Ch. 28 - The Explorer's Trail

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Lacey found the road one more time. As she walked away from the village the way became narrower, hemmed in by a mix of alder, cottonwood and a few other tree species. Little plants sprouting beside the road pushed their domain further into its space, until it was nothing more than wagon ruts in a strip of greenery.

Maybe it was the absence of the ever-present pines or her decision to finally do what she always wanted to do; Lacey’s spirits began to lighten. She turned her face up toward the sun, soaking in its warmth. All around her she could hear birds singing. When was the last time she had heard birds?

When she had left the village nobody tried to stop her. Though she didn’t really give them a chance to. She had hugged Cooper goodbye, but she couldn’t face the others. The thought of looking them in the eye and saying out loud that she was leaving made her squirrelly. So she had gone before her friends woke up for the night’s hunt.

But now every step felt right—like she was doing what she was always meant to do. Somehow she had gotten it into her head that she was meant to help the Wished—make them find a new and better way. They had Founders looking after them, though--they weren’t Lacey’s responsibility. And they didn’t seem inclined to change the way things were anyway. Mama always said people had to help themselves.

Devan was healed, and safely back home. It was time for Lacey to start helping herself.

She knew which way to go. She had memorized it during the countless times she had stared at the maps on the screens. This road led to the mountains and the mining camp called Fort. The place Devan was from. But before it began to climb into the foothills it would fork off to the south, and that was the head of the Explorer’s Trail. The Explorer’s Trail wound around the bottom of the mountain range and then arced northeast to Explorer’s Cove. From there she could set out in any direction, or even find passage on a ship bound for uncharted territories.

She would be the youngest explorer ever. Maybe she would even find her father on her journeys. She was lost in the vivid imaginings of her adventures when she heard a soft chirp behind her. She had been followed.

“Meemu! Are you going to be an explorer too?” She scooped the cat up and cuddled him. He squawked in protest and she set him back down on. He quickly groomed his fur back into place.

She hadn’t realized how much she had wanted a companion until Meemu showed up. The Explorer’s Trail was a lonely path, but she had always preferred being on her own. Those few hours in the morning when she had done her chores with only herself for company were a time she had cherished. That seemed like so long ago now.

Even as she thought about the glory of that solitude, she realized that she hadn’t been alone. Meemu had joined her every time. She laughed out loud. “I guess you and I were meant to be explorers together— but I’m not sure cats are allowed to be explorers.”

Meemu shook his ears, as if her words irritated him.

“Ok then. I guess Eridan has its first cat explorer.” Lacey smiled. It was good to smile again. “I will have to pick the names for the places we discover though. We can only call so many places ‘Meow.’”

The cat swished his tail, looking entirely not amused. Lacey started walking again and he followed. It would be dark soon and it was going to be a long hungry night. She had left the Wished camp in such a hurry she hadn’t thought things through. She hadn’t brought any food, and there were no traps to check out here. What a fine start to her career as an explorer.

She needed to get as many miles of road behind her as she could before finding a place to camp. She told herself it was because the need to stop and hunt for food was going to prolong her journey, but the honest part of her recognized that she was afraid of not getting far enough away from the camp. Afraid of Goeden or one of his cats catching up to her, or worse, one of her friends. She didn’t want to have to explain—she couldn’t.

Meemu kept up with her quick pace. She couldn’t see the sun over the tops of the trees, but she knew when it was finally setting when the yellow leaves high over head began to glow like molten copper. The day faded quickly and she started eyeing the roadside for a likely place to camp. The forest was thick with vegetation, unlike the Wish Wood. It wasn’t going to be as easy as she thought.

The night was bringing a touch of frost with it and they would need a fire. One night without food was one thing—but they would freeze without fire. Lacey hugged her cloak tighter swiveling her ears this way and that, trying to figure out what to do. She was just about ready to stop and set up camp in the middle of the road when Meemu chirped and bounded away, into a slight break in the vegetation.

“Meemu!” Lacey didn’t want to be alone. She followed him off the road, along what seemed like a trail; only this trail wasn’t convenient, consistent, or fully clear. It must be a deer trail, or some kind of animal. Meemu had no trouble getting through, but it got so thick with vines—some of them full of thorns—that Lacey had to turn around and walk backwards so that her backpack pushed a path through.

Finally, the way opened up. It was dark now but Lacey took a few breaths and reached out with her other senses. Meemu was nearby emitting a very satisfied purr and grooming himself. Trees and shrubs surrounded this space and even spread out over top of it, like living cave. The ground was soft. As she felt around for a flat area to set up a fire, she noticed it was warm in one spot. This was some creature’s home, a deer most likely. It was probably frightened away by her crashing through the shrubbery. She hoped that it had somewhere else to go. A small lump of guilt tugged at her heart as she thought of some deer out in the night without a home; the image that came to mind was of Ezerelle sitting by the lake.

She put her pack down and started feeling around for pieces of firewood. She was shivering by the time she had enough to start a decent fire and her hands shook as she used the flint and steel on a bit of moss. It took longer than she thought it would. There was always a fire burning in camp, and even back home in the bakery. She hadn’t lit many fires from cold wood—she usually had a flame or at least a hot coal to work with.

She got the fire lit just as her cursing started to expand to the more colorful phrases she had picked up among the human hunters. Adjusting a few pieces of wood to make sure the fire was well established, she let the little flames almost touch her fingers as she tried to soak up some warmth. Eventually the shaking in her hands subsided.

The trip to Explorer’s Cove was at least a week—and that was not counting the time she would have to take to hunt for food—or the time to make the tools to hunt. Setting traps was impractical. She would need a bow or a spear. There were no towns to get supplies between here and the cove. She had left in a hurry, and she had been stupid.

She was wondering if she would run into any caravans this time of year between Fort and Pine Ridge, when she heard a noise in the woods. She looked around for Meemu; he was beside her and not the source of the noise. Maybe it was the animal whose sleeping place she had stolen.

Lacey reached into her pack for her knife—at least she had remembered to bring one necessity. The noise continued. At first a rustle and a crunch, something was walking through the woods. Then the noise became ripping and crashing—something very large was walking through the woods.

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