The first light of a new day woke me from my sleep. Slowly opening my eyes I could see Daniel was still asleep and that the fire had gone out. Taria was also asleep beside me and for the first time since we had met she looked at peace.
I stood and stretched from where I lay, and felt my stomach grumble. I would need to hunt before we continued on our way. Moving towards the opening of the cave the two horses looked at me with weary expression. The temptation to jump at them and scare them for the fun of it, but that would wake Daniel and Taria, so I let them be.
Outside of the cave the world was a white blanket of snow and the sun barely passed through the thick trees. Stretching out my legs I moved through the thick snow into the line of trees.
The woods were silent as I carefully made my way. I avoided anything that would’ve spooked any food that I would find. It felt good being in a familiar place. I had spent my whole life wondering through the wood playing with my friends and learning to hunt. There were many good memories but also some bad.
There had been several occasions when I had been young and naïve about poacher’s traps and also warlock traps. While the warlocks meant no harm to familiars the traps could be dangerous if you got caught in one.
I went to slip under a fallen tree when I noticed such a trap. It was a pit that had been dug deep enough that if you fell inside you would either break your neck or some other bone. It was barely noticeable but the snow that had fallen over the pit didn’t seem as smooth as the undisturbed blanket around it.
To avoid breaking another I leapt up on top of the tree and looked around. The gentle breeze blew and I could smell deer. It was straight in front of me but not in my line of sight. I moved quickly and quietly through the snow, and followed me nose. It didn’t take me long to find the doe. She was standing in an open meadow dig at the snow. She was looking for something to eat herself.
I moved around her in a large circle making sure to stay up wide from her. If I stayed quiet she wouldn’t notice me. I took one step after the other and I ended up mere meters from her. She was completely unaware.
My stomach was growling with anticipation of my meal and it was almost distracting. I cleared my head and focused on her. With one more step I pounced and landed on her back. Digging my claws in, I bite down on her throat as she attempted to throw me off, but my grip was too strong. She struggled to stay standing but she fell; and with one more bite she stopped moving. She was dead. Taking a hold of her leg I dragged her body behind some nearby cover. An animal who feasted in the open was just asking to get caught.
I ate as quickly as I could. By the time I returned to Daniel and Tiara they would be awake. I was almost done with a heard a loud crack. Lifting my head I took a deep breath but couldn’t smell anything. Ignoring the noise was one option but in woods like this there was no telling what made it.
Staying beside the bushes I peered through and looked in the direction I had come from. Up on the hill were two men. Both rugged up in thick fur coats, and each other of them had their own weapon. One knelt and looked at the tracks I had left on my search for the deer. They were tracking me.
I moved and slipped in the bushes and tried to make as little noise as possible. If they heard me I would have to run for my life. The thick bushes made it hard to move without making noise and with every step I kept an eye and an ear of the two poachers.
I slipped out the other side of the bush and listened.
“Think she was hunting something?” one said.
“Probably looking for breakfast,” said the other, “these tracks are still fresh. No more than an hour old.”
“She can’t be far then.”
“Nope, and you see how they become further apart as they got. She found something and slowed down to keep from tracking attention.”
One laughed. He said, “Can’t wait to catch it. A fur coat from a big cat would make an excellent present for the misses.”
The other snorted. “Whoever shoots it gets the fur.”
“May the best man win.”
Their hands clapped together.
I moved slowly and made sure to stay as far as I could from them. I slipped under some tree roots and soon they were walking in the other direction. From the top of the hill I watched as they found my unfinished meal and looked confused about where I went. Poachers weren’t as clever as everyone though.
The crunch of snow caught my attention. Turning around another poacher was standing across from me with his weapon pointed in my direction. Maybe they were clever. I growled hoping it would scare him off but he didn’t flinch. He laughed softly and pulled the trigger. Ducking my dead the bullet missed my head and imbedded itself into the tree behind me.
Instead of taking my chances of fighting the poacher I turned and ran. From behind me the poacher yelled out to his friends. “Hey morons, this way!”
I didn’t stop to look back and see if they were in pursuit. I just needed to find somewhere to hide. The snow was making it hard to run. Some sections were deeper than others. I tried to stay closer to where I could see bushes to hide behind of slip under, hoping that they would lose me.
Another bullet flew past my head as I ran. I didn’t change my course direction though; I knew if they did that they would try to push me into a trap. I wasn’t that dump. But the bullets kept coming, all of them just missing me.
I jumped over a fallen tree and stopped for only a second when I heard one.
He said, “Where did it go?”
I stayed in my place. If you couldn’t see me then maybe they would head in the wrong direction.
“Damn it!” another said.
“Well, there goes that prize.”
“Maybe we will find another.”
Two of the men laughed. One said, “There have been no sightings of big cats like that for almost a year. I haven’t seen myself one in a lot longer. We aren’t going to just find another.”
The crunching of their steps grew closer. I moved back against the log as much as I could. And told myself that they couldn’t see me. The steps stopped and a man spoke.
He said, “Forget it. Let’s head back.”
The steps grew distance and I let out a heavy breath. I moved to step away from the log when I heard a crack. The snow beneath me shifted and began to fall. I tried to grip the ground and the log but I failed. Into a deep pit I fell; landing on a pile of snow before sinking into it. I laid there for a moment annoyed with myself. Running from those poachers had made the trap I discovered slip my mind.
I looked up at the now obvious hole and hoped that the trap was by a warlock and not the poachers I had just escaped from.
I lay in the pit for more than an hour. The sun rose higher and higher and still not a single soul had come to check the trap. I had moved out of the snow and lay myself as far to the side of the pit as I could. If another animal happened to fall in I didn’t want them to land on me. I had tried calling for help thinking maybe Daniel and Tiara had come looking for me, or maybe another familiar would show up and they could get help. But no one was around.
I rolled over on my side and closed my eyes. I listened to the noises coming from above. Birds were tweeting and flying about, and I could hear a few rabbits hopping through the snow. I could even smell a skunk. The sounds of the woods was relaxing and I could feel it lulling me to sleep.
It was the crunch of a boot that startled me though. Standing up I looked to the top of the hole and waited. The steps grew closer until they stopped. I felt a small buzz in the air. A buzz that all animals felt when someone was using magic. The log above me moved sideways and the ground beneath me began to rise. It was hard to stay standing as the ground shook but I kept my eyes on the ground, hoping it would all of a sudden open up and swallow me.
The ground stop shaking and I looked up to see that I was standing on ground level. I was tempted to jump for joy. Turning around the warlock who had just saved my life was standing in front of me.
He lifted the hood from his face and smiled at me, before kneeling down to my level. He said, “A rare and beautiful creature like you is rare, are you a familiar.”
His face seemed very familiar to me. The shape of his chin and nose, the colour of his hair and eyes, looked like someone but I couldn’t think of who.
“Yes,” I said. I knew he wouldn’t be able to understand me but it was force of habit to just respond.
“Are you alone?”
“No, I was with my bond mate and her father, but I went hunting.” I turned and looked up the hill where the cave was.
“Would you like me to escort you back to your bond mate and her father?”
I froze. He understood me. “Wait,” I said, “You can understand me?”
He laughed. “Yes, I can. I acquired the skill by accident. Spell gone wrong. But it has been rather useful.”
“Yes it seems to be. It is nice to have another human understand me.”
He stood back up and looked up the hill. “Where about did you leave your friends?”
“In a cave just off the eastern path. We are heading to the In-Between.”
He frowned. “I thought humans, even bond mates, were forbidden to go into the In-Between.”
I nodded. “Yes, but my bond mate has been granted entrances. It is only the first stop on our journey.”
“And what kind of journey would you be on?”
I held my tongue. This warlock may have saved me from the trap but it didn’t mean that I could trust him. Who knows what he would do if he knew the truth about who Tiara was.
“I understand if you don’t wish to tell me. Shall we go?” He began to walk towards the hill.
After a moment’s hesitation I followed him. I decided though that if he did anything to Tiara or Daniel then he would be losing a limb. I didn’t care that he had saved my life. Tiara came first.ns 22.214.171.124da2