Ryleine was hungry. Starving half to death in fact. Her catch had been light recently, and her stomach was paying the price.
It was a fresh morning, and she could smell the sweet scents of Rordynne Forest as it awoke, the flowers opening, the pollen carried by the breeze. She could feel her luck changing. There was something different in the air that morning, something restless. The wildlife would be nervous, eyes and ears pricked up, not concentrating on the traps below their limbs.
Her feet landed softly on the damp mossy dirt, her leather boots keeping the moisture out. She had made the boots herself, along with the rest of her outfit. Knee length shorts, tight around her thighs and tighter still under the belt, a shirt that was far more stylish than it was comfortable, and a jacket to keep her warm in the cool morning.
The forest provided all the leather she needed, and all the food. The rest she sold in Lerinton, where the traders would resell to Helen’s Bay merchants at twice the price. She wouldn’t normally bother travelling that far herself, not unless she needed to buy better supplies.
Lately however, the forest had provided less than she needed. The first trap she checked that morning yielded the same pitiful results. She crouched down, resting on one knee as she searched for any signs of animals passing by. They had – a few of them in fact – but luck, it seemed, had been on their side that night.
She stood up with a sigh and retied her hair as she had several times already that morning. It hung close to her waist, and years of experience had given her the ability to twirl it into a knot within moments, a habit she often repeated while her mind was wandering.
Three traps later and several reties of her hair, yet still no yield. Something had changed, but she couldn’t quite figure out what it was. Finally, the fifth trap held a catch, and her excitement grew as she neared it.
But it had caught something completely unexpected. Completely unknown even. Nothing she had ever seen or heard of. A large cat, its back as high as her waist. Something like the tiger she had heard of in the myths of the mainland, but this was quite different.
Female, she saw; her fur was a deeper black than a dark night in a cave, with rich red stripes running the full length of her body from whiskers to tail, thinning at each end. Her paws were nearly twice the size of Ryleine’s hands; her teeth bore resemblance to a torturer’s set of sharp stilettos.
She looked back at Ryleine, sad, and in pain. The noose had tightened on her front paw, and blood dripped from the wound. The beast snarled at Ryleine as she approached. Her stomach grumbled despite her distaste for feline flesh. Besides, the pelt alone would fetch a handsome price. And more than likely, this carnivore had eaten, or at least scared off most of the other prey, leaving Ryleine’s traps unsprung.
Despite the hissing and growling in defiance, Ryleine was not put off. She felt no fear, not for anything alive. She neared the large cat, dagger drawn, eyes fixed on her prey. She was prepared for the usual death throes. All creatures fight to the last, no matter how slim their chances.
Ducking under the all too predictable swipe, she slashed with her dagger and quickly stepped back.
“Go free, sister of the forest,” she said.
She was glad no one heard her, it sounded much better in her head.
The black tiger backed away slowly, limping slightly, eyes still fixed on her. Then, she turned and bounded off into the thicket.
An act of madness no doubt, but Ryleine felt sorry for her. She was probably all alone in the forest, something Ryleine could relate to. Besides, once that pelt was spotted in Helen, every man with a pointy stick would be flooding the Rordynne Forest, searching for more of the new precious hide. Ryleine would far prefer that her sanctuary remained her own.
She continued through the forest, searching for her traps and hoping for captured game; anything would do. It was late in the day already when she finally found a sprung trap with a catch still held. A hare, barely enough to feed one person. It would have to do.
She slung the hare over her shoulder, and made for her grandfather’s hut. He too lived alone, deep in the forest, as far away as he could get from people without being too far to return if he needed. The Hermit, they called him, those that knew he existed, but there weren’t many left who remembered. He had been there for so long scarcely anybody knew his name. She always made sure her route took her close enough to check on him.
That day he wasn’t home. It wasn’t unusual, he liked to take long walks. Ryleine wasn’t worried. Instead, she sat down outside and started on the hare. She made short work of skinning it, cutting the fur just deep enough in the right places and then sliding the body out, leaving the hide almost completely intact. The meat she skewered, and cooked over a small fire.
When her grandfather didn’t return in time, she cut the hare in half, eating her meagre share, and leaving the rest in his hut. If the animals didn’t get it first, he would have something to eat when he returned home.
She couldn’t wait any longer for him, she didn’t want to wander the forests too long after sunset. Her next stop was Lerinton, where she could sell the fur and pick up a few supplies. She might even stop at the tavern before heading home.
* * *
“One dirty for that, it’s barely mature.”
“One black coin?” exclaimed Ryleine. “That will barely pay for a drink in the tavern.”
“You don’t need a drink, you need to eat something.”
“Then you’re going to need to pay me more than one black, aren’t you?” she said. “That skin is worth five at least.”
“Hah, I would be lucky to get four in Helen’s Bay!”
“Fine, I will give it to you for three, and you will be robbing me.”
“Here’s two, now get the hell out of my store.”
Ryleine took the coins and ran. It was definitely worth more, but she didn’t have the patience to negotiate. She wasn’t really interested in money, but she did need it in town. She needed a new dagger, with a sharp blade. Two black coins wouldn’t buy her a decent one, but she had been saving up.
New dagger in hand, she headed for The Forest Gate, a favourite tavern on the outskirts of town. She dropped a single black coin on the bar, making a show of how little she had. The innkeeper smiled, as he always did. Deklow knew everybody around there. Everybody knew everybody around there. He was a kind man though, unlike many.
“Tough day?” he asked.
“Tough year,” she agreed.
“You take a seat, I’ll get a nice warm broth and a drink sent over.”
She found an empty bench outside, and sat with her back to the table, gazing at the restless stars. She played with her hair, loosing and retying it several times. Even when her food arrived, her eyes looked up and followed the stars as she spooned the soup into her mouth.
The night sky always fascinated her. The stars forever wandering the heavens above, unable to stay still, a perpetual dance of a million lights above. Why did they move? What were they looking for? Were they watching her as she watched them?
Perhaps they were simply unable to sleep, restlessly searching for a more comfortable position.
The man sat himself next to her without request. She didn’t recognise him; must be from Helen’s Bay. He was joined by another who sat on the other side of her, squeezing her uncomfortably between the two.
“I’m taken, gentlemen.”
“You look to be alone right now.”
Ryleine fingered the dagger in her pocket. It was new, still unused, and she didn’t really want to taint it with human blood, but she was rather interested in pricking the man where it’d hurt the most. Luckily the innkeeper stepped in.
“There is a free table over there, you two should move to it. Trust me, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her husband.”
Thankfully, they left without too much argument. They were opportunistic, and she wasn’t a risk they were willing to take. She nodded her thanks to the innkeeper.
“Would you like another?” he asked, gesturing to her cup, which was nearly empty.
“Not tonight, I’d best get going. Thank you.”
She took another sip as she looked back up at the sky. The stars were swimming restlessly as ever, all except one. It stood still, low in the southern sky. She had seen it before, a few times. It hung there on occasion, almost as if it were watching her. But it looked different this time, it looked… bigger.
She kept her eyes fixed on it for a while, trying to work out if she was going mad or if the star was getting brighter. But soon, she was convinced. Easily the brightest star then, it continued to grow as it began to descend towards the horizon. Moments later there was a flash, and the star fell out of the sky, landing in Rordynne Forest.
She looked around her, but nobody else seemed to have noticed the star falling from the sky. Had she really seen it? Did it really fall into the forest?
She resolved to go searching for it. Either she was long past insane, or she would find it. She downed the last sip of her drink, and jumped up, almost running south. She was in such a rush that she didn’t notice that she was being followed.
* * *
She reached the edge of the forest and dived straight in. She didn’t like to enter at night, but she knew the trees as well as anyone. It wasn’t the trees or the darkness that was the problem, it was the wolves that come down from the mountains and roamed after dark, and they were known to pick off people who were lost in the forest. But she didn’t fear the wolves. She felt no fear, not for anything alive anyway.
Even as she heard them howling in the distance, she ran through the trees, certain she knew where the star had fallen. She could see in her mind’s eye the exact location, though she couldn’t say why.
She soon noticed she wasn’t alone. She was being shadowed by something off to her left, running almost completely silently through the thicket. She caught glimpses as the shadow darted through the darkness. As silent as it was, there was also something much louder behind her. Chasing her, she soon realised.
Unsure of her best move, Ryleine stopped dead in her tracks and swung around, dagger drawn ready. Two men burst through the trees. The same two who had pestered her at the tavern.
She laughed out loud.
“Did you notice I turned you around while you were chasing me?” she said. “Do you have any idea where you are? Do you know that you are almost certainly going to die here, if not eaten by wolves tonight, then from starvation in the next few days as you wander aimlessly, searching for a way out?”
The two glanced at each other nervously for a moment.
“You will show us the way out,” said the talkative one, “once we’re done.”
She held her dagger out for them to see. They drew their own blades, both larger than hers. She didn’t particularly fancy her chances, not against two of them. But it didn’t mean she would give up that easily. She would need to lure them closer, within her reach. After all, she was a trapper.
She sighed, dropped her dagger and began unbuckling her belt.
“Let’s get this over with then.”
Both of them smiled, relaxing their grips on their blades as they edged forward. Then they froze, their eyes drawn behind and to her left.
She couldn’t hear anything, but she knew what was happening. She felt it. The black and red tiger stepped out of the darkness, calmly walking between her and the two men who looked too scared to move. Too scared to breathe.
The beast stopped, looking at the two, and then a vicious snarl sent them running for their lives without any care for which way they were headed. She hoped that Rordynne Forest would finish them off.
“Thank you,” she said out loud.
The wild cat was almost invisible in the darkness, but Ryleine could just make out the dark red stripes on her coat, and when her eyes caught the starlight, they too shone a deep red.
As quickly as she had arrived, she bounded off into the thicket, leaving Ryleine alone once more.
“Hello?” came a soft voice from behind her a few moments later.
She swung around, her second dagger already in hand.
A man stood there. A different man, short, light build, dark clothing. Almost camouflaged in the shadows. He held up his hands before him, defensive, unthreatening, and approached cautiously.
“I’m sorry, I mean you no harm. I am lost,” he said.
“You must be.”
She still held the dagger, pointing towards him.
“I was about to help you, looking for a good time to charge those men, but it seems you don’t need my help.”
The man was pointing to the forest where the cat had run off.
“That was quite something. What was that creature anyway?”
“My sister,” she said. “And she will come back if I call her.”
“There is no need.”
He lowered his hands slowly, gesturing towards a sheathed dagger.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“I am… looking for something. Or I was, but have no idea where I am any more.”
He seemed harmless enough. At least he didn’t seem to have the same idea the other two men had on their minds. She lowered her dagger, and he relaxed his arms, his hands falling to his side with his fingers hooking behind his back. Away from his weapon.
“City folk shouldn’t be here,” said Ryleine. “The forest is a dangerous place.”
“Believe me, I don’t want to be here,” he chuckled. “Shouldn’t have taken this job.”
He was shaking his head, eyes pointing up.
“What are you looking for?”
“A gold coin,” he said. “Another one. Some old man around here has it. I was going to, er, offer to buy it from him.”
A gold coin? Her grandfather had one, kept it hidden in his hut, but she had seen it a few times before. It had a ship on one side, and several stars on the other.
“There must be plenty of gold coins in the city,” she said.
“Not enough it seems. My employer wants them all. Needs them all. Says he can find the mainland if he gets his hands on all of them.”
He was shrugging, didn’t look to believe what he was saying. She wasn’t sure she wanted the stranger anywhere near her grandfather. Better she guided him away.
“I don’t know of any old men around here, but I can help you look around. But first, I must find what I am looking for. Did you happen to see a star falling out of the sky somewhere around here?”
He looked at her blankly, almost questioning himself. Wondering what he had gotten himself into.
“It fell somewhere close by.”
A wolf howled in the distance. Ryleine quite enjoyed watching him think. Uncertain whether to follow the crazy girl searching for fallen stars, or take his chances with the wolves.
“I’m Ryleine,” she said, holding her hand out.
He hesitated, then took her hand.
* * *
It was near dawn by the time they stopped to take a break, resting next to a stream with water running rapidly over the smooth stones. Ryleine was certain they were near to where the star had fallen; she could feel it. She knew exactly where it was. Kyrnrie had questioned it a few times, but she insisted.
They resumed their journey as the sun began to rise. Ryleine wondered what she would do when she found the star. She wondered what she would find. Would it be a lump of rock as many suggested? Or a god, as others hoped?
Her grandfather had once told her that the stars danced at night to attract the attention of pretty girls below, and that any girl brave enough to make the journey to the stars would find a handsome man, marry him, and live eternally in happiness in the heavens.
They didn’t call him the crazy hermit for nothing.
But now that the opportunity was there for her to find a star… to meet a star, the tale gave her a feeling of fantastic longing, as if something she had searched for all her life was all of a sudden at her very fingertips.
“What does a star look like anyway?” asked Kyrnrie out of silence.
“If you had asked me that a moment ago I could have thought out aloud,” she said with a slight tone of annoyance. “Now I need to repeat myself.”
Kyrnrie held a shocked expression. Ryleine wasn’t really used to dealing with people, she wasn’t very good at it. Guilty, she retold him her thoughts on the star.
“A handsome prince, heh?” said Kyrnrie. “Or a princess perhaps?”
“I never said anything about royalty, just a handsome man. Keep your expectations realistic.”
“So we’re looking for a rock then?” chuckled Kyrnrie.
Ryleine kept quiet. She was allowed to dream.
In the daylight, she noticed Kyrnrie was younger than he seemed. Looked better than she expected too. Was he the fallen star? Couldn’t be. She was losing it.
“Once we find this lump of rock, we can then go looking for an old man, right?” said Kyrnrie. “I would really like to get out of this forest, and preferably not empty-handed.”
“I know these forests better than anyone, and I don’t know of any old men around here. But we can ask around Lerinton, see if anyone else knows anything.”
“That’s exactly what I did. They told me the hermit lived somewhere around here. I think.”
He was too close already. Perhaps she would find another way to knock him off course.
“You are a terrible liar, you know that?”
Kyrnrie grinned as he said it. And he was right. She would have to take him to her grandfather eventually. Or kill him.
“He’s your grandfather, is he? I don’t mean him any harm,” he said. “I swear it. I don’t mean anyone any harm, it’s not my way.”
She could believe it. As suspicious as he was, he seemed a nice enough person. But what did she know about men from the city, besides not to trust them.
Before she could answer him, something else took their attention. There was an odd odour in the air. It smelt like smoke, but sweeter. Like fresh flowers, petals carried in the wind, burning as they drifted.
They broke through a treeline to find a clearing, charred black with trees burnt to ash. In the middle, several shattered stones, black as coal, smooth as silk. Didn’t look much like a star.
Kyrnrie gestured to the side of the clearing, to an old man, naked and wrinkled. He was urinating on a tree. His long, thin grey hair hung in tatters around his shoulders, failing to cover the top of his head. His skin hung loosely from all parts of his body.
“Your grandfather?” asked Kyrnrie.
Ryleine shook her head slowly, grimacing in disgust.
“Your handsome prince perhaps?” chuckled Kyrnrie.
She hoped not.
The old man shook a few times, and then walked towards them, not bothering with modesty.
“No,” he said. “I am something much more. I am your god.”
He smiled proudly as he proclaimed himself, with hands on hips. The rest of him, well, it hung right there. His eyes were fixed on Ryleine, she noticed when she caught his gaze.
“What, mine?” she asked, glancing nervously at Kyrnrie. “My god?”
“Yours indeed. You have been waiting your whole life for me.”
She shuffled uncomfortably. She retied her hair, swinging it loose and leaning her head to one side as she quickly wrapped it up.
“Er, no I haven’t.”
The old man looked confused.
“But… but you were watching me! All those nights, you were gazing up at me! With longing in your eyes.”
“Well, I was… curious about the stars. But you aren’t, well, exactly what I imagined.”
“It is our destiny to be together, Ryleine!”
Kyrnrie could barely contain his laughter. Ryleine was looking for a way out, fast.
“Look, I don’t know you. You don’t just… drop from the sky and give some speech about destiny and expect me to fall in love with you!”
“Women are far more complicated than that!” added Kyrnrie.
“Thank you, Kyrnrie,” she said. “As I was saying… well, that’s it.”
“But… but…” protested the self proclaimed god.
“Don’t we have another old man to visit, Ryleine?” said Kyrnrie.
“Yes. Let’s go,” she said.
They hastily walked away into the forest.
“Ryleine!” shouted the old man behind them as they vanished into the thicket.
“You just going to leave him there?” asked Kyrnrie.
“What am I supposed to do with him?”
Kyrnrie didn’t answer. They were still moving quickly, almost running away from him. Ryleine’s mind was racing. Was that really what fell from the sky? Was he really a god? Her god? The forest only had one crazy old man as far as she knew, and there was no room for another.
“Do you think they are all like that?” asked Kyrnrie.
“The stars! Do you think they are all crazy old men? Chasing after pretty girls that look at them?”
Suddenly the old man was standing in front of them, and they almost tripped over each other as they stopped before him.
“There are a million stars up there,” he said. “Each one a million years old. We wander the heavens, searching, until we find our perfect mate. When we find her, we sacrifice our immortality for her.”
“I will not give up so easily, Ryleine. I have given everything for you. I will prove myself if I must. But I will not give up.”
“Oh crap,” she said again.
“What will you have me do?”
She glanced at Kyrnrie who was grinning gleefully. He shrugged at her, pointing at her suitor, her very own personal god.
“For a start, you can find some clothes.”
He bounded off into the woods, excited. His skin flapping as he disappeared behind the foliage.
“You are going to need to find him some more challenging quests if you want to keep him busy,” said Kyrnrie.
“I’ll think of something. Many things. How long do you think he’s got left? Five years? Ten?”
“How long does a star live for? Even a mortal one?”
Ryleine couldn’t guess. But somehow she felt sorry for him. He had fallen from the sky for her after all. How much more could she expect from a man? But then, what did he expect from her? He was a god!
“I will make you a deal,” she said. “I’ll get you your gold coin, and you and your boss find the damn mainland!”
She gazed into the forest, wondering how long it would be before her suitor returned. How long before she would run out of ways to keep him busy. She sighed, muttering her desperation out aloud.
“I need to get off this damn island!”
I hope you enjoyed reading Renryre Island Chapter IV: A Little Too Much Salt
Next, Chapter IV: A Little Too Much Salt
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