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Winterhaven Excerpt

Updated: Nov 30, 2022


Written By Marie Daley



Ryes sighed as she sat down in one of the rolling chairs in the computer room. She was bored and didn’t want to do any more lessons with the computer today. She craved something different… something more daring. But what? Because it was her turn at watch, she kept an eye to the slowly roving screen that depicted the world outside this safe haven they’d found, but the scene truly rarely changed. The others were all busy, doing other projects or chores and sometimes she glimpsed them on the internally-aimed screens around her. Ardis was concentrating upon the lesson the computer was teaching her at the other console in here. It looked like she was learning how to use the cleaning machines. She wanted to take over the management of them; to use them safely.

“I’m going to get something to eat,” she finally said after another hour, just realizing Ryes was in the room with her. Ryes gave her a nod of her head, her eyes going from screen to screen to see if anything was out of order. She sighed.

“I had a bigger than I really needed breakfast,” she admitted with a rueful smile, as she turned to look her in the eyes. “You go on and I’ll get something later, when I’m hungry.” Ardis laughed, nodding her head in agreement.

“I’ll bring you back something light to keep you until then,” she promised with a smile of understanding.

“Thanks,” Ryes replied as Ardis got up out of her chair and was quickly out the door.

Now was her chance to do a little research, her way. They needed more answers than they were ever going to get out of this stubborn machine. She settled down into her chair, getting comfortable. She breathed deeply several times, while relaxing her body. Finally she opened up her Time Walking Talent and cast herself back in time. She searched for when there were people present in this room. She felt a sense of a presence, so willed herself to that time.

It was about halfway through the night and Neil Jarrett was so terribly bored. He hated and loved the night duty watch in the control room. It was normally his chance to catch up on his family mail from Earth, or on the latest flix they’d sent him. But tonight it had been at least two weeks with nothing coming from home. This wasn’t too unusual as there were times when they were busy with their own lives and forgot about him all the way out here at the research station. Even Mom and Dad forgot him sometimes.

He’d just finished running his computer checks, since it was truly one of his main duties. He was one of a half dozen techs in the facility who knew enough of the computer systems to maintain and repair them when things went wrong. Most modules were plug-in and done, but there were times when he had to break out the real test equipment, or diagnostic programs. Everything they were sent from Earth was scrap yard salvage, which was decades old. But since it was all they had, he did his share of the work to keep it running. It was better than nothing. Now he was bored and craved something more… anything more… And it was still hours before he would be off-duty and he could go get snuggly with Brenda.

Suddenly, as he was finally calling up his favorite game, he felt a horrible wrenching sensation which caused him to choke and sputter. It was like he was being torn apart inside! He pushed back his chair and jumped to his feet while at the same time a native woman jumped out of the same chair, but away from him. She appeared to have been as much in pain from the experience as he. Neil’s senses were reeling for several moments and he was breathing hard, as if he’d just jogged a couple of miles non-stop.

Ryes stared at him in total shock. She wasn’t wholly pulled into the past, but she was far more substantial than she had ever been when venturing back into time. She was breathing hard, too, as she put a hand over her stomach, as if to make sure her cubs were okay, even if they were still in the future.

“Who are you and how did you do that?” he questioned, more curious than mad. Ryes was flustered. She knew a few words well enough to communicate a little and some simple things, so how was she to form a communication bridge here? She knew she couldn’t just will herself to disappear now. She had to get this situation turned around, somehow. She pointed to herself.

“Ryes,” she stated. She pointed to the machine console, “Computer,” she added, identifying it. She pointed to him, “Who?” He grinned, feeling this was more than he had ever seen from any of the natives they’d captured before.

“Neil,” he told her, speaking slowly, pointing to himself. He calmed down and a real smile brightened his face now. “So, Ryes, how did you get here?” She returned his smile, her eyes lighting up now. They were a beautiful green and she had flaming red hair, all braided up.

“I walk back,” she replied, hoping his smiles meant the same as theirs. “Learn computer,” she gestured with her hand doing a sweeping gesture to indicate the computer console.

“So, you want me to teach you the computer? Why?” he pressed, looking as if he was trying to solve a puzzle.

“You go. We alone. Need computer,” she managed to get out slowly, concentrating upon wording it as clearly as she could. “I walk back learn.”

“You mean all the humans are gone?”

“Yes. Empty.” she sighed, then smiled at him again. “Need teach plesss.” It was Neil’s turn to sigh, but his smile brightened again.

“You’re really good with English,” he noted. “I will teach you, if you teach me, too.” He shook his head in disbelief, sure no one would believe him if he even tried to tell anyone about this experience. “How do you walk back? You mean in time?” She blushed furiously.

“Yes. I walk back,” she affirmed, finally relaxing a little. He reached over to her then, to try to touch her, but his hand passed through hers as if she were made of air. It stung a little, but she was feeling better now and nodded her head to the surprise in his eyes. “Plesss?” she asked, her eyes pleading. He huffed out a laugh.

“Okay, first item to note. It’s please, not plesss,” he told her, laughing. “P l e a s e,” he repeated slowed.

“P l e a s e,” she repeated, grinning. “No plesss.” He nodded at this, seeing she did learn fast.

He suddenly grabbed the chair and wheeling it back to the console table, getting an idea. He called up the keyboard and Ryes stepped over closely watched everything he did, playing attention. He was excited about what he was doing, at least. He typed up some bold letters on the screen overhead and she looked at them, wondering. He pointed to each letter, spelling them out for her.

“R y e s,” he voiced for her. She grinned, liking the way her name appeared in this foreign script. She wished she could do the same for him in Dolbith, but she was very insubstantial here in this time.

“Yes, me,” she agreed. His smile got bigger and she realized she trusted him.

“I’ll write a program to teach you English. Type in your name like this, here,” he showed her, instructing her. “The computer will then know you. So even if I’m not here to teach you, I can still teach you something.”

“Tanks you,” she replied, thinking she understood. He laughed at this, nodding his head.

“Thank you,” he emphasized in response. She parroted him, grinning.

“I walk now, bye Neil,” she suddenly told him, realizing someone was holding her hand.

“Will I see you again?” he asked.

“Yes, see,” she promised. After almost being one for a few moments, she knew she’d never have a problem finding him, again. She let go of this time and place, letting her inner self endure that wrenching feeling and headed back home again. But she had found at least one hooman or hueman who accepted her and was willing to help her learn. Soon she was back in her own body, once again. Maren let go of her hand, grinning.

“Off on a short trip, again?” he asked, putting down the bread and meat “sandwich” on its plate on the console table for her.

“I have to learn the computer,” she asserted, blushing.

“I have to get back to my chores, too,” he replied. “No more Time Walking today,” he minded her. She nodded her agreement, so he left out the door.

Once he was gone, she turned to the computer console and entered the letters that spelled out her own name. The main screen before her suddenly went dark and then a few moments later Neil’s face appeared on the screen. He was smiling at her.

“Hello Ryes, I’m here to start your lessons. I hope you’re ready to learn,” he said, appearing happy. She smiled at the screen only understanding a small part of what he said, but she realized she was ready to learn now with Neil as he teacher.


Chapter 1

Garth bent to finish repacking his pack, while Ryes stood holding onto his spear. She surveyed the lush green, peaceful grassland before her. The apparent peace was fragile with Doran's Valley of Death too close for the unwary. They’d journeyed far from their home dwellings in Matlowe Village, originally leaving on an exploration to see the ruins of Hailys, the greatest city upon Tayna, which had been destroyed almost three hundred years ago by a murdering alien people. On their journey, the pair of them had been caught up in a flood and separated from the rest of their friends, then mislead here to this Valley by Ryes’ budding Talent; being sensitive to Doran’s lure. But Ryes fought her and won their freedom and finally they found the way back out of her evil domain. Now to find the way back to their friends and family!

As Ryes stood in thought, still exhausted after her ordeal, she felt a strange lurch and a reeling surge of power, as if something within her had been unleashed. Panic gripped her heart as the very air shimmered, blurring all before her eyes into a green and gold mist. Her insides felt as if they were twisted around! Then as suddenly as it happened, it steadied again. Was this some kind of aftereffect from holding and directing such immense energies from the Stone for so long? Her mind was reeling and her heart still beat strongly in panic as she saw what lay before her eyes, once more.

She was standing back in the valley, near the tree they had camped at and the open area around it, which they’d just left behind them. But instead of it being empty, there was a cavalcade of brightly dressed and armored men filling it in front of her. They were almost akin to some of the images captured in one of Darman’s old books, which she'd read when she was little! There were at least a dozen soldiers. Their uniforms were red with black and white contrasts. Gold ropes and buttons completed their look, drawing her eyes in with the details they created. The windracers they rode were pure white and tall at the shoulder; more than able to carry some of the heavier muscled men riding them. The trappings on the windracers were extravagant, also a red cloth with the black, red and gold accenting them. They stood in such well-mannered patience, as if long accustomed to such situations. She could feel the power in them as they stood at the ready, to do as they were bid on an instant, both the soldiers and their mounts.

Their leader dismounted and drew his sword as he approached a middle-aged woman, who stood between two willowy trees. Ryes didn’t know her, and wondered where she came from? She thought she’d stopped Doran’s calls. Was she one of her Handmaidens, who had just awakened? She was dressed in a softly-flowing green gown, but there was a vagueness in her eyes which looked all too familiar to Ryes. A thousand questions arose in her mind as she watched. Where had these people come from? And so quickly and quietly! How was she back in the valley, when they had finally made it clear of the gully? Was this something Doran or her followers managed to do, to get back at her for her victory?

"I have come for my betrothed," the officer stated loudly, his face diffused with his smoldering anger. He was an older man, who appeared older than Rowan. He was very neat in appearance; every hair in place as if he tamed it first. His ears had strange coloration, as if some kind of special rank. She wondered about such a neatly groomed man. The woman did not respond.

"Release Tyra of House Li to us, immediately!" he ordered, raising his sword to point it in her direction. This was her next surprise. How could he be betrothed to her mother? This didn’t make any sense. Tyra was long gone from Tayna now and had been married to Ronn before she died. How could he come here to make such a claim?

"She is sheltered with the Goddess," the woman replied in a mocking voice; a sneer upon her face. "No man may violate this valley unpunished," she stated loudly in return, then turned away, as if dismissing his threat, walking down the path leading toward the temple; the matter dismissed to all appearances. The presence of the armed men were not a danger by her behavior.

"Then so be it! We will take the head of your so-called goddess and still bring Tyra home with us!" he shouted at her retreating back. He signaled his men forward, leading with his drawn sword. A now-familiar, insane laugh filled the air, surprising them. The uncertain men paused, looking around them, trying to find the source.

“It is only someone with strong Mind Voice,” he declared, barely glancing back at his troops. “We have a job to complete. Mental barriers up. Forward!” The old officer refused to pay it heed, as the others stood in doubt. He pressed onward, leaving them behind now.

“Watch out!” Ryes shouted in warning as she saw the almost invisible hand of Doran reach out and roughly push the old leader. His face registered shock as he was grabbed and shaken by an unseen force, as if he were a rag doll. His sword was pulled from his grasp and rammed through his chest to its hilt, then run downward, until he was practically cleaved in two. His screams were horrific to hear and died as suddenly as he did. His company stood with terror reflected upon their faces, as mad laughter rang out from the air around them. Doran was daring them to continue and try to take revenge.

Ryes strode forward in anger and slapped aside Doran's grasping hand, as she reached to claim the unfortunate man's soul. There was a loud, shocked shriek at this, which slowly faded. The freed soul vanished to wherever souls fled at life's end. Ryes looked down sadly at the body of the brave officer. Two members of the company dismounted and hesitantly stepped forward.

"Who are you and what do you want?" one of the men demanded, a strange weapon in his hand. It appeared a short barrel with a grip shaped to fit the hand comfortably.

"I'm named Ryes and am the daughter of Tyra Li and Ronn," she answered. She looked back toward the gully, but Garth wasn't standing there, so he didn’t know she had been swept off, yet. "We won our freedom from this valley just a few hours ago, but I seemed to have misplaced my husband," she stated with a puzzled frown. The time of the day was even wrong. It was late afternoon, not early morning.

"How can you be the daughter of Tyra Li?" the man demanded, his eyes narrowing and looking angry. "You are lying. Tyra only arrived here two years ago."

"She has no daughters and is far too young to have one as old as you!" a second one agreed as he reached to grab her arm. Ryes felt a shock at his touch, but his hand passed through her arm, as if she were made of air. She was startled by the pain this caused and her insubstantiality. What had happened to her? Why was this happening? The men appeared as surprised as she, when she looked up at their faces.

"I'm more lost than I thought!" she declared, looking to them for answers. They backed away, their fear naked on their faces. Another, older man stepped forward. He was clearly unafraid and had a determined set to his chin. He gestured for the others to secure the fallen officer's body. They reluctantly stepped forward again as a pair of others came over to help. The older officer turned to face her squarely, his face a controlled neutral.

"You are Time Walking," he explained to Ryes in an oddly accented voice. She frowned at this and he glanced back to check on the progress of his command. "No, leave that cursed blade lie," he ordered, as one of the men stooped to retrieve the fallen sword. “It has betrayed The Family and will never again cause another such death.”

"What’s Time Walking?" she asked, puzzled. The officer’s gaze returned to her, looking her directly in the eye.

"Only one of royal blood could fully answer that. I am only an officer of the guard of the House of Oftirrin and have a very base knowledge of the Talents," he told her. He had noted her simple dress and braids, as if she were a puzzle he was going to have to remember later for a report. "Ah, a Forester."

"How do I get back to where I belong?" Ryes pressed, questioning as they prepared to leave, bearing their sad burden. The man’s windracer was brought forward to bear his now-wrapped body.

“It is a very rare Talent and none now living are said to have it, that I have heard. And I have never been versed in how it operates. I am sorry,” he told her. The old guardsman only shrugged his shoulders, then turned upon his heel, remounted his windracer, and left with the rest of the company. They filed up the gully, disappearing around the bend. She looked down at the bloodstained sword, as a sense of helplessness claimed her. Then she raised her eyebrows in surprise. It was the same sword she used last night to fight her way free of Doran's deadly garden. She shook her head sadly, bewildered.

“At least it served its final duty for me and helped free us of this place,” she said into the resulting quiet around her, then sighed.

Ryes turned and walked back toward the gully, feeling very tired and alone. When she reached the top again, she stepped over to the tree she’d been standing near. Even it was barely a sapling! She needed to get back to Garth! She closed her eyes and imagined everything as she last saw it. She strove to listen to the sounds of Garth packing his backpack. In her mind she pictured his face as clearly as she could, putting all her will into the image. Again there was a wrenching feeling within and the air about her caused her skin to tingle. Suddenly she felt his spear solidly in her hands once more, and Garth's strong arms about her. She let herself collapse against him, dropping the spear. She was back and safe with him, again. She began to shiver with an intense cold as tears of relief sprang to her eyes.

"Are you all right, Sweet One?" His voice was tinged with desperate concern. “What can it be? Is that witch making another try for us?"

"No, she can't. I took care of that. And I'm fine now," she breathed, trying to control her shivering, opening her eyes to look into his. A warm smile sprang to her lips. "Let's get well away from this valley. Right now!" He finally chuckled, a smile of his own lighting up his eyes.

"Whatever you wish, Sweet One," he told her. He released her only to pick up the dropped spear and their backpacks, then wrapped an arm around her. They cut across the grassland before them, heading away as quickly as they could manage.

"I feel a million years old," she quietly commented as they began to head southwest. Garth smiled to himself. Ryes was more herself. "And we're going to have to replenish our food supplies soon," she added, her practical side coming out. He laughed heartily and stopped to hug her to him again.

"Of course, Sweet One, whatever you want." There was a lot of affection in his voice and Ryes' heart beat with joy.

"Whatever would I without you?" she asked, as she returned his hug, holding onto him tightly. She needed no answer. She knew it already.

A couple of days later, when the dry rolling grasslands had turned into lush flat meadows, Ryes felt a new stirring within herself, which she didn't understand. She lagged behind Garth all day on the trail, but doing very little of the gathering she usually did. She felt an uneasiness in her stomach and a general feeling of being out of sorts. She didn't want him worried again, so she kept it as much to herself as possible; trying to behave normally when he was near enough to notice. They made an early camp, but discovered she had no appetite for the food he offered her.

She finally lay back and looked up at the sky overhead, through the branches of an old tree they camped under. The sun rested upon the horizon, but Menna at full moon, reflected his glory overhead. She knew bright Shaysa wouldn't appear until later. Even though Shaysa was now waning, she still outshone Menna. Ryes must've drifted off to sleep, because she awoke with a start as Garth lay down next to her. Shaysa was out now, low to the horizon.

"Your color hasn't looked very good, today," he said in a low voice as he settled down, propping his head up on his upraised arm.

"Something's not right," she admitted. "Maybe I'm coming down with some kind of fever?" Garth leaned down to nuzzle her neck.

"No, I don't think so." There was a sureness in his tone, as if there were no doubts in his mind. "Your time has come," he stated, as he touched her body in a light, teasing manner.

"Are you sure?" Ryes asked with a quiver in her voice. His gentle caresses were exciting and energizing her, in spite of her earlier feeling of utter exhaustion.

"Karr looked as you do now, last year when her last season came," Garth assured her. She let out a sigh of relief.

"Then I hope we have lots of fine, healthy cubs," she said as she reached for him, joy singing in her mind, heart and soul. But instead of unlacing her tunic, he suddenly held out his hand before her, palm flat and fingers spread out like a fan.

"I give to you, Ryes, all that I am, body, heart and soul, now and for all eternity," he stated, meeting her emerald eyes with his honey-colored ones, reflecting his truth by the light of their bright fire. He'd given her the opening for the true-mate ritual. He was pledging himself wholly to her for eternity! She was utterly shocked, but suddenly smiled as she placed her hand palm-to-palm with his, knowing he was correct in this. It was what lay within her heart too, even if it was now hammering.

"I give to you, Garth, all that I am, body, heart and soul, now and for all eternity," she said, her love for him in her eyes. He then entwined his fingers with hers.

“And two hearts now joined as one,” they both intoned with joy, together. He smiled as he kissed her passionately. He felt complete. Their true-mate vows sealed them together forever, but this was the way it should be for them. They were now truly husband and wife - always! They excitedly undressed each other, now truly eager. A togetherness, a harmony, a knowing they'd always be there for each other, sang in them both as they joined. It was as if it were their first time, all over again.

"I found them, but I think it'll be a few more days before they'll catch up to us," Sabin told the rest, as he returned to camp, just in time for dinner.

"Why? The creek can't still be running high!" Shadd asked, her brows furrowed at this news.

"Oh, they're across the creek and on our side," he assured her with a chuckle. "But they're busy with other concerns right now," he hinted with a wink.

"It can't be so soon?" Maren questioned, chuckling as he thought he knew the answer to his riddle.

"What can't be?" Torr asked innocently, looking puzzled.

"Ryes' time has come," Ardis answered for Sabin, catching on. She laughed merrily, "I think they'll be a little too busy for a while, won't they?" The others joined her in her laughter, as they realized she was right. A woman is only fertile once every three to seven years throughout her lifespan. It was always an exciting event.

"I left them a small present where they won't miss it," Sabin told them. "After all, I don't think they'll get too much hunting done, either."

"Since they're busy, why don't we start exploring Hailys? After all, if we don't try to go underground, we should be all right. I'm tired of waiting to see what's lying under all those plants and broken slabs of stone!" Torr asserted, looking restless with this news. He wondered how long it'd be before Shadd's time came? He was having fun with their free-mating, but wanted to start a real family of his own, too.

"You're right," Maren agreed. "We should know the basic layout and where the ways downward lie, so we won't stumble into one by accident," he stated. “I had Honey out earlier, riding in the meadow nearby, but it isn't as safe as when we camped beside the creek. There’s too much loose stone for her to trip over and break a leg! And I’ve no idea how to replace her shoes like Ryes did for one of them a couple of weeks ago. I should’ve paid closer attention - just in case of need.”

“You’re doing a good job with her,” Shadd assured him, smiling to ease his worry.

"Remember what it's like over at the old mines?" Ardis prompted them. There were nods of agreement as they did remember. “The mines were tapped out and abandoned long ago. The last of their riches were stripped out near the time of the attack upon Tayna. There're shafts which even the elders had forgotten existed, where you could fall forever and die. Ryes said most of this city is underground. We need to know where the shafts lie, so none of us comes to tragic grief."

"You've got the right idea, there," Sabin concurred. "Tomorrow, let's take one of Ryes' blank parchments and see if we can make a map of our own of Hailys, as it is now." Maren laughed as he thumped him on the shoulder.

"We'll make a scholar of you, yet," he teased. "We'll make a map in coal, then one in ink, once we're sure of things. I'll use the compass and get our baselines established, so we'll have our reference points," he said, getting into the project.

"Just as long as you and Torr teach me, so I'll be able to understand what we're creating," Sabin chuckled in return, shaking his head. Maren had really gotten into this map reading, more than he ever thought. He wondered what Garth would say about it? He could imagine him laughing with the rest of them. He hoped they wouldn't take too much longer, but knew better than to bother them, now. He knew they'd get the idea, once they found the food packets atop their backpacks.

"I think it'll be late in the winter, or very early spring," Shadd quietly told Ardis. She nodded her head in turn, agreeing with her friend.

"We'd better find that new home of ours soon," Ardis whispered back. "I don't think mine's too far off, and you were born a couple of months after me. So, yours should come in the middle of the summer. With so many cubs to feed next year, we're going to have to get supplies set aside. We don't want to overburden our men with having to hunt all the time," she returned, smiling as she met her eyes.

"What do you know about preserving?" Shadd questioned.

"I'm sure not as much as Ryes does," she replied, hoping it was true. “I never paid much attention to the home-making skills my mother and sister tried to drill into me like cooking and canning. And now I’m regretting it as I know I need it.” She sighed.

"She knows quite a bit about preserving," Maren whispered to the ladies, as Torr and Sabin were looking for the writing supplies in the larger packs Honey usually carried. "She learned it helping the Caravaner women in the winter months. We'll be fine," he assured them. "There's plenty of game around here and if we started gathering some of the wild grains, we could have enough seeds for planting a real crop in the spring. I saw Ryes pack several packets of seeds, so she already has a garden in mind," he informed them.

"That's a relief," Shadd returned, smiling at last. "Thanks, Maren," she said. “You’re a good little brother to us all.” She hoped he'd find the perfect mate for himself, too. But where were there any women way out here in the wilderness, she wondered?

Three days later Ryes and Garth lay sunning themselves on a wide, warm, flat rock, next to a small lake, which she was sure was the one they were supposed to all meet up at from their previous plans as a group. They hadn’t seen any signs of the others, yet. They were a day's walk from the ruins, but couldn't resist the chance the lake had afforded to clean off the dirt from the trail. They'd had a fine time splashing and playing, as if a pair of young cubs, before they'd settled down to lots of serious cleaning of themselves, their clothes and equipment. Now they were napping on the warm rock, waiting for their clothes and blankets to dry. It'd been a pleasant interlude on their travels. But soon the weather would begin to turn and the cold season would be on them. Ryes told Garth they needed to find a place to settle down before the winter snows came. She had only experienced them once in her life and didn’t want to face them unprepared ever again. He laughed.

Ryes' mind drifted as she lay on her stomach next to Garth. She felt a sudden splash of icy cold water on her back. She was instantly wide awake, looking for the cause. Maren stood on another rock, above them to the left, with a mischievous grin on his face and a dripping trail cup in his hand. Ryes closed her eyes in disbelief and shook her head in wonder. She lay back down and nudged Garth's shoulder.

"They found us," she said as Garth opened his eyes. She gestured over her shoulder toward Maren.

"Maren?" Garth asked in surprise. "What’re you doing here?"

"Came to wake you two lazes up," Maren answered. "Get dressed. We've already got lunch done and ready to eat. And dinner’s simmering in the pot." He had a playful note in his voice and a broad smile.

"In wet clothes?" Ryes protested.

"Better hurry," Maren replied as he jumped down from the rocks, grabbed his backpack from where he'd left it, and disappeared through the trees.

"They're almost dry," Garth told her as he handed over her clean tunic. She sat up with a scowl on her face.

"And it’d been such a nice day," she commented. Her face brightened into a merry grin. "Wait 'till I get my hands on my cousin!" Garth laughed heartily in agreement. As Ryes was tying the laces on her tunic, she noticed it was starting to feel a little snug. She frowned and wondered if it should be happening so soon. Garth, seeing where her attention was focused, laughed.

"You're the one who wants lots of cubs. You're going to have to have something to feed them with," he reminded her, still chuckling.

"Do you think they'll notice?" Ryes asked, nodding her head toward the trees Maren had disappeared through.

"They notice everything, Sweet One." Garth laughed again as he handed over her boots and breeches. Ryes blushed furiously, but her eyes danced as she finished dressing, a playful smile upon her lips. They gathered the rest of their things and headed off the way Maren had gone. Finally, the smells of roasting fish lured them onward more quickly.

"You two made enough noise to wake all the ghosts in the ruins," Sabin said with a smile as he stood to greet Garth and Ryes. The small rock-sheltered clearing near the lake was bright with sunlight. The rock wall afforded them some protection from the elements with a jutting shelf providing a sheltered area for their sleeping blankets. They had collected more stone to form the fire pit for cooking and evening comfort, with logs making seating around it. There was even a pen for Honey nearby. It was the perfect camping place in all their eyes.

Garth smiled and stepped forward to cross Sabin's palm with his. Torr clasped Garth on the shoulder. Ryes went over to greet Honey and to give them some time for themselves, seeing how much they missed him. She gave her some scratches and checked her teeth, ears and legs. Honey nudged her and she laughed, glad she had missed her. Finally, she crossed back across the clearing to stand near Garth, a happy smile upon her face.

"Well, you both look fit. Where have you been hiding? We've searched all over for you and thought you’d never catch up," Torr asked with concern in his eyes.

"We took a longer route than we planned," Garth answered, his smile fading; a seriousness filled his manner as he drew Ryes over to his side. "What's the problem?" he asked Sabin with a direct gaze. There was something bothering him and he knew it.

"Same as always," Sabin replied, his smile now gone, too. "Korman." Garth frowned at the news, his suspicions confirmed. Ryes unfocused her eyes and imagined what she'd like to do to Korman, herself, if she had access to the power that lay in Doran’s valley.

"Ryes!" Garth spoke sharply. Startled, she looked up to him and knew. Garth couldn't follow her thoughts, but had felt the strong tide of emotions she'd unconsciously projected to him. She knew that to misuse her newfound abilities would be the first step down the dark path of madness that Doran already tread. She closed her eyes and shivered as a blast from the icy winds of hell brushed her soul.

"Sorry, Garth," she apologized quietly, looking again into his golden eyes. “You’re right and I should know and be better than that.”

"What's wrong?" Torr asked Garth, a puzzled frown on his face. Ryes hadn't said anything to need such a sharp reprimand.

"Nothing," Sabin answered Torr before Garth could speak. He'd felt it too and wondered why she was suddenly so strong? What were Tyra's Talents, anyway?

"Where's Maren, Shadd and Ardis?" she asked, more herself again and not seeing them anywhere about.

"Maren went to get them. The ladies are out gathering plants and seeds, like you're fond of doing," Torr told her, smiling.

"Come on, let's eat! We can swap stories when we're fed," Maren broke in, just returning to camp. Shadd and Ardis were following, all smiles. Shadd put down her gather bag and ran over, enwrapping Ryes in a welcoming hug. Ardis was right behind her. Garth grinned broadly and nodded his head.

"We heard," Ardis whispered into Ryes' ear. She chuckled at this. They couldn't miss the food packets Sabin left for them!

"It sure smells good," Garth said.

"What? Hasn't the Great Huntress been taking care of you, Garth?" Torr asked in amazement. Ryes blushed as she dropped her pack beside a fallen tree.

"We've had a few distractions." Ryes started to explain.

"Yeah, I'll say," Maren piped in, pointing at Ryes' tunic laces. Ryes scooped up and threw a handful of pebbles at him as he ducked behind a nearby tree. Torr, Sabin and Garth roared with laughter.

"Cut that out," Shadd scolded them. "Men," she commented to Ryes and Ardis, a big smile upon her face. "As we figure it, there'll be quite a few new cubs to have to worry about providing for by next spring. So, we'll get even our own way," she teased.

"Yeah, we'll go out hunting and leave the men home to care for the cubs," Ryes agreed. Ardis looked surprised at this then suddenly smiled, liking the idea. She knew her sister felt trapped, stuck at home with her cub all the time! It was a great suggestion! Shadd was laughing, agreeing with her, too.

"They should be old enough by then," she agreed. The men were frowning, looking like they were wondering if the women were serious. They didn't know much about caring for infants, to begin with!

"Let's eat," Maren repeated, chuckling at the devious plans the women were hatching. He loved it! It was what they deserved, after all.

"You didn't think I was going to leave all the hunting up to you?" Ryes teased Garth, as they sat down with their lunch. The fish smelled great! "If I did, you'd be out hunting every day."

"I've learned a few things from you," he returned, recalling she was even more sensitive to the animals around them, now. "And how could you hunt with your Empath Talent awakened?" he challenged, teasing.

"I learned to block it out before; I'll learn to do it, again," she assured him, her eyes shadowed as she thought upon it. It'd be harder now.

"Don't worry," Ardis told her. "You show us how and where, and we'll take care of things from there," she said. Ryes smiled, liking that idea best.

"That we can do! Shadd, this fish is really good!" she complemented her friend.

"I finally figured out how to use some of your cooking spices," she explained as she passed Torr a second helping. They had cooked up quite a few, which surprised Ryes, but seeing the way the men were scarfing them down, she now understood.

"I'm glad," she replied. "Sorry I wasn't here to help out," she apologized.

"That's all right, we understand," Shadd told her.

Ryes smiled as they all ate in companionable silence, so happy to be among friends out here in this wilderness. Once they finished, she helped gather up the plates while Torr pulled out the map they were making, showing it to Garth. She wanted a look at it too, but thought she needed some time with the women more. The other two women gathered up the cook pots and the rest of their cups and dishes. They went down to the lake and started rinsing and scrubbing their plates and utensils.

"So, what's this about Korman?" Ryes asked, hoping it wasn't true.

"Sabin caught his scent, a few days ago. He seems to be hanging out some distance away; on the far side of the ruins from us. So still a good couple of day’s walk away. We don't think he's found our campsite, but we've been posting a watch at night, just in case. I'm relieved he hadn't already found the two of you," Ardis told her as much as they knew, so far. Ryes grimaced.

"He just can't leave things be," she sighed, reaching for a handful of wet sand. She bent to scrub the plates, wondering when they'd be truly free of him?

"So, how many do you think?" Shadd questioned, smiling. Ryes looked up to meet her eyes, then started smiling too. "My sister thought she'd have two and she did! She told me that I'd be able to tell, once I'm pregnant," she related.

"I don't know. I think maybe two," she replied, "but, it may be way too soon to guess," she warned, smiling. "I just feel strange that my tunic's a little snug for the first time in my entire life! This has to be too soon!"

"What’s it like?" Ardis pressed, needing to know.

"Different. I felt kind of out of sorts the whole day, and then realized when Garth said I looked like Karr did last year; I realized that's what it had to be. It was kind of like free mating for the first time, all over again," she related, her eyes shining at the memory. “We had a deep need for each other and couldn’t get enough!” She didn't want to tell them about their true-mate vows; unsure if Garth would want to mention it first, or not. It wasn't very common for couples, to begin with, and in truth they were both still very young. Shadd sighed longingly at this, seeing Ryes' happiness.

"I can't wait! But, Ardis is a month younger than you and I'm two months younger than her, so I'll be the last one to see what it feels like," she protested, pouting.

"Hey, it's not our fault you're the youngest," Ardis teased, now looking forward to it, herself. It didn't seem to be as bad as her sister said, from the happy, wistful way Ryes looked. And she already knew now that she didn't want it to be anyone else but Sabin!

"Hey, I thought I was the youngest here," Maren protested, sitting atop a nearby rock, laughing.

"Maren!" Ryes scolded. "You're the youngest and peskiest, all at once. Can't we talk without your listening in on everything?"

"I can't be everywhere at once," he protested, a hand to his heart, his eyes merry. "So, did you and Garth exchange true-mate vows, or not?" he pressed. He hadn't heard Garth say so, but some instinct told him that maybe they had... Ryes blushed a deep golden color at this, turning back to her scrubbing with enthusiasm.

"Did you?" Shadd asked, puzzled by her sudden change in behavior.

"It was Garth's idea," she started, feeling like she was fumbling within herself, trying to voice it. "I... just thought he was right. I didn't expect it and he truly took me by surprise when he spoke the words, holding his hand up for the ritual. I didn't know what to do, so I spoke them, too," she admitted, looking up to meet Shadd and Ardis' shocked eyes. Maren jumped down from his rock and came over to her. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her to her feet, serious now.

"You truly did, but did you mean them in your heart?" he pressed, meeting her eyes. She still blushed, but looked at him steadily.

"Yes, I did mean them, every word from my heart," she affirmed. He threw his arms about her, giving her a hearty hug.

"It must run in the family!" he declared, adding in a kiss on her forehead. "Congratulations, cousin!" He merrily laughed as he let her go. She blushed furiously at this, but Shadd and Ardis were embracing her, also. She finally smiled and relaxed, glad they were accepting of the news.

"Has Garth told Sabin and Torr, yet?" Ardis asked Maren, wondering how he knew?

"I think he was trying to tell them," he returned, smiling. "He was having a hard time finding the words when I left. I already figured out what he was saying," he admitted.

"You ornery thing!" Ryes declared, shaking her head. She handed him the plate she was scrubbing, then turned on her heel and left the clearing. "I've got to take a walk," she told them, over her shoulder.

"Men," she muttered under her breath, as his laughter diminished behind her.

She slowed her pace and began to regret her outburst. Maren had only been teasing her, as any friend would have. That warmed her heart. She barely knew anything about her cousins because she'd been in the habit of avoiding everyone in the Village. Maybe it was time to get to know them all much better? She decided she’d find a way to at least come to some kind of understanding with Aunt Tanns, so she’d get the chance. She kept walking, making a leisurely circuit of the lake, enjoying the stirrings of life going on around her and just needing the time to think.

She sat on a rock, soaking up the warmth of the sunshine, her mind thinking on the changes still before her. With these new cubs, it’d be a while after they're born, before she could go on a hunt again. If they ever got back to the Village, she thought maybe she should take up a craft? The metalsmith used to like the small, intricate pieces of jewelry she used to make, every now and then. Even though her hands were skilled, she felt she'd never give up the woods. They, and the life they held, lived in her heart always.

"Ryes?" She startled, turning around to see Maren standing nearby. There was an apologetic look on his face.

"Oh, Maren," Ryes suddenly felt foolish caught daydreaming again. "Did they send you out to find me?" She stood up and smiled, her eyes lighting up with mischief. Maren nodded, his grin breaking out in response.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to upset you," he said, looking like he meant it.

"I'm fine. I guess I've lived too long by myself. There's been so much happening, so fast now," she paused a moment, looking off into nowhere. "I guess I just needed a bit of time alone." She turned and smiled at him again. Maren extended his hand, and she clasped it. Together they turned back for the campsite.

"Well, when do you think they're due?" Maren boldly asked, itching with curiosity. Ryes mentally tallied a few moments.

"Late winter, early spring, or thereabouts," she shrugged, concluding that was as close as she could guess. These were her first, and she really had no idea of what to expect.

"That long?" Maren questioned. Ryes nodded her head, as sure as she could be. "Well, then what took you so long to get here?"

"We went a little further north than we truly needed to go," Ryes answered. She'd wait to see if Garth would tell that tale, and take her que from him. "You can ask Garth about it," she suggested in a lower voice.

"How long ago did you hurt your arm?" Maren asked in a direct way.

He kept their pace slow. He wanted some time to talk to his older cousin, by himself. She'd always been a strange one and he knew her little, even if he was learning a lot about her on this journey, as well as learning a lot from her, too. It was time for him to understand her better and her reasoning. How much did she trust him and the others? He needed to know. He looked at her as she arched an eyebrow in surprise at him. He laughed.

"There ARE healers in our bloodline; remember our grandmother, Jana?" Ryes nodded her head, and smiled at a dim memory.

“I recalled how Aunt Tanns put Rowan to bed once, when he kept insisting he wasn’t sick. A fever developed that night which only worsened his temper. But Aunt Tanns had been right and always won out after that.” He laughed at this, agreeing with her.

"Even if we can't heal anymore, at least the 'health sense' is still there," Maren said with a sigh. Ryes stopped and faced him fully.

"But we can heal, Maren. I helped my arm and body to heal faster, myself. That's all that I can do, but maybe you've got the Talent for it?" Maren frowned at her statement, not believing her, yet wondering. "It's inside. You just have to reach down hard enough to find it. Try it sometime, Maren. It has to be there. You just have to want to reach it strong enough," she implored. Maren finally shrugged and turned toward camp again.

"Maybe later," he replied thoughtfully, after a few paces in silence. He didn’t feel ready to dig for his Talent yet. He felt an awareness of it now and knew it was there waiting, but did not feel ready for it. He wasn’t sure he could handle it and the responsibilities that went with such a Talent. He’d seen his mother plagued for years by the villagers - seeking her help. Could he give up his own time for others all the time, he wondered?

Catching Up

Chapter 2

They returned to find Garth and Torr stretched out in the sunlight, their empty cups beside them. Ardis and Shadd were sorting their finds from earlier this morning. Sabin was sitting by the fire in deep thought. Sabin's eyes locked on Ryes and she felt a sudden chill travel up her back. In spite of his look, she walked with Maren to stand before him. Sabin stood up, his arms crossed.

"Had to drag her back," Maren teased, holding her hand up in the air to demonstrate; then let it go. Ryes let it drop to her side with a smile. There was a mischievous twinkle in Maren’s eyes. Sabin grinned back and gestured toward the seating around the fire pit, appearing unable to hold onto his ire. Getting an idea, Ryes went to her packs and dug in, looking for something. Finding it, she went in search of her and Maren’s cups.

Maren sat down and stirred the stew they were simmering for dinner, while Ryes filled their cups from the wine skin she'd brought with her. She'd managed to conserve her meager supply fairly well, she thought. She had wanted to save it for when they found their new home, but thought arriving here at Haily’s was a landmark in her life and a reason to celebrate, too. She handed Maren his cup, then passed the skin over to Sabin. He sniffed the contents, then smiled and refilled his own, Torr’s and Garth’s cup. Ardis and Shadd poured the last into theirs. Once everyone had their share, Ryes raised her cup and said,

"To the future and all that it may hold, for all of us!" She grinned merrily as she spoke in a loud voice for all to hear. Maren and Sabin looked surprised but raised their cups to the toast. Garth and Torr heard and stood up, grabbing their own cups and joined in the fun. Ardis and Shadd appeared delighted with her toast, raising their cups, too.

"To the future," Garth and the others echoed Ryes as they raised their cups to the toast. Then Garth spilled a small amount on the ground before his feet before putting it to his lips, the others mimicking his move. It was respect for those whose hearts would’ve wished to join them, but were no longer alive to do so.

"Thought you'd left us for good," Torr said after draining his cup, looking at what meager dregs were left in it appearing regretful. Ryes lowered her eyes a moment as Garth chuckled softly and sat down on a nearby log, pulling her gently down beside him. He put his arm possessively around her. Sabin stood, uncertain for a moment, then crossed his arms again and stood before them.

"What took you two so long to get here?" he voiced at last, his disapproval plain in his voice and stance. Ardis tugged at his belt to distract him, but he didn’t budge. “The stream returned to a safe level well before you crossed back.”

"It's a long tale and needs to be told for all of you to hear," Garth said, gesturing for Sabin to sit. He wasn't bothered by the tone or stance his old friend had taken; though it was plain Ryes was uncomfortable. Torr and Maren pulled over a log for the women and another for themselves and sat down. Sabin, seeing that no tale telling was going to begin until he sat too, finally joined Torr and Maren. The smoldering look in Ardis’ eyes warned him to behave.

Then slowly, between them both, Ryes and Garth managed to tell the tale of their separate, harrowing journey. Ryes described the way Doran’s strong lure clouded her mind and blinded her senses, until they were suddenly in her valley and in deep danger. They both told of the frustrating invisible wall that kept them in it – captive. And then the appearance of Tyra with her warnings and clues. After that, Garth spoke of the way Doran consumed his soul bit by bit. It was the worst torture he’d ever endured; and how later he spoke with Tyra, himself. Even if he was safe with her, it still unnerved him to be in her presence. There was much about the encounter with Doran that Ryes did tell, but there were things that she couldn't say. For some of it there were no words, and some of it still touched to the quick and she merely left it out. She hadn't even told it all to Garth because she was still trying to understand it, herself.

"And she just let you go after you freed Garth's soul?" Sabin asked with piercing directness.

"She couldn't hold me, Sabin. Her power’s gone and I controlled the power streams." Ryes shook her head, running the memories from the rapport through her mind again.

"Then how did you escape?" Maren demanded, Torr nodded his agreement to the voiced question. He appeared to wonder, too.

"First we entered a rapport, one mind touching another…" Ryes shivered at the recollection of that experience, and reached out to grasp Garth's hand. "I found out even more than all the questions I could ever ask, could answer," She looked up to Garth and smiled, "and Doran found out she couldn't control me as she had so many others in the past." Garth chuckled and gave her hand a tender squeeze.

"You mean, she tried again?" Shadd asked, disgusted.

"Of course she did, but I was ready for it and when she attacked me, I burned out her Talents with my Catalyst Talent. I never thought of doing it before, and was surprised I could do it. I wanted all threats she could make against us stopped for all time," Ryes answered with a confident smile. “Her luring others to her service had to quit, as well as her being able to use the Stone of Power. I also turned off that shield generator that kept us trapped in the valley as well as the others like it, too.” She didn’t notice the utter shock on the faces ringed around her as she looked down into her cup, seeing things again in her mind only she had seen in that temple, then she set the cup aside.

"How did Doran ever come to be there in the first place?" Ardis asked in a curious voice, her face a mix of emotions reflected from her inner turmoil. Ryes' smile faded as she looked at her, and then shifted to the look at the crackling fire. She began the tale slowly, thoughtfully, from stolen, faded memories.

"Doran was a daughter of one of the great ruling houses from legendary Kahmarr. She was an oldest daughter and watched her mother, forced by their family, into matchings she abhorred. The last man that her mother had been mated to had treated her cruelly. She finally died from a very bad beating. Doran's mind began to twist with her mother's death and when she came of age, her family began to make demands on her choice of mates. She rebelled and killed the one they'd chosen for her with his own sword. She’d used her Talents to overwhelm him. She tried to rally the support of the other unmatched women of the great families, and what she could from the general population, but the rebellion was suppressed. Because she was pregnant, of Royal Blood and a woman with strong Talents, she couldn't be put to death. If she were banished, it was feared she would continue to raise followers, so it was decided by a great council…" Ryes broke off a moment, still awed by the borrowed memory of the council hall and the great assemblage within it.

"What was decided?" Maren spoke up in frustration. Ryes blinked, trying to bring her mind back to the present.

"I'm sorry, Maren. The hall was so huge and beautiful and the people filling it… there were more than just our own kind of people there," she stopped, wondering how to begin to tell what she saw within her mind.

"What do you mean?" Garth asked curiously.

"There were others who were different of build, coloring and shape and ways of living." She halted, at a loss to describe it to them. "There was one kind of people who were no taller than your waist, Garth, who had large, dark eyes, darkly-tanned skin and were hairless and seemed to wear little clothing, but their bodies were adorned with beautiful tattoos and jewels. They were a very strong-willed people, too." She smiled up at his puzzled expression.

"Remember we ARE the `Star People' by our oldest legends and if so, there must be other kinds of people, living upon other worlds. We have other peoples who live here on Tayna, even if the very few to venture into Matlowe have been in the company of the Caravaners. I don’t think anyone else ever met them." Ryes looked down into the dancing flames and sighed.

“I met that one blue girl, one winter,” Maren ventured. “She seemed mean.” Ryes met his eyes for a moment, puzzled, and then shook her head as it was filled with the other, borrowed memories in this moment. She decided to change the subject.

"I wish we'd never lost our star traveling ships. I saw them from Doran's and the others' memories. They were fantastic! They moved people from world to world with little seeming effort. Some only shipped goods between worlds, as if traders roaming from port to port among the stars. Some shipped people to `vacation’ on others worlds. They went to explore other cultures, or see amazing ruins or different wonders in nature. Others were explorers who travelled to find new worlds and opportunities."

"It was long ago. Now you want to turn back time?" Garth teased. She had a startled look in her eyes at this, which he wondered about, but felt it could wait for later. "What did that great council finally decide to do with Doran?" he prompted to bring her back to the original story.

"Or can we already guess?" Torr added in, smiling. Ryes quirked a smile in return.

"Sort of. Once she had her son, whom she tried to kill, they decided to put her into an endless sleep on a quiet outer world. Tayna was originally a `game preserve' with the population and cities kept deliberately small. She was put here to be forgotten; locked away in a great stone monolith. But after a time, some of her followers came and built the temple and gardens around her. None of them could open it to release her. It took a very special combination of Talents, which none of them possessed. And their great victory was the theft of the power stone for their `sleeping goddess.'" Ryes shook her head as she looked to the others. "It does her no good now, her Talents are gone and she can't tap power streams from the stone. Given time, she'll be no more than a bad memory in an endless cold tomb. Even if this isn't a fate I'd ever wish on anyone, I felt no pity for the creature Doran had become,” she finished.

"Who was that old crone who attacked you?" Ardis questioned, feeling a chill over the terrible fate this Doran had before her.

"Doran `lures' women of greater Talents to her service, from time-to-time. I have no idea if she was one of her sleeping handmaidens, or another Talent from somewhere on Tayna. Jana was heading for Doran's valley when Tyra found her and released her from the calling. Tyra had just escaped Doran's keeping, at that time." She shook her head at this, chagrined. “I had hoped to find out where she came from, but this… It was far beyond what I ever expected! She came from Kahmarr, itself!”

"Tyra was one of Doran's followers?" Sabin demanded with vehemence in his voice.

"No," Ryes answered sharply, feeling the sting of his tone as if it'd been herself. "Tyra came here from Kahmarr to escape an arranged marriage. She was of Royal Blood, the House of Li, and had nowhere else to run. She was very young and didn't know what to expect, but took up the offer of shelter from this unknown `goddess,' and was encased in the cold sleep, as were Doran's other, `special' handmaidens. All of them were those of the Blood, who came to her for protection. But Tyra managed to escape Doran's cold sleep after a couple hundred years." Ryes smiled at Maren and shook her head, "I guess after listening to her mad ravings for so long, she didn't think anything of charging Korman with her spear when he killed Ronn and my siblings."

"The mystery is solved!" Torr declared grandly. "And you found out how to escape that place, too. Looks like it runs in the family." Ryes laughed and nodded her head to this.

"I was never so glad as to see Garth!" She wrapped her arms around him in a happy hug, which surprised him. He laughed and hugged her back. "So, my mother ran away to sleep for a few hundred years, to find her true-mate," Ryes told them all.

"Tyra and Ronn were true-mates?" Shadd asked in surprise, "But Rowan didn't say anything about it!"

"No, he didn't," she agreed, "Tyra's ghost told me that, herself. I had a thousand questions for her, but no chance to ask anything if I was to free Garth in time. Most of what I learned about her was from the memories of one of the other sleepers in Doran's temple. They became `friends' after a fashion, while caught up in that mad woman's clutches. By the time I got free of that deadly garden, I only had a yearning for Garth, and to get some sleep. I never got to ask any of my questions before Tyra left us. And I owe her some kind of favor in return for her watching over Garth. I told her she could ask anything, but she said she'd ask it later." She looked up guiltily to Garth. He still had an arm about Ryes, hugging her to his side again, giving her a nod of his head.

"It'd only be fair. I'm sure it won't be something unreasonable; she didn't seem to be like that," he assured her. She let out a sigh of relief and then a yawn snuck out.

Maren had taken their plates and filled them with stew, while Ryes had been telling her long story. They’d all eaten their fill while listening. Now Ryes picked at the last bit of it and while it was not the spices she would have chosen, it was still tasty and filling.

“We need to get our dishes washed,” she said, but Garth shook his head no.

“It’s too late to be out by the lake tonight for such a chore,” he scolded.

“But they’ll attract bugs and animals,” she protested.

“We’ll put them in a wash bucket for now to soak,” Ardis suggested, not liking the idea of bugs, nor wild animals in their camp. “And then wash them first thing in the morning.”

“They’ll be fine. We’re posting a watch all night. Nothing big will get into camp,” Maren insisted. Ryes appeared to deflate and surrender to their urging.

"It is getting late," Ardis observed, as she yawned. The sun had set some time ago, with all this story telling. They were back to honeyed tea. Sabin stretched as he yawned. She cracked a grin as she shook her head at him.

"I'm ready for bed," Ryes said, standing up.

"You go ahead, I'll join you soon," Garth told her, “I want to talk more with Sabin, Torr and Maren. We still had a lot of catching up to do on what was happening.” He especially wanted what news they had on Korman.

"I'm going to bed, too," Shadd told Torr, as she stood and stretched. He eyed her for a few seconds, then realized while he wanted to join her, he couldn’t yet.

"I'll be along, shortly," he promised. "Who has first watch, tonight?" he asked Sabin.

"I do, then Maren, but since Garth's here, we can split it up into shorter watches. Why not let Garth take the third watch and leave you the last one?" he suggested, grinning. Garth chuckled at this as he gave his head a nod in agreement. It was only fair, after all. Torr laughed.

"`Bout time you showed up to pull your load, cousin," he teased. Garth chuckled as Ryes shook her head, heading for their alcove. But instead of lying down, she went over to Honey's pen and checked on her, first.

"Pretty girl," she whispered, as she scratched her behind her ears and along her jawline, the way she knew she loved it. "I'll check you over real well tomorrow morning," she promised. Honey lipped her fingers and pawed the ground. She looked happy to see her, too. With a final pat, she went to her blankets. She took off her boots, stowing them away and loosening her breeches and tunic. They didn't quite have as much privacy as they had on the trail, so she was reluctant to fully undress before the others. She saw Shadd and Ardis going to their beds the same way. She fell asleep quickly, even if she was trying to listen to what the men were saying in their low voices.

“It was amazing that you both survived!” Torr stated, giving a nod towards Ryes across the way. “Good thing her Talents opened up when they did.”

“I think it was that Power Stone she was talking about that helped the most,” Garth stated, his eyes straying over to his wife. “She seems to have several and now I’m wondering how many she truly has to call up at need?”

“You didn’t speak your True-mate vows to keep her in check, did you?” Sabin suddenly questioned. Garth smiled at this, shaking his head.

“No,” he laughed out. “That wasn’t on my mind, nor in my heart at the time. It was real, Sabin. I felt it was the truth from deep inside. It wasn’t a shallow sham. But there’s something I did want to ask you about,” he continued.

"It was him. I know his scent too well," Sabin assured him, feeling sure of what he wanted.

“Truth be told,” Maren interjected, “We all know if he’s hanging out in a very specific place out here, it has to be where Ronn and Tyra were living. He and Rowan were the only two to know where it actually was set. We can’t let him catch any of us off our guard. And if I figured it out, Ryes will too.”

"Maybe coming out to the ruins wasn't our best idea," Garth replied, "but, if he's mad enough to follow us all the way out here, then maybe it's time we hunt for him and get it settled," he suggested. “And I think you’re right Maren. That must be the reason he’s where he’s camped. He’s expecting her to head to that special spot – where she was born. I’m not letting that happen!”

"You almost had him. All you have to do is make sure he doesn't get his arms wrapped around you, again," Torr encouraged.

"A hunt for Korman!" Maren nodded his head, liking the idea. “A hunt for a REAL animal! If nothing else, we might drive him back to Matlowe. It’s time we deal with him, as he deserved long ago.”

"At least we know he's not back there terrorizing our friends and families," Torr said.

“That’s some small comfort. And at least he’s hanging out in an area away from us, overall – for now,” Garth said.

“I think he’s picked his challenge ground,” Torr stated.

"We have to deal with him, or none of our women will be safe out here. Remember that he did kill Tyra, a helpless woman carrying a tiny infant home to what family she had left," Sabin reminded them.

"I was wondering," Garth said, thinking on it. "Tyra was supposed to be a very powerful Talent with several different Talents at her command which she’d been trained from childhood in their uses, but she was helpless when he attacked. Does that mean a woman loses her Talent when she has her cubs?" he asked, meeting Sabin's eyes. He looked thoughtful for a few moments.

"I remember my grandmother saying that hers went away for a time after her cubs were born, but it came back and was stronger," he replied, realizing why he was asking. "She was telling my aunt, as her Visions left her after she had her daughter. I think she was comforting her. I was young, but I remembered it. My mother never had the ability, but apparently saved it for me. Still it seems birth will leave a woman Talentless for a period of time."

"The women in our family always had the stronger Talents," Maren told them, thinking back to his mother and her stronger health sense. "Maybe that's why Korman keeps my mother pregnant, so she's never had more than just a `health sense?'"

"That would be crediting him with brains enough to know all this," Torr scolded, but Sabin suddenly gave him a sharp look.

"Maybe Korman KNEW where Ronn and Tyra were living long before he chose to attack them? Maybe he KNEW when Tyra would be the most weak and vulnerable?" he conjectured.

“It suddenly makes perfect sense and sounds like the truth!” Garth caught a chill up his back at this. "All the more reason to hunt him out now and get this challenge settled. I don't want Ryes left helpless with him on the prowl nearby," he stated with a stern note in his voice. There was an edge to him, which the other men couldn't mistake. He meant business! Anything could happen at any time and he didn't want to chance Ryes being attacked while he was gone, even if only out hunting for the day, as Tyra had been when Ronn was killed.

“You know, this might take more than one challenge,” Sabin suggested. “It might take all four of us challenging him to fully defeat him for good.”

“I know,” Garth replied. “But I get the first chance at him.” He got nods from the others around him as he met their eyes.

"Let's look at that map of yours, Torr. If we plan this out, we should be able to find him fairly quickly," Sabin suggested. Torr gave him a nod and went to get it for them. Hunting one of their own was something new for all of them, but this was for the protection of their women and future cubs. If it came down to it, Torr realized, he'd face off Korman himself, if it meant keeping Shadd safe and out of his claws.

Ryes awoke early the next morning, startled to find herself sandwiched between Maren and Garth. She quietly slipped out of the blankets and stretched, once she was clear. She knew in a few months' time she'd never tolerate sleeping upon the ground. She'd have to have some kind of home by then with proper sleeping furs and a real bed. But, the ruins of a great city called Hailys were here, beckoning to her to discover their secrets. She donned her boots and tightened the laces on her breeches and tunic. There was plenty of time to satisfy her curiosity, before they had to find real shelter!

She saw Torr on his feet, leaning against a nearby tree and sound asleep. She stepped over to him and gave him a gentle nudge. He opened his eyes, blinking against the breaking dawn light.

"Go back to bed, Torr Sharp-eyes," she scolded with a smile. He sleepily gave her a smile, then tottered over to his mate and snuggled down into the covers with her. Shadd threw an arm over him in her sleep and they both were quickly out. Ryes smiled, as she shook her head at this. It was funny the way things had worked out for all of them. The other women never looked happier and they'd lived in the house next door to the men for almost two years!

Next, she went to relieve herself in the primitive outhouse the men dug for their use. Then, she restarted the fire from its banked coals and put on a pot of water to make fresh tea. She put Honey's halter on her and opened the gate. She gathered the dirty pots and plates from last night and headed for the lake. First, she bathed Honey and herself in the ice-cold water, feeling more alive than she had for some time. Next, she scrubbed the evening's dishes and pots, setting them out to dry in the early morning sun.

Honey was feeling frisky, so she let her run loose in a clearing next to the lake, as she gathered some fresh tubers and other plants nearby. She brushed Honey down, until her coat glowed, as she talked to her and gave her the attention she hadn't been able to give her for some time. On the way back, she found some ripe berries and quickly picked them, in spite of the thorny plants they grew upon. They'd be perfect for breakfast! She returned to gather the clean pots and dishes, filled Honey's bucket with fresh water and was now ready to head back. She was relaxed, as she hadn't been since leaving Matlowe.

When she entered camp, Garth and Torr were looking at a map, while they discussed something in quiet voices. Ardis and Shadd were by the fire, cooking something, while Maren was digging through the packs, but Sabin was nowhere in sight.

"Where've you been?" Sabin growled, coming up behind Ryes. She jumped in surprise and looked at him with a puzzled frown.

"I didn't know I needed your permission to go anywhere," she stated sarcastically. She turned to Garth lifting an eyebrow in inquiry.

"Korman's nearby," he reminded her. "He's just worried about your safety." She nodded her head, blushing slightly in embarrassment, having forgotten about Korman already.

"I'm sorry," she apologized to Sabin, meeting his bright, orange-gold eyes. "I wanted to see what was around here and indulge Honey with a bath and brushing. Her coat was looking pretty tacky with all this traveling," she explained. It was a very different-looking windracer she was leading this morning. He had to admit, the animal looked much better for her time and care. He finally gave her a smile and a nod of his head, turning to join Torr and Garth.

"Here," Maren volunteered taking her halter, "I'll put her back in her pen." Ryes smiled her thanks, but thought she needed more room, if they were going to be staying here for any length of time. She'd have to bring it up later, after everyone had eaten. Tara had always said people were more agreeable after a meal.

"Thanks, Maren," she replied, letting him have it, her bucket of water and brush.

"What a pretty Honey," he crooned to her as Ryes shook her head, barely containing her laughter. He was trying hard to win the mare over.

"I found these," she said, joining the women at the fire. She put down the pots and dishes and pulled open her gather pouch. Inside were the berries, wrapped separately from the other plants she collected.

"Ooooh, I love thorn-bract berries," Shadd declared as she took them and put them on a clean plate. "What do you think of our little oven?" she asked, smiling. Ryes grinned merrily, having discovered it this morning.

"For `roughing it' we sure manage to do things well," she teased. "It's a great idea! Do we still have some flour? I could bake some biscuits or bread with these berries," she offered, wanting to help out.

"How about if we add them to our cooked grains? It'd make them taste so much better," Ardis suggested, instead. Ryes saw she had a pot of cooked grains almost done.

"May I?" she asked. Ardis gestured for her to go ahead, so Ryes sampled it. She obviously, already added honey to it, but it still wasn't right. Part of it was the type of grains they used. So, she went over to her smaller pack and went through her packets of spices. She found what she was looking for and returned. She added a tiny pinch to the pot and stirred it in. After a few minutes of stirring the pot, she tasted it once more and smiled. Perfect!

"Try it now," she invited, as she closed up the packet. Ardis appeared doubtful, considering whatever Ryes added was in such a small quantity, but did and was surprised.

"Wow! What was that you added?" she asked, “It’s definitely better!” Ryes smiled.

"Kanta seed. It's tiny, but when it's gathered, dried and ground as finely as possible, it makes an excellent addition to cooked grains and a few other bland dishes. But, it's so strong, you have to use a very minute amount," she warned. "I'll show you the plant, if we find any. They usually grow near rivers, or other running water. My supply could last us the whole winter though, considering how little you actually need." She showed her the bulging packet in her hand wrapped in a heavy brown paper. Ardis frowned at it, but considering the amount she saw her add, believed her.

"How about if we make some flat-cakes with the berries? Those will be ready more quickly and a lot less trouble," Shadd suggested, tasting the cooked grains and nodding her head in approval. “It takes a while for the oven to warm up enough.”

"That sounds good," Ryes agreed taking out the rest of the contents of her pouch. "And we could bake these tubers to go with our dinner, but I've no idea what to make for lunch."

"The men have already told us that we're going to be out exploring the ruins. So, lunch will be whatever we find, or trail cakes," Ardis assured her, smiling. "And they'd better not complain about it!" she declared loudly, getting puzzled looks from the men reading the map and a chuckle out of Maren. The women laughed at this, as they bent to their work. "We've been gathering wild grains, setting aside some of the better stuff for spring planting," she told Ryes, in a low voice. "We're hoping wherever we end up, there'll be enough land to grow some real crops."

"That's a great idea," Ryes returned also in a low voice, impressed they'd been thinking ahead, too. "I hope either there's enough rainfall, or access to enough running water to make a good sized garden, too. I brought along some of my best seeds. I thought, since we'll all be saddled with cubs by then, if we can't get out to hunt as often as we like, at least we won't starve."

"That's what we're thinking, too," Shadd agreed, smiling.

"Where's my tea container?" Ryes questioned a bit more loudly, looking through her carry pouch for it, wondering where she left it. Maren sauntered over, handing the tin container to her.

"Your tea's too good to pass up," he told her, grinning. She took it with a smile as she shook her head at his impertinence. "I had some last night when it was my turn for the watch," he admitted.

"Why were you sleeping next to me this morning?" she asked him directly, in a low voice.

"If my father showed up, I wanted to make sure he had to come through me, to get to you," he stated, meeting her eyes. There was surprise in their emerald depths, as she understood what he meant.

"Thanks, cousin," she replied, warmth in her eyes for him. He smiled back and gave her a wink. She was surprised at his willingness to put himself at risk for her, and she had no idea of how to repay such generosity. It deeply touched her heart.

"Ugh, Roots!" Maren exclaimed with evident distaste, as he saw what she’d pulled out of her gather pouch.

"These are sweet tubers," she corrected him with a light laugh. "They're much better than plain ol' roots and they're good for you," she assured him. "What's this about Old Korman?"

"He's definitely in the area. We found fresh traces this morning. We think he's been spying on us and only want to prevent a repeat of a certain part of the family history," he suggested, a serious look in his golden-brown eyes. She sighed, giving her head a nod at this, understanding it only too well.

"Breakfast's almost ready," she said, trying to find something else to talk about; wanting to forget Korman and wishing he'd leave her alone. She would've liked to have led him into Doran's valley. Those two deserved each other! Let them snarl at each other in separate cold boxes for hundreds of years! That thought brought a smile to her lips.

"Why don't we head across the plains, to see if one of the tribes there will take us in?" Maren asked loudly, suddenly jumping up, heading toward Torr, Sabin and Garth.

"The plains are vast, at least twelve hands of days across on a windracer," Ryes scolded him with a laugh. "How can we find any of the tribes, without knowing their boundary patterns?"

"But, maybe... The mountain people?" he started, hoping. “There has to be somewhere we can go to escape my father!”

"How do you look for a pebble on the river bottom? The mountains are said to be vast and their holds hidden from open sight among the rock. Where do we start?" Sabin asked, chiding him. "Anyway, we're not going to be living out on the plains, nor in the mountains," he assured him.

"And I hope we're not going to be settling here in Hailys," he returned. This got a nod from both Sabin and Ryes. "Just where will we be living?" he demanded, looking frustrated.

"When we get there, we'll know," Ryes teased him, smiling. "I've never seen such a place, but it's not something you forget. It has a very distinctive landmark. And we will know it when we see it."

"That's true," Sabin agreed, smiling at their secret. It was fun to tease the others about it from time to time and teasing Maren made it more so.

“Well, it had better be soon,” Ardis stated. Ryes smiled as she turned back to helping the women finish their morning meal. She wondered where it truly was, out in the world? She’d never heard the Caravaners talk about it, before, either.


Chapter 3

“She’s not hiding out here! She’s not anywhere around Matlowe,” Gann told his parents, seeing they’d come all the way out to the river-side homes looking for Mitt. Marla was close to tears and it was tearing up Gann’s heart to see her this way.

“Come inside and have a mug of tea,” Rowan invited, standing up and gesturing towards his home in invitation. They were sitting around the firepit, which only usually saw gatherings in the winter months. “We’ll talk about it.” He led the way, hoping they’d follow.

“We don’t need tea. We need to find our daughter,” Garvin replied, but saw Marla had accepted the invite and was following Rowan.

“Come on, father, let’s see what all of us together can figure out,” he suggested, gesturing for him to join the others. He appeared to pause for a few heartbeats, as if thinking it over, and then came along with his son. “Besides, it’s truly good tea,” Gann added with a light chuckle.

They entered the back door and saw Rowan was fetching mugs while Tennan was putting water on to heat on the stove. Dinner had been cooking and the smells were intoxicating. Gann went and fetched the honey pot and set it on the table. He made sure both his parents were comfortably seated, as others from his group started to arrive. They too took seats, as if they had made this their habit for years. Everyone was relaxed but many appeared concerned as they saw the grief in Marla and Garvin. No one spoke until Gann settled and Rowan took the head seat at the table.

“We believe she went after Kovin and Teris, shortly after they left Matlowe,” Rowan stated, meeting first Marla’s then Garvin’s eyes.

“She went out with our hunting party a couple of weeks ago and simply vanished,” Kaytas said, pulling her dark hair back from her eyes, as she tried to look steadily into Marla’s. “We looked everywhere and none of us are honestly the best at tracking.”

“We thought she got either lucky in the hunt or bored with everything and went home. Since we stayed out really late that day looking for her, we didn’t notice that she hadn’t come back to the Village until later the next day,” Leand added. “She has a tremendous head start on us, if we headed out to go look for her.”

“Mitt went to join Kovin and Teris, who went to find Garth to warn him about Korman,” Gann stated. “I know that’s where she went and know I shouldn’t have taken my eyes off of her for even a second. It’s my fault, father.” Marla reached across and squeezed his hand for a moment, shaking her head in denial.

“You know how she is when she gets an idea in her head,” she reminded him, finally smiling through the pain a little.

“She’s not slow between her ears. She would’ve caught up to Kovin and Teris, knowing they were her best chance of survival, as quickly as she could,” Garvin finally stated with a heavy sigh, appearing to accept the situation.

“How good a tracker is she?” Rowan asked, wondering as Tennan gestured for him to help with the tea. The water was hot already. Tennan had been cooking a soup for dinner, so already had the coals hot and ready when the large pot of water was placed on the stove top. He smiled as he nodded and then stood up.

“Not as good as The Huntress,” Kaytas stated, grinning again, “but she’s good enough to find their trail. They weren’t looking to conceal where they were going.” She shrugged. “I’m sure she’s safe and they’ll catch up to Garth soon, if they haven’t already.”

“Where were they going? Were they going to explore one of the Caravan routes?” Marla asked, concern in her golden eyes. Rowan returned with a full pitcher and began to fill their mugs. He sighed as he handed them out to the others.

“They were headed towards the ruins,” he informed them.

“What?” Tennan asked. She stepped over to the table taking a seat and an offered mug of tea from her grandfather.

“Why?” Garvin demanded at the same time. Gann and Leand nodded, knowing it was the truth. Kaytas merely looked into her mug, as if it held the answers she was looking for within.

“Are you sure?” Marla asked, grabbing Rowan’s wrist after he put the pitcher down on the table. He nodded his affirmation in response, but did not shake off her hand.

“They planned out their route carefully on the map and were using it as a starting point for their adventures,” he related to the others. “I’m fairly sure Mitt was in on it with them, then.”

“And?” Garvin pressed, feeling it in the air. Marla let go of Rowan’s wrist, to grab her husband’s hand.

“You do know Sabin had more than one Vision before they left?” Gann asked, looking to both his parents. They turned to him, both of them had their eyes riveted upon his face now, giving Rowan a small breather.

“Oh my, his are strong,” his mother gasped out, then bit her lower lip.

“They are,” he agreed, smiling as he recalled Garth’s recounting of it. “And he saw that they’re going to find a new home out there – somewhere. And all he would say about it, according to those who were there, is that it was a place he’d never seen before in his life.” Rowan laughed heartily at this, raising his mug of tea.

“That leaves the rest of the known world outside of Matlowe,” he declared. “To a brighter, bigger and happier world to our children, grandchildren and us all,” he toasted. The rest of the company raised their mugs in the toast, most with smiles on their faces now.

“I wonder what they’ll find?” Kaytas asked.

“I don’t know,” Tennan replied, seeming to relax a little. “Just as long as they don’t forget us.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Leand agreed, giving her a nod and a smile.

The ruins finally lay before Ryes. There was a tumble of shattered stone and exposed metal beams interspersed with a wide variety of vegetation, which appeared to be attempting to fully retake the city as its own. Ryes had, at first, been a little disappointed, but her curiosity surfaced as she began to ascend a large knoll near the southern edge of Hailys. Maren, who'd been left behind to watch after the women, grumbled loudly at the inanity of climbing a hill when it was almost time for their midday meal. Ardis paused and smiled back at him, a gleam of mischief in her eyes, as Shadd shrugged her shoulders and continued climbing. When they reached the top, there was a huge bubblenut tree, which Ryes pointed out to the women from below. It looked as if there were plenty of nuts to eat, as well as plenty of flowers, which promised more in a few weeks. They started picking the ripe nuts while they surveyed the land about them, opening them and munching them happily.

Garth, Torr and Sabin had gone further north and east of them, looking for underground entrances not already mapped out. Ryes was sorely disappointed in being ordered to stay put, and even more so when Maren was appointed to look after her. She drew a small measure of solace when he loudly protested at being left behind, too. So together they decided to explore a different area of the ruins and as long as they were staying together, they were obeying his orders in spirit. Shadd and Ardis decided this was the best action too, and came along.

"At least the view's worth it," Ryes stated as she stashed several handfuls of nuts into her gather pouch. Some were for later, some for the men, and some were for trying to see if she could grow bubblenut trees of her own, when they found their own new home.

"You're taking quite a few of those," Maren scolded, but noted there were still plenty left - far more than they could possibly eat. As they ripened, the shells turned translucence with the clusters hanging from the branches appearing like soap bubbles.

"They're for eating later and I'm going to see if I can grow a bubblenut tree, myself. I haven't tried to before, but it might be a worthwhile idea," she explained, grinning as she took her last handful and started to crack open the nuts for herself.

"Our own bubblenut trees!" Shadd exclaimed, delighted with the concept. "What a great idea! I hope it works," she added, suddenly frowning, “I wonder what kind of care and watering it'd need?” She started stashing some of the nuts into her gather pouch too.

"We'll see if it works. There's quite a few plants here I'd like to take seeds from to try with, too," she replied, seeing Ardis getting into the swing of it, too, as she gathered some of the nuts to take back.

"Do you know we're on top of some kind of building?" Ardis asked, pointing out pieces of exposed metal, from out of the ground near them. Ryes gave her a nod.

“I’ve figured that had to be the case, too.” Ryes straightened up again, surveying the area. “It looks like it had to have been really big and maybe pretty much demolished.”

"Hey, let's see if there's a way inside," Maren suggested, smiling, warming up with a sense of adventure. He had only gathered as many nuts as he thought he would need for a little while, leaving the rest for the women.

"I imagine the air inside would be stale," Ardis pointed out to him. "And if any animals have found ways in, there'd be all kinds of things we wouldn't want to run into inside it."

"Come on," he pleaded as Ardis and Shadd sat down to enjoy their nuts. “Let’s try!” Ryes gave him a merry grin, then a nod of her head in agreement.

"You'd probably need a shovel," she suggested, looking around to see if there were any evident features, which might give them an easier ingress into the building. "But, I agree with Ardis, there probably won't be much inside worth bothering with," she warned. She remembered the tremendous heat and wild fires that broke out in that nightmare she had of Hailys before. She wondered, if it had been that way in truth, would anything have escaped the flames? She looked at the exposed metal. Even after what had to be hundreds of years of exposure to the elements, it was still very shiny, as if brand new.

Maren grabbed a stout branch from the tree and pulled with all his weight, trying to break it off. After letting him struggle for a few minutes, she stepped over next to him.

"Why don't you use that?" Ryes questioned as he grunted under the strain. The branch wasn't going to give easily. He released it to see what she was pointing at.

"You could've shown me that sooner," he commented with a loud groan. The women were laughing as he picked up an old branch, which might've been brought down during a storm and started stripping off the smaller branches. They came off easily.

"It's more fun to torture you," Ryes returned, grinning impishly. Maren rolled his eyes heavenward as he sighed. "Come on, how about over here?" she suggested, pointing out a low spot next to some metal beams. "But, one place may be as good as any other."

"This metal never rusted," Ardis commented, examining one of the beams near her. "There's some pitting, but no rust."

"The ancients knew their metals," Shadd agreed, evaluating it too. "If we could get some smaller samples, maybe we could take them to Old Aric to have some good beltknives made?" Ardis' golden-yellow eyes lit up at this in surprise.

"Another great idea!" she declared, smiling with a hand upon her shoulder. "Let's look around," she suggested. Ryes and Maren were clearing away the grasses and small plants, which were growing where they decided to dig. "Keep a look out for some smaller pieces of that metal," she requested. Ryes gave her a nod, as Maren looked thoughtful. It appeared he thought it was a good idea, too.

"Well, you can either help us dig here, or find another spot to try," he suggested. Ardis grinned, standing up.

"The first team to find the metal, or a way inside, wins," she decided. Shadd smiled, liking the idea. It'd help pass the time more quickly!

"What do we win?" Maren questioned, smiling at the idea himself.

"How about two days with no chores?" Ardis reasoned.

"Sounds good to me," Maren agreed, looking to Ryes. She stood shaking her head, knowing it'd be hard for her to sit on her hands for two whole days, but if the others were willing. She just then realized how well she was starting to fit in with this small group of villagers! She slipped off her backpack and gather pouch and put them near the base of one of the bubblenut trees. Maren looked at her with a grin upon his face. He doffed his pack and pouch too, placing them next to hers.

"Yes," she concurred finally, as Shadd gave a nod of her head, in agreement. She added her pack to the base of the tree as did Ardis.

"Wait for us to find our spot and get it cleared, too," Shadd protested right off. Ryes and Maren looked to each other, than nodded their heads for her as they grinned.

"We can do that," he agreed. Ardis found another piece of wood to use for a primitive shovel, and then started looking for a good spot.

"Over there," Shadd pointed out. It was near another line of beams, but looked a little more sunken than Ryes and Maren's spot.

"Great," she consented. The two women quickly cleared it of plants, to get it prepared for the real digging to begin.

"Set, ready and go!" Ardis shouted after a few minutes. Maren grinned as he and Ryes bent their backs into their work, taking this contest in fun, but serious about their efforts. Who knew what treasures, or dangers, actually lurked below? There was laughter from both teams as they started digging in earnest.

Dirt was flying through the air as centuries of deposits were unearthed by their labors. Maren noted the different colors to the soils they dug through, wondering what made them so? After almost a half hour of serious efforts by both teams, they halted, panting heavily.

"This's too much like work!" Shadd remarked, as all four went for their packs and waterskins within.

"At least the soil's soft," Ryes added, after taking a long drink from her waterskin and wiping her hands off on her breeches. "Ahhhh, I miss my old bath tub," she added.

"I miss it, too," Shadd agreed, smiling.

"I vote for a swim in the lake when we're done," Maren suggested. He capped his waterskin and looked at Ryes. "Come on, I think we're getting close." She groaned at this, shaking her head.

"Now who's torturing whom?" she complained, grinning, as she followed him back to their spot.

"Just a return favor," he quipped with a laugh, leading her back. She rolled her eyes as she looked to the other two for support. They both chuckled at this display.

"Let's get to it, too," Ardis agreed, picking up her branch, again. They returned to their digging with a little less reckless abandon, trying to gauge if they were making any real progress. Ryes was keeping an eye to any smaller pieces of metal, wondering if Old Aric could make something of it? She didn't want to find too much; afraid they'd overburden Honey with this project. She worried about her mare. She was a good animal and deserved better than to be left alone in a tiny pen all day. Tonight, she was going to start building a larger one, no matter what the others thought, or if they offered to help her with the project. Honey needed the room to stretch her legs!

"Mother used to worry about you all the time," Maren told her in a low voice as they worked, trying to find a bridge between them. Ryes looked up to him with surprise in her eyes. "She worried that Rowan kept you away from everyone else, too much." She frowned, curious as to why he was bringing this up? What could he want?

"I never knew she cared," she returned, also in a low voice. "She never treated me as if she cared about me. And Rowan didn't keep me away from anyone, I chose it myself. The only thing he’s guilty of was indulging me my reclusiveness. And, I never had problems with the Caravaners," she reminded him, realizing she was saying it a little more tartly than she had meant.

"Sorry," she sighed, "I didn't mean to snap at you," she apologized. A gust of wind pulled her red-gold hair across her face. As she pulled it back into place, she saw Maren with a thoughtful look in his eyes.

"Tennan and I never sought you out, either. Rowan was our grandfather too, and we were jealous that you had him to yourself, all the time," he admitted, meeting her eyes steadily. "We never appreciated all we truly missed out on with staying away. It’s funny, but my younger sisters and brother hold you in awe," he grinned. "It's hard for them to think of `The Huntress' as just a cousin. Their friends all love you, too." Ryes was shocked and flattered by this admission. She smiled as she shook her head, blushing.

"I wonder how these cubs of mine will be, with such a colorful family history?" she voiced aloud her uncertainty.

"Just don't isolate yourself and them from the rest of us and the Village, and they'll be just fine," he replied in all seriousness. "I don't think Garth would let you do that anymore, anyway."

"No, he wouldn't," she agreed with a chuckle. They'd gone down almost three feet in their efforts and it looked like more dirt lay below them. "I don't know about our choice of a digging site," she remarked, looking down into their hole, hoping to see something other than dirt and chunks of rock. She had been widening it out a bit, in hopes of finding out more.

"We'll give it another couple of feet before looking for another," he agreed. Suddenly, Shadd and Ardis gave a shout. They looked over to see them waving excitedly.

"Looks like they beat us," he observed, looking chagrined.

"Let's see what they found," Ryes suggested, standing up and brushing off her breeches, arms and face. Maren dropped his digging tool and they strolled over together, both unhappy that the other two got through first.

"Look at this," Shadd urged, pointing down. There was a gaping hole below them and a horrid stench-filled the air, causing them all to back away from it.

"Shadd almost fell in when it suddenly gave way," Ardis said. "I don't know if that stink's from the death dust, or something else," she added, wrinkling her nose.

"Maybe we ought to let it air out for a day at least, before trying to get a look down there," Maren suggested. As he spoke, a huge chunk of earth broke off and tumbled down into the darkness. It took several long heartbeats before he heard it strike something within. It sounded like something metal. “And it looks like we’ll need some rope to get down there and a torch, so we can see.”

"I think we started some kind of cave in. We should make sure it’s done falling in before attempting anything," Shadd stated, looking concerned. Ryes crouched and peered down into the darkness, trying to stretch out with her inner sense. After a few moments, she shook her head and stood up.

"It's been empty for a very long time," she said, in a low voice. "It may only be trapped gas and needs to air out. I don't feel that anything dangerous lurks within." She looked back to the others, grinning at their surprised expressions. "Of course, would my Talent be able to distinguish a death dust as a danger, or not?"

"Are you sure?" Ardis questioned, frowning.

"No, not at all," Ryes returned, smiling merrily. "I'm still learning this Talent stuff. I'm sure Sabin has far more experience on how to approach this. I've no idea what I'm doing," she reminded her. Shadd laughed, agreeing with a nod of her head. Maren chuckled and shook his head.

“Give yourself some time to get to know yourself anew,” he suggested. Ryes grinned back at him, giving him a nod of agreement.

“That might be all I truly need. I have to figure out what I can and cannot do with my Talents, first. Let’s go back to our site and see if we can make our own breakthrough,” she suggested.

“We did win! So, two days of no chores for us!” Ardis declared, as she brushed herself off a bit. She started to dance around in jubilation, which got the others to laugh as Shadd joined her in the dance for a few moments.

“We know,” Ryes laughed as she turned away from them. She was curious to know what truly lay below. Her Talents told her it was a great twisted cavity, but there had seemed to be something to that emptiness. She thought it might be a fallen building, but they wouldn’t know more until tomorrow.

“Let’s go lend them a hand,” Shadd suggested in a low voice as the others returned to their dig.

“Truly?” Ardis asked, her nose scrunched up as a breeze brought the obnoxious odor from below her way. She sighed and gave her a nod of agreement. “It will at least get us away from this stink!” She stooped down and grabbed her branch again, smiling to herself as they trailed after them, ready to lend a surprise hand to their efforts.

“Maybe my luck will hold out on their spot too?” Shadd added, grinning mischievously. Ardis merely laughed at hearing it.

“They have to be somewhere around here,” Kovin stated, now truly realizing how much ground there was to cover at the ruins. They had come in out of the east and were wandering about aimlessly. He watched as Mitt scrambled nimbly up an exposed metal beam and climb on top of another one it supported, high on top of a huge mound. It held her weight with no movement, nor shifting. She shaded her eyes as she was looking at the area around them, turning around to be sure she covered all directions. After a few minutes, she came back down as quickly as she’d gone up.

“Nothing. No movement other than animals, no sign of a campfire, no sign of a golden-colored windracer and at least no decaying bodies,” she sounded dejected at delivering her report. “We could search this place for months!” Teris nodded, understanding her heart’s anguish.

“We’ll find them,” he assured her, gripping her shoulder in assurance. Kovin stooped down and cleared a small patch of some sandy soil. He grabbed a stick and started sketching something on the ground.

“I remember the map they used, a little bit,” he told them. “I recall something about a small lake south of the main ruins. If we can find that lake, we might find them. It was the place they were going to head to first before going in to explore.”

“I saw a glimmer of water, but it was further west, not south,” Mitt stated, starting to smile.

“It might feed into that lake,” Kovin suggested, hoping it was true.

“It’s a better idea than wandering aimlessly around here and possibly falling into one of those deep holes,” Teris agreed. “So let’s see this glimmer of water and hope it’s going somewhere useful?”

“At least we’re not going to starve with all the plants and animals around here to eat,” Mitt observed as she fell into step with the men.

“As long as we don’t get eaten ourselves,” Teris replied slapping a biting insect as it perched on his arm. The other two laughed and nodded in agreement with him.

“It’s the bigger stalkers I worry about,” Kovin returned after a few minutes. “Did you catch that whiff?” Teris nodded, looking stern.

“What?” Mitt questioned, puzzled for a moment, then caught a faint odor upon a breeze. Her eyes widened in surprise. “Oh!” she added then frowned. “He is here. His body odor is very distinct.”

“It’s not fresh,” Kovin assured her as they wandered around trees, brush and pieces of building, carefully picking their path. “But keep your eyes open and ears sharp,” he warned.

“Maybe we can follow him to them?” Teris wondered aloud.

“Then our warning would be too late,” Mitt replied grimly. “Let’s hurry, as best we can.” She pushed to get ahead of Kovin, but he grabbed her arm, pulling her back beside him.

“Watch it! See that drop?” he pointed out, which opened up near where she had been about to rush towards. He turned and treaded a way around it, hoping his chosen path would not drop him into those dark, unsettling depths. Mitt had grasped what was happening immediately and waited to follow in Kovin’s footsteps, slowly and carefully. Teris brought up the rear, keeping an eye to behind them as well as the plants around them.

“I’ve never seen these get so big!” he declared as he pulled off several fruit from a nearby tree, stuffing them into his gather pouch, which he had slung over his shoulder. The last one he merely bit into, letting the fresh juices stream down his chin. A look of utter joy lit up his face. Noticing the other two, he picked two more, tossing them over to them.

“What is it?” Mitt questioned, frowning down at the red and gold fruit in her hands. She saw it was large and slightly familiar. She finally bit through the skin and smiled as it was far better than any fruit she had eaten before.

“Lunch,” Kovin supplied before Teris could speak, as he seemed happy to continue stuffing his face. He bit into his own fruit and smiled as he turned back to finding them a safe path to that water.

“It’s like he’s vanished again,” Garth stated, appearing sorely vexed. Sabin looked disgusted as Torr was frowning.

“Could he be using some of the underground paths?” he ventured. “He might have been learning them as a way to get away from us, or to get closer to us. Most of Hailys was said to be underground and Ryes’ stories seem to confirm it. Perhaps there are still paths below that can be used?”

“Or used to come up behind us?” Sabin added. “You might have the right idea there, Torr. Let’s backtrack to where we were last sure of his traces and take a very good look around the area.” He got nods of agreement from them.

They returned to the spot they could last clearly identify Korman’s scent and footprints, and then fanned out looking for not just any further signs of him, but any place where he might easily hide, or get into an underground passage and use it to avoid them. After over a couple of hours of careful searching, Garth found a spot which had a loose panel of metal that had been pulled over what appeared to be stairs leading down into the darkness. Korman’s smell and footprints were here, vanishing inside.

“Got it!” he yelled out for the others. In a few minutes they’d rejoined him. “You’re right, Torr. He went underground,” he stated in a lower voice.

“What a motherless son of a demon!” Sabin declared. “It looks like he has a couple of torches stashed here, too,” he pointed out, seeing two lying just inside on the top of the wide stair.

“So, do we face him in territory he’s explored and knows, or do we wait for him to surface?” Garth asked.

“I’d like to see what’s down there,” Torr ventured, “but I’m not eager to meet him there, either.”

“Let’s make our own torches first,” Garth suggested, “and leave his undisturbed. We can carefully explore and if we find him, we’ll handle it. Let him think he’s undetected and safe down there for a while.”

“And wait for him to surface for the challenge?” Sabin asked, his dark eyes gleaming.

“That would be my choice. Still I want to see if we can find out where he’s been hiding. I wonder if this is how he found and kept track of Tyra and Ronn?”

“It might be how he did it,” Torr replied, frowning again. “It doesn’t seem that he’s in the area now. Everything’s quiet.” Garth nodded his head in agreement. They put the plate of metal back in place and went back to camp, noting the area carefully as they left and making sure to eliminate their own traces from the area, too.

“And we’re going to do a very thorough search near our own camp, too,” Garth stated with fire in his eyes. “He’s not going to be able to come and go as he pleases around us!”

“Oh we are going to go through the area as if we were cleaning it up for an Elder Inspection,” Sabin promised wholeheartedly. “And fully block him out so he can’t come at us sneakily in the middle of the night.”

“That’s something he’s done to others in the Village in the past,” Torr said with a low growl in his voice. “My own father was murdered by Korman that way.”

“It’s not happening ever again,” Garth promised. “Somehow we have to fully put a stop to his rampages for all time.”

“We can do it together!” Sabin agreed.

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