“Hey, what are those?”
Elise halted her archery practice and walked over to inspect the patch of ground that had caught her eye.
-- Retrieve you arrow first.--
Elise imparted Fiaz a dirty look as she retrieved the arrow from the tree, working it slowly from the limb. She placed it back into the quiver strapped on her back and slung her bow back on her shoulder.
Returning to the patch of bare ground, Elise knelt and studied the earth. It looked like two tracks. She glanced to the right and saw that the grass there had been pushed aside where another track had forced its way.
“Hey, come have a look at this,” called Elise.
-- I can see perfectly well what you’re looking at.--
Elise marveled, privately, behind her newly donned mental barriers, that Fiaz could observe the tracks from the patch of grass several yards away in which he lounged. She had grown accustomed to his presence; underneath his sardonic remarks, there was a buoying, nebulous layer of love and care for her wellbeing that was at the same time reassuring and wonderful. And scary. She had never really had anyone that cared about her like that. Now she had a champion, a mentor, kind of like an older brother who didn’t hesitate to tease her, but would also not tolerate any harm to her person and loved her without precedent.
“Well, they’re tracks,” Elise remarked aloud.
-- An intelligent child. -- yawned Fiaz.
Striving mightily to ignore that, Elise declared, “My point is, you stupid cat, that they’re wagon tracks in the middle of a huge isolated forest with no civilization. And Gabriella doesn’t own a wagon.”
-- Are you sure? --
“Well, if she does, she hasn’t used it lately. And these are fresh.” Elise rose to her feet and inspected the area, not really sure of what she was looking for, but feeling a need to look anyway. Soon, she stumbled across the ashes of a small campfire. She stooped to study the vicinity, finding more tracks, as if there had been more than one wagon.
“That’s weird.” She stood up resolutely. “We should get back and tell Gabriella about this.”
-- You should continue your practice.--
“But the tracks --”
-- Will still be there when you are through. Before you practice anything, you must practice patience, a trait you have precious little of. --
“I’m being psychoanalyzed by a cat,” Elise sighed in mock amazement.
Fiaz rose to his haunches and returned haughtily, -- I am not a cat --
“Of course you are. You’re an exact version of the big wild cats at home. Cougars and leopards and panthers....” Elise taunted with a grin. -- Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! --
-- I am a zary’andu, not one of those pathetic misrepresentations you call cats. -- Fiaz retorted with disgust as he began to lick his shoulder.
But Elise experienced a sudden revelation. “If there are cats like you, then there are little ones, too, aren’t there? And nature wouldn’t be complete if there were only cats and nothing to chase them.... So there must be dogs, too. Right?”
-- You would do yourself a far better turn in this forest if you spoke mentally. --
“An evasion? You’re backing down? You’ve evaded me!” laughed Elise in triumph as she strode to pick up her bag of harvested mickla beans and potatoes. “Let’s go. Here, kitty, kitty....”
They made their way home, Fiaz guiding Elise, identifying challenging targets for her to shoot at. Elise prided herself in the knowledge that she surpassed anyone else with the bow, even Rick, and certainly Derrick, though to be fair, that was probably because neither of them got much chance to practice anything but the sword, with which she quite paled in comparison. Therefore, because of her growing skill, she told no one about the pain in her raw fingertips that the continuous releasing of arrows gave her – that thong hurt! She imagined it would recede after she had calluses there but the thought did nothing to alleviate the pain. She had learned to angle the bow so that the thong would not scrape across her inner arm as it sprang back into place, though Gabriella lectured her that it would be a hard habit to break once she acquired some bracers. And of course, her upper arm revealed more defined musculature now that she’d spent numerous afternoons of weapons practice struggling to hold the bow at full draw.
Elise was learning how to use a staff as a weapon through the combined efforts of Fiona and Gabriella. The smooth, wooden staff was more like a long pole, really, and it was inflicting upon her some blisters she preferred not to consider at the moment; learning to twist and turn and swing it about yielded a steady ache in her shoulders that had yet to depart. It had taken even Fiona a few weeks just to do more than merely heft it, much less swing it about in a manner that purportedly would save her life or claim someone else’s, whichever first ensued.
She liked the sword much better, though it caused her wrists to throb after most lessons. She had just assumed lessons in parrying and blocking; Gabriella insisted that she first spend time strengthening her wrist muscles with endless exercises. Discovering that Andrew and Rick had also had to develop their wrist muscles with some similar training before they commenced their sword lessons enhanced Elise’s mood tremendously, though disgustingly enough, Derrick hadn’t had to do such developmental exercises.
Elise loosed another missile that sped to its target, this one a hanging clump of moss. Unfortunately, the moss was firmly rooted in the tree limb and did not fall; hence the arrow was left lodged in the swinging moss.
-- Ah. An action smacking of common sense. --
Elise shot Fiaz a dirty look. “Oh, stuff it. At least I got it.”
-- You are doing well, but you are by no means good. --
Elise bristled and began to retort but -
-- Until you can hit a moving target at an angle many paces away, you may only be considered an amateur. -- His tone was gentle, but firm.
I shot that sienda bird, Elise thought, also remembering the sick feeling in her stomach she’d felt after she watched it move around feebly when death didn’t relieve it right away. She gave up with a sigh. He was, as usual, right. She peered up at the arrow.
“Looks like I’ll have to make another one.” When she and Fiona weren’t busy scrubbing and cleaning vegetables or preparing a meal (preparing a meal for six was no easy task with the few, almost primitive utensils they used to work with), Gabriella often assigned them the chore of constructing arrows. Elise was glad that hers were at least straight. Gabriella formed the tips herself in a kyor’rashni induced fire, which she claimed kept the arrow itself from becoming brittle.
The musical waters of the creek were now running freely in sight, tempting to Elise, who wiped her sweaty temple free of the hair matted there. Normally kept trimmed short, it was long past due for a trim and her curls were starting to fall in her eyes.
Well, crossing the creek to get home was an inevitability, since the bridge was a half mile or more to the south, so she kicked off her shoes and waded in. The swift current swirled deliciously around her legs. Autumn now, by her best estimate, the water was much colder than it had been when she and the others had arrived, but at the height of the day it was nothing less than refreshing. Sighing in contentment, she looked for Fiaz, who was lapping at the creek’s surface almost delicately. Grinning, Elise fought unsuccessfully the urge to splash Fiaz with a good cold douse of creek water. The generous splash landed perfectly on his back, catching him unawares for once.
He regarded her with somber amber eyes and told her disdainfully, -- No good will come of that. My fur, as is any feline’s, is waterproof. --
Mischievously, Elise grinned and replied, “So then what are you worried about?” She started to scoop up more water when a -- DON’T do that- -- resonated through her head. Undaunted, she flung the water at him, laughing.
Fiaz crouched low as if to spring.