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The lionesses’ keen ears and the princess’ unfamiliarity with sleeping outdoors had her awake before dawn as the forest creatures of the night rustled through the leaves on their way back home. As she became more aware of her surroundings she noticed she was still next to Dashtek. She felt a bit embarrassed by her kindness toward him. She thought about what he would say when he woke up and she was generally uncertain of how to manage his reaction to her being so close. To avoid that whole awkward scene she decided to move to the other side of the fire pit to where she had been deep in thought the night before. Her spot from last night that had been so comfortable she had uttered her first purr was now cold from the night, and wet from the morning dew that had been settling. It was like trying to go swimming in early summer when the water is still cold.
She would have moved back to the dry spot near Dashtek, but now he was stirring, a sure sign that he was beginning to wake up. She didn’t want to appear as though she’d begun to care for him. Not that it was a secret she wanted to keep, but just because it was something new and she didn’t know how to handle herself. Despite the wetness, she laid down to make it appear as though she had been there the whole night, and Dashtek, believing the princess to be happily asleep, quietly began to get ready for the day ahead. She carried on the charade of faking sleep for some time and would sneak a peak now and again deciding whether or not enough of the chores were done to justify her being awake.
By the time the princess did decide to get up Dashtek had caught so many fish that both of them had a scrumptious breakfast. It did not take long to eat it, or clean up afterwards. With their meal finished, they went on their way.
It took two days of travel to reach the foothills, and at the entrance to the canyon path to the North Country. The terrain up to this point offered enough food and shelter to make traveling doable but not terribly comfortable. In the canyon it would be much different. The rocky floor would replace the leaves and grass of the fields and woods they had been traveling through. At the mouth of the canyon lay the town of Makuan.
This would be their last opportunity to buy the supplies that would allow them to survive the inhospitable road ahead. Jan positioned herself out of sight in a wood while Dashtek went into town. Being a squire it was his responsibility to carry his knight’s money. With Sir James’ passing the contents of the purse were now his to spend. Though it did not have much, he figured it would have enough. Their plan was for him to go shopping, come back to where Jan was hiding, rest until dark and begin their journey under the cover of night to avoid detection. This way they could make it into the canyon at night without anyone noticing the lioness. The shopping part of their plan went off without a hitch, Dashtek even got a good deal on a new cloak. But when he went to back to meet up with the princess, she was gone.
Did someone find her? He hadn’t noticed any human tracks coming into this part of the wood, but then again he hadn’t really been looking for them either. He retraced his steps for about fifty meters looking at the ground to see if anyone else’s footprints had been there. The dry weather of the past few days made it difficult for him to recognize even his own steps. Had someone else walked that way it would have been even harder for him to tell the difference between his tracks and someone else’s because back then people’s shoes had roughly the same soles. He walked back under the canopy of trees to see if he could find where she went. In the woods it was even more difficult. The leaves that lined the floor made it difficult to track which direction the lioness went. Dashtek stood still in the last spot he had seen her and listened for any sound.
That is to say, his body waited and was still, but his mind was far from idle. He wished he could see the tracks better, but he had little gift for tracking.
Tracking. Hunters were good at tracking.
Hunting. Kilewal. If only Kilewal was there to help him. The great hunter could practically see an hour old animal track as though the creature was in front of him making it. But Kilewal wasn’t there to help. But maybe another hunter in the area could see things tracks as good Kilewal and had killed the princess. He senses became even more alert at the thought that she had been hunted.
Just then a noise erupted nearby and Dashtek scrambled to get to the source of it as quickly as possible. Maybe he could still save her. When he arrived he saw the final moments of a great hunt, but it wasn’t the lioness that was being hunted.
Dashtek beheld not only a terrific chase between the lioness and a small deer, but the lioness first hunt. The swipe of her large paw tripped its feet. It wasn’t clean, but it was enough to throw the animal off balance giving her the chance to pin and strike. In a moment her claws were extended and with another slash she had ripped its throat. Dashtek cautiously approached the scene. The lioness looked remarkably like a house cat proud of its work on a mouse. As he drew closer he could see the deer was still breathing heavily, pinned, and panicked. Dashtek used his knife to finish the kill and began gutting and preparing it. His compliments for her efforts took the form of talking about how much the meat would help them. When she wasn’t pacing back and forth to watch Dashtek work, she was laying down cleaning her paws with her long tongue, and her tail flicking happily from side to side.
It was still fairly early in the afternoon. Dashtek used his newly purchased flint and steel to get a fire going. The princess waited until the meal was cooked before eating confirming that she still preferred a cooked meal to a raw one. Once a leg was ready she fully enjoyed the full fruits of her work.
There was more than enough food for them that evening, so Dashtek took the remaining meat, cut it into strips, and began to dry it over the fire to make a type of what today we’d call venison jerky. It was a very practical choice because dried meat doesn’t sour as quickly as raw meat. Between the venison and the supplies he purchased, Dashtek was pretty confident they would make it through the Zahre mountains before running out of food. That night he went to sleep smiling and warm under his new cloak.
According to their plan the pair left after the last lights in town were out for the night. The night was still and none of the townspeople saw them enter the canyon path near the river through the mountains. Instead of traveling their full planned distance, the two opted to stop where the terrain offered a good place to rest. They hadn’t calculated being so tired from traveling at night, though they did cover the distance rather quickly as the princess discovered her four legged agility over the rocky terrain. They rested starting early in the afternoon taking a pleasant nap with the afternoon sun warming their bodies.
Liz Erickson has always enjoyed using her talents to create. Those who know her will not be surprised that she took on the project of drawing the illustrations for this work. Liz worked with ease to adapt her style and provide the author with the specifically desired drawings for this book adjusting quickly from her experience in fashion and painting.
It seems safe to predict that this will not be the last time Liz’s name appears as the illustrator of a printed work. She is just as much a magician with her talents as Alamus with his wand.