Fiona, out behind the cabin struggling with another log for the kitchen fire, stood up and arched her back. Something caught her eye in the direction of the creek; straining her vision, she realized that it was Fiaz and Elise. It took a moment to determine that they were only playing, for until the sounds of Elise’s laughter reached Fiona, it looked as though Fiaz were mauling her. But they were only tumbling around in the long, sweet grass at the foot of the creek. Fiona sighed. How nice to have a companion like that, a pet that really did understand what you were thinking, kind of a SuperPet, who would always be there when you needed him.
She bent down and hefted the log again. Finally she surrendered her efforts and dragged it around the cabin and through the door, unashamed of her comical appearance. Gabriella smiled at her antics, but Fiona didn’t care. The fire had to be hot to keep the stew cooking. Letting the log thump in front of the kitchen fire, Fiona stood up, wiped her forehead, and brushed the dirt from the log off her hands.
“Elise is coming with the vegetables,” she said. Gabriella nodded her approval and continued kneading the bread dough. Fiona sucked in a deep breath before she heaved the heavy kettle into the fireplace and hung it. I’m getting the workout of a lifetime here, Fiona thought absently. How long had she been here now? She believed it was something like three or four months. Whatever the exact time was, it was long enough to have settled into a routine of sorts. Breakfast in the morning, wash up in the creek, tutoring lesson in history and language, both of which included learning to read; midday meal, which generally consisted of leftovers; and then weapons practice.
She harbored no concerns that only she was not receiving sword lessons. The notion of killing someone with a sword or any other weapon caused her to shiver with distaste. Furthermore, her own skills and the avril’shusta she was learning from Gabriella, which included the pole staff, left her quite content and confident in her ability to defend herself should the hopefully unlikely need arise.
And then of course, loomed the omnipresent task of food preparation. Some nights she skinned fresh game (a chore she found no enjoyment in), other nights she cooked and other nights she cleaned up after the meal, but rare was the day that required no chores at all. Gabriella paired Fiona with Rick or with Andrew, but never with Elise; Fiona supposed that was in an effort to force Derrick and Elise to improve their working rapport. Not, she mused, that it had succeeded past an icy truce.
She dumped the water into the kettle next, which required several troughfuls. As she dumped the last one into the kettle, she collapsed into a chair at the table. Rick walked in then and took in with his eyes the chore that had just transpired.
“Why didn’t you get one of us to do that?” he chided as he gathered the troughs and disappeared with them. Fiona felt grateful. The evening meal took more out of her than weapons practice. She had, in the last few months, developed an unshakable respect for homemakers on any world, particularly this one.
Rick breezed back through the doorway again, whistling some catchy tune. Fiona identified it as the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show.
“You know, that’s something I miss.”
“Yeah, my whistling? No kidding,” Rick joked as he turned a chair around backwards and sat down, leaning his head on the back of the chair.
She made a face. “No, stupid. Music.”
“I miss it, too. You know, we don’t even know the word for music?” Rick said thoughtfully. As he seemed about to inquire, Elise walked in, dripping creek water.
“Someone throw me something to dry off with?”
Wordlessly, Gabriella handed her the rough, thick cloth that served as the equivalent to a towel.
After Elise had seated herself at the table, she asked, “Gabriella, do you own a wagon? Or a cart of some kind?”
Andrew and Derrick walked in and joined them at the table, their expressions reflecting curiosity.
“Yes, both. Why do you ask?” Gabriella inquired.
“You haven’t used either of them recently, have you?” Elise pressed on.
Fiona wondered what her dark-haired friend was talking about. Furthermore, she didn’t know that Gabriella possessed a wagon, or a cart, either, for that matter. Where was this going? Elise didn’t want to leave the forest, did she? She leaned her head on her hand tiredly and waited for Gabriella to respond.
“I have used neither for several months. To be sure, the last time I used either, I used the cart to bring home the body of the galdor I had shot just before all of you arrived here. What concerns you?”
Elise pursed her lips thoughtfully as she smoothed wet curls away from her face.
“Well, because while Fiaz and I were out today –” her eyes narrowed as she observed Derrick’s grimace of distaste on the subject, “we found tracks in the dirt. They went on for quite a distance, but I didn’t follow them very far. Is there – is there a road near here? Does someone else live out here?”
Everyone considered this possibility in complete stillness for a moment as dust particles floated lackadaisically in the late afternoon sunlight. Then the sudden bubbling of the cauldron entered Fiona’s awareness. She jumped up and deposited the broth along with the mickla beans and potatoes that Elise had harvested into the cauldron.
Gabriella leaned her elbows on the scarred wooden table top and frowned. “Tracks? Are you sure?”
Elise nodded. “Very sure. There were a lot of them, too. I discovered the remains of a small campfire, also. It looked like several wagons had gone through, so I wondered if maybe there was some kind of road or trade route nearby.”
Fiona caught sight of Rick and Derrick looking very interested as she bustled about the kitchen. Wordlessly, Gabriella stood up and handed Fiona the spices set aside for the stew. Still Gabriella would not reply; even while Fiona stirred in the spices, their red-haired mentor remained silent.
Finally, Gabriella leaned against the table, her emerald eyes narrowed in thought. “Would you remember the place were you to return?” she asked Elise.
Elise nodded. “Even if I didn’t, Fiaz would.”
“Good. Then we shall go there tonight.”
Tonight? Fiona’s eyebrows rose with wonder. What was so pressing about a few tracks that couldn’t wait until tomorrow? Glancing at the rest of them, she observed their consensus.
“Are they that important?” Derrick finally inquired.
“The tracks belong to Kin’keska caravans. The Kin’keska are dangerous people who band together for the sole purpose of thieving. They are most of them outlaws and so rarely settle in one place. They cannot in any circumstance be trusted, though one will style himself as your dearest friend. Only after you have drank with one for an evening and returned home to your residence will you discover your purse purloined and your ‘friend’ disappeared into the night. Nor is it wise to bargain with a Kin’keska, for while you may indeed have bought something rare from a distant land, you will never pay a fair price, if your purse or horse are not stolen outright. You will know that you have called a Kin’keska’s bluff if he refuses to deal with you further, for if he cannot arrange an outrageously high price from you for what he peddles, then he will not peddle to you at all.” Gabriella paused. “Perhaps the only good thing that comes of the Kin’keska is their music and their horses.”
Fiona thought that dangerous or not, the Kin’keska sounded very exciting. Perhaps Gabriella sensed this, for she added suddenly, “Do not fool yourselves. There are many sayings, but only one is true in any land: Only the fool trusts the Kin’keska.”
“Why are they here?” asked Derrick. “Wouldn’t they have better prospects elsewhere, instead of a deserted forest?”
“The winter months approach. Those bands who do not assume residence in the cities find refuge in an area where food is plentiful and where materials for shelter may be readily found. The coasts harbor many Kin’keska during the winter months, for while it is colder on the coast, the fish there do not starve as the forest animals do in the winter. They have likely traveled through the Illyth to stock up on food and materials to bring with them to the coast of the Gulf of Shemwith.
“As soon as we eat, we will go to the place where Elise found the tracks to be sure.”
And do what, Fiona wondered dully. She looked out the window in doubt at the dimming daylight. She supposed they would have to carry torches for light. She still wondered why it was necessary to trek out in the woods to find the tracks, especially tonight, in the dark. If the Kin’keska were such a dangerous lot, wouldn’t it prove a better idea to look for them in the daylight instead of the dark, when they could ambush you in the shadows? In fact, Fiona thought, if the Kin’keska were so dangerous, then why look for them at all? Let them go their way.
Dinner developed into a rushed affair, seeming to promote their hasty departure. The guys, Fiona noted, gulped their hot beef stew down and tore at their bread hungrily, as if in consuming their meal so quickly, they in some way fought a battle with the Kin’keska. She and Elise pursued their meal a little less ardently, though perhaps more speed than usual. Finally Gabriella stood up and cast her forest cloak over her shoulders, and, as everyone scrambled like children on Christmas morn to don their shoes and cloaks, Fiona saw Gabriella slip her sword belt around her slim waist and buckle it securely. This was not a good idea, Fiona thought worriedly. What if the Kin’keska found them? Did Gabriella expect to fend them all off herself? Derrick and Rick were learning the sword quickly enough, but not quickly enough to do battle with seasoned fighters who had fought with the sword all their lives!
Gabriella handed Fiona a torch and told her to bring up the rear. Noting the shaking hand that grasped the torch, Gabriella placed a hand on Fiona’s arm.
“Do not fret so. We go only to track them, not confront them,” she told Fiona quietly.
All well and good for her to say. She had a means to defend herself on this fool’s errand, Fiona thought to herself, not mollified.
Out in the twilight, the trees blew wildly in the frosty wind. Elise led the way through the long grass with the sleek black Fiaz striding gracefully at her side.
“We’ll have to cross the bridge downstream,” she apologized.
They crossed the bridge, following Elise and Fiaz through the dense forest. The night was so dark that all Fiona could see of Elise was the arm that held up the torch. Oh, stop it, Fiona scolded herself. It’s not like the dark is anything to be scared of. Nothing to fear but fear itself, she mused apprehensively as she switched the heavy torch to her other hand.
A hand fell on her shoulder and Fiona started, fighting not to cry aloud.
“Jumpy?” It was Derrick. “Why don’t you let me take that for you, it looks pretty heavy.” Fiona breathed deeply and gratefully handed the torch over to Derrick. Always the perfect gentleman.
So they navigated their way through the forest thusly. Fiona listened to the sounds of the nocturnal animals waking up to begin their evening, and of others awakened by the sound of their passing. Occasionally an owl hooted, or a fight broke out among the wickas in the treetops, and each time Fiona jumped nervously. She couldn’t avoid it. Endeavoring to unearth the trail of dangerous Kin’keska, known to raid small camps at night in a forest which boasted its own perils aside from the human ones was just not an appealing idea to her. She admitted it… she would far rather be back at the cabin curled up on her sleeping fur in front of the fire, safe and warm.
Just as Fiona was wondering how much longer it would take, Elise muttered, “I think this is the area.” They halted. Gabriella stepped forward and took the torch. She searched the ground for some time before Rick called softly, “Here.”
Gabriella bent down and inspected the ground where Rick had indicated. She straightened and told Rick, “Good.” She extinguished the second torch and then turned to the rest of them and gestured them to move closer.