Slumber took its time arriving that night. Euphoria hadn’t seized Andrew over the idea of tracking down Kin’keska, but he had acquiesced with no complaint. When finally they returned to the cabin, he had been muddy, chilled to the bone, and very happy indeed to crawl into his sleeping furs near the hearth. But he fell asleep dreaming of a spirited, mysterious people dressed in vibrant, flowing colors, laughing and dancing and singing gaily to music around a roaring bonfire deep into the inky night….
“Hey, Andrew, get up.” Elise was prodding him. The smell of warm bread drifting out from the kitchen persuaded him to sit up and clear his sleep-sodden mind. The events of last night came rushing back then. Was it a dream? Sleepily, he debated the question until he saw his cloak hanging on the hook where he’d tossed it perfunctorily last night. He stretched and groaned when he felt his sore shoulders protest in response. If nothing else, cutting and chopping these trees up was building up some muscle.
“Andrew... come on, before we put it away,” Fiona called from the kitchen. It looked as though he was the last one up again. Why was he so tired lately?
Traipsing into the kitchen, a sun-warmed breeze drifted across his face from the open kitchen window. It looked like another perfect day – perfect for hacking down a few more trees for their winter shelter this morning and getting beat up by Gabriella at weapons practice this afternoon at the creek. He munched pensively on the freshly made wheat-like bread and assortment of berries and dried fruits that served as morning meals.
Gabriella hadn’t taken him into the shed they had used for a kyor’rishtan classroom of late. Had he not turned out to be the shining protégé, full of potential that she had originally opined? Nor was he sure how to solicit an answer to this suspicion. Obviously one never knew anything unless one asked, but this was something he felt perfectly at ease holding off inquiring about. He wasn’t that curious yet. Besides, he was still learning to control his thought output; endeavoring to ensure that every single thought during his entire waking marks stayed behind bars, so to speak. Didn’t get out of his head. Just when he believed he had conquered the process of keeping his thoughts inside his head where they belonged and he surrendered to cruise control, an emerald gaze would settle on him. Gabriella would raise that infamous eyebrow, that single, unique gesture that spoke volumes, and Andrew would discover that he was leaking. Was he leaking now? Before he could gather his mental self to check, Gabriella slipped into a chair across from him that the last of the others had vacated.
“You are wondering when your lessons will resume,” she observed in her low, melodious voice. It was a statement, not a question. When a person could read your mind, there was no need for minutiae and platitudes. Beating around the bush was dispensed with.
“Well, yes,” Andrew returned tentatively, unsure of the outcome of this conversation. He also decided that he must indeed have been leaking.
“Your fears are needless. I have given you this hiatus for you to adjust to your new situation. There is no sense in continuing with your lessons until you have mastered the control of your thoughts. Aside from that, you are exerting a great deal of strength with the construction of the shelter and the sleeping palettes. However, if you feel you are ready for another lesson, we will attend to that this morning and you may join Dar and Rick when you have finished your lesson.”
Andrew digested this momentarily and then nodded his agreement.
“Very well. When you have finished your meal, we will begin.”
When Andrew finished his meal, he stood up and eyed Gabriella expectedly. She buckled her weapons belt on and beckoned for him to follow.
Outside, Fiona sat scrubbing and chopping fruits and vegetables for their midday meal already and Derrick and Rick were feinting with their wooden practice swords while waiting for Gabriella to accompany them to the site where they were constructing their shelter.
“Go on ahead of us,” she told them. “We will join you shortly.”
“Elise and Fiaz went to the shed for more arrows before she goes to find more food,” Fiona reported. Gabriella nodded. Andrew knew that much of the time Elise spent combing the forest with Fiaz was not idly spent but to practice her skill with the bow, for she most often returned home with a brace of windits or some other small woodlands creature.
As Andrew followed Gabriella, the sound of dry, autumn leaves crunching underfoot captured his attention. Derrick and Rick sure were making a lot of noise, he thought vaguely as he turned to glance over his shoulder at them. Rather uncharacteristic, in fact….
Immediately he walked into Gabriella, who had stopped and was gazing intently into the woods in front of the cabin. At that moment, he experienced a tingling sense of hyper-awareness of everything around him: Gabriella’s coppery hair blowing soft as the breeze across his face, the sound of the iros stomping and neighing contentedly in their shed, the water swirling in Fiona’s kettle, Elise returning from around the back of the cabin with more arrows, leaves flitting down in the sunlight from the trees, and Derrick and Rick ceasing suddenly their sword practice and staring fixedly in the same direction Gabriella was....
A wagon drawn by iros approached the cabin. Two men strode confidently next to it, while two women rode in the wagon and another man sat at the front of the wagon, directing the iros. The wagon creaked to a halt then. Gabriella advanced swiftly to meet them halfway and stopped, her hand resting lightly on her sword hilt.
Andrew’s mind whirled. Kin’keska! He stepped slowly back to join his comrades, who in turn were also staring worriedly at the approaching people.
One of the Kin’keska men sauntered boldly forward. Dressed in a meticulously embroidered white tunic and flamboyant purple trousers tucked into weathered black boots, a well-trimmed beard and mustache defined his face. Andrew did not miss the fact that the Kin’keska’s hand rested on his own sword hilt, swinging loosely from a gaudy, ornately styled sword belt. Andrew felt his stomach clench in anticipation. A quick glance at his companions told him that they too, were wary. Allowing one’s hand to rest on one’s sword was a deathly insult. He reminded himself to close his gaping mouth and swallowed nervously.
“Greetings, my friends!” called the approaching Kin’keska audaciously. The Kin’keska in the wagon behind him jumped down while the other two Kin’keska men advanced slowly. “’Tis a wonderful day, is it not?” continued the first Kin’keska, gesturing about him widely with one arm, though his hand tightening about his sword hilt belied his friendly overture.
“You have no business here, Kin’keska,” Gabriella said coldly.
“Ah, but does one need to have business with another to pay a visit?” the Kin’keska smiled disarmingly.
“There is nothing here of interest to you. You would be best to turn about and return to wherever you hail from.” Gabriella’s hand tightened on her own sword hilt.
“And you would certainly be acquainted with that location, would you not, my lady?” The Kin’keska’s eyes glittered dangerously. “Assuredly you had no business with us, nor had we anything of interest to you or yours when you approached our camp last night and induced our guard into slumber, would that not be so? Perhaps you ought rethink your logic, yes?” he replied menacingly.
Gabriella’s sword rang chillingly from its scabbard in response. “There is no need for conversation. You need only leave.” Andrew gaped, growing cold. Grave trepidation gripped him - was this not a dream? A fight was about to commence! What were they to do? He couldn’t fight! Neither could the rest of them, except perhaps Derrick and Rick. And even they weren’t proficient enough in swordplay to win a battle with seasoned fighters!
The Kin’keska laughed. He turned to his men. “The lovely lady prefers combat to a more peaceful alternative. I believe we can oblige her, it shan’t delay us long. Come, shall we humor her?” He gestured then and spun to face Gabriella, light on his feet for his size, and drew his sword lightning-quick.
What followed afterwards was a jumbled series of occurrences: Rick cried, “Holy shit!” in their own language before he and Derrick dropped their wooden practice swords and raced inside the cabin, reappearing with the real swords Gabriella had assigned them. Elise pulled her bow over her head, while Fiona retreated toward the cabin, leaving Andrew to gawk at the fight ensuing between the Kin’keska and Gabriella. The other Kin’keska men were dashing toward Rick and Derrick, while the two Kin’keska women targeted them as well.
One of the Kin’keska men swung at Derrick, who backed away in surprise and brought his sword up awkwardly to parry the attack. After that, Andrew didn’t witness what was happening to anyone else, for he found himself besieged, bracing to fight one of the Kin’keska women. She attacked him head on, scratching and clawing. Losing his balance, he fell on the ground, wrestling with the woman. Andrew heard a hissing noise and saw in alarm that she had drawn a knife from within the folds of her flamboyant skirts. He thrashed wildly and succeeded in shoving her off of him, only for her to scramble crab-like toward him again, knife gleaming wickedly. And then the knife arced out of her hand and into the brush several feet away. He caught the expression of shock on the Kin’keska woman’s face and looked up to behold Fiona lowering her leg, staff in hand. Fiona had kicked the knife out of the Kin’keska’s hand! For a second, none of them moved.