Golden tendrils spread their way over the sky, piercing between the gentle folds of distant clouds and breaking through the cragged peaks of the mountain range far off. The air was crisp, cool, and filled with the scent of rain and wet earth. The soil beneath her feet was soft with the moisture, and left indentations of her path through the undergrowth – if one knew how to find it.
The gentle croon of birds waking to the morning was beginning, like the song of dawn spreading through the air to lull the world to wakefulness, as if the sun’s kiss would not do on its own. She knelt, crouched down in the thick brush and gazing out from the twisted arms of a bush’s embrace, which seemed to reach for her in the gentle breeze, whispering sweet nothings if only she’d stay. But her sights were set beyond the tug and pull of nature’s call; her prey lingered in the open meadow of the forest.
An encampment was nestled at the other end of the flowery quarry, but the small party nestled there was sound asleep – even their lookout. Autumn smiled to herself; how would they ever become heroes if they allowed themselves the false security of rest in this forest, without even a reliable scout? It did make her job easier, however.
Slowly, she moved through the fauna of the woods’ shadows, keeping herself low and slow and silent. Despite the shock of red hair that fell from her scalp, she was wrapped up in neutral browns and greens – cloth and leather dyed for the surroundings of her home, the forest. And a wrap was woven around her head, masking the sheen of radiant red within, and keeping her vastly unseen. Her tail brushed along behind her in expert fashion, covering her tracks in the moldable topsoil. It was as if she was never even there.
At her belt was a rolled-up piece of paper, and she paused to draw the scroll from its place, slowly unfolding it to look once more at the quest’s target. What peered from its surface was the vehement face of a mountain drake, the only thing lending itself to the fake portrait being a lack of color. Otherwise, its eyes seemed to follow the viewer wherever they moved, as if taunting them to come after it.
ARSON, PILLAGING, KIDNAP, THEFT, MURDER
She frowned at the image, shaking her head for the umpteenth time. It was the only reason her forest had been invaded by these novice Heroes. They all thought themselves to be the next reigning champion. But Autumn wasn’t doing this for glory. She simply wanted them all to leave.
Rolling the image back up, she moved once more through the forest, pausing for a family of deer to cross her path. The stag eyed her warily as his herd passed, but it was as if the moment was caught on the vixen’s thoughts: Not today, friend. Today, I hunt larger prey.
The stag was just turning to follow his hind when a ear-shattering screech broke the silence. Autumn ducked down as the stag and his family bolted away, the rustle of their escape lost in the keening sound of a woman’s wailing, fear threading the waves of her displeasure and surprise like a tangible thing. Autumn swallowed once, and then burst forth from her spot, taking after the opposing path of the deer after the echoing sound. Nearby, the camp was jolted away, and sounds of pandemonium soon grew. On the air, Autumn’s keen ears caught the tempestuous call of a man, Doreen!! Doreen where are you? DAMN HER!
Autumn moved with all the swiftness of a hunter who knew her land, who knew the way the vines hung from the limbs overhead, or how the roots of the trees lifted from the soil to snag the unsuspecting paw. None of it hindered her, and she moved with all the agility and grace of the stag, herding his family to safety. But hers was not a goal of safety, oh no, hers was a goal of death.
She burst from the forest at the base of a mountain, it’s lower half broken by a gaping hole that seemed to swallow the light. The screams had faded now, but Autumn seemed to hear their echo on the rock around the entrance, and the signs of a struggle were obvious. Upturned dirt and overturned boulders. The scent of blood was on the air. Without a second thought, the vixen tore from her place at the tree line and dove behind a rock, ears perking and spine rigid. But still, despite the relay race through the forest, her breathing was even and her longbow – shined and polished with years of use and newly stringed, was held with the confident composure of a hunter well-trained. An arrow was halfway from the quiver, two digits holding it steady and ready to drag it to the bow for nocking… but silence spread its way through the air like a plague.
She peeked slowly around the edge of the rock, squinting at the darkness. Nothing. Taking a deep breath, she moved between the rocks, approaching the open mouth of the cave, and knowing what she’d have to do. The sound of blundering idiots as they screamed Doreen’s name was beginning to float on the wind and Autumn rolled her eyes. They’d get themselves – their whole party – killed.
To avoid that, she dashed into the darkness. It swallowed her up, and the eerie silence fell once again.
Moments passed. The clod-footed party seeking their lost member stumbled through the broken line of the forest as if blind… just as an earth-shattering roar tore through the forest, sending birds to wing and rabbits to warren. The remaining party stopped, gasping for air and staring in wide-eyed horror at the cave. Doreen screamed again and then… more silence.
Moments passed. Breath-held, shaking moments of horror and imagined scenarios of blood and death.
And then there came the sound of a warrior’s yell, as Autumn slayed the great beast within, before bringing poor Doreen back to her party…
It is said that in that cave, Autumn found a brood of drakelings, and the mother was holding Doreen above them, ready to scorch her for a roasted meal for her children. But Autumn had torn around the corner like a madwoman, leaping onto rocks and off the wall like some child of the wind, her arrows flying with only the ZZZISPSMASH of well-aimed weaponry to give away where they’d come from, or where they’d been meant to go. The dragon had dropped the flailing woman, directly into her children’s midst as she turned to face the unexpected adversary. But Autumn was born to the wild, to the wind, to the earth and sky. She was born to the trees and the wildness and the harsh beauty of the world. And this was her forest. Her arrows flew true, smashing into the dragon’s eye and then her open mouth as she roared, flying straight down the throat and into the creature’s heart. It was so fast, the dragon hadn’t even time to flame the fox woman who’d infiltrated her home. And only a few succeeding arrows was all it took to smash through the softened scales of the three offspring, leaving a dazzled and shocked Doreen in their midst. Who promptly fainted and had to be carried from the cave on Autumn’s shoulders.
Whatever really happened in that cave, only Autumn really knew, and her slain brood of dragons. Doreen sang songs of her heroism, but they were merely the ramblings of a fool trying to cover her own fear. Regardless, Autumn never corrected anyone.
She was content to be known as the Warrior Maiden of Goldenwood, it’s protector, it’s whispering threat. And she did it all, a fat stack of Dragonscales pushed in a dark corner, gathering dust, the cracking scroll of a long-forgotten wanted poster resting in the bag. While Autumn ran the forest, while she guarded her home.