Today was the seventh of Azkala. That meant that Nikita was nine today. She was proud of herself for managing to keep track of her age without help from anyone else. Her mother had helped her once -- Nikita was sure of that. She imagined that her mother must have hugged her often, and told her stories.
Leaning against the side of the wagon as it rolled steadily along, Nikita closed her eyes and imagined her mother's face. She could almost picture her, lying pale and shaking in her sick bed. That was only three years ago. But the image was growing dim. She could remember her mother's dark, wavy hair, her black eyes filled with pain. But what about the rest of it? Had her mother been tall? What had her nose looked like? Her smile?
Nikita hugged herself and fought the rising panic. She was losing her memories of her mother, bit by bit. Tears welled, spilled down her cheeks. How could she forget her own mother?
The wagon jerked, stopped. Where were they? She hated being locked in the supply wagon. There were no windows to see outside, and she got so lonely. Nikita supposed it was silly to be lonely. Uncle Carlos and Aunt Sophia never let anyone talk to her unless they really needed to, so Nikita was more or less always alone. Still, it was nice to hear other people's voices, even if they weren't talking to her.
Except when they were yelling. Aunt Sophia was always yelling at Nikita. Like this morning. Nikita really shouldn't have picked up that necklace. But it had just been lying there on the ground, this pretty silver thing. Even though she knew it belonged to Aunt Sophia, who wore it every day, Nikita could not resist picking it up. She wasn't going to keep it. She'd just wanted to look at it.
It was a perfect, silver oval, with an elegant F for Francesca engraved on the front. It had been her mother's necklace -- she was sure her father must have given it to her.
Nikita had held it before her, watching it spin on the delicate chain, throwing back the sunlight. The clasp was broken - that must have been how Aunt Sophia had lost it.
Then, Nikita had noticed something strange about the necklace. There were tiny hinges on the side. It was a locket! What could be inside - maybe a sketch of her mother? Excited, she'd tried to open it.
Only to have it snatched out of her hands. Nikita had looked up in fear to see Aunt Sophia scowling at her. Uncle Carlos loomed behind her.
That's my necklace. Stealing now, are you? After everything we've done for you -- clothed you, fed you. You ungrateful, little brat.
Nikita had protested her innocence, but they didn't listen. They never did. Uncle Carlos had beaten her badly this time. She was still very sore. The bumping and swaying of the wagon hadn't helped. Nikita wished they would give her a pillow, or more blankets.
She heard foot steps outside. A key turned in the lock. Nikita cringed. Was it Uncle Carlos? Maybe it was her cousins? They were usually assigned to feed her, and her stomach had been rumbling for a while now. Sometimes they forgot.
Nikita relaxed when Stefan opened the door. Her other two cousins, Demetri and Mihail, were cruel to her. But Stefan, Carlos and Sophia's youngest child, had never bullied Nikita or pushed her around. Nikita liked to think that Stefan liked her, and would have been kind to her if it wouldn't have gotten him in trouble.
Stefan did not have food with him, as Nikita had been hoping. Instead, he carried a large pail and a lantern, along with a small pouch containing flint and steel. He set these down inside the wagon.
Mama wants you to pick some mushrooms for dinner.
Nikita looked around as she got out of the wagon. They were camped by a stream, and the other kids were swimming and playing in the water. It looked like fun.
You'd better hurry, Stefan warned. We've only got an hour or two. You don't want to be in these woods after dark.
Nikita looked at Stefan in surprise. Warning her like that was not strictly necessary, and therefore a violation of the rules. She thought it was awfully thoughtful of Stefan to worry about her like that.
But that didn't make her feel any better about the chore before her. What was so spooky about these woods? She wished somehow she knew where they were, but nobody bothered to tell her these things.
Well, it wasn't as if she had any choice. Nikita picked up the pail and lantern and headed for the woods. She didn't have far to go. They had camped in a clearing, between the stream and the edge of the woods. Carlos never liked to camp near the road because of bandits.
Picking mushrooms was a chore Nikita had done many times before. She knew to be careful to only pick the round, white ones that she was sure were safe, and she concentrated carefully as she worked. Before she knew it, it was getting too dark to see, and her bucket was not even half full.
Nikita looked around nervously. She could hear an owl hooting, insects chirping, and small animals rustling through the grass. She wanted to run back to camp, but she knew what would happen if she came back with such a meager portion of mushrooms. Sometimes, Nikita wished they could just skip meals completely. Every one of them seemed to involve some difficult chore for her that would lead to punishment if she didn't do it just right. Despite the rumbling in her stomach, Nikita thought breakfast, lunch and dinner were all more trouble than they were worth.
Well, it was getting darker while she was sitting here wishing for things that weren't going to happen. With a heavy sigh, Nikita pulled out the flint and steel. She always had a hard time getting a spark to light the lantern.
A flutter of wings startled her. Nikita jumped as a shadow flew past her. Her hand knocked over the lantern, spilling the precious oil. She heard a rodent squeak, and the wings fluttered away.
An owl. It was only an owl catching a mouse. Nikita picked up the lantern, but it was no use -- the oil was gone. How would she ever find her way out of these woods in the dark?
She looked around, trying in vain to see. She could only make out vague shapes. The forest noises seemed more eerie and ominous than ever.
Something rustled in the grass behind her. Something big. Nikita grabbed the pail and lantern and ran for her life.
She tripped over something, stumbled. The pail slipped from her grasp and rolled, spilling mushrooms everywhere. Nikita got up, ran again. This time her foot caught on something. She fell, twisting her ankle painfully. The lantern shattered beneath her, cutting her left hand and arm with sharp bits of glass. Nikita lay on the ground, sobbing. She was sure that some monster was about to eat her.
Nikita tensed when she heard an animal approaching. Hot breath warmed the back of her neck. The monster purred.
Purred? Despite her pain, Nikita was curious. She pushed herself up with her good hand.
In the dim light, Nikita could see the form of some sort of cat beside her. A lynx, or a bobcat maybe? She'd thought such creatures were dangerous. But this one rubbed against her and purred, just like the cats some city dwellers kept as pets. Unable to resist, Nikita reached out and petted the animal's soft fur. It licked the palm of her hand, then padded off into the darkness.
Nikita felt like a fool. She'd been running from a harmless, little cat. Now both the pail and the lantern were gone. Carlos would be furious. Assuming she ever made it back to camp. She had no idea where she was.
But she knew she had to try to find out. Nobody would bother to come looking for her. She tried to stand up, but her ankle would not support her, and she felt back to the ground.
What was she going to do?
Nikita heard foot steps approach. She was astonished. Had somebody come to look for her after all? Maybe it was Stefan? Or Marta? Nikita's dance teacher had always praised her talent. She might care that Nikita was missing.
It wasn't Stefan or Marta, but a stranger that finally appeared. He carried a wooden staff that gave off a soft light. A lynx circled around his feet, then padded over to Nikita. It butted its head against her hand until she gave in and stroked its fur.
Meanwhile, Nikita stared at the stranger. He was a tall man, wearing simple trousers and a thick cloak that had seen much patching. The greens and browns of his clothing blended in with the woods around him. He was an adult, but not very old. His beardless face was smooth, his light blond hair hung past his shoulders. Blue eyes regarded Nikita with surprise and concern.
Well now, Nip, it seems you have found something interesting. The man approached Nikita and kneeled down before her, carefully avoiding the bits of broken lantern. The staff bathed his face with a warm glow, and Nikita could tell that he was very handsome. He smiled at her, showing dimples.
What's your name, little one? How did you come to be in my woods all alone in the night?
I'm Nikita. Nikita Kryszka. My family is camped by the stream. My aunt sent me here to pick mushrooms, and... Nikita didn't wanted to admit that she was scared. I fell. I'm sorry -- I didn't know that anyone lived here.
No apologies needed. Guests are always welcome in my home, Nikita. I am Caerwyn, Wajen's humble servant.
Nikita stared in surprise. She'd never met a priest before.
He chuckled, and Nikita felt her cheeks flush with embarrassment. Of course he was really a priest of Wajen. He lived in the woods and had a pet lynx, for gods' sake.
I mean, I know you really are a priest, I just...
Relax, Nikita. You are hurt and confused. Please, let me tend to your wounds. Hold out your hand. Don't be scared -- this won't hurt.
Tentatively, Nikita held out her bleeding hand. Caerwyn plucked a piece of broken glass from her palm, which did hurt a lot, but Nikita realized it was necessary. The lynx purred and rubbed against her when she gasped in pain.
Then Caerwyn chanted some strange words. He touched her hand, and the skin grew warm. Before Nikita's eyes, the wound vanished. Caerwyn fixed her ankle just as easily.
Caerwyn smiled. Wajen's gifts are a true miracle. Come, little Nikita. Let me take you back to your camp.
Nikita was surprised when Caerwyn picked her up.
You don't have to carry me. I can walk now.
Perhaps. But sweet, little girls should be carried whenever possible.
True to his word, Caerwyn carried her the whole way back to the camp, with Nip the lynx padding along beside him. Everyone was amazed when they walked up to the main camp fire and Caerwyn introduced himself as a priest of Wajen. Everyone crowded around, asking questions.
Aunt Sophia and Uncle Carlos pushed their way through the crowd, and everyone grew silent. Carlos only stared silently at the stranger, but Aunt Sophia looked nervous.
Nikita, there you are. What on earth were you thinking, running off like that? We've been so worried. Come here, darling.
Aunt Sophia held out her arms, so that Caerwyn could hand Nikita over. But the priest only stared at Sophia. She let her hands fall to her sides and glanced nervously at Carlos.
Thank you for bringing Nikita back to us, Father Caerwyn, said Carlos. I hope she hasn't caused you any trouble.
Caerwyn put Nikita down beside him, but held onto her hand tightly. The lynx rubbed against her leg, purring.
Nonsense. How could such a small child cause any trouble?
You'd be surprised, said Carlos.
Nikita looked up at Caerwyn in astonishment. He didn't seem to like Uncle Carlos very much.
Sophia stepped in between them. Carlos, where are your manners? Father Caerwyn, won't you join us for dinner?
I'd be delighted. Perhaps I can help.
Uncle Carlos glowered at the priest, but everyone else was amazed when he cast a spell, producing tables laden with fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats of all kind. Caerwyn plucked a juicy pear and handed it to Nikita. She'd never tasted anything so sweet. After dinner, the tables all just vanished -- there was nothing to clean up!
Caerwyn gathered all the children around him. (Nikita was very pleased when Nip settled in her lap.) He told them stories of gods and heroes. All the children listened with rapt attention. Nikita decided that she liked Caerwyn very much, and wished that she could meet more priests, if they all told stories like this. She was very sad when the night ended, and Caerwyn and Nip had to leave them.
Realizing that Carlos and Sophia were probably mad at her, Nikita hurried to her bed as soon as the kindly priest was gone. Climbing into the supply wagon, she stopped in astonishment when she felt something soft, much like Nip's fur.
They were blankets -- a whole pile of them. In the center of the pile was a thick feather pillow. Nikita wondered how they'd gotten there. She'd been with Caerwyn the whole time. Who else could have given her such a gift? But then, how had he known where she slept?
Nikita was tired, and such questions were beyond the scope of a nine year old girl. She curled up in the blankets and rested her head on the soft pillow. As she drifted off to sleep, Nikita realized that this was the best birthday she'd ever had.