You've lived on the edge of a forest for about half a decade ever since you’ve left your parents’ home at the age of fourteen. It’s fairly secluded, but hey- no devouts come knocking on your door and preach to you the benefits of following their chosen deity, and none of the archetypical louts from your hometown demand that you give them a kiss. It’s home to you, in all its simplicity and solitude. You visit the town sometimes, a journey that takes only from dawn to the early morning, to sell some of the herbs that healers dare not venture into the forest to retrieve, and make a decent sum of coin from it.
You’re picking herbs one day when something catches the corner of your eye. A dark shape in the treeline. Immediately, you force yourself to stay calm and lower your body slightly closer to the ground.
It’s a gnoll. It doesn’t seem to be interested in you, concentrated on hunting something that you can’t see. Eventually, it bounds away, and you go back to your former position with a relieved sigh.
There’s a reputable pack of gnolls that you’ve observed migrate to this forest every autumn and winter, presumably from the mountains to the north. Despite their kind’s infamy, they’ve left you alone so far. It’s almost as if there’s an unspoken pact between the two of you; don’t bother them and they won't bother you. Still, you don’t want to end up an amputee in the future, so you keep your herb-picking in the cold months to a minimum. A distinct scream sounds in the distance. The gnoll.
You drop into a squat, eyes darting around the forest around you, alert, to pick up on any possible predators near you that heard it too. Nothing. And then you remember. It’s hunting season. And it’s spring. Why would a gnoll be here? You’ve got all the plants you’ve needed by now, but something stops you from leaving. You can hear the gnome’s faint whimpers. It sounds like it’s stuck, struggling with something heavy. Probably one of the traps that the hunters set out to catch deer.
Against your head, you slowly make your way through the undergrowth until you find a small clearing. Your eyes immediately flick to the gnoll, thrashing in pain and whimpering, its front leg ensnared in a vicelike grip by the metal jaws of a trap.
Its head shoots up as soon as it notices you, snarling in an attempt to seem menacing. Wracking your head for what you can remember about playing with the dogs in your old village, you slowly roll onto your back and bare your neck in its direction.
The gnoll seems to relax then, but still gazes at you mistrustfully. Steadily, you approach it, stopping to kneel before it so that you can free its leg from the trap. Even in a sitting position, the gnoll still towers over you by a good few inches, at what you presume to be roughly seven feet if it was standing.
Delicately, you pull open the wire jaws of the mechanism. It pulls open with a violent snap, and you flinch backwards, squeezing your eyes shut and bracing for fangs to close around your throat. But they don’t. A warm tongue swipes across your cheek, but you keep your eyes closed. A low rumble sounds after it, like the purr of a large cat.
You open your eyes a few seconds later to find the gnoll gone.
After about a week, however, you find the gifts. Rabbits. Mice. Small creatures, never bigger than your head. From the gnoll, obviously- who else would leave carcasses in front of your house? They’ve all been killed cleanly, though, and you’re grateful for that- with the amount of time it takes to sweep the leaves off your porch, you wouldn’t be able to abide another mess on it. The dead animals look almost as if they’re sleeping- save for the jagged cut across the neck, a telltale pointer as to why they died, the carotid artery slashed.
One day, the gnoll’s gifted you an infant deer. This is the biggest animal yet.
You shake your head slightly, amused. It’s like the beast is repaying you for your deed. Thinking back to the old folklore told by the village elders, you remember how they deemed the hyena-like creatures feral and savage, incapable of any emotion besides bloodlust. How wrong they were.
Still, though, you know that gnolls are accustomed to larger prey. Gnolls alone are fully capable of attacking a fully grown buck, and can even take down an elephant as a pack- so why is this one catching prey beneath it? The trap. Of course. You had freed the gnoll, but it must still be injured. Your mind races, contemplating worst-case scenarios. What if the wound had gotten infected?
You’re worried, but all you can do is wait.
Days later, you remain wary, but not in the way that you’d been before freeing the gnoll. This time, your fear is not for yourself, but for the gnoll. You’d hoped the tightening in your chest, the one that reaches down to the tips of your toes and holds the air in your feet captive, would have lessened. It doesn’t.
From the deer, the offerings had only gotten smaller. Your last was a mouse, and this morning and the one before, you’d found herbs.
You try to catch a glimpse of your not-so-secret admirer, but you’ve only been able to catch brief glimpses of it. After skinning and promptly making a meal out of the animals left for you, you always leave a small portion outside for the gnoll- after all, he'd been the one to catch it for you. Would have been rude not to, wouldn't it?
Then one fateful day, you'd been asleep in the wee hours of the morning when there had been the sound of something dragging itself up the stairs of your porch, thuds punctuated by growls and pants. What you had been waiting for.
Immediately, you leap out of bed, still in your nightclothes, and venture outside with a torch, standing in your doorway. The gnoll’s in worse shape than you’d seen it last. It looks to be in extreme pain, hunched over at the entrance to your humble home with one clawed hand spread-eagle on the wood to support itself on its knees.
You’d never seen it fully upright, and would estimate him to be closer to seven feet than eight. It stares at you now, chuffing in agony but not fully whimpering.
It seemed that the wound it had sustained from the trap had healed, but now it had somehow gained some new ones- peppered across its legs and shoulders. You’d spent enough time around hunters to know that they were placed there by arrows. Your eyes flick to the forest, where you can hear boyish whoops of laughter and can see shapes running through the trees. Hunters. And suddenly you understand.
You put the torch on a scone on the wall and approach the gnoll, but it lifts its head and its eyes meet yours. They are black, endlessly black like polished river stones, and you stop dead in your tracks.
You drop to your back like when you’d first met it, heart racing. What if he was just catching prey for you only to fatten you up and gain your trust? What if you’re its one last meal before the hunters catch it? It seems irrational, but in that moment, you only know fear, and fear makes everything possible. Your eyes still remain open, however.
“There’s… no need for that, human.” The gnoll rasps, and shifts slightly closer to you. By its voice, you can tell it’s a male. You sit up slowly, into a position that’s more comfortable, your eyes moving between the forest and the gnoll. The hunters sound closer now. “All I ask for is your help. Please. You’re the only one I know would help me.” You look into his eyes, and see pain there in the unicolour irises. And in that moment, the fear melts away enough for you to compose yourself.
“They’re coming. Can you stand?”” You say abruptly, standing up and opening the door wider.
The gnoll attempts to get to his feet, but only manages to tremble afoot for a few moments before collapsing again. You make your way back to it and gently hook his large front arm around your shoulders. His large hands could easily span your waist. He lets out a grateful huff and makes his way into the house with your assistance.
You’re brought back to memories of playing three-legged race with the other children in your village at the time. In this mismatched juxtaposition, you half-carry the gnoll sideways through the door, closing it behind you with your foot, and into your bedroom, laying him on his back on your bed gently. A small voice at the back of your mind screams at you for allowing so volatile a beast access into your home, let alone your bed, but you shove it down. Well, you’re not sleeping in your own bed tonight. There’s a soft, slightly worn chaise at the side of the room you can rest in later. Hearing heavy boots treading up your porch, you turn back towards the gnoll. He hears it too, and starts to get up with a faint whine, but you lay a hand on his chest and gently push him down.
“Stay here. I’ll handle them.” You say, wondering what came to possess you to be so familiar with him. Turning around, you head back towards the front of your house just as the first knock rings out.
Opening the door after composing your features into a bleary, annoyed expression, you’re met with the sight of several bow-clad men, muscular and varied in age. “Can I help you?” you say, tapping your foot.
“Apologies for the intrusion.” the eldest says, the one you take to be their leader. “But we’ve been hunting a gnoll. Great dirty beast, about twenty hands high. We assume that it’s passed this way. Have you seen it?”
“No. I haven’t.” You reply coldly, arms crossed. “I’ve been asleep, as you can obviously see.” Making to shut the door in their faces, one of the younger hunters darts out to jam his foot in the door, face an inch from yours.
“Step aside. The trail of blood ends here, and I can smell the beast on you. What are you hiding?” He snarls.
“I hide nothing. You are trespassing. Now get out before I scream for the guards. My home may be isolated, but sound carries a long way this side of the forest, and the town is but an hour away. This is my property, and you are not welcome here.” You retort, staring back with a ferocity equal to his.
Glaring back at you, the hunter finally drops his gaze after a few seconds. “Fine,” he snaps. “But we’ll be back.”
And with that, they leave. You watch them go, making sure that they leave for certain, then close the door softly and make your way back to the gnoll in your bedroom.
He’d fallen asleep in the time that you’d been trading sharp words with the hunters, but his ears twitch and his eyes open when you walk back into the room.
“They’re gone?” He questions, voice slurred by pain. You nod somewhat awkwardly, confidence dissipated, sitting on the bed and moving closer to him to inspect his wounds. The bed is fairly large, large enough to hold both you and him with a bit of extra space. It seems that he yanked the arrowheads immediately after being struck- perhaps at the moment of impact, because the wounds on his shoulders are fairly shallow. It’s a good thing that his skin is so thick- the blood has already clotted somewhat, though a few trickles pulse out every now and then. The fur around the wounds is caked with blood. But you take a glance at his hind leg, and it is there that the worst wound was inflicted.
The arrow is no longer embedded in his hind leg, but it most likely did more damage going back out than it did going in. After further examination, you find that the bone is broken. The gnoll yelps when your fingers graze his foot, and you leave the room momentarily to go to the room where you store your herbs and gather some of them in a basket, along with a clean rag and a pail of water.
You are no healer, but you’ve learnt a few tricks from the old wise woman who lived in your village. Returning with what you left for, you swing your barefoot legs over the bed again, placing the basket on the nightstand and the pail on the floor beside you. Taking the rag in hand, you tentatively dab at the wounds on his shoulders first, cleaning the wound and the dried blood caked on the surrounding fur. Moving on after making sure that both the fur around the wounds and the wound itself are cleaner than a whistle, you do the same for the gnoll's hind leg. He grits his teeth as you do so, but overall remains quiet and well-behaved. Looking up as you finish, you find that he’s fallen asleep.
A soft smile graces your lips at the sight of him looking so at peace, despite this betraying the foundation of everything you’ve known about gnolls beforehand. You almost reach out your hand to stroke his fur until you remember yourself. He’s sweet, if a seven-foot beast can be called that. But he's not an animal.
After that, you set yourself on the task of making a splint for him, fashioned out of beech wood. Judging by his reaction to the pain and the severity of the wound, he won’t be able to run around for at least two months- or shorter, as you’ve heard by word of mouth that gnolls have quite the reputation for being able to quickly recover from injuries that would be considered immediately fatal to humans. Wrapping the splint around his leg gently with some twine, you pull the woollen blanket up to his chest and plop down on the chaise to get some of the sleep you missed out on this morning.
You wake sometime after noon with the blanket on your own body, wrapped snugly around him. Absently, you note that he could have eaten you in your sleep. But instead, here he was tucked in close to you.
He must have sleepwalked over to you and carried you to him while you slept. You don't want to think that it was of your own initiative.
A half-hearted snarl escapes him, lips curled back in what seems to be a nightmare or a hunting dream. Such a fierce-looking beast he is, and yet here he looks no braver than a puppy. You pet the tufted mane on his head, murmuring, and he whines, tail curving in between your legs and up. The tip brushing against a very sensitive area.
Attempting to extract yourself from the gnoll proves difficult- his arms are tight around you, and even as you try he just grunts and wraps his legs around you, tail curling tighter.
With horror, you realise you are growing wet.