This week’s prompt from More Odds than Ends is: The woman walked out of the forest with a tree on her shoulder. Okay, I kinda had an idea, just needed to stretch the prompt a little. While I was getting started Sarah posted her word of the week: Babble. It didn’t take too much to work that in.
This was originally supposed to be a part of book two of the Four Winds stories. But we had problems getting the overall plot to firm up, so it has been stuck in the outline stage for a while. I was able to use the old notes and, with a little tweaking, come up with something usable.
The Gate opened to show an old wood forest. Star eyed the forest for a moment then took a step back and nodded to her partner.
Robin took another look around, scanning for any threats, before stepping through the Gate. Once on the other side, she repeated the threat scan. Only after she was sure there was no immediate danger did she sheath her sword.
Once she saw Robin sheath her sword Star stepped through. The ground she stepped onto could only be considered “dry land” because it was above the water a few inches away. She looked around and noticed that the hillock she was standing on was one of a few areas of “land” in the immediate area. They were surrounded by massive conifers that towered over the land and cast the area in a state of constant dusk.
Robin wadded through ankle deep water to stand next to her. “Smells like the wet lands.” She sniffed at the air. “Worse actually. Smells dead. But there is plenty of life around.”
Star nodded and continued looking around. Through the gloom she thought she detected more dry land. “This way,” she pointed roughly south, “the ground rises a bit.”
Robin pulled off her glasses, gave them a half-hearted wipe and then peered in the direction Star pointed. Seeing the water, muck and tree bases yards wide, she gave her friend an aggrieved look. “Of course.” She dropped in behind Star, muttered as they went. “We couldn’t land some place warm and dry, no, we have to land in the middle of a freaking swamp.”
“Sorry,” Star spoke over her shoulder. “This is where ‘The Book’ wants us to be.” She patted at the satchel at her side.
“I suppose a swamp could deter anything that might be tracking the blasted thing.”
They hiked through the swamp gradually coming to larger patches of dry ground. The wildlife took only passing interest in their passage, falling silent when they were near then resuming their activities when they passed. At one point Star signaled a stop while she watched a black bear foraging. Eventually they reached an area that was relatively dry and somewhat open.
Star glanced up at the sky and looked around the clearing. “Looks like a good place to stop for the night. We still have a couple of hours of good sunlight. Ground’s still damp, but it’s dry enough that we should be able to get a fire going.”
Robin shrugged out of the straps of her backpack and looked around. “Trees close enough with sturdy branch to tie up the supplies. Not keen on the idea of bears chowing down on the rations. Water? I wouldn’t consider any of that,” she jerked her head towards the swamp they had recently left, “potable.”
Star set her backpack next to Robin’s. “It’s not uncommon for fresh water streams to drain into swamps. I’ll look around and see what I can find. And, while I’m at it, I’ll see if I can find something for dinner. Save those rations for later.” She grabbed the canteens and, after a little thought, headed west.
Finding fresh water proved to be harder than finding dinner. A young marsh rabbit buck was a little too inattentive. The report of a .45 shattered the peace, silencing all the wildlife for several minutes. Star confirmed the kill, secured the rabbit’s legs to make carrying easier, and continued looking for water.
She returned to camp about an hour after she’d left carrying dinner and three canteens of water. During that time Robin had set up the tent, gathered wood, and started a fire.
Robin looked over from the fire pit and raised an eyebrow. “I trust you know what to do with that.”
Star nodded, hiding a small smile. “I already skinned it and cleaned it, just used the hide to carry it. All we have to do now it roast it.”
“I put up wards around the camp, nothing bigger than an insect should get in.” Robin handed over a small branch for the rabbit. “Can’t do much ‘bout mosquitoes though.”
While the rabbit was roasted, Robin put on some of the water for coffee and rice from their stores. They chatted quietly as they went about the tasks of cooking and securing the camp. Once dinner was done they turned to quiet tasks; Robin started cleaning and inspecting her sword while Star studied what little information they had about the artifact she was carrying.
“What time do you have?”
Star glanced over at her friend, wondering why on earth she wanted to know the time. Robin was looking up at the sky with a look of bewilderment. “It’s twenty thirty two,” Star told her after a quick check. “Why?”
“Hun. That’s what I thought. Sunset should’ve been ‘bout quarter after, yet it’s almost full dark.” She fell silent for a moment, studying the sky. “What would you say if I told you that the stars are out of place?”
Star stared at her friend for a long moment. “Out of place how? We knew we’d be moving between dimensions, maybe the constellations are just different here.” She looked up at the darkening sky for a moment. Now that she was paying attention, some of the constellations did look to be out of place.
“No,” Robin shook her head. “Everything is where it should be, at least what I can see is, but it’s off. Like we’ve shifted time zones. It’s like we’re an hour east of DC.” She looked over at Star and chuckled at the look her friend was giving her. “Blame your brother,” she laughed. “He spent part of those camping trips teaching me practical astronomy, when we weren’t busy in the sleeping bag.”
Star looked down at the sparse notes. “Nothing we have suggests the worlds have to physically the same. Maybe this world is geographically different. Arrgh, I wish we could read it, see if there are maps or something.” She folded the notes up in frustration. “I hate being half in the dark.”
“Not me,” Robin shook her head. “That thing gave me the heebie-jeebies when I touched it.” She waved a hand towards the satchel. “It’s got some big time magic behind it. Lord of the Rings, shouldn’t be handled by mortals, magic. I’m just glad that satchel is lined and warded.” She took her glasses off and rubbed at her face, as if a migraine was trying to form.
“Well, it would be nice if we could just find out where it needs to go and just take it there.”
“It’s an artifact. Artifacts one-oh-one: they have a mind of their own.”
They fell silent, each considering what this new information meant. The sounds of nature filled the silence; frogs croaked in the wet lands and in the distance an owl called. Finally they banked the fire and crawled into the tent.
Star woke a few hours later to the sound of Robin moving. In the darkness of the tent, Robin was little more than a darker shape against the tent wall. “Wha?”
“We have company,” Robin whispered. “Something moving around the perimeter of the wards.” A soft scuffing told Star that her friend had her katana in her hand.
A wolf howled not too far away. “Animal?” Star located her .45 by touch and rolled to her knees.
“Not unless the local wildlife has magic.” Robin slowly unzipped the tent and pushed open the flap. “I’m going to throw a mage light, watch your eyes.”
Star shielded her eyes as Robin tossed a ball of blue-white light over their tent. A few seconds later they were standing back-to-back a few feet in front of the tent scanning the area.
Something moved in the trees a couple of yards behind the tent, drawing their attention. A handsome native woman, wearing a pale deerskin dress, came out of the trees and stopped at the edge of the wards.
“Greetings, Cousin. Have I permission to enter?”
The greeting was close enough to Cherokee for Star to understand her. Robin however only spoke English and Japanese; to her the greeting was incomprehensible, mere babble. “She’s asking to enter the camp.”
Robin grunted and studied the figure for several seconds. “She’s not exactly mortal, and she’s powerful enough to have come through my wards with minimal effort. I’d say she’s being ‘nice’. You gettin’ anything off her?”
“Curiosity mainly. Nothing hinting at hostile intent.”
“A spirit polite enough to knock should be worthy of trust, I guess.” Robin walked to the perimeter and looked at the being standing there, patiently waiting. The dress she wore was richly decorated with images painted with native ink. On her left shoulder was a towering tree, suggesting strength and deep roots. Over her heart was a blazing sun, suggesting warmth. Across her hips was a river, suggesting power and emotion. All of them spoke of life. She gave a half nod and reached out to open a door in the wards. Slipping the sword scabbard in her belt, she waved the spirit in.
“Welcome Cousin,” Star waved the spirit to sit while she restarted the fire.
“Your Guardian does well to be cautious.” The spirit looked between Star and Robin.
“She’s my best friend so she takes the job seriously.”
Once she had the wards restored, Robin came over and sat down to watch the exchange.
“You are strangers in our land and you have brought something of great power with you.”
“Yes,” Star nodded. “We’re just passing through. The object will leave with us.”
“The Seven Mothers have asked me to visit you. Tomorrow we will go to the village so you can meet them. They say this magic feels familiar.”
So much for the satchel shielding the book, Star thought as she turned to translate for Robin. It may make it possible for clairvoyants to be around the book, but the artifact seemed to be leaving a trail.
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