Steam rose gently from the stew pot.
More steam rose from the far from occasional drops of rain which found their way through the open side of the lean-to Kaeritha had erected to protect her cooking fire. Centuries of Sothoii had planted trees along the lines of their roads, mainly to provide windbreaks, but also for the purpose to which Kaeritha had put this thick patch of trees. Although it was still spring, the branches above her were densely clothed in fresh, green leaves, which offered at least some protection to her campsite. And, of course, there was firewood in plenty, even if it was a bit on the damp side.
The blanket-covered packhorse was picketed beside the brawling, rain-fed stream at the foot of the slight rise on which she had encamped. Cloudy wasn’t picketed at all—the idea that she might require picketing would have been a mortal insult to any Sothoii warhorse—but she’d ambled over and parked herself on the up-wind side of the fire. Kaeritha wasn’t sure whether that was a helpful attempt to shield the fire from the rainy wind or an effort to get close enough to soak up what warmth the crackling flames could provide. Not that she was about to object in either case.
She stirred the stew again, then lifted the spoon and sampled it. She sighed. It was hot, and she knew it was going to be filling, but she was going to miss Brandark’s deft hand at the cook fire, and the mere thought of Tala’s cooking was enough to bring a glum tear to her eye.
She grimaced and sat back on her heels under the cover of the open-fronted tent she’d positioned with the eye of hard-won experience. The lean-to she’d constructed, and a rising swell of ground, served as reflectors to bounce the fire’s warmth back into her tent, and only a little of the smoke eddied in along with it. Given the general soddenness of the Wind Plain, she was as comfortable—and as close to dry—as she was likely to get.
Which wasn’t saying a great deal.
She got up and began moving additional firewood under the crude lean-to, where it would be at least mostly out of the rain and the cook fire could begin drying it out. She was just about finished when Cloudy suddenly raised her head. The mare’s ears came up, pointed forward, and she turned to face back towards the road.
Kaeritha reached up under her poncho and unbuttoned the straps across the quillons of her short swords, then turned casually in the same direction.
Cloudy’s hearing was considerably more acute than Kaeritha’s. Kaeritha knew that, yet how even the mare could have heard anything through the steady drip and patter of rain surpassed her understanding. For a moment, she thought perhaps Cloudy hadn’t heard anything, but then she saw the rider emerging ghost-like from the rainy, misty evening gloom and knew the mare hadn’t been imagining things after all.
Kaeritha stood silently, watching the newcomer and waiting. The Kingdom of the Sothoii was, by and large, peaceful and law-abiding … these days. It hadn’t always been so, though, and there were still occasional brigands or outlaws, despite the ruthless justice nobles like Tellian dealt out to any they caught up with. Such predators would be likely to think of a lone traveler as easy prey, especially if they knew that traveler was a woman … and didn’t know she was one of Tomanak’s champions. As far as Kaeritha could tell, there was only one rider out there, but there might be more, and she maintained a prudent watchfulness as the other slowly approached her fire.
The possibility that the stranger might be a brigand declined as Kaeritha got a better look at his mount’s gait. It was too dim and rainy to make out color or markings, but from the way it moved, that horse was almost as good as Cloudy. No prudent horse thief would dare to keep such a readily recognizable and remarked animal for himself, which suggested this fellow wasn’t one … but didn’t bring her any closer to being able to guess what he was doing out here in the rain with night coming on.
“Hello, the fire!” a soprano voice called, and Kaeritha closed her eyes as she heard it.
“Why me?” she asked. “Why is it always me?”
The cloudy night vouchsafed no reply, and she sighed and opened her eyes again.
“Hello, yourself, Leeana,” she called back. “I suppose you might as well come on in and make yourself comfortable.”