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Pathfinder's Way

By:T.A. White

Chapter One



"For God's sake, woman, the village will still be there if we take an hour's break."

Shea rolled her eyes at the soaring mountains before her. This was the  third rest stop the man had called for since setting out this morning.

"We must be half way there by now," he continued.

Maybe if they hadn't stopped several times already or if they had moved  with a purpose, but as it stood the group had probably traveled less  than two miles. Half of that nearly vertical. At this pace, it would  take an extra half day to get back to Birdon Leaf.

And who would they blame for the delayed arrival?

Shea. Even though it wasn't her needing to stop on every other hill when  they felt a muscle cramp or experienced shortness of breath. Since she  was the pathfinder, it was obviously her fault.

She could hear it now.

The pathfinder sets the pace. The pathfinder chooses when to take breaks. Yada. Yada. Yada.

She hated running missions with villagers. They thought that since  they'd gone on day trips outside their village barriers as children,  they knew a thing or two about trail signs and the Highlands in general.

It was always, ‘We should take this route. I think this route is faster.  Why is it taking so long? These mountain passes are sooo steep.'

Never mind it was her that had walked these damn routes since the time  she could toddle after the adults or that the paths they suggested would  take them right through a beast's nest.

Nope. She was just a pathfinder. A female pathfinder. A female  pathfinder who hadn't grown up in the same village as them. Obviously,  she knew nothing of her craft.

The man yammered on about how they couldn't take another step. Any  reasonable person could see how worn out they were. She wasn't the one  carrying the gear or the trade goods.

Whine. Whine. Whine.

That's all she heard. Over the last several months, she'd perfected the  art of tuning them out without missing pertinent information.

It was all in the pitch. Their voices tended to approach a higher  frequency when they regressed to bitching about what couldn't be  changed. As if she could make the switchbacks approaching the Garylow  Mountain pass any less steep or treacherous.

"We'll take a rest once we reach the pass," she said for what seemed like the hundredth time.

They had begged for another break since about five minutes after the last one.

She had a deadline to meet. Sleep to catch. Most importantly, she didn't think she could last another half day with this lot.

"We're nowhere near that pass," the man raged.

The rest break obviously meant a lot to him.

"It's just over that ridge," Shea pointed above her.

Well, over that ridge and then another slight incline or two. It was  just a small lie, really. If the man knew the truth, he'd probably sit  down and refuse to take another step.

"That's nearly a half mile away." The man's face flushed red.

Really if he had enough energy to be angry, he had enough energy to walk.

"Quarter mile at most."

"We're tired. We've been walking for days. First to the trading outpost and then back. What does an hour's difference make?"

Shea sighed. Looked up at the blue, blue sky and the soaring pinnacles  of rock then down at the loose shale and half trampled path they'd  already traveled.

"You're right, an hour's rest won't make much difference." His face lit  up. "However, you've already wasted two hours today on the last two  breaks. You also wasted several hours yesterday, and the day before, and  the day before that. We should have been back already."

She held up her hand when he opened his mouth.

"Now, we are getting up that pass. We need to be over it and down the  mountain by nightfall. Otherwise you're going to have to fend off  nightfliers. Do you want to fend off nightfliers when you could be  sleeping? Or would you rather suck it up and get over that damn ridge?"

The man paled at the mention of nightfliers, a beast about three times  the size of a bat that had a disturbing tendency of picking up its food  and dropping it from a high altitude. It made it easier to get to the  good parts on the inside.

"We'll wait to take the break." He turned and headed down to the last switchback where the rest of their party waited.

"Oh, and Kent." Shea's voice rose just loud enough for him to hear.  "Please let them know that if anybody refuses to walk, I'll leave them  here to fend for themselves. Nightfliers aren't the only things that  roam this pass come nightfall."

He gave her a look full of loathing before heading down to his friends.  Shea kept her snicker to herself. Good things never happened when they  thought she was laughing at them.         

     



 

Idiot. As if pathfinders would abandon their charges. If that was the  case, she would have left this lot behind days ago. There were oaths  preventing that kind of behavior.

What she wouldn't give to enjoy a little quiet time relaxing on the roof of her small home right about now.





They didn't make it back to the village until early the next morning.  Shea brought up the rear as their group straggled past the wooden wall  encircling the small village of Birdon Leaf.

The village was a place that time had forgotten. It looked the same as  it had the day it was founded, and in fifty years or a hundred, it'd  probably still be the same. Same families living in the same homes,  built of wood and mud by their father's, father's, father. Most of the  buildings in the village were single story and one room. The really well  off might have a second room or a loft. Nothing changed here, and they  liked it that way. Propose a new idea or way of doing something and  they'd run you out of town.

They didn't like strangers, which was fine because most times strangers didn't like them.

They tolerated Shea because they needed the skills her guild taught to survive. Shea tolerated them because she had to.

Well, some days she didn't.

A small group of women and children waited to welcome the men.

A large boned woman with a hefty bosom and ash blond hair just beginning  to gray flung her arms around a tall man with thinning hair.

"Where have you been? We expected you back yesterday morning." She smothered his face with kisses.

"You know we had to keep to the pathfinder's pace. The men didn't feel  it would be right leaving her behind just because she couldn't keep up."

There it was. Her fault.

Anytime something went wrong it was due to the fact she was a woman.  Even looking less feminine didn't help her. A taller than average girl  with a thin layer of muscles stretching over her lean frame, Shea had  hazel eyes framed by round cheeks, a stubborn mouth and a strong  jaw-line she'd inherited from her father. Much to her consternation.

"What the guild was thinking assigning a woman to our village, I'll  never know," the woman said in exasperation. "And such useless trail  bait. They must have sent the laziest one they had."

Trail bait. Dirt pounder. Roamer. Hot footed. Shea had heard it all. So many words to describe one thing. Outsider.

Shea turned towards home. At least she would have a little peace and  quiet for the next few days. She planned to hide out and not see or talk  to anyone.

Just her and her maps. Maybe some cloud watching. And definitely some  napping. Make that a lot of napping. She needed to recharge.

"Pathfinder! Pathfinder," a young voice called after her.

Shea turned and automatically smiled at the girl with the gamine grin  and boundless enthusiasm racing after her. "Aimee, I've told you before  you can call me Shea."

Aimee ducked her head and gave her a gap toothed smile. She was missing  one of her front teeth. She must have lost it while Shea was outside the  fence.

"Pathfinder Shea. You're back."

Shea nodded, amused at the obvious statement. Of all the villagers in  this backwoods place, Aimee was her favorite. She was young enough that  she didn't fear the wilds lying just beyond the safety of the barrier.  All she saw was the adventure waiting out there. She reminded Shea of  the novitiates that came every year to the Wayfarer's Keep in hopes of  taking the Pathfinder's exam and becoming an apprentice.

"Um, did you see any cool beasts this time?" Aimee burst out.  "Nightfliers, maybe? You said they liked to nest in the peaks around  Garylow's pass. What about red backs?"

"Whoa, hold up. One question at a time." Shea took a piece of paper  she'd torn from her journal last night in anticipation of this moment.  "Here. I saw this one diving to catch breakfast yesterday morning."

Shea handed her a sketching of a peregrine falcon in mid dive. It was a  natural animal, but to a girl raised in a village where all  non-domesticated animals were considered ‘beasts,' it would seem exotic.  Shea had sketched it during one of the numerous breaks the men had  taken.

"Pathfinder Shea," a woman said from behind them, disapproval coloring her voice. "The elders wish to speak to you."

Shea's smile disappeared as she schooled her face to a politeness she didn't really feel. Aimee hid the drawing in her skirts.

The woman's eyes shifted to Shea's companion. "Aimee, my girl, your mother's looking for you. I suggest you get on home."

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