Comfortable on a blanket at one end of the shelter, Kaveri sang a gratitude and blessing song under her breath while she wove the fine flexible willow into a basket. It felt wonderful beyond words to be free of the confinement of the fort, back in the woods, and doing what she was meant to be doing.
At the far end of the shelter, the brothers, distinctly restless after a day spent inside, were going through their gear and checking the condition of everything. They wouldn’t find much that needed work, since Kaveri had been maintaining it herself for the past year and more, but it kept them busy.
There was more she would need to make or find, basic tools that would give her access to everything one could need here, but that would come. A basket would make foraging easier; so would a digging stick. Once she found the right sort of plants, she could make cord, and then it would take only a few stones of the right weight for her to have her preferred hunting weapons, though she was probably out of practice. A wooden hook for fishing was easy, a stronger antler one would be harder to come by until the deer shed them later in the year. A simple spear was easy, though more work if she made a stone blade for it. The people of town and fort were frightened of the Forest, but a Forester could be alone and empty-handed in the Forest and have everything she needed.
She added the final twist to the basket, a simple round-bottomed shallow circle that would have made her grandmother scold her for sloppy work but would suffice for now, and got up. The air was still filled with fine dense rain, but it was late in the day and if they were to have a meal beyond dry bread and cheese and dryer meat, she needed to find it.
The leathers the brothers wore would have been miserable in the rain, but her own bare feet and minimal clothing were comfortable enough. She padded through the gloom, watching the ground intently. The root of this plant, the leaves of that one, the seeds of another.
By the time she finished putting supper together, it was full dark. She and Tyrel ate, and coaxed Madoc into trying some of the stew—he enjoyed it, at least.
As she had last night, she took the dirty dishes to the stream to wash them.
“Don’t be afraid,” a low voice said from the shadow of a large tree.
Kaveri rocked back on her heels, ready to spring to her feet and flee, wary but curious, as a tall lean figure stepped into view. Her first impression was of topaz light, but then she wondered why, when everything about him was dark. Only his eyes were topaz, faintly luminescent in the dim light.
“Who are you?”
The stranger ignored the question. “Why are you wearing chains?”
Kaveri glanced down at the bronze cuffs on her wrists. “They don’t come off, and we don’t really have the tools here to remove them easily.”
He shook his head impatiently. “The two you’re with, were they the ones who chained you?”
“In a way, but they also protected me. The fort they were born in raided a town. My uncle and I were there to trade. They don’t capture Foresters often, they prize us when they do. My uncle was killed. The others of the fort would have enslaved me and made me a toy for sex for everyone in the fort. Madoc’s mother was one of my people, a captive, a courting gift from Tyrel’s mother to his father, and she was the one who nursed and cared for both of them until she died. For her sake, Tyrel claimed me as his own so no one else could lay hands on me. They’ve both been very gentle with me. They wouldn’t even leave me behind in the fort when they had to leave.”
“They’ve made no effort to free you.”
Kaveri shrugged and smiled. “They aren’t bad people. They are what the forts have made them, but they don’t entirely like it. I don’t think they’ve thought at all about what I’m wearing since we left Dunnval. I’ll find a way to be rid of them in time, or they’ll realize it and think of something.”
“Why do you stay with them? You are far better suited to life here than they are.”
“They saved me. I saved them, more recently.”
“All debts are paid?” It was definitely a question, not a statement.
Whoever this stranger was, he seemed far more concerned about her than threatening. She let herself relax somewhat as she shook her head. “By the traditions of my people, the debt of a life cannot be cancelled out even by another life. The vines of my life and theirs grow intertwined now. They chose to accept responsibility for me. I chose to accept responsibility for them. All is well, and I have a great deal of hope for the future.” She took a chance. “Why does it matter to you?”
A brief pause. “When I was very young, my parents were killed, and I was put in a cage. Someone saved me, and I was raised free instead. I don’t like people confining others. If they were holding you, I would have killed them both tonight. Because they freed you and protected you against their own, I will not. What else I will do, I have not yet decided. They went to the ruined fort, did they not?”
“Yes. Tyrel was to prove that he was worthy to be the Chief’s heir. I don’t know what happened, other than that they were attacked by ghosts there and the spirit protections I gave them saved them from being killed. Tyrel looked terrible when they came back to Dunnval.”
“Only the one?”
“Yes. I’m not sure what’s happening with Madoc—he’s the taller one, with Forester stripes if you look closely in the sunlight. He isn’t eating or sleeping at all since they came back, but he seems to have no end of energy. I’ve been worried about him.”
“You don’t need to. He’s in no danger from it.”
“Will you come talk to them?”
Another pause, then he shook his head. “Not yet. I’ve been… away, and only returned tonight. I need to think. I’ll be nearby. Call me if you need me.”
“Do you have a name?”
“Kieran.” He backed up a couple of steps, deeper into the shadows. Kaveri saw pale yellow light shimmer, and she was certain that the shape that vanished into the night was large and four-footed.