It was more of a hut than a cottage. It sat snuggly between the trees, and the only paths that lead to it was a well-beaten dirt one twisting up to the wooden front door. Someone traveling through the forest could perhaps walk right past it without even realizing its existence.
There was a smoke house a few hundred feet from the hut. There was an outdoor fire with a rack over the flames, from which hung a caldron. There was also a frame in which a deer hide had been strapped for tanning.
Clay sat on a log by the fire. He held a wooden shaft over the flames. The fire blackened the wood and softened it, and he gently straightened the wood when it was soft enough. His shirt was thrown over a tree branch a few yards away, and the fire cast a flickering golden hue over his pale well-built chest.
There was a rustling in the trees in the distance, and Clay, quickly placing the arrow shaft aside, sprang to his feet just as a young women protruded onto the path that lead to his home.
“Hi, Clay,” she called, and her voice rippled with mirth.
“Hey, Miranda!” He reached behind him, clutched his shirt, and quickly slipped it over his shoulders as he met her at the front door to his home.
She laughed a little, but it didn’t reach her face. “Of all the gods, you’re so self-conscious.” She leaned forward on her toes and planted a quick kiss on his mouth. “How many times do I have to tell you, I don’t care about your scars?” In the next instant, she had turned and walked past him into the house, her hair flowing behind her.
What was it about her that went so fast, making him feel like he was clutching after the wind? What was it that, at the same time, made his mind feel like it was stuck in slow motion?
She stood inside his house. The interior was filled with colorful carpets littering the floor and hanging on the walls. There was a desk and a single bed in the far right corner of the room, but not much else.
She took off her jacket and flung it across the chair. She stood in the center of the room as if she owned the place. Of course, she always looked like that, wherever she was: like she owned the universe. Maybe she did.
“So,” she said, “guess what I heard this morning? And you better believe it, but as soon as I heard it, I came directly here.” She clutched her hands together, and her eyes sparkled, as if she had the most brilliant of all surprises.
“What?” He asked, more out of a desire to watch the animation play across her face than in any interest in what she had to say.
“I was in the market, and there was an announcement. The council, it seems, is recruiting mercenaries to go on a quest, an adventure. You know about the star that fell, and the consequent oddities with the monster-sightings? This all concerns that. They need able-bodied fighters to go on a quest! I thought of you immediately. With your past and all, I knew you would be the perfect candidate.”
Clay grinned wryly. “Well, I’m glad you think I have an able body,” he said, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Oh, come on now!” she lightly punched his arm. “I mean it. They need you there! You might have insights.”
He frowned, took a step back. “No, I don’t think so, Miranda… I have no desire to investigate the strange happenings, the monsters, or my own past. I want to leave it all behind, I—-“
Her face had fallen dramatically. She looked like a four-year-old who had her candy taken away. “But, Clay! You live here like a hermit.” She swept her arm out, indicating the room. “You never have visitors, except me. You never see anyone, and you never leave your stupid forest! You never even come into the city to see me!” She looked like she was about to cry. “I mean, I love you, Clay. But you’re only 25, and you live like an old man. And you’re capable of far more than the life that you live.”
He looked flustered, almost angry. “I have a job, Miranda! I’m a ranger. They need me to patrol this section of the forest. This is my job, I can’t just leave it!”
“Don’t give me that, Clay,” she shot back. “You know they would rather you were out there searching for monsters than here waiting for something to happen. You’re wasted potential.”
He looked anywhere else but her face, which was right in front of his. A long moment of silence passed before he spoke up in a quiet voice. “But, what will you do when I’m gone?” he asked.
She let out a laugh and flung her arms around him. “If the quest was more than two weeks, I wouldn’t let you go, idiot.”
He didn’t like the city. He didn’t like the feel of the cobble-stone underneath his feet, or the narrow ally-ways hedged by high, solid walls. The instant his feet left the soft dirt of the forest it was like he had been disconnected from the world that he had known and felt a part of. There was a web of life that consisted of the trees’ roots winding like a complex network deep beneath the ground. There was flexibility in the trees and the light that fell through their branches. When he entered the city, in all the noise and the din, he felt like he was suffocated.
But there was a reason that he was joining this quest, and it had nothing to do with Miranda’s pleas. He would never tell Miranda the reason why, and he hardly knew it himself.
A fortnight ago, he had lost consciousness again while journeying in the forest. There was nothing to bring it on. One moment he was traveling with his bow slung across his shoulder, the next moment he was falling down to the ground beneath his feet.
When he became conscious again, he was sitting in his chair in his room. The shadows had fallen, and he knew a great deal of time had passed. He didn’t know whether the time that elapsed was just a day, or a many days. He had no recollection of how he had gotten to his house or of what had transpired during the elapsed time. He only knew that he had a mysterious gash on his left side, apparently a knife wound. He also had a few bruises scattered across his torso.
The last time he had passed out and woken up again in another place, he had been 15 years old. But he didn’t want to think of that.
The fact was, since that day a fortnight ago, he had grown increasingly more paranoid and concerned. He was scared it would happen again, whatever “it” was. And for this reason he wanted to leave, if only to clear his mind for a few weeks.
The man at the desk acknowledged him with a respectful bow, recognizing him immediately. “Ranger Marlorsa, sir, I am sure the council will be pleased to find that you have chosen to be affiliated with this quest!”
Clay hesitated, regarding the man. He was sure he had never seen him before.
“Commander Agmur said you might be coming!” the man clarified, gushing.