At long last, I am able to begin posting my fic for my good friend sinewho from the Fandom Trumps Hate 2020 auction! Thank you for this prompt, and I really hope you like what I've done with it! I really enjoyed participating in the event, and I look forward to being able to do it again in the future!



Watching the tiny red birds lifting into flight from the tree branches just outside his window, Shion knew the hunters were passing by his cabin.

He hurried away from the windows and waited for them to pass by. Shion never joined the town's hunting parties—lack of experience and a general lack of interest governed his decision to abstain—and he didn't feel like dealing with their aggravated sneers as they stalked through the woods past his property line.

Hidden inside his home, Shion could spot them through the thin curtains, though he knew they couldn't spot him. The flames of their torched rippled through the air as they stalked through the thick oak trunks, weapons in hand.

Shion clicked his tongue. Most of the townsfolk treated hunting as little more than sport. Though the meat was used and sold, the hunters often took more than their fair share. The forests provided them with enough food to be satisfied even in the harshest of winters, but the men and women of Kronos took without any consideration.

When at last the gray-cloaked hunters passed by his cabin, paying his bountiful gardens and little assortment of crops and latticed fences no mind, Shion allowed himself to finally relax.

His anxiety was not without reason. Shion was something of a legendary being in the town of Kronos—in the worst possible way. Whenever the hunters stalked by his home, Shion tensed, praying they wouldn't kick down his door again and drag him to the local church for another "witch test".

With their departure into the woods, Shion no longer feared an assault. He wandered away from the windows and into the heart of the den. A gentle fire crackled under the copper pot where he'd mixed some fresh water from the nearby creek and a handful of herbs. Nothing went better with a pleasant autumn day than a hot cup of sage tea.

Shion adored his cabin. Branches grew through the windows and roof—the wooden slats had been built carefully around them, and Shion tended to them as best he could to ensure the health of the tree. Small purple asters grew through the pale floorboards, kept alive through the winter months by Shion's gentle hands.

He'd decorated the wooden walls of his single-room cabin with pretty shells he'd gathered from the pale beaches, colorful feathers from birds who'd nested in the branches comprising the majority of his cabin's roof, and pretty swatches of tapestries his mother had shipped him from overseas that Safu's talented grandmother had woven for him.

Shion's home was unlike any other building in the town of Kronos. Shion had situated his cabin far away from the others—it took a considerable length of time to walk from his front door to the church, built directly in the middle of Kronos. He didn't know if he could even consider his cabin to be part of Kronos at all; there were sections of forest surrounding both sides of the dirt road leading to the town, and Shion's house was surrounded on all four sides by thick trees and bushes.

Even if it was the topic of local rumors among the townsfolk, Shion loved his way of life. The only major downside was that he was often blamed for some of the raids and misfortunes that befell Kronos. When a particularly bad rainstorm scattered debris from the forest into the crop fields, ruining much of the tomatoes and carrot plants, the farmers accused Shion of having collaborated with sinister spirits—despite the fact that he offered them unlimited access to his own backyard crops for sustenance. Only a trial in which Shion recited the Scriptures flawlessly had absolved him of blame; the widows housed in the corner of Kronos slammed their doors as he walked by, however, and the men muttered curses under their breath as he hurried home.

But despite the accusations and rumors, Shion had passed all their tests. He could repeat their prayers with ease. He attended church every seventh day, as did every other able-bodied townsman. Shion didn't balk at sprinkles of holy water or shift uncomfortably within the church walls.

He had endured their ridicule and tests since the moment he stepped off the boat, and without any solid proof of witchery, the townsfolk did nothing but shun him in most contexts. Shion didn't mind. He had no interest in the men's social circles or public events. He had no stomach for drinking, nor an appetite for women. He was content to dwell in his home, tend to his small assortment of crops, and live his life as comfortably as he could.

Shion gave the herbal concoction in the copper pot a gentle stir, mixing the herbs within. He inhaled the fresh scents and exhaled, content. It had been steeping long enough. He picked up the slotted ladle, dipped it into the pot, and poured himself a small cup of sage tea.

Shion poured himself a small cup of sage tea. He breathed in the warm, herbal scents and relaxed. Sometimes, when he was in the mood for something a little on the sweeter side, he'd add a nip of honey. There was a tiny beehive tucked in the farthest corner of his cabin. The honeybees that called it home pollinated the flowers growing through the floorboards and buzzed around gently in the spring. Shion harvested some of their honey when he desired it, but he was careful not to disturb the hive or the queen nesting within.

He'd never once been stung in his attempts. The bees respected him, in the same manner he respected them. Sometimes their little wings kissed his cheeks when he woke in the early mornings; they alighted on his arms and crawled about while he worked in the den, their tiny feet tickling his skin.

Shion crossed the room and looked back out the window. The autumn branches crossing the forest sent beautiful cascades of sunlight across the ground. The hunters often ventured into the woods in the late morning, and Shion knew they would cross back this way once the sun began to descend.

He exhaled and opted to enjoy his tea in the meantime. He had a long day of work ahead of him.

As the sun began to dip below the horizon, painting the sky with dark shades of pink and orange, Shion heard the telltale crunch of heavy boots on dead leaves.

He lifted his head and glanced over his shoulder. He had returned to the inside of his cottage once the sun started heading south. His nighttime work was better performed inside the safety of wooden walls, and for the most part, he'd passed much of his day toiling beneath the autumn sunlight.

Shion rolled his sleeves down, having shoved them up his forearms to protect them from the dirt as he carefully relocated a few fresh blooms from his floorboards to the gardens outside. He'd spent much of the day tending to his crops, watering the flowers, and sprinkling seed for the birds before they began their flight to lands far away for the winter months.

He wiped his hands clean on a scrap of ratty brown fabric and returned to the far window, watching through the cluster of leaves as the townsmen made their way out of the blackened forest. The cool autumn wind ruffled their cloaks and made the flames on their torches pitch and sway.

Their rucksacks were empty, and their weapons were unbloodied. The haunted looks on their faces assured Shion that the worst had happened—their attempted hunt had proved fruitless.

Shion exhaled, a mixture of relief and pity warring in his chest. He didn't appreciate the men hunting purely for sport, but he understood the misery of returning from a hunt empty-handed. With the winter months approaching, acquiring food and furs became a priority. The forests grew treacherous when the snow coated the ground, deep holes covered by thin layers of ice lurking deep within.

More than that, the Mao dwelled in the heart of the forests, better equipped to survive the harsh winters than the men and women of Kronos.

Since crossing the ocean and stepping onto solid land in this new place, Shion had heard rumors of the Mao. The forest folk dwelled deep in the heart of the forests, their very nature intertwined with the rumored creatures that stalked the shadowed branches.

A few of the men believed the Mao to be simply nothing more than a rumor. An old wives' tale to scare children away from the woods. A little band of nomads who threatened violence in the form of curses and punishment from spirits. Shion had never crossed paths with them in his couple of years living at the cottage, not even when the harsh winters forced himself inside for over a month, but just because he hadn't seen them didn't mean they didn't exist.

He watched the men hobble near the fence surrounding his gardens. Shion exhaled, plucked a candle from the table, lit it, and tossed on a cloak.

Better to get it over with.

The hunters stared back at him, their dark eyes wary as if they beheld a fearsome spirit. Shion climbed down the stairs, carrying a small red candle to illuminate the steps. He shielded the little ember from the wind with his palm.

"Well met," he greeted cheerfully.

Yoming grunted and pushed the hood of his cloak back. His weathered face peered back at Shion, his dark eyes shimmering in the candlelight. Yoming rose a head taller than Shion, but Shion peered into his face without an ounce of terror. He'd stopped fearing Yoming years ago; though he often led the men of Kronos around like a shepherd to a flock of sheep, he had no real authority.

"Well met," Yoming grumbled in return.

Shion looked at their empty packs and blood-free spears. "No luck this evening?"

"No luck, witch."

Shion closed his eyes at the nickname and forced back a sigh. It wouldn't do him any good; the insults fell from their tongues like water, and sometimes he wondered if the men even realized they'd said them.

"In that case, as before," Shion said, loudly enough for the little band to hear him, "you are welcome to my garden."

Yoming's dark eyes narrowed in suspicion, but he said nothing. Shion turned and ascended the stairs. The carefully placed wood groaned with each step, and the uncomfortable silence stretched out behind him like a black cloak.

It wasn't until he began to shut his cabin door that he heard the ruffle of gray cloaks wandering carefully into his garden.

Despite their obvious disdain for him, Shion couldn't help the warmth that swelled in his chest. He didn't worry about their callused fingers plucking through his crops. The men never took more than they needed to feed their families for the night. Shion's dark reputation typically dissuaded thieves, and even those skeptical of the rumors seemed loath to attempt it.

They didn't thank him for his charity—they never did—but Shion supposed not kicking down his door and dragging him back to the church for another witch trial was thanks enough.

He went to the cauldron and quickly reignited the fire beneath. The scent of herbs flickered to life as he gave the still water a gentle stir with the ladle. In the winter months, he often offered a cup to each of the hunters, though they never took him up on that offer. The men were only comfortable enough to take the crops from his gardens. Taking "brews" from him, however, seemed a step too far.

Shion unfastened his cloak, hung it from the little wooden hook fastened to the back of the door, and crossed to the center of the den.

He waited, still and silent, until he heard the tell-tale crunch of the hunters heading for Kronos with their bounty. He exhaled with relief, letting the terror melt away.

He was safe another night.

Shion watched the moon make its way across the inky sky. The chittering of nighttime insects and birds created a beautiful rhythm that filled the air in his cottage. The glimmering moonlight cast pretty shadows across the floorboards, lighting the lavender petals of the tiny aster buds carefully growing between the slats and the fresh soil. He smiled as he took in the warmth of his home.

Midnight was a special time, both for Shion and the world around him. He gently smothered the few candles he'd lit when the sun dipped beneath the tall mountains. The skies turned a beautiful shade of indigo, peppered with tiny pinpricks of silver.

He preferred the light from the full moon when it came to these rituals. Shion inhaled, breathing in the crisp scents of the flowers. He sat in the center of the den, listening to the sounds of the forest coming alive in the shadows. Foxes conversed in the distance, the hoots of owls calling out to their companions echoing around him. The world of the night were a different realm—one that Shion loved walking along.

Shion's fingers shifted unconsciously as he thought of the charms and spells he needed to weave before winter. The hunters didn't pass by his cabin as often when the temperatures dropped, which allowed Shion to work his magic without the chance of being spotted by the townsfolk.

His charms weren't particularly powerful, but they kept the chill out of his cabin. His enchantments kept his crops growing within the protection of his cabin's wooden walls; they kept the animals calm and happy as they ventured inside.

Shion exhaled, slowly, and let the spiritual energy twist through him.

Until winter, he would sit here, each night, and braid charms to hang in the windows. He would whisper enchantments to bring about good fortune to himself, pleading with the powers that thrived above to let his garden remain fruitful so he wouldn't starve in the cold. He pulled the charms tight, trapping the enchantments within the braided cords, and tucked them safely beneath his cot. He had no need of them until the first snowfall.

Sitting beside his window, Shion glanced outside and watched the world move. The shadows stretched across the branches, and a large horned owl perched on one of them, peering into Shion's cabin with piercing gold eyes.

He smiled at the bird of prey and let it continue to supervise his enchantments. Owls were the rumored symbol of the old gods, and Shion chose to believe their presence to be a sign of the old gods' approval.

He finished a couple more temperature-controlling charms and then retired to his cot. He drew back the paper-thin blanket and quickly climbed beneath them. The cool autumn air tickled his cheeks as it drifted through the gaps in the oak boards and roof, and Shion sighed, content.

As he slipped into the world of dreams, he let the song of the forests whisper to him.

To Be Continued...