The boy’s legs threatened to give out as he only pushed harder through the trees, the mud causing his every step to slide in a way that should have toppled him. It was hard to make out his pursuers with only flashes from the storm overhead as light, but as their calls grew quieter, he slowed his pace to try to catch his breath. Leaning his hand against the tree to steady himself, his eyes turned with surprise as he felt the pattern of the bark. The intricate carving captivated his interest as his gaze darted over it, wishing for more light to try to make it out. A smile unfurled as he could see it better before realization struck him.
“Don’t move,” he warned as he spun around, grabbing the arm of the person behind him and twisting it so she was forced to turn with it. He blinked in surprise; it was not one of the men, but a girl, not possibly much older than him judging by her slight frame.
“Easy there. They won’t find you in this grove,” her voice was soft as a gentle breeze as she shifted her stance to a more relaxed once despite his grip. “I give you my word to that, little son of Asgard.”
“What do you know of me?” he demanded, glancing her over. The design of her dark leatherwork was too foreign to place in the dim lighting, with no house marking or other identifier that he could place. “What do you want?”
“I wanted to stop the disturbance in the forest at such a late hour. Makes it harder to hunt in the morning if everything’s been put on edge,” the girl said lazily, setting down the lantern she was carrying by the tree.
“Quite the accent you have. Are you one of the fae?” he asked curiously, his free hand finding his dagger hilt.
“Not by blood, or you’d be reeling from the reaction of such an offense. But then, you were using that term intentionally. Was it to test me, get a feel for my strength if I did try to turn?” she asked, glancing back at him. Her icy eyes had a bright spark of amusement dancing in them.
“I have your arm pinned, you could do me no harm,” the boy scoffed, tightening his grip for emphasis. His gaze shifted as he felt her twist her arm to wrap her hand around his wrist in return despite the awkward angle.
“You have a hold on me, I’d hardly call it a pin. Also, trapping the right arm works better on a right-handed opponent,” she said, pulling him forward to cause him to lose his footing. She twisted around with his grasp, resulting in his arm across her chest as he determinedly held onto the arm he had.
“Even so, you seem no less incapacitated like this,” he commented, locking his arm now.
“You might think that, but you’re the one on your back,” she said. As he went to protest, he felt himself lifted off his feet as she wrapped both her arms around his and rolled herself forward, flipping him over her and into the mud. As he regained himself, he noted her leaning against the tree to catch her own breath.
“Not much of a warrior if that display taxes you so much,” he huffed, pushing himself up.
“Didn’t claim to be one. Haven’t made any claims, in fact, aside from my assurance that your pursuers wouldn’t find you. Whatever did you do to have so many guards scouring the woods for you?” she panted, putting her arms back behind your head - and stomping a foot down on his fallen dagger as he reached for it. “Look, we could dance all night, but I was trying to settle in for the night before you came hiding here. So, seeing you’re still being looked for, and I haven’t actively tried to harm you - or call out where you are, why don’t we make a truce for the moment? You can come up into my hiding spot until morning, dry off and recover yours, and I can go back to trying to not be exhausted when the sun rises.”
“Why should I trust you?” He asked, eyeing her as she turned towards the tree now.
“You shouldn’t,” she replied simply as she pulled herself up into the higher branches. He quickly snatched up his dagger, cleaning it with his sleeve, before looking up into the tree.
“Still not convinced you’re not a fairy folk!” he called up before trying to climb it himself. Her arm reached down, helping pull him up to the higher branches. “Why are you helping me?”
“Like I said, to get some peace,” the girl told him as she offered a piece of fruit. He glanced around, surprised by what he saw. The branches and leaves had been reworked into a small alcove of sorts, dry from the rain and hidden from ground view. A bedroll was unfurled on one side, with some kind of basket sitting nearby it. “That carving you were staring at makes it so people who pass dismiss anything they see or hear. To anyone passing by, it’s just an old tree with gnarled roots, nothing more. Which, yes, is a fairy enchantment. I spent some time among them before I came to these lands.”
“Thank you,” the boy said reluctantly, taking the fruit and cutting it for himself. He made a gesture around them with his dagger, “Did you do all this?”
“Yes,” her response was simple but the air of pride in her tone made her sound truly aesir. “What’s the thought behind that grin?”
“You remind me of my brother,” the boy chuckled as he bit into the fruit now, then looked down a bit sadly with a guilty look in his eyes.
“He’s probably worried about you,” she said gently, then gave him a light nudge. “Worry about it in the morning - you can use my bed for the night. In the morning, I’ll help you get to wherever you want to go. I know ways to get places without the patrols being any the wiser.”
“Just so you know, I’m not worth any kind of ransom or reward. I’m far too much trouble, my father would be happier to let you keep me than pay for me,” the boy said warningly as he moved towards the bedroll. He hesitated. “Do you, uh...I mean, you’re kinda small, but-”
“Right,” she moved over the basket, digging into it to produce a long robe. “It’s not much, but it should fit you, and it’s dry. Can be done up tight enough you don’t need to worry.”
“Except about-” he blinked as she disappeared into the leaves, only her legs visible to indicate what she had done. He changed quickly before calling over to her. “Are you comfortable hanging upside down like that, or are you showing off how odd you are?”
“I take great pride in my oddness, for it means that it is harder for others to figure out what I’m thinking, what I will say or do, or otherwise try to predict me,” she laughed softly, taking his hand as he offered it and pulling herself upright.
“You’re strange. I rather like that,” he chuckled, giving her a smile. “May I ask your name?”
“Shay,” she told him, glancing him over. “Not too tight on you? It’s not that big on me, but I have an...odd build.”
“At least you’re a girl, you’re supposed to be small,” he said sullenly, sitting down on the bedroll.
“I’ve known tall girls and short guys. Gender types are averages, not exacts,” Shay assured him as she pulled a large, fluffy blanket from the basket. “I don’t have a pillow to offer; the smell of the feather attracted a scavenger that made off with it. Still haven’t found the bugger’s den to reclaim it.”
“That’s okay, this is already better than anything I was expecting for tonight,” the boy admitted. “Are you heading home now, then?”
“Nowhere to head, this is where I stay,” she said, lying down now. He stared at her for a moment, seeming as though he couldn’t decide if he should believe her.
“Don’t give me that. We’re not that far from the city, your parents would have found you by now if you had run away, even with that rune,” he scoffed. “Tell me the truth.”
“I live here because it’s all I have, and that is all there is to tell,” her voice was quieter as her eyes closed. “Some of us don’t have a brother to worry about us, or parents to come looking. No one to yell when we cause trouble, or get mad over muddied clothes. But you’ll go home tomorrow, and you know how it’ll go? Your mother will wrap her arms around her, hugging you as though she’s afraid you’ll disappear if she lets go. Your father will nod and say he is glad you are safe, to not worry them like that. Your brother will hit you for scaring him like that, then apologize and beg you to not run off again.”
“You sound as if you know them,” he commented softly. “You can’t be so certain.”
“I’ve helped others who got lost in these trees. It’s not a safe place at night even without a storm; large predators, pitfalls, tainted water spots, berries that’ll make you an awful kind of sick...so any time I find someone who’s ran off, I make sure they’re okay for the night, then see them off back home. And it always goes the same; yea, you’ll probably have to deal with what you ran from eventually, but they won’t start angry about it. They’ll start relieved that you’re back. Especially if you’ve been gone all day, which is my guess from how fast you ate.”
“Would you mind doing one more thing to help me, then?” he asked, looking over at her. “Would you tell me a story about Alfheim? I’ve never been there, and it might help me fall asleep.”
“Sure,” her smile was a warm one as she shifted to put her hands behind her head. The stories went well into the early hours, mixed with bits of conversation until he dozed off. She tucked the blanket around him, gentle not to wake him as she brushed his raven coloured hair away from his face. It was refreshing to have someone to socialize with, and his inquisitive nature was invigorating. The sun was peering in on them all too soon, paying no heed to her grunt of protest.
“Shay?” he asked sleepily when he woke, rubbing his eyes as he sat up.
“Just getting my stuff together. It’s a longer trip than you think, so eat up!” she said, setting a cloth with morsels of food in front of him.
“Aren’t you having any?” he asked, glancing over as he munched on some of it. “You left something out of your stories last night.”
“Oh yea? What’s that?” Shay asked as she rolled the blanket up and tied it to her bag. “I ate while I was gathering, don’t worry about me.”
“When were you in the dark realm?” his words made her freeze for a moment. “I saw the black scar on your leg when you were hanging upside down. I’ve heard stories about such an injury before, it’s a form of necrosis from-”
“The bite of a large beast made of shadow, yes,” Shay sighed, running a hand back through her coppery hair. She lifted her pant leg enough to let him see it better, “But it’s not a scar. That would imply the wound healed - this never will. It’s the nature of the infection, the curse of its bite as others call it. I was hunted by the beast without mercy, and fell forward into a small chasm with my leg exposed behind me. It sank its teeth so deep I felt them scrape against the bone before I passed out from the pain. I must have slid from its grasp, because I woke up at the bottom of the pit and it was gone. I would have thought it a nightmare if not for the wound.”
“You’re lucky you even survived it,” he said, hesitating. “Those beasts have no master, and live only in the dark realm. It’s forbidden to travel there…”
“I didn’t have a choice in the matter. But I got away, as did- there you are,” her tone dropped to a crooning one as one of the vines in the tree moved of its own accord, wrapping itself around her outstretched arm. “Good morning, my pretty little one. You must have enjoyed all that rain last night, didn’t you, my girl?”
“Why do you call it a female? I thought assassin vines reproduced by budding, which is an asexual process,” he said, coming over to look at it curiously. “And they’re supposedly to be really dangerous.”
“They are, but I’ve treated this one well since it was very small, so it regards me as a counterpart. They often form bonds with larger plants in forested areas when introduced there, it’s not very different from that,” Shay explained. “As for the gender, it’s because of the flowers on it - it receives pollen from other plants when it wants to produce buds. As opposed to having thorns that it implants into the flesh of creatures to produce buds from the nutrients of the host. Though there are some that have both flowers and thorns as well, they’re just rare.”
“Is that the only difference?” he asked, glancing down at the tree. “This didn’t seem that high last night when we climbed up here…”
“There isn’t that much difference in gender for most living things that I’ve found,” she snorted before reaching her arm out. “She’ll help you down; just don’t panic. The robe smells like me, she won’t hurt you while you’re wearing it.”
“Are you sure? I didn’t know they had a sense of smell,” he said uneasily, closing his eyes before trying to slide down from the tree branch. He let out a sigh of relief as he eased onto the ground, looking up to see the vine extending down from a branch.
“You can give her a pat to thank her,” Shay chuckled. “They have a very good sense of smell, just doesn’t work the way you’re thinking since they breathe differently than animals. But if you ever see one hunting in an open field, you probably wouldn’t know it from a snake. As opposed to the better know trapper ones that live near open pit falls. This one is so colorful from its bud opening in a lively area; ones from shaded regions tend to be much darker colored.”
“That’s so cool - thank you,” he gave the vine a gentle pet. “I didn’t even notice her in the tree. Was she hiding in the vines that were tying back branches?”
“Possibly - though in case you’re thinking it, no, none of those were related to her. She brought me mundane vines while I was working on the branches after I gathered the first batch myself. I think it fascinated her; and yes, I fully believe she’s that smart. Speech is not a limiting factor in intelligence,” Shay told him as she slid down from the tree, leaning on an ornate cane for a moment when her feet connected with the ground. “I’ve heard far too many people speak who clearly lack intelligence, after all.”
“You and me both!” he laughed, eyeing her cane for a moment. “Did you make that as well?”
“No...this was a gift,” Shay said, her tone shifting to a sorrowful one for a moment. “Follow me.”
“You’re sure about what you said last night?” he asked uneasily as they traveled.
“I am,” she said with a nod, reaching a hand towards him to give his arm a reassuring pat. When he caught it with his own, she gave it a squeeze instead, visibly surprising him. “I give you my word, I’ll stay with you until you ask me to go. Be it on the road, or when we arrive.”
“Okay,” he said with a slow nod, sounding a bit more confident as he released her hand. He abruptly stopped short of their destination. “Wait-”
“I mean no harm,” Shay growled through grit teeth as she blocked the blade of the sword that came down at her with her arm guard. “I am Shayliandra, and I have only come to return your lost prince. Please allow me to escort-”
“Loki!” a woman’s voice caused the two guards that had advanced on them to move away swiftly, and Shay only barely moved aside as the older woman swept the boy into a hug. “I was so worried about you! Are you hurt? Tell me you weren’t caught in the storm! Where did you stay for the night? Have you eaten?”
“He is safe now, Frigga. Let the boy explain himself,” it was the man’s voice that caused Shay to look up, reflexively swallowing hard as she met his sharp gaze. He nodded to her briefly before a golden haired teen barreled forward and joined the hug. “Thank you for returning him to us. What was your name, and your family?”
“Brother, you giant oaf! Let go, I can’t breathe!” Loki gasped from within the other boy’s grasp.
“We are in your debt for helping him,” the Queen said with a gentle smile as she moved away from the two boys, offering a hand to the girl now.
“Shayliandra. I...have no family name to offer. My mother was gone from me when I was too small to remember, and my father was lost to me,” she said uneasily, gripping her cane with her left hand as she politely met the elder woman’s grasp. “I believe the warriors that were sent to retrieve him treated him poorly; he was quite scared and in rougher wear than wandering lost in the forest should have caused. But you owe me nothing, I did it because it was needed, not for any reward. I shall go; I wish you-”
“Mom! She lives all by herself, out in the forest - in a tree! You can’t just let her go back to that, it isn’t right!” Loki protested, breaking free from his brother’s embrace to grab her arm. She jerked in surprise at the gesture, dropping her cane. “Can’t she stay? Please? She’s really fast, and she hunts! She could train with the warriors, or, or…”
“Please, don’t, it’s okay…” Shay said uneasily, gently trying to pull away from him without staggering from shifting her weight.
“Is that the truth?” Odin asked, causing the color to drain from her face as he picked up the cane and offered it out to her. “You live alone, in the game forest?”
“Yes, sir,” she gulped, taking the cane in her hands carefully and shifting it back to support her.
“What’s with the cane?” the teen asked, looking it now. “That’s so cool looking! Have you ever tried using it as a weapon?”
“Thor! Don’t be a jerk!” his younger brother hissed at him.
“You are crippled?” Odin asked, glancing down in the direction of the cane. “It must make things harder for you.”
“I am. I suffered a wound that-”
“It was from a dark beast!” Loki whispered more loudly than intended, earning a sharp look from the girl. “Sorry… it was a cool story!”
“A true story?” Frigga asked gently, kneeling to look the girl in the eyes as Shay’s courage began to falter. “Shayliandra. Do not fear being honest with us. You are clearly not one of their kin; to have survived such a place is no small feat.”
“Yes. It’s the truth. I cannot explain how I came to be there or how I escaped the place, it’s...it’s a hard thing for me to comprehend even putting great thought to it. But even my...my warden, when I was there, told me that he would never have believed that someone had survived an encounter with that beast of legends, if he hadn’t seen the wound with his own eyes,” Shay whispered, trembling slightly despite herself. “Please do not send me back to him. I can survive on my own without burdening anyone or imposing on your land; I’ll go somewhere else if I must, if I am not permitted to stay where I’ve been. But I cannot go back, I implore you both, your highnesses, please…”
“I am afraid that there is little more I can do,” Odin said, looking down at the girl as her eyes watered, “than offer a servant’s quarters, for there is nothing else available now that would not cause you to draw attention without merit. But in light of your service in aiding our wayward child, you are a welcomed guest in these halls, and will be treated accordingly. I will hear nothing of you returning to the places whence you were before.”
“I…I do not know how to thank you,” Shay whispered, hugging Frigga. Before she could reflexively recoil, the Queen returned the embrace, gently patting her back before whispering in her ear.
“I only ask that you watch after my boys, especially the younger. He needs a friend who can watch over him. It isn’t often he will speak for another’s sake.”
“On my word,” the girl said softly, then stepped back, shifting her weight to drop her backpack.
“Thor can accompany you back to help you get your belongings. I expect you both to return-,”
“That is all her belongings, Father,” Loki interrupted, pointing at the bag, “And no books! I don’t know if she can even read - can she come to lessons with me, Mom?”
“Of course. Why don’t you help her find a suitable room to call her quarters, then show her around her new home?” Frigga suggested to the boys with a smile. “Don’t take too long about it, you three will need to wash up before dinner.”
“Oh, I really couldn’t-,”
“You heard them! This way, Shay!” Thor thundered, taking her by her slender arm as Loki grabbed her bag, the two easily dragging her off faster than she could protest. “This is great! Now I can have a real sister instead of just a girly brother!”
“HEY! Thor, I swear, if there wasn’t a girl here-”
“A girl who could probably kick your butt, even without her cane!”
“No dragging me into these arguments! I’m not prepared yet!”