Pathfinder's Way(6)

By: T.A. White

Shea loved it. Even when it was colder than a witch’s tit. Despite the neglect of humans, it persevered and even managed to be beautiful while existing in symbiosis with the land around it.

Nobody knew its past purpose. Regarding it with deep suspicion, the villagers allowed it to fade from their collective memory. Pretending it didn’t exist was easy as it was located at the rear of the village, close to the wall.

They gave it to Shea when she arrived because nobody wanted to live here and because, as an outsider, she was regarded with the same level of suspicion.

Shea held up a sixth pair of socks. Did she really need them? The route they were taking was relatively clear of any water. The weather had cooled as summer loosened its grip, and fall took its place. Still, it was vital to keep feet dry during a long journey and would be much more comfortable besides.

An extra pair of socks in her bag wouldn’t really make a difference but as packing progressed those little extras really added up.

The supplies ready and her bag packed, Shea slipped her arms through the two loops and lifted it onto her back. Bending forward, she tugged on the bottom of the straps, tightening the pack until it hugged her back and wouldn’t flop around while she was running.

She grabbed one of her maps off her desk and headed out the door. As always it took a few steps to get used to having a pack’s weight, but by the time she reached the front gate she was able to ignore it to focus on other matters.

She arrived at the front gate carrying her sack of supplies, mostly food, but some odds and ends. Two men watched her approach. One had taken a seat on an overturned bucket and was using his knife to peal a piece of fruit. The years had carved crow’s feet in the corner of his eyes and grooves around his mouth. His skin was leathery, and his brown hair was pulled back away from his face.

His companion was much younger, probably a little younger than Shea, with curly reddish-blond hair that barely reached his ears. His forehead was broad over sky blue eyes that made the girls in the village swoon every time he smiled at them.

“Witt. Dane.” Shea gave a respectful nod as she stopped in front of them. “You know why you’re here?”

Witt, the elder of the two, nodded and flicked a peel off his knife. Dane smiled at her, his eyes twinkling merrily. She’d worked with both before. Witt wasn’t so bad. Just surly. But he listened when she had something to say and was handy in a fight.

Dane might be a problem. He tended to flirt his way out of work and was under the impression that he knew more than he did. Too bad she couldn’t leave him behind this time. Unfortunately, he was good with a boomer and the only man in the village able to use one. She would need that if they ran into trouble.

“Good.” She set the supply sack on the ground and withdrew some rations, handing each man his share.

“This is barely a day’s worth of food,” Dane complained, holding up the meat wrapped in loaves of bread. “It’s not enough.”

“It is,” Shea corrected him. She held out two canteens of water to him and gave Witt the other two. “You’ll have to ration your supplies. There are several pieces of fruit in that bag as well as dried meat that you can eat while on the road. We’re traveling light this trip. We can’t afford any extra weight if we want to get to Edgecomb before mist fall.”

“What route are we taking?” Witt asked.

Shea pulled out her map and unrolled it carefully on the bucket Witt had just vacated. It was made from a sturdy stock of paper and drawn with a careful hand and an eye for detail. The geography of the land was done in blue, red and black ink with several closely drawn lines signaling elevation and further spaced lines meaning flatter land. It had been treated with a kind of oil to ensure the marks didn’t fade over time. Shea could still make corrections, but the treatment meant those could be erased with a bit of spit and elbow grease. It made it handy to make notes on various trails without permanently damaging the integrity of the map.

“This trail would get us to Edgecomb quickest,” Shea said, running her finger along the path in question. “But the last time I was up that way I noticed some signs that beasts had settled close to there.”

“What kind?”

“Red backs.”

Witt nodded grimly without taking his eyes from the map.

Red backs were a beast that walked on all fours for the most part. However, when killing, they rose onto their hind legs, and would tower over the tallest man in Birdon Leaf by several arm lengths. There were always two, usually mates, and they had claws that could cleave a man’s head clear off his shoulders. They were named for the red fur on their backs. The fur on the rest of their body was usually grey. Once they moved into a territory, they usually didn’t travel out of it unless prey became scarce.