She began cold, drawing blankets and coats to herself, scarves and spare scraps of cloth tucked into any openings left. She began cold, in a stone cave damp and miserable, the night air harsh and haunting.
She began cold, waiting to heal enough to move–though whether she meant to retreat or proceed, survival by cowardice or honor in action, she could not decide. Could barely consider, really, as she was mourning and in shock and scavenging through the caravan for anything that might help.
She began cold and woke up on fire, feverish and burning alive. No doubt cooking herself by accident, a horrific death on an already horrible day. Her muscles could barely move, she had nested too well, and it took her an excruciating while before she could claw her way out, press her face to the now soothing stone of the cave, lip idly at the trickles of water, cool and sweet.
It took her another half day to find an equilibrium, head muddled as it was, protected but not roasting, and another slow, plodding two days after that to gather and prioritize supplies for a lone girl miles and miles from the nearest civilization.
She does not know what fate may befall her ahead, only that to remain here would be certain death.
“Shh, shh, it will all be okay” she murmurs, hushing soothing sounds, clutching the both of them to her sides. She tries to be confident, to put up a brave front so that her cousins do not catch on, but there is no concealing the trembling of her arms, the hitching of her breath.
They are braver than her, it seems, for they do not respond with anything but solemn nods and a tighter embraces.
Outside their chosen hiding place, the hound paces, its snout peeking in and sniffing deeply. It barks to its fellows, the harsh sound echoed in multiple, the percussion of horse hoofbeats and the voices of men following all the more fearsome.
“Shh, shh,” she can only dumbly repeated, her voice cracking and tears beginning to fall.
“Can we pray to the Moon Mother?” asks Takay, sweet and petal soft.
“Of course,” she replies, as steadily as she can. It might be little comfort at the end of their lives, but for such a gruesome demise as this, surely any comfort is worth it.
Bulan, silent but no less sweet on her other side, helps her shaking hands reach for her beads.
“Moon Mother,” she begins, her cousins parroting the prayer as best as they can remember, “Who watches over us in the sky, casting light upon our dark nights. We pray to thee.”
There are now multiple hounds sniffing at the crevasse, barking madly with bloodlust.
“Moon Mother,” she continues, even as Takay and Bulan cannot, their faces shoved into her ribs, seeking whatever cover or comfort she has left to give, “Who sits amongst the stars, guiding us forever forward to our peace. We pray to–”
A high pitched yelp interrupts the chorus of barking outside, and soon the hounds sound less enraged and more confused. Scared.
She realizes that the hoofbeats and sounds of men have not come any closer. Have ceased entirely. Another high pitched yelp and soon the dogs are retreating, no longer harrying the opening of their hiding place.
Soon after, the forest is deafening in its silence.
Takay and Bulan pull away from her. Their hands still cling to her clothes, but they lean forward now, curiosity outweighing their fear.
A single boot steps into the visible triangle of the forest that they can see. Filthy and worn, but hardy it seems. Beside it drops the end of a staff, which taps twice against their hiding spot.
“I will not stay,” says the figure who has saved them, the voice gruff with what might be disuse. Their savior crouches down, body swathed and obscured by fabric, but unmistakeable as a human woman. “But you are safe for now.”