The fire crackled merrily in the small ring of stones. Dido sat, knees drawn up, watching the bear meat packed with fragrant herbs and berries sizzle on long spits of fresh birch. Across from her Lora was cleaning her flint knife gently, Swift sprawled beside her, head on her paws, eyes shut, but ears lightly moving back and forth.
“You made good work of that bear,” the older woman said.
“The meat will last me a while once I smoke it,” Dido replied matter-of-factly, gazing back into the fire thoughtfully.
“You’re going to stay here even after he took over your cave?” Lora was genuinely surprised.
“It’s my home. I just haven’t lived here over winter and spring and so it thought it could move in.” She continued gazing into the fire.
“Yes?” The dark-haired woman put away her knife as she answered.
“How did you do that with the bear?” The brown eyes now flicked up at the other woman and the girl’s lower lip protruded slightly.
“You just hit it with your spear! You didn’t even draw blood.”
“Oh!” Lora drew out the sound as she smiled thoughtfully. “Let’s just say that my office gives me special gifts. I use them to protect those who need protection.” Here she chucked. “Though usually I have to protect animals from humans, not the other way around.” She looked piercingly at the girl. “But I think I remember you. Your name is Dido and your foster father was Neb the Wood Hermit. He found you as an orphan and raised you. I remember when you were nine years old, he came down with a strong fever. You tried to help him and then you caught it, too. If your dog Thurga hadn’t come and gotten me, you both would have died.” This whole time Dido shifted uncomfortably, but then suddenly her mouth dropped open as her eyes brightened.
“Wait a minute, you’re the one — the Watchcarer, the one Pa always told me about. I thought you were a dream!”
“I can seem that way if I choose,” Lora admitted. “But I hardly am a dream. I’m glad to see you’re well. I’m also glad that I found Ursus when I did. Neb would never have forgiven me if I’d let a rogue bear kill his daughter.”
“He couldn’t say anything if it did,” she replied, just a bit sullenly. “He’s dead you know.”
“Yes, two summers ago. And last fall you went away with a young man — a noble I think.” Lora studied Dido carefully as she spoke.
“Kyle.” It just popped out, before she could stifle it.
“Kyle à Carrock.” The Watchcarer’s gaze suddenly had turned inward. “I remember him quite well. A bright little guy.” She smiled. “He wanted to marry me.” Dido’s mouth dropped open.
Lora laughed brightly.
“Oh, he was only eight. He doesn’t remember me clearly any more. I won’t let him.” She looked closely at Dido. “You care about him, don’t you?”
“What is that to you?” the girl snapped back, frowning.
“Well, if he came and took you to his castle, there must have been something there.” Dido bit her lip, and for the first time a bit of moisture played around her eyes.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” Her voice was choked
“All right.” Lora pulled one of the spits from the fire and poked at the meat. “That bear will certainly last you a few months.”
“If I don’t have any unexpected guests.” The girl’s voice now became clear again and a slight smile played at the corners of her lips. “Otherwise I’ll just find something else to eat — I’m a huntress, you know.”
“Hm.” Lora smiled, replacing the spit. “I wonder what old Neb would say to that.”
“Pa was the only other person who cared about animals as much as you.” She laughed lightly at the memory and picked up her own spit to test it.
“Dido.” She looked up at the other woman. The Watchcarer’s eyes suddenly had taken on a piercing quality, the firelight now flickering in their midst. Dido shivered and her Adam’s apple moved slightly.
“If you’re such a great huntress, you should know when a quarry is worth pursuing.” The girl nodded, almost involuntarily.
“Then let me tell you,” Lora said quietly, “he is the best quarry you’ve ever pursued. Don’t let him get away.”