In the morning, Miranda felt a bit better. She woke early, and set off into the woods. She didn’t notice a slight rustling of the branches behind her. The plan was for her to wander around until she found some of these women, then pretend she had heard they were here and was looking for them.
She used no woodcraft as she moved through the woods. She didn’t crash, but she wanted to see and be seen. She was fording a stream, her dress hitched up, using stones on the stream bed for footing, when she heard a woman call, “Hey, you! What are you doing here?”
Miranda looked up. On the other side of the stream stood a young woman, hands on hips. “This land is private. There’s no strangers allowed.”
“I’m sorry.” Miranda spoke softly, eyes wide and hands out. “I didn’t know this was private land.” She quickly completed the stream crossing, coming to stand on the bank by the stranger. “I was looking for someone.”
“Oh, really? And who might that be?” The other woman glared.
“I heard there was a powerful woman somewhere in the woods around here. I left my village to come find her. Are you looking for her, too?” Miranda put her hand to her chest and laughed a little. “How silly I am. Maybe you are this woman. I wouldn’t know.” She giggled again.
The other woman didn’t laugh. “Don’t make fun of my Lady. She isn’t a sideshow for hicks to stare at.”
Miranda dropped her eyes. “I’m sorry, mira. I meant no offense. I have travelled many days and am very tired. Can you take me to the Lady?” She mimicked the other woman’s deferential tone.
The woman’s face softened. “Come . . .” but Miranda never knew what she would have said because a peremptory voice cut through the wood.
“Het. What is keeping you so long?” Another woman came sweeping between the trees down to the streamside. “Who is this?” she demanded, looking Miranda up and down.
“Mira. I found her fording the stream. She says she has travelled many days looking for the powerful woman she heard was in these woods.”
Miranda cast down her eyes and tried to look harmless.
“Hmmph. How do I know that’s the truth?”
Miranda raised her eyes. “Oh, it is, mira. I would never lie to such a great lady. I have heard so much of you, and the strange magics you work. Are you a pohatan, a witch?”
The woman smiled, and it didn’t reach her eyes. “Yes, I am, child. Do you wish to join my followers?”
“Yes, great lady.”
“Then go with Janaya here. She’ll show you the camp and find you a better dress than those rags.”
Janaya was already moving off and Miranda followed her. She hated the thought of giving up the dress she and her mother had sewn together, but she could see no other way.
She didn’t notice the wind in the bushes following her.
Jeric crouched in the bushes near the dragon. Should he reveal himself, or stay hidden? He couldn’t see the girl, and that worried him. Where was she? He didn’t like the thought of someone creeping up on him, like he had crept up on them last night.