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Chapter 1: The Campfire
Here’s the first chapter of this novel.
Inside a ring of stones was a fire crackling, warm and tangerine bright in the cooling late summer blue hour. Outside the stones were four mammals, travelers who'd spent the previous five days traversing dusty trails and rivers and settlements on a path east from Vine Valley. Above them was a canopy of alders, leaves shading green to gold, underlit by the campfire's orange.
The campsite was on the edge of a meadow on a hillside west of Bridge City. The sun was down, and the stars over Cascadia shined in the deepening indigo. The eastern treeline veiled the moon, so the most vivid light over the dale was the Beacon. The tower rose from the city's highest hill—a remnant of the prime mammals' rule and the tallest structure any of the travelers knew—blinking blue as a sapphire.
The Beacon wasn't the only light, though. A handful of cookfires was scattered around the hillside, and across the dale, in the folds of the hills, was another dense constellation of electric lights.
"What's that glow?" Eola Lightstripe asked.
Bajo glanced up from staring at the flame and followed Eola's gaze before answering. "That's the Wells, the regional center for these hills. They make some of the best cheese and ice cream in Cascadia."
"They do, eh?" Eola's broad head pulled back while she processed this. "Are we going that way?"
"Not plannin' on it, sadly," Bajo said from across the fire. The raccoon’s black waxed cloak hung loosely around him, faded gray on the creases, and his walking staff was propped against his pack nearby. He flexed his hind paws near the warmth of the flames, then turned toward Arrick, who was peering down the alignment of each of his arrows.
"You think we'll have time to stop at Dag's?"
"Can we just get to Southfront first before we consider shopping? Coins dig out your pocket like moles."
"I heard they had bolas there," said Bajo. "I need something with range. I can't rely on you all the time."
"Okay, sure, but why not try something new? Something more available? Like, I don’t know, shuriken? Throwing knives."
Bajo folded his arms.
"You know I’m not into blades like you, Arrick, and how're ya even gonna rip on bolas before we've eaten? And what about the time that chicken thief tried to bolt on us and I tied him up two seconds later?"
"One time,” the marten held up a single claw on his forepaw. “The bolas helped once."
"Well, they'd help a lot more often if shops sold them. Now are we ready to eat or what?"
Across Arrick's wiry torso was a splash of sunburst orange with a diagonal stripe pressed down in the vibrant fur where his quiver and ash bow were typically slung. His cloak was back over his shoulders, a frayed patchwork of fabrics speckled every spectrum of green. Firelight glittered off the edge of Arrick's arrowhead, and the Humboldt marten flashed a fanged grin
"One of us has to be ready for range."
"Those are plenty honed," Bajo batted a dismissive paw.
Eola's lower paws were toasty, and she turned away from the blue beacon toward the flickering orange of the flame, which shined off the white stripes of her muzzle. Eola was a badger, the largest of the travelers, and also the youngest. Her cloak was a fir bark brown, unadorned, roughspun from wool. She'd met the other three travelers near her home in Vine Valley, where she'd been assigned by the Vintner to follow along, provide broad shoulders, and listen to where her walkabout led. She enjoyed her companions immensely, and they, in turn, appreciated her curiosity, enthusiasm, and sheer hauling strength.
The fourth member of their party and the tiniest, Ophir, perched on a log between Bajo and Eola and a little back from the heat. Eola guessed she was some sort of squirrel, and found Ophir adorable whatever her species. The little creature had wide dark eyes and the most intricate cloak the badger had ever seen, made of velvety maroon fabric, fringed at the edges with feathery green fronds.
The chic little creature was silent and mysterious, and while Eola wondered plenty, she felt hesitant to pry, sensing the squirrel's backstory was somehow unmentionable. Yet, despite her silence, Ophir was expressive in gestures, calm in demeanor, and always eager to help despite her diminutive stature. All Eola knew was her tiny companion bore a secret, and they'd all agreed to protect that secret at all costs.
Eola wasn't thinking about secrets, though. Instead, she was considering the provisions in her pack: a Gala apple, fresh-picked, flecked in gold and red; a well-aged wedge of sharp orange cheddar wrapped in loose-woven cloth; and biscuits–the finest she'd ever tasted, though now a day old–with a bit of strawberry jam picked up on yesterday's hike up Fanno Creek through eastern Beaver Township. While she unpacked dinner, she wondered if Bajo and Arrick had enough smoked salmon to share.
Arrick studied the glinting edge of his arrowhead before neatly tucking the arrow away in his quiver.
"Okay, let's eat."
Eola needed no further prompting. She rooted through her canvas rucksack and pulled out a small satchel of roasted almonds, hazelnuts, and a carrot. She handed these to Ophir, who accepted her meal with paws pressed together and a grateful nod. Then Eola plucked out the apple and biscuits and cheese and jam, sliced some of the cheddar with a pocketknife, and spread the preserves on the biscuit. She missed home for a moment, and her heart was heavy at the thought of grapes ripening from green to purple in the sun. She blinked to bring herself back to the present.
Across the fire, Bajo set a hunk of smoked salmon on the top of a log, then two Galas next to the fish, and then unwrapped two bagels and a jar of soft white cheese. Arrick took one of the bagels up, sliced it with his knife, and spread a thin layer of the cheese across the top. Then he topped that with chunks of smoked salmon and a dash of cracked pepper.
"Eola, you want some of this?" Arrick asked.
"Yes, please," she said and eagerly tore off a corner of the filet. The scent of the salmon was salty and satisfying, with a hint of marshmallowy alder smoke.
Then they paused, and breathed deep breaths, and took in the world around them: the darkening blue night, the crackling fire, and Bajo prayed.
"Great Spirit, bless this meal. We are small creatures. Guide our paws and hearts and minds."
Then they ate.