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Trails

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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.

Well, fuck.
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.”

Wait.. what?

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.”

Chapter Text

Tashiya did not get her skin flayed when she returned, but her mother hugged and held her tight for a long while. Their whispers were quiet, to avoid waking her father. She did not tell her mother of the guardian. She just told her she had ‘fallen’ and lost the basket, not that wolves had chased her into a creature of myth.

She did not return to the woods for many days, but she thought of the beast Charon. She had made a promise - would he come to do… something if she was not to uphold her end of the deal?

It made her nervous to think about it. Would he send the wolves to her? Would he command the winds to freeze her or something?!

It wasn’t until her father had left early one morning for work in the next town over that Tashiya pulled her heaviest fleece on and tightened the laces of her boots. She had a few knick knacks she had crafted herself, so she grabbed a few with trembling hands. Maybe a gift for the guardian would make up for her not coming sooner.

With a kiss to her mother’s cheek and reassurance she would be back shortly, Tashiya took off in the morning light into the thicket of trees.

She tried to timidly call out his name once she was far enough in, but all that responded was a few bird calls and the crunch of snow under her boots. Then, finally, he appeared from the trees like mist. In the daylight, he was more mannish than she thought previously. Yes, his face and body were mostly animalistic, but his build reminded her of the warriors that passed through her humble hamlet.

The mock of a smile crossed his face again as he came closer. “You return. My heart feels warmer now.”

“O-Oh,” Tashiya swallowed her nerves and cleared her throat. “Yes. I’m sorry I waited so long to return… I hope you aren’t mad.”

Charon stopped before her and chuffed. “Never worry, sweet one. I will never anger at one who upholds their word.” He nodded his head to the treeline. “Please, let me show you out of this cold. Let me show you my appreciation.”

She hesitated. Should she follow this strange creature further into the woods? Did he plan on killing her?

Well, if he wanted to kill her, he would have that night. Why would he let her go otherwise? She nodded slowly, and Charon grinned. With no words, the guardian turned and guided her further into the trees, and she followed.

He didn’t take her far, but eventually, they arrived at their destination. It was a… home. Ancient, obviously, and rebuilt in multiple parts, but it was an actual home with slabs of stone and clay, and a thatched roof.

Charon guided her to the door. “Please… it should still be warm inside.” When one of his large hands opened the door, she visibly gasped. It was warm, and covered ceiling to floor in a variety of unique and handcrafted goods. From the hand carved furniture, to the woven wools and throws, Tashiya felt like she stepped into a part of history.

“Did you… make all this?”

Charon closed the door behind them and crouched over to walk to the low burning fire. “No. Once, a witch lived here. She left years ago - told me I should sleep in the warmth of her home rather than under the stars.”

Tashiya was in the middle of touching an intricate carving when Charon’s words reminded her of the trinkets in her pockets. “Oh!” She turned to him and took a few timid steps closer as he turned to watch her. “I brought you something. A thank you, for your help.”

He gave her his full attention then when she pulled her hands from her pockets, full of carved antler charms. “When the bucks drop their antlers, some of the local boys will give them to me to carve. I want you to choose your favorite.”

He hummed and peered into her palms, his intense and bright green eyes observing every piece. She waited in silence.

“This one.” A claw pointed to a crudely carved piece, and Tashiya grew red. It was one of her first pieces - what was to be a cluster of leaves, but was more of a lump than anything else.

“Are you sure…?”

Charon dipped his head in a nod. “Yes. It reminds me of the redbud trees, when the wind moves their arms.”

Tashiya had to smile. If one looked hard enough, they really could find beauty in anything. “Then it is yours, Charon. Thank you.”

“No, thank you, sweet one.”

“My name is Tashiya,” she softly supplied, and spied a spool of twine on a bench. “May I?” She gestured toward it and Charon nodded.

She put her charms away, and reached for the twine. She unraveled a small amount and used her canines to snip it quickly, all while Charon watched curiously. Once with her piece, she took the redbud charm and threaded it with a quick overhang knot, before she held it out to him. Instead of taking it from her, Charon simply tilted his head until one of his curved horns was before her.

“Please, if you wouldn’t mind.”

And so, she tied her charm to his horn, and the two were intertwined in a way neither knew or quite understood.

Chapter Text

Her father did not mention her extended absences throughout the days, or the food that began to appear on their once barren table. Her mother would worry, but once Tashiya reassured her that she was fine and unharmed, the worry lines would fade.

Tashiya knew that when she entered the woods, she would be safe. Charon had told her that he had marked her as protected that first night, and that no creature of his woods would harm her. The wolves watched from the treeline, but never in hunger. Instead, they would tilt their heads at her, and sniff at her tracks. Never a growl, never a snarl. She had once left two rabbits that Charon had gotten her behind in the snow for the pack, and she was graced with harmonious howls as she scuttled away.

Charon gave her extra meat after that.

Charon, the guardian of the woods, had become an easy and close friend to her. He always greeted her in the woods when she was far enough in, and would show her the hidden wonders, or let her warm in his home.

The one day, she showed him how she carved it. The next day, he showed her a nest of fox kits.

“You are a curious creature, Charon,” she told him once with a smile. “You are also by far the kindest.”

He responded with a low purr and pointed at her. “And the same can be said for you, sweet Tashiya.”

Weeks, and then months flew by quickly. He told her many secrets of the woods, and in return she would tell him of the village and all of it’s wonderful inhabitants. Their bonding was easy and strong, with conversation and emotions easily shared between the two of them. She spent what time she could in the woods with Charon on his patrols and general walking, but some days she stayed home. These were the days her father was home as well - she could not meet Charon in the woods with her father’s watchful eyes on her.

And then, Tashiya grew ill. Her cough was violent, and her fever was high. She grew dizzy the moment she stood. For days, she laid in bed as her mother cared for her. At night, she heard through her daze the mournful call of wolves echo from the forest.

It was the sixth day of her sickness that brought her father into her room with something clutched within his white knuckled fist.

Her mother was frazzled behind her, her face pale in fear. When Tashiya realized what was within his hand, she felt bile rise in her throat.

Her basket. The one she lost in the woods that very first night. It was filled with herbs and berries of all kinds, dried leaves she knew hung from Charon’s rafters for soothing teas.

“Who have you been sneaking off into the woods to, Tashiya?” Her father’s voice was low and dark, and she wanted to shrink at his glare. “Don’t. Lie. I am not dumb. I know how you disappear behind my back.”

“Father, it’s not-”

“Not what I think?” He cut her off and threw the basket to the ground, berries scattering and rolling around. He advanced and her mother whispered a pitiful ‘no!’ Tashiya backed up as far as she could from his advancing, but his fist closed around her nightgown and jerked her forward. “You are my property, Tashiya. You know the rules, don’t you?”

“Father! I-I promise it’s not like that!”

He snarled and jerked her again. “I am no fool, stupid girl! I told you that you aren’t allowed to accept any courtings. You are mine, and I will give you away as is intended! You come home with bounties of food during a famine, you disappear for hours, and now, you receive gifts on our own doorstep?!”

He shoved her hard against her headboard and she cried. His face was red with anger. “If you try to sneak behind my back one more time, I’ll cut your face and make you hideous. Is that what you want? No man will want you, except for the one I sell you to.”

He released her with one more shove and stormed from the room. As soon as the front door slammed, her mother rushed forward and gathered the sick and sobbing Tashiya into her arms.

Chapter Text

Her father kept her under lock and key after that. Many nights, the wolves would call for her, and she longed to respond. She wondered if Charon worried for her. It hurt her to think that he might assume she abandoned him, when in reality, she was trapped under the thumb of her father. Tashiya’s mother tried to comfort her daughter, but the poor woman was just as frightened by her husband, who had shown his true colors after their child was not born a son.

“Here, my dove,” her mother cooed and placed the hot tea on Tashiya’s night stand. Still with fever, and seeming to only get worse with her father’s foulness, Tashiya whimpered when her mother pressed a cool hand to her forehead. “Please, drink this for me. I made it from the… the gifts your friend left. Don’t tell your father.” After he had stormed from the room, Tashiya and her mother had salvaged as many herbs and berries as possible.

Tashiya sat up from her bed and coughed. She hadn’t told her mother, but the last round of coughing had left small drops of blood on her sleeve. She didn’t even dare think of the reasons why. Her mother pressed a soft kiss to her forehead and left with quiet footsteps, the door clicked shut behind her.

The coo of owls could be heard outside, where the sun had set nearly two hours before.The dark outside of her window was cold to even look at…

She sipped the tea slowly, and let the herbal liquid flow down her throat with a blissful sigh. Then, she spooked, when she heard a tap at the window she had just looked away from. She nearly dropped her tea in surprise, but managed to set it down before she practically tripped out of bed and to the window. She cracked it open, and thick, clawed fingers wrenched it open the rest of the way. “Charon..!” She whispered with her hoarse voice, “Oh, you have no idea how much I’ve missed you!”

He peered into her room with the best of his ability - his horns made it near impossible to actually stick his head in, but he still used one of his hands to cup the side of her fevered face. “Tashiya… the wolves told me of your sickness. They could smell it, and knew you needed me. Did the herbs soothe your pain?”

“Oh yes,” she could nearly cry in relief at seeing her dear friend, who she had grown so emotionally attached to so quickly, “I can’t thank you enough.” A small cough. “But Charon, what are you doing in the village? It will be dangerous if someone sees you!”

“The wolves watch for me,” he supplied easily and rubbed one of those dangerous clawed thumbs on her cheek. “Tashiya.. I am lonely without you.”

She smiled and leaned into his palm with half lidded eyes. “I feel the same. I hate this separation.”

His eyes glimmered in the moonbeams that barely illuminated him to start with. “Then… come with me. I can take care of you in my home.”

Wistful images of her in his arms, warm and safe, asleep with her fever being slept off, flittered across her mind before images of her father’s clenched fist on her nightgown rose to the surface. “I can’t,” she whimpered, “my father would be furious…”

“Why? You are with me often and always return safe.”

She closed her eyes and her hands drifted up to cradle his one with hers. “He… does not know where I go when I am with you. He thinks I have a suitor. I am not allowed to have one, you see.”

“I don’t see,” Charon mumbled. “Why should he? It is you who is being courted, not him.” She blushed at the way he worded it. It made her, for an impossibly warm second, think he meant to imply he himself was courting her, but she knew that was silly of her to assume.

She looked back into his green eyes. “He intends to give me away to a rich family, as to gain social status for himself. I don’t have a say…”

Charon growled then, much like so long ago, when winter was heavy and she had been cornered by the same wolves that now watched over her. But now, it was not just a warning to back away. Now, it sounded like actual anger.

“Foolish, the way humans think. Come, my Tashiya. I will protect you from these nonsense ways and care for your health.”