Saved by the Rakian Scout: Chapter Three

A whiff of perfume burned through Jormoi’s awareness of the wet moss under his paws.

He froze.

That scent… he’d crossed it before, but not here, not in the forest. In the caves, where they’d rescued the captured women.  He padded forward, took another breath and let it swirl within him. Not one of the women from the village. He’d scented this in the garrison as well, when Adena’s family had visited.

Phaylle or Matilde, then. What would either of them be doing this far out in the woods?  Jormoi followed the trail, picking up speed.

If it was Matilde, she could be hurt, and the entire unit had taken a liking to Adena’s gentle cousin.

If it was Phaylle… that was a different story altogether.

Jormoi’s hackles rose as he thought how she had betrayed Adena’s family and the town. Adena may have healed the captured women’s injuries, but he knew the fear in their eyes would be a long time subsiding.

And as with B’tar, no one knew what Phaylle’s real goals were. If she was around, he wanted to find out what she was up to.

The trail moved in a straight line to the woods, but followed no path that Jormoi could detect.

He didn’t scent any fear overlying her smell, so she wasn’t blindly running from something.

No taste of blood in the air, either. Just quick, confident strides.

So the chances were good he followed in the steps of Phaylle, not Matilde.

She must know the way very well; it wasn’t the first time she’d come that way. What was she going towards?

The scent ended at the edge of another stream, a larger, wilder one, with water crashing over rocks in small rapids then turning aside deeper into the forest.

The trail ended here. Obviously, she had crossed, but he couldn’t see where, and it didn’t look deep enough for a boat. Maybe a raft? Or… Jormoi shifted back to bipedal form, then, with longer legs, he stepped cautiously into the stream. A large, flat stone lay only inches beneath the surface of the water.

Feeling each step as he went, he made it across with his boots barely damp.

Stones formed a hidden bridge all the way across. Not only had she come this way before, she’d come often enough to know exactly where the submerged stones were. A frequent visitor, then, to a secret place.

He shifted back to all fours and picked up the scent again right where he had stepped off the final rock onto the far bank. Here the path twisted and turned, but he still smelled no urgency.

He came to a stop when the scent trail led straight into a dense, hanging cluster of akro vines between sharp outcroppings of rocks on either side.

She couldn’t have gotten through there.  After Nic’s misadventure with the insects, he’d gone out himself to test how bad the swarming really was. He didn’t feel like testing it again.

He paced, circling, but there was no question. The scent led straight through the vines.

Wait. There was another, newer trail, from the same woman but doubling back out of the tangle of vines and away. Jormoi was torn. Follow the fresher trail, or find out what she had been so interested in visiting that was so skillfully concealed?

The soft sound of a woman singing determined his choice. 

Phaylle might not be behind the concealing curtain of vines right now, but someone was there. And that someone likely had been meeting with a known enemy.  Damned if he was going to leave a potentially hostile agent at his back.

Jormoi eyed the vines with their stinging insects carefully. Even for him, getting through them in bipedal shape would be difficult. Shifted, his thick sandy fur might buffer the bites. Possibly.

But situations like this were why the gen-engineers had given garrison soldiers alternatives.

He paced to the foot of a nearby tree, then sprang to the lowest of its branches. He continued upward with ease, climbing and leaping from one tree to another, working his way around and past the barrier.

Back on the ground, he paused. The soft song continued without break. He crept in the underbrush, careful to pad silently in the shadows toward the sound of singing. As he moved from the low-hanging branches of one shrub to another, the voice fell silent.

He froze. Had the mysterious woman heard him after all, sensed him somehow?

No.

Within moments she’d started talking to an unknown person. Jormoi crept closer, his tufted ears perked to catch the words.

“I don’t know why she worries so much, but it was nice to see her again.”

“Yes, and to get the matches, so much easier.”

Jormoi was close enough he should have been able to hear who she was talking to, even a murmur of a soft voice. But he heard no reply. He crept closer.

He stopped as the edge of bright sunlight fell across the shadows like a knife, marking a wide open clearing.  Within the glade, a young woman bent and rose repeatedly, her long brown hair braided down her back, cleaning dead vines and shoots from light wooden frames.

“What do you think, Xandros? Harva fruit for dinner again?”

Jormoi looked around, but saw no other person, just a shaggy gray and black dog sprawled at the woman’s feet.

He crouched lower, willing the wind to shift away from them, knowing it was unlikely to matter.

And as if he’d made the problem appear, the dog’s head lifted, his nose raised to the air, sampling.

Jormoi could retreat, come back another day, but if she was constantly with the dog, it would scent him eventually. 

And he was too curious to back away now.

He took a step into the light, and in a tangled rush of limbs, the dog shook off sleep and stood, straining toward him.

“Xandros, no!”  The woman’s voice was shrill with fear as she tried to hold the dog back, but he slipped away from her.

Jormoi could tell from its awkward gait it was still a puppy, just a very, very large one.

The woman’s face was pale and frightened. Jormoi lay down and tried to make his feline form, smaller than his brothers’ but still larger than any cat this woman had likely seen, as nonthreatening as possible.

Not surprisingly, the puppy reached him first. It snuffled at his muzzle, then gave a tentative lick. Jormoi fought the urge to wrinkle his nose and instead continued to lie quietly as the woman reached them.

“Come on, Xandros, don’t annoy the kitty. The very, very big kitty.”

The puppy wasn’t paying any attention to her and had moved its sniffling down Jormoi’s side to investigate his tail. Despite his best intentions, Jormoi’s tail twitched slightly in irritation. The puppy apparently found this fascinating and pounced on it.

One way to win her trust, I guess, Jormoi sighed as the puppy began to chew on the tip of his tail. It couldn’t really hurt him, but he’d forgotten how sharp little puppy teeth were.

The woman had stopped desperately trying to pull the puppy away and now stood quietly watching him.

“I’ve never seen anything quite like you in my valley before.”

Her valley, Jormoi thought. Interesting.

“But you don’t seem to be a threat, and honestly you’ve got more patience with his teething than I do some days. I guess you can stay.”

He kept his bright blue eyes fixed on her, waiting for her to truly relax. She seemed to settle and make a decision.

“Come on, Xandros. It’s dinnertime.”

The puppy immediately stopped snuffling Jormoi’s tail. She looked back over her shoulder at him. “You can come, too, if you want.”

A hill, covered on one side with thick vegetation, rose sharply at the other end of the clearing. As the strange party curved around its base, Jormoi noted with amusement that the woman now included comments directed to him in her ongoing conversation with the dog.

“I don’t know if you’re new to this section of the forest, I assume that you are, since I haven’t seen you before, but I had been telling Xandros a little less rain would be great. It’s nice to have soft ground to get the seeds started in the spring, but I really am tired of the mud everywhere.”

She looked affectionately at the puppy at her side. “Not as bad as Xandros, but still…”

The puppy darted back and forth, off to investigate grasshoppers and other new smells, but always quickly back to the woman’s side.

Jormoi stayed a pace behind, observing it all.

The clearing, he could see now, was actually divided into several gardening beds, each tucked either next to the forest or in the middle of the glade. He knew little about farming but would guess decisions had been made based on how much sunlight each plant needed.

He glanced around. Everything was very tidy, but he couldn’t see any trace of any other humans living here, just Phaylle’s maddening scent. Was it just this young woman? Surely she couldn’t have cleared all the land and cared for all the gardens on her own.

The only obviously manmade structure was a multi-tiered undulating fountain, half the height of the woman, exuberant foliage carved from stone bursting from every level’s lip.

He saw no other tools or machinery and was still looking for a house or any buildings at all, when she stopped.

He avoided running into the back of her legs by barely a whisker’s breadth and sat back on his haunches, annoyed with himself. She looked down at him, and for a moment he thought she was going to ruffle the fur on his head.

“Luckily my friend was here earlier, so the house is a little cleaner than it normally is. In the summer it’s far too much fun to be outside to worry about housekeeping and now that it’s fall, I’m far too busy. I’ll deal with it in the winter.”

He stared at the hillside, then back to her. Maybe he’d been spending his time with someone with a tenuous grasp on reality. That wouldn’t bode well for any information she could give him.

She reached forward and grabbed a stone from the sharp slope above her, and a door-sized section of rock swung open as if shaped by the finest craftsmen.

“Come on in, let’s see what we can do about dinner.”

Jormoi followed her into a cozy, well-lit room, obviously a kitchen, which apparently ran the full length of the house. Farther back, it changed into a workroom with small tables.

Three openings led from the long, bright room farther into the hill. Jormoi guessed either sleeping or storage chambers. Small windows opened into the hillside above, letting in plenty of light. Jormoi would have been surprised if they looked like anything more than rabbit holes from the top.

The woman talked while she moved around the kitchen, lighting small lamps from the banked fire. Her motions were swift, graceful, almost a dance. “Would you believe she doesn’t think I’m safe out here? ‘Rhela, what if someone finds you? Rhela, what will you do when winter comes? Rhela, you need to have more friends.’”

She looked around at Xandros and the other animals who had followed her in through the open door.

“Who does she think you guys are, if not my friends? I wouldn’t even know what to do around other people,” she muttered. “She didn’t even stay for dinner, had to rush off.” She stirred something in a pot pushed to the back of the small stove. “Well, it’ll be better with more simmering time anyway.”

Rhela. Jormoi tested the name out. It fit nicely in his thoughts, fit well with her somehow. The young woman rummaged in some woven baskets arranged by one of the long tables.

“I don’t exactly know what you are,” her words were slightly muffled as her head disappeared into the containers, “but I know your shape, and I know what those teeth mean.” A long pause, and her head reappeared. “Aha!”

She withdrew from the final basket two large, lumpy maroon roots. They were flattened, as if they had been roughly pounded out before being set to dry.

She held one out. “What about lianever root? Phaylle says chopped up into stew they taste a little like meat, so maybe that would work for you?”

It was confirmed. She knew Phaylle, though how this gentle gardener and the garrison’s cold enemy could be connected, Jormoi couldn’t imagine.

She laid it down near him, but he didn’t move towards it. The root did not smell particularly appealing, and he wasn’t hungry.

The puppy wandered up, snuffled the root, and pounced on it, happily gnawing away.

“Xandros, don’t!”

The woman eyed Jormoi cautiously. “You’re definitely more patient than I would’ve expected. I suppose you’re going to have to hunt.” She closed her eyes and nodded as if to reassure herself.

“I know how the world works. But I do wish you wouldn’t hunt near the house, and please don’t bring it inside, even as a gift.”

It was enough information. As much as he was going to get in this shape, anyway.  Jormoi took the root from Xandros and carried it in his mouth, trying to ignore the bitter taste and the drool.

He walked out the door, around the curve of the hill and spat out the disgusting thing.  He shifted and wiped his mouth on his arm. “The things I do in this job…”

He carried the root in his hand when he reentered the cottage. He heard Rhela’s gasp, but didn’t look at her for more than a second. Instead, he went over to Xandros, sprawled on the braided rug before the stove.

“Here you go, fellow.” He handed the dog the root, and after a quick lick, Xandros took it, apparently unconcerned about the changed shape of his new friend.

Jormoi stayed crouched, scratching behind the floppy ears, and said nothing. Waited.

He heard her step towards him, her breath fast and shallow.

“I know you. I don’t know this shape. But I recognize your eyes, your stillness. I know you.”

“Are you afraid?”

A long silence, long enough his muscles ached from the fight not to turn around, to let her have time.

“No.”

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