Mítrei's heavy eyes opened to blurred vision, and two large, green orbs stared back at her as if the eyes of a woodland spirit, filled with a curious innocence that suggested she was the only thing of concern in its present existence. But as she smiled wearily up at it, it gasped and jumped back.
"Dad!" It shouted as it scrambled away, sending shock through Mítrei's suddenly pounding head, and she found herself lying not in woodland boughs but in a bed - a real bed.
She pushed herself up and spun around in a panic, tangling herself in the sheets. Not only was she not in the forest, she was not even in any tribal home. There were too many decorative wares with too little meaning - a needlepoint of a field of flowers hanging on the wall, a small trinket box carved with scrolls standing on a chest of drawers, and a cushion set on a chair too small for it to be of any comfortable use, as if the sight of it would be homely enough.
A girl hurried over to her, one with green eyes, and leaned over the bed to stare closely again, a frown creasing her young brow. "Are you okay, miss?"
A man hurried in behind her, and though Mítrei sensed no threat from him, the mixture of relief, curiosity and caution in his eyes kept her on edge.
"I'm fine..." she replied, though she realised she'd rasped the words, and the child handed her a glass of water. She looked at it uncertainly, but she knew water when she saw and smelled it, and she suddenly felt intensely thirsty.
"Take it slow, miss," the man said softly, stopping beside the girl, and he looked down at her with unchanged eyes.
She considered him for a moment, then set the glass down. "What happened to me? Why am I here?"
"I was on my way home from hunting last night when I found you washed up on the riverbank," he replied just as gently. "You must have gotten swept up in the storm. It was quite rough. I brought you back here and Lilian has been watching you all night, though I've told her countless times to go to bed." He shot the child a disapproving look and her little cheeks reddened. Evidently, she thought he hadn't known. He turned his eyes back to Mítrei. "Do you remember what happened to you?"
Her heart dropped in shame. Yes, she remembered. She'd dared to try to cross an overhang despite it having recently receeded, and it had collapsed beneath her weight. It had been her own foolish fault.
She smiled briefly and shook her head."I don't." Discomfort crept into her eyes and she glanced towards the door. "Thank you for looking after me last night, but I have no way of thanking you..."
The middle-aged man raised his hands and shook his head, waving her words away. "We need nothing. But you should be wary. Tribals are not as welcome in Dumas as they used to be."
So she was already in Dumas. She frowned. "Why not?"
He mirrored the crease in her brow. "You don't know? I apologise, I thought you were of the water tribes..."
His frown only deepened. "Then what about the conflict between your people and the fire tribes?"
"My tribe is small," she explained easily, "uninvolved simply for being out of their reach. But I am aware of it." Realisation suddenly aged her young, tanned face. "It's this close?!"
The man nodded regretfully. "It's been going on for a month around here. It started as name-calling and arguments between the tribals that frequent the town, then it grew into fist fights, and now it has escalated into organised attacks and we are all caught in the middle." He looked briefly to his daughter, and she returned his gaze with equal weight. "I hear it's worse towards the north and the east, but I fear it's only a matter of time before Dumas goes the same way."
Mítrei watched him for a long moment. "Then you took a great risk in taking me in."
He nodded, making no effort to brush over the fact. "I did." He looked back to her and smiled, though the weight in his dark eyes remained, merely masked for perhaps all their sakes. "But you should be well enough to leave. Here." He handed her a bundle of clothes that were folded by the bedside. "Take these, they might help to disguise you in the town."
Mítrei frowned and looked down at herself, and found her own clothes replaced instead by a simple gown.
"They were wet," the child informed her.
"They belonged to my wife."
"Will she mind?"
"I can get leathers and skins easily enough; replacing them will be little trouble." He stepped towards the door and urged the girl to follow. "I have to head out; there is food in the next room, please eat your fill before you leave, you'll need your strength. And be careful." The weight returned to his eyes. "If anything happens out there, don't get involved. Keep your head down."
She nodded in firm understanding. "Thank you so much for your help once again..."
"Edwin." He smiled. "And you're welcome." He stepped out of the room, the girl followed, and he closed the door behind them to leave her in privacy.
Mítrei hurried to the window.