Ahyoka lay on the bank of the river, watching the branch of the overhead tree sway in the breeze. The leaves rustled and told her the story of Mother Birch. The insects, busy collecting bits of seed and drops of nectar, added their parts to the tale. The birds chirped from within the depths of the branches and provided a harmonious background chorus.
Her eyelids became heavy, and her mind drifted into the land of dreams.
She walked through a crowded forest. Trees were tangled and overgrown. The overhead canopy was thick and full and blocked most of the light. Her feet were bare. Every twig and rock she stepped on made her journey painful as she picked her way through the dense growth.
In the distance a wolf howled, making her hair stand on end. She stopped and listened so she could determine if the sound drew closer.
As she searched for the path she thought would be somewhere nearby, she heard the crunch of a twig from behind her. She turned but saw nothing but trees, leaves, and vines. Another snap of a branch from the same direction kicked her heartbeat up and sharpened her senses.
A growl hinted she was no longer alone. Without bothering to look over her shoulder, she took off running as fast as she could, scrambling over roots and twisted limbs.
Pounding footfalls warned she was being pursued.
The panting of an animal over the sound of blood pounding in her ears spurred her on. Seeing a clearing, she altered her course, keeping her eyes trained on the sunlit cove. As she neared the opening, a warrior stepped from the shadow of a large tree.
Even from a distance she could see his shoulders were broad and his chest was a solid wall of muscle. The feather he wore at the back of his head branded him a warrior of the highest honor.
He held a bow notched with a single arrow. As she drew closer, she realized the arrow was pointed at her.
The look on the warrior’s face was of total calm and concentration. Something in his stance warned her that where he aimed, he wouldn’t miss.
Just as he let the arrow loose, she woke with a start.
Awake Spirit Talker.
Ahyoka listened to the sounds of the spirits around her. Even without their warning, she would have sensed the presence in the shadows.
She rolled to her side and looked to where she knew he crouched. The darkness hid his features from her eyes, but his spirit radiated from the fire that burned within him. Never before had she met someone with such a potent life force.
Even her brother’s wasn’t as intense as this man’s, and her family descended from a line of powerful shamans.
Did he mean her harm? Or was he just passing through?
Without taking her eyes off the place where he hid, she groped behind her for the knife she had been using before she dozed off. The apples she ate sat heavy in her belly as she contemplated whether she should run or just face whoever it was.
The crunch of leaves from her left drew her attention. No sooner had her vision shifted than a blur from the place the man had hid raced toward her. She rolled as her father had taught her to do in order to minimize the impact of the assault. At the same time, she pulled her knife and tried to put it between her and her attacker. The man grabbed her wrist and pinned it to the ground, rendering her weapon useless.
Her heart pounded in her chest and a roar sounded in her ears. Who was this man?
She fought to free herself from his hold but found he outmatched her in size, speed, and strength. In an alarmingly short span of time, she found herself pinned beneath one of the most handsome men she had ever seen. She pushed aside her shock and renewed her efforts. “Get off of me!” Even the attractiveness of his face didn’t deter her from ramming her head into his nose.
He loosened his grip on her and covered his face as he mumbled some expletive.
She used this distraction to her advantage and bucked him to one side so she could wiggle free. Before she could get to her feet and scamper away, he grabbed her by the ankle.
“Let go!” She kicked at his hand with her other foot, trying to break his hold.
As she struggled with the warrior, two more men appeared from out of the surrounding trees. “Do you need help, Kajika?” the taller of the two men asked. The laughter in his tone suggested their struggle amused him.
Ahyoka renewed her efforts to break free of the first man’s grip. “Who are you and what do you want?”
The warrior kept his hold of her even as he climbed to his feet. “Who are you and what were you doing in our village?”
Ahyoka stopped struggling. “In your village? What village?”
“Don’t play dumb with me. We tracked you here.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She pointed to the bank just behind them. “I’ve been following the river all day. I stopped to rest when I realized how far I’d come. Where is your village?”
Now that he had released her, she could see the rest of the man who had interrupted her peace and quiet. Her eyes traveled up the length of his legs. She skimmed over the short deer skin he wore about his waist and tried not to speculate about what might be hidden beneath. His bow hung across his broad chest, making her wonder how he managed to squeeze into such a narrow span. Every line of his chest and belly could be seen clearly. If she wanted, she could count each one even from where she sat.
Something stirred within her and made her heart skip a beat. That same something counteracted her impulse to escape.
His face had neither the long, lean planes of Bodaway’s tribe nor the pudgy, round cheeks of Patamon’s, making it difficult to tell which of her neighboring tribes he belonged to. The feathers in his hair and the painted designs on his body marked him as an honored warrior. But even without these physical signs, she would have known based on the way he held himself, full of confidence and manly grace.
“How do we know you’re telling the truth?” the warrior asked.
“How do you know I’m not?” she countered.
The tall, second man moved toward the bank. Was he looking for something?
“Where is your mate?” the warrior asked.
“I am bound to no man.”
His expression wavered then turned into a frown. “What of your father or brothers? Surely one of your family is nearby waiting to escort you home.”
“As you probably already know, there is no one waiting nearby.” She shrugged. “I have no need of escort.”
His frown deepened. “Your chief allows the unmated women in his care to wander about without a guardian or someone to watch over them?”
“Of course not. But I am not like the other women of our village.”
His eyes skimmed her from head to toe. “How so? You look like a normal maiden to me. Perhaps a little thin, but not underfed.”
Her cheeks grew warm. “My chief knows I can care for myself. I am allowed more freedom than most.”
“So you just decided to see where the river led?” the smaller, older man asked.
“I have been collecting herbs and seeds.” She shrugged. “I don’t normally go this far, but the water was hard to resist today.” She brushed past the warrior and returned to the place where she had been sitting. She found the bowl she’d been eating from and offered it to the men. “I don’t have much, but you’re welcome to refresh yourself before you continue on your way.” She laid an apple and a few pieces of dried venison on the nearby grass mat then pulled another small bowl from her pouch.
“You travel alone and offer strangers your meager supplies. You either know something I do not, or you are far too trusting,” the warrior said.
“Perhaps,” she said, avoiding his thinly veiled question. “You have traveled some distance, have you not? Feel free to take advantage of Mother River’s offerings before you go.”
The warrior moved closer. “Are you in a hurry to see us leave?”
A shiver of awareness ran down her spine. Why did this man affect her so?
She handed him one of the bowls then returned to her spot on the bank. Once he had quenched his thirst, she said, “You and your fellow hunters seek something.” She studied him further. “Or perhaps someone?”
There was a flash of surprise in his eye before he could hide it. “We do. What do you know of our search?”
“Only that which you have told me.”
“I have told you nothing and yet you know much. How is that?”
“Ah, but you have told me much. Your markings and dress say you are warrior born and hunter charged. The silent and almost unnoticeable signals you sent the others tells me you have worked together before. And since you are here, in this quiet, secluded place instead of the hunting grounds, you must be looking for something other than food.” Years of lessons learned at the hands of the suspicious and ignorant kept her silent about what the spirits had told her. “But since you’re here, perhaps you could let me know who I share my resting place with?” Ahyoka asked.
“I am Kajika. We traveled from the west.”
“Beyond the salt plains?”
“Yonaguska’s people,” she said matter-of-factly.
Kajika raised a brow. “How did you know that?”
“Reasonable guess. I know you aren’t from Bodaway’s village. I visited cousins there two seasons ago and didn’t see any of you there. Yonaguska has the largest village this side of the salt plains, so it seems to be a safe guess.”
“How is Winema?”
He blinked, as if surprised by her question. “Fine.
“You know Winema?” the older man asked.
“Yes.” There was no reason she had to volunteer how she knew Winema.
“You haven’t told us who you are,” Kajika said.
“I am Ahyoka.”
“And your chief is?” Kajika pressed.
“You expect us to believe that you walked all the way here from Hiamovi’s village by yourself? In less than a day?”
She shrugged. “I suspect you’ll believe exactly what you want to believe.”
Kajika’s gaze narrowed.
“The sun will be setting. We should return, Kajika,” the older man said.
Kajika stood then held his hand out to her. “Come. You will travel with us.”
She looked at his outstretched palm then up into his eyes. “There is no need. I will make my own way.”
“You don’t understand. I cannot allow a maiden to go unescorted. There are too many dangers, but I do not have time to escort you to your village. I was sent by my chief to collect information about something that happened in our village. You are the only stranger we have come across, and he will want to ask you questions.”
He seeks the one responsible.
She sighed. She hadn’t planned to be gone overnight. However, Yonaguska’s village was less than two day’s ride away. It would be nice to visit with Winema and learn what news they had of their grandson.
She placed her hand in his. “Very well. I will go with you.”
“Good.” Kajika pulled her to her feet. When they were toe to toe, he added, “It wasn’t really a choice.”
She lifted one brow in challenge but said nothing more.