The girl with a bird for a heart walked alone on the road to Kudra Kai. She had been travelling a long time. The bottoms of her bare feet had blackened and calloused by days of roaming. They were as hard as the ground she tread upon. Her gray-brown clothes hung torn and ragged from her bony frame. Her skin was as tan and tough as the walking stick she carried. She was young, but her face had been wind-beaten and her hair a knotted mess.
A cart drawn by two paksi approached her on the left. She did not turn to look at it. A boy her age was driving. The bed of the cart was filled with barrels. The sweet smell of wine wafted from them.
“Ho there!” shouted the boy. “You there! Hop in! I’m headed the same way! I can take you if you like!”
She did not turn.
“Do you not hear me?” said the boy as he passed by her. He yanked on the reins that steered the paksi and the enormous birds halted beside the girl. They were beautiful specimens with black feathers and crowns of white and blue. Each stood half a head taller than the girl beside them. Paksi were common beasts of burden in this part of Vatrus. Horses and other such creatures had been long thought extinct.
“I’m trying to offer you a ride, you filthy hen!” the boy said to the girl, frustrated at her silence. He glanced down at her from his cart. Through her torn blouse he caught sight of something on her chest. It looked like a semi-spherical box of black metal. “What’s that you have there?” he asked.
She said nothing.
The boy gave up and urged his paksi to move on and put distance between him and this uncivil mute girl. He was busy making an important delivery and had no cause to be wasting time helping some unappreciative outcast. He took one more peek at the object under her blouse and realized it was not exactly a box, but rather a small metal cage.
His heart sank and he made a sign with his hand to his heart. It was a gesture his grandmother had taught him to ward off curses.
“I beg your pardon miss. I see now what ails you.” said the boy. “You seek the Muck Witch, do you not?”
The girl did not even look up.
“Well,” the boy continued, “I know the rules. You cannot accept any help. I understand. Just so you know, you are on the right path. I’ll be leaving now, wanderer. I wish you good luck on your journey. It is almost over I hope.” He smiled nervously and urged his birds to move on quickly.
Before long he was a speck in the distance.
The girl continued with no aid besides her stick.