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The air cooled and with the chill came the feeling of anticipation. Just as they had at Makuan they watched as the lights in the houses went out one by one, and began their journey toward the woods near Ashoqa. A half moon lit their way, covered at times by moving clouds floating across an ocean of blackness and speckled stars. The two companions sped as quietly as the dandelion in the breeze as they traveled across the landscape. The lioness’ paws were light and soft, and did not produce any sound. Dashtek’s feet were just as mute choosing to travel on the grass that grew in the middle of the dirt roadways. Their hunger was all but forgotten, replaced by the hope of a successful conclusion to their difficult journey.
The first light of dawn appeared just after they had entered the woods. A few pockets of leaves had begun to change color, but most of the forest hadn’t shown any signs of colder weather. The woods were thick enough that they need not travel far to hide, but Dashtek knew the further in they went the more security it meant for the two of them. He lead the way deep inside until they came to a brook which ran from a nearby hill and eventually into the river. They day began to grow warm and they were exhausted. Dashtek took a small piece of rope and made a rabbit trap on a game trail nearby. Exhausted the pair lay down on the forest floor and slept through most of the day.
When they awoke Dashtek had discovered the rabbit trap had worked. He offered the raw animal to the princess, who refused it. Thinking that she wanted it cooked first Dashtek built the evening’s fire and cooked it. When he offered it to the princess she still declined. Confused at the situation, Dashtek took a few bites and then offered the rest to the princess. She accepted, but only after nudging at her bag. Her demands that evening were not only did she want to make sure he got to eat first, but she also wanted a story during her portion of the meal.
This time he didn’t protest and went skimming through the pages to find a story he felt he could read without too much trouble.
He chose to read the story of Malik and his garden, a slightly odd tale about a man and his plants. The story was the longest Dashtek had read so far and his fumbling over the words only made it longer. Still he continued on and even finished on a reasonable recitation before the two decided to sleep.
The morning began with the chill crispness of the approaching fall weather. Dashtek knew he needed to build a shelter for them quickly. The snowstorm they had survived in the mountains could be a precursor to a strong winter ahead. He had purchased a small axe in Makuan and began to use it to clear a few trees by the brook. His plan was to construct a rough log hut, filling the gaps between the logs with mud, and laying bark patched on the outside to help insulate and disguise the dwelling. Dashtek was industrious, but still the work was slow until the two discovered Princess Jan could help move the logs across the forest floor by constructing a rope harness. Dashtek would chop down a few trees and have them waiting to be moved by the time the princess would return from her duties hunting. Working together in this manner made the job much easier. They would usually move the logs into place while the latest kill would cook on the fire.
Days and weeks passed before they had anything better than the outdoors to sleep in. When the first serious rain of fall came the roof was finished enough to offer much more protection than just standing outside but that’s not without admitting there were a spots that still leaked. Building something as complex as a house is a process. It doesn’t get done in one day. The princess insisted Dashtek spend his time in the driest corner, reading. After weeks of practice his reading had shown improvement with each attempt. It had taken him a few days to be able to complete the story of Malik and his garden to the princess’ liking. The request for a story after dinner became a routine that did not slacken during the weeks of construction. Now, during the first rainy day, Dashtek was able to read most of the stories to the princess’ satisfaction within two or three attempts.
One afternoon Dashtek was preparing a bundle to shore up part of the roof while the princess was nearby hunting. Just as Dashtek’s reading improved with practice, so did her abilities as a hunter. She had become such a good hunter that they did not store much food in their hut. Instead they relied upon her skill to kill as needed. This way nothing would waste.
On this particular afternoon a white bearded man wearing something like a Fedora came walking up the brook. He introduced himself as a village elder name Spen Geree and explained that he lived in the house closest to the woods being called to town occasionally to doctor a wound, judge a dispute, or officiate in a marriage. Dashtek gave his name and through the conversation told him of his being a squire and that the knight he served had died in his sleep granting Dashtek the freedom to travel to this land. The princess’ hunt that day was fairly close to the hut and when she heard the conversation she began creeping silently forward to listen masking her movement behind the wood pile.
After asking Dashtek’s age, Spen Geree commented that a young man his age should be looking for a wife and that his prospects for marriage would increase if he lived closer to the town. “Why, you can come and stay in my house. I have only a small room to offer, but it is more comfortable than what you’re working on.”
Dashtek looked at his handy work. “I imagine many places are more comfortable than this, but this is what I will call my home, not because of the way it looks but because when I look at it I can’t help but love it. You’ll have to pardon me, but I have invested in it, and it’s not easy to abandon something you’ve invested in.”
“True words young man. You are more wise than your appearance lets on. All the more reason why I insist you allow me to introduce you to some of the ladies in Ashoqa. A fine looking man and brains to boot! Why I know of one young lady…”
Dashtek cut him off politely waiving his arms in friendly protest. “Sir, I wont leave my home. It may not look like much on the outside, but inside at night it’s warm enough for me to spend my evenings reading. I don’t read well, but I have read enough stories about love to know how something of how powerful it is, and I have felt it working in me for quite some time, encouraging me to be better than who I am.”
At Dashtek’s response Spen Geree knew to abandon the issue. He had seen enough couples in love to know through the way he spoke that Dashtek’s heart was already taken. From behind the woodpile the princess now knew this too. His words rang plain in her ears; his reason for becoming better now perfectly clear.
“Well, if you’re going to live in these woods you’ll be hunting for your food this winter. You’ve picked a good spot as game will travel down the brook to graze in the lower country, but I must warn you, if you’re going to hunt the boar here be sure to kill them on the first shot. A wounded boar is the most dangerous animal in this land. They’ll slash with tusks so long they can pierce you clean through.”
As he parted the old man once again offered his home and food if the winter proved too harsh. It was an offer made out of courtesy, as they both knew Dashtek would likely never use it.
About The Illustrator
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.