He knew about the cavern! He might be able to take her to it, to get her home! Hope swelled in her chest, her words came fast and breathless.
"The gate- I came through it! Do you know where it is? I was trying to find it again, then the- beasts came and chased me-" she was climbing down as she said this, and didn't see the subtle change in the man's face, the hurried translation from her language to the one of the people around him.
"From... other side?" The woman in silver asked, stumbling over the words. She was fiddling with her hair, tied up in a long braid. The men were also showing various signs of discontent- frowning, looking at Tara with expressions she couldn't name. Tara ignored this as best as she could- this man knew about the gate, he was going to take her home.
"Yes!" Tara continued, nodding excitedly. "The side where it's daytime- or, at least it was- and its dry, and there's not so many trees. There's a river, and a town..." Tara trailed off upon seeing their reactions. The woman was no longer looking at her, and her partner averted his gaze when she turned to him. Only the man who had spoken first was still willing to look her in the eyes. She looked only at him, then, determined to get an answer. "Do you know where it is?"
She sat on a branch low enough now that her feet were level with their heads.
His reply was hesitant, the words slow and uncertain. Even he seemed unwilling to answer her.
"It moves, it changes... There are more beasts the closer to the gate that you get. You're lucky to have survived."
Tara did not consider this an answer, or she didn't accept it for what it was.
"Can you take me home?"
The first man had taken in breath to speak. He'd hesitated, but the man in silver- younger, with a burning expression, spoke first.
"Do you want to throw your life away?" The woman next to him glared, hushing him in their own language.
"I want to go home." Tara insisted, reaching for a branch to steady herself as she stood up. The first man was listening helplessly to the others, all engaged in hushed conversation. They all spoke back and forth for a time, though Tara noticed there was always someone keeping an eye out behind them for movement in the forest. They weren't quite so unprepared as they seemed- she saw the glimpse of a knife by the silver woman's side. A few hours earlier, that sight might have scared her, but now it provided a strange comfort as she waited uneasily for them to come to an agreement. "I have to. My parents wanted me to be home before Kenzie finished school, and- and they'll be worried about me!"
The first man sighed, now turning his head to look up at the stubborn child, as if he'd seen it all before and wished greatly that he hadn't.
"It would be too dangerous to go on your own, right now. The gate has likely moved since you left it, and in the time you would spend searching, the beasts would find you, and... you wouldn't be so lucky, a second time."
"What if you came with me?" Tara's desperation held off the tears as long as she could.
"The same thing would likely happen to us all. We're too few-" the other man muttered something, and he amended his words- "We're...unwilling to take that risk, at the moment. But it is also unsafe for you to stay here- there's only so long you can stay holed up in a tree. You can come with us."
Tara had been warned about strangers, of course. Living in a small town, there weren't many strangers to avoid- but she figured in this situation, she would rather the stranger than the monster that would hunt them both. She swallowed, forcing the words past the lump in her throat.
"A-and... we'll try to find the gate another time? When there are less monsters?"
"When it will be easier, yes." He affirmed, though he did not look her quite in the eyes as he said it. She wiped at her eyes with her sleeve- it smelt like bark and wet things.
"Are you ready to go?" He asked, and she nodded, coming down the last few branches to reach the ground. She had never spent quite so long in a tree before, and her legs hurt as she stood up to her full height again. It occurred to her just how tall the adults were- probably taller even than her father, who she tried very hard now not to think about. She would be able to go home soon, she would just have to stay with these people for a while, first...
"What're your names?" She asked, figuring that she ought to at least introduce herself if she was going to be staying with them for a time. Then, she supposed, they would no longer count as strangers, and her parents might not be as annoyed with her for going with them...
The man in the dark clothes was the first to introduce himself, but the name he spoke was embarrassingly difficult for Tara to pronounce. She tried to repeat it a few times- Ferren? Verren?- fumbling over the sound, irritated by her inability to get it right.
"That's alright- otherworlders tend to have trouble pronouncing it. I had an otherworlder friend, growing up- he always just called me Ren. You could do that, if you'd like."
"Ren," Tara nodded, relieved. She could manage that, and maybe when she got back to wherever these people lived, she could talk to his otherworlder friend. That would be nice- unless he had already gone home?
"This is Caia, and Zell-" he gestured to the woman and man, respectively. They were both younger than him, and appeared to be siblings. They had the same reddish hair and stern faces, though the woman seemed more kindly than the man. "We generally work as a group, though we're part of a larger community- about twenty people or so. We were patrolling the area near our current home for beasts, but after hearing you, we decided to search."
"Lucky to find you," Zell said, although he didn't look entirely happy about it. Caia nodded, quiet.
Tara guessed that maybe she didn't speak the language so well as the others- even Ren's pronunciations were a bit odd.
"Thank you," she replied, her voice still wavering a little. What would she have done if these people hadn't found her? Ren was right, she couldn't have spent forever up in that tree... where did they live, she wondered, that could be safe from the beasts?
She had questions enough that it took her a moment to realise she hadn't even given them her own name. As Caia offered her a dark piece of clothing to wear- far too large, but capable of being tucked and folded to size over her blue shirt- she introduced herself, beginning a conversation that would continue all the way until they reached the makeshift set of buildings these people called home.
YOU ARE READING
Red Petals (Open Novella Contest Entry)Fantasy
It used to be tradition, to tell the children stories of the gods that lived down in the river. It had been generations since those stories had even closely resembled the truth, but they lingered, until finally they were no longer told at all. Kenz...