Ch. 19.2 - Niva

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The leather backpack Cooper gave Lacey was worn, and showed signs of being mended several times. Lacey put the deer skin blanket in the bottom of the pack, hiding it under a coil of rope, which Cooper had insisted would come in handy. When Lacey went to the campfire to meet Blayd, she was surprised to find Niva, the fox-girl, instead.

“I thought I would be hunting with Blayd,” she said.

Niva’s mouth curved up into a smile. “What can Blayd teach you without a voice? He usually prefers to hunt alone anyway.”

This was going to make things more complicated. It would be easier to slip off to the cave and bring Devan supplies under Blayd’s watch. He probably already knew or suspected, and he had chosen not to press the issue when he found her after the attack. Plus he couldn’t actually say anything about it. Niva could not only speak, but she was also very loud and animated when she did. Lacey didn’t know her well enough to tell if she could keep a secret.

Even if Niva could be trusted, the more people who knew about Devan, the more likely the wrong person would find out.

“I really think I should be out with Blayd. I understand him; he doesn’t need words with me.”

Niva arched an eyebrow at Lacey. “Blayd has already left—trying to get a head start, probably. But not enough to finish before us, I assure you. Not if we go now and don’t dilly-dally. I am leaving, you can come or not, little bat.” Niva swiveled on her heel and headed for the Wish Wood, her bushy fox tail weaving with the sway of her hips.

Lacey hiked her backpack over her shoulder and hurried after her.

They worked the trapline quickly. Niva showed Lacey how to remove a squirrel and reset the snare exactly once, after that she let Lacey do every second trap. Riley’s lessons helped a lot. Not only did Lacey manage to do each subsequent one without asking Niva’s help, but she had also gotten fast enough that Niva wasn’t pacing anymore while she waited for Lacey to finish.

Niva sprinted between traps. A twinge burrowed into her side, but she didn’t complain or ask to stop. They collected mink from traps set near water, and rabbits near warrens. As Niva retrieved a rabbit, she pointed out the signs of an active warren, without a word—no more talkative than Blayd. Lacey leaned against a tree, digging her fingers into her side, as Niva reset a trap with lightning speed.

There was no time for Lacey to catch her breath, let alone sneak off to find Devan. Niva finished her work, leapt up, and jogged onward. Lacey reluctantly pushed away from the tree trunk, but not quite fast enough for the fox-girl.

“Don’t dawdle, little bat.” Niva hopped in place from foot to foot. “If we are going beat that mangy wolf back to camp, we will have to do double-time. I bet him my favorite cloak, and then he saddled me with you. Rotten cheater.” 

Lacey took a step forward and gasped as her side-stitch intensified, a sharp reminder of the different levels of fitness involved in running errands for the bakery and hunting in the wilderness.

“Are you OK, little bat?” Niva asked with concern.

If Lacey could have a second to catch her breath she would be fine, but this was the perfect opportunity to find an excuse to separate.

“Yes. I’m OK. But I am just slowing you down. Why don’t you go on without me?”

“I won’t abandon you on the line. Not even for my favorite cloak.”

“No, I really mean it.” Lacey sat down. The dark silhouettes of trees and the terrain seemed vaguely familiar here; she thought she might even be close to where she had left Devan. Or maybe every tree and rock in this place looked like the last, but it didn’t really matter. It was now or never; she had a string of rabbits and one squirrel hanging on her belt, and she suspected there weren’t many traps left on the line. If she didn’t break away from Niva now, she would find herself back at camp, and Devan would spend another night cold and hungry.

“Lacey. What is it?” Niva stopped hopping, and came back to where Lacey was sitting.

“I just have…something to do.” How else could she say it, without exactly saying it?

Niva laughed. “Well, I can wait for you to do that.”

“I don’t mean…” Lacey blushed. “It’s something else. Something I have to do alone.” This was not the smooth “slipping away” she had envisioned.

“Tell me,” Niva said, crouching in front of Lacey. “I can help you.”

“Just go. I don’t need your help. Win your bet. I’ll figure out my way back, and meet you at the campfire.”

Niva huffed and stalked off in the direction of the next trap, but after a few paces she spun back around. “You have a lot to learn before you can call yourself one of us, little bat. On the trapline we keep each other’s secrets—we don’t keep secrets from each other.” Then she dashed off even faster than before, her tail whisking behind her, and quickly disappearing into the shadows between the trees.

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