Judgment of Worth
May 2002 (revised Oct 2002)
It hurts. Oh Spirits, it hurts. How could I have been so foolish to travel this far?
I walk as slow as reasonably possible to avoid jarring the arrow lodged in my shoulder, but it's a rather futile attempt on this rocky hill. The night sky has just darkened to its deepest color, which means I won't be able to reach home until dawn at the soonest. That is if I don't pass out from blood loss or at least choose to rest.
My attention spent on trying not to focus on the pain, I fail to notice how far I'm drifting to the side on the game trail. My foot slips on the loose ground off the edge and the rest of my body follows after. Tumbling down the hill, I dont bother attempting to regain my footing, my sense of up and down destroyed. White light flashes in my vision every time my shoulder connects with ground, which is far too often in my choosing. Suddenly, there is nothing solid beneath me. Arching slightly in the air, I wonder briefly if this is a good way to die.
With nothing better to do while waiting, I watch clear water drip slowly into a large jar I had set under a handy edge. It was the long, annoying way to get water, but it certainly tasted the best coming from the few springs in this area. River water works fine enough for cooking and cleaning purposes. I'd never drink the crap, though. The jar finally fills to the brim, I stopper the container. Grabbing its handle and the cord of the first jar that was filled, I start my walk home. As usual about halfway back, my arms throb in complaint, but I never setting down the containers as I remind myself that this is good training and worth the fresh water.
Just when my small cabin comes into sight, the call of my name stops me. With a grunt, I set down the jars and straighten to see two figures come up a trail from the village. The shorter of the two jogs ahead of the other as he yells out my name a final time.
"Seifer! Guess what happened last night." The small blonde practically bounces with every word.
"Finally went to the bathroom by yourself? Congrats, Beast Bait."
Zell frowns for a brief moment but his excitement is enough to make him ignore the insult. "We brought down a huge cat last night! It must have been seven feet long."
"Ho. And where is this creature?"
The blonde settles down and raises his hand to scratch the back of his head. "Well, we didn't actually kill it on the spot. But Irvine here got it really good with his arrows. We've been searching for the body since morning."
I take a side-glance at the longhaired friend who finally sauntered his way to join us. Glancing from beneath his large hat, he certainly looks smug enough to have killed something, but I know these two aren't skilled enough to survive a fight with a huge cat. Either it was injured or most likely they dreamed it up.
"Sure this wasn't just some rodent that meowed at you?"
Zell's frown returns. "You aren't the only hunter around here. I'm telling ya, it was huge. I'm going to make a necklace of its teeth. Just you wait. Come on, Irvine."
The silent man tips his hat in parting and shoulders his quiver of arrows before following the speedy blonde. I watch them go a bit before shaking my head. After picking back up the heavy containers, I cover the little remaining distance home while smiling at the foolishness of the two people I consider friends. Once I reach the cabin, I kick the door in just at the right spot for it to open smoothly and stay ajar. I drop the containers next to the wall and then lean back to stretch my spine. The sound of painful cracking in fact feels wonderful.
With a lighter step, I open the door to my bedroom. Sunlight dimly brightens the room that holds another fireplace, a small table and a decent bed. There also happens to be a man occupying my sleeping spot. Taking the dry cloth from his forehead, I dip it into the dish of water on the table, wring it out, and replace it onto slightly tan skin after brushing some strands of dark brown hair aside.
While fetching water from the river this morning to cook up breakfast, I came across this beauty. The lucky bastard got caught in overhanging tree branches, which managed to keep his head above water. The thick vegetation also stopped his progress to a waterfall further downstream. Talk about it not being the right time for him to die.
I had pulled him from the water, surprised to find he was completely naked with scratches and deep bruises all over his body, his most serious injury being the broken shaft of an arrow in his shoulder. Once I dragged him here, it took me a long time to remove the thing. If I didn't know better, I'd say the muscle itself wrapped around it just to make it a more bothersome extraction. Hopefully I didn't cause too much damage in the attempt to help the guy.
Lifting a corner of the sheets for a quick examination, I notice that I'll have to redo the bandaging soon. Replacing the blanket, I decide that it can wait until I get some dinner started. Need to have something to do while the meal is cooking over the fire.
Leaning back in a chair I brought in from the kitchen area, I finish off the stew while watching the brunette sleep. The sun has already set, so it's the flames of the fireplace that lights his peaceful face. After eating the last bit I could scrape off, I return to the front room to set the dish down for cleaning in the morning and to pour another glass of water.
Returning to the bedside, I find the man awake and surprisingly sitting up. With the lack of expression on his face, one wouldn't believe he is suffering from an injured arm let alone the numerous sore areas on his body. Gray-blue eyes study me warily, the dancing light of the flames intensifying the cautious look.
"You saved me?"
I try to smile in an unthreatening manner as I sit back on the chair. "Not really. I found you in the river and dragged you here. I'd have to say fate saved you."
"Then you treated me?"
"Yep, little o' generous me. Don't worry I won't charge you for it."
"I thank you," he says with a small tilt of his head.
"Gee, you're making me embarrassed." I hand the glass of water towards him, which he simply stares at it. "Go on. I didn't poison it or anything."
"I am fine." He contradicts himself by licking his dry lips.
"Does it hurt to lift your arms? Here, let me help."
I sit on the edge of the bed and hold the glass to his lips. Tipping it slowly up, he awkwardly drinks some of the liquid. Unfortunately, for every drop he drank, there's an equal amount on the bed covers.
"I guess we'll need more practice with that one," I say as I return to my seat and place the empty glass onto the table. "So, whereabouts are you from? I don't recognize the accent."
"You would not know of it. Where am I?"
"This is my cabin, just a short walk from the city of Altar."
"Where land-wise is this?"
"About a two day walking distance to the mountains. I found you in a local river. Care to tell the story about how you ended up in there?"
Choosing to ignore the question, he looks out the window in thought.
"Alright, you don't have to tell me anything. But if my guess is right, give up on the idea of leaving in the morning. You got pretty banged up. It'd be better for you to get rest."
His gaze returns to mine, but it doesn't reveal anything. He looks like a guy who does whatever the hell he pleases. I like that.
"Do you have a name? I'm Seifer."
A pause. "Squall."
"Well, Squall, do you want some food or would you rather go back to sleep?"
He thinks for a moment, shakes his head, and then lies down with his back facing me. Since he doesn't comment on the somewhat sodden sheets, I don't bother offering a drier set for him. My bed obviously taken for the night, I grab a folded blanket from the end of the bed and set it down a few feet from the fireplace. After tossing a couple more pieces of wood into the flames, I lie down for the night as well.
The sound of a loud thump awakens me instantly as I move quickly onto my feet in a crouch in preparation for whatever danger has entered the home. My defensives relax when I see Squall curled in ball several steps in front of me. The idiot must have tried getting out of bed while still weakened. Standing over him, I notice some blood seeping through the hand he has clamped over his shoulder. Smirking, I resist the urge to congratulate him for landing on the barely healed injury.
I kneel next to him. "Here, let me see it."
He hesitates before removing his hand. Adjusting the bandages, I note that no extra damage had really been done - the blood flow had simply been reopened.
"I told you it was too early to be on the move." I scoop the lean figure into my arms and carry him the short distance to the bed. "Looks like you'll have to suffer with my company for a bit longer because of that stunt."
He seems angry, but it's hard to tell if it's at himself or me. I remove the soaked bandages, clean the wound, and place fresh cloths on the shoulder.
"Really, what were you thinking? You don't even have clothes."
"I cannot stay."
With sigh, I stand up. "Well, sorry, but you aren't going anywhere."
His hands clench at the sheets, but he doesn't argue. Probably figures I'll have my back turned at some point. Too bad for him that with the extra water and storage of food, I don't have any reason to leave the cabin. I can watch him all day long for my enjoyment. Going into the kitchen, I rekindled the fire so that the stew from last night can be reheated for an easy breakfast. Through the open door of the bedroom, I notice the brunette trying to stand up from the bed once again.
"Oh, give up. I can see you from here."
"I have to piss."
The comment sets me back a little. It's certainly something I didn't consider about taking care of an invalid. Without another word, I help him to the outhouse.
I hate it when others are right. The blonde told me I needed rest and my rebellious body seems to agree. I haven't slept so much since I ate some poisonous berries years ago, but at least I'm not having the same issue with vomiting. Strangely, this man doesn't seem to mind waiting on me, almost treating it like some kind of game for his enjoyable. I'm not his relation, so why should he bother?
From my position on the bed, I hear a sharp sound from the outer room. The blonde gets up from whatever he was doing and closes the door to this room. Almost directly after, I can hear the voices of two or three men in addition to my caretaker. It's too muffled to hear the exact words, but one of them seems angry at loosing a kill. How could someone be inexperienced enough to let prey escape when it's wounded?
Some time passes before the other voices fade and a door is closed. Soon after, the door I've been staring at opens to reveal the blonde chuckling, his light green eyes filled with amusement as he walks in.
"They are so predictable. They brag about landing a big kill and then don't deliver. How pathetic."
"Are they hunters?"
"They wish! Unless you happen to define a hunter as someone who brings down a rabbit or two."
"If it brings food to the clan, that is all that matters."
"Phft. Whatever." He sits ungracefully into a chair.
"I suppose you are a true hunter then?"
"Kind of. More so a fighter. I want a battle, not just stalking down some helpless animal."
"You kill for amusement?"
Serious green eyes fix on me. "For your information, I only attack what attacks me. Unless I'm specifically looking for dinner."
Though I almost decided otherwise, I don't respond. How can he trap me into talking with him like this, as if it was something natural for me to do? It would be better to say as little as possible in the chance I mention something revealing. Something he could use against me.
"Listen, I didn't mention it before, but while you're here, try to keep your head down. People don't care for strangers that much around here."
"Is that why you closed the door?"
"Zell and Irv are good, but the small guy doesn't know how to keep his trap shut."
I nod in response. It's similar to my clan, so it doesn't offend me whatsoever. I believe myself that it is better to be cautious than pay for it later. Which once again makes me interested as to why this man would willing choose to look over me, especially when it is not approved by those of his clan. To him, I am without items, thus without worth. What could he want from me?
But my thoughts end when an unusual, somewhat sweet scent drifts into the room. I can't resist looking curiously in that direction.
"Ah, can you already smell the spice bread? It's an old Almasy recipe. I'll slice you up some with dinner."
I haven't heard of this bread thing before, but waiting to taste it while this aroma was in the air will be annoying. By my judgment of his character thus far, the blonde probably did it on purpose.
Lying against a large tree, I look up through the branches and at the crisp blue sky. Well, that's where my eyes are focused, by my mind is elsewhere. Squall left over a week ago without a word of warning to me. I thought by not dressing him, he'd be hesitant to leave the warmth of the cabin while in the buff. Guess he didn't mind a bit. In retrospect I should have known better.
It was nice having the uncommunicative guy around. While he didn't say much and had that strange accent, I felt like we shared something. It's as though he didn't need to talk much because of that vague connection. Being the one to treat his wounds, I know he had no real reason to stay longer than he did, but the guy could have at least said goodbye or something. And while I hate to admit it, he was eye-catching. The evening I gave him his first taste of spice bread, his stormy blues practically lit up. How could I resist letting him have the whole loaf except a slice for myself? His unaccustomed stomach paid for it later, but I think he found it worth the price.
And now he's gone. More so for the better. I can't let myself fall in love with some guy who could have dropped out of the sky for all my knowledge. Squall was good at making sure I didnít know any details about him while getting plenty of information from me. Though I have to wonder if it was merely me wanting to speak with him, and not him drawing the words from my mouth.
A quiet rustling of branches snaps my attention to the far side of the clearing and my hand goes to the blade lying next to me. The head of a large cat appears from the brush, eyes locking onto mine. After a brief stare down, it pads calmly out of the shrubs and towards me. I don't dare move my hand from the blade, though the creature oddly doesn't send me threatening signals.
The cat is brown in coloring, the dark fur making the blue eyes practically glow in the forest shade. It's a bit over four feet in length though on the lanky side, its long tail swishing lazily as it continues its progress. At the first glint of teeth, I grip my sword tightly and push up from the ground into a crouch. I can only stare as the beast finishes its yawn and promptly lies down about five steps away from me.
I stand up to my full height. "Oh, come on. I can't be that unimposing. You're not the biggest game I've come across."
It raises its head to look at me unworriedly and then sets it back down as if to resume a nap. An overgrown kitten just snubbed me.
I remove the blade from its scabbard. "Alright, pussy. Let's play."
At the sight of the sword, or perhaps because of my growled words, it gets up and faces me in a pouncing position, the tail raised high and swaying.
"That's right. Come for a taste of metal."
It rocks back a little and I prepare for the high attack. Instead, at the last moment it sprints forward keeping low. Clawing my leg with the quick pass, it continues a bit further before turning back to face me. I raise my leg a bit to survey the damage to find my trousers slashed from the knee down and a few droplets of blood from minor scratches. Glancing back at the cat, I swear it's smirking at me.
I can't help my own sneer. "Oh, that's cute. I'll have to use your skin for a new pair of pants."
I charge forward with the sword raised high in a two-handed hold as the beast crouches low again, a dark tongue licking its chops.
Sitting against the same tree from the day before, I try to keep attentive about my surroundings while looking casual. Yesterday was certainly a first. I've sparred with other swordsmen in the past as well as hunt down and kill dangerous beasts for the village, but I've never sparred with an animal. I haven't a notion if the cat was only playing with me or what, but it was a good long fight. Hell, it was a fucking blast.
The match had ended suddenly when its ears started twitching as it stood up straight and then bolted off. I had briefly considered following, but decided against it. By that time I was too tired to chase it and would have only injured myself in a stupid manner. Moments after the kitten left, Zell appeared as he was still looking for his vanishing cat after all these days. Inwardly I laughed as I wondered if this animal was playing with him, too.
When I hear the barest sound of crunching leaves, I stand up quickly in a firm stance. The dark cat jumps easily over some bushes and looks directly at me with those stunning eyes. My sword held at the ready, I motion it to come forward. It walks lazily towards me, but I don't dare fall for the feint, knowing well by now that the beast is too smart for its size of head.
Baring its teeth in a part snarl, part smile, it dashes towards me with incredible speed. I can only dodge the attack by rolling hurriedly to the side. Going too fast to stop, it ends up climbing part way up the tree I had been resting against. A split second before it pushes off from the trunk, I recognize the cat's true plan, but by then it's too late to avoid the two hundred pounds crashing on top of me.
With hot breath on my neck, I realize how stupid I was to think that an animal would rather play fight instead of going for the kill. Closing my eyes, I mentally prepare myself for the feel of teeth piercing through skin and eventually death. Instead I get a face full of tongue. I reopen my eyes in surprise to watch the beast hop off my body and lie down parallel to me, eyes fixed with mine. I don't know when I started laughing but I can't bring myself to stop. The cat just watches silently.
I dip a hand into my pocket. "To the winner, a prize."
I take out a large piece of dried meat and hold it out to the cat. It sniffs the meat carefully and then gingerly takes it from my hand. Watching it chew the tough food, I wonder at this trust. Its treat soon done, the cat gets up and starts pushing its nose at my other pocket. The greedy thing. Sighing, I roll to my back and pull out a folded cloth. The moment a slice of smashed spice bread is revealed, the cat eats it from my hand. Leave it to the Almasy family recipe to tame both man and beast.
After licking its chops in a kind of 'thanks', the dark-haired animal trots back into the forest.
Walking randomly through the forest, I keep a sharp eye out for tracks. I've played with the large cat for almost two weeks now, but it hasn't made its appearance in several days. Against my logical side, I feel worried about the big kitten. Living in the wild, of course it is part of the cycle that usually brings early death. But what if he's just hurt somewhere? I scoff at my ridiculous thoughts, though I continue to search the loose dirt of the game trail for signs of the large cat. Never thought I'd make a soft spot in my heart for a damn animal, especially one that has currently ripped three pairs of pants.
Looking up through the branches of trees, I'm surprised to notice it's nearly sunset. Well, it's not like I haven't spent nights in the woods before. I'll just have to find a decent camp area before it's too dark out. As I walk further along the trail, I eventually catch the sound of water and aim in that direction since where there is water, there is typically a campground.
As expected, I come across a relatively flat area with a small pit full of charcoal. There are even extra pieces of good burning wood nearby in a partial stack under a hollowed tree trunk. Guess it hasn't been too long since this place has been used. Deciding to refresh myself before starting the fire, I walk towards the increasing sound of water. Must be a waterfall.
A short distance away I find the small waterfall and a decent sized pool at its base. Before I approach the shore, a sound of movement in water catches my attention and I look to the middle of the clear pond. I'm stunned a moment at the sight of the familiar brunette, still lacking clothes after all these days. Perhaps a bit of anger revives itself within me, but in the end I'm relieved to see him well.
"Ho there, Squall. How's the water?"