Country living is simple and peaceful. Yeah, right. 

"You never did tell me what you came to the woods for." Jess took a sip of tea and watched his face. 

Pete's shoulders slumped. "It doesn't really matter now. I was given a mission by the king. Stories have been told about this area for many years. People call it the cursed forest.” 

“These woods ain't cursed,” Jess insisted. She paused to reflect. “Though I s'pose you might fairly say that they're having a run of bad luck.” 

“A long run,” Lili agreed. “A real long run.” 

Pete's mouth worked a couple of times. “Er... well. The king wanted more information. We were supposed to investigate the area and report back." 

"You'll have a story to tell him then." Jess emptied her cup and carried it to the stack. "I'll finish up here, momma." 

Dalla nodded and went after a pair of blankets. She told Pete, "You're welcome to take either the bench or the floor in front of the fire, but I think the bench would be easier on your back." 

Pete took the blankets with thanks. "Either is fine. A warm spot near a fire, and a full belly? I won't complain. I doubt that I will ever complain again about sleeping accommodations." 

"If you need to go out back before the sun comes up," Jess said, "make sure you don't go past the clearing. That way the protections will still cover you." She set the last clean cup on the sideboard and picked up the basin. "Can somebody get the door?" 

"Let me carry that." Pete jumped for the basin and she smiled thanks. Jess led the way to the edge of the clearing and pointed to the proper spot. He obediently dumped the water and followed her back, looking in all directions at once. Just before they reached the door, something howled and Pete almost dropped the stoneware basin. Jess lunged and caught it. 

"Is that..." Pete's eyes were the size of plums. 

"Just a wolf," she soothed him. It was actually a werewolf, she could tell from the raspy undertone. But there was no point in making him more nervous than he already was. 

Jess set the basin down and poured the hot water from the second kettle into it. She picked up the dishes one at a time and slosh rinsed them, stacking them on the rack. Pete sat down on the split log bench by the fire and worked his boots off. 

Dalla brought him a rolled up fur for a head cushion. "You girls get to bed, too." She knelt to bank the fire. "Sunrise will be here before you're ready for it. It always is." 

"As soon as I finish up," Jess said. "Just let me dump out the rinse water." Pete stood up and she shook her head. "I can handle it, Pete. It's safe." 

He looked uncertain, so Dalla told him, "We got defenses carved all over the rocks and trees here, with herbs planted around that drive back most dark things. She'll be fine." While Pete hesitated, Jess opened the door, grabbed the basin and headed out. By the time he got to the porch, she was halfway back. 

"This place takes getting used to," he said. Jess shut the door and set the iron bolts, and dropped the oak bar into place. 

Lili stuck her head over the edge of the loft. "I s'pose it would be mighty dull after livin' in the city, but we like it." 

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