The Street Mouse

By Desert Mouse

"Forest Lake. It's been at least four years since I stopped in this town. It doesn't look like much has changed." Thomas McAlpine thought approaching the small town. He was often in the area as Red Reaper activity was heavy in the territory of Duke Windley. But this small town was isolated by the river and the nearby forest making it a less then ideal place for him to normally stop for supplies. Today he decided since he was near Forest Lake; and he only had a few days of supplies left it was a good time to stop in and see if there had been any missed activity here.

Thomas crossed the bridge north of Forest Lake and walked towards the town's main street. As he got closer he started to notice something strange. He stopped dead just on the edge of the street and started looking around.

"Is there someone hiding over there?" he thought amused.
"It almost looks like a child. Are they playing a game?" he wondered looking for other children out; but he didn't see any.

"If it's not a game then what is that child hiding from?" he asked himself. There was only one way to find out so he walked right up to where the child was hidden and poked his head into the hiding spot. There he saw a girl no older then thirteen; she had filthy blonde hair and a dirty grey dress.

"What do we have here?" Thomas asked looking at her.
'Why it's a little girl. She's filthy; and she looks starved." He thought confused. This was something he expected to see in the city; not a small town like Forest Lake.
"Could this be a little mystery while I'm here?"

"Nothing sir." The girl stammered like she didn't know what to say to him.

"This is a pretty good hiding spot. But why do you need to hide?" Thomas asked her.

"So they don't see me." The girl replied quickly. She looked at him fearfully.

"What does she think I'm going to do to her?"
"So they don't see you. I'm guessing it's related to my next question anyway. But why is someone so young living in the streets of such a small town." Thomas asked. The girl looked at him dumbfounded.

"How did you know?" she asked. But then she looked down at her dirty dress and he saw understanding cross her face.

"That was certainly one clue. But I can hear that you haven't eaten your fill in some time. And I can see that it had to have been years." Thomas explained.

The girl looked up at him with amazement.
"How did you find me? It's been a couple of winters since anyone could find me when I hid."

"It's my job to notice things. To be fair this is a good hiding spot. But why don't you come out and talk to me." Thomas asked. The girl nodded and came out of hiding; she nervously looked around at the nearby townspeople like she was trying to see how many of them had seen her.

"Much better. Now tell me, why do you hide. And why does such a small child have no home?" Thomas asked.

"Oh waters mercy. You're ok Little Rabbit." Another stranger suddenly said. This one was a younger man; much older then the child but not as advanced as Thomas himself.

"Now that's an interesting name." Thomas smiled.
"So you know this child?"  he asked the stranger. The man nodded.

"She hasn't been visible for a few days. I was starting to get worried." The stranger stated.

"Sorry. I was going to come out later today." She admitted.

"The mystery simply burns." Thomas commented.
"Well then…Little Rabbit. Yes I can certainly see that in you. But there's more there." He said.

"Who's your friend?" The stranger asked.

"I don't know." Little Rabbit admitted.

"Thomas McAlpine." Thomas said.

"I'm Ishara. This is Mr. Tennant" The girl said politely.

"I can't stay long Little Rabbit. But I'll come find you later." Tennant said. But he looked at Thomas awhile.

"You are familiar." He said thinking.

"I travel a lot. I've passed through Forest Lake before. But it's been a number of years." Thomas commented.

"Maybe that's it. But don't you dare hurt the Little Rabbit." Tennant warned before leaving.

"He sounds protective. Why do you not live with him?" Thomas asked.

"I'm too dangerous." Ishara replied.

"A dangerous little street mouse. The questions about you merely grow." Thomas said.
"I can't see how she is dangerous. But she believes every word."

"It's not important." Ishara promised.

"Do you always hide?" Thomas asked. Ishara nodded.

"Except sometimes I let them see me because a few people like Mr. Tennant get worried. The rest of the time no one has to know I'm here. I got pretty good at it until you came." She replied.

"I see that. Well then Ishara I'll get out of your way. But I'll bring you some food later. I'm not done with the mysterious Little Rabbit yet. Thomas said. He dug some dried travel meat out of his bag and handed it to Ishara.

"I can't." She protested.

"Nonsense. I'm resupplying while I'm here anyway. And you might find it useful sometime." Thomas replied. Reluctantly Ishara accepted the meat.

"Thank you." She said quietly.

"Goodbye for now Ishara. But I WILL find you again before I leave town." Thomas said before heading to the town's store.

"I'm going to have to keep my eye on her. That short meeting has created a lot of questions; and I will find the answers." Thomas thought walking.

Ishara watched him go and quickly slipped back into her hiding spot. She wouldn't be able to use this one anymore but it would still let her figure out what just happened. "He just found me so easily. But who is he? Why did he want to find me at all?" she asked herself. But try as she might she couldn't think of the answer. 'How did he know I was here? Was I partially visible? I don't think I was…but maybe?" she considered squirming. She was worried about the other things he said. "He's going to find me again. He said he wasn't done with me yet. So if he really can find me that easily. If I stay hidden at all I'll compromise more of my best spots like this one. No I'll have to remain visible…unless." Ishara thought. But an idea came to her. "What if he only found me by luck? I'm going to have to test this. Right now the game seems to be simple hide and seek. But what if he isn't the player I think he is. Then nothing will change while he is here. That's it; I'll test his game. I'll stay in one of my less useful spots and if he finds me then it's not safe to stay hidden until he leaves." Ishara decided. Quickly while he was out of sight. Ishara slipped out of her hiding spot and went to one of her other ones near the edge of town. She made sure that she was hidden this time; and that nobody had seen her come this way. "I'll see if he finds me this time. But still; why does he want me? Is he from the hunters? Is he here to bring me back finally? That almost has to be it. Why else does he have any interest in me at all?" she wondered. Ishara shivered at going back. But if he found her again then she had already lost. She had almost three years longer then those she failed.
After he left the curious little street mouse. Thomas headed straight for the provisioner to replace the dried meats he used up in his travels. He approached the man and initially planned only to get his supplies and leave. But now his curiosity was getting the better of him. After he ordered his supplies Thomas spoke up. "I've met someone in town today that I've never seen before. Can you tell me anything about the little rabbit?" Thomas asked. "Who?" the man replied. "I think she said her name was Ishara." Thomas clarified. "Never heard of her." The man said confused. "Really? It sounds like she arrived a number of years ago." Thomas said. "Doesn't ring any bells." The man replied. "She would be hard to miss. Twelve or thirteen, blonde hair, nowhere to go." Thomas explained. "You mean that kid? The girl that sleeps in the alleys?" the man asked. "So you do know her?" Thomas questioned. "Sorry, her name doesn't come up very often. Once and awhile she comes in here with some meat she'd like me to dry out. Aside from that I don't see her very much." The man replied. "She brings you meat?" Thomas asked. The man nodded. "I've shown her how to use the equipment for days I'm too busy. She was very attentive that day. But she disappears for days. I'm not sure where she goes." He explained. "Well then little rabbit. You certainly are a curious one. I'm going to have to remain in Forest Lake until I unravel your mystery." Thomas thought. "Thank you. I'll be staying in town for a few days. I'm sure that I'll speak with you again." He said before leaving the store. This could prove to be an interesting couple days.
In the late afternoon Thomas left his sword and travel bag at the inn and went back into town. He wasn't going to need the weapon here; but it was time to go looking for the little rabbit again. A quick walk around Forest Lake revealed that the child had disappeared. The provisioner sounded like no one was able to; or wanted to find her when she was missing for days at a time. "She's clearly in hiding again. She hasn't wandered off like he thinks she does." Thomas thought starting a second look around town. This time he was looking for someone that was hiding; and he found her near the edge of town. But he didn't approach her yet. There was something strange about where she was hiding this time. "Where I found her this morning offered her a view of the main street. She could see the comings and goings of town. Here she has no such view. It's not near anything but the forest." Thomas thought. "She knew I was coming to talk to her again. I think she's testing me. To see if this morning was a fluke or not. Should I go to her? Or let her think that she's evaded me?" he considered. But perhaps there never was a choice? To deceive her would show her no respect, and he did want her to remain in the open during his investigation. There was much he could learn by studying how the people of Forest Lake reacted to having her visible. So he approached her and poked his head into her hiding spot. Just like he had done that morning. "Hello there." He said. She looked up at him and he could see that she was disappointed she had been found; but not surprised. "I was right then. She was trying to test me." He thought. "Hi." She said unsteady. "Hiding again are we? What made you decide to do that? I told you I'd come looking for you again." He asked. "I needed to see something." Ishara replied nervously. "You wanted to see if I could find you again." Thomas said. Ishara nodded in response. "She seems to be honest." He thought approving. "I also wasn't sure you would bother. I'm not someone that people look for." She added. "That may normally be true. But you have peeked my interest. I'm going to keep finding you until I have solved the mystery of this little rabbit." Thomas told her. "There is no mystery sir. I'm no one. Why waste your time?" Ishara asked. "And she really believes that. Mystery or not I certainly can't leave town until I've found a way to help this little one." Thomas thought sadly. "I do a lot of travelling looking for people like you." He started to say. He paused when he saw the terror in her eyes. "There is someone looking for you specifically isn't there?" he asked. Ishara nodded her head. "I won't pry yet. But I'm not here to turn you into whoever it is either. No I look for mysteries like you to unravel." He promised. "That might be why she thinks she's dangerous. But who could be after a child?" he wondered. "You are going to keep looking for me aren't you?" Ishara asked. "Until I'm satisfied there's nothing more to do." Thomas said. "I promise I'm not here to hurt you; or allow anyone else to hurt you." "I couldn't stop you if you were." Ishara replied. "I'll just let you go back to hiding then. And I will see you tomorrow." Thomas said. "She felt nothing when she said that. She has been completely powerless for some time." He thought leaving her alone.
Ishara shivered in the evening wind. She hadn't been this exposed in years. Her eyes kept glancing at one of her less useful hiding spots between some buildings on Main Street. She wanted very much to slip back there. If she could hide again then she could begin searching for food unseen. Nervously her hand slipped into the pocket of her dress. 'I don't want to use it so soon. He just gave it to me. But if the town doesn't quiet down soon I might have to." She thought feeling the travel meat in her pocket. She couldn't search for food in the open like this. "I could try begging. But if any of them help me… no I can't put people at risk like that." Ishara decided. Still even if she did eat the strangers dried meat; she couldn't do that in the open either. She wasn't supposed to be here. She couldn't be seen like a normal person. 'Oh dear. You look starved." A woman's voice interrupted Ishara's thoughts. She looked to the young woman. "Good evening Miss." She said politely. "It's quite windy tonight isn't it?" she tried to distract the woman. "Here, have some coin. This should be enough for a meal at The Oak Stove." the young woman said digging out her purse. "Thank you miss. But I can't accept that." Ishara said. 'Nonsense. You need to eat something." The woman replied. "I wouldn't be able to use it anyway. I appreciate the offer but Mr. Henderson doesn't like it when I am anywhere near his restaurant." Ishara kindly explained. "Just what I need. I hope she doesn't hear any of this." She thought eyeing someone that was coming down the street. "I'm sorry sweetie. But I am sure he would make an exception. You look famished." "For that trash?" the newcomer said with a disgusted look on her face. "My father will never let that in the door." "I'll pay for a meal for her.' The young woman protested. "Please, thank you for the offer. But it isn't necessary." Ishara begged the young woman. "You can't pay my father enough to let that walking stench into his restaurant. She hasn't bathed in months, and she's filthy. Don't waste your time with that…" Henderson's daughter said. "That's not very nice." The young woman frowned. "It's true though. She reeks and she's filthy. Just like the trash she eats. My father would lose all his customers if he let that in." Henderson's daughter gagged and walked away. "I'm sorry she spoke to you that way Miss. I really do appreciate the offer but I'm fine." Ishara said quietly. "How about I bring you something later? Would you like that?" the young woman asked. "Please don't trouble yourself." Ishara requested. "It's no trouble. I'll come by later." "Thank you. But I may not be here long. I'm sorry but I have to seek shelter from this wind soon. But thank you for the offer." Ishara said. "If you are sure honey." The young woman frowned. "Yes. I'll be fine." Ishara promised. Reluctantly the young woman left her alone. "It's really picking up. I'll need to retreat; maybe to the forest until it calms down?" She thought after the woman left.
Late at night after the moon had long since hit its peak and begun the trip home. Ishara slipped out of the forest and headed for the river. It was still far too windy for this; but with the moon nearly full and the sky clear. There was no way to tell when she would get another shot at this. She only had a chance a couple of nights a month and couldn't waste it. Ishara stepped into the river and after a quick look around to be sure that Forest Lake was properly asleep. She slipped her dress off and lay it on the bank. She crouched in the shallow section of the water and used her hands to cup water to rub against her skin. The night's air bit harshly even at the dry parts of her exposed skin. But she pushed on to get as much of the grime out as she could. "I wish I could afford to rinse off my dress tonight too. But a night like this I'll freeze to death whether I put it back on before it dries or not." She thought with a sigh. Even now she was risking getting sick. But the way Rachel Henderson spoke to her; she knew she really needed to bathe tonight. "Isn't it too cold to be doing that?" a voice called out Ishara jumped straight and quickly looked around. With her dress laying on the shore she couldn't get away like this. Finally she saw the stranger from earlier in the day seemingly staring at the moon. "No…Cyllene please no. No one is supposed to be out this late." Ishara thought panicking. "What are you doing here? Go away." she yelled angry. "I don't mean to interrupt. But why do that on a night like this?" Thomas asked. "Because I need to. If I'm going to be out in the open I can't squander the light tonight." Ishara barked at him. "I can't get away. I can't hide. All I can do is stand here cold and exposed." She thought clenching her teeth. She tried to hold onto her anger to keep her warm; but the wind stripped it away sharply. "Does that really matter? Is it worth catching a chill?" Thomas asked. "I need to finish. Why won't you go away?" She thought shivering. "Look I don't have a choice. I have a couple of nights a month I can clean myself up; and this is one of those nights. Even in the winter. But if it makes you feel better. It doesn't matter if I catch cold or not. No one cares." She said. "Now that can't be true." Thomas said. "It is true. Some people think they do. Some even want to care. But I'm not important. Now please; it's freezing in here. I really need to finish so I can get out of this river and get dressed. Can you please leave?" she begged. "Of course. But when you finish why don't you come with me to the inn and warm up?" Thomas asked. "No thank you. I'm not going to spend the night with something I can never have. It would be cruel to put myself though that." Ishara said bluntly. "Fair enough. I won't change your mind tonight. I'll make you a fire over there before I go back to the inn. It will be ready when you finish." 'No; I can make my own fire if I need to. Just go back to your inn and forget about me." Ishara said. "Go away…please." She thought biting her lip. The wind bit painfully at her exposed skin. "I'll make it anyway. You can enjoy it, or not.' Thomas insisted. "Look I won't use it. I can't afford to rely on fires in the night. Please go back to town so I can finish and get out of this freezing water. Ishara replied quickly losing the edge in her voice. "You are a stubborn little rabbit. I'll give you that. But I am warning you though. Don't get sick because you refused to have a fire tonight. If you do; the next time there won't be a choice." Thomas said leaving her. "Finally." She thought sitting in the water. She took a deep breath and looked at the moon as if begging it for permission to not be interrupted again; before continuing her bath. She was already shivering uncontrollably and had to get clean and dry fast.
The next morning Ishara sat against the stump of a fallen tree. She let out another yawn and closed her eyes; but the action was hopeless. It had been impossible to get any sleep last night after her encounter with the stranger; and despite that she wasn't faring any better now. Now she was so tired the sun hurt her eyes if she dared to look up beyond the treetops. She could only guess the horrors of leaving the safety of the forest. At first she just sat against the tree and didn't move; she didn't want to move. At the moment she wasn't even sure she could. "I can't stay here all day." She thought with a shiver. She leaned over and started rubbing at her bare legs. After last night she was still trying to warm up and it wasn't going to happen sitting here. "I have to get up and face them…face him." She thought clenching her fists. She had to move to get warm; she didn't have the energy to move. "Who does he think he is? If he hadn't trapped me in the water for so long, I wouldn't be so tired now." She thought angry. She put her hands behind her and used the hallowed stump to prop herself back to her feet; ever grateful for its presence. This place was special for her, she always felt stronger here and today she needed that extra strength to so something as simple as stand up. "At least he can't find me here. This is my tree, my spot," she thought struggling to stand after she let go of the tree. "But I should find him instead. I deserve an explanation for his interruption. He wasn't supposed to be there." She considered. She remembered how he stood there; not caring that she was naked and standing in the cold river. "he couldn't even be bothered to look at me when he spoke to me. He just stared at the moon. He was more interested in the night sky then who he had trapped." She thought wanting to yell. She tried to kick at a fallen twig; almost losing her balance instead. "He had no right to do that to me. I choose that time of night to bathe because no one is awake that late. He did that on purpose. He followed me just to trap me." She thought digging her nails into her palm. "What does he want from me?" she asked the forest. Fueled by her anger she started back towards town so she could find the stranger and demand answers from him. "I'll hunt him down and make him answer for what he did to me." She decided. But as she got farther away from her stump and the edge of the forest came into view she slowed down and shook her head. "For that trash? My father will never let it in the door." Echoed in her mind and she sadly realised. "What does it matter? He had every right to be out last night. My feelings aren't important. My bath wasn't important; and neither is this. I'm just trash anyway." She thought stopping to lean up against a tree when she reached the edge of the forest. The open sun burned at her eyes and she tried to close them for relief. If only she could keep them closed all day; or fall into her much desired slumber. "I wasn't even worth looking at when he spoke. But why would he look me in the eyes? I don't matter at all. I already said everything that I could, or should last night. But once he choose to leave that's where it ended. What right do I have to continue what he's lost interest in?" she thought bitterly. She forced herself to open her eyes and look out at the town. "I'm just an old doll you play with and forget about. Nothing but trash like Rachel says." She reminded herself. She was still angry about it but she knew there was nothing she could do about it. She didn't have the right to say anything more about last night. "In the end I'm the one that has to bathe in a river where anyone can see me." She thought biting her lip.
"Another dead end." Thomas thought exiting the general store. But there was something odd about the woman's answers; all morning he had been getting that same feeling. "More then half the people that don't know anything about her are lying. Are they afraid of what I plan to do to the child? Or is there something else?" he wondered. He approached an elderly man after exiting the store. "Excuse me. May I speak with you a moment?" Thomas asked. The elderly man stopped, confused. "I suppose if your quick I may have time." The man considered. "You have lived here a number of years haven't you?" Thomas asked. "All my life." The man replied. "Can you tell me about the homeless child living in Forest Lake?" "Homeless child? What are you…oh her. She's been here a couple of years now. Never talked to her." The man replied. "Why haven't you?" Thomas asked. "None of my business what she does." The man shrugged. "Thank you for your time." Thomas said. "Disgusting attitude towards the suffering of a child. But I won't get anything from him." He thought. He walked away from the elderly man and started looking around for the next villager he could question. "A bakery? Maybe I could get her something to eat?" Thomas thought. "She was pretty unhappy with me last night. She might appreciate a peace offering." He decided. He could even get both things done at the same time if he spoke to the baker as well. So Thomas walked into the bakery and greeted the woman behind the counter. "I'm going to need a bread roll." Thomas said. "Coming right up." The woman replied and went to the back. She returned a moment later with the perfect sized bread. "Thank you. That should be perfect to draw out the little rabbit." Thomas said. "Maybe you can help me?" "Little rabbit?" the woman asked. Then she started laughing. "You mean Brett's kid? It won't work." She said. "It won't?" Thomas asked. "Then you know about her?" "Sorry to tell you this. She won't accept it. Especially something this fresh." The baker told him. "Are you sure?" Thomas asked. The woman nodded. "I've left leftovers by the back door for her before. They often do disappear; however I have tried to make her fresh ones sometimes too. She refuses to touch those until they become stale. Brett thinks she figured the fresh ones are meant for someone else; and the stale ones are just being thrown out." The baker said. "That is unfortunate. Who is she exactly?" he asked. "She isn't from here?" "Oh waters mercy no. no one really knows who she is. I don't think even Brett really knows. She came here about three years ago; collapsed in the street if I remember." She explained. "Then who feeds her?" Thomas asked. Though he saw what she looked like; so he already knew the answer. "No one does. Most of the time no one even knows where she ran off to. She goes somewhere for days at a time." The baker explained. "What about a home? Why does she live on the streets?" Thomas asked. The baker shrugged. "I don't know. I've heard people say that she was dangerous." The baker said. "I'll take the bread roll anyway. Maybe I'll get lucky?" Thomas said paying for it. "Good luck. She could use it." The baker said as he was leaving. "It seems I'll need to speak to this Brett. It sounds like he is the only one that knows anything about her." Thomas thought. He compared what the baker said with what everyone else told him and it all led to the same answers. "People are afraid of her. But that's no reason to force a child to live on the streets." He thought angry. "Well then. I'm not leaving until I find a way to get her to come with me. I can't let her stay here. She needs to be taken to Windley. At least in an orphanage she would get fed." He decided. Thomas waked around for a little longer before he saw the woman that hounded Ishara the previous evening. He watched that event in disgust but didn't interrupt them. "Excuse me miss. I would like to ask you a couple questions." Thomas spoke loudly and caught up with her. "About what?" Rachel asked. She stopped to look at him. Her father always acted extra nice to this guy so she figured she should do the same. "I'm trying to find out about that little girl. The child with no home." Thomas explained. He noted the immediate look of disgust that crossed her face. "Oh, her." She said. "Look Mr. you shouldn't waste your time with trash like that." "Why is that?" Thomas asked. "She isn't worth it. I'm sure a man of your stature has more important things to do." Rachel said. "What could be more important then trying to help a child?" Thomas asked. "She's not a child. She's just some rift raft that wandered into town one day and refuses to leave." Rachel said. "Her hatred of the girl is quite strong. She must get that from her father. I spoke with the disgusting man yesterday." Thomas thought. He knew he wouldn't learn anything from her. But what did he expect? She had no interest in learning anything about Ishara. Out loud he simply said. "I'll take that under consideration. Thank you for your time." Rachel left and Thomas continued on his way. The situation was starting to get to him. "It doesn't seem like this child has done anything wrong. But people around her treat her like a criminal. Winds gaze rests on Brett now. Maybe he can salvage my opinion of this town." Thomas thought grimly.
Ishara knelt down and took a drink from the river. She drank a lot; but she had to keep stopping to catch her breath. "Maybe I should rest? Just for a little while." Ishara thought yawning. She was having so much trouble focusing right now. It had only gotten worse since she left her tree that morning. She stood up and stared at the forest for several minutes with a blank mind. Suddenly she blinked; remembering what she was doing. "It seems so far away. Town's closer; I could make it to…town." She thought turning to Forest Lake. Ishara stepped towards town; too fast. Immediately she felt dizzy and had to stop again to keep her balance. "I can do this." She thought waiting for her head to stop spinning. When she was ready she stepped forward again; slowly this time. But she still only made it a few steps before the dizziness struck again. She foolishly took one more step and lost track of her footing. Her foot caught against a rock and her balance abandoned her. She tried to react; keep herself on her feet. But she was too tired; too slow. Her head slammed against a rock and she tried to cry out. But she was muzzled by a mouthful of water. Ishara kneeled in the river after that for several more minutes. It was the best she could manage at first. She couldn't even process what happened until she realised that her head stung where the rock hit it. Quietly she reached up to touch it; cringing with the pain of contact. She pulled her hand away and saw that it was coated with blood mixed with the rivers water. The cold water she now sat in dulled the pain in her legs from her fall. But she knew she had been injured there too; she saw at least one large cut bleeding into the river. "I have to get out of here before he finds me." She realised. With great effort Ishara forced herself to stand up. Her ankle screamed at her when she applied the smallest amount of pressure to it. Gritting her teeth she however forced herself out of that river. Ishara allowed herself to collapse when she reached the shore. "This doesn't look good." She thought taking a closer look at her ankle. She prodded it and knew that it had to be badly bruised. It would probably start to swell soon now that she was out of the cold water. She also found several tender spots on her legs where she must have hit more rocks. As well as the large gash that she saw bleeding before. "I need to get into hiding. Where is my closest place?" she thought looking around. She realised that another of her spots would likely be compromised; but she was too exposed out here to be injured. Ishara struggled back to her feet and started limping back to town without so much as a whimper. The game had taught her what pain was; and this was nothing she couldn't handle. "There. I can use that one for a while. It's not even an important one. So if he finds me..." Ishara thought keeping her eyes on her destination. She was snapped out of her trance by a disgusted voice. She didn't even notice she had been spotted. "What happened to you?" Ishara looked up to see Rachel staring at her. It took Ishara several minutes to process what was happening. "Please… not now. I can't handle…her now." She thought grimly. "Nothing." She whispered. Rachel rolled her eyes. "Nothing? Are you stupid? Your head is bleeding." She said annoyed. "Wait here, I'll have to get the water priestess." Ishara shook her head. "That's not necessary." "Yes…it is. You can barely stand right now. If you think I'm going to let you go die in some hole. You can forget it." Rachel snapped. "Isn't that what you want anyway?" Ishara asked seriously. "No. Your trash. I want you to go away. You can wallow in your own filth somewhere else. Because trash doesn't belong here. But I've never said anything about dying." Rachel growled at her. "Now sit down and shut up until I get the priestess." "Don't…I'm fine." Ishara insisted. "I said shut up." Rachel said pushing Ishara down. "Don't get up." She warned and walked away. Ishara didn't cry out but she felt her ankle twist again. She immediately tried to stand back up; intending to be gone before the priestess of water arrived. But now she couldn't stand on her ankle at all. And she promptly fell back on her ass in the attempt. "I'm not going to be able to move fast enough." Ishara realised with dread. She wasn't ready to give up yet so she started to crawl away on all fours instead. She didn't have much time before someone wearing blue robes stepped in front of her. "Where are you going?" Lynn's voice asked. Ishara stopped and sat back down to look up at her. Rachel was nowhere to be found but Lynn wasn't alone. A man from the village stood behind her. "What happened?" Lynn asked in a sweet voice. "It's nothing. I just tripped." Ishara promised. Lynn shook her head. "This doesn't look like nothing. Let me take a look." She said and kneeled beside her. Ishara tried not to react as Lynn poked and prodded at her cuts and bruises. "It's nice to see you. But why does it usually take for you to get hurt, or sick to come out?" Lynn asked with a frown. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean for this to happen." Ishara said meekly. "I know you didn't. But you have to stop trying to hide all the time. Nobody can help you if you hide. You can't do everything alone; you need to let us help you." Lynn said. It was a lecture that she had to repeat almost every time she treated Ishara. "Ok. I'm going to have to get you back to the temple." "That's ok…I'll be fine." Ishara tried to protest. "That's why I brought him along. I'm sorry Ishara. I know how much you hate it indoors. But you are coming to the temple for treatment." Lynn replied. "I can't…" Ishara said. "But I can." Lynn replied. She nodded to the man and he effortlessly picked her up. She was carried against her will to the temple of water and laid gently in one of the beds. "Thank you." Lynn told the man before he left. Then she went and got some clothing and a towel from the closet. "First thing is to get you out of those wet clothes." She said. Ishara tried once more to protest but it didn't work. Lynn very gently helped her out of her wet dress. She dried her off with the towel, and slipped a clean and dry nightgown on her. "It's only until your dress dries." She promised. "All right." Ishara said disappointed. "Ok lay back please." Lynn said. Ishara did as she was told this time. She closed her eyes and for the next while fought off the urge to sleep while Lynn silently used her magic to heal Ishara. She failed more then once but her short mini naps helped the healing feel like it was going faster. Before too long Lynn was speaking to her again. "Finished. But you need to rest for a while before I let you leave. You are exhausted." "I didn't get a lot of sleep last night." Ishara admitted. "I would like you to stay the night. It would do you some good." Lynn said. "Thank you but I can't." Ishara replied. "Don't be too quick to reject the idea. You don't have to decide right now. Let me get you some food and you can sleep on it." Lynn suggested. "No, thank you." Ishara started. But she changed her mind. "Well…maybe. Do you have any fruit? That's something I haven't had in a long time." She asked shyly. "I'll see what I can find." Lynn laughed. "But there is something I'd like to talk to you about first." "What is it?" Ishara asked. "Winter is coming. It has gotten a lot colder already. And it's too cold for what you are wearing these days." Lynn said. Ishara gave her a weak smile. "Well you gave it to me. Do you want it back?" she teased. Lynn shook her head. "No but maybe it's time for your usual winter donation. I already picked out some things for you to wear this year. I have some warm pants you can wear under your skirt. And a thick sweeter that should be worn over." She said seriously. "Thank you for the offer. But I think it's too early to worry about the cold." Ishara replied. "Someone more deserving then me might need them anyway." She thought. "All right but you know where to find me when you are ready for them. Don't wait too long though. Last year you nearly froze to death." "I promise." Ishara replied. Though it was a well-meaning promise. Ishara was bound to hold off too long again. She didn't like admitting when she needed help. "Ok I'll go see if I can find you that fruit. Rest up" Lynn said getting up at last. Ishara woke up feeling much better. According to the light from the window it was still daytime, she would guess around mid to late evening. She took a few minutes to fully wake up before she started to think. "She's going to want an answer." She looked down at the warm blanket and felt a pain in her chest. It was so comfortable, so warm. "I want to accept her offer. After being so cold last night this is so tempting." She thought sadly. But she shook her head. "This isn't mine. I get what's out there instead." She thought. She smiled remembering that there was a price for staying at the temple. "When I got sick last year I was here for more then a week. It was so boring. Lynn wouldn't let me get out of bed for any reason." She remembered. It helped her to realise that a warm, comfortable bed wasn't worth it. Not unless she really needed it. She quietly slipped out of bed so she wouldn't disturb Lynn whom might have been working. She had no intention of sneaking out, though it was a temptation she wouldn't do that to someone that had been so kind to her. "It feels dry." Ishara thought touching her dress. Lynn had hung it up near the bed she had been placed in. she made sure that it was; then quickly changed out of the nightgown. It felt good to be out of that cotton prison. No one in the village seemed to understand the memories attached to them. "Now I need to tell her what my decision is." Ishara decided, the temple wasn't a big place. A large building wasn't really needed for a town like Forest Lake. And it was only staffed by the one priestess; so when Ishara couldn't find Lynn she was a little confused. She checked everywhere she knew of in the building and there was no sign of the water priestess. "She might be in town. But I can't leave without saying anything to her." Ishara thought with a frown. She decided to poke her head out the door just encase. There she found Lynn in the street talking to the stranger. Her back was turned to Ishara but it seemed the stranger noticed her because he motioned to the temple. Lynn nodded and immediately left to check on her patient. "Sorry, you didn't need to come right away." Ishara said sheepishly. "no, no your health is more important then what we were talking about. How do you feel?" Lynn asked. "much better. I'm ready to leave now." Ishara reported. "I think I'll be the judge of that." Lynn smiled at her. She brought Ishara back inside and started a quick exam. She was soon satisfied that Ishara's condition had improved. "allright you can go if you really want to. But I would still prefer that you at least spend the night." Lynn said at last. "Thank you, but I better not." Ishara replied. "I'll agree on one condition then. Get enough sleep tonight or I'll get some people to drag you back here kicking and screaming. Then I'll force you to promise to rest here for a month." Lynn warned. "I promise." Ishara replied. She hoped that she wasn't making a false promise. "You know, you are going to have to allow yourself to be happy someday." Lynn smirked. "I am." Ishara protested. "Even you don't really think you are happy. But one day you will give up this self-punishment and take the comforts being offered to you. Now run along, and be careful." Lynn said. Ishara nodded and headed out of the temple. She was glad to see that the stranger had chosen not to stick around. "Her hearts in the right place. But she could never understand." She thought heading back into town.
Late that night Ishara headed out of town and to the forest. She decided that it might be her best way to escape the stranger. "I'm finally free of his stares. That strange man has been watching me since I left the temple today." She thought frustrated. She reached the edge of the forest and settled down against a tree. Quietly she closed her eyes and listened to the sounds of the forest. "What a day." She thought quietly. She sat like that for some time, a bit too restless yet to sleep. But still too tired to go back to town to look for food. Besides she had promised Lynn that she would try and get enough sleep tonight. Her sense of peace was shattered when she heard movement nearby. Opening her eyes she groaned just as a fire flared up. The stranger had not only found her again; he started a fire right next to where she had chosen to sleep. Grumbling she got to her feet to find a new place to rest. With him so close she couldn't go to her special tree; tonight it was out of her reach. "you don't have to go. Come join me instead." Thomas said. "No thank you." Ishara replied desperately trying to keep her anger in check. "I can go all night, can you?" Thomas asked. "What do you want from me?" Ishara demanded. "I want to share my fire with you. and talk." Thomas replied. "You won't leave me alone until you get what you want will you?" Ishara asked. "You are more then welcome to try." Thomas suggested. "And if I would rather go somewhere else?" Ishara asked. "You seemed tired today. Wouldn't you much rather sit down by my fire and save your energy? If you leave I may decide I don't like this spot either." Thomas suggested. "Why are you doing this?" Ishara asked with a sigh. She stepped forward and approached the fire but she didn't sit down. "It's cold again tonight." Thomas said simply. "That it is, so shouldn't you be in your room at the inn?" She asked. "It seemed like a nice night to sleep under the stars." Thomas offered. "I'm not going to win this one." Ishara decided. She got on her knees and stared into the fire, it did feel nice, but it was hard to ignore how much this man scared her. "Maybe he will answer some questions if I submit?" she wondered. "so what brings you so far from town this late?" Thomas asked. "I needed a place to sleep. I often come out here to do it, especially when I want to feel alone." Ishara said honestly. "And you wanted to feel alone tonight?" Thomas asked. Ishara simply nodded. "Why give in so easily to my request then?" "What choice did I have?" Ishara asked. "I'm just a doll." "A doll?" Thomas asked. "I'm someone that you play with and abandon. I wanted to be alone tonight; but you wanted me here. So here I will stay until you finish playing with me. I guess that has always been part of the game." Ishara explained. "There's more to it then that. You want something." Thomas commented. "That was well rehearsed. She must tell it to herself a lot. Its something that she is desperately trying to make herself believe. But why?" he thought. "There is something." Ishara admitted. "If she can convince herself that she's nothing. Could she hope it won't hurt so much to have nothing? I think that may be part of it. But there is more. Like the reason that she won't accept help from people." Thomas thought. "Why do you reject when people offer to help you?" he decided to ask outright. "Because I really…" Ishara stopped and she shook her head. "You won't be satisfied with only part of the story. You want all of it." She guessed looking at him in the eyes. "One day they will come. And they will hurt anyone that helped me." She said seriously. "Who is after you/" Thomas asked. Ishara shook her head. "I'm not going to do that to you. it doesn't matter what you already have, or will do to me. I won't give them a reason to go after you as well." Ishara said. "Fair enough." Thomas replied. "so she sacrifices her safety and the chance at everything a little girl like her needs. Because she thinks it's protecting the people in town. So then telling herself she's nothing but a doll is her trying to make her sacrifice hurt less." He thought. "Fair is fair. It's your turn. What do you hope to learn tonight?" he asked. "Why are you so interested in me?" Ishara asked. "I think I already answered this one didn't I?. You intrigue me little rabbit. There is a mystery to you and I'm going to solve it. In return I'm going to help you." Thomas said. "You can't help me. And I won't let you risk it." Ishara replied. "So you say. But you don't know the resources I have available. There are ways I can help you without those you fear from finding out." Thomas explained. "I really don't know the game you force me to play yet. But I need to know the rules. I have been struggling with it since you found me and I just can't figure them out." Ishara said. "A game again? She doesn't say that like most people. To her games are serious." Thomas thought. "I'll get to the bottom of her game as well." "I just want you to be you. I want to see who you really are, what kind of dangerous little rabbit you are." Thomas explained. "Just like we have been." Ishara sighed. "I brought you something." Thomas said digging into a pocket. He pulled out the bread roll he bought earlier; now carefully wrapped to keep it safe. "For last night." He explained and unwrapped it for her. "I can't accept that." Ishara insisted. "I wish to try and make amends for last night." Thomas told her. But Ishara shook her head. "You can't make amends for last night. You did nothing wrong. I had no right to be angry about it." Ishara admitted. "Do you honestly believe that?" Thomas asked. "I have to." Ishara replied. "Take it anyway then. It might make you feel better." Thomas offered. "Thank you but I can't." Ishara replied. "You aren't going to budge are you?" Thomas asked. "Just like the baker said." He thought wrapping the bread roll back up. "I can't." she told him. "for the same reason she can't accept help. Who has her so spooked?" he wondered. "It's getting late then and you obviously need more rest. So sleep well; I'll tend to the fire for awhile longer for you. It's the least I can do." He offered. "Thank you." Ishara said quietly and curled up. Sleeping was the last thing she wanted to do right now; but she was too tired to argue about it. There was nothing she could say to the stranger to prevent him from keeping the fire going if that's what he wanted to do.
The next morning Ishara woke up early to the terrifying dreams. She didn't make a sound as she placed her hand over her heart to try and slow it down. She glanced over at the stranger and was glad that she didn't wake him up. "So I really don't make any noise anymore when I do that." She thought looking at the stranger. She tried to take her mind off the frightening images of her dream; by focusing on the stranger's confusing actions. "His game makes no sense. I submitted last night and he didn't touch me. There was no beating; not even a slap." She thought. Without making a sound she stood up and looked back to town. "I should go now. While he's still sleeping I should head back into town and start looking for my day's meal." She thought. If nothing else it would let her get away from the stranger until she understood what his game was. She left quietly before he could wake up and stop her.
Thomas watched her leave without saying a word. She hadn't noticed he was awake, so he chose to keep it that way. "she has nightmares? What could she be dreaming about?" he wondered. There was a lot to this mystery. "Its impressive how she handled her nightmares. She was terrified but she didn't make a sound." He smiled. There was more to this child then he first expected. The way she controlled herself he could tell that these nightmares were not an uncommon event. "There is something much deeper beneath the surface of this little rabbit. Today I have to ask more questions. But I have to take them further. Some of the townspeople must know what terrorizes her." He thought.
Brett smiled when he saw her. He was pleased that she hadn't been hiding much in the last couple of days. "She has been visible for a couple days now. The townspeople are starting to notice. They won't be able to ignore her suffering for much longer." He thought. He could only hope that she wouldn't go back into hiding before becoming etched into the consciousness of his town mates. "Good morning Little Rabbit." He said happily. "Hello Mr. Tennant." Ishara replied. "Now you know better then that." Brett frowned. "Sorry." Ishara replied sheepishly. "It's getting quite a bit colder hasn't it. I don't think it will be long before snowfall." Brett commented. "I guess so." Ishara replied. "Since I have you here. Can I see your knife and flint?" Brett asked. Ishara nodded and dug into her pocket for them. He took a moment to look them over. "Hmm the knife still seems to be fairly sharp. And the flint. You haven't been using these nearly as often as you should." He said handing them back. "Only when I need to." Ishara tried to explain. "As little as you can get away with you mean." Brett frowned. "How have you been feeling? Lynn tells me that you got hurt yesterday." "I was just a little tired and tripped." Ishara tried to explain. "Be careful Little Rabbit. Lynn tells me it was fairly serious." Brett said. Ishara shook her head. "The worst part was that it was Miss Henderson that called for Lynn." Ishara sighed. Brett laughed. "See what happens when you stop hiding? Even someone like her takes notice and has to help you." "I don't want her help." Ishara pouted. "But it's a good thing. I'm really glad that I have been seeing you around lately." Brett told her. "I wish I could…" Ishara hesitated. "Little Rabbit, what's wrong?" Brett asked. "It's nothing." Ishara promised. "I don't believe you." Brett replied. Ishara opened her mouth but hesitated again. Instead she closed it and looked down ashamed instead. "What is it? What happened?" Brett asked again. "I'm sorry. I don't have the right to say anything. The stranger…he just…always finds me." Ishara said looking at her feet. "She's really spooked by that." Brett realised. "And that worries you?" he asked. Ishara nodded. "It's ok. He's not going to hurt you. he isn't the Hunter I promise." Brett told her. "I know." Ishara said quietly. "How about this. I'll go have a talk with him. He probably doesn't even know that he's making you uncomfortable." Brett smiled. "You don't have to… you shouldn't." Ishara said. "Don't worry about it. Now; when was the last time you ate? You look starved." "I've had some problems. But I'm ok." Ishara explained. "Use the knife. I'll always sharpen it for you. I mean that, I don't want to find you almost dead again." Brett scolded her. "You won't. I promise." Ishara replied. "Good. I'll let you get on with your morning then. But before I go there is one more thing." Brett said. "What is it?" "Go back to the temple of water at sunset. Sleep there tonight please. Lynn told me how exhausted you were yesterday. You need to catch up on that lost sleep and you will never be able to do that in an alley." Brett pleaded. Ishara looked him in the eyes. She was going to say no but she couldn't. "If it means so much to you. I will. I promise." Ishara said. He smiled at her because he knew that she would always strive to keep her word.
"Another one that doesn't know anything. For such a small town this place seems to be full of those." Thomas thought annoyed. "How can a town this close knit care so little about one of their own? It just makes no sense. I've seen this in the cities. But never in a place like this." He thought. There was someone that should be able to shed some light on it. He approached the temple of water and very quickly was able to locate the priestess. "May I have a word with you priestess?" he asked. "Yes, but inside." Lynn replied. They both moved inside where the building was deserted. "Not a lot of patients around here." Thomas commented. "No. I often wonder if I shouldn't transfer to Windley. But there is someone here that needs me." Lynn replied. "Who might that be? It may be that I have a solution." Thomas said. But Lynn shook her head. "I'm sorry but I can't tell you that. Anyone that comes to the temple for help deserves some privacy." Lynn replied. "I am however here to talk to you about one of your patients." Thomas said. "Let me guess? It's little Ishy?" Lynn asked rolling her eyes. "You have an unhealthy obsession with that girl. My answer is exactly the same as yesterday; all I can reveal is that she has recovered. I won't tell you what happened or how." "That's quite all right. I spoke with Miss Henderson and she shed some light on the matter.. No I need to go back much farther then yesterday. I need to know what happened three years ago." "What about three years ago?" Lynn asked. "How did Ishara get to Forest Lake? Thomas asked. "I don't know. But she was in terrible shape when she got here. I was called into the home of an old couple and she was very ill. She hadn't had anything to eat or drink for days. She was cut and bruised and there was even signs of older injuries I don't have the skill to heal for her." Lynn replied. "But you don't know how she got here?" Thomas asked. "No but one of her injuries was a bruised ankle that had swollen terribly. She was likely walking on it for days." Lynn replied. "Has she ever told you about her nightmares?" Thomas asked. "I can't tell you anything about those. Obviously you know they are an ongoing problem if you are asking about them." Lynn replied. "No I suppose you wouldn't." Thomas commented. "All right I'll let you get back to work. I want to help this girl. If you can think of anything that might help me do that; to figure out exactly what she needs. Please come find me." Thomas requested. "If I think of anything I will." Lynn replied. "She's worried about the girl." Thomas thought on his way out. Briefly he wondered again about the patient that needed the water priestess so badly she stayed around. On his way from the temple back to main street. Thomas saw another townsman to speak with. "Excuse me sir, may I have a moment of your time?" Thomas asked the middle-aged man. "Ya sure. What's up?" the man replied. "I'm looking for information on Ishara. The street mouse of Forest Lake." Thomas said. The man almost seemed to growl at him. "I don't talk about her." He said sharply. "Oh? Is there a reason for that?" Thomas asked. "I don't talk about her." The man repeated and started to walk away. Thomas moved quickly to intercept him. "If you have information about her. I need to hear it. I'm getting really tired of the disgusting attitudes in this town." Thomas growled. He didn't have his sword with him but he could still be an intimidating man. The man stepped back but stopped. "I was her last caretaker. She was intrusted to me to look after and she ran away." The man said bitterly. "Why?" Thomas asked. The man shook his head. "I don't know. But she would rather sleep in the dirt then have stayed with me. Barely a week later she gets found half dead and I'm supposed to ignore that?" he said growing angry. "I don't think she did it to hurt you. there is something more to it then that. Can you tell me what she's afraid of?" Thomas asked. "I don't know. Before she ran away she asked me if I was afraid of the hunters. But I told her no." the man said. "She must not have believed you. The girl appears to hide because she thinks its dangerous for others if she doesn't. It sounds like she wanted to protect you." Thomas commented. "I'm sorry but I can't help you. it doesn't matter why she ran away. I don't have anything to do with her anymore." the man said glaring at Thomas. "Then go. If you care so little for her safety then she really was better off on the street then living with you." Thomas barked and walked away. "He isn't the only one with so little regard for her. For everyone like the priestess of water or the baker there are twenty more like him. This has to end. She has to be taken away from here." Thomas thought angry. But now he knew where to go next. "I'll go see the baker next. Even if she doesn't know anything it will help to speak to someone with a heart." He decided. It didn't take long before he reached the bakery. The same woman from the previous day was behind the counter again. "What can I get you today? Did your little rabbit take the bait?" she asked. "Not yet. I decided to take your advice and I left it somewhere for her to find." Thomas replied. "Give it a day then and I'm sure she will take it. If the birds don't get it first." The baker replied. "Today I'm just looking for some more information." Thomas explained. "I'm afraid I can't help much with that. I already told you everything that I know about her." The baker said. "Well I'm hoping that isn't entirely true. Do you remember how she got to Forest Lake?" Thomas asked. "She stumbled into town I think. A crowed gathered before I saw any of it." The baker said. "And nobody knew where she came from?" Thomas asked. The baker shook her head. "At first no one cared. She was here and needed help. But things got more complicated after that. The couple that took her in were too old to be looking after a child. They passed her onto someone that could; but that person and everyone after him was afraid of who the child claimed was after her." The baker explained. "And who was that?" Thomas asked. "To be honest I never cared to ask. It doesn't matter who was chasing her; she was here now and needs our help." The baker said. "But the fear she encountered instead led her to believe she couldn't be helped without hurting people." Thomas guessed. "That may be. A lot of people around here want her to go away. People think she is going to bring a great disaster on the town. She's just a child but the way I have seen some people treat her…" the baker sighed. "Unfortunately this I have seen. It doesn't do much for my opinions on the town when so many people have information that could help. But instead they lie to my face." Thomas said. "There is one person you need to talk to. I've mentioned him before but he has taken the time to learn everything he can about her. And I know he cares. If you are trying to help the child then he is the one to talk to. And he's right outside." The baker smiled. Thomas turned to see the man Ishara introduced two days ago. And it seemed like he was coming right for him. "Thank you. I would guess that Mr. Tennant is eager to speak to me as well." Thomas commented.
Brett found who he was looking for exiting the bakery. The traveller seemed to know what was about to happen because he walked right up to Brett and met him part way. "we need to talk." Brett said sharply. "perhaps you would like to find someplace more private?" Thomas suggested. "That's fine, we can duck behind the bakery." Brett suggested. Thomas nodded and the two of them went to the back of the bakery where they would be less likely to be overheard. "I know who you are." Brett said. "Do you now?" Thomas asked. "Yesterday I remembered why you seem so familiar. You are the mercenary that Duke Windley often hires." Brett said. "Yes you could call me that. But you didn't charge at me in anger because I sometimes work for the Duke." Thomas pointed out. "No I didn't. I warned you not to hurt my Little Rabbit." Brett replied. "I have had no intention of harming the child. In fact, I wish to help her." Thomas explained. "By scaring her?" Brett asked. "It doesn't matter." Thomas guessed. "It will always matter." Brett replied annoyed. "Not anymore. everything points to you holding the key. I am in need of information to help her and you are apparently the only one that knows; and won't lie to my face about it." Thomas said. "What are your intentions?" Brett demanded. "At present I do not know. This largely depends on what you can tell me. I do know that she needs to be removed from this town however. As quickly as possible." Thomas said. "Why is that?" Brett asked. "This environment is toxic for her. An overwhelming amount of the people here would see her dead then lift a finger to help." Thomas said. "That's hardly fair." Brett protested. "There are exceptions. But they are so few that the girl will not survive unless she is removed from this place." Thomas said. "Where would you have her go?" Brett asked. "Originally I thought to take her to Windley. An orphanage is by no means a proper home. But if she can't be happy then she could at least be safe and healthy." "But?" Brett questioned. "But that may not be the best thing for her. I have many contacts that could be used. But I need information to know what ones would be able to help her." Thomas explained. "Fine. What do you need to know? I won't promise to tell you everything. But I won't lie about what I know either." Brett said. "Where did she come from?" Thomas asked. "Nobody knows that. She said a village in the forest but she claimed it didn't even have a name." Brett replied. "How did she get here?" Thomas asked. "She was apparently taken to the endless forest and walked to town from there." Brett explained. "Where do her nightmares come from? What is it that chases after her?" Thomas asked. Brett looked him in the eyes. "I tell you this only because I know your reputation. If I had the slightest hint you might be one of them I would send you to hell myself." Brett warned. "I assure you I'm not going to." Thomas said. "I know." Brett replied. He took a deep breath. "The people that destroyed her village was the Red Reapers." He explained. "Then the hunters she is referring to is that hunter." Thomas suggested. "Red Reaper hunter?" Brett asked. "Until about three years ago the Red Reapers were led by a man known only as the Hunter." Thomas explained, "Three years ago?" Brett asked shocked. "Almost three years ago things changed. The Red Reapers have become more disorganized suggesting that someone got lucky and killed the Hunter to take his place. The new leader's not nearly as effective as the Hunter used to be." "About the same time that Ishara stumbled into town. She's afraid of him; he must have brought her here before he died." Brett suggested. "Has she ever told you what happened and how she escaped the Hunter? The Red Reapers I have interrogated over the years often spoke how no one escapes the Hunter." Thomas asked. Brett shook his head. "All I've been able to find out is that her final game. What she calls what the Hunter did to her. Was in the endless forest. I have gone looking and found a couple of clearings. One of them has two adult male bodies. There won't be much left by now." "Then I guess my next stop will have to be the endless forest. Could it be possible she killed the Hunter?" Thomas asked. "I don't see how. She was only nine when she came to us. Only nine when that bastard hunted her like an animal." Brett replied. "He has played this…game. With others. Under his leadership the Red Reapers kidnapped a number of young girls. In many cases their bodies were found weeks to month's later tortured to death. Thomas explained. "So all the lies are people's fears that she will bring the Red Reapers here." He thought. "And she suffers trying to protect a town that hates her." He commented out loud. "We…don't hate her." Brett said softly. "Most of you do. She sacrifices everything for people that want her to die." Thomas said becoming angry. "She won't come home with me because she's trying to protect me from the Red Reapers. I guess I always suspected…but." Brett said sadly. "Could this little girl really be that brave and selfless? Could she be the one?" Thomas wondered. "I'll go to the endless forest tomorrow." He said. "I know you are going to talk to her again. But don't scare her anymore. you really have her spooked and the poor kid has suffered enough." Brett said. "It may have been my persistence. But I will try to be more careful now that I know she may have been held captive for the Hunter's games." Thomas promised.
Ishara sat in an alley. She wasn't hidden but at least she wasn't the center of attention either. Every so often she glanced farther into the alley where one of her hiding spots was. "I know I shouldn't. if the stranger finds me there I'll just compromise another one." She thought with a sigh. "oh look at the poor dear." A woman's voice said. Ishara looked up and saw a young couple looking down at her. Quickly she got to her feet. "Good evening miss." She said politely. "She look's starved, more then usual." The young man commented. "Can we?" the young woman asked. "Can you what Miss?" Ishara asked confused. "Most definitely She looks like she really needs a couple." The man said. "I don't understand sir." Ishara said. "You will." The man smiled. His wife dug into a bag she was holding and took out a fresh cinnamon roll they just bought from the bakery. "Here, eat this." The young woman smiled. "I couldn't." Ishara said softly. "Nonsense. We bought several. We can spare one for a hungry girl." The young man said. "Here take it." The young woman insisted. Ishara hesitated but the young man spoke again. "Go ahead. Your stomach doesn't lie." "Thank you." Ishara said quietly. It seemed that she didn't have much choice but to reach out and accept the cinnamon roll. "That's a good girl. Don't be so shy next time. We wouldn't have offered it if we didn't want to give it to you." the young woman smiled at her some more. "I'm sorry." Ishara said timidly. "Don't be. Hunger aside you really looked like you needed a treat." The young man said. "You're too young to be so sad. Enjoy the treat; things will get better someday." The woman said. "Thank you." Ishara repeated. The young couple smiled at her one last time and left her alone with her treat. Briefly she considered leaving it somewhere. "I don't deserve this. But if I throw it out I'll just offend them." She thought looking at the cinnamon pastry. "That was very kind of them." She thought with a gentle smile. It was rare that someone that didn't even know her name would show such kindness. Quietly she took her first bite and let herself savour the taste of her sweet treat.
As the sun was setting Ishara approached the temple of water. Lynn was already standing by the front door waiting for her. "Good evening miss." Ishara said with a polite smile. "Welcome. Brett told me that you might be coming tonight. I'm so glad that you decided to." Lynn said with her own bright smile. "I promised Mr. Tennant I would. May I sleep here tonight Miss?" Ishara asked. "Of course. There's already a bed made up for you just encase you made it." Lynn explained. "Thank you. It's not going to be a problem is it?" Ishara asked. "Of course not. You are always welcome to stay the night here. Many of us would prefer you did it every night; instead of out there." Lynn said honestly. "I couldn't." Ishara said. "I know that's what you think. But I have to hope that one day..." Lynn admitted. "Come inside. Let's get you something to eat so you have a good sleep." "That's ok. I don't need anything." Ishara explained. "That's what you always claim." Lynn frowned. "It's true. A kind young couple offered me something tonight." Ishara told her. "And you took it?" Lynn asked surprised. "I had to. It would have offended them if I refused after they were so kind." Ishara admitted. "It sounds like you found someone just as stubborn as you, and lost." Lynn smiled. "all right you don't have to eat if you don't want to. But I will leave a bell beside your bed encase you change your mind tonight.' She said leading the young street mouse inside. "There's a nightgown on the bed for you. Please use it. And can I have your promise that you won't sneak out without a word?" Ishara cringed but the water priestess didn't see it. "I promise." She said. "I shouldn't be surprised. They always ask me to make that promise. They know I can't just break my word." She thought disappointed. It wasn't that she wanted them to worry about her. But she couldn't make them forget about her if they always saw her leave. Lynn brought her to one of the beds that was closest to her own chambers. "Ok get settled in and I'll be back soon." She said. "Thank you." Ishara repeated as Lynn smiled at her and went into her chambers. Ishara sat on the edge of the bed and looked at the nightgown. "None of them understand how much I hate those things. But she took the trouble to wash it and lay it out for me." She thought with a sigh. Reluctantly she got changed and sat back down. "I shouldn't be here." She thought looking around. As usual every bed was empty except the one she was sitting on. There was a spooky atmosphere to the place as she looked at all the empty beds. It wasn't time to slip under the covers yet; but with daylight fading fast soon it would be pointless to stay up. "It feels so early. But here I can't take advantage of the darkness." She thought mildly amused by the idea. It was so different out there. The darkness was an ally outside; it cleared the streets and let her do things that she could never do in the daylight. It gave her the privacy to move and act without scrutiny. In here however the darkness made her uneasy. With limited moonlight she couldn't see anything, she couldn't move and without seeing the sky it made her uneasy. She shook her head to break away from such thoughts. She was stuck here until morning so it would do her no good to dwell on how strange it always felt to be inside. "And you took it?" Lynn's words echoed in her head instead. The way the Priestess said that troubled her. "Should I not have taken the cinnamon treat?" she wondered. "It was good. But should I have taken it? Was that a selfish mistake?" she asked herself. A thought made her go pale. "If the Hunter found out. Would he kill them? Would he find out? Did I just put them in danger?" she wondered. The idea had been in the back of her mind even when she accepted it. But with how the last few days had been going she was overwhelmed by their kindness. "I hope not. They were a nice couple. One little bun shouldn't get the attention of the Hunter." She hoped. She had seen the two of them before. Always when she was hiding. This may have been the first time they saw her close up. "If I really do submit so easily to them. I'll have to be more careful not to let them see me again." She decided. But the idea behind that was troubling. "Is that all it really takes to break me? A few kind words and a voice not filled with disgust? And that's all it takes before I'm willing to put people in danger for a sweet bun? That can't be all it takes…" she thought horrified. "I can't let that happen again." She decided. Then she looked around the temple again and came to a shocking realization. "I'm here for that same reason. If they came for me tonight Lynn would be killed. And its all because Mr. Tennant said a few kind words and treats me like a real person. Fang of the dark beast; it really is that easy to force me into submission isn't it?" she felt sick. "I need help. I need to change that or someone will get hurt because of me. I should leave now before something happens…but I can't. I made her a promise that I wouldn't sneak out." She thought with dread. She knew that Lynn wouldn't release her from that promise if she asked. Not when she had gotten her to spend the night. She closed her eyes and tried to calm herself down. It was too late to save Lynn tonight and it wouldn't help anyone for her to lose her mind over it. Lynn should be save for one night and she would be sure this never happened again. "What about that stranger? He made me submit too. But it was different with him. He said he wants to help me; could he help me to not give into a little kindness so easily?" she wondered. "But what would he want in return?" she asked the empty room. Quietly she stood up and walked to a window to watch the day's light slowly vanish. While she watched she tried desperately to find an answer. But no matter how she strained; it wasn't coming to her. Finally, when the darkness took control of the room she returned to the bed defeated and crawled under the covers. Immediately she shivered while she got used to the blanket. "I can't know what he will want in return. Because I don't know what he really wants with me. He has been asking people about me but why?" she thought turning to her side. "Who is he?" she whispered. "No there are to many unanswered questions. I will never be safe as long as they stay that way. I have to do something about it. Start learning as much about him and his game as he seems to already know about me." She realised. "Settling in little one?" Lynn asked. Ishara didn't even hear her come out of her quarters. "Yes Miss." Ishara replied. "I'm going to bed now. Do you want a candle before I do?" Lynn asked. "No thank you Miss. I'm fine. I won't be awake much longer." Ishara replied politely. "All right then good night little one. Come wake me up if you need anything at all tonight." Lynn asked. "I'll be fine. Thank you for letting me stay tonight." Ishara said. "Anytime. And I mean that." Lynn replied before going back to her quarters. "This already feels so strange." Ishara thought turning. She spent some time restlessly trying to find comfort amongst the comfort before she could finally fall asleep.
Early morning Thomas left the inn with his sword. There was no way to know what he might find in the endless forest, or what dangers hide there. As he walked out of town he couldn't help but notice that the little street mouse was watching him carefully. "Interesting. I know she spent the night at the temple of water. She must have woken up very early to leave. She won't stop trying to protect these people for even one night of proper rest." He considered as he ventured into the forest. Part of him wondered what she might do while he was gone. Would she go back into hiding? Or would she use the time to do something she thinks he is preventing her from doing? He might have been tempted to stick around the edge of the forest for awhile to watch her; but this was far more important even if he wasn't sure there would be anything left to find. He couldn't guess how long it would take him. The first part of Thomas's trip was easier then he expected. Someone had left a thin trail in the forest from multiple trips in and out. It took him less then two hours before he found a small clearing that looked like someone came to visit more then a few times a month. "Nothing but a dead tree. But it looks like someone visits this clearing regularly. Could it be her? Does anyone else from the town even dare venture into the endless forest?" he wondered. There was nothing here to look at but he was curious if he was getting closer. If it was Ishara that came to visit this tree; there had to be a reason. "It could be a visible landmark for where she escaped. A clear spot she can pretend was the real one. A child would probably never find the real place again in a forest like this." He thought. He pushed on knowing that this search would likely take him most of the day. He carefully tried to estimate how far a nine-year-old girl might have been able to walk on a swollen ankle. Along the way he left his own trail to find his way back but he was looking for something that didn't exist. Only it did exist. By what would have been late afternoon if he could have seen the sun. Thomas found what he was looking for. Not much remained but a few bones and clothes. Near the shredded cloth he found his first real clue. "A handheld scythe. It could be from a farmer but it's not the only weapon. And it is a favorite amongst many younger Red Reapers." He noted. He walked a few meters away and pulled an old sword from the foliage. There was nothing remarkable about it except that it meant the scythe was not from a farmer. He knew he would learn nothing from what few bones the scavengers had left. But after searching for some time he found it. "It's true then. She survived the Red Reapers." He thought picking up a faded red armband. He had no proof that this was the Hunter that lay here; but the timing of her arrival in Forest Lake and the disappearance of the Hunter was hard to ignore. "A nine-year-old girl couldn't have killed two Red Reapers. So what happened here? She survived and at least two of them did not." He wondered. And he found part of his answer in a broken crossbow bolt. "A third? Did one of them defend her?" he asked himself. It wouldn't have been the strangest thing he'd ever seen. "This girl truly escaped from the Red Reapers. Now she hides, refusing love and comfort to protect the ungrateful slobs of Forest Lake should they ever come back for her. It's unlikely they would still be looking for her after all these years. No child is that important to them." He thought. Then in the privacy of the forest he started laughing. "I respect this girl." He thought heading back to town.
Earlier that morning Ishara watched the stranger enter the endless forest. "What does he want in there?" she wondered. He took his weapon but no bag; so she knew he would return. "he could be in there awhile." She considered. It would be a shame to waste this chance. She could slip back into hiding and search for food properly. "or I could follow his example." She thought glancing back at the forest. She gave the idea one more look then headed deeper into town. She didn't know how to do this; but how hard could it be? The stranger was doing it to her and he didn't even know this town. At first she looked for someone that she had barely interacted with in the past. It seemed like a good place to start; so she slowly approached a man. "Excuse me sir." She said politely. "What do you want?" the man asked. "I don't have anything for you. "I'm sorry sir. I didn't mean to make you think that's what I wanted. I just wanted to ask you something." Ishara said softly. "Out with it then." The man demanded. "There has been a man asking about me. Have you heard anything about what he is asking?" Ishara asked. "None of your business." The man snapped and walked away. Ishara tried a few more people that morning and had very similar reactions from most of them. She did manage to speak to a couple nicer people but they didn't know. While moving around she tried not to focus on how exposed she was actually was walking around like this. Around noon she passed the bakery and briefly considered going in to ask her about the stranger. She knew that the baker was a kind lady that sometimes tried to give her bread; and she had seen the stranger go inside more then once. "I better not bother her. She might not know anything anyway and she is far too busy." She decided. Without realizing it Ishara made her way towards the temple of water. By the time she noticed it Lynn had already spotted her and came to say hello. "Hello little one. Come to ask about staying another night?" Lynn asked hopeful. "No I was just looking around." Ishara apologized with a shake of her head. Lynn frowned. "You could you know." she offered. "Thank you but I'm ok." Ishara replied. "should I ask her? She spoke to him." She wondered. "I know you are sweetie. But it's not good for you." Lynn told her. "May I ask you something?" Ishara asked now hoping to change the subject before she ended up submitting to another night. "Anything." Lynn promised. "That man you were talking to after I got hurt. I know he has been asking about me in town…" Ishara hesitated. "And you want to know what he is asking?" Lynn guessed. Ishara nodded quietly. "Well he wants to know about you. where you come from? How you got here?" Lynn told her. "Why?" Ishara asked. "He's worried about you. we all are." Lynn explained. "But why? I'm not important." Ishara protested. "You are to us. And he wants to help you. He just wants all the facts before he knows how." Lynn said. "That could get him hurt. How can I stop it?" Ishara asked. "You can't. Mr. McAlpine is very determined; and I'm sorry but I agree with him. You need more then this." Lynn smiled at her. "Why is he doing this?" Ishara asked. "Ishy, you're just a child. You aren't responsible for what other people do; or the safety of everyone else. You need to worry about what is best for you right now and nothing else. Let him worry about the dangers of helping you. He is doing this because he sees a little girl that needs help." Lynn explained. Then she asked in a soft voice. "Does he frighten you?" "He makes me nervous. But I'm not afraid. I just want to know his game." Ishara replied. "Why don't you come inside for some lunch?" Lynn offered. "Thank you but I'm fine. Thank you for telling me. I should be going." Ishara said almost too quickly. "Always Brett's Little Rabbit." Lynn sighed. She realised that she just spooked the child away. "It was nice talking to you." Ishara gave her a weak smile before heading towards the forest. "I wonder what he's finding in the forest. Did he find my tree? Am I going to lose my special spot too?" she wondered as she tried to escape before Lynn reached her weakness and she gave in. The thought may have come out of nowhere; but now that she was finished trying to talk to the people of Forest Lake. It bothered her and she was too afraid to check encase she made it true. "I'll sneak over tonight after I'm sure he's in the inn. I can't loose my special spot." She decided.
When Thomas left the forest he came across something that had not been there when he went in. "That looks like a rabbit trap. Perhaps a little crude but well done." He thought. He looked around for its maker and spotted Ishara standing knee deep in the river with a stick. "This little rabbit is quite resourceful." He thought studying her. She was a survivor. He watched her for a few minutes and her fishing was not going well; as she has only caught one small fish since starting. "Her technique is good. She has form. If I travelled with her she certainly would not be dead weight. I wouldn't have to do everything for her." He considered. "Not bad." He said finally approaching her. She looked at him with the annoyance at his intrusion obvious. "If you hold it more like this. You can lunge faster and have more control." He said demonstrating as he reached her. He gently grabbed her sharpened stick and adjusted its position. She stared at him in disbelief. "Can't you leave me alone? Am I not allowed to eat in peace?" she asked. But he countered with a question of his own. "Is that yours too?" Ishara nodded her head. "No one has ever told me it wasn't allowed." She reported defensively. "And I'm not going to either. But it is impressive for the materials used. I did not expect you to know how to make them." Thomas explained. "Mr. Tennant taught me." Ishara told him. "Did he now? Tennant seems to have a few mysteries of his own." Thomas said. "Since I interrupted your efforts to get supper. How about I treat you." "No thank you." Ishara replied quickly. She walked back to shore where the only fish she was going to get was waiting for her. "Then pass me the stick. I'll get you a couple more instead." he offered. "Thank you but I'm fine." She insisted. "Do you do this often? Thomas asked accepting defeat. Ishara shook her head. "I try not to. If I resort to this too often then my source will run out." She explained. "Then why today?" he asked. She looked at him ashamed and he knew the answer. "I've been keeping her from pursuing her normal source of food." He thought. "Why is it you are unable to feed normally while I am here?" "Does it matter?" she asked. "I am merely curious." He told her. She sighed because by now she was familiar with his curiosity and how it always ended. "And you won't leave me alone until you know." She suggested. "It's really not important. I just need to be able to hide to find food without troubling anyone. You have made it impossible to do that." She explained. "So then you haven't eaten since I arrived?" he asked concerned. "I've had a couple things. She said. "I know what you are going to say next. And I'm fine." She said lifting up the fish. "pre-emptive rejection" he thought amused. "I found something interesting in the forest. A clearing with the remains of some Red Reapers. Did the Hunter die in that forest?" he asked. "I don't know." Ishara admitted slowly. "I've always been too scared to go back and look." "Why don't you go back? What are you afraid you will find?" Thomas asked. "What if I don't find it? What if I really did just imagine the Hunter was gone?" Ishara asked. "But you have gone back to a tree. Several times." He asked. She looked at him sadly. "It's my place. I am safe there and it's where I can truly rest." She explained. "Your hunter may be dead. Why do you still force yourself to suffer?" Thomas put to her. "One may be gone. But maybe he isn't? there are others out there; an entire village full of them. And if what I saw really happened then it means Lex is out there. Please you need to stop asking about this before they find out." Ishara begged. "She will never be free of this fear. Not without help. She needs to be shown that the Reapers are just human." Thomas thought. "I've badgered you enough. I'll build you a fire and leave you to your meal." He said finally. "You don't need to. Mr. Tennant gave me some flint to start one when I need. Please just enjoy your evening and stop wasting time worrying about me." Ishara told him. "I'll speak to you again tonight. I hope that little fish will be enough for you to eat; otherwise I'll bring you something else. It's my fault you didn't get more." Thomas said. "You are within your rights to interrupt. I'll survive." Ishara replied quite plainly. "There it is again. She looks defeated and sounds unconfident. But it's there. I see it. She has lived amongst these people so long she has simply accepted their belief she's worthless. But it's not irreversible. I can see that she will recover once I get her away from here." Thomas thought leaving her side. Now he needed to speak with Brett Tennant again. For all the answers he found in the forest; the Little Rabbit gave him new questions to replace them.
"There he is." Thomas thought finally spotting who he was looking for. He approached Brett Tennant carefully; but perhaps a little hurried. "You look like a man with a lot on his mind." Brett observed. "I found the remains of at least two Red Reapers in the forest." Thomas informed him. "This much we already knew.' Brett commented. "But she said she has never returned. She doesn't know if what she saw was real. It seems likely that one of those bodies used to be the Hunter." Thomas suggested. "She told you she thought the Hunter was dead?" Brett asked. "She's worried that if she goes back to look; she will find he's still after her. But it seems she did watch him die." Thomas said. "Then she has no reason to be afraid." Brett suggested. "It seems that someone has taught her to fish, and trap small game." Thomas commented. "But I am left wondering about something." "What?" Brett asked. "Why did you teach her survival skills? She even tells me that you gave her some flint; and I suspect the knife she would have used to sharpen that spear she was using." Thomas questioned. "I found her almost dead one day. She hadn't eaten in days. Next time I may not be so lucky; I don't want to be too late." Brett said sharply. "Why teach her to survive then? You seem to care a great deal about her. Why don't you bring her into your home?" Thomas asked. "You don't think I've tried?" Brett said. "I know what holds her back. She wont feel safe until she see's what the Red Reapers really are. You would have the power to do that; you were once a solider." Thomas explained. "I wish it was that easy. I've been watching her for three years. I want to put an end to her suffering." Brett admitted. "I have a few ideas for her. And if I can get her to agree to come with me to Windley I'll put an end to her fear over the Red Reapers" Thomas said confidently. "I want to ask what. But I'm not ready for the answer. You insist on taking her away from Forest Lake." Brett replied. "And you aren't sure if you are ok with that." Thomas observed. "I don't know. I hope to one day…" Brett said. "That's what she needs the most. But it wouldn't be right to leave her here to suffer encase one day he wears her down enough to give her a home. Wind only knows when that day might come." Thomas thought. "I need…I need to talk to her." Brett said after a few minutes of silence. "I know where she is." Thomas admitted. "No wonder she's spooked." Brett commented. "That can't be helped." Thomas replied. He motioned for Brett to follow him.
Ishara looked at the sixteen-year-old and his girlfriend. She stood there bravely though she wanted to run to the safety of the forest. "Tell her to go away. She stinks." The woman said. "It's not like Rachel hasn't told me that multiple times." Ishara thought calmly. "I don't think it's worth it. No she should leave and never come back." The boy said. "or she could crawl into a ditch and die." The girl sneered. "Then we would have to smell her longer." The boy responded. Ishara stood there and watched them without replying. "replying to them would only validate what they say." Ishara thought. Nearby she saw Thomas and Brett approached them. She didn't see it but Brett was about to step in and was stopped by Thomas. "You need to see this. And I need to see what she does." She heard the stranger say. She didn't even look at them. She couldn't take her eyes off the two teenagers. "for a worthless turd she doesn't seem to talk much." The boy commented. The two of them hadn't even noticed the adults arrive. "Make her scream." The girl laughed. "What's the point?" Ishara wondered. "Don't you get it? You dumb bitch. You aren't wanted here. Leave town." The boy growled. Without warning he backhanded her across the face but she still didn't respond. "They are going to try that now?" she asked herself with surprise. She now heard the stranger holding Mr. Tennant back. "Is the stranger wondering why I don't fight back?" "Think you're tough do you?" the boy taunted. He stepped back a couple meters and picked up a rock. He was about to throw it at her when in a flash the stranger's sword was at his throat. "I think the two of you are done here. Put the rock down and walk away while I'm still willing to let either of you do so." The stranger threatened. The boy pissed himself as he nodded and the two teenagers quickly scrambled to leave. "Did you really need to use your sword? He was just a kid." Mr. Tennant asked. "It was the quickest way. He could have done a lot of damage with a rock like that if he got lucky." The stranger replied. "I will leave you two alone. I hope we have both seen enough." "More then enough." Mr. Tennant said. "Come on Little Rabbit, let's take a walk." He suggested.
"What is Mr. Tennant?" Ishara asked after they had been walking for a few minutes. "I wanted to talk to you about this town." Brett said softly. "What about it?" Ishara asked confused. "Are we all like that? Like those two?" Brett asked grimly. "Like who? The couple the stranger chased away?" Ishara questioned. "Or like Rachel Henderson. I know she has been harassing you too." Brett replied. "It doesn't matter." Ishara told him. "But it does matter." Brett said. "Not everyone." Ishara said reluctantly. "She didn't want to answer that. I can't ignore this any longer; I really can't. Most of the town really does act that way." Brett thought. "It doesn't bother you?" "Why should it?" Ishara asked. "If you could leave town. Would you?" Brett asked. "I don't know. Even if I left it wouldn't matter." Ishara replied. "What if it was safe for you? And for whoever takes you away from here?" Brett asked. Ishara just looked at him confused. "There is no such thing." She told him. "If I could let go of her. Thomas could take her someplace safe and she would have a chance at a real life." He thought looking at her sadly. "Little Rabbit. Why don't you come home with me?" "I can't. I'm sorry." Ishara replied. "I can protect you. You don't have to be afraid. You don't have to sacrifice anymore." Brett pleaded. "I've been trying for three years but she rejects me every time. How long should I keep trying while she suffers? If only she would accept this once." "I'm not afraid but you know I'm dangerous. I can't let you risk it." Ishara replied. "She says that every time. maybe by now she isn't capable of believing otherwise? If she does, then she suffered the last three years for nothing." Brett thought sadly. "It doesn't have to be that way Little Rabbit. Please." Ishara looked at him sadly. "I'm so sorry Mr. Tennant." "What does she really mean when she says that? It can't be the whole story." He thought. "I wish you would change your mind. I really do." He said. "But I know she never will. I have to let go of her. For her sake." "It's not possible." She explained. "Then…I'll stop asking. But if you ever change your mind my door will always be open for you. Remember that Little Rabbit." Brett said sadly. "Thank you Mr. Tennant." Ishara replied. "I need to go talk to someone. But I'll catch up with you again before it gets too late." Brett gave her a weakened smile. "I can't do anything for her. The truth is I've never been able to. I can see that she trusts me, even respects me. But whatever really holds her back, whatever prevents her from being happy. It's too strong. it's selfish for me to want her to stay; I think it's time…" he thought.
"Finished talking to her already?" Thomas asked. "The question now is what to do about you." Brett said. "Oh?' Thomas asked. "You say that you want to help her. And I do believe you. But you haven't told me the whole story." Brett said. "What more is there to be said? I wish to help her but it can't be done here." Thomas replied. "There's more to it then that Mr. McAlpine. I saw how you reacted to those teenagers. There is more to your interest in her then simply getting her to a safe place. So then what is it?" Brett asked. "I don't know." Thomas admitted. "But its possible she's the one." Brett gave him a strange look. You aren't going to turn this into some bullshit prophecy are you? claim she's the one that can single handily destroy the Red Reapers?" "No nothing like that." Thomas laughed. "Then what?" Brett asked. "Mr. Tennant I'm not getting any younger. My travels have begun to take their toll. For the last couple years, I've been looking for someone to assist me." Thomas replied. "She's a twelve-year-old girl. Not a solider." Brett protested. "And I always assumed I was looking for another wandering sword like me. But what if what I really need is someone more like her? Someone that's young and strong. Someone that can take care of the tedious aspects of travel." Thomas asked. "You want to drag her into your battles?" Brett asked. "If this is a joke it's not funny." "No." Thomas shook his head. "I'm not planning to teach her to fight. She won't be permitted to help me against anyone looking for a fight either. But she can take care of the camp." He explained. "And what does she get in return?" Brett asked. "Do you have to ask? I know it's far less then she's worth. And she deserves better then any life I could provide." Thomas bounced back. "No but then she always rejects what she deserves. Maybe this is something she would accept?" Brett commented. "No. It's not a life for a child. I think I should return to my original plan. I'll take her to Windley and with the help of the Duke find her a place she can be happy as well as safe." Thomas said thinking out loud. "If that's the case then why did you think she might work out in the first place?" Brett questioned. "Despite that she has some troublesome ideas. She does have a solid moral core. She is strong willed and even confident. And thanks to you she has vital skills for travelling; she would not need to be swaddled like a babe." Thomas replied. "You mean her fishing and fire starting skills?" Brett asked. "Yes and those are skills it would be important for her to develop. But she is in an excellent place to start." Thomas explained. "Then tell me Mr. McAlpine. If you have already rejected the idea, then why do you still look like you want to keep my Little Rabbit?" Brett challenged. "In the course of my investigation I've become impressed with the girl. Her reasons for sacrifice are misguided and frankly unwarranted for the way people treat her. But her reasons are honourable. Her more recent display is the most impressive of all. She didn't react to those two; even as the boy struck her." Thomas explained. "But what if that was because she thinks it's ok for people to do that? The Red Reapers took a lot of terrible liberties with her." "That isn't it. Have you ever heard her say she's a doll?" Thomas asked. "I don't think so…maybe?" Brett replied. "A couple nights ago she told me she was a doll. It was my right to play with her and abandon her on the shelf when I was done." Thomas explained. "Then doesn't that suggest she was letting them hurt her because she think's its ok for people to do that?" Brett asked. "No." Thomas said shaking his head. "The way she said it wasn't as someone that believed it. She was trying desperately to convince herself it was true." "Would she be better off in Windley? If you could even get her to agree to stay?" Brett asked. "I don't have all the answers." Thomas explained. Brett shook his head. "I know that you can help her. But I need to know that what you do will truly be best for her before I let you take her away from here." He said. "Let me take her away?" Thomas questioned. "Mr. Tennant the only person that can stop me is Ishara. I will not allow anyone to make decisions for her." Thomas warned. "A poor choice of words perhaps but the point remains the same. She will not leave this town until I know she won't be abandoned somewhere else. More then a home, more then food. She needs someplace that will care about her. Is that where you will try to leave her?" Brett demanded. "For all this town's faults, for all the crappy ways people treat her here. She at least has a few of us looking out for her. I know what you want to do. I know what you think you should do. But do you know what she needs?" "What she needs isn't what she wants and I can't provide that. But she won't let you either." Thomas pointed out. "Then we go around in circles." Brett replied. "No." Thomas said. "No?" Brett asked. "Are we getting somewhere?" "I have only known her for a few days. And regardless of my investigations it would normally be foolish to jump into such a thing. But my gut tells me she's perfect. If she says no or it doesn't work out I'll have her safely in Windley. But for now I intend to offer her a job." Thomas explained. "That is as close to what you truly want that she will likely accept." Brett smiled. "But then you don't really want an employee. You want someone to challenge you. you want a friend and I suspect one day a…" "enough." Thomas barked. He held up his sheathed sword. "This is a life I would prefer that she not get involved in. she will be safe as she travels with me but if she is ever permitted to pick one of these up. She will lose the chance at any kind of real life. Keeping her safe means never allowing her to use one of these." He said sharply. "The Little Rabbit grows on you fast." Brett laughed. "It would seem she does." Thomas agreed.
While the two adults talked far away from her. Ishara returned to main street as the wind started to pick up. The evening air had developed a chill and she kept glancing in the direction of one of her hiding places. "It's cold. I wish I could sneak into hiding. Most of the places nearby could shelter me from this wind." She thought shivering. A thought crossed her mind but was gone as quickly as it came. "Lynn's winter clothes would have been useful tonight." She thought with a weak smile. "If she could see me now she'd probably think I regret not taking them." She thought almost giggling. But that wasn't true at all. "It's still early. This wind will pass but maybe it's a good night for a fire?" she questioned as she clutched her arms close. She decided that would be a good idea. "aren't you cold?" a small voice asked. Ishara looked around; she hadn't even noticed that someone else was on the street. She smiled when she looked down and saw a little girl. She couldn't have been any older then seven. "Only a little." Ishara smiled at her. "Why don't you put your coat on?" the child asked. "I don't have one." Ishara explained. "Why not?" the child asked. "Well, I'm a long way from home. But I know someone that will lend me one when it gets cold enough." Ishara explained. "Isn't it right now?" the girl questioned. "No not yet. I don't want to bother her until it gets much colder." Ishara said. "What's your name? I'm Lisa." The child proudly proclaimed. "I'm Ishara. Where is your mommy?" she asked. "She's a sweet child. She isn't afraid of me." She thought. "Mommy is in the store." Lisa said. "Shouldn't you be inside helping her?" Ishara asked. "Do you think she needs my help?" Lisa asked innocently. Ishara smiled at her again. "I'll bet she would love your help." She explained. She looked up and saw a woman rushing towards them. "I can help mommy." Lisa cheered. "Is that your mommy?" Ishara asked getting the child to turn around. "Waters mercy. There you are. Who are you talking to?" the woman asked. She got a closer look at Ishara. "Oh its you. I'm sorry if she caused you any problems." "It's ok. She's been very sweet." Ishara replied. "Are you all right? You look a little nervous." The woman asked. "It's nothing miss. It will pass." Ishara insisted. "Is the effects of the stranger's game really that obvious?" she wondered. "If you are sure." The woman said. "Thank you for keeping her from wandering too far." "It was nice talking to you Lisa." Ishara smiled at the child. "Come dear leave the poor girl alone. We can find her again later." The woman said pleasantly. "Really mommy?" Lisa asked. "If she's ok with it." The woman said. "If that's what you both wish." Ishara replied. "She seems to like you." the woman shrugged. "You could probably use someone to talk to once and awhile." She added. "She can bring you to see me any time she likes." Ishara told the woman. "You should go to the temple tonight. It feels like its going to be a cold one." The woman said before she left. Ishara stared at the street after her with a genuine smile. "The stranger has me a bit uneasy. So it was really nice to speak with someone like that. I could almost forget…" she thought. Not everyone in Forest lake was like those teenagers.
"This can't be good." Ishara thought watching the stranger and Brett walk right to her. She trusted Brett but she still did not trust the stranger. "Little Rabbit. I know you are nervous around him. But Mr. McAlpine has something to ask you. Please give his question some serious thought." Brett smiled at her. "What's wrong Mr. Tennant?"" Ishara asked gravitating to the man she knew. "To be honest I hope nothing. But I'll let Thomas here explain." Brett said giving her a warm smile. She looked nervously at the stranger. "Ishara." Thomas said seriously. "Before I ask you a very important question. There is something I need you to understand." "What?" Ishara asked. "Ishara I'm a traveller. I go from place to place to help people. But I'm also starting to get older and there are some aspects of my travels that are becoming difficult." Thomas explained. "I don't understand sir." Ishara admitted. "Ishara you know I've been trying to unravel the mystery of the Little Rabbit of Forest Lake; but there's more to it then that. In doing so I have learned a lot about you." Thomas explained. "You have?" Ishara asked. Her face lost some of its colour. "I've learned that you process many traits that I've been looking for in the last couple of years. Ishara you are a strong girl, you are willing to sacrifice for people that honestly don't deserve your devotion. You don't give up easily, you are a survivor and I see a fire behind those young eyes. A fire that I have only seen a handful of times in my life." Thomas explained. "That's…not true." Ishara admitted. "Ishara what have you wanted to do for the past few days? What couldn't you do because I'm here?" Thomas asked. "I don't know." Ishara offered. "Since Mr. McAlpine arrived I have seen you out in the open more in the last few days then the last three years." Brett hinted. "Exactly. Even now you want nothing more then to go back into hiding. But you haven't have you? I'm not physically stopping you. I'm not holding a sword to your neck. But because I may be able to find you. You have resisted that urge to hide for days. Even when you have been scared or angry." Thomas explained. "You don't understand. If you want me in the open why should I be allowed to hide? I'm just a…" Ishara started. "Just a doll?" Thomas interrupted. "No Ishara you aren't. And you don't really believe that you are. You have nothing and it hurts. You have been abused and that hurt. If you could just force yourself to believe that lie maybe things wouldn't hurt anymore? But you can't believe it no matter how hard you try. And that is why I want to ask you this." Thomas paused a moment to look her directly in the eyes. His face was stone serious and he didn't allow any amusement into his voice. He knew what her first thought would be. "Ishara I would like to offer you a job of sorts. Would you join me in my travels? He asked. "Travel with you?" Ishara questioned. "This isn't a handout and I'm not giving you anything if that concerns you. I am looking for someone like you to manage my camp." He explained. "What do you mean?" Ishara asked. "Before I get to that you must understand that you will not be getting a monetary pay." Thomas half lied. "You won't be sleeping indoors very often either. You will be spending all day on your feet and then be expected to start work when the day has ended." He warned. "Are you trying to scare her off?" Brett glared at him. "No but she needs to understand what I'm offering." Thomas replied. He turned back to Ishara. "What I'm offering in return is my protection. You will never have to fear the Hunters again. you will be kept fed; in fact part of your job you are expected to have a full stomach. And when we get some supplies in Windley you will have your own bedroll. It will be much warmer and more comfortable then the bare ground you sleep on now. It's not as nice as a real bed but you don't use one of those now anyway. Ishara looked at him confused. "Why?" she asked. "Why? I need someone that can gather firewood, someone that can start a fire, and some nights even cook. I would then need you to clean up the camp in the morning." Thomas told her. "I can't…" Ishara hesitated. "What he's offering? I don't deserve that." She thought with regret. "Why can't you?" Thomas asked. "I'm too dangerous to let you." she explained. "Little Rabbit there's something you need to understand about Thomas McAlpine. I know his reputation. You are not dangerous to him at all. He hunts the Red Reapers, the ones you call the Hunters. That's one of his jobs and he's good at it." Brett told her seriously. "Ishara I'm not going to force you to do anything you don't want to do. I trust that you will make the choice that's right for you. But with me you will never have to be afraid of the hunters. You will never be dangerous to me because I have taken out more of them then most people realize existed. Thomas revealed. "What if I refuse?" She asked. "Then I will take you to Windley for help. Even if you choose not to travel with me ass my assistant. I am not going to leave you here." Thomas said. "I really shouldn't. I don't deserve this. But he is offering something I have never had before." She thought looking back at the stranger. "But is he really going to give me a choice?" she thought. "I can stick around for a couple more days if you need time to think about it. I know I'm asking you to believe a lot. I'm asking you to trust a lot." Thomas replied. "This is a good opportunity for you Little Rabbit. With him you can be free of the Hunters. And you will see things you have never imagined." Brett said. "If I agree..." Ishara paused. "Of course not. If you agree you can still change your mind afterwards. I would like to travel with you to Windley and there you can make a more informed decision." Thomas said. Ishara took a deep breath. She wasn't sure if this was real, she wasn't sure if it was a good idea. But the stranger looked like he believed every word of it. She heard no fear behind his voice. "I…" "Little Rabbit it pains me to say this. But there's nothing for you in this town but more suffering. Take his offer; give yourself some small chance to be happy." Brett begged. Ishara looked at him with a strange ache in her chest. "He's always been so kind to me. If he thinks this is best for me then don't I owe it to him to at least try?" she considered. "Sir I thank you for the offer. And I will accept but if I may ask. If you change your mind could you please bring me back here?" she asked. "If that is truly what you want." Thomas agreed. "Then if I may. I would like to join you." Ishara said at last. "Excellent. But before we leave there are a couple of things to attend to. You can't travel like that." Thomas said. "What do you mean?" Ishara asked. "I'm happy for you Little Rabbit. But you two have much to discuss now. I'll leave you two alone." Brett interrupted. "She will not leave before saying her farewells to you. I can assure you of that." Thomas said. Brett smiled at the two of them and went on his way; leaving them both alone so Thomas could prepare her for her new, better life.

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