Red sensed a warm, soft sensation against his back. He recognized it. He felt it before too when he awakened in Viran's tent. Cushioning, fur, a fluffy material.
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, the boy was finally sleeping on something other than the cold rock floor. While the youth wanted to relish in the comfortable feeling, the foreign situation also filled him with alarm.
Red tried to open his eyes to move around, but he was suddenly met with a brightness that threatened to blind him. He squinted, blocking the light, as his vision slowly adapted to his surroundings.
A clear blue sky was revealed before him. No signs of the stars or the darkness of the night were to be found anywhere, replaced instead by a vivid color that the boy had never seen before. He was sent into another daze and almost completely forgot about the situation he was in.
"...doing in the middle of nowhere?"
Noises of conversation dragged him out of his reverie. Red recognized that one - it was from the woman screaming at him as he was approaching the camp.
"You checked him already didn't you? Did you happen to make an oversight, Miss Valt?" Someone else responded - another female voice.
"Don't play dumb with me, girl!" The woman snapped. "Just because I didn't find anything wrong with him doesn't mean he's safe."
Unless another stranger had wandered into their camp while he was unconscious, Red had to guess that they were currently talking about him. He shifted around, trying to look in the direction of the discussing individuals, but instead he saw someone by his side, staring at him unblinkingly.
The man was sitting cross-legged right by the bedding. He had sharp features and an unkempt appearance, grime and coal covering most of his skin. He had a large and messy beard, even bigger than Viran's, and a long black hair that flowed freely down his back. He was wearing what looked like some kind of leather armor and had a black cloak draped over his shoulders.
The man's hands were currently occupied by the act of cutting an apple to pieces and shoving them into his mouth. However, his keen gaze never wandered away from Red, and the boy wasn't able to discern any sort of emotion other than seriousness in his expression. He chose to not avert his eyes either, and a silent staring contest started between them, while the conversation continued in the background.
The angrier woman kept on berating her companion in an authoritative tone.
"This is a risk we don't have to take, no matter how much sympathy you may feel for-"
"He's awake." After swallowing the food in his mouth, the man interrupted her with a short warning.
The discussion immediately stopped.
"What?" The same woman asked.
"He's awake." Her companion repeated.
Footsteps approached Red's position, and from behind the man, he saw another figure appear. With bronze skin and a powerful physique, a tall woman sporting stern features stared down at the boy with an unfriendly gaze. Her brown hair was tied in a long braid that reached her waist. She was wearing a similar armor to her associate, except it looked to be composed of more leather layers held together by metal pins.
Crossing her arms, she studied the boy up and down.
"Well, how long are you going to just lay there?" The woman asked. "We need to ask you some questions."
Red didn't respond, and instead, he looked over at his left shoulder. The wound had been closed and patched up with a bandage, and although he still couldn't move his arm properly, the pain had diminished substantially. His functioning hand wandered down and touched his previously broken ribs, where he also found a similar dressing tied around his chest.
He still felt very weak, but sitting up shouldn't prove to be too much of a difficult task. Red started to move, but he was suddenly interrupted by a gentle hand holding onto his shoulder.
"You're still injured, you don't have to get up." A calm female tone sounded from behind him.
Looking over, the youth saw the source of the voice. A young woman, sporting short black hair, was smiling at him with sincere and clear features that somehow made the boy feel at ease. Unlike her other companions, she wasn't wearing any armor. Instead, she was sporting a set of loose and baggy clothing that didn't seem to fit quite properly on her body, tied at the waist by a black sash.
However, when the boy concentrated on the hand grabbing his shoulder, he could feel a large force pushing back against him. Not enough to hurt, but enough to keep him in place. Instantly, the ease Red felt turned into caution.
"I'm fine." For the first time since he awakened, the youth decided to break the silence.
"Are you sure?" The young woman asked, seemingly skeptical.
He nodded, but she continued to hesitate.
"You heard him." The armored lady interjected. "Now stop holding him and let's get this done so we can get back to traveling."
Her kinder companion shook her head.
"Fine, but if you feel too much pain don't hesitate to say so." With that, she let go of the boy's shoulder.
Red nodded. Pushing off his one good arm, the boy sat up and finally got a clearer look at the encampment. Ahead he could still see the ashes of the burned-out bonfire, as well as a handful of large bags with all sorts of things tied to them. What caught his attention, though, were the weapons laying against the packs.
A large steel saber.
A wooden bow and a quiver full of a dozen arrows.
And six knives sheathed into multiple holsters from what the youth could count.
This was the equivalent of a trove of treasures in the mines that any slave would kill for. As Red was curiously examining the weapons, he was interrupted by the taller woman clearing her throat.
"What are you staring at, kid?" She asked.
"Nothing." The boy shook his head and turned around to stare at her.
She gave him a suspicious look but chose to continue regardless.
"What are you doing alone in this forest?"
The bluntness of the question caught Red off-guard. As he was thinking about how to answer, though, the younger woman interjected.
"You've scared him." She gave her companion a disapproving look.
"Scared him?" The warrior looked offended. "He's the one who almost scared us shitless last night! He's lucky Rog didn't shoot him dead!"
"You're not helping." The other lady shook her head, before turning her attention to the boy. "Let me talk to him."
She crouched down, staring at him at eye level with a smile on her calm face.
"My name's Eiwin." She extended her right hand in greeting to Red. "What's your name?"
She was trying to be friendly, but it had an adverse effect on him instead. The youth had never seen someone this kind before and started to feel suspicious about the woman, but none of it showed in his emotionless expression. He didn't grab her hand, but he still decided to reply.
"Red?" She looked confused.
"Yeah, my name is Red." The boy nodded.
He heard a snort from behind him.
"That's not a name, that's just a word!" The warrior complained. "What, did they just decide to call you that because of your hair?"
Red looked at her and nodded.
"Uh-" The woman seemed to be taken back. "Right, listen Red, we are quite curious about what a kid your age is doing in the middle of nowhere with a broken shoulder and a broken rib."
He didn't answer, sinking into thought instead.
The warrior was quick to get impatient. In her eyes, these kinds of pauses were integral to lies.
"Listen here, you little-"
"Miss Valt!" Eiwin interrupted her outburst, putting on a stern tone for the first time. "Let me handle this."
The tall woman seemed like she still wanted to say something to him, but she grunted and walked off in the end. She sat on a nearby log while staring daggers at Red.
"Red." Her companion called him, and the boy turned to look at her. She still wore the same calm smile on her face and her voice became soothing once more. "What Miss Valt wants to know is how someone as young as you ended up in the middle of this forest with such serious injuries."
"That's the same thing I ask-"
The warrior's protests were abruptly interrupted with an angry glance from Eiwin. The younger woman turned to look at the boy again.
"So what happened, Red? Where are your parents right now? Did something attack you while you were all traveling?"
He didn't immediately answer and kept on thinking. Just as the female warrior was about to protest again, he responded.
"I don't remember." The youth lied as naturally as he breathed.
The angry woman shouted, promptly getting up from her seat and walking in Red's direction.
"Miss Valt!" Eiwin quickly put herself between the warrior and the boy.
"What, do you really believe him, that he just magically appeared in this place with no memory at all?!" The woman begrudgingly stopped in her tracks, but her gaze was still trained on Red.
"Why not? We have seen stranger things happen before, so him having amnesia after a near-death experience is not far-fetched."
"You know damn well that it's not as simple as that!" She continued to protest. "After all that's been happening in this place this kid just so happens to pop up in the center of it all and we're supposed to pretend that's not weird?"
The warrior pointed at the boy.
"Look at that wound on his shoulder, that's not something a normal animal can do and most certainly not something a normal kid could survive!"
"What is your point, Miss Valt?" It was Eiwin's turn to begrudgingly listen to her companion.
"That's an attack from a monster and a damn strong one at that! Those things have disappeared from this region for months already and now this boy seems to have just come out of a fight with one of them - alive on top of that!" She looked at Red. "I bet he has even opened some of his Spiritual Veins too, or else there's no way he could have survived."
The warrior's attention turned to her younger companion again.
"Is that not weird at all to you?"
"It is, but it doesn't mean it's his fault." Eiwin shook her head. "What would you have us do? Abandon him in the middle of this place and sentence him to death anyways?"
"Of course not!" The woman protested. "If he doesn't want to give us answers that's fine. However, he's a liability and we can't risk carrying him with us after all the strange things that keep happening here. We'll give him enough food and point the way towards the nearest settlement and he'll have to fend for himself."
"That's the same as sentencing him to death!" The younger lady objected. "With his wounds, how far do you think he can make it? There might not be any monsters here, but there are still plenty of animals that could hurt him if he's not careful."
"You're letting your feelings get in the way of reason again, Eiwin! We both heard the warnings Hector gave us, so how can you just risk everything for a kid you don't even know."
At that, her companion simply closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Red for his part, just curiously watched the discussion between the two of them. Finally, Eiwin opened her eyes again and stared deeply at the warrior.
"I call for a vote."
"You can't be serious." The tall lady stared at her in disbelief. "How can this be a matter of concern for the guild?"
"That's for Hector to judge. We're all elders here, so our votes carry the same weight." She turned to look at her other companion who had been silently eating the apple bite by bite the entire time. "Mister Rog!"
"Huh?" The man looked confused, turning to look at Eiwin.
"Miss Valt wants us to give food to the boy and let him be on his way, while I want to take him back to the guild. Our votes are tied, so what do you suggest we do?" She asked, calmly looking at him.
This Rog individual seemed to take a few moments to process what had just been required of him. Throughout the whole interaction, the man looked completely uninterested, and now the burden of a decision was suddenly thrown into his lap.
"This is stupid!" The tall women protested. "He wasn't even listening, how can he make a decision?!"
"These are the rules, Miss Valt, and we have to respect them." Eiwin replied. "So, Mister Rog, what is your vote?"
The man didn't reply. Instead, he turned to look at Red, who seemed just as confused by the developments.
"Do you know how to hunt?" He asked the boy.
The youth thought for a moment but ended up shaking his head.
"Do you know how to shoot a bow and arrow?"
"Do you know how to set up traps?"
"Do you know how to forage?"
"Do you know how to cook?"
"Do you know how to skin animals?"
"Do you know how to use a knife?"
Rog turned to look at the two ladies.
"We'll take him with us."