By late afternoon, we’d reached the northern edge of Radlebb. Another hour’s travel through a winding path among the hills was brought up short by a whistle from Gilliam, who’d been scouting ahead. A winter thrush’s call meant possible trouble ahead. Aurora worked the dagger loose in its sheath at her hip, her golden eyes scanning the trail ahead as well as the overcast sky above. A shiver brushed the nape of my neck, there and gone, and Seraphina shook her head. Her magic had not detected any of the humanoids Varis had warned us about. I didn’t think she would, the Greenwardens’ reputation well known among the goblins and gnolls.
Another thrush’s call. Gilliam’s “all clear.” We continued after the trail he’d left us in the snows and muddy game track.
Sera sniffed. “Is that… woodsmoke?”
The weaver must have still been holding a glimmer of her power, for it was only as the wind shifted and we traveled further that the scent became evident. As did another that caused my stomach to growl, my mouth to water.
Rounding a craggy spur of the hill we’d been keeping to our right, we practically stepped right into a campfire. Expertly laid, as it let only the thinnest and palest of traces of smoke into the air. Several fat game birds roasted on stakes driven into the ground near the fireside.
A smokeless fire of winter-wet wood? Greenwardens could do it, as could any of my brethren druids.
But none of them had a recipe for a glazing of honey and sage.
Gilliam hadn’t warned us, as his mouth was already full of most of the leg of one of the birds.
A throaty laugh and jangling of many bracelets greeted us as the door of the large vardo parked nearby creaked open.
Varis let out a breath, easing his hand from his sword’s hilt.
“At least you have the manners to wait for an invitation,” Demarra said. “Please, sit! I have prepared enough for everybody.” She handed a large pitcher to Ana. “Though I see I will need more mugs.”
“What is wrong with you?” Varis asked, taking a seat on the log next to Gilliam. “The ‘roasting food by the campfire’ is the oldest ambush in the book. Kobolds love that one.”
“I do not give my roasted pheasant recipe to kobolds,” the Darra clucked, handing a mug of spiced wine to the warrior.
“Besides,” Gilliam finally managed around another mouthful, “I don’t know of any kobold tribe that travels by vardo.”
“Well, it is much better tasting than waybread,” Aurora said after several nibbles of her own portion.
For all of her glowering, Sera, too, tucked into the afternoon meal.
“This is one of my Karos’ favorite things,” Demarra said, as she filled a mug for the weaver. “I can give you the recipe, if you like. We should talk. I can tell you of other uses for this glaze that he--”
Demarra laughed, slapping Sera’s back as she nearly choked on the bite she’d taken.
I got no such assistance as the meat stuck in my own throat.
Across the campfire, Silva sat beside her sister, a bowl of cut fruit balanced on her knees. She only ate — and only then a few nibbles — at the shrike’s insistance.
“The daylight grows shorter,” Aurora said. “We cannot linger over this meal much longer.”
Silva glanced at her sister, and then over at Demarra, who sloshed a bit of hot water around the last of the mugs.
“You did not tell her of our arrangement?” the Darra asked, raising an eyebrow.
Aurora sat up straighter. “You didn’t.” She looked over to the woman. “We don’t—“
“But you do,” Demarra said, dumping out the mugful of water on the campfire. There came a billow of steam and a sputtering hiss. “The bargain has been struck. Will you have your sister go back on her words?”
“She doesn’t understand—“
“I explained it to her,” Demarra said.
“Everything?” Aurora asked, crossing her arms.
“Enough.” The Darra shrugged as she wiped out the mug with a rag.
“Do not think this lessens your debts.”
Demarra smiled. “I would never assume such. I have invoked no such token of your sister. I do this merely for the pleasure of the company.” Her eyes darted over to me, and she fluttered her long lashes. “I grew tired of attending the Festivals only to find the distractions… unfulfilling.”
Gilliam nudged Varis, and the other warrior rolled his eyes, but I caught the grin before he could school his features.
“Take your time, Vin Zletja Solijma,” Demarra said, inclining her head and pressing fingertips to her forehead. “I still need time to ready the horses.”
Gilliam rose with Demarra. “Please, allow me to help.”
“Horses?” Ana asked.
I turned, to watch Demarra depart, her skirts swaying, bracelets tinkling. She laughed, at something Gilliam said.
I blinked, shaking my head. Leave it to a Domani woman to make a druid completely oblivious to a picket line of horses and mules just a little ways off from camp.