She could smell the iron in the air; the oil leaking from the dragged-back machines tainted the dirty streets with black drops as people took them to dismantling just to sell for a profit. Her hazel eyes travelled all over, distracted away from her scraps that could only earn her so much sustain without a need to hunt.
Her stomach growled in the slightest and Rey tried to muffle it with a tight clutch to her shirt, shaking her head to try and focus back on the scraps that required her attention.
Dirty streets, little rest from the blazing sun. Sweat ran down her back and her mouth ran dry, glaring at her nearly-empty water flask hanging from her belt.
And everyone shared the same worn-down expression, passerby and scavengers alike.
Then everyone looked to the same moving point, two poor souls carried by their fellow soldiers back to the castle, with gashes to their side and bleeding onto the ground but not spilling their guts. Their stakes of living were higher than others who had gone down the same path.
Rey backed up when more blood spilled from their mouths, though it had no way of reaching her. Her nose scrunched, stomach twisting counter-clockwise.
‘‘Seems like he claimed another two,’’ Rey heard from near her, two folks that leaned forward to watch the display. Her eyebrows furrowed and she inched back more at the smell of blood and the repulsive shared sense of morbidity among the spectators whenever they spoke of him, one she often eavesdropped in.
‘‘Not quite, those two aren’t dead yet,’’ The other chimed, shrugging as they leaned back. ‘‘though they’ll be soon.’’
No one knew his name, no one that survived could describe him as anything but a fleeting shadow that kills and banishes anyone who enters the forbidden lands of the forests. But Rey knew that once he feasted, he’d go to rest. Scavenging into the forest might not be safest, but it’d be a fruitful one if she left there and then.
‘‘Get back to work!’’ Along with a thunderous fist-slam, Unkar shouted loud enough to alert all scavengers and make Rey’s ears ring. Her eyes scanned quick through the moving crowd, heading back to her table as she cursed the merchant man under her breath.
Better get my things quick, Rey thought, fetching her bag and staff. can’t let others take this chance.
With her weapon in hand, Rey slipped through the crowd and headed south, following the worn-down rock path into the woods.
As long as I don’t go into the shadowed areas, I should be okay. Rey repeated in her head, over and over again, A monotone anthem that reminds her where to never go.
Instead of houses of rocks and worn down tents all around, the dry grass curled under the sole of her boots and the dead trees began to surround her. The chattering of the people were left behind, exchanged for the cold, empty silence of the flora.
‘‘Hopefully I can find enough to sustain for a week or more…’’ She muttered as her hunger grew, eating away at her guts with tenuous ache.
Her fingertips grazed the white bark of the aspens, the trees which could never get leaves no matter the season they were in. If the dirty streets of the outer rims of the kingdom weren’t hopeless enough, trees always in decays were just the thing to do the trick and bring down anybody’s spirits.
And beyond, she saw the forbidden. A luscious, dark forest that hid all life under its thick crowns of green. Entering it meant disappearing, falling prey to predators and, a fate even worse, encountering him.
Rey shook her head and tried to carry on with her way.
Her eyes rolled with boredom, hitting every other tree as she made her way around the safe area. The ground turned muddier and some shiny objects came to surface, a fleeting moment of excitement for her.
But she knew well they wouldn’t be enough to reach to be a week’s sustain, until she felt the ground below her foot move away from her and down a hill, a multitude of sparkling, usable objects rolling down with the mud.
Her eyes lit up like the starry night the more older- and rarer -scraps found themselves sliding down the hills. Her hesitation grew for an instant, but her hunger and craving reigned over her common sense.
With a slider underneath her, Rey took her chance and picked everything on her way down as fast as she could, hands quick as they wrapped and tossed the metals and odd artifacts into her nest bag.
Soon she reached her halt, her sliding ending midway downhill. The sudden stop and her tight grip on her staff reddened her palms. Heavy breaths made her chest rise and fall, but she still was in the safe area; a sigh of relief escaped her lips.
Rey peeked into her bag, counting the amount of food she’d get by cleaning and selling each piece to the Unkar. Her tongue savored the sweat on her lips, catching her breath.
The excitement did not last long when all support disappeared, the rock her staff held onto budged and made her fall. Her feet swung desperately and she rolled to the very end of the hills, rocks and ground hitting her on the way down.
Her backside and hips ached, biting her lip with tears welling up on the corner of her eyes. She struggled to even get off her back, let alone turn on her hands and knees, heavy puffs of breaths during it.
Hazy, Rey wiped the dirt off her face, groaning and cursing. Her eyes took everything in, where she had fallen to, deep into the valley and right into the forest.
‘‘Augh… bloody- oh no, no no no!’’ Her heart sunk to her chest, feeling the grass turn healthier under her palms as soon as she tried to get off the ground. Full of life yet so dark, so little light escaping through the green crowns.
Desperate, her bruised hands tried to grip onto rocks but her efforts were to no avail, as there were no stable points from which to hold onto, each time she fell and slid back down, hurting her more than the previous.
Her breathing rushed and time slowed, the grip on her staff tightening and the road back into the kingdom no longer visible, or accessible, to Rey.
‘‘Okay, maybe I can circle this ton of mud, yes, then I’ll use those rocks and get up there, simple,’’ She mumbled, wiping the sweat off her brow. ‘‘I need to get back before it’s too late.’’
‘‘Too late for what?’’
The deep voice behind her froze her on the spot. Her muscles felt heavy and rigid like stone itself. A shadow loomed over and hid her from the little sunlight that could get through the thick pine-colored foliage.
The presence of death caressed her neck, she could feel it so clearly there was a moment where she wondered, if she wasn’t already dead.
‘‘I’m not afraid of you.’’ Rey tried to turn and face him, but he moved behind her, away from her eyes. Her eyebrows furrowed in a frown, her empty hand curling into a fist, nails digging into the skin of her palms. It was a blatant lie to try and save her life.
‘‘Look into my eyes,’’ Rey ordered, though with no place to do so, hoping that his breathing ceased on her neck and that he’d stop hiding behind her. A heavy swallow went down as his steps crushed the healthy grass under his heavy steps. He circled slow, careful yet intense, to meet her per her request.
And the first sight of him, was bright scarlet looking deep into her very eyes. It was a curious gaze, a certain sadness reflected in it too, much unlike the stories told; even though they were right about them being colored like spilt blood, they also missed on the twinges of brown.
‘‘You really are not afraid of me,’’ He said, noticing her defensive frown and her puffed chest the same way she noticed his fangs, almost bared, as he spoke.
‘‘Why should I be?’’ Her reply came out cruel and almost demeaning, for it was the best attempt she had to save herself from certain death or what she thought would be it. Rey glanced down at his claws for an instant, then back at his face and the rest of him as he inched away from her.
She found it odd that, despite his imposing frame, his stance did not match. Night-sky feathers covered his muscular arms and the edge of his cheeks, blurring the line between his jet-black hair and them. Legs and feet were exchanged for, what she could imagine, were powerful bird talons. Yet, he hunched just a little to meet her gaze, as if she was the very first creature he had ever laid eyes on.
‘‘Do I have something on my face or what?’’ Her tone was intense, not enough to be called a scream but it certainly wasn’t a meek whisper or anything close to it. His feathers puffed, alerted yet he didn’t flinch.
‘‘You’re not a soldier,’’ The creature uttered to himself, it was then Rey realized he had been studying her and not eating with his eyes.
‘‘I strike twice as hard as one,’’ Her cheeks colored rose, Rey stepped away from him. She found herself inexplicably on the defense.
‘‘I don’t doubt that one bit.’’ He respected the distance she tried to make, save for his eyes which followed Rey’s every move and studied every inch of her, but she read sincerity in his voice.
‘‘W-What?’’ Eyes turned into platters, she stared incredulous. ‘‘Aren’t you going to kill me?’’
‘‘No,’’ His stance turned proper, turning his back to her. Rey regained her breath, relief surging and the adrenaline rush left her muscles quivering. ‘‘I… already feasted today, no use killing if it can’t be saved.’’ He added, Rey did not believe a single word of what he said.
‘‘But why? You kill everyone that crosses into your territory! You’re a terrifying, ruthless killer! You-’’
‘‘That’s enough!’’ His fangs bared clearly on her face and she mirrored, granted her with the confidence that not long ago he had and now lacked. ‘‘That is enough. I am granting you the chance to leave, now go! Or do you have a death wish?’’
‘‘Do you?’’ Her challenge and proximity sent a shiver to his very core, shocked and holding back a slight smirk.
The flames of her eyes and reckless courage like a wave that pushed him back. His red irises travelled and studied Rey’s with increasing curiosity, and terribly aware that Rey was doing the same.
‘‘I will not kill you because you’ve dared to look me in the eyes, now go and live, you…’’ He let his words dwindle in the air, an indirect request for her name.
‘‘I’m… Rey.’’ Her net bag hung now over her shoulder, slowly backing up but never looking away from him. ‘‘And what’s your name?’’
His silence was deafening, the tightest knot right at his jugular. He couldn’t hide the fear, his lips quivered and his gaze averted; a simple curious question from her had him backing up now.
‘‘I’ll tell you if we ever meet again.’’
‘‘We will,’’ Rey assured, smiling a minuscule smirk as she watched his eyebrows rise high on his face. ‘‘I’ll come back and make sure of that.’’
He was left speechless, mouthing incoherencies as he watched the young woman leave his domains. He cursed how captivating she was, wondering how her defiance and bravery managed to shake his very soul.
Days went by and Rey finally gathered the courage to see him again, to seek out he everyone fears, that she was supposed to detest, to flee from and to pray she never encounters again.
But there she was, a rabbit’s corpse hanging by a thread at the tip of her weapon; a peace offering for the forest’s mighty beast.
And not far away, he glared at her, partially insulted yet wanting to devour the prey to its lagomorph bones. To tear its flesh and satiate his intense hunger. She had come at the right time, his hunt was not going well for him that day.
Careful to not startle her, an eye kept on her dangerously-long staff that could knock a few teeth out with her swing, he hummed a low ‘ahem’. Her head snapped in his direction, slowly moving the offering to his face. His strong fingers gripped the rabbit and a single claw cut it off from her staff.
‘‘You really came back,’’ He eyed the rabbit, then her. ‘‘you had no need to yet you did. It’s very weird, don’t you think?’’
‘‘Stupid, I’d say,’’ She jested, barely earning anything more than a confused glance her way, he didn’t seem to like the way she spoke of herself. ‘‘I’ll be honest and say, I have no good reason to be here, though the air here is fresher here than in the periphery.’’
‘‘Periphery? What is someone like you doing there?’’ He simply couldn’t picture her; all he ever heard of that lace were wretched tales and awful descriptions of its many smells and looks, that Rey was very much a mismatched piece in the wrong puzzle to his eyes.
‘‘I’m a scavenger, that’s where us scavengers best survive at.’’ It clicked in his head when she explained. Her baggy and slightly-worn-out clothes, the handcrafted weapon of various metals, her unrestrained tongue, her hazel eyes which burned with an unmatched fire; a pretty face and more roughed up by an awful life.
‘‘I assumed you as a traveler, should’ve guessed better with you carrying so little except for your net bag.’’ He admitted, leaning back against a tree, hiding under its cool shadow to have his lunch, provided by Rey.
‘‘I assumed a few things about you,’’ Rey watched his fangs dig and tear the soft flesh, raw and enjoying its very taste. ‘‘but I’m starting to think I was wrong about them, too.’’
‘‘You sound pretty sure of that.’’
‘‘You haven’t argued otherwise, so,’’ Rey replied, and he couldn’t help but smirk. Her wittiness earned her a hidden smirk from the beast, neither was breaking through each other, rather tiptoeing closer in their new, particular bond.
And as their secret get-together extended into the night, Rey and the beast had grown a little closer than expected or planned. Rey had found something that drew her so easily, night caught up to her sooner than expected.
She left almost no time for him to react, picking her staff from the grassy floor and rushing towards the kingdom until Rey heard him call for her.
‘‘Will you return?’’ There was a certain need in his question she couldn’t decipher, but she flashed a reassuring smile.
‘‘I will, if you tell me your name now.’’
Another one of those tiny, unnoticeable smiles appeared on his face, Rey could almost see it this time. ‘‘I’m Ben.’’
Ben, Rey mouthed, almost as if she could savor his name. ‘‘Ben… I’ll come back.’’
I certainly hope so, Rey. He thought, watching her disappear past the trees and the valley his domains hid in.