A. Vay

1. Prologue

Wandering freely through the streets of a big city the people named Cairlyn, Anna kept her hood up and her face hidden. People tried not to bump into her, but some were jostled against her, only to startingly back up again and trying to apologize without ever being really acknowledged. Cities never really allowed her peace, and she only entered it to visit the market. She needed a new cloak, this one was almost falling apart, and with the winter coming warm wool would be welcome. But first she must earn some more money to be able to afford a new cloak. The hides of the animals she had found had died of old age, and it had taken her a while before she gathered enough to be able to sell them. No merchant would buy only a few hides, and these, being of older animals, were certainlynot the finest that they'd ever see. Only a few hides were of younger creatures, but these were small and available aplenty. Anna never hunted on endangered animals, and tried to keep the nature in balance. Walking through Cairlyn, she let her mind wander, losing herself in old thoughts and memories she had often relived.

Father entered their home, and pulled the door shut behind him. The tool he had used on the vegetable garden he put down near the door.
Anna looked up from playing with her little sister. Something was wrong, she could feel it. An ancient instinct awoke inside her and made her nervous. Father's look was no comfort either. He looked at Mother, and then at Anna and her sister Lily.
"Don't go out alone tonight. Even if you have to use the privy in the middle of the night. Wake me up. Promise me, Anna. Lily."
"I promise Father," Anna and Lily echoed.
Lily tugged Anna's arm, begging her to resume playing with her. 'Twelve, and not a care in the world.' Anna thought. 'But then, we never had a care in the world. Why is Father nervous?'

On her belt, a standard accessoiry of her outfit, hung several leather pouches and her sword in plain sight. Out of sight, half hidden under her old, ragged cloak, hung her dagger, easily reached if a cutpurse thought he might be so bold as to approach her. A dagger on the throat often discouraged them and their weasley little buddies to try again. In a scrip dangling from one shoulder she had stored dried herbs, that had hung from the rocks in the same place she had hidden the furs. The cave was small, too small for an animal or a wandering lost traveller to take shelter in, and conceiled partly by shrubbery growing in front of the entrance. These herbs were often wanted by wise women, but the fact that Anna had not yet seen any herbs hanging from doors or windows suggested that the witchhunt had picked up again. Trying to sell them could get her into trouble, if she wasn't careful. But then again, trouble was no stranger to her.

Pretending to be playing with Lily, Anna listened to her father and mother whispering.
"I don't trust it, Corliss, I don't. The forest feels strange."
"What is it?"
"I don't know. The animals all kept quiet today, and I dared not wander out of sight of our cottage. The birds were restless, and they kept going on the wings only to change trees."
"Time will tell. Don't upset the girls any more."
"They're not upset, are they? Have they spoken of what I felt?"
"No. But Anna is listening, and Lily should also be old enough now to feel such things. To notice them. They grow up, and we should tell them about the outside world. We are well hidden here, but what if they want to know about the city? About other people? When I was Anna's age we had already married."
Father grinned. "And you never regretted running off with me."

It was true what her mother had said. Anna had had no idea about other people. About war, pain, cities, love, commerce, money, or weaponry. All she knew was how to take care of her little sister and how to turn butter into cheese. How to grow vegetables, how to survive in the forest, and what plants she could eat. Her first contact had not always been easy. Especially cities were strange. It was like they corrupted people. In the forest, she felt at home. But like today, it was necessary to visit the market. And there she was. The farriers and greengrocers, the smithies and matrons, the fishers and the housewives and the children playing amongst the skirts of the women. The man who buys hides luckily is there this market day, and buys the hides for a nice prize. "Winter comin' up, y'know. People wan' be warm 'n all. Here, 'll give you three silver f'r these hides."
Anna took the money and went looking for a cloak. Without the pack on her shoulder, the scrip with herbs was clearly visible, and their scents seeped out of the scrip. The sage smell seemed to drown in the stink of the city, though, for the noses of the cityfolk.
Anna bought a green warm cloak, and kept her eyes open for a door with dried herbs, to indicate a witch or druid who might be willing to buy her herbs, but it was not really necessary now. She had her cloak and the herbs, if stored dry, would remain potent for a good while longer. She hadn't intended to stay around Cairlyn long anyway. The woods here were infested with robbers who scared the wildlife away and disturbed Anna's peace.
A child, playing with her friends, hadn't noticed the ranger, and ran full into Anna. In a reflex, Anna grabbed her wrist and twisted it slightly. The child looked up at Anna, frightened, with tears forming in her eyes, but Anna saw

Lily lying dead at her feet and the sounds of the green monsters coming from the other side of the house smoke rising now and arrows buried in the chest of her sister but also wounds from other weapons and the fear in the eyes

The child blinked and a first tear rolled down her cheek

blood running down Lily's face and arrows in her chest her eyes wide with fear but no more breath coming from the parted lips moving no more

"Please, let me go, please, I didn't saw you, please, I swear I didn't."

Dropping Lily and going for the brook the screams of Father and a cry of Mother Mother in pain she never cried like that before I never heard such pain and sorrow before in a voice and it fills my head but the orcs are coming they will kill me like Lily I must get away must find shelter the forest isn't safe anymore where can I go the water in the water the cold water but deep and dark where they can't see me

Releasing the girl with the red curls like Lily's, Anna briskly turns around and walks away. She finds an empty street and sinks down on a bench in an inn, the innkeeper pours her a drink and she pays him without even seeing anything but her memories.

The night had fallen completely now, and soaked and cold, terrified and alone, Anna sits about a mile downstream from the house. Lily is dead and she heard Mother cry, but why, why did these greenskins... She hears her father's voice in her head; "and there are creatures that will always try to harm the forest and unbalance nature. They have green skins and are as vicious as a cougar with her cubs in danger. They are called orcs. The smaller greenskins are more agile but just as fierce and are called goblins. " the voice fades away but the lesson stays. After a short cold sleep under the bushes she crawled under in her flight, Anna wakes up to the sound of birds, and the sunlight seeping in between the thorny branches. Carefully, half ripping her clothes that smell of smoke and sweat and are sooty and torn already, Anna crawls out from under her bush.
The sun is maybe an hour above the horizon, and clearly shows east. Close by, the brook flows, and careful not to lose sight of it, Anna retraces her steps of the night before to her home.

The remains of the house are charred and stick up, mimicking the trees behind it. Nothing stirs, and when Anna is sure no orcs remain there, she closes in on her home. Lily is gone from where she lay the night before, but a couple of dead orcs lie near the back of the house. In a pool of blood lies the old sword of her father, and something was dragged from the pool towards the rim of the forest. A kerchief of her mother lies soaked in the blood. The marks on the ground indicate a struggle, footsteps suddenly disappearing as if picked up by the other track of orcfeet, and the dragging of the body.
Anna follows the tracks carefully and finds a little way further in the forest a site where the orcs had built a fire. Old rags on the ground, but Anna recognizes the former clothes of her father and mother and Lily. Torn from their bodies.
Casually thrown aside, half-hidden under a bush, Anna finds the remains of her family. Bones, gnawed clean of the meat, with the imprints of the orcteeth still in them.

Anna cried, and cried, and cried, until she felt something break inside of her, and when the tears stopped she returns to her house. The orcs had gone deeper into the forest, and she should not stay. How could she stay? In the charred remains of the house she finds one of Mother's pots, and in the stream she washes the sword of the blood that must have been her father's and ties it to her belt. There is nothing left. No family, no possessions, no home. Anna turns away from her former home, and walks downstream.

" 'Ey, miss Ranger, we're closin' up. It's late an' I don' wan' any trouble with the guards." Anna stood up from the table, and nodded to the innkeeper. Closing the door behind her, she walked towards the city gates, knowing one of the men there is bribable.
She had not gone far, before an alarm bell started tolling. From the south, a firey glow hung over the city, and the wind blew the smoke half over Anna. Coughing, she hurried away from the fire. Soon, she found herself in the street leading towards the gates. The city gates were wide open. Shadows were fighting in the streets. Whirling around, Anna found the fires had spread quickly and were now closing in on her, the buildings behind her already on fire. Looking each way, she decided on an escape plan, and ran, people running with her...

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