A week later Zaradanoric felt able to travel again. He had spent much time while he was waiting with Katherine Oaklane, the intriguing lore-master. Partially, this was due to the manner of his wounds, which required expert skill that she had the knowledge of. After that night on the cliff fighting the possessor spirit, the two had grown closer as friends and allies.
The day for departure had arrived and Zaradanoric was ready to leave. He left his broken armor at the smith for him to use for scraps. The sword he had used during the fight he had buried in the hill under the massive bridge that gave the town its name. It carried an evil aura since the encounter with Oraston. He and Katherine decided to bury it away from the people to reduce the harm it would deal.
He quietly got up from where he slept in the common room in the Oaklane sister’s house and silently gathered his few belongings. Zaradanoric had decided that if he left quietly he would minimize the goodbyes. He quietly left a note detailing his gratitude and his remaining silver coins as compensation. Then Zaradanoric strolled out of the town just as the sun was rising and began the mile walk to John Brackenbrooks camp with a feeling of regret in his heart for having left that way.
About ten minutes later Zaradanoric entered the camp a nodded at the watchman and strolled towards John’s tent. He had to slightly bend down to enter the tent but it was something Zaradanoric had grown accustomed to due to his once large, muscular build, which was unusual even for one of his lineage. However, the winters had been cruel in the North Downs and many days there was barely just enough to get by. As a result Zaradanoric was much thinner than his height and shoulder width should dictate.
Inside the humble tent John Brackenbrook, his lieutenant, and a woman who Zaradanoric assumed was his wife sat examining a map on the table. The jovial hunter saw Zaradanoric out of the corner of his eye and looked up.
“Zaradanoric my friend. Welcome to the hunter’s camp. You have met my lieutenant Faleran but this is my beautiful wife Maggie.” The petite blond woman smiled politely in greeting. The hunter continued in mock whisper, “She is the best thing to happen to me. I am sure if I didn’t have her some mornings I would go hungry!”
At this teasing jibe Maggie shot back jokingly in her soft voice, “You’d go more than hungry John Brackenbrook! Admit it, if me, your darlin’ wife, wasn’t here some mornings you wouldn’t even have a brain! Much less food on the table, clean clothes, or well-fletched arrows! Now, give me a kiss because I have to make sure this whole camp gets ready to go.”
John Brackenbrook planted a kiss on his wife’s cheek and grinned big as she strode out the door. “Grew up the oldest of fifteen she did. Right little firebrand some days but she keeps the wheels greased and moving. Well, enough about me gal. Now that you are here let’s get you some proper fitting clothes and food. Have you eaten yet?” The hunter inquired.
Zaradanoric replied, “No I haven’t. John thank you so much for your hospitality. It is very generous.”
The sturdy hunter grinned again and replied, “Well lad, don’t thank me yet. The journey to Archet is about to start and I’ll need all hands on deck. But in return for your help we can teach ya all sorts of stuff.”
Zaradanoric chuckled and shook John’s hand, “Well Mr. Brackenbrook. You drive a hard bargain but I accept.”
“Good lad. Lets go see what the wife has fixed for breakfast. This way!” Ending his sentence the good-humored hunter strolled off in the directions of the cooking fires, rounded a corner and shouted, “Maggie, love-o-me-life, is breakfast ready yet? Ow!”
Zaradanoric rounded the corner to see Brackenbrook rubbing his hand while his wife Maggie stood in front of him with a wet rag. “Now, John Brackenbrook. You shan’t get your breakfast any earlier then the rest of us! And just standing there staring won’t cook it any faster either. Take your friend there and go cut us some fire wood.”
Zaradanoric move quietly and quickly past John and Maggie towards the side of the wagon where the axes were. He grabbed and tested the weight of two or three before settling on one that well-balanced enough for his liking.
“Just show me where the logs are and I’ll get to work Mrs. Brackenbrook.” He spoke in his strong northern inflection.
Maggie smiled and spoke, “Well a willing hand is better the ten pressed. Over there my boy to the left of that wagon is the wood yard. Just cut what we have on the ground. That should do.”
Zaradanoric nodded and walked in the direction of the wood yard smiling all the while because of John’s continued banter. As he approached the wood yard he saw that a large stack lay on the ground. It was nearly as tall as he was and almost seven feet wide. Instead of fretting about it, Zaradanoric simply grabbed a piece and set to work. In two powerful, experienced swings he split the log into four pieces and set to the next log. Fifteen minutes later Zaradanoric had cleared almost a fifth of the stack while John was struggling with his fourth piece.
The hunter looked up for a moment at the amount of logs Zaradanoric had spilt and exclaimed, “Strewth! I have never seen anybody split that much in such a short time. Maggie! Come here darling and see this. Go on lad. Keep going.”
Zaradanoric went back to work. Swing, turn the log, swing again, and clean up. As he continued chopping wood as small crowd of the early risers had gathered around and was watching the man from the North Downs chop wood. After a good thirty more minutes the stack that was on the ground was split neatly into fourths.
Zaradanoric set down his axe and looked at his work. His tattered, sweaty shirt clung to his thin frame as he relaxed for a moment. Then he turned to the Brackenbrooks and asked, “Where does this need to go?”
Maggie snorted and responded, “You won’t be carrying this anywhere lad. We’ll all pitch in and help out. You just did in a half an hour what usually takes us three times that. Breakfast is nearly done and we can get a move on early.” She paused and looked his skinny frame up and down before asking, “Zaradanoric, how long has it been since you have had a decent meal?”
Zaradanoric looked at the ground and kicked at a pebble before answering, “I cannot remember the last time. Life is hard in the downs and game and farmers aren’t as plentiful. We get by but there isn’t full stomachs among the men most days.”
Maggie smiled for a minute and said, “Well Zaradanoric you are with the Brackenbrook’s hunting party now and there is always enough to go around. Come on now enough jaw flapping lets finish up and get eating.
Ten minutes later the chopped wood was loaded onto a wagon and the entire camp, which number about eighty in all, were sitting eating. Zaradanoric ate with John and Maggie and listened to their amusing banter. His thoughts for some reason began to drift to Katherine Oaklane but he didn’t know why.
John interrupted his musings with a low statement, “Uh oh. Seems our girls have noticed the Northerner ehh Maggie?”
His wife nodded in response while her husband continued to speak, “Pay em no mind and don’t encourage them. They are horrible flirts. They will tar you apart trying to get-Ooofff! What was that for Maggie?”
“You are going to worry his young head too much. Just tell him to mind his distance and he will be fine. They go after anything Zaradanoric they are only encouraged because of the demonstration at the woodpile.”
Zaradanoric nodded and continued to eat the delicious breakfast that had been made for them. He looked up at the small gaggle of girls who were looking his direction and whispering. He immediately diverted his gaze up to the nearby road where he saw a rider approaching on a horse. He subtlety nudged John and nodded in the direction of the rider. Both he and John put down their plates and they walk towards the road. Maggie started to ask why they were moving but she saw the look in her husband’s eyes and understood.
As the two men approached the road the rider neared them and slowed. Zaradanoric immediately recognized the rider.
“Its okay John, it’s Katherine from the town. What can I do for you?” He asked in his Northern brogue.
Katherine shook back her hood and let her hair spill across her shoulders. Then she proclaimed in her lighter accent. “Well for one, not ditch me. If you are leaving then I am as well. Allies stick together. Second take your money back. You don’t owe a friend anything. They take care of each other.” She tossed him a small leather pouch that contained his few silver coins.
Grinning from ear to ear he said to John, “You don’t mind her joining us do you?”
“Nay lad let her join. She can help my wife. Come on now lass. Lets get you some food.”
An hour later all the camp was fed and the small gaggle of girls were staring jealously at Katherine. Before they began to break camp Zaradanoric changed into the clothes John had ready for him and trimmed his unruly beard. The clothes were soft deer leather that hung loosely around his body, leaving room for his body to grow into now that he was receiving more food.
When they began disassembling the camp, Zaradanoric found immediate work being the tallest in the camp by a good seven or eight inches. In fact only Katherine and John Brackenbrook were remotely close to his height but he still held a three-inch advantage on them. Using his height, Zaradanoric began to disassemble some of the taller tents and load them on the wagons. As he was lifting a particularly heavy barrel on a wagon he began to loose his grip but Katherine stepped in and took up the slack.
Zaradanoric appreciated that she was helping. Unlike all the other girls who were sitting about acting silly Katherine was pitching in and aiding the effort. Several hours later the pack was ready to move. Zaradanoric and Katherine boarded John’s wagon with Maggie and sat back for the ride. Zaradanoric looked with amazement at the landscape approaching in the distance. It looked much more fertile than the barren fields of the Downs. If this was the bounty ahead of him then the days of plenty were here.