Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter Two

“Xandros, you’re making a mess!” Rhela tried to be stern, but the sight of the outsized puppy, his pale, spotted fur covered in mud from where he’d followed her through sodden gardens all morning, was too much.

She broke into laughter and called him over. “That’s a good boy. You were just trying to help, weren’t you?” The mud had somehow managed to get matted into the shaggy fur. “That’s going to need more than a brushing. You, my friend, are going to have a bath.”

Xandros dropped to his belly, long nose between his paws, and let out a soft whine.

“It’s not that bad. I’ll throw sticks for you later if you’re good.”

With the ears of her shaggy companion perked back up, the two headed out of the small clearing.

An hour later, they sat drying themselves on a large flat rock at the edge of a bend in the stream. “Almost dry, then I’ll go finish pulling those vines,” Rhela murmured, warm and lazy from the sun.

All languor fell away at the sound of rocks striking each other. Once, twice, then in a quick pattern.

Rhela sat up quickly and ran her hands over Xandros’ fur. “Close enough; let’s go!”

She sprang through the trees, braiding her long brown hair as she went, following no visible path.

She stopped at a dense stand of trees and listened carefully.  A woman’s voice came from the other side, humming softly.

Doubts cast aside, Rhela grinned broadly. “You’re here!” she exclaimed and walked through the branches, which seemed to lean away from each other to give her an easy path. “I wasn’t expecting you until winter!”

She flung her arms around the other woman and, happily, was hugged back.

“What on earth are you wearing? And where are your shoes?” the newcomer muttered, still hugging her.

“I was preparing the far garden for fall, but then Xandros decided to help, and it rained so much last night… well, you see.” Rhela waved vaguely, knowing her friend would understand.

Xandros decided it was time for pets and butted between the two women. The woman leaned down to scratch behind his ears, her pale blonde hair falling over her shoulders. “It’s all your fault again, isn’t it?”

The big shaggy head leaned into the woman’s hand, his eyes half closed in bliss. “I haven’t seen you since spring. Keeping our friend out of trouble?”

Rhela laughed again, watching her elegant best friend not mind the dirt sticking to her gown as she continued to pet the shaggy, and honestly still more than a little dirty, puppy.

 “And he’s still growing.” She headed back to the trees, and again they opened for her. “Come on, Phaylle, I want you to see this summer’s additions to the garden.”

***

The garden having been duly toured, the two women sat at the dark wooden table in Rhela’s kitchen, waiting for the water to boil. She ran her hand over the top, the aged surface showing all the nicks and scars of a long life of service in the center of a family.

Despite everything, it had been a happy family. She looked around at Xandros and the two half-wild cats who had followed them into the house and smiled.  And she was happy now, even if it was a different kind of family from what she’d had before.

“I don’t know why you won’t come back with me to the city. This is no place for you to be burying yourself.” Phaylle looked around, and Rhela knew what she saw. To her it was a cozy, comfortable home; she had always been at ease here.

But to Phaylle, she knew, it had always seemed small and cramped.

“You’re not even listening to me, are you?”

With a guilty jolt, Rhela looked across the table at Phaylle, shaking her head, amusement in her lavender eyes. “I’m sorry.” Rhela stood up to get the tea kettle, whistling merrily on the small stove. “I know you think I would be happier if I came with you, but honestly I don’t see why I should. My life is here.”

Phaylle came and stood behind her while she poured the water into the earthenware teapot and silently helped her carry the mugs back to the table.

“Because it’s not safe here,” Phaylle said after a silence so long Rhela thought she had offended her. “I’m always afraid for you out here, a woman alone. You don’t know what can happen, and I would do anything to make sure you never do.”

Rhela remembered back to when she had been small, surely less than ten years old, and her father had carried a bruised and battered young woman into their home. Her hair, now sleek and gleaming, had been snarled and matted; bruises had mottled the now smooth skin.

Rhela reached over and squeezed the hand of the woman who had from that day forward become part of her family. An older sister who fit in as if she’d always been there, except for the odd restlessness that took her for longer and longer spells, until she returned for only a few visits each year.

“I know you worry, but I’m careful. I promise I am.”

Phaylle twisted a lock of her pale hair and bit her lip. “But your promise isn’t enough, is it? I know you’re careful, but that doesn’t mean you’re safe.”

“There’s never been trouble before, and it’s been years and years since we came here. Why should things change?”

“Because things outside have changed, whether you know it or not. There are strangers around, and they’ve brought danger with them.”

Rhela worried her lip between her teeth. Phaylle had always been concerned, even more so since Rhela’s parents had died. Every spring she’d tried to get her to leave, but this intensity was new. Maybe Rhela should consider it.

It didn’t have to be forever, just long enough to put Phaylle’s mind at rest about whatever it was. For a brief moment, her heart lightened. She could go see the town and the shops where Phaylle bought the presents she always brought.

Just for a few days, to see what other people were like. Xandros could come with her, and maybe she could bring some of her roots and herbs to trade.

Glancing around the kitchen, her eye caught the sigil carved into the rock above the hearth, two concentric circles pierced by a long line that ended in a point.

Her heart sank.

No. She could never leave.

Her throat closed with angry tears. “I just can’t come with you. Please don’t ask me.”

Phaylle gave a small smile and shook herself as if to cast her fears behind her. “I know, and I’m sorry. Sometimes the mood just takes me, that’s all. But enough about that.” She reached for her satchel. “Can you guess what I’ve brought you this time?”

She opened the flap with a laugh, but Rhela couldn’t help but notice that her hand trembled.

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