Matilda was quite happy to have them spend the night. She made up the couch and retired earlier than normal. Kheri disappeared into the guest room soon after.
Dale found sleep elusive. He’d glossed over the Gorg when explaining things earlier in the evening, but now he turned them over in his mind. Too much of a coincidence. That warp was no accident either; someone opened it on purpose. He thought back to his ineffective struggle with wild energies and scowled. It wasn’t that big. I should have been able to close it. Someone was fighting me to keep it open. I’m sure whoever it is, is also behind the Gorg. I wish I knew what was going on.
He sat up, put his hands behind his head and leaned back, staring at the ceiling.
We have to get out of range as rapidly as possible. Fifty miles won’t be nearly enough. Five hundred might be, but we can’t possibly walk that fast. We’ll have to ride, and in something faster than a wagon, but these people aren’t likely to give their horses away. The possibility of stealing an unwatched horse came to mind and he shoved it away. No. That’d cause more trouble than it would mend. Besides, he glanced toward the bedroom where Kheri was sawing logs. He doesn’t need to see me stealing.
He stood, walked out on the front porch, and sat down on the steps. The moon was rising, its light painting the landscape with a silvery sheen. A chorus of crickets called to each other and in the distance, he could hear the occasional whinny of a horse. Wings whirred through the air as an owl swooped down out of the tree and sailed away, a rabbit dangling from its talons. He smiled, enjoying the night.
“Why is it,” he asked the world in general after a few minutes. “That I never get a break? This is actually a pretty decent place to be stranded, and what happens? I get chased by Gorg. If this were an inhospitable desert, I can guarantee nothing would even think about bothering me!” He sat on the porch for a while longer then got up and went back inside.
The sensors in Dale’s suit awakened him as the first bits of morning light filtered through the window blinds. The clock chose that moment to chime the hour, and he sat up reluctantly.
The daily cleaning cycle in his suit activated a second later and he jumped. He rarely noticed the sensation, which was similar to immersion in a bath of low voltage electricity, but occasionally it hit the wrong nerves. He winced and scratched his scalp vigorously. It would be nice to reach a state once in a while where I’m actually safe enough to take this thing off!
Memories of the last time he’d made that mistake surfaced. The place was a small planet on the edge of a minor galaxy. It was beautiful, with pristine lakes, pure air, and a marvelous landscape. He’d foolishly decided to go for a swim only a few hours after arriving for an assignment. A tribe of three-foot high, spear-wielding porcupines had ambushed him at the worst possible moment. He’d barely had enough time to grab his suit and swing up into a tree. Attempting to get dressed, while clinging to a branch with spears whizzing around him, had taught him a valuable lesson.
No matter how innocent a place looks, something is usually waiting to make you part of the food chain.
He shook the memory away and stretched, then stood and walked over to the open guest room door.
Kheri was sprawled across the middle of the bed, the blankets bunched underneath him and his feet dangling off the side.
Dale clapped his hand over his mouth and stifled a laugh. He stood waiting for several seconds, then shook his head and knocked lightly on the door.
Kheri didn’t move.
Dale knocked louder.
Kheri’s snoring increased in volume and he seemed to sink deeper into the bed.
Kheri’s aunt opened her door and came out, tying her belt around her bathrobe. “He won’t wake up like that,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “Sleeps way too sound. This’ll get ‘em, though.” She walked into the guest room, lifted a pitcher of water from the nightstand, and dumped it over her nephew’s head.
He erupted out of bed, spluttering.
“Get up,” Matilda commanded. “The day’s wastin’ away and there’s chores to be done.” She set the pitcher back on the nightstand then turned and strode out the door, giving Dale a wink as she passed.
Dale collapsed against the doorframe, shaking with laughter.
Kheri shook the water out of his hair and glowered at him. “Laugh it up,” he growled. “I’ll bet you’d look funny too, if someone dumped a bucket of water on you when you were asleep.”
Dale caught his breath and grinned. “Probably. You must admit though, it was effective.”
Kheri scowled and walked over to the door. “Yeah. It’s also the main reason I moved out.”
Dale chuckled and gave a nod. “Come on, it’s time we were on the road.”
Kheri took hold of the door. “Yeah. Just as soon as I get changed. Excuse me.” He shut the door firmly in Dale’s face then winced. Nothing happened however so he allowed himself to relax. Stupid Kheri, he chided himself as he pulled off the wet nightshirt. That could have been real bad. Hope he didn’t just get mad and decide to make me pay later. His vivid imagination kicked into hyper-drive and he shuddered, took a deep breath, and rapidly got dressed.
Dale joined Kheri’s aunt in the kitchen where she was busily wrapping food in a large square of cloth. She smiled at him while tying up the corners of the cloth bundle. “I figure you boys might like some lunch later. Walking’s hungry work.” She handed it to him. “Take care out there on the roads. There are worse things lurking in the wild than the three what ambushed you in my yard last night.”
“You saw that?”
“Of course I saw, and you did well against them. But,” she shook her head, “there are far worse things in the wilds than those. So be very careful.”
“I intend to,” Dale promised, wondering how she had guessed where he intended to go.
She looked him square in the eye and placed her hands on her hips. “As to that, I don’t have to guess. You’re broadcasting loud enough to wake the dead.”
Dale stared at her in shock and reflexively clamped down on his thoughts.
She grinned and patted him on the arm. “Don’t worry. No one else around here can hear you. Just me.” Reaching into her bathrobe pocket, she pulled something out and pressed it into his hand. “You’ll need horses, and they’re not cheap. Take that. Should be enough there for two. Talk to Paw Tucker, he raises ‘em. Tell him I sent you.” She glanced into the living room at the closed guest room door and dropped her voice. “Take care of Kheri. He’s got a good heart, but he’s been out of control all his life. Needs someone to straighten him up.”
A smile tugged at the corners of Dale’s mouth. “Just how much have you overheard?”
A bit of a grin crept over Matilda’s face. “Enough. You’re not the first we’ve had stranded around here, and you probably won’t be the last. My mother, dead these many years, she could tell when there was a stranger anywhere in the Barony. The sight doesn’t run that strong in me, but it’s good enough.” She smiled, then took Dale’s arm and tugged him into the living room. “You boys better get going,” she said in a normal voice. “Sun’s gonna get hot today.” She walked over to the guest room door and rapped loudly on it. “Get a move on in there. I’ve got a load of wood that needs choppin’.”
Kheri opened the door and came out, tucking his shirt into his pants. “We can’t….”
“I know,” his aunt interrupted. “Your friend told me. Got a walk to take this morning. Well, get going. Sun gets hot early these days.” She put a small meat pie into his hands. “Might get hungry before lunch. Now scat, so’s I can clean up that room you turned upside down.”
Kheri ran his fingers through his unruly blond hair and moved out of her way.
She bustled past him into the guest room and set about stripping wet sheets off the bed.
“Let’s go,” Dale said, heading for the front door.
Kheri started to follow then impulsively ran back to his aunt. He gave her a quick hug and kissed her on the cheek, then hurried after Dale.
Matilda watched him go, a fond smile flickering over her face.