The road to Belafonte shortens.
Kit, Timothy, and Yuzu follow Daeric deep into the trackless forest. They quickly learn not even this remote part of the world is out of the Vatican’s reach.
Caught between soldiers of the Vatican and a band of men determined to get revenge on the Church, Kit must face the end of her journey and the price memory demands.
Are you all right?
The unspoken question etched Kit’s face whenever Timothy glanced at her. Her brow furrowed as she watched him from the other opposite side of the wagon. She’d kept her distance since that night. He wanted her to berate him. Her silence cut deeper than any of her sharp words.
Timothy sighed and shook his head.
He watched the brown-clad man riding a short distance ahead. The man’s bandana streamed behind him. Yellow today. Yuzu stared at Daeric Rhine’s back from her seat on the wagon. She held the shaggy mule’s reins tight. The wagon jerked under Timothy’s hand, and Yuzu groaned. Walking over the exposed rocks and roots looked better than riding on that hard seat.
How could I be all right? We buried my mother three days back. He frowned. It is strange how only now I can think of Evelyn using that word. Mother.READ MORE
Snow fell from clouds that reminded Timothy of a ewe’s belly. He pulled his wool cloak tighter. At least the trees cut the wind. The road they followed skirted the evergreen forest. The ragged dirt ribbon divided the pines from their bare sibling maples. The pines’ low skeleton arms thrusted from their peeling trunks. High overhead, their green needles collected some of the falling snow. Timothy peered into the dark recesses. He doubted any snow could have made it through the tangled needles. The sight reminded him of a smaller grove where he used to weather a storm when he was still a shepherd. Those days of watching sheep and reading books felt distant. There was no going back sometimes. His mind drifted over the past, over memories of Kyle and Aunt Mae. Of Kyle pushing him to dance with girls during festivals. Of Aunt Mae’s stern lectures. I hope Kyle is well. Will I ever know what happened to him? Timothy hoped Aunt Mae was well, too.
Kit had changed everything. Despite it all, he felt grateful for the first time he’d looked into Kit’s meadow eyes. He glanced at her now and opened his mouth. She looked away.
Daeric guided his horse. "We should camp here for the night." He gestured at a section of evergreens shorn of their lower branches.
"You don’t need to tell me twice." Yuzu snapped the reins and turned the mule toward the clearing. Timothy trudged behind.
So much has happened. Kyle is likely married to Henrietta by now. Cat is gone. It is funny how I miss that little lamb. I almost died, and Evelyn is gone. He still felt weak whenever he pushed himself. His chest burned for air faster than he remembered. He held up his hand. A few round scars whitened patches of skin. If it wasn’t for Kit, he wouldn’t have gotten sick. But if it wasn’t for Kit, I also wouldn’t be alive right now.
The clearing smelled of pine needles, and the ground sprang against Timothy’s feet. Yuzu fell from the wagon and rubbed her bottom. "Sister, you will take that hard seat tomorrow." She glanced around. "Timmy, where’s Sis? She was right there a moment ago."
Daeric wheeled his horse. "Do not worry. I shall see to her." He galloped off.
Yuzu planted her hands on her hips and frowned at Timothy. Her black hair fluttered in the cold wind. "What is wrong with you?"
Timothy blinked. "What—"
"Do you want Daeric to steal her away from you?" Yuzu stalked toward him. "Don’t tell me you can’t see how he looks at her."
Timothy leaned back and grasped at his shattered thoughts. "I…I’m—"
"She’s worried about you. You haven’t talked since that night. You are not the only one to lose…" Yuzu shook her head and took a deep breath. "Daeric is going to swoop in if you wait too long."
"I am not worried about Daeric."
Yuzu punched him in the shoulder. "You should be. You—"
Timothy crossed his arms. "What about you? You spend all day making ewe eyes at him."
"I need someone to practice on, and you haven’t been exactly fun to be around with your moping."
"Moping? Kit killed my mother." Timothy rubbed his forehead.
"While she was saving you from her." Yuzu clenched her hands. "Are you—"
Timothy held up a hand. "I’m not angry at Kit. She did what she needed to do. I…I just need time to think."
Yuzu sighed. "If you are not mad at Kit, tell her. She is worried about it."
Daeric galloped into the clearing with Kit riding sidesaddle behind. She wore a grimace.
"You mustn’t wander like that." Daeric dismounted and lifted Kit from the horse. "These woods are full of bandits." His hands lingered on her hips after her feet were on the ground.
Yuzu elbowed Timothy and lifted an eyebrow.
"I was lost in my thoughts, Master Rhine," Kit said. Her cheeks held a hint of red.
"It is good that a true man like me is around then." Daeric included Yuzu in his smile.
"A real man knows what he values," Kit didn’t look at Timothy, but he felt the barb.
Daeric flourished a bow. "You and Sunflower are priceless. I will see you…home."
Yuzu glanced at Timothy and rolled her eyes. "And you don’t see this as a problem, Timothy? Not even Allen would be that dumb." She shrugged and raised her voice. "At least make yourself useful, and help us set up camp."
"While you do that," Daeric loosened the straps on his stallion’s saddle, "I will secure the area."
Of course he will, Timothy thought. He met Kit’s gaze and glanced away. He knew he couldn’t avoid Kit forever. How can I face her after I broke down like that?
Darkness overtook the little camp soon after the tents were up. Timothy huddled in a blanket next to the small fire. Snow drifted at the edge of the firelight. Yuzu drowsed in her cloak and blanket beside him, and Kit sat facing the night. Daeric hadn’t returned. Kit insisted he would have followed them if she didn’t hire him as a guide. The hungry look the man aimed at Kit suggested she was right. Could Daeric know she was a fox? Timothy didn’t doubt that possibility. Far too many people wanted a fox for a trophy. No. Daeric also looked at Yuzu in the same way. It was probably just Timothy’s imagination. For all I know, Kit could have hired Daeric just to get back at me for something. Either way, Timothy didn’t trust Daeric. He didn’t need Kit’s nose to dislike the man. Daeric strutted worse than Trent had back at Honheim.
Honheim. So much changed in that town. He watched Kit’s back. Her hood flexed as her fox ears moved under the fabric. Kit turned her head and caught his gaze. We can’t avoid each other forever, Timothy thought. He opened his mouth.
Daeric burst into the camp and kicked out the small fire, plunging them into darkness. "We have trouble coming."
Yuzu jerked awake. "Wha—"
Daeric snatched the reins of the horse and the mule from the tree. "We have to move. Knock down those tents. We can only hope we are far enough off the road."
Kit stood. Her eyes gleamed in the darkness. "Do as he says, Timothy."
Timothy’s eyes adjusted to the wane light. Kit stood stiff, and her hood tented over her ears. "Men are coming."
"Don’t just stand there," Daeric said. "Get those tents out of sight. We can only hope they won’t see the wagon. Hurry."
Yuzu stumbled toward the tents and kicked out their supports. Daeric disappeared between the skeleton pines with the mule and horse in tow. Timothy swallowed and knocked down the other tent.
"What is going on?" Yuzu’s eyes were wide.
Kit hissed and laid a hand on each of their shoulders. "Men are coming. Hurry."
She pushed them into the trees and down to the ground. The dead needles dug into Timothy’s hands. Several moments passed. Kit lay beside him; her hand moved in small circles on his shoulder. Shouldn’t I be trying to calm her?
Timothy heard boots crunching the snow. "Who would be traveling at night?" he whispered.
Kit shook her head.
Lanterns cast yellow light between the pines. Men marched in file. Their breastplates reflected the light. Halberds angled over slumping shoulders. Their red-and-white-striped uniforms marked them as papal soldiers. The men gazed into the night beyond their lanterns’ glow.
Kit’s hand squeezed.
The men marched past in a steady pace. Timothy counted close to fifty soldiers. One man strode behind the columns. His black robes absorbed the light from his lantern.
"Balwar?" Kit whispered.
The Jesuit trudged past, looking as tired as the soldiers. The pines engulfed the light. Timothy remained where he was. Kit would let them know when it was safe to move. What is Balwar doing here? Timothy thought. The last time he’d seen the Jesuit, Cat had died saving them from the heretic Tahd. Timothy frowned. Could Balwar be hunting Kit?
Kit stood, leaving a warm spot where her hand had rested on his shoulder. Timothy and Yuzu followed.
"Who’s Balwar?" Yuzu wrapped her arms around herself and shivered.
"A Jesuit." Kit tilted her head. "Daeric is coming."
Yuzu rubbed her arms.
Daeric emerged from the woods with the animals behind him. "They are going to the garrison."
"Garrison?" Yuzu asked. She hopped from one foot to the other.
"Would you stop hopping?" Kit said.
Yuzu met Kit’s gaze and continued bouncing on her toes.
"The Church keeps a garrison near Belafonte." Daeric hung the mule’s and horse’s reins on a tree. "I guess they fear the memories of this place."
Timothy looked at Kit. Her smooth face told him just how anxious she felt. "Is it okay for us to stay here?" he asked.
Daeric moved toward the collapsed tents. "For them to travel at night without scouts…we will be fine here for tonight." He began setting the supports. "The tents will be warmer."
"Not with you." Yuzu bent to the second tent. "Why would anyone risk traveling at night?"
"Who can say?" Daeric’s voice was distant.
Kit snatched Timothy’s arm. "He smells like he anticipates something. Be careful," she whispered.
"I thought we weren’t speaking? Besides, bringing him along was your idea." Timothy said.
"We are not speaking. I told you we didn’t have a choice. We had to take him. He smells unlike anything I’ve encountered." She frowned. "It is familiar and yet—never mind. We are not speaking."
He grabbed her hand. "We can’t keep avoiding each other."
"I would have never guessed that, considering we are traveling together." Kit pulled her hand free. "Just be careful until I figure out what Daeric is. He almost doesn’t smell human."
"What he is? What do you mean he doesn’t smell human?" Timothy asked.
"I said almost. It could just be all the smoke from Honheim messed up my nose. Well, since you look ready to talk, let’s talk." She snatched his hand and began pulling him toward the pines ringing the camp.
"Wait, Kit. You—"
"You are the being sheep-stubborn, and I am done being patient with you." Kit dragged Timothy away from the camp and into the tangle of bare branches.
As they walked deeper in to the shelter of the pines, Kit’s stride shortened, and her shoulders slumped. Her hand felt clammy. She stopped and let his hand fall. The trees were quiet.
I should say something. She is waiting for me. She probably thinks me weak after I broke down on her like that. What man would cry like that? Timothy thought. She had to carry me out of Honheim! How can she expect to rely on me?
She took a deep breath and lowered her hood, revealing her slumped fox ears. A pale strip of moonlight caught her eyes. She didn’t look at him."There is something I was wondering."
"Obviously." Timothy cursed his tongue.
Kit glared at him. "You are not making it any easier." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. "Do you…hate me?"
Timothy blinked. That was not the question he was expecting. "What? No! How could I?"
"I killed your mother."
Timothy froze. That is what she worried about? He shook his head. "You saved my life. I…I rely on you." He turned away. "I rely on you for everything. I am useless. Why did you choose me? I couldn’t even save my own mother."
Kit walked around to face him. "So you don’t hate me?"
"How could I?"
Kit punched Timothy’s ribs hard enough to make him grunt.
"What was that for?"
"For your moping. For being an idiot. For making me worry these last three days." Kit’s ears quivered. "For making me think you hated me for…for what I did."
"I don’t—" Timothy said. Kit punched him again. "Would you stop that?"
"At least your bony ribs no longer cut me. See? Salted ham does well for adding meat and muscle." She jabbed a stiff finger in his chest in time with her words. "What. Is. Bothering. You?"
Timothy looked away. "I…am not much of a man."
"This again? Do you need me to check?"
"I broke down on you. I…cried on you."
"And I killed your mother." Kit grabbed his coat. "How do you think I felt when you cried on me?"
Kit tugged him close. "You are a muttonhead. I felt terrible. Afraid. Guilty. And…" Her brow furrowed. She tightened her grip on his coat. "And you need to stop being a woolbrain. I told you before when you moped about Trent—"
Timothy grimaced. "That was bad."
"I’m sorry." Kit’s ears drooped. "I have been terrible to you, after all you’ve done for me."
Timothy felt awkward. She really is worried about me. He laid a hand on her shoulder. "I don’t blame you for what happened."
Her shoulder quivered. "You say that."
"I mean it. She had both hands around the knife, remember? She could have stabbed herself."
"You better not be lying."
"Kit, do you think I would tolerate your abuse if I hated you?"
She smiled. "Well, you do like that type of attention."
Timothy rolled his eyes.
"No more brooding." She shook a finger at him.
‘"I’m not brooding. I am just worried. Worried about what we will do when we get to Belafonte."
"I worry about Belafonte too. Don’t look at me like that. Of course I worry. I don’t know what to expect. I fear all of this will be for nothing. That I won’t remember anything when I get there. That there won’t be anything to see or to remember." She patted his cheek and suddenly pinched his cheek—hard. "We should have talked days ago." She brushed a lock of hair from his forehead. "Get some sleep, manly man, and I don’t mean that sarcastically."
Timothy sighed. "A man who cries."
Kit grabbed his hair and pulled him close. Mischief gleamed in her eyes, and her fangs caught the moonlight. "I told you to stop. Do you really think that makes you less than a man? Does being one mean you have to think with your chest hair?"
"I can’t believe your moping is going to make me say this."
She pulled him so close their noses touched. "I felt special when you came to me. Trusted. It takes a strong man to let himself feel and to show it. You are finished with your moping now, aren’t you?"
Timothy sighed. "Yes, Aunt Kit."
Kit released him and patted the top of his head. "Now be a dear, and go to sleep."
The wagon creaked beside Timothy. Daeric rode ahead, scanning the forest. Kit insisted Timothy should walk. Never mind how she traded place with Yuzu every few miles. Kit now strolled beside him. A layer of thin snow blanketed the ground and covered the boot prints from the soldiers who had passed the night before.
Timothy pulled his coat collar tight. He had long ago lost his sense of direction beneath the monotony of the trees. People complained about pastures looking the same. At least rolling hills topped with groves of trees had variety.
Pain yanked him from his thoughts. Kit smiled at him. "Will you stop that?" Timothy rubbed his bottom. "We should be looking for more soldiers."
"I am glad you are back to your old worrying self." Kit adjusted her hood.
Yuzu chuckled behind her hand. "He does blush," she said. "I don’t remember Allen doing that."
"Timothy is a special boy, Yuzu." Kit held up a finger and patted Timothy’s back with her other hand. "This type makes for the most fun. Some think you offer what you do not. Timmy would rather run away than do that."
"As if I could run away," Timothy said.
Yuzu frowned. "Allen and I were too young to worry about that."
"How old were you?" Timothy asked.
Yuzu picked at the checkered blanket covering her legs. "Allen died over five years ago."
Timothy scratched his stubble. "I…I’m sorry."
Yuzu shrugged and wiped an eye with the back of her hand. "We grew up together. His family took me in when Da…" She shook her head. "Allen and I were always together until the accident. I was at the market when it happened. One of the houses fell into ours and…." She sighed. "I did odd jobs and had a small room with a seamstress until she got sick. I found Hoss and Mira when I left. What about you, Sis?"
Daeric twisted in his saddle. "My heart rends for your tale, Moonflower. I, for one, am glad you were at the market that day."
Yuzu blinked. "Uh, thanks."
Daeric bobbed his head. "Please carry on. You are safe with me on watch." He turned back to the road.
"Sis?" Yuzu asked.
"I’d rather not talk about it."
"I want to know all about my new sister," Yuzu said. "Timmy, why don’t you tell me then?"
"I haven’t known Kit all that long." And yet it has felt like much longer.
"And yet you are married?" Yuzu asked. "Was it arranged?"
Kit snagged Timothy’s arm. "It was love at first sight. For him, not for me. He kind of grew on me, like a wart." She smiled. "I still wonder if I should have him removed."
"Don’t let her fool you. She fell for my charm at the outset," Timothy said. The banter felt nice.
"Oh yes, the smell of wool and musty books is just so attractive." Kit sniffed.
Yuzu’s smile slipped. "I really miss them—Allen. Hoss. Mira. Colt. I…it is okay to move on, right, Sis?"
"We don’t have a choice, but the memories will always hunt us." She rubbed Timothy’s back.
Evelyn’s face hovered in the back of Timothy’s mind. Kit is right. Time forces us forward, and memory hunts us. He looked at Kit. She grinned a fang at him and punched his arm. She knows that hunt well.
Yuzu nodded. "I think I understand why you want to visit your home." She smacked her cheeks with both hands. "No more of this sad stuff. So how can you tell which kind of man is which, Sis?"
Kit snatched Timothy’s chin and turned his head to the girl perched on the wagon. He stumbled over something in the snow.
"Will you—" Timothy said.
"Do you see his trusting, innocent eyes? Eyes that haven’t seen the wiles of a female," Kit said. "Notice the bewildered, irritated expression and how he doesn’t try to fight me?"
"As if it would do any good," Timothy said. He stumbled over another rock. "Now let go."
Kit released him and patted his head.
"Oh." Yuzu nodded. "I see now."
"But even this male will get used to our tricks. It just means you have to be creative." Kit tapped his hot cheek with the back of her hand.
Timothy sighed and tuned them out. It was better when Kit and I weren’t talking. Only he had missed her antics. Yuzu insisted on learning Kit’s bad habits for some reason. For all her initial hesitation, Kit seemed to enjoy having an adopted sister. What happened to women being demure? But then, Timothy would not want Kit to be anything other than Kit.
Timothy shook his head and grinned despite himself. It was hard to tell Yuzu was even a girl with how thin she was. She lacked Kit’s way of walking. He slowed his steps to let the girls talk. Timothy swallowed. Kit does have a nice walk. No one could mistake her gender. He could imagine her tail swaying beneath her cloak and skirts. How will Yuzu react when she discovers her adopted sister is a fox? Will that change their relationship? Most people believed the Church’s teachings that foxes were demons, and Kit could certainly act like a demon some days.
Timothy frowned at the thought. Now that isn’t fair. If I spent my life being hunted, I’d push people away too. He often thought he was the first person Kit truly trusted. He looked past the women and locked his gaze on Daeric’s back. The real problem is if he finds out Kit is a fox.
Daeric suddenly turned his horse around. "I am going to ride back. We seem to be safely behind the soldiers, but we need to be sure no one is following us as we are them. We can’t trust anyone in these parts."
"We are being followed?" Yuzu shifted in the wagon to look.
"No need to worry. It is merely caution. I will keep you safe." Daeric bowed in his saddle. "I will not be too far. I will hear your lovely voices should there be any danger. I would hear your lips across the oceans and ride on the water should you need me."
"Yes, well, we will be fine," Kit said. "My husband is protection enough."
Daeric weighed Timothy. "I will be at your side, Sunflower. Just breathe my name," he said. "Keep straight on this road until I get back. I need to see which forks we may need to take." The man rode off.
"I really dislike that man," Timothy muttered.
"I think you intimidate him, Timmy." Kit wrinkled her nose. "He smells feral."
"Feral?" Timothy studied trees that looked identical to the ones they passed an hour before. With the way the road curved, he felt like they were traveling in a circle.
"The word just came to me." Kit closed her cloak against the wind.
"We would be better off without him."
"Oh, I don’t know. He does keep you on your toes. Now if only I could figure out why he smells so odd." She chewed on her lower lip. "He reminds me a little of this one man I knew. Daeric isn’t as bad as Trent was, at least. But he does smell feral. Much like a hound."
"I don’t know about how men smell. Why should that matter?" Yuzu asked.
Timothy felt irritation rise. "And how do you know how to read men so well, Kit?" His voice held an edge.
Kit’s eyebrows disappeared into her red bangs. She stumbled over a rock. "Now where is this coming from, Timothy?" she asked. "I know about all types of idiot, and I do not like what you are getting at."
Timothy took a breath. "Sorry. I get irritable when I am tired, and that man just—"
Kit’s gaze held a dangerous gleam. "You peeked with Trent, but now you’ve opened the box, shepherd. Do you really want to know how well I’ve known men?"
Timothy’s heart dropped into his stomach. Yuzu leaned closer. The mule huffed and plodded.
Kit’s smile sliced. "My, this does bother you. Don’t ask what you can’t handle."
His heart boiled in a stomach sloshing with jealousy.
"I can count on one hand if you absolutely must know," Kit said.
"Sister!" Yuzu held a hand over her mouth.
Kit held up a closed hand. "You want to know, woolbrained bookbug?"
The world lurched around Timothy. Would it really change anything?
Yes. It would change how he viewed Kit.
Kit laid a hand on his knotted shoulder. "Look at my hand," she whispered.
Slowly, painfully, Timothy looked at Kit’s fist.
What did he expect? One finger? Five? Would it be so wrong if it was five? Timothy swayed. Kit would still be Kit, right? Yes and no.
The fist stayed closed.
"I told you before, idiot. Only you have seen all of me," Kit whispered.
"I can’t hear what you are saying," Yuzu said.
"How many for you, dear sister, besides your Allen?" Kit’s tone dripped sweet poison.
"Allen and I never…I…um…" Yuzu looked away.
Timothy felt dizzy. His shoulder muscles writhed. "Why did you do that to me?" His voice sounded weak.
"Why did you have to suddenly turn into a brainless idiot? Well, I wanted you to be jealous. I can’t have an unfeeling rock for a husband, but if jealousy makes you lose all sense, I’d best keep it to a minimum. Besides, would it make that much of a difference?" Kit asked.
Timothy’s heart still drummed. "Yes," he said without thinking.
Kit opened her mouth and closed it again. Her brow furrowed as she chewed on her bottom lip. Her hand slipped from his shoulder.
"I…well…" Kit said. "I guess it isn’t a problem then."
Timothy groaned inside. Kit’s right. I am an idiot. But it would have made a difference. Why? Kit would still be Kit. Maybe it is because I haven’t—
"What about you, Timmy?" Kit watched him from under her bangs.
Should I be nice? "Well, one day Kyle introduced me to this one girl…"
Kit crossed her arms as she walked.
"Esther. That was her name. She was a cute girl."
Kit frowned at him. "You are not convincing me."
"Are you so sure?"
"As a matter of fact, I am." She grabbed his arm and pressed it into her chest. "Your blushes give you away."
"Fine. You got me, but you would look at me differently if it was true, wouldn’t you?"
Kit tilted her head. "Look at you like this?" She tilted her head the other way. "Or like this?" She squeezed his arm. "Men are supposed to be experienced."
"Nice of you to remind me."
"Oh, it isn’t a bad thing at all. It makes you a rare treasure." Kit smiled, and Timothy cleared his throat.
"I don’t know," Yuzu said. "I’d rather have someone who knows what he is doing." She blushed.
The tangled branches suddenly opened to reveal a mountain. They were close enough that he could see deep fissures cutting across the rough stone. White mist hid the peak. Yuzu tugged the mule to a stop. Timothy and Kit paused to gaze at the crags.
"That is where we are going?" Yuzu’s voice quivered. "It looks…really high."
"You could always turn back," Kit said.
Yuzu craned her neck. "And go where? I…I don’t want to be alone anymore."
"Kit’s home is someplace in these woods, near the base of the mountain," Timothy said. "Where it is anyone’s guess. Least of all hers. Unless you remember something, Kit."
Kit shook her head.
He didn’t blame her. The forest around them looked much the same as when they first entered. There wasn’t any sort of landmark that could trigger a memory. There were only the pines packed tight around an old road and darkness. Timothy could understand how people believed the forest was haunted. The darkness and the stories of the foxes that carved a home in it were enough to convince the Church to act. And yet, the paving stones that peeked from the snow blanketing the ground suggested a prosperous past not that long ago. The footprints from the soldiers who had passed the night before suggested that past prosperity would remain in the past. The Church still remembered and watched.
"Kit, do you think the Church is here because someone is still around?" Timothy paused as an idea struck him. "This would be an ideal place for the Protestants to hide. What better place than a place where foxes—I mean out here."
Kit glanced at him. "Protestants? Who are they?"
"They are people who resist the Church," Timothy said. "They have some disagreements with the Church’s teachings."
"I do too," Kit said.
Yuzu laid a hand on the side of the mule. "We had a few in Honheim. The priest and city guard didn’t take to them preaching in the streets. I didn’t see the fighting, but I heard they killed the priest that confronted them."
"They were violent?" Timothy asked. "That is the first I’ve heard."
Yuzu nodded. "I heard about fighting in other cities too."
Kit chewed on her bottom lip while she listened. "Do they hunt foxes?"
Yuzu frowned. "Why would they? Foxes are long gone."
"I think they are too busy to worry about foxes, one way or the other." Timothy brushed snowflakes from his cheek.
"I guess we will find out. This road has to lead somewhere." Kit started walking. Yuzu shook the reins at the mule. He huffed and regarded her with a dark eye before tugging the wagon into motion.
They traveled for a time before the forest suddenly ended. A wide swath of pasture opened to a gray sky. After spending so much time among the trees, the familiar sight of open fields made Timothy smile. If only it was grass instead of snow. Just a few sheep grazing would complete the picture. A low stone wall lined the field. A rough homestead squatted against the wall opposite of where Timothy stood. The road ran a few yard away from the entrance. The cabin looked welcoming after his long trudge through falling snow.
"It is too quiet," Yuzu said. "It looks like no one is home."
Yuzu is right. It is too still. No smoke drifted from the chimney. Snow had drifted against the entrance.
Kit crossed into the field, her gaze locked on the cabin.
Timothy followed. "Do you hear something?"
Kit shook her head. Behind them, the creaking of the wagon broke the silence.
"Do you remember something?" Timothy asked.
As they neared, Timothy realized the cabin had deceived him. It was little more than a shell. The logs were black from fire, and most of the roof was missing. Through the remnants of the window he could see the entire back half of the structure was open to the elements. He stopped just outside the entrance. Kit ignored him and strode through the snow-drifted entrance. She paused in the center of the room and stared at the darkened fireplace.
"I don’t like this, Sis," Yuzu said from her perch on the wagon. "It reminds me to much of Honheim."
"Was this your house, Kit?" Timothy asked.
She stood still for several moments before shaking her head. "No. At least, I don’t think so." She shrugged. "Honestly, I don’t know what to expect. I’m hoping something will trigger a memory I guess."
"Seems like a long journey just on the off chance to trigger a memory though," Yuzu said. "But then, I remember the time I walked down Baker’s Street and smelled Donbury’s special sweet bread. Are you looking for something like that?"
Kit nodded. "I don’t remember much of my childhood." She looked up at the shattered ceiling. "I had hoped something might help me get in touch with it." She looked at Timothy and smiled. "I’ve dragged Timothy all this way on a slim hope at best."
"I promised to come with you, remember," Timothy said.
"You did. Although I never asked you why."
Timothy grinned. "You’re cute." Honestly, I am still not sure why, but there’s no point thinking about it now.
"As her husband you had better think she is cute." Yuzu’s giggle ruined her effort to sound stern.
Kit raised a finger. "Don’t think I am going to fall over you out of gratitude. You’ve been nothing but a pain. A useful pain, but still a pain."
Timothy shrugged. "Showing me a little gratitude would be nice."
"I haven’t hurt you yet, have I? And I won’t show you to type of gratitude you are looking for. Especially after your accusation just a few moments ago." Kit brushed past him. "But I am grateful. Let’s get going."
Only about one hundred yards separated the house from the evergreen darkness. Timothy glanced back at the pasture as the woods engulfed them once more."Do you want to go back to being a shepherd?" Kit asked.
"Maybe. I miss the open space." He inhaled the scent of the woods. "But it isn’t that bad out here."
"The woods scare me," Yuzu said. "Anything could be out there." She looked into the dense canopy. "Or up there watching us. When do you think Daeric will return?"
"There you are, Timmy. You have one helpless girl to defend. I will be sure to defend you, of course." Kit’s chuckle sounded forced. She leaned close to his ear. "I feel like someone is watching us since we passed that big tree back there." She nodded at a large oak well behind them. "The fur on my tail is standing up."
"Could it be just Daeric?"
Kit shook her head. "It’s not him. It could be the reason why he hasn’t returned yet."
"You’re right. He normally isn’t gone this long. I hadn’t been paying attention."
"Obviously. Don’t look around. If there is someone there, we don’t want to let them know we know about them. Act natural."
"Thanks. I am glad someone is watching my back." Timothy’s voice carried.
"Nice way to act natural, Timmy," Kit whispered.
"It is hard when you know something is going to happen. Do you have any plans?"
She shook her head. "I…don’t know. I’ve never smelled or felt anything like this. Daeric has always smelled strange, and this is stronger."
Timothy felt sweat run down his back. "You are not helping my worry any."
"What are you two whispering about?" Yuzu asked.
"Yes, what are you whispering about?" a deep voice asked.
Two brown-clad men dropped from the branches overhead. One more appeared from the woods behind them. Each wore a green bandana over his wild hair. Matching scarves hid everything but their eyes.
"Pretty mice, Jan. And look at all their supplies." one of the men in front said. He twirled his stoat boar spear and planted it into the ground.
Kit growled, pulled her knife, and pushed Timothy against the wagon wheel. Yuzu turned and rummaged in the wagon with one hand.
"The black looks good too, Krill."
"Stay on task, boys," the third man said. He sounded older. "We have our mission."
"I’m not some soldier who follows orders, Gert." The man called Krill straightened. The spear blurred in his hands and stopped on his shoulder. "It looks like we have some spunky ones here."
Yuzu stood on the wagon with a thick oak branch held in both hands. Kit pressed Timothy against the wheel. She held her knife protectively in front of her.
Jan and Krill strolled toward them, seemingly unconcerned. The third man, Gert, leaned on his spear and watched.
I won’t be helpless. Not again. "Kit, I can—"
"Hush," Kit said. "They cannot have you."
Krill sauntered, wearing a grin. He casually jabbed at Yuzu with the butt of his boar spear. Yuzu slipped around the thrust, twisted, and swung her club.
The man bellowed and staggered backward. He shook his hand, his grin gone. Their casualness troubled Timothy. Either they underestimated the girls, or they were that capable. Timothy’s heart thumped as he watched the man called Jan. He stalked with dangerous grace, spear held ready. They are capable, Timothy thought. Kit continued to press against him. The mule rolled its eyes and stamped.
She growled deep in her throat.
Krill advanced on Yuzu again. He stabbed at her with the tip of his spear. She jumped from the seat of the wagon, rolled, and swept Krill’s feet from under him.
Jan circled around Kit, wary. "I am not the idiot Krill is, girl."
Kit crouched. "Stay behind me, Timothy."
Krill leapt to his feet, his eyes dangerous. Yuzu gripped her bludgeon with two hands, fear smeared on her face.
The third man skirted the wagon. He clenched a worn pipe in his teeth. He thrust a hand in front of Krill.
"Get out of the way, Gert," Krill said.
"We didn’t come to kill anyone," Gert said.
Yuzu glanced at Timothy, her eyes wide.
Jan feinted with the butt of his spear. The movement pulled Timothy’s gaze away from Yuzu. Kit shifted but didn’t take the bait.
Yuzu yelled, pulling Timothy’s gaze back. Yuzu lay on the trampled snow with Gert calmly tying her wrists. A blue-gray smoke ring rose from his pipe. Krill stood a short distance away, grimacing.
Frustration welled in Timothy. He needed to do something.
"She’s mine, Gert," Krill said.
"You know how this works. We can’t have your hot head going against our orders," Gert said.
"You old guys and your orders. Why should I care?"
"You can go at any time. I’m sure you can get along on the outside."
Krill grimaced. "I’ll stay."
"I won’t say anything to the first commander then."
Kit’s sudden attack knocked Timothy to the ground. She darted around Jan’s surprised jab. The man’s curse changed into a grunt as Kit’s blade slashed down and bit into the man’s thigh. She danced back. Crimson stained the first half of her blade. Timothy struggled to his feet.
"You stupid little—" Jan clutched his thigh.
Wild shouts echoed through the trees. It sounded like a small army approached.
"Jan!" Gert pushed Yuzu ahead of him, toward the dense undergrowth. "We better go."
Krill followed behind him, muttering.
Jan hesitated before shaking his head. "I will see you again. You have a debt to pay." He limped backward, keeping his gaze on Kit as he backed into the skeletal tangled and disappeared.
Daeric galloped into view just moments after the men disappeared. He shouted wordlessly. He leapt from his saddle before his horse skid to a stop. One hand held his spear in a tight fist.
The sight struck Timothy as too similar to the men who just left.
"I heard men. What happened? Are you hurt? Where’s Moonflower?"
"I am quite well. " Kit’s voice was calm. Her ears flicked under her hood, however. "Three men attacked us. They took Yuzu…my sister."
Timothy rounded on her. "Why didn’t you let me help? Why did you get in my way?"
Kit blinked. "You are not a fighter."
"I could have helped! If I had, Yuzu wouldn’t have been taken!"
Kit took a step back.
"Who took her?" Daeric asked.
"I am not helpless, Kit."
Kit sighed. "You’re right, Timothy. I…I like protecting you, how you…I’m sorry." She shook her head and glanced up. "I’ve apologized more to you than anyone else. You should feel special." She turned to Daeric. "She was taken by bandits."
"Did they cover their faces?" Daeric asked.
"They were bandits, weren’t they?"
Daeric frowned. "Those fools. I had hoped to run across them before they found you. They couldn’t have gotten far."
"Who?" Timothy asked.
Daeric ignored him and swung back into his saddle. He started back the way they came.
"They went into the trees, there." Timothy pointed.
"I know where they went," Daeric said. "This way."
Kit climbed into the wagon. "Get up here, Timothy, before he leaves us behind. Be quiet. We don’t have time to argue."
He slipped into the seat beside her. Kit had to crack the reins three times before the mule began moving. Daeric rode well ahead of them by the time Kit convinced the mule to follow at an awkward trot. The wagon rumbled over the tracks it had made not long before. The mule’s loping trot bounced the wagon over every rock in the path. Timothy’s teeth clicked. He lurched and wrapped her arm around Kit’s waist just before he fell off the narrow seat. The wagon lurched and rattled. Pots clanked loud enough to warn people of their coming for miles around. Timothy kept silent after biting his tongue when one of the wheels bounced off a large stone. Daeric led them down paths Timothy hadn’t noticed on their first time through. Kit radiated anger like the sun radiated heat. Her back could give an oak tree lessons in stiffness.
They clattered for what seemed miles before Daeric reined to a stop. The mule dragged the wagon for several paces beyond him before Kit managed to rein in the mule.
Timothy glanced around the road. Only a large boulder with a few icicles told him they were in a different area.
"They had to act before I was ready." Daeric muttered. He turned to Kit. "You don’t need to worry. I will protect you. You can trust me."
"How do you know they are—" Timothy said.
Daeric cut him off. "Stay here." He rode into the trees.
Kit’s hood twitched. She nudged Timothy’s arm. She heard something. This feels wrong. Timothy strained his ears but heard only the rustling of limbs.
"I don’t like this." Timothy said.
"We are going after them." Kit straightened her hood and slid from the wagon. "Protect me." She grimaced. "As if I am some flower to put into his pocket." She started in the same direction Daeric went.
Timothy clambered from the wagon and hurried after her.
"Do you think the men are these Protestants of yours?" Kit asked.
"I don’t know. Maybe. They weren’t Vatican soldiers. Daeric talked as if he knew them or at least expected them."
They trudged through the woods, following the trail Daeric’s horse had cut into the tangled winter undergrowth. Timothy’s heart pounded. Just what would they do when they found Yuzu?
A stick cracked under his boot. He jumped forward, running into Kit. She stumbled into a tree with a hiss.
"Watch it, shepherd. There’s no need to be so jumpy. I will hear them if they tried to sneak on us."
"Oh. Yeah. I forgot."
It seemed like they crouched and weaved for hours. Most of the leaves and plants may have been gone, but the skeletons of nettles and thorn plants of all types grabbed at them. More than once Timothy had to stop and untangle his cloak from a needy thorn bush. Of course Kit had no problems. She barely made a sound as she walked. The nettles seemed to move out of her way. Timothy felt like a ram charging through the forest.
Kit stopped and tugged Timothy to kneel beside her. He opened his mouth. She laid a finger over his lips and pointed. A sprawling building merged with the forest. Weathered logs rested on rough gray stone, and vines spidered the walls. The entire structure looked to have been built around the aging sycamores. Their white bark contrasted against the dark gray timber. Brown grasses peeked from the snow on the roof. The building looked more like a hill of fallen stone and logs than something made by people.
That roof would make good pasture for a few sheep in spring. Timothy frowned and glanced at Kit. She caught his gaze and pointed to the building. Yellow light cut through the windows. The light wavered through the poor-quality glass. Darkness had descended quickly in the dense forest. Kit tugged his cloak and pointed beyond the building. Timothy squinted.
Off to the side, a stable crouched among the trees. Several large shapes moved in the dark interior. A few whinnies reached Timothy’s ears. Another shaped unfolded. A man rested on an old wine cask. He leaned against a rough support beam. A small flash of orange revealed a pipe. The man took a long draw.
Timothy glanced back at Kit. Her eyes glowed in the wane light. He wondered how much she could see. Each passing moment made it more difficult for Timothy. This close, he could make barely make out her expression. Her ears flicked under the fabric.
"Where would they keep her?" Timothy whispered.
"I saw windows over there." Kit’s breath tickled his ear. "I might be able to hear her if we get closer."
"Do you hear Daeric?"
Kit’s hood rustled. "No. It is too quiet. I doubt the peacock knows how to skulk, no matter what he says of being a hunter. Let’s go."
She snatched Timothy’s coat sleeve and led the way. Timothy concentrated on not tripping.
They slipped around the building toward one of the fat sycamores. Its roots spread like a hand clutching the earth. Another cloudy window, overgrown by ivy, shed yellow light. The ivy’s broad leaves wilted in the cold. Kit brushed the leaves aside with a bare hand to peek into the window.
"Kit, I think that—"
She waved him off. He sighed. If she thought fleas were bad, sumac was going to be worse. It surprised him how much she didn’t know, considering she was a fox. In the stories foxes were cunning, wise, and all-knowing. Kit was certainly cunning and wise, at times. Not that Timothy would admit that to her.
"Kit, those leaves are—"
"Th-there you are," a voice said from behind them.
Kit squeaked and fell back from the window to land among the sumac. Timothy whirled. A young face grinned down at Kit from under a green bandana. Red-brown hair framed his face. Greens and browns slashed his coat in a way that made parts of him fade into the woods behind. He wore only a heavy knife at his belt.
He held up his palms. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. Daeric is expecting you."
"Daeric?" Kit asked. Sumac rustled. She stood and shook leaves from her cloak.
The young man took a step back as Kit leveled her glare on him. "I—I don’t want Daeric any madder. Name’s Tell." He turned away and glanced over his shoulder. "Please, f-follow me."
Kit frowned at the boy’s back. "I didn’t hear him," she whispered.
"I didn’t either," Timothy said. "He was right behind me."
"I should have. No one should be able to sneak that quietly."
"You were distracted. What did you see?"
"Not much." She stared at Tell’s back. "I don’t like this."
Tell turned. "Please hurry. The Second Commander is waiting."
"Second Commander? Daeric?" Timothy frowned. He could barely make out the man as darkness settled.
"We had better follow him." Kit brushed at her skirts and started after Tell. Timothy rushed up beside her.
"The boy smells like Daeric." Kit’s eyes glowed.
I don’t think I will ever get used to that, Timothy thought. "He has the same scent? I thought you said everyone had a different smell?"
"It’s not exactly the same, but he has the same odd scent Daeric has. It reminds me of dog fur for some reason."
"Daeric is a hunter. Maybe it is that."
"Maybe. I don’t know."
Tell waited for them at the front of the lodge. Skeletal vines webbed across the building. The man watching the stable still sat on the barrel with his pipe. That must be Gert, Timothy thought. He swallowed. This is bad. I don’t see how we can get out of this one. He looked at Kit. She tensed beside him and chewed on her bottom lip.
"Figured the noise was them," Gert said around his pipe stem. "Krill’s none too happy with the dark-haired girl, but Daeric’s worse. The boys never listen to me, except you, Tell. Tre—the first commander is quite pleased with you."
"I, uh…thanks. If only…Jan…noticed."
"You’re a good lad no matter what he says. Accepted or no." Gert studied Timothy and Kit. "Can’t say I much like any of this anymore. We are not a bad sort. Not really. But watch yourselves. The boys aren’t listening to me anymore. Except for Tell."
"Not a bad sort except for kidnapping women," Kit said.
"Better than letting Krill kill her. We don’t normally kidnap, but Krill and Jan haven’t been listening to me." Gert shrugged and took his pipe from his teeth. He gestured at the door. "Best be on with it. Gonna be snowing soon. My leg’s telling me."
Tell pushed the front door open.
Gert gestured at Kit with his pipe. "Just don’t cause any more trouble. Jan’s fuming about you sticking him."
Kit bared her teeth at the man.
Timothy groaned. Don’t provoke them, Kit.
The door opened to a large room lined with stuffed heads of boars, deer, and even a large cat of some type. Tell closed the door behind them, remaining outside. A stone hearth dominated the far wall. Rough tables and chairs scattered throughout the room made it look like an inn’s common room. Yuzu sat at the end of a long table. She held a steaming cup, and a wolf skin wrapped her. When she saw them, she jumped to her feet.
"Sit," said the man with a bruised cheek. He stood against the wall with his arms crossed.
Yuzu glanced at the man and withered.
"Be quiet, Krill." Daeric walked over and laid a hand on Yuzu’s shoulder. "You are lucky She only gave you a bruise. I apologize again for these ruffians, Moonflower. Their pranks are never gentle."
Yuzu looked at the cup she held and nodded.
Krill muttered something Timothy couldn’t make out. He glanced at another man with a bandage wrapped around his leg.
That has to be Jan.
"There she is. My sunrise!" Daeric crossed the room. He took Kit’s hand and flourished a bow.
"Something smells…good," Jan said.
"You were lucky, Jan." Daeric still held onto Kit’s hand. "She would have done more than give you that nick."
Jan muttered something that made Daeric’s face darken.
"You know your father won’t be happy about this, Daeric." Krill, with his purple cheek, leaned on the fireplace with his arms crossed. "He told us to give up on that plan."
"This time is different," Daeric said. "I found who we were looking for."
Who they were looking for? What does he mean by that? Timothy glanced at Kit. She shook her head slowly.
"You said that last time too, brother." Jan watched Kit and stroked his cheek.
"You know she is different. Just look at her."
"I just know she owes me for this cut. Krill is right. Father won’t be happy to learn you are still playing."
Daeric shook his head. "It was his idea in the first place."
Jan thrust a finger at Daeric. "He has only one goal, and chasing after the past wasn’t part of it."
"I want the same thing. What better way to get our revenge than to prove them all wrong? To prove we are not—"
The door slammed open, almost hitting Timothy. A tall man entered, his face concealed by his cloak’s hood. The figure stopped and surveyed the room, his gaze stopping on Timothy and Kit. Tell entered behind him and closed the door.
"Father!" Jan and Daeric said together.
Daeric gestured. "These are our latest guests. We—"
"I told you before, that is not our concern anymore. The past is past."
"She is the one we were looking for. I know it."
"I said the past is past. It is time for all of us to move on, son." The weight of the man’s words deflated Daeric.
I didn’t think deflating Daeric was even possible.
The man gestured at Kit and Timothy. "Do whatever you will with them, but no more of this. Jan, be sure Daeric does what is needed. We can’t have his guests interfering."
"Yes, Father," Jan said.
"We have only one business to tend to. The Vatican sent an Inquisitor with the newest batch of reinforcements. We have their attention."
"Finally," Jan said. "It won’t be long, Koto. It won’t be long." He glared at Tell.
Tell’s shoulders slumped.
"About time." Krill cracked his knuckles. "I was tired of waiting."
"A patrol returns from the south. Take care of them. I will give you more information later. We will keep to the plan." The man glared at Daeric until he wilted. "I must meet our Inquisitor." The man turned and left. Tell shut the door behind him.
Jan slapped the table and stood. "The Inquisitor is mine. Let’s see how the Vatican likes one of their own burned at the stake."
Daeric looked at Kit, his usual bluster gone. "Don’t worry. I won’t let them harm you. Father has lost sight of what we really need to do."
"And what would that happen to be?" Kit asked.
"Why does it involve her?" Timothy asked.
"It doesn’t matter." Jan crossed the room. "Father left that up to me."
"You won’t hurt any of them, Jan."
Jan shrugged. "Who said I was going to hurt them. Didn’t you hear Father? They don’t matter. We finally have an Inquisitor. An Inquisitor! We can finally start repaying them for what they’ve done. First this Inquisitor and then another." He grinned. "We all know the Church can’t stand to lose. They will keep throwing them at us, but we will show them. So I really don’t care about your playthings. But I will take care of them if they interfere."
"They won’t," Daeric said. "They will be useful. They don’t have any love for the Church either. Do you think I would bring them here if they are not going to help us?"
"As long as they earn their keep, I don’t care," Krill said. "I still need to even my cheek and wrist with Oval Eyes."
Yuzu glared at the man.
"Save it for the Church’s men," Daeric said.
Krill waved his hand. "So you say. Do you think they will really keep sending Inquisitors after we off this one?"
Jan jostled Daeric and pushed past Timothy. "They will. They had better. One Inquisitor isn’t enough. Not for Koto."
"I…I don’t think she—" Tell said.
Jan stormed up to the young man. "What do you know of her, boy? Nothing!"
Tell shrunk back. "I don’t think she…would want anybody hurt."
"And you can believe this after she burned? Not even the blood of the Pope is worth her." Jan grabbed Tell’s collar.
Daeric laid a hand on Jan’s arm. "He can’t remember, Jan. Let him go. We have our orders. Now let go."
Timothy frowned. Interesting. Kit tapped her lips again as she watched the exchange.
Jan shoved Tell away, thrust open the door, and stalked out. Daeric turned toward the door. "Tell, see to their needs. Whatever they want. They can take Brian’s old room. Anything they want, fetch it. Gert went to bring their wagon. He may need help unloading it. Krill, the supplies they brought are more than enough payment for a winter’s worth of lodging. Now let’s be about our business."
Tell pushed the door closed behind Daeric. The air was getting cold. "You heard the Second. I will—"
Kit rounded on the young man. "My sister and I need a hot bath."
Timothy choked. "Seriously, Kit? Now? They are going out to kill people!"
"We can’t stop that, can we? We can only focus on what is right before us. Now hush, Timmy."
"Is Jan always that mean with you, Tell?" Yuzu asked.
Tell looked at his feet and nodded.
"That is terrible." Yuzu touched his arm. "A good man like you shouldn’t have to deal with that."
"I’m not good."
"Gert said you were, and you look like a good man to me."
Tell shrugged. "I’m not a man yet either."
"Kit," Timothy whispered. "We need to get out of here."
"I’ve always wanted a sister I could trust." Kit said aloud. Beneath her breath Kit added, "Do you really think I am not thinking about getting away, Timothy?"
"Do you have a copper wash tub, Tell?" Yuzu asked.
He nodded and looked up to meet Yuzu’s gaze before quickly looking away again. "I will have to drag it into the back."
"Oh, that would be wonderful," Yuzu said. Tell blushed.
"Kit," Timothy said.
"Do you really think they just left this boy to watch us? I knew Daeric would do something, but we walked right into it. I need time to think. Daeric wants something from us. We are safe until he gets that something. I think," Kit whispered into Timothy’s ear.
"I-I don’t know what the Second wants. I am not a boy. Well, I am not a man yet, but I am too old to be a boy. I am almost ready to be Accepted," Tell said.
Kit frowned. "You could hear me?"
Yuzu smiled at Tell. "You look like a man to me. It sounds like a lot of trouble, Tell. But could you bring the tub inside and fill it for us?" Timothy suppressed a groan at her tone of voice. Kit used the same singsong, sultry tone on him.
"So you will both…" Tell trailed off. Yuzu flashed a smile and nodded. Tell’s cheeks flared red. "I will…yes, right now. I will bring it into the back if it isn’t already. I am sure you are c-cold."
"Thank you, Telly." Yuzu covered her mouth. "Sorry. I didn’t mean to call you that."
"T-Telly is a nice name, uh, Yuzu. I will—" Tell turned and smacked into the door. He stumbled back and avoided looking at them. "I will get right on it. You are pretty." His eyes widened. He flung the door open and raced into the cold.
Yuzu laughed. "That is fun!"
"He can’t be the only one watching us," Kit said. "I hate to say, but he might be more worthless than a certain shepherd."
"So what are we going to do, Sister?" Yuzu asked. "Tell said there is a back door. The front will be watched. Daeric will be sure to have someone capable watch us." She sighed. "I wish we could take that bath. Do we really have to go? Daeric said we are under his protection."
"I came out here to see my home, and that is what I am going to do," Kit said. "If you want to stay here, be my guest. Do you really think men who plan to attack the Inquisition are safe to be around?"
Yuzu frowned. "I guess not." She rubbed her temples. "I am just so tired and cold I can’t think."
Timothy slumped into one of the chairs. His fingers drummed the table. "We need our supplies. It is getting too cold to travel. And we don’t even know exactly where the town is. We could freeze to death before we found it."
"Wait. So you don’t know where it is?" Yuzu asked.
"Nope. But we will find it," Kit said.
"I have a feeling Tell will help us," Yuzu said.
"We don’t need him involved." Kit scratched her arm. "It will be cold going. My tail will keep you warm enough, shepherd."
Yuzu’s brow furrowed. "Tail? Are you going to sit on him all night to keep him warm?" She shook her head. "I am not staying. I came this far. I will see it through, Sister. I didn’t think adventures would be so cold, though." She shifted the wolf pelt.
"I will sneak around from the back and get our supplies." Kit said. "Whoever else is watching us will watch the front, where Tell isn’t working."
"I will go with you," Yuzu said.
"You and Timmy make too much noise. We need to sound like we aren’t up to anything."
Yuzu set her empty cup on the table and crossed her arms under the pelt. "If you run into Tell, please don’t hurt him. I don’t think he is bad. When they brought me here, Tell stayed close to me. He made me tea and gave me this fur."
"So you found a woolhead?" Kit asked.
Yuzu looked away. "Maybe. I am going with you. You can’t carry everything."
Kit hesitated. "Fine. You can come to be my mule. I can’t make any promises. This situation is my doing, and I need to correct it."
"I can admit wrongdoing, Timmy. I should have dealt with Daeric weeks ago. I am going to need my ears free for this."
Timothy rubbed his forehead. He felt a headache coming on. "She will find out sooner or later. Let’s be sure no one is watching first." He stood and walked over to check the nearest window.
"I would hear them, Timmy."
He checked the next cloudy window. "Tell startled you."
Kit scratched her arms.
"What are you hiding, Sis? You two are acting strange."
"I don’t see anyone," Timothy said. I hope she doesn’t scream. "Might as well show her. We should have shown her earlier."
"Show me what?" Yuzu asked.
"I will not let you endanger Timmy. Keep that in mind," Kit said.
"Why would I do that? What are you going to show me?" Yuzu looked from Kit to Timothy and back. She took a deep breath.
Kit leaned in, baring fangs. "Don’t scream."
"Don’t let her fool you. She is afraid of showing you," Timothy said.
"Humph. I really don’t have to show her."
"Kitsune Clarke, we don’t have the time for this."
Kit tapped her lips. "Kitsune Clarke. Kitsune Clark. Sounds awkward." She grinned at him.
Timothy rolled his eyes.
"I want to know all about you," Yuzu said. "I wouldn’t do anything to put either of you in danger. You are a sister and brother to me now. I won’t scream." She straightened.
"I hope this plan doesn’t land us into a stew worse than this." Timothy rubbed his head.
"As long as it is not your stew," Kit said. "Kitsune Clarke." She giggled.
The door banged open, and all three jumped. Tell stumbled into the room, panting. "Your bath is ready," he said between gasps.
"Th-that was fast, Telly," Yuzu said. "Thank you!"
"The tub was easy to move, and I have to keep hot water ready at all times."
Timothy looked at Kit. "You took too long."
Kit crossed her arms. "Who insisted I show her? I was perfectly fine going alone."
Yuzu crossed over to Tell. She leaned over and tilted her head. Tell stood taller than her, despite bending and gasping for air. He met Yuzu’s gaze and flushed as red as his hair. Yuzu laid a hand on his arm. "Thank you again, Tell." Tell’s height made him seem older, but Timothy guessed Tell was younger than Yuzu’s sixteen summers.
Kit punched Timothy’s arm. "Looks like it is up to me again. Tell, could you keep my husband company? He has a dirty mind, and he is not above peeking." She caught Yuzu’s gaze and nodded. Yuzu returned the nod.
"It will be private. Right, Telly? I don’t want anyone peeking," Yuzu said.
Tell’s mouth hung open. He looked from Timothy to Kit.
I never knew people could blush that deep, Timothy thought. Tell’s face blended with his hair.
Tell collected himself. "Private. Yes. Gert is watching the front like Daeric asked him. I am to watch the back." He held up his hands. "Not that I will look in. We just want to keep you safe. I will stay here. I won’t look—honest!"
"I believe you," Yuzu said. "Timothy has tried to peek on me before, though. Keep an eye on him. Which room is it?"
Timothy frowned. Talk about throwing me under the cart. I wonder if I have wheel tracks on my back.
Tell’s flushed face tilted to Timothy. I will play my part as long as we can get out of here. He winked at Tell. "We should sneak a peek. My wife has wonderfully round—"
The women glared at him.
If they keep accusing me, maybe I really will look in on them.
"No. I promised," Tell said. "The bath is in the very last room down the hall, next to the back door. It’s my room." Tell seemed to realize what he had said. "No. I just thought…I wasn’t going to….I thought you wanted privacy."
Yuzu smiled. "You are thoughtful. That will do nicely."
"Come, Sister." Kit took Yuzu’s arm in hers. "Some secrets are best shared between sisters and only sisters."
Yuzu hesitated. "What are you going to show me?" she asked.
"You will see," Kit said. Together they crossed the large room and entered the hall.
"Tell is cute, isn’t he?" Kit asked.
"His red hair is a lot like yours, sister." Yuzu said. They passed out of ear shot.
Tell stared after them. "Yuzu is pretty. I never saw eyes like hers." He jumped. He seemed to have forgotten Timothy. Timothy tried to cover a smile. Poor boy is smitten. At least Yuzu isn’t like Kit.
"Can I ask you something?" Tell asked.
"What is it, Tell?"
"Do most girls smell that nice?"
"Daeric and the others sometimes bring girls in. They never smell nice like your…wife." His eyes suddenly widened. "I’m sorry. I don’t mean that Daeric…that…I mean…"
Timothy reached up and laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder. Tell stood a nearly a head taller than Timothy. "It’s okay. I know what you mean. Daeric offered to show us the way to Belafonte. That is why we are here."
"Why do you want to go there? I am not allowed there. I can only hunt as far as the mire. Daeric and Jan and Gert, they just have me clean and cook and…and be a maid!"
"Being a maid might be better than the alternative," Timothy said. "Do you really want to go out and kill people?"
Tell flopped into a chair. His too big trousers draped around the seat. "No. It’s just that I can do more. I can hunt." He shook his shaggy head. "I shouldn’t say anything, but you seem nice. And…they won’t listen. Could I talk to her sister? Your wife’s sister. Yuzu. She is really…." He swallowed. "I am not man enough. I haven’t been Accepted yet. Not that there are many of us left. Would she really talk with me if you asked her?"
Timothy tried to follow the boy’s thoughts. Is he discontent or just trying to get information? No. The way he fidgets isn’t feigned. Poor boy is in over his head if he likes Yuzu. Timothy grimaced. I sound like some old man. I am not that much older than him. What, six years older?
"Yuzu? I am sure she will want to talk with you. She seems to like you," he said.
"She likes me!" Tell burst from his chair.
Timothy leaned in. "Do you want to sneak a peek with me?"
Tell shook his head. His red hair rustled against his brown cap. "No. I made a promise. I won’t look. I…I won’t let you look either. I promised."
Maybe we can use the boy to figure out what Daeric wants with us.
"Sit down. I have some questions to ask." Timothy winced at how harsh that sounded.
Tell sat. He didn’t seem to take offense. The young man started rocking the chair on its back legs.
"What are Daeric and you doing out here?" Timothy asked.
Tell shrugged. "Daeric didn’t tell you about it?"
"I’m sure you know. Daeric wouldn’t have brought you here if you didn’t. You are not a girl."
Timothy crossed his arms. "Well, you know Daeric. He doesn’t always tell everyone what he is doing."
Tell nodded. "It makes Jan mad too. Daeric is only the Second but acts like he’s the First. We don’t see Grandfather—I mean the First—often. Jan and Krill want revenge. Da—I mean Jan especially."
"You don’t get along well."
Tell shrugged. "It’s okay. It’s my fault."
"What is your fault?"
Tell shook his head. "I don’t want to talk about it."
"Why do they want revenge?"
Tell shrugged. "They say the Church and the Inquisition have done bad things. I—I don’t want to talk about it."
"So why do you stay out here?"
"The forest hides us. We attack and disappear." The chair creaked as Tell rocked. "The Church thinks it’s Belafonte people getting revenge, so they placed a camp here. So Daeric says. But that is just want he wants. Sometimes we have new people join us during the summer. Few stay, though. Winter is hard here if you aren’t good at hunting. We’ve been raiding them." He frowned. "Not me. Krill, Jan, and Gert have been. I don’t get to do anything until I am Accepted. But now they have more men than before we started raiding."
The door banged opened again, sending a gust of cold air into the room. The chair dumped Tell backward to the floor. Gert brushed snow from his coat. He still had his worn pipe between his teeth. Wispy blue-gray smoke swirled around the man’s ruddy brown hair.
"I need you to take care of that wagon. It is darned cold and past time I warmed myself," Gert said.
Tell scrambled to his feet and righted the chair. "Will do, Gert."
"Daeric doesn’t bring many here." Gert limped to a pitcher standing on a brick in the hearth. Tell frowned and hesitated. "What’s the matter, lad?" Gert poured steaming wine into a battered mug. "The wagon won’t take care of itself."
"I made a promise to…" Tell looked at his feet.
"Go on now. Jan will want some stew when he gets back," Gert said.
Still Tell hesitated.
"I won’t peek, Tell," Timothy said.
Tell looked up. "Promise?"
"I promise," Timothy said. "Kit would kill me with the mood she’s in anyway."
Tell weighed Timothy. He nodded once. The young man snatched a cloak from the wall pegs and disappeared outside in a gust of snow flurries.
"I don’t know what’s gotten into that fool boy. Maybe I shouldn’t have praised him, but he hears little enough of that. And he is a good lad." Gert squinted at Timothy. "Thinking of joining us?" He took a long pull from the mug.
"Daeric is just going to show us to Belafonte. Then we will be on our way." Timothy force himself to meet the older man’s gaze.
"Is he now? I wonder just what he is up to. He’s usually more direct," Gert said. "Enemy of the Church, are you?"
"Uh, I…" Timothy glanced away. I hope that Kit is as quiet as she can be. He had the feeling these men could hear a hare sneeze a mile away.
"No way to deny it. If you don’t march with them out here, you are their enemy. Can’t tell me you came out here to see a dead town." Gert frowned into his mug and placed it on the nearby table. He replaced his pipe.
Timothy’s head throbbed. He needed to come up with some type of story. Maybe they won’t watch us if we can make them think we are one of them. "I got caught with a book the Church didn’t like."
Gert studied Timothy. The pipe flared red, and moments passed. Timothy sweated under his coat. Finally, Gert nodded. "You have the look of a book man. Inquisition’s been burning them with fury since that Luther made his list, I hear. You look surprised."
"I—I’m sorry. I—I didn’t think the news—"
"Would make it this far out? It doesn’t much, but I get out. I’ve been looking for a book written by Marco Polo. Heard of him? Think his book was burned?"
Timothy sat in the chair Tell once occupied. Here I am, trapped in the middle of some fight between bandits and a camp of Church soldiers and speaking to a man about books. It makes perfect sense. He shook his head. "Sorry. Can’t say I have."
"Ah well, pity that. What was your book?"
"Uh…one of Luther’s…"
Gert grinned around his pipe stem. "Yeah, I can see that causing trouble. Add your women to that, and makes some sense why you are out here."
"Daeric hasn’t told me what my part is with the mission yet."
"It’s not a mission as much as something that needs to be done. The young lads like to call it a mission, though. Inquisition needs to be knocked down several pegs. Foolish job, but I’ve got nothing else going on. Besides, I can’t abandon my old friend." Gert shrugged. "So tell me. What did this Luther write to cause such a muck?"