“Tyrel,” Kaveri murmured. “Wake up.”
Tyrel woke groggily, disoriented and confused. He blinked and focused on Kaveri, kneeling beside him with a bowl of thin hammered bronze in one hand, a matching cup in the other.
“Wake up. Breakfast.” She waited while he sat up, then handed him the bowl, which held a liberal quantity of thick porridge with chunks of fruit stewed into it, and the cup, which turned out to be hot sweet tea.
“We should get deeper after you eat,” Madoc said. “I did some scouting. We do have a few on our trail, although they aren’t close. We don’t need to run, but we should keep moving. How are you feeling?”
“Better. And I think I’ll be just fine once I get a good meal in me. Where’d the fruit come from?”
“Kaveri found an apple tree.”
Feeling both satisfied and rested for the first time in days, Tyrel felt distinctly more cheerful as they packed up, did their best to disguise the fact that anyone had camped here, and got moving again.
His mood wavered when he realized that Madoc was steering them directly towards the true Forest.
“Where are we going, exactly?”
“Where they won’t be able to track us,” Madoc said calmly, glancing in his direction.
“Right into the Forest?”
“Closer to it, anyway. Where’s the problem?”
“They won’t come too far in because they won’t want to get lost.”
“Exactly. That’s the whole idea.”
“And what exactly keeps us from getting lost?”
“I do,” Kaveri said quietly. “I was seventeen when you caught me. Two years isn’t so long that I’ve forgotten everything I’ve known all the rest of my life. I can navigate in the very heart of the Forest, and I can keep us fed.” She looked up from watching the ground around her, and smiled, the gold and lapis lazuli slave chains gleaming in the sunlight. “You look uneasy. You two protected me. Very likely you saved my life. Do you think I’d do anything that could bring you harm?”
“No,” Tyrel said slowly, wishing this sense of having no control over what was going on would pass. Then again, maybe it was something he should get used to, since he was no longer even presumptive heir to anything. “I don’t know how long you’ll choose to stay with us, though.”
“As long as you need me. I won’t abandon you in the depths of the Forest.”
“Our other option,” Madoc said, “is to stay on open ground and hope we can outrun whoever’s behind us—they’ll likely give up the hunt eventually. Do you have another plan in mind?”
Tyrel pondered that for a while. “No other plans,” he finally conceded. “Forest it is.”
“It might be best to find a place we can camp for at least a couple of days,” Kaveri said. “I think it will rain, probably overnight. I can make us a shelter, but it will take a little time.”
“If they get drenched tonight, it’ll either send them home, or make them all the more determined to catch us,” Madoc reflected. “It’ll certainly make sure they can’t use hounds to track us. What do you need for a shelter?”
“I’ll tell you when I see it.”
“That isn’t very informative.”
Kaveri stifled a sigh. “In the forts and the towns, you make lists of what you want, and then go to whatever lengths you need to obtain those things,” she said patiently. “In the Forest, we look at what’s around us and create what we need from what’s available. When I find a site that has the potential to be turned into a shelter, with materials nearby that will work, I will tell you. I truly can’t give you a more precise reply than that. I hope to find a place early in the afternoon, so there will be enough time to build the shelter to be waterproof.”
There wasn’t really much of a reply one could give to that. Tyrel shifted the weight of his pack a bit, and concentrated on his footing.
Kaveri, somehow, eventually found a small stream; it led them to its source, a shallow basin filled with leaves. She scooped the leaves out of the way, exposing a crack in the rock where the water bubbled up, and once the debris cleared, it turned out to be fresh and cool and sweet.
“I can build a shelter here,” she said thoughtfully. She pointed to a tree with a deep fork some five feet above the ground, and one about eight feet from it with a fork a bit higher. “The ground between these is flat enough. We need a small tree, long enough to reach from one to the other, to start with. We need to strip all branches from it but keep them.”
Packs left there, they scouted the area. Kaveri tapped on a scraggly sapling.
“That one won’t live, there’s not enough light for it here. It will work for us.”
Tyrel and Madoc chopped the tree down in short order with their hatchets, hacked off the branches, and dragged the trunk back to the spring. Kaveri measured out the length between the trees, had them cut the top off the tree, and then helped to wedge the remainder of the trunk into the two forks.
Then, under her direction, they cut enough long branches and spindly trees, each somewhat taller than Madoc, to lean them against the cross-bar. She adjusted them so they were all at some angle only she knew, grounded in an even line on each side, with two at each end to arc in towards the trees, and had them drive the ends into the ground securely; a few, she added rocks to for additional bracing. The next stage turned out to be weaving finer branches through the leaning branches for support, then layering the entire structure with branches of large flat leaves, from the bottom up. The only opening was two-thirds the height of the side, near one end.
Tyrel regarded the shelter doubtfully. “This will keep us dry?”
“It’s made somewhat more hastily than one we might plan to keep longer, and won’t have some of the comforts, but yes, it will,” Kaveri said. “With a firepit and a windwall, we’ll be more comfortable than you think.”
So they cleared the area she marked, not far in front of the door though back enough that they could get past it, and ringed it with stones for a fire. Kaveri built a V-shaped wall of green wood, shoulder-high, on the outer side of it, and then added a kind of roof for it out of green leafy branches. She made a similar kind of canopy over the shelter doorway, presumably to deflect rain from coming in.
“Even if anyone passes near, they won’t see the fire,” she said in satisfaction. “And we can have a fire even in moderate rain, and hot food.”
“That’s a lot of work for a shelter,” Madoc observed, arranging twigs in the firepit.
“How so?” Kaveri asked. “Because we made it all ourselves, unlike a tent, where someone else did all the work of weaving and cutting and sewing and all before you ever saw it? That takes much longer to make, ultimately, and you have to carry it with you to get it there, and take it down afterwards. This was created from nothing beyond what the Forest provides, right now, from beginning to end. We can simply walk away from it when we’re done with it, and it will be used by animals while it gradually becomes just part of the Forest again. The next time we expect rain, we can build another from whatever is available then.”
Kaveri was definitely more talkative now they were out of the fort, Tyrel observed. More assertive, as well.
“If it keeps us dry, it’s worth it,” he said. “What can we do for a hot supper?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Only for two,” Madoc said quietly. “I’m not hungry, no point wasting food.”
Kaveri paused with her hand on one of the sacks of food and gave him a puzzled look. “You didn’t eat yesterday either.”
Madoc just shrugged and went on building the fire.
Tyrel dragged the packs into the shelter. It was too low to stand up, but more than high enough for sitting upright, and there would be enough floor space for the three of them and all their gear without being uncomfortably cramped, although not much more.
With the spring nearby, the fire right outside, a roof overhead that, well, had a chance of keeping them dry, and the whole thing probably invisible to any hunters from the fort… he’d spent worse nights. Some of them very recently.
He unstrapped cloaks and blankets, then extricated everything food-related, piling it right inside the door. Given the proximity of the spring and its stream, he dug out his soap and shaving gear and a clean shirt and loincloth, and ventured back outside.
“Back shortly,” he said. Madoc only nodded, carefully feeding small pieces of wood to the infant fire without looking up. Whatever change he had undergone, as far as Tyrel could detect he was no longer sweating, and the sparse facial hair he’d inherited from his mother’s side had simply halted.
Kaveri concocted quite a pleasant meal out of jerky stewed with lentils and assorted green things and bits of roots that Tyrel didn’t recognize at all. Even the rye bread tasted surprisingly good when soaked in the juices.
“I could start to enjoy meals like this,” he chuckled, relaxing with Kaveri next to the fire. Tyrel hoped Madoc would hurry back from scouting their backtrail: the sky was clouding over, hiding the early stars, suggesting that Kaveri’s prediction would be proven correct.
She smiled. “Living only to eat is a sad thing, but where’s the harm in finding pleasure in what you need to eat to survive? It doesn’t take much to add some flavour.”
“How far will the food we have go?”
“On it alone, four, perhaps five days. If I forage to supplement it with fresh food, we can extend it until the beer and cheese go bad, and still should have jerky and tea and lentils and possibly honey. The oats will run out before then.”
“I’ve never been in this direction, and never known anyone who has,” Tyrel mused. “It isn’t even on any maps. I wonder how long it’ll take us to get anywhere.”
Silence fell, while they finished eating.
Kaveri gathered the dishes together and took them to the stream. Tyrel banked wood carefully around and over the remains of the fire.
“I wonder if it’ll last the night,” Madoc said.
Tyrel stifled a yelp and looked up in shock. “How the hell did you get that close to me without me hearing you?”
“Because you’re losing your touch?” Madoc shrugged. “Or because I can see where I’m putting my feet. Take your pick. There’s a fire some way back, I didn’t get close enough to count people, but I think it’s reasonable to assume we’re being tracked. I have some doubts they’ll come this close to the Forest, and from any distance at all, they’ll never see us. Especially if it rains and visibility is poor. This shelter blends right into the background and you have to be nearly on it to see it.”
“Well, that’s reassuring.” Tyrel added a last piece of wood and went inside the shelter. Madoc followed. “Are you going to sleep?”
“I’m not tired. Seriously, ‘Rel, I feel like I could keep going for days. And even with the clouds, I could point out exactly where Sanur is in the sky right now. I wish we had someone to ask about all this.”
“We’ll find someone. What are you going to do, then?”
“If it rains, I suppose I’ll try to sleep. Otherwise, I’ll be outside and nearby.”
Something in his voice, vaguely distant, almost sad, made Tyrel reach out and lay a hand on his shoulder, but he had no idea what to say. Complex feelings weren’t a big part of life in the forts, and trying to express them even less so.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Madoc said. “You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself.” He ducked out of the shelter.
Lost in thought, Tyrel unrolled the blankets. His hands automatically began to set them up into two beds, then he hesitated.
He heard Kaveri greet Madoc, then she came inside.
“I can share,” she said, presumably picking up on his uncertainty. “It will be cooler tonight, once the rain begins.”
She was right: it rained, and the temperature dropped, and her warmth beside him felt good. Madoc came inside, and Kaveri urged him to lie down on her other side. Dry and warm and safe, Tyrel let himself drift back to sleep.