Yasha has been ready to run her whole life.
For now, she remains under the watchful eye of her guardian, just beyond the boundary of the Moorlands. But like all who dwell in the outlands of Iothliaa, she’s known since she was old enough to walk that one day she will need to go. She will take only what she can carry – likely only a small weapon and the clothes on her back – and flee into the wilderness. Her parent will return to the tribe she came from, and Yasha will find her own.
The chances of finding the same tribe as her guardian is wholly unlikely. Even if she did, continuing a maternal bond would be discouraged. To have the kind of love shared between a parent and a child can only mean heartache out here. Death is too prevalent, loss all too common. All her life, her mother has only been a mere mentor – a teacher, a carer, providing only the essentials of survival until she can provide for herself. ‘Parent’ is a term used lightly.
So when the time comes to part ways, very likely never to meet again in this lifetime, Yasha knows she will leave without hesitation.
She’s ready when she’s twelve, thirteen, fourteen…she knows she is. But when winter hits the Moorlands and surrounding areas each year, she’s kept in the hillside dugout she calls home. Her guardian, aware of her eagerness and keeping a close eye at all times, insists that no tribe would initiate a child, and that she’d wind up dead if she left the safety of home too soon. Another few years of waiting, of training, of preparing wouldn’t hurt.
Plenty die every year during the migratory months. In the later days of winter, when they can venture out once again to look for plants or animals that have left hibernation early, they’ve found plenty of bodies frozen where they fell.
Nobody is guaranteed a place in any tribe. And those without a tribe don’t survive very long. Exposure is the main killer of the bodies Yasha sees each year – there aren’t any clans this far out. But her guardian tells stories of before she left: every year, bodies are strewn all across the moors. Some places you can’t go ten feet without seeing young corpses floating in the water or buried in the snow. Some tribes will use the dead as bait for hunting, while others collect them like trophies. Very few will bury or burn the fallen that don’t belong to them.
Yasha’s heard plenty of these stories from her guardian. Some not quite as frightening, but all of them from before she was born.
In another life, she might not have needed to hope to be adopted by another tribe: in a life where her mother had followed the rules, maybe things would be different. Easier, even.
But such topics are forbidden. Her guardian isn’t cruel nor harsh, but Yasha knows better than to push her luck.
In her heart, she knows she won’t die out there. She’s tall as her guardian already, with an impressive penchant for close-combat attacks when hunting, and a fearsome aura that pours off her like mist. And although her feathery black wings are still mostly downy, and the way they sometimes shiver and wilt is something Yasha herself finds pathetic, they still command attention and lend themselves to an intimidating presence. And the closer to the centre of Iolitha she gets, the rougher the tribes will be, and the more useful they will find someone like her.
She’ll be wanted. Needed, even. She just needs to get there.
A year comes and goes. The wet and freezing winter seasons give way to months that are damp and chilly at best. Her wings are a little sleeker than they once were – but overall still miserable to look at. Just like her hair, there’s no lustre or shine to them, and they always look just a bit ratty.
Buzzards start to circle her when begins hunting again, waiting for morsels of food to be left behind. Like her, they’ve likely had to survive off of almost nothing all winter. Sometimes she’ll throw them the entrails she knows won’t be eaten at home; over time they start getting closer to her, getting braver. They’ve grown to expect food, and Yasha’s grown to expect the company.
Somehow, it’s comforting, and she’s started to hunt with her wings manifested. They feel like a signal, a beacon, to the buzzards. She likes attracting them now, because she thinks they look just a bit like her.
One night is different.
Her guardian announces that she’s leaving on a solo hunt. After eating the stew that they both prepared from the day’s spoils, she sits on a crude stool and begins preparing for the journey by patching a hole torn into her pack earlier that day. She expertly weaves strips of animal skins across the tear, alongside countless other patch-jobs.
It’s been repaired more times than anyone could hope to count, and each time she adds a little something extra to it. Beads, straw, leaves, talons, teeth. Reminders, maybe. Keepsakes.
Yasha is sat on the floor at her feet. A fire crackles weakly on the hearth, throwing dim orange light around the hovel that casts flickering shadows. Outside, the world is black and windy. Sheets of rain barrage the door. With nothing else to do, Yasha just watches her guardian weave methodically in silence.
It’s mesmerizing enough to put her to sleep. As she’s about to doze off, she’s brought back from the brink of consciousness by the rustling of feathers. Her mismatched eyes blink open and look up to her guardian. She’s stopped weaving and is watching her, her wings called into existence. They bleed into the shadows. Her expression is unreadable as always, but noticeably more serene than usual.
Her wings are a ruddy brown in most light, but by the fire they’re a brilliant mix of reds and blacks – hawk-like and sharp and streamlined. And when she was younger and less suited to the cold climate, Yasha has fond memories of them wrapped around her, warm and soft despite the fearsome aura that shrouded them.
In response, Yasha’s own wings flutter out of the ether. They sit perched on her back, twitching in the frigid air. She watches her guardian curiously, waiting for a command, or maybe another lecture. But she gets neither.
Instead a work-weathered hand tilts up her chin and holds her face. It’s gentle, oddly so – and even in the freezing air, it’s warm. Her eyes are just a little softer now. The light of the fire draws attention to the way they crinkle slightly at the edges. Yasha feels a strange hollow sensation in her chest.
Her mother’s other hand reaches for one of her wings, lets it whisper against her fingers as she caresses it slowly.
Yasha doesn’t flinch when those fingers grasp one of her feathers and pulls. There’s a sharp sting, and the older aasimar leans back upright in her stool. She picks up the strips of hide and fur again and continues weaving her repairs around the feather. When she’s finished, that hollow feeling in Yasha’s chest keeps growing. Just seeing that she’s a part of that pack now makes her eyes burn.
Then her mother stands from the stool and slings the bag over her shoulder. She places a large hand momentarily on Yasha’s head, before she turns and opens the heavy door. The room is briefly filled with coarse wind, then stops once the door shuts behind her and she’s disappeared into the night.
No words are spoken between them, but Yasha knows they won’t be meeting again.
Morning comes after a fitful sleep, and when she wakes, everything is…unfamiliar. The hovel is still and empty, a shell of what it had been the last fifteen or so years.
Yasha spent the night burrowed in the warm furs on her guardian’s bed. They smell like her still; she wants to take one with her, but she knows she can’t. She has to leave them behind with everything else.
There’s no more food in their winter reserves by design; she has to leave. Has to use this energy to hunt and travel inland before she gets hungry and weak. It’ll be a few days at least before anyone finds her.
She leaves the door open when she leaves. It isn’t her home anymore, nor her guardian’s. Eventually it will be looted, then it will fall into disrepair – maybe cave in or flood with enough rain – and soon it will cease to be anything. An open door doesn’t matter now.
The rain has turned to snow sometime overnight. It’s miserable, mushy stuff that squelches under her, but her boots keep her feet warm and dry. A coat wrapped around her tightly keeps off most of the wind chill, but her face is vulnerable and already starts to sting within a few seconds of being outside.
A dagger is strapped to her belt. It’s the only thing she has with her, for now. When she finds a new home, she’ll be free to wield whatever weapon suits her.
She only walks ten feet beyond the treeline, before something akin to instinct takes over and she breaks into a run. Her eyes set on the dismal forest ahead of her, and she doesn’t even think of stopping for close to half an hour. When she does, panting and rubbing her wind-lashed face, the forest has grown so thick that it blocks out what little light exists this time of day. The ground here is covered in frost from the cold, but with trees too clustered for the rain to have broken through, it’s pristine and white and crunches beneath her boots.
Her heart is pounding, from exertion and from the adrenaline rush of it all. She’s waited her entire life for this, it feels like every nerve ending in her body is buzzing with excitement and it drowns out any sense of being overwhelmed she could have had.
No worries of what to do first, that part is simple: hunt, kill, eat. Then keep traveling. She wants to travel as deep into the Moorlands as she can, but her sense of direction is already muddled amongst all these trees. It’s hard to know which way to go when she can barely tell which way she came from.
She has to remind herself that she has no specific destination, she just has to keep moving and keep her wits about her. The advice of her guardian that seems most useful now is: ‘You don’t find or choose your tribe, they’ll find you and if you’re lucky, they’ll take you in.’ Which is just a particularly wise was of saying she’ll have to wander aimlessly until she’s found trespassing on someone’s land and pray they don’t kill her.
It doesn’t take long for her to make her first kill of the day, but she doesn’t celebrate it. A young and skinny rabbit isn’t particularly difficult to outrun, nor will it keep her going for long. The small fire she manages to start is more impressive than that.
As she cooks her kill, Yasha finds the lack of buzzards overhead oddly disturbing. She’d gotten used to hearing their ominous shrieks while they circle her, but the foliage is too thick here for them to see her on the ground. Never mind that she’s likely well beyond their territory.
They’re just another thing she’s leaving behind. The vultures, the ramshackle hideaway, and her guardian — who has probably already been welcomed back to her tribe. Briefly, Yasha wonders if the older woman is holding out hope, however small, that her child wanders onto their land.
The chances are slim, and it’s best not to dwell on someone she’ll never see again. Yasha finishes her breakfast with little ceremony and drinks from a nearby stream that likely feeds into the moors beyond. Then she stomps out the little fire and keeps on walking.
She finds her first signs of other sentient life the next night.
Or...past life, at least.
She’s washing blood off her hands in a pond she came by while hunting. The fox she killed was also small, but unlike the rabbit it was plenty filling and will tide her over until morning. As she’s continued to wander, the fauna whose territories she’s crossed have been much fatter and more challenging to catch. For this one, she’s proud.
It’s barely been light all day, but what little daylight did shine into the sheltered Moorlands is beginning to dim again. Soon she’ll need to find shelter from the winds that are starting to pick up again, but she doesn’t know how much farther she can travel tonight. She’s made impressive headway on her first two days alone, but now her feet are beginning to ache and her legs feel like they have weights tied to them. A sturdy tree trunk to block most of the wind might have to do.
It’s while she’s washing her hands that movement skirts on the edge of her vision, slow and meandering. Yasha grips the handle of her blade and squints across the pond towards the source, however non-threatening it may be.
She can’t make out perfect detail from this distance, but it’s close enough to make her stomach twist into all sorts of uncomfortable knots.
They are — were, her age, if she had to guess. The age window for initiation is small and specific, and the size of the humanoid body floating face-down seems like they still had some growing to do. The shaft of an arrow sticks out from their back, lodged deep between their shoulder blades. The blood around it still glistens. From this distance, she can’t see any coagulated gore around the entry wound. If she dared to get close enough, she’d probably find that the body is still warm.
But she doesn’t get any closer. She freezes for a few moments, listening for signs of whoever killed them. They’re probably close by, and the thought makes her feel a little sick. She doesn’t want to be around when they come to retrieve their arrow.
Her muscles are screaming, but her instincts are screaming louder. Not wanting to waste anymore time in a potentially dangerous spot, she whirls on her heels and sprints back into the trees. Despite how her legs ache she wants to put as much distance as possible between her and the kill site — while hoping that whichever tribe this land belongs to, she isn’t running further into it.
Throat burning so badly she can barely breath, she continues to push herself through the darkness. The wind batters her face relentlessly, refusing to be much help to her screaming lungs. It chokes her, tries to push her back, but she refuses to stop.
Her sense of time and direction has been skewed in the Moorlands, but finally after what feels like an eternity (and yet somehow not long enough) she staggers and stumbles to her knees. The frost on the ground beneath her is thick enough to be snow, and her breath is escaping her in visible plumes of white steam as she gasps and chokes for air. Her entire body is shaking and hurting and tears are threatening to fall for reasons she isn’t sure of.
She’s fallen close to a tree whose trunk looks thick enough to act as a buffer between her and the wind. With the last ounce of strength she has left for the day, she crawls on hands and knees until she’s right up against the bark. Her bones feel like they’ve turned to paste beneath her skin, and she thanks whichever god takes precedence here that this tree suffices as shelter for now. It’s only slightly uprooted from past winds — enough for her to crawl down beneath it a little.
The space isn’t very big. It’s small and cramped and a little damp, but she’s out of the wind here. And she’s confident she won’t be found by whoever owns this land.
Fear keeps her awake, though. Her survival instincts are working overtime. They have her convinced that every little noise is the footsteps of someone come to finish her off the minute she closes her eyes. She tries to sleep, but everything jolts her back to her senses and has her gripping the handle of her blade with white knuckles.
But in the end, her fatigue wins out. Yasha finally passes out on the cold ground, her body tucked up into the scraggly furs of her cloak.
She doesn’t sleep nearly half as well as she would’ve liked. Every other hour, she’s awoken by her own hyper-vigilance. A twig snapping, a strong gust, all has her wake in a mild panic from an already fitful rest.
Morning can’t come fast enough. And it doesn’t.
When she wakes, it isn’t to the dawn of her third day. A thick mist has crept in overnight, and between that and the abundance of foliage above, the sunlight is choked out before it can hit the forest floor.
Instead, she wakes to the creaking of a bowstring.
Immediately her instincts are scrambling all over the place. They tell her to run, to stay still, to play dead, to lunge forward. None of the available options seem very helpful right now.
The source of the sound is in plain view, sixty or so feet across the little clearing the forest has afforded them. They look to be maybe as tall as Yasha is herself, cloaked in thick furs to hide from the wind beneath leather bracers and a chest piece. The cowl around their head hides their face from proper view, never mind the mist and the distance between them, but even from here Yasha can see the tell-tale navy-gray features of a drow staring back at her.
The next second or so feels like it happens on delay and out of order. One moment she’s staring a potential threat in the face. The next, she hears a dull ‘thunk’ and the reverberating twang of an arrow stopped mid-air. Yasha, in this brief moment of slow-motion, wonders if she’d managed to move just out of line of fire, or if the bowman missed on purpose.
But she doesn’t have time to ask: a split-second later and she’s running towards the nearest cluster of trees. The left side of her face sears with pain and it occurs to her that the arrow might not have missed completely before it hit that tree. But it doesn’t exactly matter right this second: her biggest priority is getting among the trees beyond where she isn’t such an easy target before her hunter can nock another arrow.
The trees and the promise of cover are upon her but just as she reaches the tree line, something heavy presses into her back. It isn’t enough to push her over, but it winds rapidly around her body and constricts all her movements mid-step. It’s her inability to move her arms or legs that has her falling flat.
She crashes into the frosted grass with a grunt as all the wind is knocked out of her lungs. Her face bounces off something hard and cold and a second later, her nose feels hot and sticky and pain is coursing through her skull from every direction.
Yasha sputters for breath, the taste of iron heavy on her tongue, and tries wiggling onto her back, but the heavy foot that suddenly presses between her shoulder blades keeps her movement at a minimum. She glances back over her shoulder, her face already covered in blood, to see the tip of an arrow poised mere inches from her face, ready to fire.
The wielder of the bow and arrow towers over Yasha. Up close, it becomes clear she’s a good foot and a half taller at the very least. In all her life, Yasha has never felt any semblance of the word ‘small’. But in this moment, she feels small in every way possible.
She brings herself to stare up at her assailant’s face. From this angle, she can see enough to tell it’s a woman not much older than herself — or maybe not. She’s never met a drow before, but she knows their lives can span eons.
As she gazes up searchingly into the drow’s brown eyes, she finds no mercy — nor does she find any sort of bloodlust. Just a stillness, a defensive patience that Yasha can instantly recognize.
She’s waiting for her opponent’s next move.
Yasha knows one wrong move could be her last. She’s known this all her life: no room for hesitation. Not right now, and not anywhere in the Moorlands.
So she doesn’t hesitate.
Dull black wings pull from her back with as much force as she can muster. They flap wildly like she’s trying to take flight instead of take her attacker by surprise. Which they seem to do well as rope around her torso pulls and loosens considerably. The arrow is knocked aside and sent clattering against the same rock she cracked her face on; the drow takes a reflexive step back to avoid being knocked prone — but a second too late. She loses her balance and lands on her backside with a thud.
Yasha wriggles up off her front in an instant, and crouches on her feet with her wings spread as wide as they’ll go. Feathers are strewn across the frosted ground from her struggling — they flutter to the dirt before melting away into shadow a second later.
In the wild, she’s seen plenty of animals try to defend themselves by appearing bigger. She’s learning now that it doesn’t really work with humanoids, but she’s just hoping it distracted her hunter from the way her frozen hands are blindly fumbling with the rope around her ankles — so far, to no avail.
The drow, whose hood has fallen back and given way to a young face, stares at her wingspan. She’s awestruck for a moment, but it doesn’t last long. Her eyes wander from the jet black wings, to Yasha’s bared teeth and fumbling fingers, and she smirks. Yasha’s stomach twists nervously.
Slowly, she rises up to a similar crouch and nonchalantly shakes her mess of dark brown curls to show her full face. Pointed ears poke out from beneath her curly hair, twitching a little in anticipation. Dark brown eyes are topped with thick eyebrows — the right eye has two dark lines running parallel to each other, from her bottom lid to an inch or so down her cheek. They look more like a brand or a tattoo than anything natural.
What catches Yasha’s attention the most is the smattering of freckles across her face, white as snow. Against inky black skin, they look like stars in the night sky — maybe she’d be in awe of it, or the mark under her eye, or the fact that she’s never even met an elf before, if the drow girl wasn’t so obviously trying not to snicker at her attempt at an intimidating display.
A dark flash catches Yasha off-guard. Bright peregrine wings erupt from her opponent’s back and fan out behind her. The scare makes her jump — she loses her balance and topples back on her ass with an awkward thrashing of wings.
The drow laughs — actually, properly laughs — and gets to her feet like nothing happened. Her wings fold at her back neatly, but that doesn’t much change how they add to her towering physique.
“Were you trying to scare me?” she asks, almost mockingly. She walks nearer to Yasha and gathers the discarded arrow from against the hardened mud. It twirls in her hands as she examines it, before slotting it back into her quiver for another day. “You can’t scare what you’re already scared of.”
Yasha feels indignation rise in her chest. “You don’t scare me,” she snarls.
But they both know that’s a lie. Her eyes are wide as the moon as they scan over the drow. They’re mostly attracted to the large wings on her back. Her feathers aren’t made of shadow like Yasha’s, or her guardian’s. They almost seem to give off their own light, in a part of the forest so hidden from the sun. Not blindingly so, but they seem to shimmer at certain angles, to a degree not possible in shadows like this.
But although they shimmer brightly — and overall just seem to exist in perpetual light — they’re inky and near-pitch in color. The plumage is a shiny dark gray, almost black, with white edges and stripes that become bolder closer to the tip of each feather.
She’s always been under the impression that aasimar aren’t a particularly common breed. For the first person she meets out here to also be one feels unbelievable at best, and highly suspicious at worst.
But the drow-descended girl looks just as curious. She crouches back down, now only a few feet in front of Yasha. Dark brown eyes stare at her wings intently, as a hand slowly reaches out to touch one.
The entire tension has changed. Now it’s far less frantic, far less...violent. It’s full of curiosity now. The bow is set down on the ground, momentarily forgotten while the hunter warily examines Yasha’s frail feathers and their shadowy aura.
But Yasha’s adrenaline is still wound tight. Her fight or flight response is on a hair-trigger, and she never runs.
Her hands shove the other away. She gives a growl of effort — in response, her attacker jumps back with a yell of pain. The small blade in Yasha’s hand, yanked swiftly from her belt, is covered in red at the tip. The same shade of red is beginning to bloom out from under where the drow is gripping her shoulder.
Blood rushes in Yasha’s ears, pounding so hard she’s almost seeing red. The instinct to fight off her attacker overpowers anything and everything else. Her teeth grit together as she manages to yank free of the rope still around her ankles. She could run now and easily get to the tree-line before the hunter can loose an arrow at her. But she doesn’t. She wants to get another strike in.
But in the act of jumping forward to try get on top of her opponent, get the upper hand, she miscalculates just how open she’s left her defenses. The hunter almost seems to see her next move coming a mile away. Yasha lurches forward and immediately finds herself winded in pain from a well-aimed kick to the sternum. The drow then picks up her discarded bow and clubs her over the head with it.
Her head is still pounding, but for an entirely different reason now. She gasps out for breath and in her stunned state, is easily disarmed. The dagger is ripped from her hand and pocketed by her opponent, leaving her well and truly defenseless.
“You—” the drow snarls. She shoves Yasha onto her back and stands over her, looming and bleeding and well and truly pissed off. For several long, fearful moments, this feels like the end. She’s going to be stabbed or beaten to death or made into a pin cushion with all those arrows.
But then, the drow’s snarl turns into a smirk. They aren’t very different expressions, not on her. It still scares Yasha just a little. But the change is still there, and that has her just a bit curious. Still standing over Yasha, she raises her hand back up to her wounded shoulder. There’s a warm glow that seems to come from beneath her palm, and when she pulls away the stab wound is just a scar.
“The Sky Spear is going to love you.”
Yasha doesn’t like the way she says that. She doesn’t like all the ideas of what a ‘Sky Spear’ could be.
Noticing her nervousness, the drow’s smirk melts away into a much warmer smile. The wings on her back twitch, then fold themselves away into the ether. She steps to the side so she’s no longer standing over Yasha, and holds out a hand.
Yasha isn’t an idiot. She doesn’t take it.
“C’mon.” With a roll of her eyes, she reaches down and grasps Yasha’s forearm. She pulls her up to her feet with a surprising amount of strength. “This is Dolorov territory. You’ll run into people much worse than me out here.”
Yasha’s mind goes back to the body in the water, and a shiver runs down her spine. Her own wings tuck away as she looks to the taller girl, who has already started walking in the opposite direction, with uncertainty and suspicion. This feels like a trap.
But when the girl turns back, her weapons are stowed, her hands are empty and she looks significantly less threatening than she did a moment ago. She tilts her head at Yasha curiously. “You are unclaimed, right?”
“I...” Yasha stares back dumbly for a few seconds. “You mean without a tribe?” The drow nods. “Yes, I am.”
“Good. I’d have to kill you for real if you weren’t. We don’t like strangers here.” With a small bark of laughter, she turns her back again and starts walking away. Yasha has only enough time to process what she means before her legs have started carrying her forward.
Without knowing why she would ever want to after what just happened, she’s trotting after the hunter with her shoulders still hunched nervously. Her chest and all of her head still hurts, and her face is still covered in blood. She tries to wipe it away on her sleeve without being noticed.
“So,” the taller girl says, so suddenly it makes Yasha jump. In the comedown of adrenaline after a fight, she realizes she’s very easily startled. “Have you been out here long?”
“Uh...” Does two days count as a long time? she wonders to herself. She pauses a moment, then mumbles, “No.”
In response, her companion (or maybe captor?) scoffs.
“You don’t talk much,” she observes.
Yasha has never considered how much she talks. Her guardian never talked very much, either, and she hasn’t exactly had anyone else to talk to.
The drow pinches the bridge of her nose, seeming just a tad frustrated. “Have you got a name?”
Her response is nearly, “Yeah, I do,” but she thinks better of it. Instead, she quietly mumbles, “It’s Yasha.”
“Yasha,” she repeats slowly, never actually looking back at her while she talks. “It’s a nice name.”
They fall into silence for several minutes. Yasha continues trotting along at the drow’s heels, staring at the ground and the footprints the other leaves behind. She stares and watches the ground change from frosted grass to frozen mud and back again. It’s miserable terrain.
Eventually she looks up at the back of the cloaked figure ahead of her, and nervously pipes up, “What about you?”
She can’t see the other’s face, but she can almost hear her grinning wryly.
“Zuala,” she says, finally looking back over her shoulder. She’s certainly smirking. It’s an expression that makes Yasha feel nervous.
“Do me a favor, Yasha,” Zuala says. She reaches out to her, stolen dagger in hand, and offers it back to her. “Don’t stab me again.”