Pathfinder's Way(4)

By: T.A. White


“My son.” He stopped and cleared his throat, shifting so he could look at her. “James and one other were supposed to return this morning from a run. I need you to find him and make sure they’re alright.”

Shea crossed her arms in front of her. “If I recall correctly, they were heading for the north reaches to gather lumpyrite for trade. That area should be safe. The beasts avoid it because of the mineral’s smell. They probably just got delayed. If they’re not back by nightfall, I’ll head out to look for them tomorrow morning.”

Shea had turned to go when Elder Zrakovi’s voice pulled her back. “They didn’t go to the north reaches.”

She stopped dead. Of course they hadn’t.

The villagers were supposed to check with her when they left the village so she could make sure the areas they traveled were safe. She dropped her head slightly while she schooled her expression back to neutrality. Only when her face showed a placid blankness did she face the men.

“Where did they go?”

“Below the Bearan Fault,” Zrakovi said gruffly.

“You mean the Lowlands,” Shea said, each word pronounced very precisely.

More than one man found themselves avoiding her eyes.

She shook her head slightly. Fools. The Bearan Fault was a line of cliffs nearly two hundred miles long. It was the gateway to the Lowlands.

Lowlanders were dangerous. Crazy too. Shea had dealings with them in the past, but it was always with one eye on the exit and a hand on her weapons. You just never knew what they were going to do.

One time, they had set fire to her clothes. While she was still in them.

She hated Lowlanders almost more than Highlanders.

“I told you not to send anybody into the Lowlands without me there to act as guide,” Shea said, her voice as polite as she could make it given the pulse pounding at her temple.

Zrakovi slammed his hand down on the table. “I won’t have my judgment questioned by a slip of a girl barely past her majority.”

“Then how about a Pathfinder with fifteen years’ experience who told you that heading to the Lowlands at this time without proper preparation and without a guide was too dangerous.”

Slip of a girl, her ass. Shea was twenty five and had been guiding folks since she was ten years old and could finally keep up with the adults.

“You were on assignment,” a thin man with stringy hair and a beak nose on the other side of the table complained. “We didn’t know when you would be back, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. This wouldn’t have happened if we had more than one pathfinder.”

Shea’s shoulders tightened and her back became even more rigid. “You’ve been told in the past that pathfinders are rare and in high demand. Your village is too small and too new to warrant more than one.”

“Too new? We’ve lived here for more than eighty years. More like we’re being punished,” one of the men muttered.

Shea took a deep breath and bit her tongue. She had to do that a lot while she was in Birdon Leaf. Sometimes she was amazed there wasn’t a hole in it.

The simplest explanation was that there just weren’t enough pathfinders to go round and none who wanted to destroy a promising career by coming to this backcountry village.

No. Shea was the one to receive that privilege.

“What village did they go to?”

If Shea was lucky they had chosen one of the more stable villages. Though just as dangerous as the rest, they usually had a reason before they went bat shit crazy.

“Edgecomb.”

She sucked in a breath. Well, then.

Edgecomb was crazier than most. They did not like outsiders and were very easy to insult.

“We had reports earlier,” another elder said gruffly. “Mist is rolling down from the eastern border. It’ll cover this place in less than two days. They’ll be cut off.”

Mist. Damn. That complicated things.

She’d had a feeling it was coming. It was one of the reasons she pushed the men so hard going up Garylow’s pass. They were overdue.

Pointing out just how foolish these people were would be a waste of breath and cover the same ground as previous arguments. Shea decided not to address the issue. But she wanted to. Boy, did she ever.

“I’ll need four men if we hope to recover them.”

“Can’t you do it by yourself?” a man sitting next to Zrakovi asked.

“No.”

“You’re a pathfinder. Isn’t that your job?”

The rest of the men spoke over each other to voice their agreement about how this was impossible.

Shea didn’t bother listening, instead tuning them out while she went over her packing list. She’d need at least five days rations for five people, best-case scenario. Her field pack was still packed, but she’d have to replenish some of the items used on her last journey. Hopefully, she had clean underwear and socks in her cottage. Hmm. When did she last do laundry? A week ago? Two? She could live in the same clothes if she had clean socks and undergarments.

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