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By:Amy Miles

When the footfall finally lands again, he blows out a silent breath of relief, as he spies a hint of brown protruding unnaturally from the side of a tree less than ten feet behind him. With the grace of a mountain lion, Gabriel spins and leaps.

A startled cry rings through his ears as he connects with the concealed figure, knocking them back into a snowdrift. His shoulder slams into a buried tree root before he slumps to the ground. A jagged crack forms along the equator of the aged trunk and with a mighty groan, the tree plummets to the ground. Powdery snow rises in a cloud around the fallen tree.

Gabriel leaps back into a crouch as the hooded figure staggers to their feet. He braces, preparing for the unexpected.

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“Huh?” Blinking, Gabriel slowly rises as the person draped in heavy furs lowers their hood.

He stares in awe at the beautiful blonde standing before him. Defiant but calm, she gazes back at him with large azure eyes rimmed by long lashes. Her skin is the palest he has ever seen, almost blending in with the snow all around. Gabriel glances at her pink lips, noting that they are slightly parted but still, not trembling from fear or the cold.

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Gabriel runs his hands though his snow dampened hair as he watches the girl. She obviously knows these woods, where to step and how to travel with hardly a sound. He is impressed with how well she snuck up on him, but this only makes him wary. If she is here it means there may be more people about.

She’s just a girl, a human. It’s not like she’s dangerous, he tries to argue, but his trepidation remains.

“Who are you?” He asks, ignoring the uncomfortable tightness in his chest.

When she cocks her head to the side, her chin is lost in the folds of animal skins that drape over her shoulders. The wind brutally whips her hair, but she hardly notices. “You English?”

Her speech is broken, but Gabriel nods in understanding. “Who are you?”

“My name Katia. You?” She pokes a sharpened stick toward his chest.

“Gabriel.” He steps closer and watches as her eyes narrow, her stance stiffening. Her lips press into a flat line, her jaw set as her fingers curl tightly around her stick. Everything about her stiff stance screams experience and skill. This girl knows how to take care of herself. “Are you lost?”

She shakes her head. A mass of blonde curls dances about her shoulders. Her cheeks have grown rosy now that her face is unprotected by the furry hood. She sizes him up, then lowers her stick and leans against it.

“There,” she says. She raises a gloved hand to point toward the tree line at the bottom of the mountain. Gabriel narrows his gaze, trying to spy out a building among the trees but he can’t find any trace of one.

“Are you alone?”

Katia’s gaze hardens as she raises her spear, ready to attack. Her breath puffs rapidly past her lips, hanging in a fog before her. He can hear her elevated heart rate and smell the rush of adrenaline pumping through her veins. “I fighter.”

“No,” he holds his hands up to show he is unarmed. He smiles awkwardly, struggling to find a way to reassure her. “No fight.”

She shifts in the snow, her fur lined knee-high boots sinking a couple inches. “You alone?”

Gabriel scowls and looks to the gray sky above. Releasing an impatient snort, he nods. “Apparently.”

“You come. Eat.” She motions for him to follow her as she abruptly turns and heads back the way she came.

Gabriel frowns at this unexpected acceptance. Is this some sort of a trap?

“I’m not sure that’s such a good idea,” he calls.

From nearly fifteen feet ahead she turns and stares pointedly at the sky. “Storm come. Very bad.”

“I’ll be fine.” His voice is lost to the rising winds. With a knowing smile, she turns and plunges down the slope of the mountain, skiing across the snow with impressive ease. It’s obvious she has done that before. Numerous times probably. Gabriel grumbles under his breath, searching the blanket of clouds overhead once more before following her lead.

The mountain is steep, no doubt treacherous during the best conditions. He marches behind Katia, amazed at her stamina and sure footing, despite the rapidly dropping temperatures. Her shoulders never hunch against the cold and her pace never slows.

The scent of pine pervades his senses as they move steadily down the mountain. Icicles dangle from the branches, clacking in the rising winds. The terrain is ever shifting as new snow is blown into deep slopes.

The trek back to the small timber cabin takes most of the afternoon and well into the evening. He spies the first signs of the homestead just as the skies begin to darken. A wooden fence marks out a plot of land, which although vacant of animals, shows evidence of hoof prints and chicken scratches in the snow.