This winter had been brutal to Tashiya’s people. The fall before had been bad for crops, so barely anything had been stored away for the coming cold months. Instead, they figured they would survive on the hunters to feed them, but when the snows came, the wildlife hid away or migrated to warmer lands.
That meant everyone was starving, rations small and pitiful, barely more than a mouthful everyday. It had been the main reason for Tashiya’s sudden urge to forage in the woods. She knew of bushes that bloomed and produced edible berries in the cold, but they were few and far from the village. Her mother had clasped her cheeks in her warm hands and pressed her forehead to her daughter’s, a prayer on her lips. When she pulled away, she whispered, “Be careful, my darling. There are things that lurk deep in the trees that are just as hungry as us.”
Her father wasn’t to be informed of her trip into the woods - he was adamantly strict about where she went, how far she was allowed from the village’s border. Both she and her mother had agreed it best not to tell him, otherwise she would never be allowed to search. She was one of the only who could identify the bush successfully from its lookalike that carried a fruit poisonous to them.
So, she found herself in the dark woods, the weak light of the lantern doing a rather pathetic job of lighting her path. Luckily, there was no snow currently falling, and no wind to knock it from the bare branches above. The only sounds were the coo of distant owls and the snow that crunched under her boots. Eerie. Tashiya was only slightly unsettled by this, but the dull ache that had found residence in her always empty stomach urged her further into the moonlight forest. Every step reminded her of how hungry she was and the urgency of her search.
It was grueling work to trudge through the snow when already so weak from hunger. Her hands shook from not only the cold, but the deep gnawing of her gut. “Gods,” she shivered and stumbled over a tree root buried in the snow. “What I would give for something warm to eat…”
She continued onward, not aware that something had heard her mutterings. Moments later, through the barren trees, Tashiya blinked at a flickering light. It cast long shadows along the unbroken snow, and the glow spoke of a decent fire. She hesitated only for a second before she crept through the snow, eager to see if she could if the builder of the campfire would let her warm herself up for a minute.
When she finally found her way to the fire, she found it was a hazardly put together stack of broken branches. There was no one tending to it. In fact, when she peered around cautiously, she found there wasn’t a hint of another being around. She shuffled toward the curious and unsettling fire, her need for warmth overruling her cautiousness.
The forest was silent, as if holding its breath as she walked toward it, the crunch under her boots loud enough to echo. The ring of warmth made her exhale happily and close her eyes. Whoever left this fire burning had her thanks. Any longer in the cold and her fingers might have fallen off. Now, if she could only find something to eat… Her stomach rumbled and when she opened her eyes, she noticed something by the fire, one a flat stone, cooking near the flames.
She gasped and fell to her knees at the sight. A slab of meat! Cooked and gods, it smelled like heaven. Her mouth watered. Oh, the thought of eating it right now was so tantalizing… but it wasn’t hers to eat. She whimpered and averted her gaze from it. She would only stick around for a little while, until she could feel her toes again, then she would go back and search for her own food…
It took a while, but eventually, she warmed enough that she felt she could continue on. The snow didn’t make her as sluggish this time and she trudged through it, but her stomach still ached to eat. She went for a while this way, desperately searching for the stupid bushes she had came looking for in the first place. Yet her luck seemed to run out as she still found nothing, and that the sun would no doubt rise soon and her father to rise only to find his only daughter missing. The hell she knew she would come back to was enough to make her body full out shiver.
Then, like before, a flicker of light through the trees caught her attention again. She followed it hopefully, and found, once more, any empty camp with a small blaze of a fire thrown together in a patch of dug up snow. Like the last one, there was meat - two chunks! - cooking beside it.
She whimpered at the sight of the meat as she tumbled her way to the fire, but kept herself restrained. The owner of the fire could come back at any moment, and if caught eating what was most certainly a hard catch, would most certainly spell doom for her.
Like a child, she curled up into herself and let the warmth wash over her, ignoring the meat the best she could. She waited until her toes were thawed before she began to trek on again, but this time she called out a quiet thank you into the air, hoping whoever returned to their fire would see her footprints and feel her gratefulness.
She was moving back toward the village and her home now, warmed but without anything to fill her belly or those of her parents. A trip wasted with the little energy she had to spare. She passed the time idly thinking about spring, and all the joys it would bring. She longed for the warmth on her skin and the sun to shine without remorse. A smile on her lips, she closed her eyes to imagine it with a sigh.
Then, something snapped in the snow behind her. A low growl.
She froze instantly, and cautiously looked over her shoulder into the darkness. There, in the shadows, crept forward a dire wolf, starved as she, and behind it, she could see two more pairs of yellow eyes.
Panic rose in her like bile, and she dropped her basket and took off as fast as she could. Fear urged her weakened state into a frenzy and apparently, so did the wolves. Snarls ensued behind her and she didn’t dare look back to the sound of pounding paws. The cold air was brutal on her lungs, but she would rather that then the sharp bite of actual death behind her.
The snow slowed her considerably, and thankfully the wolves as well, but not nearly as much as her. They were adapted to this land - she was not. It was when she tumbled momentarily that she cried out, knowing they were to have their feast any second now.
It never came though. The wolves snarled behind her, but they didn’t step closer as she got her bearings again. She shakily faced them as she stood again, afraid to look away in case one pounced. She backed up slowly, slowly, slow-
And promptly bumped into something that was large, warm, and most definitely not another human. She whimpered, but whatever it was did not immediately bite her head off. Instead, two large paw like appendages came down and held her shoulders protectively. A low rumble issued from the beast behind her, and the dire wolves snarls turned into pitiful whining. Well, they did just lose their meal to something much larger and probably just as hungry.
“They will leave you now,” a voice rumbled behind her and her pulse spiked in both fear and alarm. This wasn’t some brainless, bloodthirsty monster? “They are simply hungry like you.”
Those hands left her shoulders, but returned to turn her around. She stumbled at the admittedly gentle handling, and could have fainted right then and there at what greeted her in the weak light of her lantern.
It was a monster. Large creature with the legs of a goat, but the broad and dangerous build of a somewhat mannish torso. Curved horns like that of a dall goat came from it’s head, which also resembled that of a goat, but if that goat was also a mountain lion and the color of rich soil, with a white splash and drip along it’s fearsome blunted snout. It’s arms were massive and long, and she wouldn’t be surprised if it walked on them as well.
It’s claws did not break her skin when it squeezed her shoulders. “You did not eat the gifts I left you, even though you starve.”
Tashiya whimpered in fear at the creature that peered at her with it’s large green eyes, it’s head tilted in what she could only explain as curiosity. “Why?” It asked and she jumped in it’s grip.
“I-It was not mine!”
“It was. I gave it to you.”
Tashiya quivered, but the creature didn’t seem to register the trembled that shook her shoulders. “I’m sorry,” she whimpered. “I didn’t know.”
It didn’t respond, but instead leaned in to snuff at her face and hair. She held her breath. “It’s nose crinkled. “The fear smell is still here. The wolves are gone. Why do you still fear?” This time, she didn’t answer, but she did give the creature a blatant up and down look. “Ah. It’s me.” It snorted and removed it’s hands from her shoulders. “Don’t fear me. I am no danger to you - I am Charon, and I protect the pure of heart that enter my domain.”
“.... What.. are you?” Tashiya asked quietly, and the creature, Charon, gave her a look she could only describe as a mimic of a smile.
“A guardian of the woods. And you are human.”
Tashiya had heard of guardians. Ancient beings that die, but are reborn again and again where once fallen. Creatures that lived to protect and nurture - beasts that had the honor of knowing the Mother goddess in a special way. But her village did not believe in such goddesses and monsters - but how could they explain this creature before her?
“I’m sorry,” she whispered in the still air. Soon the sun would rise. “I didn’t mean to intrude. My family starves. I only wanted berries.”
He cocked his head again and held out his hand to her. “Then I shall help you, human. You are kind, this I can see.”
Tashiya stared at the hand for a long moment before she extended her free one to take his. Then, he began to walk.
It was silent and Tashiya watched the sun begin to peek over low over the valley. Soon, her father would waken and find her gone, then tan her hide when she returned. Grand.
Charon pushed his way into a densely populated opening, teeming with bushes rich with berries. “Take what you need.”
Her mouth watered at the sight, and she thanked him profusely before she bunched a layer of her skirt to fill with berries. Her basket was long lost as she fled from the wolves earlier. She worked quick and filled as much as she could, careful to leave plenty behind on each bush for others to feed off of. All the while, the guardian watched on.
Once her makeshift pouch was filled as could be, Tashiya turned back to Charon. Who nodded at her. “The village east of here, is yours?” At her nod, he hummed. “I will take you back, but you must make me a promise.”
Her stomach dropped. “O-Oh?”
“Visit me again. I have not been around such kindness in so long.”