Rick could not restrain a gleeful grin as he peered at his friends from his hiding spot. Once he had discovered Elise’s tracks in the snow – they could only have been hers with those huge zary’andu prints accompanying them – he had taken great delight in contriving various ways to ambush her. Having nothing better to do with his time, he followed the tracks in the snow with enthusiastic haste and pursued different scare tactics in his mind. So it was that he was taken quite by surprise when, after a mark or so, he discovered that Elise’s tracks had met up with another set of tracks which had approached from the opposite direction. He had left Fiona at home with Gabriella dicing vegetables for the stew they were preparing for dinner. Rick rather thought that Derrick would be the last person on earth Elise would arrange to meet privately and since he himself was the snoop who was following her, by process of elimination, that left one person – Andrew.
And then he had recalled that Andrew had suddenly made a habit after his kyor lesson every day of leaving to roam the forest... coincidentally while Elise was usually out practicing the bow or looking for vegetables? Having put two and two (or perhaps one and one) together, Rick had grinned merrily in anticipation of catching them in The Act. Strange, though, he would never have guessed that Andrew was Elise’s type. He would have said that she’d go for someone more athletic, more rugged, more... well, handsome. But what man was ever able to understand a woman? And Andrew.... Rick was full of admiration for Andrew. Conducting an affair right under their noses like that. Elise was a pretty girl, especially now that her hair was getting longer. Just goes to prove that old saying, Rick thought... it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.
He watched them chatting away from his position just off to their right. He was going to have to get up soon; he was starting to feel the snow even through his thick cloak. Rick had flattened himself against the slope of a small mound of frozen dirt and snow and the bare bush that was growing out of the top of the mound provided enough cover that he wouldn’t be seen as he watched them. He’d been here about five minutes now and all they were doing was chatting away, two lovebirds in love. He was rather appalled that he hadn’t picked up on this little affair some time ago... they had gone out of their way to be discreet. Which made the discovery all the more fun.
That was it. Rick couldn’t stand it anymore. Looking around, he grabbed a twig from beneath the bush and cracked it in two to catch their attention. They stopped talking for a moment, looking around uneasily. Rick held his breath until they resumed talking again. He slid down the small mound and began to fashion a snowball.
Life had just gotten too stale, too stagnant here. Nothing but routine, no unexpected events except maybe that Kin’keska incident and that had been months ago, back in the fall. Lessons in tracking, hunting, strategy, etiquette, history, vocabulary, and of course, weaponry. Even he saw the need for learning the use of a sword and dagger. But life had just become too provincial for his taste. Opportunities for practical jokes were sadly lacking and this was the perfect catalyst to remedy the situation. In fact, the possibilities were endless, Rick concluded with a grin as he fashioned two more snowballs.
He peeked up over the mound again. Elise and Andrew had resumed their conversation. Shaking his head in mild confusion, Rick dug around in his pockets of his cloak. If he had gone to all the trouble of meeting a girl out here all alone, he mused, he certainly wouldn’t be simply talking with her.
Ah, there it was. He pulled out the stone he had been searching for and looked one last time at the two lovebirds. Good. They were busy chatting. He threw the stone off to their left, where it hit the stone wall of a small cave, causing both Andrew and Elise to jump, he noted with pride. As they both looked nervously in the direction of the cave, Rick nailed Elise in the back of the head with the first snowball. Timing, he told himself, waiting for Andrew to turn around, was everything. Elise cried out in indignation, which caused Andrew to turn back around to stare at Elise. Perfect, Rick thought as he threw the second snowball.
Splat! Right in Andrew’s face! He couldn’t help himself – he laughed out loud. Their expressions were priceless. He stood up in triumph to claim his deed and prepared to throw the last one at Elise, but the stormy expression on her face stayed his hand.
“Ah, well. We can’t all be perfect,” he conceded as he tossed the snowball to the side, grinning as he approached them.
Elise swore quite clearly in English.
“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Andrew murmured as he continued to wipe snow from his face.
Rick chuckled. “Now, now. You know English isn’t allowed here. What you meant to say was, ‘Wow, Rick, you really pulled a good one over on us.’” Jumping up onto the rock they were sitting on, he pushed them each aside so that he could sit between them. Encircling an arm around both of them affably, Rick asked, “So. How long has this been going on?”
“Has what been going on?” asked Elise, still piqued from the snowball.
“This. You. Him. You know,” Rick said evilly as he nudged Andrew.
“No, I don’t know,” returned Elise, her voice raising as she continued to rid her hair of snow crystals.
Andrew, however, groaned. “I know what he’s talking about.” His face began to redden.
“Come on, give it up, Red, you sly dog, you,” Rick urged, enjoying the series of vermilion shades Andrew’s face was undergoing.
“Rick, you are so wrong it’s unbelievable,” Andrew told him.
“I seem to be missing something essential here,” Elise said in puzzlement.
“Don’t worry, it’s a state you’ll get used to,” Rick joked, chuckling as she smacked him in the arm.
“He thinks we’re.... Uhm, he thinks we’re an item,” explained Andrew awkwardly, his face scarlet.
Things were not working out as Rick had planned. Maybe they were lying, trying to throw him off the trail. That’s exactly what they were doing. They’d gone to all this trouble, why would they give in so easily?
“What?” Elise’s voice had raised another octave and now her eyes were snapping blue fire at him. “You’re an even bigger idiot than I thought.” She reached down and threw a handful of snow in Rick’s face.
“Idiot is kind of a strong term, don’t you think? And besides, you guys don’t have to pretend with me. We’re pals, buddies, remember?” Rick smiled winningly at Elise, who, he decided, did not seem amused.
“Rick! We’re only friends! There’s nothing to pretend,” she maintained.
“Yeah, Rick, didn’t you know?” said Andrew with an uncharacteristic wink. “She’s saving her heart for Derrick.”
“What!” Elise jumped up and tossed a handful of snow into Andrew’s face. He chuckled wryly as he wiped the snow away.
Rick slid off the rock and knelt dramatically in the snow at Elise’s feet. “Does that mean you won’t have me, either?” he asked as though he were heartbroken. He schooled his face to look pleading... if only he could make tears come to his eyes. He had the feeling he was going to get smacked pretty soon.
Elise looked down at him, her eyes narrowing thoughtfully. Trying to decide between a right hook and a left?
“Actually,” she lowered her eyes shyly, “I was kind of wondering how you... felt about me.” She looked up at him just then.
Startled, Rick stared back at her. Was he hearing right? Had she taken him seriously? No. Impossible.
Suddenly her lower lip began to tremble. She strove to control it. Oh, great! He felt like an ass. Rick looked quickly to Andrew for help, though of what kind, he wasn’t sure. Andrew appeared just as surprised as he was. How did this happen?
Elise sniffled. Rick looked back at her reluctantly. How was he going to get out of this? Then a fat tear rolled down her face.
“I knew it! I knew you didn’t really care for me!” she cried as she turned her face into her shoulder and began crying.
He reached out a hand to her shoulder, feeling awful. “Uh, Elise, I... uhm.” He trailed off awkwardly. What was he supposed to say? He only cared about her like the sister he never had, like Fiona. Sure, she was really pretty and stuff, but.... He heaved a sigh, not sure what to say. He couldn’t believe he’d been so blind.
She peered out at him then. Tears made her face shine wetly. But she was... grinning? What was going on?
“Sucker!” came her triumphant yell as she tossed another handful of snow in his face. Her laughter rang through the valley, leaving him very much shocked. She had just gotten him... or at least he thought so. He brushed cold snow out of his eyes and glanced at Andrew. Andrew looked terribly relieved as he began laughing, too.
“You mean you –” No, that was obvious now. But – “Weren’t you just... weren’t you....” This was no good, he was stammering now. Elise and Andrew laughed even more at his discomfiture, holding their bellies. “Okay, okay, so it was a joke. But weren’t you just crying?” He was really confused. If she had been joking – how was she able to call tears like that? Were all females able to do that?
“Yes. I was.” Elise’s smile was one of extreme amusement. Fortunately, Andrew was also looking somewhat puzzled, so maybe it wasn’t just him.
“How did you do that?” Melted snow, maybe?
“All girls can do that,” Elise explained with a smug smile.
“Well, you got me good. I admit it,” Rick said. He sighed. “So you guys really aren’t, you know....”
“No!” they both told him firmly.
Rick sighed again in disappointment. “Ah, well. So much for that. But you have to admit, you had no idea I was there.” There was that, after all. He was better than any of them now at tracking – he could move even silently in the snow now, which was probably why Gabriella selected him more often than not to do the hunting. But they all had their proficiencies. His just happened to come in handy more than the others’. Derrick could swing that big sword of his so fast that Rick couldn’t keep up with him until Derrick tired out a little. Problem was, by the time Derrick started slowing down, Rick himself was exhausted and bruised, and usually wet with sweat, winter or no. Gabriella had started taking Derrick aside and letting him test his skill against her. He did pretty well, too, occasionally getting a score on her. This was much different from when she had begun teaching them; they had only been learning basic techniques from her. After they had gotten the fundamentals down, she pitted Derrick against Rick and Rick against Andrew, while she watched with a critical eye and corrected even their tiniest infractions.
Rick often wondered if Gabriella was something of an exception for women in this world; he got the impression that women were just as, if not more, suppressed here as they had been at home for hundreds of years. That made him afraid for the girls, who, as he was, were of the mind that women were equal to men in all respects: he had the feeling that life would not be easy in this new world until they adjusted to that idea, if ever.
Elise’s expertise lay primarily in the use of the bow and Rick was quite ready to admit that she was probably better at it than any of them were. With the combined troubles of drawing the bow and insuring accuracy, he had great respect for Elise’s ability and for her determination – she practiced every day.
Fiona, he mused as they began walking home, could drop any one of them on the ground with a few blurred moves. That she and Gabriella had exchanged techniques made her even more adept: Fiona had integrated her tai’kwon’do training with the avril’shusta that she had learned from Gabriella and the use of the pole staff and emerged competent in a form of combat that made her quite a formidable adversary. All of them had taken lessons from her. Rick wouldn’t mind taking a few more himself if he thought he could steal some time from his sword lessons – between getting beaten upon by Derrick and posing as a practice bag for Andrew, he had little time for acquiring extra skills. Fortunately, Gabriella had quietly begun imparting her knowledge of poultices and awful-tasting medicines to Fiona, who had ample opportunity to practice her arts on Rick’s daily procured bruises and cuts.
Andrew, of course, was the expert in magic. Gabriella was terribly hard on him... they disappeared for marks into that workroom and Andrew always emerged looking as though he had been dragged through torture devices. His training seemed to be more rigorous than anyone else’s – Andrew now ate fully as much as Derrick, which was really saying something, and yet he hadn’t gained a pound to Rick’s eye. Andrew was also the first to turn in for the night and the only one of them who took naps regularly. And when he got up in the morning, usually last, he often looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. Rick hoped that for all of what Andrew was going through, he was learning something worth the trouble. And also that he could use it as self-defense if needed, because he was not as good with a sword as Rick was... Andrew was just a skinny guy after all.
Rick had the feeling that Gabriella was preparing them for something specific. He didn’t think that she would allow any of them into the wild blue yonder unprepared – the extent of their training in all fields told him that – but he felt that Andrew was going to need some extra tutelage with the sword. Maybe he could find some time or maybe Fiona, with her self-defense, to work with Andrew.
Between grueling lessons in swordplay and lessons in more worldly matters, such as which country exported what, and refining their newly acquired cultural values, their days were complete. By the time dinner was ready at sundown, each of them was exhausted. Rick knew the Spring Market was approaching, but it was still in the near future. He was looking forward to this Spring Market, if only to see just what kind of world this really was that Gabriella was so painstakingly preparing them for. And to make sure that there actually was a world beyond this forest. Rick wanted to see what the people looked like, how they acted, what they wore, what they did. The Kin’keska had given him a few ideas, but he hoped rather fervently that not everyone in this world was as anxious to kill him as they had been.
Rick pulled his thick cloak tightly around him as the snow began to fall harder. When they got home, he planned to let the fire warm his frozen feet while he indulged in a cup of hot spiced tea....
“What?” Elise’s voice startled Rick out of his thoughts. Looking back at her, he didn’t remember anyone having said anything for the last half a mile or so.... Had she read his mind or something? This kyor’rishtan could really be annoying sometimes.
Elise stopped tramping through the snow. She pulled back the hood of her cloak and, her azure eyes a little wild, told them, “Fiaz says there’s an angry limba who has caught our scent.”
Rick felt his blood turn to ice as he glanced over at the zary’andu. He had heard their panther-like roars in the middle of the night. Worse, he had seen one in action a few months ago while he had been hunting. That particular limba had also been hunting, stalking the same galdor Rick had been tracking. Not wishing to fight for dominance over the galdor and thanking all and any gods-that-be for being downwind of the limba, he left the area as soon as the beast had attacked. He had never forgotten the grisly encounter.
“So what do we do now?” Rick directed his question to Fiaz, totally unashamed of the quaver in his voice. All he had, after all, was his sword.
Elise listened briefly to whatever Fiaz had to say and then informed them quickly, “He says we’re in her territory and that one of her cubs is missing. She thinks we’ve lured him away. He says to run back to the lodge immediately and he will tend to her.” Elise had already begun to run.
Rick needed no further urging. Luckily, they only had another two or three miles to the lodge left. As they ran through the snow, the inhuman scream of a limba shattered the stillness from the clearing they had just vacated. Fiaz’s roar came in reply and a series of chilling snarls began to fade in volume as fear and adrenaline boosted Rick’s speed.
He had never been so glad to see the clearing of the cabin before. He slipped a little in the wet snow and almost lost his balance as he turned around to make sure Elise and Andrew were behind him. Panting, he waited for them to catch up before he opened the door for them. Andrew made it in, his breath heaving, and as Elise approached, fog in front of her face where her breath came in quick gasps, Rick asked, “Fiaz?”
She shook her head as she shed her snowy cloak on top of Andrew’s. As she caught her breath, she said, “He’s fighting her. He,” she gasped for breath again, “he doesn’t want to fight her but... she’s half mad with fear for her cub and... won’t listen to reason.” Elise gasped for breath as she turned to look at Gabriella, Derrick, and Fiona. They were all staring at the three of them in wonder and a little alarm.
“Fiaz says there’s a blizzard coming,” Elise blurted.
Gabriella’s face changed. “I see.” Her green eyes grew distant as a look of concentration settled on her face.
A blizzard? How would Fiaz know that? Stupid question, Rick chided himself. It seemed, he thought as he hung up his cloak, that kyor’rashni made one omniscient.
Gabriella’s eyes focused again and she nodded shortly. “From the west. Come, come. Over here by the fire,” she crossed the room and pulled him and Elise and Andrew to the fire as Derrick threw another log on it, a look of concern on his face.
Ahhh, that felt so good.... Rick collapsed in front of the fire and pulled his boots off.
“Derrick, Fiona, come with me. You three, watch the stew.” Gabriella ushered Derrick and Fiona to the door, where they bundled into their cloaks and boots and left.
Rick was enjoying the heat radiating from the fire too much to give much thought to his comrades’ untimely exit, so as he was beginning to drowse, a loud series of thumps against the front of the lodge made him turn to Andrew in puzzlement.
“They’re piling the wood by the door,” explained Andrew.
Elise rose then and began to struggle back into her boots. “I’ve got to go back.”
Rick raised an eyebrow. “Not back out there,” he said disbelievingly.
“Yes, back out there. He might need me.” She pulled her other boot on.
Rick exchanged a look with Andrew. This was not a good idea. Going back into a limba’s territory was a poor idea in the best of weather, and certainly an even poorer one in the face of an oncoming blizzard.
As he was about to draw in breath to discourage her, Andrew said gently, “I’m sure he’s fine.”
Elise looked down at him, her eyes frightened. “But what if he’s not?”
“He’s a zary’andu, remember? He can handle a limba,” Andrew replied.
“But he might be hurt, and with a blizzard coming – I have to go back,” she asserted.
“No, you can’t go. Not with a blizzard,” Rick told her resolutely. “Out of the question. Besides, Gabriella will just stop you as soon as you step out the door. You know she’d never let you go.”
Elise’s face was a mixture of worry and outrage.
“Why don’t you just mind-call him,” suggested Andrew. “That way you’ll know.”
“I don’t want to distract him if he’s fighting.”
“He can handle it. Go ahead and try.”
Biting her lip, Elise stared into the fire for a moment. Then she looked down at them. “He’s looking for the cub,” she said worriedly, though the strain in her face relaxed.
“You see?” Rick said, relieved himself. “Come over here and sit down.” With great effort, he picked himself off the floor and went into the kitchen, where he poured each of them some of Gabriella’s spiced tea. Carefully, he carried the mugs back to the hearthside and set them down in front of Andrew and Elise. Elise still looked worried, but she began pulling her boots off.
“Thank you,” she murmured absently, though whether she was thanking him for the tea, or him and Andrew for their support, he didn’t know.
He settled back into his warm spot by the fire.