bird! Bird!” it squawked. “Come.”
“Where?” Alyssa was puzzled.
The bird stood flapping its wings. “Come. Come” then it flew off deeper into the forest.
Unsure of what to do, Alyssa’s curiosity got the best of her. She crawled out from under the low hanging branches and cautiously followed the bird.
It wasn’t long before she found the bird hopping around on the ground within a small clearing. Berry bushes were everywhere. “Eat! Eat!” it said. “It’s safe.”
Alyssa couldn’t help but smile. She had not eaten since lunchtime the day before. Her stomach growled, and she raised her hands to her belly. “I guess I am hungry.” She smiled again.
When she had her fill, the bird flew off again, squawking so she could follow the sound. “Come. Come.”
Two days passed this way. She followed, and the bird led. At times, she would ask where they were going, but the bird would only say: “Come. Come.”
They followed a small game trail that led only deeper and deeper into the forest. The trees were thick. Mostly pines and evergreens grew in the southern region of the Green Valley and it made her going all the more troublesome. Every once in a while, they would come into a clearer patch where aspen and maple trees grew. The sun pierced through the canopy and left a stream of light shower down to the forest floor. Alyssa found that beautiful, and for a time it would calm her mind. But that did not last long. She would grow impatient with the bird at times. She needed to know what was going on and where they were going.
She heard the bird in the distance. It squawked like it always did. “Come.”
When at last she caught up to it, Alyssa found the bird sitting on a branch that hung across the trail, fluffing its feathers. Before it could turn and fly ahead, Alyssa stopped. “I’m not going another step until you tell me where we are going!” she yelled at it. “Curiosity may have gotten the best of me, but I have my limits!” she was annoyed.
The bird sat on its branch and cocked its head as though it didn’t understand what she was saying. When the bird opened its beak to speak, the bird stuttered and fidgeted. “Quu... It’s... Quaw! It’s difficult to say. Quaw!” the bird squawked uncontrollably.
“Just tell me where we are going. I’ll be happy with that.” she whined, annoyed.
Almost immediately, the bird’s fluttering stopped. It stared at Alyssa for a moment with its tiny black eyes, and then spoke. “We are going to Flame-Eater Shrine.” Its voice seemed to change, and in that moment the bird almost sounded human.
Alyssa’s eyes grew with curiosity. “Who are you?”
“Bird! Bird!” It said in its birdy voice. “Come.” It squawked and flew off once again.
“Hey! Get back here…wait!” she yelled after it and then ran after it.
Another day passed this way. The bird flew ahead and perched up on a branch, and it would squawk while it waited on Alyssa to catch up. The bird seemed to know where it was going, and so Alyssa kept her silence. The air began to grow cold, and their path seemed to grow steeper.
The Flame-Eater Shrine is located to the west over the Green Valley mountains perched up on very tall stony cliff on the western side. The shrine could be reached from the eastern side of the mountains. Travelers would have to take the northern path from Ruinpine towards the Capital and then branch off following the eastern forest path to Luxton on the slopes of the eastern mountains. From Luxton, a small path led into the mountains towards Flame-Eater Shrine. It is the only path and a dangerous one.
When Alyssa ran away from home, she had taken the western gate out of Ruinpine and had gotten herself lost in the western forest a few miles above the western road. That was where the bird found her sleeping under the long hanging branches of a tall pine tree. From there, they ventured north towards Luxton.
The next morning, after a few more hours of walking through thick and entangling woods, they stopped at a small stream that ran down from the mountain. The bird found some blueberries for Alyssa and the stream provided plenty of fresh water. The air was warm that day, so Alyssa decided to dip her feet into the stream and rub some water over herself. It had been days since she had a proper bath. As she was taking her makeshift bath, she found herself thinking about her mother and the night she left Ruinpine.
As the day went on, Alyssa found herself thinking more and more of home. She often wondered, was her mother worried about her. She missed her friends, her home and even more so her father. But she knew in her heart that she must go on. It wasn’t only because the old man in the shop had fore-seen her future, but Alyssa told herself she had to grow up and take her own path. Her only comfort now was the bird, which strangely enough gave her much comfort.
The wind started to pick as the after-noon wore on and the clouds began to come together. The air turned cool, the wind worsened and made the tree tops bend. Their going was harsh and made even worse when the sky darkened, and the rain began to fall.
The bird stopped on the ground in front of her to let Alyssa catch up, and when she did the bird fluttered. “Come! Quuaw! We..qquu must… Hide!”
She gave the bird a quick and wearisome nod. Tired, wet and cold, Alyssa followed the bird as fast as she could go. After several minutes of what seemed hours of running through the forest, Alyssa and the bird came out into a large clearing with a very big willow tree in the center and an old rundown house built under its branches. The house must have been there for years because the branches of the willow had grown in around the small house and barely made the house notable.
The bird flew off towards the house, but Alyssa stood on the edge of the tree, staring at the broken entrance way that peaked through the hanging branches. The air seemed to get colder, and colder. She was soaked all over.
“Quaw...Come!” the black bird shouted back at her. But Alyssa was hesitant, and she was afraid of what could be in-side. “Why has this home been abandoned? Why is the door broken in? What happened here?” She thought to herself as she stood there shivering in fear and cold. “We should get out of here.” She shouted back to the bird.
“No. Quaw! It is safe. No qu...No one here.” it squawked and fluttered from where it stood on the roof of the house.
When the rain turned to ice as it fell, Alyssa snapped out of it and quickly ran to the house, covering her face as she ran to shield against the falling pelts. The bird quickly followed when Alyssa entered the wooden house. When Alyssa was inside and her eyes adjusted to the change of light, she understood why this house gave her pause. The entire house was made of wood, and it reminded her of home. But this house had one significant difference. There were no rooms and no hallways. It was simply one big room. The floor board were twisted and molding. There stood a stone hearth against the right wall and a long table in the center of the room. At the far right corner of the house where it appeared to be the driest, a straw bed lay flat on the floor. Alyssa walked over to it. Water dripped through the ceiling but not in that corner. The tree was keeping it dry. Standing in the only dry stop of the house, Alyssa looked about. There were holes in the roof near the entrance way, and branches had grown in through them. The only window in the house was on the left side, and she saw that the glass was shattered in, and the branches had clawed their way in there too.
The longer she looked about and examined this house, the more she came to realize that the house wasn’t as deserted as the bird had said. She saw a fairly new spoon lying on the table, freshly cut firewood stacked beside the hearth and a pair of worn boots at the end of the bed. Alyssa felt uneasy. She didn’t know if someone actually lived here or had just left and she didn’t want to find out.
The bird flew over to the dresser that stood beside the bed and began pecking and pulling on a piece of cloth that was sticking out of the top drawer. “What have you got there?” Alyssa asked. She opened the drawer and found a cloth shirt. She pulled it out and held it out in front of her.
“Change. Quu… You’re wet.” said the bird.
That took Alyssa aback. She was not the sort of person to steal from others. “I… can’t…” she said in a weak voice.
The bird fluttered and flapped its wings the way it did when it got impatient. “Quaw! Quaw! Change or die ...qu... of phenomena.” it squawked back.
The drawers were filled with clothes, everything she needed. Alyssa pulled out a pair of woolen socks, a shirt and leather jerkin to go over it. She also found a pair of cotton trousers. When she gathered what she needed, she gave the bird a shy look. The bird cocked its head and turned around. Alyssa undressed and placed her wet clothes on the floor and quickly changed into the clothes she found. The clothes weren’t dirty or clean. They were just aged and a little bit too big. She also slipped on the boots she found at the end of the bed. They were worn and used, but they seemed to fit perfectly.
They made a fire in the hearth to keep warm until the rain and ice pelts stopped falling. Whoever lived in that house did not show their faces that day.
That night Alyssa slept dressed on the bed, on top of the covers to avoid getting fleas and lice all over her. The bird slept at the foot of the bed near the fire. Alyssa couldn’t sleep. Her mind was occupied by the thought of home and her mother and father and her friends. This house re-minded her too much of home, and she couldn’t take another second in there. She sat up in bed and saw the bird sleeping. She smiled. “I guess even it needs to sleep sometime.” She slowly climbed out of bed and slipped her on boots. Quickly yet quietly, she gathered some firewood and some embers from the hearth with the shovel that hung from a hook beside the hearth.
She noticed that the rain had stopped when she stepped outside, and she was glad for it. She took a deep breath and felt the cool fresh air enter her lungs. She sighed with relief and made her way around to the other side of the giant willow tree. Once on the other side, she found a dry spot to place her wood and place her embers. In minutes, she had a nice fire burning in front of her, keeping her warm. The ground was dry beneath her feet, so she decided to sit down. She felt better outside than inside that house. Her mind began to empty as she sat here staring into the flames.
She stared at the flames for what seemed hours. Before long, the late night hours brought sleep to her. As she started dozing off, Alyssa heard a soft rustling sound in the distance. The sound quickly caught her attention, and she could feel her heart start to beat harder and harder. She stood up and stared at the tree line in front of her. “Probably just a squirrel.” She told herself.
When she sat back down and turned for towards the fire, she was ambushed. Something or someone struck her across the head with a blunt object and sent her tumbling to the ground. The flames continued to burn as someone’s hand grabbed Alyssa by the hair and dragged her to her feet. She managed to focus long enough to see three people closing in around her. Alyssa kicked and screamed, but she couldn’t get free. Panic took over her when she was taken by the arms by the other two people. The man holding her by the hair slid his hand up and grabbed hold of her neck and then all three of them pulled her back, slamming her into the great willow’s trunk.
Before she could scream again, the man released Alyssa’s hair and neck, and then he covered her mouth with one hand and pulled a dagger up to her throat with the other. Alyssa couldn’t even move. She tried to scream and wiggle-free, but it was useless. She couldn’t make out their faces either because they kept their hoods up. She could only tell them apart by their voices. One she knew was a man in his thirties or forties. He had a coarse and deep scary voice. The other to her left had a younger voice that seemed fairer but no less threatening and the other on the right never seemed to speak.
The one on the left laughed. “Well well, look what we have here Yanga. A little bitch that thinks she can help herself to our little home.” He squeezed her arm tighter. Alyssa tried to scream again, but the sound was muffled.
Yanga uncovered her mouth and slapped the man on the left in the back of the head. “You stupid fuck. Why don’t you tell her all our names!” his voice boomed.
“I’m sorry…I was just…” the boy on the left loosened his grasped on Alyssa’s arm when Yanga pointed his dagger at him.
“Just keep your mouth shut, or I’ll cut that slimy tongue o’yours out!” said Yanga as he waved his dagger pointed at the boy’s face.
In the distraction, Alyssa saw her chance. She pulled her arm free from the man on the left and turned quickly to the one on the right and kicked him in-between the legs and ran where ever she could go. She did not make five steps before Yanga grabbed her by the neck and drove back up against the tree again. Alyssa let out another scream. “HELP!” she cried to anyone who might hear.
“Quiet you bitch!” Yanga threatened her by sticking his blade at her throat again.
The fear in Alyssa brought tears to her eyes. “Please sir.” She cried. “I was only shielding myself from the rain.” She sniffled as tears ran down Alyssa’s face as.
“Rain!?” Yanga laughed. “Yet I find you outside, sitting here by this little fire. Why are wearing our clothes you thief!”
“No, I’m not a…” but before she could finish her words the one on the right raised a knee and struck Alyssa in the gut. The rest of them watched her fall to her knees. Alyssa covered her stomach with her arms to block out the pain.
“Keep your mouth shut you beggaring whore!” The one on the right shouted. It was a woman voice, young and no more than five and twenty. “Cut her, Yanga!” she yelled.
Yanga squatted down and pulled up Alyssa’s head by her hair and then leaned in close to her face. “Have you ever been fucked by a knife?” he grinned. “What do you think Celeace? From lip to lip?” he laughed and then grinned again.
“Uhh…Boss?” asked the man on the left.
“What!?” Yanga said, annoyed. “Do you want to get cut too, Onga?”
“You idiot, you just yelled out both our names.” Celeace sighed with annoyance.
Yanga frowned under his hood. “It makes no matter.” He growled and kicked Alyssa in the stomach, and Alyssa shrieked with pain. “This one will be carved open soon anyways.” Yanga pointed at Alyssa with his dagger.
“Would you just get on with it!” complained Onga.
Yanga pointed his dagger at Onga. “What did I say before, you little shit?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Onga leaned back on one leg and crossed his arms.
Yanga pointed his blade back at Alyssa, who now lay on the ground with her knees curled up to her chest. “Besides, I like to hear them squeal.” He laughed and raised his dagger as if to stab.
Suddenly a sound came from the branches above them. “Quaw!” it was the black bird. “Leave her alone!” It said in a deep clear coarse voice. That’s when it happened. The bird swooped down from its high branch and in the blink of an eye, its beak, its feathers and skin all peeled back and disappeared. The creature that hit the ground in front of Alyssa was no bird. It had four legs and stood at least four feet tall on all-fours. It looked like a dog, but something about it wasn’t dog like at all. It had a dark black coat of fur that only covered its back, the top of its head and the length of its tail. The rest of the beast’s body was a dark brown skin. Its eyes were the same, all black only larger.
The beast stood in front of Alyssa. Its fur stood on end as it barred its massive teeth at the brigands and growled. All three of the bandits took some steps back. The only weapon they had was Yanga’s dagger.
“Charah!” yelled Onga.
The beast’s teeth bulged from its long snout, and its deep, raspy bark sent the brigands running, all but Yanga. The man stood his ground in front of the creature. Alyssa lay on the ground behind the dog-like creature holding her stomach with one arm and leaning on the other. Tears were brimming in Alyssa’s eyes as she lay there trembling uncertain what would happen next.
Celeace and Onga had only run a few feet towards the tree line when they realized Yanga had not followed. “Where the hell is Yanga?” Celeace cried out to Onga. They stopped and looked back at the willow tree and saw Yanga still standing there. “Shit! What is he doing? Does he want to get himself killed?” Celeace said in a soft-angered voice. “Come on Onga, We got to go get him, or that Charah will rip him to pieces!” Celeace took off towards the tree leaving Onga trembling with fear. He did not follow.
Meanwhile, Yanga stared at the beast with his dagger pointed and ready. His eyes reflected light from the flames beside him, giving them a murderous glow beneath his hood. “You really think a little girl and her pup are going to make me piss my pants?” he laughed while waving his dagger in front of him. Then, he raised his hands up to his hood and lowered his hood. His eyes turned to Alyssa. “After I cut down your dog, I’m going to fuck you with my dagger you little bitch.” The man was bald, and his eyes were small. He had a short picky beard. His face was ugly and as broad as he was tall and this man was near six and a half feet tall.
“You mean if you cut me down.” Growled the beast before it bared its teeth and snarled.
Yanga seemed to take offense to that comment. He lounged at the beast with his dagger going straight for the creature’s head. The beast jumped to the right and dodged the blow, and then just as quick it jumped up and sank its teeth into Yanga’s shoulder.
As Celeace neared the tree, she watched to horror as the beast bit into Yanga’s shoulder and sent him falling to the ground with the beast still on top of him. “NOO!” she shrieked as the beast swiped a claw across Yanga’s face. She sprinted as fast as she could run towards Yanga. The wind pushed back her hood revealing her face. Alyssa caught a glimpse of her. Celeace appeared to be fair of face, but her heart was as dark as her long dark brown hair.
When Celeace came upon the scene, she instantly went to help Yanga. “Get off, Charah!” She kicked the beast in the side of head, sending it rolling off Yanga. The beast staggered a moment and quickly regained its momentum. Celeace helped Yanga to his feet. “Come on, you idiot!” she yelled. The dog spread its front legs, bared its teeth and growled at them. It gave a threatening snarl. But before Celeace and Yanga retreated, they gave Alyssa and the creature cold hard stare and said “This isn’t over.” And then ran away into the trees.
The dog stared out at the tree line for a moment and then turned back toward Alyssa who still lay there in fear, staring at the dog. As the dog step forward, Alyssa’s fear rose and she collapsed where she lay.
When she woke, the sky was blue, and the sun was out. The air was warm, and the breeze was pleasant. The fire had burnt out, and all that was left was a pile of ashes. She could hear birds chirping and grasshoppers in the clearing around the tree. She sat up and turned her head around to find a huge black dog sleeping next to her. Fear rose up in her again, and she jumped her feet and let out a small scream. The dog jumped to its feet, alert.
“Stay away!” whimpered Alyssa.
The dog stared at her and then sat down and cocked its head just like the bird did. The dog did not look the way she remembered it last night. It was the same size and had the same eyes, but this dog had fur all over, and it was silver-grey. It just looked like a domestic dog. “Child, please. I mean you no harm.” said the dog in a voice that sounded almost human.
“Who are you?” She took a step back. “You look different. What are you?”
“I guess those are the only questions worth asking at this point. Fine, I am what I am. I’m neither one nor another. I am what I have become, what they have made me be. I am the raven if that gives you comfort.” the dog replied.
“They?” she asked confused.
“Those from the Flame-Eater Shrine.” it relied.
“But…The bandits…one of them called you ‘Charah’?” her fear turned to curiosity. Alyssa squatted down in front of the dog.
“Aye that is what I was last night and what I am now. I am what you saw last night. During the day, I am also what you see now, a dog.” It cocked its head and gave what seemed to be a smile.
“What is your name?” she asked suspiciously.
“I suppose I can’t tell my name is ‘Bird’ anymore.” The dog lowered its head and sighed. “Tell you what, I’ll tell you everything you want to know once we reach Flame-Eater Shrine. Deal?” the dog looked straight into her eyes.
“Fine.” she pouted.
The dog barked and its tails wagged. “Great child, Luxton is a day’s march from here. Follow me.” The dog got up walked north with Alyssa beside it. Before they reached the tree line, the dog stopped and sat down and then looked up at Alyssa. “I’m sorry, I know I’m being secretive, but this is no place for what I have to tell you.” The dog got back up continued to walk.