Chapter 5
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I look around as I slide through the opening in the side of the hill. The forest is quiet around us, and the sun is slowly falling towards the horizon. I think it's safe to assume that the bandits aren't nearby, but we should still be careful.

The fox crawls out of the cave behind me, and steps up to my side. His shoulder is level with mine, and his body is about six feet long, including his tail. His head is held a bit lower than mine, if you don't count his ears, and I'm just now realizing how big he actually is, compared to me.

This is the first time we have both been standing at the same time, and I have to look up to see his ears. His size just seems to make him look more fluffy though, and I feel like hugging him as we stand here.

Instead of hugging the big, fluffy beast, I start walking through the forest. I head south, walking a quietly as possible. The fox walks behind me, and he seems to be good at this. I guess it makes sense, you can't hunt if you can't stealth.

We both make almost no noise, as we slowly move through the trees. I'm not sure exactly what we're looking for, but I know I haven't seen it yet. A cold wind blows through the trees, as we continue walking.

After a few minutes, the fox stops walking. I turn around when I notice, and see him sniffing at the ground. He seems to have noticed something, so I wait patiently for him to finish.

He looks up at me after a few seconds, then starts slowly walking around the area, now sniffing at the air. He spends a few minutes doing that, then looks back to me. He seems excited, as he stands there, muscles tense.

I nod at him, and he immediately starts sprinting off towards the southwest. I follow him closely, easily keeping pace with him, as he travels almost two meters with each bound. I only touch the ground with one foot at a time, and each step is about a meter from the last. We are easily traveling faster than those bandits were able to yesterday, so I'm a bit confused about how he managed to get shot by them.

I don't have much time to think about it, as the fox slows down. He crouches by the base of a tree, looking down the hill we've stopped on. I crouch beside him, following his gaze. I quickly find the thing he's focusing on, seeing a lone deer drinking from a small stream.

I'm not sure why it's alone, but I can't find any other deer in the area, as I scan the forest around the stream. After a minute of searching, I look back over at the fox. He's looking at me now, with questioning eyes and a tilted head. I assume he wants to kill the deer, so I shrug at him.

"I'm not used to hunting without a weapon, so I'm not sure how much help I'll be, but we can try." I say quietly, as I watch him. His ears perk at my words, and his eyes gleam in excitement, as he starts creeping down the hill. He moves towards the right as he slowly approaches the deer, making no sound as he does.

I move to the left, keeping low to the ground, and watching where I put my feet. We both get to either side of the deer without it noticing us, and I look at the fox as he stills. I'm only five meters from the deer now, and the fox is within four. He seems ready to pounce, so I prepare to help.

I'm not sure exactly what I should do, but stopping the deer from escaping into the forest sounds like a good idea. I shift my stance to better be able to run towards it, then look towards the fox again. He's crouching behind a fallen branch, and seems to be waiting for the best moment to attack.

I'm crouching behind a tree, as I watch the deer, which still seems oblivious to our presence. It looks up occasionally, scanning the surrounding forest, then goes back to drinking. I'm surprised it hasn't noticed us, but I don't have time to think about that.

I see the fox's eyes shift to me, so I reach down and grab a stick. The moment he sees it, his eyes move back to the deer. I wait a second, then snap the stick. It's a quiet but noticeable sound, and the deer's head is instantly looking towards me.

It sees me immediately, and its muscles tense to flee. It doesn't have the chance to move though, before the fox is landing on its back. He bites into the back of the deer's neck, clawing at its shoulders with his front legs, and using his back legs to grip it's sides.

The deer's eyes show it's pain and terror, as it starts thrashing around. I move from behind my tree, running towards it, as it cries out in pain. After a few seconds, one of its back legs catches on the edge of the stream, and it falls backwards towards the water.

The stream isn't very wide, only about a meter across, and the water is half a foot below the bank. I see the deer's shoulder land on the other side of the stream, as it's hindquarters drop into the water. The fox shifts from its back to its side, then bites into its throat.

I reach the edge of the stream, as the deer continues struggling, then jump over it. I grab it's head, as I stand beside it, holding it in place. The deer quickly dies, as the fox pulls away from it, holding a chunk of its throat in his mouth. He somehow doesn't have a drop of blood on his fur after that, and I stare at him as he swallows the flesh in his mouth.

I never used to see this much flesh or blood when I hunted in my previous life, but I've dismantled animal carcasses before, so I'm fine with it. I'm not fine with eating raw meat though, so I don't copy the fox as he starts happily ripping chunks of meat out of the deer's side.

I still should eat something though, just not raw meat. I'm not sure how to start a fire with just my body and the things around me, and I don't know what plants in this world are edible, so I'm not sure what to do.

I watch the fox as he eats, thinking about my options. I'd rather attempt to start a fire, than just eat a random plant and hope for the best. Deciding that, I start looking for dry leaves and sticks. Most of the forest ground is covered in dry leaves, with sticks being a little less common, and it only takes me a minute to have a large pile of tinder gathered.

I stare at the pile, not knowing how to continue. I think I'm supposed to use friction to create heat, but I don't know much more than that. I guess I should just rub as many sticks together as possible, as fast as possible. That should work better than anything else I try.

I grab the first stick that probably won't break if I rub it against another, then shove it through the center of the pile. I push down on the top of the pile with one hand, and start repeatedly stabbing it with the stick with my other hand. I can hear the sticks grinding together, but I don't see any fire, so I assume I'm doing something wrong.

I'm not sure what the problem is though, and I spend the next ten minutes shifting the pile around and inserting the stick at different angles. I eventually get a small fire for my efforts, which quickly grows, spreading through the pile.

I smile at my success, then turn to the deer carcass. I find the fox laying beside it, looking at me with a lazily curious expression. He seems interested in the fire, but content to just watch it. The deer is missing a large portion of its side, but it still has plenty of meat on its body.

I walk over to it, looking for a way to remove some of the meat without getting myself covered in blood. After a few seconds, I decide I don't have one, and just rip a chunk of flesh out with my hand. I'm left with a handful of meat and blood, which I try not to get on my clothes. The meat I'm holding came from the deer's back, and I can now see its spine as I look at it.

I look away from the deer, then walk towards the fire, holding the meat in front of me. I grab a somewhat clean stick off the ground with my free hand, then stab it into the chunk of meat. I use it to hold the meat over the fire, as I move to sit on the ground.

I wait patiently, as I hold it in the fire. It takes about five minutes before I start to smell it cooking, but it still looks raw. I can see grease dripping into the fire though, and the sound of it sizzling is unmistakable. I'm not sure what the extra blood will do to it, but I'm pretty sure blood is edible.

I hear the fox shift behind me, before his footsteps start coming closer. His whiskers brush against my cheek, as he looks over my shoulder, and I turn my head slightly to look at him. He's staring into the fire, and I can't see his eyes from my position on the ground.

I'm going to assume he has never seen cooked meat before, seeing as he's a fox. He's probably curious about how much the meat is changing as it cooks, and I smile as he presses into my back. The meat should be done soon, so he'll be able to try it then.

I reach around his head with my free hand, setting it on his snout. He looks down at me, eyes questioning, as he moves to settle beside me. "It's food." I say simply, moving my hand to his ears. He seems expectant, as he looks back to the fire, staring at the meat.

I take the stick out of the fire after another few minutes, inspecting the meat once I do. It seems fully cooked, so I look around for a place to put it. Everything around me is covered in dirt, so I just stab my end of the stick into the ground, letting the meat cool in the air.

I pet the fox as we wait for it to cool, and relax into his side, as he lays beside me. It takes another minute before the meat stops sizzling, then I pull the stick out of the ground. I see no way not to get myself covered in grease, so I just grab the meat directly. I rip it in half, and offer one part to the fox, as I bite into the other.

He quickly takes the meat from my hand, then tilts his head as he bites into it. It tastes about how I expected it to, though the amount of blood still in it when I started cooking does change it slightly. He seems to like it, as he doesn't immediately drop it on the ground.

I slowly eat my chunk of meat, as I sit next to him. This was quite fun, but I really should be getting back to the manor. The fox isn't injured anymore, and the bandits could still be looking for us.

I stand up as I finish eating, then move over to the stream. After washing my hands and face, I look back to the fox. He's staring at me questioningly, as he sits beside the fire, still perfectly clean.

"Where should we go now?" I ask him, then walk towards the fire. He stands up, following my gaze to the fire, as I start pushing it towards the stream with my meat stick. I don't get any real response from him while I dump the burning sticks into the water, but I didn't really expect one in the first place.

"I guess it's home then." I say, as I finish pushing the fire into the stream. I then look up, as I hear footsteps approaching. They are coming from a hill to the northeast, and it sounds like three people. The fox looks up at the same time as me, staring in the direction of the noise.

"Do you think it's the same people from yesterday?" I quietly ask, looking towards the fox. He growls lowly in response, his posture changing, as he turns to the south. We both start sprinting at nearly the same time, and I hear a shout behind us as we run.

"Hey! I found the girl! The beast's with her too!" I haven't heard this voice before, but he seems to know about us. It seems the bandits brought some friends with them while we were resting.

I hear more shouting, and quite a few footsteps, before at least six people start running down the hill behind us. I don't bother being quiet, as I sprint after the fox, and soon I can barely hear the men.

We run for five minutes, before stopping on the crest of a hill. I crouch beside the fox, as I listen to the voices ahead of us. I've never seen people in the forest before, not until yesterday anyway. This is a really strange occurrence.

"Why are we out here? It's not like we're going to find anything." This person sounds annoyed as he speaks, and his voice is coming from just over the next hill. He's talking loudly, not bothering with stealth, and I assume he doesn't see a need for it.

"Because the boss said we need ta find them. If ya wan'ta die, go back to the boos without finding them first." Another male voice responds to the first, sounding a bit farther away. I assume they're looking for me and the fox, meaning that the bandits from a few minutes ago aren't out here alone.

This is bad. I probably have an entire criminal organization organizationsearching for me at the moment, and I doubt they care for my safety. I know they are trying to kill the fox anyway, and just that is bad enough. I still don't know why I think that's bad, but I can't let it happen.

I nudge the fox, then gesture towards the east when he looks at me. He nods once, and we both start sprinting again. We only make it halfway up the next hill, before we hear a shout behind us.

"Hey! Is that the girl?!" The first of the two new voices asks, and I see another leather armored man, holding a crossbow, as I look behind me. He is pointing it towards the hill we're running up, while looking over his shoulder.

"I dunno, jus' shoot it!" Is the only response he gets. He quickly raises his crossbow, aiming it at me, as I look back in front of me. I focus on my hearing, waiting for him to fire, as I continue running forwards.

Soon I hear a quiet click, and I immediately jump to the side, not losing any speed as I do. A crossbow bolt sinks into the ground beside me, and I can hear the man muttering curses, as he reloads his weapon.

I soon reach the top of the hill, just a step behind the fox, and see three people standing at the bottom of the next one. They are about ten meters away from us, and we are already half way to them by the time they notice us.

All three of the men are holding crossbows, and have a sword on their hip. They start to raise their crossbows towards us, but we are just a few steps away when they do. The fox jumps at the one on the right, and I see his jaws clamp around the man's throat, before they start falling backwards.

I wince slightly, but still manage to grab the hilt of his sword, as the fox jumps from his chest, leaving a bloody hole in his throat. The sword slides smoothly out of its sheath, and I hold it in front of me as I continue running.

I have no experience in sword fighting, but it shouldn't be too hard to use. I'm trying not to have a reason to use it anyway, but that doesn't seem to be working too well. It seems the bandits really want to find us. Apparently they don't like it when young girls manage to steal something from them without any effort. That seems reasonable, but they don't have to try to kill me for it.

"The damned thing killed Jimmy!" One of the two bandits behind us screams after a few seconds. We are just starting to run down the other side of the hill when he says that, and I wince again as I see the image of the dead bandit in my mind. This is the first time I've ever seen a human die, and it's not a pleasant experience. It's not worse than the first time I saw an animal die though, and I wonder if that's a bad thing.

I don't have more than a few seconds to think about it though, as I hear multiple voices start screaming around me. They are coming from the north and west, and it sounds like at least thirty people. I follow the fox up the next hill, focusing on the sounds around me.

Reaching the top of the hill, I see ten men standing on the next hill to the north, and five just in front of us. The bandits in front of us are already pointing their crossbows at us, as they stand just four meters away. The fox slows down slightly as he sees them, and I pass him, continuing at the same speed.

The bandits fire one after another, and I slap the bolts out of the air with the sword. One of the bolts grazes my cheek as I run, drawing a long line of red across the skin. I grit my teeth, and swing the sword at the closest bandit with my full strength. The sword barely slows, as it chops through his arm, and I dodge around him as he starts screaming.

I have two bandits to my left, and one on my right, as I look to the last one in front of me. He flinches back, his eyes widening, as he stares at me, and I use that chance to duck past him. I can hear the fox follow behind me, as I sprint past the bandits.

The sound of ten crossbows firing reaches my ears, and I jump into the air, not having any other option. I rise six feet into the air, and look below me, watching the ten bolts hit the ground. I'm glad my reaction speed and sight are good enough to see the bolts in flight, as I would be dead by now if they weren't.

I have half a second to notice that the fox jumped with me, before my feet touch the ground again, and I continue sprinting. We pass the next hill before the bandits reload, and don't run into anymore as we continue.

We run for the next thirty minutes, before we stop to rest. I look around us as I lean against a tree, expecting to see a crossbow bolt flying towards me. I relax slightly when I don't see one, then push off the tree, and start walking further east.

The fox follows me as I walk, and I look for somewhere safer to rest. I'm not sure how much longer I can keep running, and I think the stress from the last two days is starting to get to me.

It takes about five minutes of walking to find another cave, and I immediately approach it. This cave is much larger than the last one I found, with the entrance being about four feet tall. The bandits will be able to follow us, but it should still be hard for them, and we can always look for another if this one ends in a dead end.

I can't see very well as I walk into the cave, but I'm not left completely blind either. The cave branches off after twenty meters of walking down a straight tunnel, with one passage leading slightly to the right, and the other leading to the left.

I keep walking straight, heading down the left tunnel, as it starts getting darker. The fox seems to be able to see fine, as he follows behind me, and we walk another ten meters before the cave starts getting smaller.

The walls get closer together, and I stop being able to move further after about three meters. The cave walls are only about a foot apart at this point, but the ceiling has risen out of my sight. It seems more like a crevice now, with how the walls have become jagged stone, and I decide to look for a way to continue.

I set the sword on the ground, then start climbing up the wall on the right, slowly moving higher. The rocks aren't sharp, but they still stab into my hands, and catch on my dress as I climb. I get better at it as I go though, keeping my clothes away from the sharper rocks, and it only takes me a few minutes to get ten feet off the ground.

My hand finds the lip of a ledge, and I pull myself up onto it. I find myself looking at another wall, about four feet from me, as I lay on my stomach. The wall merges into the ceiling a foot above the ledge, and the ceiling arches up, raising to be three feet above me.

I pull myself further onto the ledge, then raise myself into a crouch. I then turn around and look into the darkness below me, not being able to see more than two feet into it.

"I found a ledge up here, do you think you can make it up?" I whisper, trying to see the fox. I really doubt he can get up here, it was hard enough for me, and I have hands.

All I hear is a quiet scratching against the stone below me, and I assume that means no. I'm not sure how I'm going to get him up here, but I still have to try. It should be possible, just really hard.

I start climbing down the wall again, moving a little slower this time. It's a bit harder to get down, but it only takes me five minutes. I look to the fox as I set my feet on the floor, then back up at the ledge.

"Do you think I can carry you up there? I'm not sure if it's a good idea." I say, turning back to him. He looks up at the ledge, seeming dubious, then steps closer to me. I nod, then lift him over my shoulder, and set my free hand on the wall.

I set one foot on the wall in front of me, then pull myself up. I press my other foot into the wall behind me, and move the first up higher, then pull myself up with my hand again. I continue like this, slowly moving farther from the floor as I go.

The fox doesn't move, just relaxing into me, but it still takes fifteen minutes to reach the ledge. After another minute, I get high enough to shift the fox from my shoulder to the ledge, and do so, then slide onto it myself. I lay on the ledge, looking up at the ceiling for a second, then sit up, looking at the fox.

He's standing a foot away from me, looking at me questioningly. I'm not sure what to do now, but I know we shouldn't leave the cave for a while. My face is still bleeding, and my body is sore, something that hasn't happened for quite a while. I need some proper rest, and I believe the fox needs the same.

"We're probably going to be here for a while." I say quietly, pulling my knees up to my chest. I hug my legs to my chest, thinking about everything that has happened the past few days.

Soon I feel the fox brushing against my back, as he lays down, pressing his side into me. I lean back slightly, sinking into his fur, as he curls his body around me, setting his head on his tail. I'm surrounded by a pleasant warmth, and I don't even realize that I'm falling asleep, until I wake up.

I open my eyes, finding myself surrounded by soft fur. It's a really pleasant feeling, and I just relax into it, forgetting about the recent stress. I don't think I've ever felt this content, or relaxed, in either of my lives. It's a strange thing, seeing as I've know this fox for two days, but I can't seem to care about that.

I don't know how long I stay there, but eventually my body decides it needs food, and I'm forced to get up. The fox seems to have been sleeping, until I sat up, and I see one of his eyes look at me from the ground. His tail is resting on his head, and he doesn't seem to want to move.

I gently push his tail off of me, then crawl to the edge of the ledge. I hear him shift behind me, before he steps up to my side. I look down into the darkness for a moment, then shift my gaze to his face.

"How are you going to get back down there?" I ask, then look back over the ledge. I hear him sigh, something I didn't know foxes could do, before he nudges me with his side. I look back up at him, and he nods towards the darkness. I take that to mean I should start climbing, and swing my legs over the edge.

I move down until my shoulders are level with the ledge, then gesture to the fox with one hand. He walks up to the ledge, then pauses, before jumping towards me. I brace myself, then wrap my arm around him, as he lands against my chest. I make sure my grip is fine, and that I'm not about to fall, then start climbing down the crevice.

It takes twenty minutes to reach the cave floor, where I have to walk backwards, still holding the fox, until there's enough room to set him on the ground. Once he's on the ground, I go back and grab the sword, then start walking towards the entrance to the cave.

We cautiously step out of the cave, prepared to start running, but find nothing to run from. I relax after looking around for a bit, then start walking towards the east, expecting to start seeing familiar terrain soon.

The sun is high in the sky by now, meaning that I slept through the night, and most of the previous afternoon. This is easily the longest I've ever stayed in the forest, and I hope to be able to return to the manor uninterrupted. I'm not sure how long I was enjoying lying with the fox, but it shouldn't have been more than a few hours, so I probably woke up around early morning.

We slowly walk through the forest, not bothering to hurry. I'm still exhausted from the past few days, and the fox seems just as tired. We both remain alert though, not wanting to miss the sound of a crossbow firing.

It takes three hours of walking to reach a recognizable part of the forest, and I turn south as soon as I do, then continue walking. The fox walks close to me, brushing against my side every once in a while, as we head towards the manor.

It takes another two hours before I see the walls, and I walk past the tree line, moving to follow them. I had dropped the sword somewhere in the forest during the last few hours, but I wasn't really paying attention. I don't see any guards on the walls, as we walk, and I soon reach the front gates.

I push the gates open, then close them behind me, and start walking towards the front entrance. I'm covered in dirt and a bit of dried blood, but the fox is still somehow perfectly clean. It's a bit strange, but I don't feel like thinking about it at the moment, so I just continue walking.

"Zuren!" I hear my father's voice shout, coming from my right. I look up, confused, as I see my father sprinting towards me from the corner of the entrance wing. He should be in the capital right now, why is he here?

My father drops to his knees as he reaches me, then hugs me to his chest, as I see Rumore and Rendun run around the corner of the building. They are soon followed by my mother and my three maids, along with one of the guards I've seen on the walls.

The seven of them sprint towards us, and soon I'm surrounded by seven adults, as the guard stands off to the side. The fox lays on the ground, pressing himself into my legs, seeming to be trying to hide from the new people, as they quickly start asking questions.

"What happened Zuren? Why were you gone so long?" My father asks worriedly, as  he pulls away slightly, looking at me. I'm just now realizing that I've been gone for three days, and they probably thought I was kidnapped, or killed.

"I was in the forest, and then I found a friend, and then some mean people chased us, and then we fell asleep in a cave." I explain happily, smiling at him. He seems confused by my response for a moment, before his expression shifts to anger, and he looks up at my brothers.

"What did these mean people look like, Zuren?" He asks calmly, as he looks back at me. I'm not sure if he's mad about the 'mean people' or the 'fell asleep in a cave' part, but I can easily tell that he's ready to murder someone.

"They were big ugly men with armor and swords." I explain, continuing with my happy tone of voice, as I swing an imaginary sword at him. He smiles at me, then sighs, and continues.

"Did they have crossbows? And was their armor made of leather?" He asks slowly, seeming to be having trouble containing his anger. I assume he knows who those bandits were, and they probably either lied about seeing me, or have been in the area for a while.

"Big crossbows with painful arrows." I say, nodding exaggeratedly a few times. I see the anger flash through his eyes again, before it quickly disappears, as his face remains calm.

"They shot at you." He doesn't really ask this, but his voice is still slightly questioning, so I nod again, and point to the cut on my cheek. He slowly looks up at my brothers again, after he sees it, and I follow his gaze.

Both of my brothers have very dark expressions, and they look absolutely hateful. I guess they aren't as good at hiding their emotions as my father is. Either that, or my father isn't as mad as they are. I find it sad that I don't know them well enough to tell, but there's nothing I can do about it.

"I will go track down the men, father." Rendun says coldly, looking to my father. My father nods once, and he starts sprinting back towards the side of the manor they came from.

"I'll help him." Rumore says, not waiting for a response, as he sprints after Rendun. My father turns back to me, sighing, then stands up. He seems reluctant about something, but I'm not sure what.

He looks down at me, seeming to just notice the fox hiding behind my legs. The fox has his tail curled around my feet, with his head resting on it, as he looks up at my father. He seems curious, but also suspicious, and a little protective.

"Is this your new friend?" My father asks curiously, as he looks down at us. The other five people standing around us seem just as curious about the fox, staring at him as they wait for my response.

"Yep! I found a really good friend in the forest!" I smile brightly at them, and they all start smiling in return. My father looks at the fox for a moment, then shrugs, looking back to me.

"Does it have a name?" He asks, not seeming very expectant. I can understand that, I am only five, after all. I look down at the fox, thinking about what his name might be. I'm pretty sure he has one, and as I look at him, only one thing seems to come to mind. It's the only name I can think of at the moment, and it just seems right, in the same way that I knew that he is young, and what his gender is.

"Nalu." I say simply, still looking at the fox. He doesn't seem to disagree, so I look back up at my father. "Why are you here? Is it my birthday again?" I ask, tilting my head.

He winces, then smiles at me, shaking his head. "No Zuren, it's not your birthday. Me and your brothers just wanted to come and see you. Mommy did too." He explains, gesturing to my mother.

I nod at him, then turn, and walk towards the front entrance. The fox, who I think actually is named Nalu, follows behind me. The people behind us start talking about the bandits, probably assuming I can't hear them anymore, but I ignore them.

We reach my room uneventfully, and I immediately climb into my bed. Nalu jumps up after me, and stands over me, as I look at the ceiling. I shift my gaze to his face, as he looks down at me, wondering what he's doing. he lowers his head to mine, and I feel a pulse of... something, as quite a few things in my mind shift, and I fall unconscious.