Skylar woke to the shrill beep of his alarm and quickly shut it off. He peered into the darkness, trying in vain to see anything. It was much too early to get up, especially on a night short of sleep. Once he’d finally fallen asleep, his dreams had been full of Klodfons. Sometimes Jenna had fought at his side; at others she’d turned him over to them.
"It's a good thing she's going with us," he muttered aloud. "I can keep an eye on her." He frowned. He would make a chance to talk to her. He needed answers, then maybe he could get some decent sleep.
Quickly showering, Skylar dressed for the day. He considered strapping his aid kit to his belt, but decided it would be better to carry it in his pack, at least until they were on the trail. The laser pistol was a different matter.
Most of the men in the group carried both pistol and rifle, and the grip on his pistol wasn’t that much different from theirs in appearance. Having worn it most of his adult life, he didn’t feel completely dressed without it.
He belted and strapped his holster to his left thigh and filled the hollow with the pistol, carefully snapping the security strap in place to ward off Jenna’s prying fingers. Finally, he picked up his pack and the projectile rifle he’d brought from Rantek’s and went downstairs.
Several members of the party were already waiting in the living room. Skylar stopped in the doorway to survey the group.
One of them had to be the reason Rantek had planned to come on this trip…but which one? And why? Did he suspect one of them of spying for the Klodfons? Or was the hunting trip just part of his cover and have nothing to do with his scouting mission?
Rory Thompson was propped against his pack, which in turn was propped against the wall. He was dozing, his thin frame threatening to slide off the pack.
Big Charles Buckson was draped across the end of the couch, his pack lying on the floor at his side.
John Patterson, mouse brown hair nearly getting clipped by the low-hanging ceiling fan, stood in the center of the room jingling something in his pocket.
Mike Jeffries, the youngest in the group, sat tensively in a chair, his pack on the floor at his feet, awaiting the word to go. Scarcely containing his excitement, he glanced up at Skylar's entrance. "Ready to go?"
Skylar smiled back. He'd only met Mike the evening before last but instinctively liked him. His blond, blue-eyed looks and exuberant personality reminded him of his close friend and usual wing mate, Halley. Briefly wondering how Halley was doing, Skylar said, "I'm ready. Are Glen and Jenna down yet?"
Charles spoke from the couch. "Jenna's in the kitchen helping Hannah with breakfast and our esteemed host is in the den selecting today's rifle."
Jenna came to the dining room door then, across the room from Skylar. She looked no less feminine today in the jeans and oversized turtleneck sweater than she had yesterday in her skirt and blouse.
"Breakfast is on," she said. "Let's eat so we can get started."
As the men moved toward the dining room, Rory's head finally slid off his pack and hit the wall, startling him awake. Mike lent him a hand up and they followed Charles into the dining room. Skylar placed his pack in the chair recently abandoned by Mike and smoothly moved to join the rest.
During breakfast, John explained his need to get back to his office right away. Since he'd already bagged his deer, he'd see them all next year. Skylar looked up at Jenna and smiled at her as John fulfilled her prediction. Jenna grinned back, her eyes twinkling with her unexpressed laughter. When everyone had finished, they went back to the living room to get their equipment.
Jenna disappeared up the stairs and returned with a pack that looked much too big for her small frame. A pistol was strapped snugly to her right leg, and a small leather case now hung from the back of her belt. She adjusted the position of the case, then shouldered her pack.
The group stepped from the living room into the chill of the early morning air. The sky had begun to lighten, a couple of clouds on the horizon glowing a pale yellowy pink. They paused outside the stable, where the subdued lighting showed several mounts peeking over the doors of their stalls. Only two of the horses were led out into the chill morning air. One was a beautiful dark brown, which stood placidly while Glen and Charles fastened on a large pack.
The second horse pranced nervously as he was led from the stable. He was deep black with a white patch on each foot and on his forehead. Jenna moved quickly to the horse's head and soothed him, calling him Blaize and crooning endearments to him. While Jenna held the horse, the stable man quickly and efficiently loaded him with four long and two short poles and a soft bag. Skylar was not sure what their purpose might be, but didn't want to attract attention to his ignorance by asking.
"The hunting is usually pretty good on top if we can cross the river to get there.” Mike commented softly as he came up next to Skylar, “It's been raining a lot lately. It may be too flooded to get very high."
“Wouldn’t it be easier to cross the river on horses?” Skylar asked.
“Yeah, probably, but it’s traditional for our group to hike in; for some of us it’s the only exercise we get all year,” Mike answered, “but we do take these two horses with us. Coco and Blaize are almost as much a part of the group as the rest of us. Charles is particularly fond of Coco,” he added, his eyes twinkling with mischief, as he gestured to the brown horse, “as that pack has our food supplies in it. We always tease him that Hannah won’t have packed enough for the five day trip. I can’t wait to see where we go this time.”
"You mean you don't know exactly where we're going?"
Mike grinned. "Nope, but I'm sure Glen's got a few ideas in mind; that's what we pay him for. All I’m sure of is we'll be back on Friday; Glen promised."
"You really trust him, don't you?"
Mike's smile disappeared as he faced Skylar squarely. "He's never broken a promise to me or, as far as I know, to anyone else. The guy's incredible. I trust him with my life."
Skylar looked intently at Mike’s face, assessing his words, and was satisfied with the truth he found there.
Glen's clear voice rang out. "Is everybody ready?" Assenting murmurs came from the assembled group.
"Then let's go." Glen gathered the brown’s reins, and they began to move across the fields toward the woods in the distance, falling neatly into a line.
Glen led Coco, followed closely by Charles. Mike and Rory came next, then Jenna, leading Blaize. The horse appeared calmer now due to Jenna's gentle coaxing. Skylar took a position at the rear of the line so he could help Jenna with her huge backpack and the somewhat skittish horse if she encountered any problems.
The sky continued to brighten, then the sun suddenly popped above the horizon. Skylar noted this phenomenon seemed universal…sunrise was a sudden event, while sunsets usually take their own sweet time.
The group moved across a wide meadow wet with dew. They began to stretch out until there were fairly large gaps between them. As Skylar lagged behind, he saw it would not be difficult to follow the route the others had taken even if he couldn't see them. The knee-high grass seemed to darken as their passage knocked the moisture to the ground.
The peaceful chattering of morning birds pleasantly broke the stillness. A little way off to the left, Skylar noticed a movement in the tops of the grasses. Glancing in that direction he was startled to see a thin green snake, gliding along the tops of the grass blades, barely bending the tips beneath its slight weight.
Skylar, his attention on the snake, stumbled momentarily on the uneven ground, caught himself and quickly glanced back to where the snake had been. He saw the flick of the tail as the snake dove down for better cover in the thicker grass beneath the surface. He moved on, appreciating the varied splendor around him, thinking of other worlds he had visited whose stark beauty was bleak by comparison.
A motion to the right of the trail drew Skylar's eyes in that direction. A furry brown rabbit was poised on his haunches, its large ears standing at attention. It was sniffing the air, its velvety nose twitching quickly and nervously as the rest of the body remained motionless.
Suddenly the rabbit turned and fled, bounding over rock and flower with short and long leaps in a zigzagging manner. The unpredictability of its flight would have prevented him from getting a good shot, and a greater respect for Glen as a hunter was born in his mind.
With mild amusement at the rabbit's antics, Skylar continued up the trail. They came to the first line of trees and entered the woods. There was a pleasant path to walk on, just wide enough for their single-file march. As Skylar studied the terrain, he realized they were climbing up an old dry wash.
They crossed a small creek over a narrow bridge made of old planks, rotting in places and covered with a slimy green moss which made footing uncertain and passage quite challenging. Skylar made a motion to assist Jenna in getting the horse over the "bridge". Only the look in her eyes stopped him…a warning not to push his gallantry upon her. He stepped back a pace, respecting her wishes.
A sense of urgency for the needed answers continued to grow within him. Drawing upon the discipline he had learned in his early training at the academy, he suppressed the desire to grab Jenna and demand those answers. He maintained an outward calm.
The path was very steep now, with rocks prevalently showing their jagged points, the party now closer together. As they climbed on top of the last outcropping, Charles, his curly red hair dripping from the effort of the climb, gasped out to Glen, "How much further before we stop for lunch?"
Glen, a slow smile spreading across his even features, glanced at his watch. "We're nearly there. Just under an hour now. You're doing fine," he said. "We'll make it in good time, so we can stop here for about five minutes." Sinking to the ground, Charles chose not to expend energy on speech to answer, but gave a brief nod to express a begrudged but courteous 'thanks'.
Skylar hid his smile at Glen's diplomacy and turned, climbing on top of a small mound of rock at the trail's side to see how far they'd come. From this vantage point, he could see around and below him quite well. The clouds he’d seen at daybreak had spread across the sky, piling menacingly on top of each other. Their dirty grey and heavy look promised rain for later…or maybe even snow.
The view down the mountain reminded him very much of the forest near his home on Timora. Then his mind replayed the forest as he'd last seen it, blackened and still smoking from the Klodfon raid. His heart bleak, he reminded himself it was futile to dwell on the past.
Glen called out, “Time to go.” and Skylar rejoined the group.