A Forest Cat, Chapter one: The Call of the Hunt, part 3
“Are you hurt, little one?” He repeated his question to the girl, hoping that the disappearance of the cat could lure her into answering him. But the girl did not respond to his friendly question but still looked with frightened eyes at the spot where she had last seen the cat before it disappeared into the dense undergrowth. Unsure how to deal with the situation, the man regarded the girl thoughtfully. “My name is Shane, what’s yours?” The girl’s attention was drawn by the man’s gentle voice; deep, dark and low but unmistakably friendly in intent. Uncertainly she looked at him, not quick to trust. Instinctively he sat down on the ground, trying to pose as little of a threat as possible. His golden eyes looked into hers, satisfied to see the same colour look back at him in mild curiosity. “Are you thirsty?” He reached for his water bottle, took a small draught and offered it to her. This time the girl did react; her small hand reaching out to his bottle. With a last uncomfortable look at the man, she drank quickly, almost spilling its contents in her haste to quench her thirst. While she drank, the man searched once more in his backpack and took a carefully wrapped package from within. Removing the outer material, he produced a square little biscuit and again offered it to the girl. There was no hesitation; she nearly snatched it from his hand and bit into it with the obvious haste of hunger. Watching the girl quietly, Shane contemplated his next move. With the biscuit consumed, she finished the contents of his water bottle and then whispered, “Gaell.”
He blinked, surprised by her delayed but unexpected response to his former question. Slightly taken aback he retorted somewhat awkwardly. “Please to meet you, Gaell.” A shy little smile spread on the face of the little girl. Her hand reached out halfway to shake the man’s hand but retreated in the last instant and the smile left her face again. Shane smiled back at her reassuringly, pleased that she showed some response to his difficult efforts to win her trust. Shifting slightly, the man regarded the sky, trying to determine how much time they had left before darkness fell. “You are sure you are not hurt, Gaell?” Shane’s insistence on her physical well being made her focus on it. To her own surprise, she had to shake her head in denial. She received another smile from the man, this time in satisfaction. “We have to find some shelter, Gaell. It will grow dark in an hour or so.” His matter-of-fact tone made her nod in unconcerned acceptance. She had determined to give him her trust and accepted his judgement without question. Shane got up and offered her his hand, which she accepted. She rose unsteadily to her feet and brushed the leaves from her worn brown dress. With routine efficiency he repacked his bag, hoisted it to his shoulders and replaced the bow in its case on his back. “Come, follow me now. There’s a place where we can spend the night in relative safety. It’s not far, girl.” He added the last part to reassure her, seeing her tired eyes looking at him dejectedly. Without further questions she stood silently waiting for him to show the way.
They set out in a gentle pace; the man adjusting his speed to that of the girl’s. The autumn sun was already too low to see above the forest roof of leaves. The lingering daylight had an orange quality and cloaked the forest in a warm, friendly evening’s coat. Often they walked side by side and sometimes Shane held branches and twigs out of her way to ease her passage. Twice she stumbled and would have fallen if the man had not quickly shot out a hand to hold her up. At first he thought her lack of questions was due to the fear that still must have plagued her but soon he saw that she gritted her teeth in sheer determination to keep up with him, having no energy left for talking. When he had to prevent her third fall, he saw tears brimming up in the corner of her eyes and gave in to the pity that he felt for her. He pulled the bag and the bow from his shoulders and told her gently. “Now if you will carry these, then I will carry you.” Mute and exhausted she could only nod and he hoisted the heavy pack on her small shoulders that sagged with the weight. Then he sank through his knees and said. “Get up, Gaell.” Beyond complaining, the girl made a feeble attempt to climb on his back and he had to reach awkwardly to help her. He gave her his bow and slowly straightened his legs. Gaell held on in a death grip, nearly preventing Shane from breathing. Slightly breathless he managed. “Ease up, girl. You’re strangling me.” She giggled nervously, easing her grip as Shane began to walk, increasing the pace despite the extra burden he carried on his back.
When the shadows began to lengthen he felt his muscles tighten in fatigue. A quick action had prevented his bow from falling when the girl had drifted into an exhausted slumber, loosening her grip on his weapon. To his relief, he discerned his destination in the failing light and quickened his pace once more to close the distance before darkness fell. On the edge of a little clearing, hardly visible against the darkening forest, stood a small wooden hut, its sturdy door shut and its small window barred. Shane gently dislodged the girl from his back and she sank against the rough timbers of the building, still sleeping. He left her there for a moment, stretching to bring some life back into his aching muscles. His eyes scanned the area methodically, until he was satisfied that all was as it should be. Then he carefully opened the door to the little hut, checking its interior quickly before returning to the girl. He loosened the bag from her back and carried her inside, laying her down on a crude wooden bed. The interior of the hut was basic; one bed, one chair and a small table were all it boasted of furniture. A large iron kettle hung above the fireplace and firewood was stacked al along one wall. Shane went outside again to collect his belongings and closed the door against the incoming darkness. He barred the door from within and began to build a fire with the quick ease from years of practise. The warm and friendly blaze soon filled the little room, lighting the girl’s face for closer inspection. Shane sat down on the floor, watching the sleeping girl and wondering whether he had done the right thing.