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"You would think," Arkady said mildly as their horses sauntered along in the midsummer heat, "that Verel would feel secure enough by now in those unbeguilement techniques to train his own apprentices."

Dag chuckled from – not quite beside him, seeing as he held Copperhead at enough of a distance to keep the ornery chestnut from taking a bite out of his teacher/partner's horse. More partner/teacher these days, Arkady supposed. "I doubt he's insecure so much as thinking it's more efficient to have them learn from the source." Dag's smile was a little wry, but mostly mellow. "When we're available."

"More efficient for him, at least," Arkady snorted. "Ah well. The girls have enjoyed themselves." He followed Dag's gaze to where Sumac and Fawn had trotted a little distance ahead of them, Fawn on Dancer and Sumac on a feisty colt she'd said could use the training. Both women enjoyed traveling with their maker husbands on occasion, now that their children were of an age to not constantly need their mothers' care. But it would be the last trip for Fawn for a time; Dag had told her only two weeks ago that she carried another Bluefield babe in her womb. He and Sumac had decided to stop with their little boy and girl, but that didn't stop his Redwing wife from discussing childbearing with Fawn and Berry at a level of detail that turned Fawn's brother Whit, if not the two groundsetters, absolutely bone-pale.

Arkady's lips stretched in a grin as he remembered Sumac's amused chiding of the young man's squeamishness. Honestly, Whit, you've helped me pull foals out of mares often enough, and I know you know that your own little ones didn't pop up from the plunkin pond!

They'd just traded parting salutes with Pearl Riffle Camp's gate guards when the sound of approaching hoofbeats and the feel of an agitated farmer ground pulled Arkady from his musings. A stripling on a blowing horse turned toward them from the road down to the ferry and hailed them. "Maker Bluefield! Maker Redwing, sir! Sedge Rushwater needs you down at Pearl Bend for a fellow with a crushed arm. Can you come?"

Arkady's bemusement at the farmer boy's use of the Lakewalker title "maker" immediately faded before the gravity of the request. Rushwater was the bonesetter for Pearl Bend, and skilled at his trade. The arm had to be in a bad way for him to call on outside help. With only a glance shared between them, the quartet nudged their horses into a canter and followed the messenger to the ferry.

Upon their arrival at the bonesetter's house, they walked in on a softly-voiced argument between Rushwater and a pretty young woman. "You shouldn't ought to be watching this, Mint. Go in the back with your youngins and my wife will get you a cup of tea. We'll let you know how things go on."

"I'm not leaving my husband, Sedge!" she hissed in return, shooting the new arrivals a strange look. Fear? Anger?

From a pallet in the corner, the man who was obviously to be their patient sent up a pain-drenched groan. His injured arm was indeed crushed and bloody, fragments of bone poking through the skin in at least three places. Guarding himself against the pain, Arkady swiftly sent his groundsense to assess the damage.

Rushwater threw up his hands, literally and figuratively, and turned to the Lakewalkers. "Glad my boy caught you." He nodded at the man on the pallet as they crossed the room. "Rowan Fairacre's his name. He was helping with the raising of a barn not far from here when someone lost hold of a heavy beam that came down corner-first on that arm. All I can do myself is take it off at the shoulder, but with the blood he's lost he'd likely die in the process." He watched anxiously as Dag and Arkady crouched up by the man's shoulders, with Fawn and Sumac by his legs. "Can you do anything for him?"

"I'm sure we can do something for him," Arkady murmured, his ground sinking deeper into their patient. "Can't promise yet whether we can do enough – Dag?" He snapped his fingers to gain his partner's attention. "Dag, wake up! Are you with me?"

"Sorry," Dag muttered, reaching to assist with his ground projections. Down and in. "With you …"

Odd, that distraction. Normally Dag's attention couldn't be jarred from a patient until their work was done. He seemed to pull his focus from … Fairacre's wife? Fawn too had a worried look on her face, and though she gamely held one of the injured man's legs down as they worked, she kept stealing glances at the other farmer woman where she stood with her arms folded. Odd, odd, odd ... certainly Mint Fairacre bristled with a level of mistrust they rarely saw any more now that regular word of their work healing farmers had spread around. Sumac looked puzzled, then just grim as she matched her ground to Rowan's in the best patrol first-aid technique, taking a portion of his pain on herself.

Arkady had no more time to ponder strange reactions as he and Dag worked to realign and knit bone and muscle, repair broken blood vessels and close skin wounds. He vividly remembered the time he'd groundset a similarly crushed leg for their Pearl Riffle friend Barr, though this went far more quickly with Dag's help. The years they'd worked together had forged the two Lakewalker men, southern and northern, into an efficient team, with the result that neither of them was nearing groundlock by the time the major repairs were done. Not that either Sumac or Fawn would have hesitated to swat both of them upside the head to break a lock, had it been called for.

As the two men withdrew their ground projections, the injured man let out another groan, matched by Sumac's soft hiss as she pulled back her ground support. The return of what was left of his pain jolted Fairacre to sudden wakefulness. Chest heaving, he stared around at the four strangers with a bewilderment that shifted to awe when he turned his head to look at what had been done to his arm. "I was … you …" His voice shook, and he fell silent again as he looked up and found his wife standing over them.

Tears filling her eyes, Mint made a choked noise that blended with Sedge Rushwater's heavy sigh of relief. Her lips parted, but a door opening from a back room interrupted whatever she'd been about to say. A blond little girl of maybe six or seven peeped through, blue eyes bright with worry. "Mama, is Papa okay?"

Fairacre turned his head at the sound of her voice. "Lily-girl?" he called, his voice firming. "I'm all right now. You can come in." Mint looked as though she'd like to contradict her husband on that last, but she turned to embrace the girl as she darted in. This time the look she directed at the Lakewalkers overflowed with apprehension.

And Arkady now needed no explanation as to why. The name of the little girl combined with her obviously half-Lakewalker ground to explain everything that had happened since their arrival. Oh. So this is the farmer girl Barr persuaded to lie with him all that time ago, and the half-blood daughter he sired on her. Mint certainly suited Barr's tastes, with her soft brown hair and softly rounded figure, but no wonder she mistrusted Lakewalkers. At least we saved her husband's life. But what are we to do with this?

 

******

 

As it turned out, Mint Fairacre decided that for herself. While Dag and Arkady gave Rowan well-practiced explanations of what they'd done for him and discussed what further care he would need with Sedge, his wife took a deep breath and approached Fawn. "May I speak with you alone, Missus Bluefield?" she asked in a tight whisper.

Fawn's eyes widened a bit. Sedge Rushwater had not wasted time on introducing the four of them. She's heard of me. Me and Dag. Well, and who in the area hadn't by now? Nodding, she followed the other woman out to the front porch. Dag looked up, eyes full of understanding. Little Lily's glance also followed her mother, but she stayed close by her father's side.

Mint kept walking, down the porch steps and several yards away to a nearby tree. A very private talk, then. Wringing her hands repeatedly, she chewed on her full lower lip for long seconds before finally blurting out, "They can tell, can't they. Your husband and the other two. They can see that my Lily's half Lakewalker."

Fawn hesitated only an instant before choosing how best to respond. With the whole truth. She's owed it. "Happen that they can, ma'am," she answered respectfully, though she doubted the other woman was any older than she was. "But Barr told us about you and Lily not long after he found out about her--" And you ordered him out of your life, for which I surely can't blame you. "--so I was able to put two and two together myself."

Mint stiffened at the mention of Barr's name. "So it's been all over their camp already, has it?" Her tone was bitter.

"No, it hasn't." Fawn took care to keep her own voice steady as she looked up, Mint being some inches taller than her. "He only told a few people, and that only to make sure someone knew enough to keep an eye on Lily if anything happened to him. Out of the Lakewalkers that know, there isn't a one that hasn't torn strips out of him for what he did to you." Not all Lakewalkers are stupid, thoughtless young louts. Even Barr isn't the lout he was back then. She wondered if Mint would believe that if she was told. Or if she'd care. It's probably pretty well beside the point for her.

Indeed, a jerk of Mint's chin dismissed Barr and all he might think from the conversation. "I have questions, and I can't think of who else to ask."

Fawn nodded encouragingly. "I'd be pleased to help you and your daughter in any way I can." Smiling, she let one hand rest over her abdomen. "Having two half-blood children of my own and carrying a third, I can probably guess some of your worries."

A little of the raw tension seemed to ease out of the other woman as she followed Fawn's hand. Yes, see me. I'm a mother, just like you. After a slow breath, she continued. "I've heard tell of a midwife up Tripoint way who's a half-blood like my daughter. They say she has some Lakewalker healing magic in spite of not being a full-blood." Her glance at the house indicated the vivid demonstration she'd just seen of that "magic".

Fawn nodded again, this time in confirmation. "That's true. Her name's Calla Axe Smith. She and her brother and husband traveled the Trace with us years ago. Arkady and Dag made a start teaching her about her ground powers, and she learned more from the Lakewalkers up at Tripoint Camp."

Mint listened with an uncertainty in her eyes that bordered on fear. "Will that happen to Lily?" she blurted. "Word has gotten 'round about some of the strange things Lakewalkers can do and how they do them. Will she wind up with those … ground powers, you called them? What will they do to her?"

So Mint had not only heard the talk about her family and their work with both farmers and Lakewalkers, she'd been smart enough to recognize its importance to her daughter and listen carefully. "There's no way of knowing if she'll show any kind of ground abilities until she reaches eleven or twelve." And Fawn wondered what her own babies would encounter at that age. "If she starts seeing things in fits and spurts, and feeling strange sensations she has a hard time explaining, that'd be a likely sign. If that happens, she should really have a Lakewalker help her figure out what she can do and tell her how to go on."

Mint was chewing her lip again, indecision plain on her face. "Would your husband help her, if that came to pass? Or his partner?"

Dag and Arkady being the only two Lakewalkers Mint was at all prepared to trust right now, Fawn could see. Brow furrowing, she thought fast. "They would if you asked them, I'm pretty sure," she said, choosing her words carefully. "But I can think of another Lakewalker who I know would be willing to help."

Indecision shifted to plain stubbornness as Mint's jaw clenched. "You mean Barr? No! He'll take her away from me! I know he wanted to the last time he saw us!"

"Whether he wanted to or not, he didn't." Fawn pointed out reasonably. "He told Dag and I that he didn't want to do you any more harm than he'd already done, so he left you alone. Now no one in the wide green world can blame you for not wanting to trust him after what he did, but if he's wanting to take responsibility for the daughter he got you pregnant with, I can't help but think that's a good thing."

Mint shook her head almost violently. "I don't trust him. I don't trust him not to use his mind-magic on me again. I was surprised when he didn't seem to after he chased down Lily and me."

Fawn sighed. It seemed her attempt to help Mint past her fears and give Barr a chance to grow up a little more just wasn't to be. "If you never want to see or deal with Barr ever again, Missus Fairacre, that's your choice by right. He'll abide by any decision you make about your daughter, I know that." Her eyes widened as an idea struck. "But if you're willing to trust Dag and Arkady, they can make sure Barr's mind-magic is nothing you need worry about."

 

******

 

Barr's gaze lingered on the walnut that hung from the braid of hair around Mint's neck, all the more so because she kept reaching up to finger it nervously. They stood some distance away from the entrance to Pearl Riffle Camp, since Mint had refused to have him anywhere near the house where her husband was still recuperating. Barr had been stunned that she'd agreed to talk with him about Lily, but his amazement had washed away in a wave of dull sadness when Dag explained that he'd made her one of the shields they'd been creating to protect farmers' grounds. If she were a Lakewalker, she wouldn't need that nut to trust me. But then if she were a Lakewalker, none of this would've happened.

Yeah, if she'd been more of a Lakewalker … or I'd been less of an idiot.

He knew he deserved whatever Mint decided to hand him, and she was handing him one of the iciest stares he'd ever had to face. "I'm sorry, Mint," he blurted, then hung his head at the sound of the words. "I know that likely doesn't mean much to you, coming from me, but it's true."

If anything, the frost in her eyes only increased. "You're right. It doesn't mean much." She touched the walnut shield once more, then folded her fingers tight before her. "Fawn said you'd abide by my decisions, so here they are. If Lily never shows any sign of Lakewalker powers, then she'll go through life as the farmer girl she is, and you'll never have anything to do with her, ever. I mean that, Barr."

Barr swallowed hard, but nodded dejected acquiescence. Mint, however, was far from done. "If the worst happens and her Lakewalker blood starts showing somehow--" If I have to beg for my husband's forgiveness for not telling him the truth straight off didn't need saying. "--then and only then will Lily find out you're her father. I'll tell my girl the whole truth if I have to tell her any of it. But you'll only get to meet her if she tells me she wants to know you, and you're never to be around her without either Dag Bluefield or Arkady Redwing being present. Are we clear?"

So she still didn't trust him, nut or no. Well, he couldn't blame her. "Clear," he rasped through his still-tight throat. "I'll do as you wish, I promise."

"Your promises don't mean much either." Mint's back was stiff as Tripoint steel. "As for me, I never want to see or hear from you again from this day forward. Any word about Lily will come to you through Fawn, Dag, Arkady or Sumac. I won't have you clouding my life ever again."

Barr bowed his head, eyes on the ground. "As you wish," he repeated.

Without another word, Mint climbed back onto the seat of the light wagon she'd driven here, picked up the reins, clucked to her horse and was gone. Barr stood very still, and didn't watch her go.

After a time, he sensed a familiar ground come out from under some distant trees and approach. Senna Crow Hickory laid her hands lightly on his shoulders and turned him to face her. "That bad?" she asked sympathetically.

Looking down into her copper-gilt eyes, Barr shrugged. "No more than I deserved. Less, actually."

"I don't doubt it." Senna's tone remained tranquil as she rubbed his shoulders. The young woman from Hickory Lake Camp had indeed torn strips out of him when he'd confessed the situation with Mint and Lily to her, but she'd stayed with him nonetheless. Barr shook his head in quiet amazement, running a hand down her long black braid. "She'll never forgive me, I know. Why did you?"

Senna sighed. "I haven't. Because I'm not the one you wronged, lover, she is. So what would my forgiveness matter?" Her hands slipped around his neck and toyed with his braid in turn. "You can't change what you did. All you can do is what you can do now, and you're trying." A mischievous grin curved her lips. "Besides, I'm looking to get string-bound with you, not the thoughtless tomcat you were eight years ago. Good thing, isn't it?"

Barr couldn't help smiling in return as he kissed her brow. Senna had never specified her exact reasons for badgering her grandfather Fairbolt into sending her down to Pearl Riffle as an exchange patroller, though some clue had been offered by the fact that she'd done so shortly after they'd met at the string-binding of her cousin Tioca and his former patrol partner Remo. But whatever her reasons were, he blessed her for them. "It's a wonderful thing," he murmured against her forehead before turning her toward the gate. "C'mon. We'd best go give Fawn the details so she can lecture me some more."

"Just so's you listen to her, patroller boy."

"I surely will, patroller girl."

 
 
 

FIN