*~*Just for the record, I own nothing except for Christa. Valdemar, Companions, and everything else is all Misty Lackey's doing, so don't sue me; I'm broke as is.*~*

Christa was walking slowly through the trees; it was just too cold for her to walk any faster, and if it was hampering her progress, than surely it was hampering her pursuers. She still did not fully understand why it was, exactly, that they were chasing her. Christa had been the daughter of a very well-respected metal smith and a well-renowned embroiderer. But that was before the raid. Now she was just Christa, Wanderer Extraordinaire.

Maybe that was why they were after her; no one would miss her should she suddenly go missing. The every thought made her shiver and pull her thin cloak tighter around her in a vain attempt to shut out a cold that came, not from the wind outside, but from within her very being. She'd heard enough stories about lone girls who'd suddenly gone missing-only noted as missing because they had never paid their bills from a tavern they'd stayed at.

But that was just what she had heard in the tavern as a casual witness. When she'd listened to some more private conversations, she'd found the real stories; that the girls had been plucked off the streets for reasons best left unsaid, then left to die when they were no longer of use. But, oddly, that was all people would say on the subject. They would never go into what actually became of the girls; just that they disappeared and that they themselves were not missed, although their money was.

But that was only what the whispers were. The tavern owners complained of the girls running off before they paid or accused them of running off with a young man from the village. At first, Christa had been willing to believe those stories; now, she obviously knew better.

I just don't understand it, she thought as she stumbled over a log hidden by the snow on the ground. I wasn't even doing anything. I just walked into the tavern and sat by the fire. The only thing I could have possibly done to attract attention was go off in a daze...but travelers do that often enough after a long day...

That wasn't even all that odd for her. After a long day of traveling, she would sit by a fire as she ate her meal, then simply relax her mind a little, letting it have free reign for a while as she gazed into space. That was what had happened last night; she'd gone off into her own little world, and only come back to herself when she'd felt eyes on her.

She'd surreptitiously looked around and found several men watching her out of the corners of her eyes in a way that made her skin crawl. It wasn't that they were dirty looking, or even ugly. It was their eyes and what she felt from them. Christa considered herself a good judge of character, usually. These men practically screamed "Sadist!" at her. There was nothing special about the way they were dressed, or even the way they looked. They were not cleaner than anyone else, nut not dirtier either. They were, in a word, ordinary. Which is probably the whole point, she thought to herself, bitterly.

She'd simply left a few coins to cover her meal and gotten up, thinking maybe she had been imagining things; the scrape of chairs on the floor behind her told her she hadn't. That was when she'd had no choice but to make a run for it. She didn't go about it conspicuously, however. She just walked off into the woods at the edge of town.

That was last night. Right now it was morning, and she was still walking, and she could tell they were still following, even if she couldn't hear or see them. That was not what scared her, though. What scared her was the fact she had no weapons on her; she'd left the lone sword she'd had back at the tavern in her room, fearing if she'd gone up to get it, they would have cornered her. So now she just kept walking, hoping that soon they would either give up or she would stumble across a town where she could lose them.

Christa was numb with cold and fear, and it was still getting colder. She dared a sniff from her long-since-benumbed nose and smelled more snow in the air. She looked at the sky for a moment and made a face at the dark clouds. If it started snowing again, then she would have to stop sooner, and it would make it harder for her to keep going; She was already exhausted from walking since dawn the day before and getting no sleep before walking all last night and into today. It was a miracle, really, that she hadn't collapsed yet.

And she had no idea where she was. She hadn't even known the name of the last town she'd been in, and her father had never been there on his travels, so, for all she knew, she could be walking right up to the border of Karse. Or Iftel, for that matter; she didn't know which was where. Hell, she didn't even know where Haven was located.

Christa cursed under her breath as the first few flakes fell from the sky and trudged determinedly on. Behind her, the men were hesitating, but she didn't dare stop. The longer the lead on them she had, the more likely it was that they would give up and leave her alone. But that brought up another problem; she was alone. She had no way of knowing where she was or how much farther she had to walk before she happened upon another village.

I'm going to die.

The thought was unwanted, and brought a sort of cold panic with it. She really was going to die. If those men didn't catch her, the cold would kill her. If you had asked her when the game of cat and mouse had first begun which would have been worse, she'd have said, without hesitation, the men. Right now, she wasn't so sure. She wasn't simply cold anymore; she was freezing. She was shaking so hard she could barely walk, her body seizing up in painful muscle cramps.

Christa managed to take a scant few more blundering steps before she stumbled over her own feet and fell to her hands and knees. After a few moments, she managed to drag herself to her feet, but with a great deal of effort, and only to fall again. The second time she got up much more slowly, and by the third, she couldn't get up at all.

She was hardly shaking at all now, and had no more painful cramps. She couldn't really feel much of anything, truth be told. It was as if she was disconnected from her body, and therefore had nothing to worry about. Her fear of her pursuers faded as she lay down in the snow, in the middle of the path. All she needed was a little rest, and then she could start on toward the next town again.

Part of her, in the back of her mind, screamed that she couldn't sleep now, but she didn't listen to it. She was too tired, and now she wasn't as cold as she'd been before. Her awareness was slowly receding. As she closed her eyes, she listened to the snow falling around her.

I never noticed that snow had a sound before...how odd.

Off in the distance, she could hear a faint jingling sound, like bells being shaken. If she listened a bit harder, she could hear faint thuds. After only a few moments, the thuds were accompanied by the sound of snow crunching-and it was getting faster, and coming closer.

Why can't people just let me rest in peace?

It was getting difficult to think, but she could still manage well enough for simple thoughts.
Just as she thought that, there was a skidding sound, very close to her.

Open your eyes.

She couldn't tell if the thought was hers, or someone else's, but she obeyed, with a great effort. As she got her sight back she realized exactly what it was that she was staring at; a silver hoof. She dragged her gaze upward and met sapphire blue eyes that caught and held her, letting her drown in their warmth.

:I am Damon, and I Choose you, Christa.:

The thought was followed by an unmistakable, irresistible wash of love. Then all she felt was warmth as she closed her eyes again and slipped off into unconsciousness-but not before she had one last thought.

It looks like I'm not going to die alone after all.