I know this is another long section, but I just didn't know where to cut it off. So, here's the next part of Syndria's story...
Syndria stood frozen, her eyes wide as she stared at the wolf blocking the path ahead of her. Here by the stream’s edge there were just a few feet of clear land between the water and the forest, and the large grey beast stood growling right in the middle.
“First the cat, now this,” Syndria whispered. Though she knew little about beasts of prey in the woods, the young Healer knew it was unusual that she was having her second close encounter with one in a matter of hours. Unlike the cougar, though, the wolf didn’t appear injured in any way, nor was he made nervous by the human before him. Judging by the tongue that darted out every few seconds to lick the snarling lips, to him Syndria was nothing more than a meal, and an easy one at that. When the wolf crouched and then sprung, the girl closed her eyes, knowing there was little more she could do. A split second later there came a whimper and Syndria opened her eyes in time to see the wolf crash to the ground with the shaft of an arrow sticking out of its ribs.
“You’re awful lucky, girl.” Turning toward the trees, Syndria saw a man step out into the small clearing by the stream, bow in hand and a second arrow notched and ready. He approached the wolf cautiously, not releasing his bow until he was sure the animal was dead. When he prodded the beast with the toe of his boot, a strange expression came across his face. Dropping his bow to the ground still strung and sliding the arrow back into the quiver on his back, the man knelt beside the dead wolf.
Syndria studied the man as he studied the wolf. Dressed in leather breeches and a leather tunic, the man had a thick mustache and beard which covered his mouth. His wiry black hair was flecked with silver and he wore it tightly pulled back at the nape of his neck. His hands were gnarled, most likely from years of manual labor since the man did not seem old.
“That’s one strange creature,” the man muttered, speaking more to himself than to the girl just three feet away. “I just felled him and the bugger’s already stiff. Oh well, I suppose a scrawny beast like that’s not goin’ to make good meat anyhow.” As the man spoke, Syndria let her gaze drift from the man to the “strange creature” he had examined. Something about the animal seemed odd, but at first she couldn’t place what that might be. The man reached out and with one hand grasped the arrow to remove it from the dead wolf, placing his left hand against the animal’s rib cage. As soon as he touched the wolf the man jumped back, almost falling in his haste to get away. His eyes wide, the man seemed more frightened by the dead wolf than Syndria had been of the live one just minutes earlier.
“That ain’t natural,” the man whispered. “That creature was alive, but…” he trailed off.
Stepping forward, the Healer knelt beside the wolf’s head for a closer look. That is not possible, she thought, but at the same time she could not deny what she saw. Stretching out her hand to confirm what she already knew, the Healer gently lay her hand against the wolf’s fur. Instead of coarse hair, Syndria was touching something hard and unyielding. In fact, the wolf’s entire body had turned to stone. When she pulled at the arrow the feathered shaft broke off in her hand--the head was encased in the marble wolf. What magic was at work here? Syndria hade never seen such a spell worked by any of the King’s Wizards, yet who else could have done such a thing? And why had this beast been sent after her, for there would be no other reason for such a creature to be in these woods. Why hadn’t Simann just sent a guard?
“Come away from that,” the man said gruffly, pulling Syndria’s mind away from her questions. “It ain’t safe to mess with magic--it’s unnatural.” Syndria obliged him and took a step away from the marble wolf, but she hesitated to move toward the man. If he was so against magic, what would happen if he recognized who she was? Looking him over from head to toe again, Syndria decided she had nothing to fear. Judging by his appearance the man who had just saved her life had little interest in the happenings of the castle. It seemed likely that he would not even know of the search for the Healer who had betrayed her King.
The man had started back through the woods, but stopped when he realized the girl was not following. “Well, come on, girl,” he said, his tone impatient. “You’re wastin’ my hunt. If I get you to the Missus quick enough, then maybe I can get back out here before it gets too dark. That woman’s likely to tan my hide if I don’t get her no meat today.”
Syndria smiled when the man turned back to her, holding back a laugh she was sure would irritate and offend her rescuer. Never before had she heard such colorful speech, or at least not that she could remember. She hurried along behind the man, anxious to meet his “missus.” The man moved quickly, and soon Syndria was standing in front of a small cabin nestled in the trees. Smoke rolled from the chimney and since a fire wouldn’t be needed for warmth today the Healer assumed the woodsman’s wife must be cooking. Her stomach rumbled at the prospect, earning Syndria an odd look from her guide.
“I suppose you’re gonna be wantin’ some grub,” be grumbled, stepping through the open doorway. “That’s the missus, over by the fire. I don’t have time to mess with you if I’m gonna get some meat.” Turning, the man left Syndria standing in the middle of the one room cabin. It seemed the woman at the fire hadn’t heard her husband talking, for when she turned she jumped at the sight of the girl.
“Why, child, you just about scared the life outta me! Here I was expecting to see some injured critter dropped off in my doorway and I turn to find a pretty little girl. By all that’s good, what’s a tiny little thing like you doing out in these woods alone anyway?” The round woman quickly crossed the small room, wrapped her arm around the Healer’s shoulders, and ushered her in to sit at a small table. If she felt the girl stiffen at the foreign feeling of having someone’s arm around her, the cheery woman didn’t let on. “Just sit right down and let me get you something to nibble on. I just started the fire fore some stew tonight, so I’ll toast you up some of the bread I made yesterday and you can slather on some sweet cream butter. I told Simon I would move out here to the middle of nothing only if he let me keep Maybelle and that calf of hers, and am I ever glad I did. Sweet cream butter is just one of those things that’s hard for a girl to give up!” As she spoke, the woman tore off a chunk of bread and sat it on the rack over her fire, just above the flames.
“Well, where is my head?” she chuckled. “I imagine you’d like to know who’s feeding you. Like I mentioned, that grump you met in the woods would be my man Simon, though he’s not as gruff as he would like you to believe. My name is Josephina, but I’ve not been called that for a long while now. Simon calls me Ina, and I suppose it would work for you to just as well. What would your name be, dear?” she asked, handing Syndria the warm bread smothered with butter.
Unsure how to answer, the Healer took a bite of the bread in order to have time to think. Swallowing, she said, “Forgive me be for being so rude and not answering before I sampled your bread, but it looked delicious and I hadn’t realized how hungry I was until you handed this to me. My name is Kierney,” she finally said, deciding to use the name Councilman Lawrence had given her. “Your husband happened upon me at the most important time and saved me from the jaws of a ferocious wolf. I am ever in his debt.” She bowed her head slightly in thanks, a gesture with which Ina seemed unfamiliar. “Perhaps one day I may repay you.”
“Oh, don’t you worry about that, child. I’m just happy you’re here because it gives me another woman to talk to. Now, don’t say one more thing about ‘debts’ and ‘repayment.’ None of that has too much meaning out here anyhow. Now tell me, where were you headed to before my Simon came upon you?” she asked, leaning toward Syndria and propping her arms on the table between them.
“Honestly, madam, I don’t know where I was headed. There were those at home who no longer welcomed me, so I sat out to find those who will.”
“Why, you’re not much more than a child! How old are you?”
Syndria smiled. All her life people had mistaken her for younger, although most realized their mistake when she spoke. “I am twenty and six, though I may not look it. And despite my appearance I am quite able to take care of myself.”
“Well, I’ve lived your life twice over now, and Simon has close to three, so to me you’re still hardly more than a child,” she said, almost pouting, before cheerfully adding, “However, I suppose you’re old enough to look after yourself, seeing as how I was looking after me and Simon both when I was your age.” Just then the burly man came through the door carrying a rabbit, and Ina turned her attention to her husband.
“Take that dirty critter out of my house. I don’t want you trailing blood all over my floor again. But take care to keep that hide in good condition this time. I couldn’t even use it last time you brought a rabbit home!” Muttering something under his breath that Syndria imagined she wouldn’t want to hear, Simon turned and stepped back outside, his wife following close behind in order to oversee his work.