Chapter 1: Where's Your Cow, Boy?
The sunlight was quickly fading, and James was eager to find this cow before dark. With his luck, it was one of the black steers, which would be nearly impossible to find at night if it was lying down.
Elliot's hooves beat against the grassy ground as James took him over the surrounding hills, constantly scanning the surroundings and stopping at the peaks of hills to look down. After going in what felt like more than one circle, but was in reality only a very large one, the sun decided to abandon him.
And now he was staring into the dark.
Getting back to the camp would be easy enough with the fire's light acting as a beacon, but James was beginning to feel the slightest tug of anxiety pulling at his chest.
Relationships were fragile things. One failure or wrongdoing wouldn't turn Gregor away - he knew he was a patient man - but the last thing he needed was to look incompetent. This job was supposed to be an escape. Maybe his last one, before he withdrew from all society for good. He just needed the smallest sense of stability for a few months so he could get his bearings once more and raise enough money for supplies that would sustain him when he went into the Wilds.
That had been the plan ever since...
James pulled Elliot to a sudden halt as all of his attention was fixed first on a divet of trampled grass at the top of the hill, and then... a flickering light in the distance. Just over the hill, he could see a light moving. Dancing around the field, back and forth.
He blinked hard, making sure that his eyes weren't playing tricks on him. If he'd somehow got turned around back towards the camp, the campfire would've been stationary.
That meant someone was out there.
Thoughts not entirely abandoning the task at hand with the lost cow but alerted by the presence of someone else out in the rolling plains, James drew Elliot just a little further back, outside of view. Even though it was dark, someone could easily make out the silhouette of a man on a horse when looking up from the bottom of the hill.
He hopped off and gently patted Elliot's side.
"Stay here," he whispered, barely audible as he crouched down and began to ascend the hill once more, this time daring to draw closer to see what exactly was dancing around in the dark.
As he settled at the top of the incline, staying low in the tall, wispy grass, his eyes started to adjust to the stark contrast of light and dark. The moon was a waning crescent in the sky, shedding a thin blanket of light. After squinting into the for a moment with no clarity, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small pair of binoculars. A useful object acquired on the job that he didn't mind using so long as no one would question him for it.
Peering through the lenses, he was able to see.
There was a person, sitting atop a horse, holding what looked to be a small torch. They were lightly waving it around as they rode the horse around in wide loops, and in the splash of light they left behind them, James could make out faint, shadowy figures following them.
The figures were indistinct - or rather, lacking the appearance of solid matter. Instead, they seemed like semi-transparent outlines of... wolves.
He'd only ever seen them in frigid temperatures, where they resembled an exhaled breath against ice and snow. Here, they looked less ghostly, and more like shadowy creatures prancing throughout the grass in the same manner that a breeze would rustle the grass.
As if in time with his thoughts, he felt a distant, residual breeze reach him up the hill.
It took James a moment to register what exactly it was he was witnessing. It didn't look like the person on horseback was being chased by the wind wolves. Conversely, it looked like they were leading them, or even playing with them. He thought he could hear the person laughing.
It was then that James noticed a different figure, suddenly illuminated by the moving firelight across the grass.
The cow. It was the cow, standing there as if nothing was happening, eating grass.
Of course. Of course, the cow had wandered into whatever this was. At the least, he'd found it, but it meant now he'd have to intervene, but he decided to wait a bit longer to see if the situation would resolve on its own.
While this didn't seem like a threat at first glance, he had no idea what someone would be doing this far out beyond the cities and the main roads. Gregor and his hired hands had a reason - they were transporting cattle. But most people didn't venture so far from civilization unless they were looking for trouble or running from it.
So which was it?
He tried to focus his binoculars as close as he could, trying to make out the details of the rider, but they were moving too much for James to make out anything beyond basic features. An oversized jacket. A smaller frame. Long hair, pulled back.
And then, the person stopped riding in circles and dashed out to the side. The wind wolves pranced behind, spinning in the air around the horse's heels. The rider waved and pointed the lit flame towards the sky, and the wind wolves spiraled upwards into the air, at first looking like they were flitting overhead until their figures dissipated, like dust blown away. Gone.
And as quickly as the wind wolves disappeared, the person blew out the torch, leaving the small valley between the hills shrouded in darkness.
James lowered the binoculars. With or without them, he couldn't see anything, now. And he couldn't help but feel the hairs on the back of his neck start to rise with apprehension.
All this for a cow.
It was fine. It was going to be fine. It was probably just some lost traveler who knew how to manage wind wolves and dispersed them so they wouldn't cause them trouble. If the person was traveling alone out this far it was likely they were a runaway of some kind. Running from home. Running from the law. Maybe a mage, or a sympathizer.
Or a very odd bounty hunter.
Well, if the person was in the area, confrontation would be inevitable. They'd probably find their camp sooner or later. They'd already found one of the cows.
James quietly got to his feet and hurried to get Elliot, leading him along on foot back over the hill. As he started coming down, he could just make out a shadow moving towards what he wanted to assume was the cow.
"Oh, hey!" a voice called out. It was a higher-pitched, feminine voice. Not one he recognized, not that the odds of that were absurdly high.
He saw a spark of light, and a flame ignited again.
This time, he could see more clearly as he drew closer.
It was a woman, sitting atop her horse with a torch in one hand, and her reins in the other. Though she was drowning a little in her large jacket, he could infer enough to conclude that she seemed fit enough to be a fighter - of what kind, he couldn't yet tell. He noticed a sheathed sword hung from her saddle. It was a cutlass, with a curved blade, made for slashing. The rest of the supplies that he could see strapped to her saddle looked like those of someone who was always on the road.
Looking at her face more closely, her expression seemed friendly but wary. She had big, bright eyes, a light brown skin tone, and straight, choppy black bangs that covered her forehead, with some loose, shorter hairs framing her face. The rest of her hair was pulled back in a long, messy ponytail.
"Hey there," the woman greeted with a tight, subtly nervous smile. She pointed the torch in the cow's direction. The cow was unaffected by the attention.
"Is this your cow?"