Ch. 9 - Goddess of the Forest

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“Child, are you raving?” Cooper pressed her silken palms to Lacey’s forehead.

“No. It’s been seven years since the well made me. I live in Pine Ridge.”

Coopers eyes went so wide that Lacey could see the whites at the edges. The raccoon-woman dropped to all fours and ran from the hut. The last Lacey saw of her was a striped tail disappearing out the door.

Lacey had a bad feeling. Maybe it was better if she got out of here. A few moments later she heard shouts and growls outside. It was definitely time to go. Where didn’t matter.  

Better to slip out the back. She looked for a knife to cut the animal hide that made the rear wall of the hut. There was only a spoon on the table, next to the stew. 

She eyed the stew. She had only had three bites in all that time Cooper was feeding her. Her stomach growled. Maybe she had time for a little more. 

Lacey looked at the door, then the bowl. Maybe she didn’t need to run at all. Blayd had seemed terrifying in the dark. He had turned out to be a gentle creature, despite his claws and fangs. And then there was that other thing out there in the Wish Wood. The growls and snarls coming toward the hut were from creatures like her, scary but known. That other presence, pulling her forward while Blayd had chased behind, had called inside her mind and heart. What kind of thing could do something like that? For what reason. Did she want to run off into the Wood again and find out? Or did she want to stay and eat some stew?

What’s the worst thing they could do to her here? They might lock her up, or cast her out, in which case it might be a while before she was offered stew again. 

She dove for the stew; picking up the bowl between her bandaged hands, and managed to gulp down most of it before the door was kicked open. She sat in the bed chewing the last piece of meat as a feline mob swarmed into the hut. 

They were wildcats of all kinds, standing upright on two legs, snarling, and showing teeth. They jostled into the hut claws extended. It didn’t look like they were considering locking her in a cell. She swallowed. The meat went down like a cold stone. Not cat meat she hoped.

One stepped forward. Not a cat. It was a rat. 

He was small, shorter than Cooper even. Shabby whiskers curled around his twitching wet nose. His fur was patchy, and his skin was pink and wrinkled in the bald spots. A naked tail trailed behind him. A clean white shirt, and crisp new trousers offset his mangy appearance. A brilliantly dyed cloak was fastened at his neck by a bronze clasp. He wore the best of everything, while the others made do with rags, or nothing. He skulked through the legs of his natural enemies and the cats backed away; a few even bowed their heads. A different kind of fear gnawed at Lacey as he approached.

She set the bowl down on the table next to her, this time hoping it wasn’t rat she had been eating. More from the gagging grossness of it than etiquette. She wanted to stand up, to gain the height advantage, but she didn’t want to find out what would happen if she made a sudden movement right now.

The rat came face to face with her, and dragged his eyes up and down her length. For the first time in her life, Lacey felt a little too human. He spun to face the crowd and carved bone pendants around his neck made a hollow clunking sound as they swayed into each other. “What makes her so special?” 

He spun back to her. “Why do you get to live among them with an easy life, while we scrabble out here in the dirt?”

The question took her by surprise. She had never thought of her life in the village as easy. She had always thought things would be so much better once she was out in the wild, on her own.

“It’s not exactly that great,” she said, and instantly regretted it. 

“Take her outside!” he squealed.

Clawed hands seized her and yanked her, some in opposite directions.

She was tossed out into the frosty morning without her boots; the earth was like ice, and stones jabbed her feet. Half-animal predators surrounded her. Lacey looked for Blayd or Cooper, the closest thing to friends she had in this place, but all she could see were fangs and claws.

Her cloak was ripped away and thrown about the shoulders of a girl with savage eyes and tufted ears. Paws reached into her pockets, and stroked the material of her clothes. Someone tugged at her belt. She felt like a carcass being devoured before she was dead. 

A cougar, with eyes like golden disks, surged forward, staring right into her face. His breath smelled like blood. Lacey screamed.

“She is one of them! I can smell it,” said the girl who was wearing Lacey’s cloak. 

Hatred slashed across each face around her like a hideous scar. Hands gripped her arms on both sides and she was lifted off the ground. She thrashed in their grasp hissing and biting. 

A booming roar sliced silence through the mob. Blayd forced his way to her side and Lacey shuddered uncontrollably, as the hands holding her let go. She collapsed into his arms.

Blayd stood a head and shoulders taller than any of the cats. He didn’t make another sound or even flash his teeth at them, but the mob started to back away. 

A woman stepped through the crowd in Blayd’s wake. She was not a cat, or a rat or a raccoon. She placed one foot in front of the other in slow deliberate steps. A deer walking through the wilds. Confident and graceful. Some of the creatures in the mob dropped to one knee, others bowed their heads. The little rat-man clenched his fist and held his chin up high.

The deer-woman’s nut-brown hair danced on her shoulders as she turned her head this way and that. Her furry ears perked forward. She paused in the center of the mob and sniffed toward Lacey with her moist black nose.   

“Hunters, is this any way to greet a newcomer?” Her glossy eyes regarded the rat.

He pushed forward. “Ezerelle, she is not one of us.”

“She wished at the well, Goeden. She is one of the Wished.”

“She lived with them, with the humans,” someone shouted from the crowd.

Goeden snarled, “She does not suffer under the well’s curse.”

Ezerelle laid a hand on Lacey’s cheek. “Do you bear the well’s curse, dear creature?” 

Lacey nodded her head. “Yes!” It was a curse. She had never fit in with humans, and now she found others like her and she didn’t even fit with them. Instead of despair, relief washed over her. To acknowledge it. To say it out loud. She was different and because of it she was always alone.

“Then you are welcome to take refuge in the City of the Wished,” Ezerelle said, smoothing Lacey’s hair. “I charge the Hunters with making you welcome, until you make your choice.”

“Yes, Lady Ezerelle,” murmured the crowd.

“Yes, Ezerelle,” Goeden said, his mouth tight and whiskers sticking forward. He eyed Blayd, then walked away. A handful of the cats followed. Including Golden-Eyes. 

“What choice?” Lacey whispered up at Blayd. 

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