She awoke slowly, stretching languidly in the early morning air before crawling from the scraps of fabric that were her bed by the dying embers of the fire. Padding lightly through the fields, she came to what was often called the bathing pond and stripped the rags from her body. Kneeling at the shoreline, she began to wash the frayed material until it was clean, then carefully laid it out over a rock to dry.

Her favorite part was next: the time for bathing. Once she had waded into the chilly water, she dipped under the clear sparkling surface, smiling widely as her long black tresses were soaked. Using a bar of soap she had traded some rabbit meat for, she cleaned herself, sighing in pleasure as the water washed away the many aches and scrapes she had accumulated the day before.

Though clean now, she stayed in the water to play with a childish delight. Life in this land was difficult, and those hunted had to take their pleasure where they could find it. She swam underwater, eyes open and staring at the tiny fishes with apt fascination, her hair floating out around her head. She came to the surface smiling and waded to the shore to sit on a rock, drying in the sun as she combed out her hair.

She was lost in the beauty of the world around her, face lifted so the sun could give her pale skin small teasing kisses through the branches overhead, while the birds in those trees seemed to sing just for her. Her nose was tickled by the earthy essences around her, and — what was that? She inhaled deeply, nostrils flaring as she caught a scent that didn’t belong.

And just then, there was the faint snap of a booted foot on a twig. She gave no indication that she had heard, just stood and stretched, smiling as she was certain the Hunter would be gazing at the luscious curves of her body. She slowly moved to her clothing and dressed, settling the hem against her upper thighs before suddenly setting off in a dead sprint.

Her ears were intent for sounds behind her and, sure enough, she heard a body crash through the brush in pursuit of her. She grinned — this part was fun! She held no fear, not yet. She was young, healthy, and in excellent physical condition. If she could make it to Branded Ridge, she would be safe — no man would dare to go near the hill, for fear that a branded native would strike him down dead.

She leaped over a fallen tree, feet skimming the ground as she ran again, dodging trees as blunt arrows flew past her. A loud laugh of pleasure burst free of parted lips, eyes lit with humor as she took a sharp corner and momentarily lost the Hunter. He found her a few seconds later, and the chase began again.

She topped a hill and jumped from it to a nearby roof, then from that rooftop to another. A glance behind her said that the man was still after her, and she gave a huff of annoyance. Most Hunters gave up by this point.

Lost in that particular thought, an arrow caught her by surprise, pinging her shoulder and spinning her around. She fell hard and felt consciousness spilling away with one last thought: Damn, she was caught.


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