Though Kian wasn't particularly talkative, and Kisea generally preferred to let companions talk while she listened, the quiet as they walked was a comfortable one rather than the strained silence of strangers searching for something to say.
They retraced Kisea's route to the crossroads, and this time went southwards.
The stillness of the soggy forest, even the wind in the leaves muffled, gave way to first just a few bird voices, then to more, a rising chorus. Kisea squinted at the sky to the east. Presumably the birds sensed the sun starting to come up, but she saw scant difference.
“Dawn is a good time for hunting,” Kian said, his voice low enough to merge into the sounds around them without a ripple. “If we seek shelter now, we can be asleep by the time they even realize we've gone already.”
“I do know how to start a fire when it's wet,” Kisea offered. “My wilderness skills aren't quite up to finding a good site in dim light, though.”
“Better, I think, if we aren't right next to the road. It's unlikely they'll be anything but glad to be rid of us, but trouble avoided is not trouble at all. There's a stand of evergreens, it should be less damp there. Perhaps if you wait, and I leave my pack, so I can scout more quickly?”
The ground under the grove of pines was, at least superficially, wet. While Kian unstrapped and strung his bow and slung his quiver across his back, Kisea slipped her hatchet out of its loops on her pack and removed the waxed leather cover that protected the blade. Some of these trees had lower limbs that were still reasonably dry, and pine burned well. Though it left her blanket exposed, she stripped the wrapping off it and used the waxed canvas to pile the collected kindling on, one corner pulled across the top to keep it as dry as possible. Better still, a small nearby pine had fallen, leaving her access to the heavy resin-imbued heartwood that could catch fire even in the rain; she harvested as many pieces of that as she could.
“I found a good place,” Kian said quietly, startling her—she hadn't even heard him approach, and hadn't been paying any attention to her inner senses, intent on doing her job without losing any fingers.
“And I have the beginnings of our fire. It's all right, I can carry it, there isn't that much. I'd rather you watched where we're going and kept an eye out for breakfast.”
He was too kind to point out that no wildlife was going to stay anywhere in the vicinity while she followed him through the forest—he might be stealthy as a cat without even trying, but she certainly wasn't.
The place he'd found had a slope to break the worst of the wind, a tree fallen against it to create a relatively dry place to build a fire, and enough other trees that constructing a shelter should certainly be possible.
Kian unfastened a roll attached to his pack, which turned out to be a sheet of canvas so large and thin that she knew instantly that there was sorcery involved, modifying its original form to make it far more effective for its weight than even the best-quality non-magicked canvas could ever hope to be. She had no doubt it would be absolutely waterproof. Tucked inside it were a coil of fine rope and a handful of metal-capped wooden stakes.
Any guesses whose work that is?
I wonder what it cost him to do it? Whatever it was, for Kian, he wouldn't have cared.
Kisea scraped the ground clear under the fallen tree and hacked off a few green branches to lean against the far side to both shelter the fire and deflect the heat towards them; while she worked, she watched sidelong while Kian deftly turned the canvas into a lean-to facing the fire. It would be cozy for two adults, to say the least, but that was a limitation of the size of the canvas. She'd given up on keeping the like, since she already carried about as much as she could, and she couldn't afford anything remotely that quality.
But then, Kian wasn't carrying everything he owned, and he was taller and stronger than she was. And for his family, cost was never going to be the same kind of issue.
“I'll be back soon,” he said, when that was done.
She nodded acknowledgement, picked up her hatchet, and went looking for more wood, heavier than the kindling she'd already collected.
She built a neat hunter's fire with two heavier branches, stripped of their wet bark to expose the dryer wood within, sheltering a careful nest of kindling and tinder between them. Of all the things that could make the difference on the road, being able to start a fire was one of the highest, and the means to start one reliably had cost her more than most of her gear but she'd paid it gladly: the fire piston, a tube of polished wood closed on one end with a second piece that fit tightly into it, was worth every bit of it. With a bit of dried mushroom tinder from her pack in the little niche at the inner end of the piston, she fitted one into the other, and slammed them forcefully together. Quickly pulling them apart, she added the ignited shred of tinder to the waiting pine shavings and coaxed it into a flame.
There. She was no woodsman, and preferred civilization whenever possible, but some of the most fundamental skills she'd learned well enough.
Once she was sure it was going to continue burning, she turned her attention to setting up the rest of the campsite and gathering more wood to keep the fire going.
She returned with an armload of wood that was dry enough on the inside, and would be drier after time stacked around the fire, to find Kian cutting the meat off a hare in chunks and spearing it on the thin green branches she'd peeled for the purpose. Roasting the thing whole would take longer than she was willing to devote to it, and while she knew he could eat it raw with no consequences, she refused to in anything less than a dire emergency. She did see him lick the blood off his fingers absently a few times, and doubted the innards would be either discarded or cooked, but then, alasir were like that. Ones that spent a lot of time around other races generally took their squeamishness into account, but the fact remained that full alasir were as completely carnivorous as a cat or a weasel. Cooking meat had both advantages and disadvantages for them, and purely muscle meat wasn't sufficient. Mixed-blood alasir generally figured out young how to match their diet to their individual needs.
She'd had a weak spot for alasir, fullblood or part human, ever since her days at the College with her first love—her only experience with genuine unguarded intimacy. When she felt the most alone, she missed those days desperately, the two of them learning their own bodies as much as each other's, the warmth of the connection of love and trust between them...
“You just sighed,” Kian said quietly. “And you look sad.”
“Just... thinking of someone I haven't seen in a long time.” Your double-cousin who is all but your brother, in fact. But she dared not say that, ever.
It was a stupidly reckless subject to bring up, but right then, she didn't care. She kept her gaze on the wood she was arranging around three sides of the fire, as she asked casually, “Do you have any family?”
“Yes. I'm a Jordan.”
“That explains having an escort job for a human.”
“The son was visiting his grandparents, who are part of Lord Jordan's household. I had intended a visit to my mother, and my uncle asked me to make a detour. I'm grateful he did.”
“So am I,” Kisea said fervently. Nine would have been a new personal low. “Your uncle's Lord Jordan, then? The one who still acknowledges family who ran away to Equals Village?”
“Both a brother and a sister. My mother Lori abandoned Felorton and an alasir high House because she did not wish to be married off for the good of the House. Her half-human brother Jai took her to Equals Village, and she being an excellent weaver, she was welcomed there. My father's sister Alina, some years later, fled a similar fate. Jai helped her escape to the Village, with my father Chris and their brother Rob covering for her. My father, soon after, accepted that he was unhappy as the Jordan Heir and would be more so as Lord, but that Rob thrived on it and was very good at it, so abdicated in his favour and followed my aunt and uncle.”
“Ah, and thus came to meet your mother.”
“Yes. They share a house in the Village, and raised my cousin and I together. My aunt and uncle and father do escort work, primarily, and the connection to the Jordan House leads to jobs that otherwise would not be available.” He handed her several of the meat-bearing sticks, and went back to cutting up the rest of the hare. Anything they didn't eat now would keep better cooked than raw.
Kian, presumably, was following family tradition, though she suspected he preferred jobs that led more to wilderness than planning routes along major roads to reach inns. “What about your cousin?” She laid the sticks meticulously across the tops of the walls of wood surrounding the fire. She already knew part of it, she'd been picking up little bits of gossip for several years now about Lord Jordan's sorcerer nephew and the job he'd been commissioned to do.
“He's a sorcerer. With some unusual abilities, which led to it taking an extra year to graduate with his Seventh medallion. Last year was the seventh since he graduated, and when he went back, he was granted his Sixth. It's generally acknowledged to be extremely improbable that he won't, in time, reach First. Possibly, in the thirty-five years or so before that, he'll do as they wish and become more sober and respectable, but I doubt it.”
Of course he has his Sixth, and of course he'll keep climbing, unless they deliberately try changing the rules to stop him. An extra year isn't much surprise, but must have been frustrating for him—accepting being different is one thing, but with me gone, Brylain gone, Fala too by then, and surrounded by new students with no idea why he was still there, that would be hard for him. But Matt, sober and respectable? When the sun rises in the west.
“Unusual but strong, then.”
“Very. Which might be worrying, despite the Oath, save that he is one of the most compassionate people I've ever met, and his anger is nearly always in defence of others. When he acts without thought, it is because he sees wrong or hurt and his first reaction is to right it. Had he been present instead of me, I think your attackers would have suffered worse.”
“Which could have turned it into a legal battle,” Kisea pointed out. “Just as well he wasn't there.” Matt promised me once he'd always protect me. I wonder what he would have done, had it been him and not Kian? Probably not killed them, not unless he's changed even more than I have, but they'd certainly have regretted ever seeing me. Afterwards he might remember about being Lord Jordan's damned High Warden of the Peace and whatever ridiculous degree of authority comes with that. Not really much of a legal battle after all, I suspect.
“There is that,” Kian said noncommittally. “The strength of his gifts is countered somewhat by the after-effects of each use, as well. For a small thing, the price is small, but for a large thing it can be high. He's better at reducing the effects than he once was, but he can do more than he once could, so the ground he gains overall varies.”
“Wouldn't it be easier to just not use it, then?” She knew the answer, but someone else might ask.
Kian smiled, and her inner senses picked up affection. “Then he would not be Matt. Could you simply stop using your gift, if it had prices?”
“No, I suppose not.” After all, his meant short-term, if sometimes uncomfortable, consequences after each act; hers meant living homeless and alone and always looking behind her, which she could probably put an end to simply by sacrificing all use of her gift. “It's an interesting sort of family.”
“Very much so. The house in the Village is quite crowded when we're all present, but since Matt works directly for Lord Jordan, he spends most of his time at the Manor. As of three years ago, so does a cousin from the alasir side of the family. He was Heir to his father, Lord Telsea, my mother's full alasir brother, but chose to stand up for someone who was, quite emphatically, not in Royal favour. Having been disowned and banished, he apparently encountered a half-siren mindhealer who stayed with him a while and finally convinced him to come to the Village.”
“Shon? He's your cousin?” She barely stopped herself before too slipped out at the end. Oh, what are the chances? Seriously? Not that Kian and Shon are the only two alasir-blood I've ever travelled with since leaving the College, far from it, but nonetheless...
“Yes. I did not think there were likely to be two sirens with your name, and you mentioned a swordsman who certainly sounded like him. He spends less time at the Village than he does shadowing Matt and protecting him. He's much better suited to most of the job than I am. He helps Matt in ways I cannot, and I believe feeling needed is something Shon badly needs. He misses you, though. I've heard him wonder, now and then, what you were doing.”
“He rather obviously needed a home. I thought he'd have a better chance of that in the Village or Eyrie, and we were closer to the Village at the time.”
“And you do not?”
“I get too restless,” she said lightly. “Being alone is dangerous sometimes, but it's better than the alternatives. I don't like being dependent on other people. They tend to let you down when you need them most, and the longer you're around anyone, the more likely it is to happen. I wander around the border areas, heal minds when I can, trade bits of weaving or things I find in the forest like bunches of herbs, do anything from herding livestock to mending to chopping wood when I need to. I've picked up a lot of odd little skills in the process.”
“And over the winter?”
“I can always find someone willing to give me a place to sleep and meals in trade for working. The only tricky part is generally making sure they understand that sex isn't part of the deal.” And against one or two men in a winter-bound house deciding to change the terms of the deal, she could protect herself quite effectively.
“That sounds very lonely,” Kian said gently.
You have no idea. She shrugged. “Sometimes. I can usually find company.”
“Should a day come you need help, come to the Village and ask for the Jordan house. Tell whoever is home, mostly likely my mother Lorienne if no one else, that you are my friend and Shon's. Or come to Jordan Manor and say the same, though that may be less simple.”
“That's a large offer based on a few hours' acquaintance.”
“Not my cousin's.”
There was no way she could ever take him up on it: the one person in the world who would know her instantly, no matter how much she'd changed and despite changing her name, was Matt. And he was now sworn to take her back to the College as a renegade. She seriously doubted she could force herself to hurt him even to defend herself, and with his defences, she'd have to do damage to get through; without that, she had no hope of escaping from him. Equals Village and Jordan Manor were, therefore, the two places other than the College she never dared go under any circumstances.
Still, the thought was a generous and touching one. “Thank you. I'll remember that.”
Kian gave her the rest of the meat, and gathered up the inedible parts to dispose of far enough from them to not attract scavengers. When he returned, he turned his attention to creating a comfortable bed that would keep them off the damp ground, in a way new to Kisea: he cut still-springy small evergreen branches and drove the end into the ground under the lean-to, all of them upright but flexing the same direction. When Kisea paused in turning the meat to offer her blanket to spread over them, the result looked surprisingly comfortable.
They sat at the edge of it to eat, Kisea tearing hungrily into the hot gamey meat.
After which, they settled down to sleep, which Kisea figured she needed even more badly than the food, now that the adrenaline from being in danger had worn off.
At Kian's suggestion, she curled up on the inside, snuggled down under her coat. The bed of boughs did in fact keep them off the worst of the wet, she discovered, and had more give than the wooden bench had.
Tolerably comfortable, certain that she was safe, she finally dropped off to sleep.
<-- Back Next -->