The sun shone brightly through slits between the floorboards, waking Nalla. The light stung her eyes so she turned her head and listened. She could hear birds chirping, the wind rustling through leaves, and something small scratching at wood. Satisfied, she pushed the floorboards aside and sat up.

She was in what used to be a kitchen. Dirt, leaves, and animal bones littered the floor. Vines and moss had taken over the walls and part of the ceiling. Most of the ceiling was missing entirely, along with the roof, giving her an unobstructed view of the trees overhead swaying gently in the breeze.

Nalla climbed out from her hiding place and brushed dirt from her armor. She stretched and rubbed her cramped muscles. Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten in almost a full day.

Another growl rose from behind her, as if responding to her hunger. She turned slowly to find a large wolf standing in the doorway, snarling and snapping its jaws at her intrusion. Nalla reached carefully into a shoulder pouch and withdrew a piece of thorny rose stem. She motioned with it and a thorny bush sprang from beneath the wolf’s paws, twisting and writhing as it grew. The wolf yelped and ran out as the bush became a barrier across the entrance.

Nalla went into the living space next to the kitchen. Whatever furnishings had been there had long since been looted or rotted away from exposure to the elements. Mold covered what remained of the ceiling. One wall had a large hole in it, the edges blackened by fire. Nalla repeated her spell, growing a larger bush to fill the void and offer some semblance of protection.

She found a wooden bowl, badly warped but still serviceable. After cleaning and filling it with jets of water, she drank deeply to fill her empty belly. She would have to wait until nightfall to find food.

Nalla removed a gold medallion from beneath her armor. She ran her fingers over the wolf head emblem of her sponsor, the Northern Gold Company. She dropped it. It wouldn’t help her now.

She listened again but could only hear the sounds of the forest. She unclasped her belt and let it drop along with the items secured to it. She unfastened the straps of her armor slowly, senses strained for any sign of danger. She peeled open the seams along her sides and pulled her arms out of the sleeves. Underneath, she wore a simple grey tunic which clung to her sweaty body. She unclasped the shoulder straps and the torso piece fell away with a clatter. She scratched vigorously, everywhere she could reach.

She released the hip straps and pulled off the pants. Her bare legs were covered with dirt and grime. She refilled the bowl with water, pulled off the tunic and her underwear, and washed herself thoroughly with the cold water, using her nails to scrape her skin clean.

A rustle caused her to jump, covering herself up. She spied a chipmunk as it dashed through the overgrown yard and scrambled up a tree, startled by something. Nalla grabbed her ironwood stick and held it ready.

Another chipmunk darted out and raced after the first. She sobbed with relief, dropped the stick, and put her arms over her head, crying uncontrollably as the chipmunks chased each other around the tree trunk.

The End

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