Pathfinder's Way(5)

By: T.A. White

“Are you even paying attention, girl?” Elder Zrakovi asked.

Shea brought her attention back to the matter at hand. “My contract stipulates that I may request help from the local population if I think it’s necessary.” She looked each man in the eye as she continued, “If your men are still alive, I will have to rescue them, and I can’t do that alone. You will give me four able-bodied men accustomed to trail work and able to keep up on the distances we will be required to travel.”

“We may not be able to spare that many men,” Zrakovi said. “The tali will be flowering in a few days and if the mist holds off long enough, we’ll need all the people we can get to bring in the yield.”

The tali was a flowering vine that grew all through the rocks and mountains near the village and was a primary staple of the village’s diet. Its stalk could be used in weaving and cloth production, while the fruit could be dried out or eaten raw. It was used in nearly every dish they made. It only flowered twice a year and during that time every man, woman, and child helped with the harvest.

“I’m not asking, elder. If you don’t give me the men I require, I won’t be going out after your son.”

Shea knew harvesting the tali fruit was important. Without it the villagers faced the possibility of starvation, but she wasn’t about to venture into the Lowlands by herself. It would be suicide. The elders had been warned of the dangers. If they couldn’t supply the men, they could accept the consequences of ignoring sound advice.

The five conferred among themselves while Shea waited. Finally, they sat back.

“I can’t give you four,” Zrakovi said.

Shea nodded and turned to go.

“I can’t give you four,” he reiterated, raising his voice. “But I can give you two. It’s all I can spare during the harvest.”

Shea waited a beat. To be safe she needed four, but she’d known from the start the elders wouldn’t spare the manpower. The contract’s wording said she could refuse since they hadn’t provided the necessary resources.

Doing so would mean death for the two men. If they weren’t already dead.

Despite what the villagers thought of her, she didn’t make her requests to make their lives difficult. James, the elder’s son, was one of the few who didn’t try to make her feel like a hindrance. He was a decent sort who had a smile for everybody. When she needed assistance on some of her more dangerous jaunts, he would sometimes volunteer.

She needed four, but she could make do with two.

“Tell them to be at the front gate at midday.”

Relief filled the chamber. A few looks were traded back and forth, and several men nodded.

“Good.” Zrakovi turned his back on Shea and took another drink. As she turned to go, he said, “I’ll be sending a missive requesting a new pathfinder be assigned to replace you in Birdon Leaf.”

“If that’s what you feel is best.” Shea inclined her head and strode away without a backward glance.

It would be the third such request since she arrived. The first two had elicited a carefully worded refusal that politely told all parties to suck it up and figure out a way to make it work.

As soon as she was outside, she put all thoughts of the elders and their barely concealed disapproval out of her head. There was a lot to get done in two short hours. Edgecomb was a two-day journey if they traveled fast and took few breaks. Depending on who they gave her, she might be able to cut that time down even more.

That wasn’t what worried her though. Last time she had scouted the route she’d noticed several of the more dangerous beasts had nested in some of the cliffs. This wouldn’t be a problem under normal circumstances because she could detour around the nests. This time, however, the quickest route skirted right along the edge of their territory.

She spent most of the next two hours securing supplies for her journey. Since they had to carry their own packs and would be on foot, every item had to be absolutely necessary. That meant no more food than necessary and just enough water to get them to the next watering hole. It was a delicate balancing act that required Shea to draw from previous experience as well as intuition.

Her last stop was her cottage, the only other stone building in the village. In many respects, it reminded Shea of the older ruins found deep in the Highland’s heart. It just had that feel to it. The kind of feeling that said it had been forgotten by time and man.

It was small. A grown woman could barely stand inside without bumping her head. The walls were close and cramped. Nature had threaded twisting vines through its stone walls in an attempt to reclaim the structure. In spring, it looked as if a blanket patterned with pinks, purples and blues had been wrapped around it as flowers bloomed on those vines. In winter, the unpatched holes gave little protection against the cold.

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