Chapter Six

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May awoke the following day, buried beneath a mountain of quilts and furs. Warm and safe, she nestled in tighter in an effort to ward off wakefulness a little longer. Beyond the nest a fire crackled. The entrance to Emandi's cave was located through a curving tunnel that blocked out the elements, yet there was still a touch of brightness to the cavernous space that told May it was time to rise.

Begrudgingly she poked her head out from her cozy mound and peered around the space. The fire blazed merrily, freshly stoked with fragrant cedar kindling. Firelight danced off the cluttered shelves that lined the walls casting all manner of shadows that reached and jumped enthusiastically at the ceiling. May's shirt from the previous day was draped over the back of an old wooden chair. It had clearly been washed and was now drying by the fire; the bloodstain still present but fainter now.

Emandi was nowhere to be seen.

Yawing, May scanned the floor around the nest for her pack, which she found leaning against the side. Without emerging from her cocoon she fished around for fresh clothes and shimmied into them under the blankets She had just finished re-packing when Emandi returned, draped in a winding length of scarf like a cloak and a straw-woven bundle tucked under their arm.

"Good morning," they announced, placing the bundle on a worn table on the far end of the room. "How did you sleep?"

"Really well, thanks." May couldn't help the surprise in her voice — she hadn't slept that soundly since Em had left, and she had almost forgotten what it felt like to wake fully rested.

Emandi unwound themself from their impressively long scarf and hung it on a stalactite that emerged from the ground. Without a word they turned to the table and busied themselves with whatever was in the bundle.

May politely waited a couple moments before clearing her throat.

"What are you doing?" she asked, stepping up beside the giant cat. On the table was a flayed carcass of some kind and a selection of root vegetables, herbs, and mushrooms. "Are you cooking?"

"Are you not hungry?" Emandi looked down at her, skepticism playing in their eyes.

As if in reply, her stomach growled loudly. May laughed.

"You don't have to do this. I have—"

"Nonsense." Emandi waved her off. "Go rest. We can discuss your next move once you've eaten.

May didn't see the point in arguing, and whatever Emandi was working on had to be better than re-hydrated camp meals, so she backed off. But she was already rested, so she wandered the room and inspected the shelves instead. She tried to draw some logical connection between the items in the odd collection. Necklaces and lockets — some tarnished with age while the jewels of others still glittered — hung suspended on string like mobiles. All manner of hats and helmets rested on pegs, their styles stretching back across the centuries. There was a healthy library of books in various languages lined up next to a treasure trove of toys — dolls, figurines, race cars. May paused at an ornate music box, her fingers itching to wind the delicate key that protruded from its side.

"May I?" She pointed to it. Emandi glanced back and nodded.

"Feel free."

Though their tone was blasé, May still took care to handle the music box carefully. She lifted the lid and wound the key, watching the figures inside turn in place; a simple dance. The tune was unfamiliar, but May swayed anyway, carrying the box with her as she glided about the room to examine the rest of the shelves.

"What is all of this?" she asked, head tilted to read the spines on a battered row of vinyl records.

Emandi, who was now filling a pot from the spring, didn't bother to look up. "You aren't the first human in distress I've rescued from the woods. Those trinkets have been how others have shown their gratitude. Not that I have need for such things, but some people simply cannot be reasoned with."

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