“For God’s sake, woman, the village will still be there if we take an hour’s break.” Shea rolled her eyes at the soaring mountains before her. This was the third rest stop the man had called for since setting out this morning. “We must be half way there by now,” he continued. Maybe if they hadn’t stopped several times already or if they had moved with a purpose, but as it stood the group had probably traveled less than two miles. Half of that nearly vertical. At this pace, it would take an extra half day to get back to Birdon Leaf. And who would they blame for the delayed arrival? Shea. Even though it wasn’t her needing to stop on every other hill when they felt a muscle cramp or experienced shortness of breath. Since she was the pathfinder, it was obviously her fault. She could hear it now. The pathfinder sets the pace. The pathfinder chooses when to take breaks. Yada. Yada.
Yada. She hated running missions with villagers. They thought that since they’d gone on day trips outside their village barriers as children, they knew a thing or two about trail signs and the Highlands in general. It was always, ‘We should take this route. I think this route is faster. Why is it taking so long? These mountain passes are sooo steep.’ Never mind it was her that had walked these damn routes since the time she could toddle after the adults or that the paths they suggested would take them right through a beast’s nest. Nope. She was just a pathfinder. A female pathfinder.
A female pathfinder who hadn’t grown up in the same village as them. Obviously, she knew nothing of her craft. The man yammered on about how they couldn’t take another step. Any reasonable person could see how worn out they were. She wasn’t the one carrying the gear or the trade goods. Whine. Whine. Whine. That’s all she heard. Over the last several months, she’d perfected the art of tuning them out without missing pertinent information.
It was all in the pitch. Their voices tended to approach a higher frequency when they regressed to bitching about what couldn’t be changed. As if she could make the switchbacks approaching the Garylow Mountain pass any less steep or treacherous. “We’ll take a rest once we reach the pass,” she said for what seemed like the hundredth time. They had begged for another break since about five minutes after the last one. She had a deadline to meet. Sleep to catch. Most importantly, she didn’t think she could last another half day with this lot. “We’re nowhere near that pass,” the man raged. The rest break obviously meant a lot to him.
“It’s just over that ridge,” Shea pointed above her. Well, over that ridge and then another slight incline or two. It was just a small lie, really. If the man knew the truth, he’d probably sit down and refuse to take another step. “That’s nearly a half mile away.” The man’s face flushed red. Really if he had enough energy to be angry, he had enough energy to walk. “Quarter mile at most.” “We’re tired. We’ve been walking for days.
First to the trading outpost and then back. What does an hour’s difference make?” Shea sighed. Looked up at the blue, blue sky and the soaring pinnacles of rock then down at the loose shale and half trampled path they’d already traveled. “You’re right, an hour’s rest won’t make much difference.” His face lit up. “However, you’ve already wasted two hours today on the last two breaks. You also wasted several hours yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. We should have been back already.” She held up her hand when he opened his mouth. “Now, we are getting up that pass.
We need to be over it and down the mountain by nightfall. Otherwise you’re going to have to fend off nightfliers. Do you want to fend off nightfliers when you could be sleeping? Or would you rather suck it up and get over that damn ridge?” The man paled at the mention of nightfliers, a beast about three times the size of a bat that had a disturbing tendency of picking up its food and dropping it from a high altitude. It made it easier to get to the good parts on the inside. “We’ll wait to take the break.” He turned and headed down to the last switchback where the rest of their party waited. “Oh, and Kent.” Shea’s voice rose just loud enough for him to hear. “Please let them know that if anybody refuses to walk, I’ll leave them here to fend for themselves. Nightfliers aren’t the only things that roam this pass come nightfall.
” He gave her a look full of loathing before heading down to his friends. Shea kept her snicker to herself. Good things never happened when they thought she was laughing at them. Idiot. As if pathfinders would abandon their charges. If that was the case, she would have left this lot behind days ago. There were oaths preventing that kind of behavior. What she wouldn’t give to enjoy a little quiet time relaxing on the roof of her small home right about now. They didn’t make it back to the village until early the next morning. Shea brought up the rear as their group straggled past the wooden wall encircling the small village of Birdon Leaf.
The village was a place that time had forgotten. It looked the same as it had the day it was founded, and in fifty years or a hundred, it’d probably still be the same. Same families living in the same homes, built of wood and mud by their father’s, father’s, father. Most of the buildings in the village were single story and one room. The really well off might have a second room or a loft. Nothing changed here, and they liked it that way. Propose a new idea or way of doing something and they’d run you out of town. They didn’t like strangers, which was fine because most times strangers didn’t like them. They tolerated Shea because they needed the skills her guild taught to survive. Shea tolerated them because she had to.
Well, some days she didn’t. A small group of women and children waited to welcome the men. A large boned woman with a hefty bosom and ash blond hair just beginning to gray flung her arms around a tall man with thinning hair. “Where have you been? We expected you back yesterday morning.” She smothered his face with kisses. “You know we had to keep to the pathfinder’s pace. The men didn’t feel it would be right leaving her behind just because she couldn’t keep up.” There it was. Her fault. Anytime something went wrong it was due to the fact she was a woman.
Even looking less feminine didn’t help her. A taller than average girl with a thin layer of muscles stretching over her lean frame, Shea had hazel eyes framed by round cheeks, a stubborn mouth and a strong jaw-line she’d inherited from her father. Much to her consternation. “What the guild was thinking assigning a woman to our village, I’ll never know,” the woman said in exasperation. “And such useless trail bait. They must have sent the laziest one they had.” Trail bait. Dirt pounder. Roamer. Hot footed.
Shea had heard it all. So many words to describe one thing. Outsider. Shea turned towards home. At least she would have a little peace and quiet for the next few days. She planned to hide out and not see or talk to anyone. Just her and her maps. Maybe some cloud watching. And definitely some napping. Make that a lot of napping.
She needed to recharge. “Pathfinder! Pathfinder,” a young voice called after her. Shea turned and automatically smiled at the girl with the gamine grin and boundless enthusiasm racing after her. “Aimee, I’ve told you before you can call me Shea.” Aimee ducked her head and gave her a gap toothed smile. She was missing one of her front teeth. She must have lost it while Shea was outside the fence. “Pathfinder Shea. You’re back.” Shea nodded, amused at the obvious statement.
Of all the villagers in this backwoods place, Aimee was her favorite. She was young enough that she didn’t fear the wilds lying just beyond the safety of the barrier. All she saw was the adventure waiting out there. She reminded Shea of the novitiates that came every year to the Wayfarer’s Keep in hopes of taking the Pathfinder’s exam and becoming an apprentice. “Um, did you see any cool beasts this time?” Aimee burst out. “Nightfliers, maybe? You said they liked to nest in the peaks around Garylow’s pass. What about red backs?” “Whoa, hold up. One question at a time.” Shea took a piece of paper she’d torn from her journal last night in anticipation of this moment. “Here.
I saw this one diving to catch breakfast yesterday morning.” Shea handed her a sketching of a peregrine falcon in mid dive. It was a natural animal, but to a girl raised in a village where all non-domesticated animals were considered ‘beasts,’ it would seem exotic. Shea had sketched it during one of the numerous breaks the men had taken. “Pathfinder Shea,” a woman said from behind them, disapproval coloring her voice. “The elders wish to speak to you.” Shea’s smile disappeared as she schooled her face to a politeness she didn’t really feel. Aimee hid the drawing in her skirts. The woman’s eyes shifted to Shea’s companion. “Aimee, my girl, your mother’s looking for you.
I suggest you get on home.” Aimee bobbed in place, suitably chastened and followed as the woman swept away, but not before aiming a small smile in Shea’s direction. Shea lifted a hand and waved. Aimee had become something of Shea’s shadow in the past few weeks. It was a welcome change, given how most of the villagers pretended she didn’t exist or treated her with barely concealed hostility. Shea looked woefully towards the tightly packed dirt trail leading to her little cottage. Her muscles ached and three days of grime and dirt coated her body. She wanted a bath, a hot meal and then to sleep for twelve hours straight. She didn’t want to deal with the grumpy, blame-wielding elders who no doubt wanted things they couldn’t or shouldn’t have. But if she didn’t deal with them now, they would just show up and nag at her until she gave them her attention.
They wanted something from her. Again. Better to deal with things now so she could have an uninterrupted rest later. Her well-deserved break would have to wait Her steps unhurried, she turned in the opposite direction of her bed. Even moving as slowly as she reasonably could, she quickly found herself in front of the town hall. It was also a pub and gathering place, basically anything the village needed it to be. There were only two stone structures in the entire settlement. The town hall was the first and greatest, holding the distinction of being the only building large enough to shelter the entire village in the event of an attack. There was only one entrance, a heavy wooden door that could be barred from the inside. The thin slits in the upper levels kept attackers of both the four legged and two legged variety from slipping inside.
The building was the primary reason the founding families decided to settle here and was the village’s one claim to wealth. The rest of the village, small though it was, had sprung up around it as a result. For a place as backwards and isolated as Birdon Leaf, the town hall was a majestic building they couldn’t hope to replicate. Even without the skills to maintain it, they were lucky. Some of the larger towns didn’t have a structure this versatile that could act as both gathering place and shelter from danger. Shea reached the doors and paused to brush the dirt from the back of her trousers and make sure her thin shirt was tucked in and her dark brown, leather jacket was lying straight. She smoothed a stray strand of honey brown hair behind her ear and ran her hand over her sloppy bun to make sure it was holding. Loose, her hair would reach past her shoulders in a wild mess. That’s why she tied it back for the most part, but no matter how many times she tried to tame it into a sleek bun, it would look like a bird’s nest by the time she walked five feet. It was difficult to project confidence and professionalism when she wasn’t even the master of her own appearance.
Giving up the attempt to fix her appearance as futile, she braced her feet to open the painfully, heavy wooden door. It was a struggle to move it with just one arm, but she couldn’t afford to show the villagers weakness, or she would lose what little respect she had. A slow creak announced its opening. She slipped through when there was just enough space before letting the door bang shut behind her. Despite the bright day outside, it was dim in the town hall. The narrow windows let in little light. Candles flickered with merry abandonment from their place on tables and in bracers. Wooden benches were stacked around the edges of the space. During meetings they were broken out so the villagers could have a place to sit while they jaw jacked. Today, several tables dotted the area.
When the hall wasn’t used for meetings, village members used it as a place to meet and drink. A group of five huddled around one table, their voices a low rumble in the large room. The middle-aged man with his back to Shea was Zrakovi, the village leader. He lifted a mug and drank, tilting back a head of dark hair turning silver at the temples. Shea came to a stop behind him, waiting for her presence to be acknowledged. Another man looked up and nudged the man next to him. One by one the others shot glances to where Shea waited patiently. Zrakovi turned his head slightly. “Pathfinder.” “Elder Zrakovi.
” Shea inclined her head respectfully. “I have a job for you.” “I just got back from an assignment.” Technically, she was supposed to get five days off between jobs to prevent fatigue and to give her time to plan the next route. That almost never happened. “Well, you’re needed for this,” he said sharply. “Oh?” “Watch your tone, girl,” a man with reddish blond hair and blunt features said. Shea fought against sighing and held herself still. Expressing frustration would only prolong the encounter. Silence filled the room as she waited for the elder to get to the point.
“My son.” He stopped and cleared his throat, shifting so he could look at her. “James and one other were supposed to return this morning from a run. I need you to find him and make sure they’re alright.” Shea crossed her arms in front of her. “If I recall correctly, they were heading for the north reaches to gather lumpyrite for trade. That area should be safe. The beasts avoid it because of the mineral’s smell. They probably just got delayed. If they’re not back by nightfall, I’ll head out to look for them tomorrow morning.
” Shea had turned to go when Elder Zrakovi’s voice pulled her back. “They didn’t go to the north reaches.” She stopped dead. Of course they hadn’t. The villagers were supposed to check with her when they left the village so she could make sure the areas they traveled were safe. She dropped her head slightly while she schooled her expression back to neutrality. Only when her face showed a placid blankness did she face the men. “Where did they go?” “Below the Bearan Fault,” Zrakovi said gruffly. “You mean the Lowlands,” Shea said, each word pronounced very precisely. More than one man found themselves avoiding her eyes.
She shook her head slightly. Fools. The Bearan Fault was a line of cliffs nearly two hundred miles long. It was the gateway to the Lowlands. Lowlanders were dangerous. Crazy too. Shea had dealings with them in the past, but it was always with one eye on the exit and a hand on her weapons. You just never knew what they were going to do. One time, they had set fire to her clothes. While she was still in them.
She hated Lowlanders almost more than Highlanders. “I told you not to send anybody into the Lowlands without me there to act as guide,” Shea said, her voice as polite as she could make it given the pulse pounding at her temple. Zrakovi slammed his hand down on the table. “I won’t have my judgment questioned by a slip of a girl barely past her majority.” “Then how about a Pathfinder with fifteen years’ experience who told you that heading to the Lowlands at this time without proper preparation and without a guide was too dangerous.” Slip of a girl, her ass. Shea was twenty five and had been guiding folks since she was ten years old and could finally keep up with the adults. “You were on assignment,” a thin man with stringy hair and a beak nose on the other side of the table complained. “We didn’t know when you would be back, and the opportunity was too good to pass up. This wouldn’t have happened if we had more than one pathfinder.
” Shea’s shoulders tightened and her back became even more rigid. “You’ve been told in the past that pathfinders are rare and in high demand. Your village is too small and too new to warrant more than one.” “Too new? We’ve lived here for more than eighty years. More like we’re being punished,” one of the men muttered. Shea took a deep breath and bit her tongue. She had to do that a lot while she was in Birdon Leaf. Sometimes she was amazed there wasn’t a hole in it. The simplest explanation was that there just weren’t enough pathfinders to go round and none who wanted to destroy a promising career by coming to this backcountry village. No.
Shea was the one to receive that privilege. “What village did they go to?” If Shea was lucky they had chosen one of the more stable villages. Though just as dangerous as the rest, they usually had a reason before they went bat shit crazy. “Edgecomb.” She sucked in a breath. Well, then. Edgecomb was crazier than most. They did not like outsiders and were very easy to insult. “We had reports earlier,” another elder said gruffly. “Mist is rolling down from the eastern border.
It’ll cover this place in less than two days. They’ll be cut off.” Mist. Damn. That complicated things. She’d had a feeling it was coming. It was one of the reasons she pushed the men so hard going up Garylow’s pass. They were overdue. Pointing out just how foolish these people were would be a waste of breath and cover the same ground as previous arguments. Shea decided not to address the issue.
But she wanted to. Boy, did she ever. “I’ll need four men if we hope to recover them.” “Can’t you do it by yourself?” a man sitting next to Zrakovi asked. “No.” “You’re a pathfinder. Isn’t that your job?” The rest of the men spoke over each other to voice their agreement about how this was impossible. Shea didn’t bother listening, instead tuning them out while she went over her packing list. She’d need at least five days rations for five people, best-case scenario. Her field pack was still packed, but she’d have to replenish some of the items used on her last journey.
Hopefully, she had clean underwear and socks in her cottage. Hmm. When did she last do laundry? A week ago? Two? She could live in the same clothes if she had clean socks and undergarments. “Are you even paying attention, girl?” Elder Zrakovi asked. Shea brought her attention back to the matter at hand. “My contract stipulates that I may request help from the local population if I think it’s necessary.” She looked each man in the eye as she continued, “If your men are still alive, I will have to rescue them, and I can’t do that alone. You will give me four able-bodied men accustomed to trail work and able to keep up on the distances we will be required to travel.” “We may not be able to spare that many men,” Zrakovi said. “The tali will be flowering in a few days and if the mist holds off long enough, we’ll need all the people we can get to bring in the yield.
” The tali was a flowering vine that grew all through the rocks and mountains near the village and was a primary staple of the village’s diet. Its stalk could be used in weaving and cloth production, while the fruit could be dried out or eaten raw. It was used in nearly every dish they made. It only flowered twice a year and during that time every man, woman, and child helped with the harvest. “I’m not asking, elder. If you don’t give me the men I require, I won’t be going out after your son.” Shea knew harvesting the tali fruit was important. Without it the villagers faced the possibility of starvation, but she wasn’t about to venture into the Lowlands by herself. It would be suicide. The elders had been warned of the dangers.
If they couldn’t supply the men, they could accept the consequences of ignoring sound advice. The five conferred among themselves while Shea waited. Finally, they sat back. “I can’t give you four,” Zrakovi said. Shea nodded and turned to go. “I can’t give you four,” he reiterated, raising his voice. “But I can give you two. It’s all I can spare during the harvest.”